The Indian mountaineer and writer Harish Kapadia was awarded the Piolets D’Or Asia Lifetime Achievement Award in Seoul on November 3. Called the “Oscars of Climbing”, the Piolets D’Or are handed out by the Union of Asian Alpine Associations, which falls under the larger umbrella organisation, the Union of International Alpine Associations.

For Kapadia, now 72, this is the latest award in a decorated career as an innovative alpinist and explorer. The most famous of these was the 2003 Royal Geographic Society’s Patron’s Medal for exploration. He was the second Indian to be given that honour, after the legendary Great Game explorer Nain Singh Rawat in 1877. By winning the Piolets D’Or, he has become the first Indian to do so.

Kapadia being awarded the Piolets D'or.

Five decades of Himalayan exploration

Kapadia has been a regular visitor to the Himalayas since the early 1960s. “My first Himalayan trek was in 1964,” said the Mumbai resident. “We trekked to Pindari Glacier in the Kumaon Himalaya.”

At the time, it was a long walk and information was thin on the ground. Travelling with a friend from college, the greenhorn Kapadia had packed a tea-chest full of kitchen utensils and loaded it on a mule. It would have all ended in tears if Kapadia hadn’t encountered a farmer from the village of Harkot, who offered to carry the clanging vessels. Pan Singh, along with his sons and cousins, would go on to form the core of Kapadia’s expedition teams.

Kapadia finished the basic course in mountaineering at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling in 1964 and the advanced course at the newly-opened Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi in 1967. In his book, High Himalaya Unknown Valleys (1993), he writes of his first ascent in 1968:

“…the University of Bombay organised an expedition to Kumaon. As the chairman of their Hiking and Mountaineering Society, I was the organiser and a member. After various struggles, I was standing on the summit of Ikualari (6,059 m) on May 29, 1968. As I looked at the Nanda Devi peaks, the resolve to climb was firmer.”

A couple of years ago, Kapadia had reminisced about the challenges of organising Himalayan expeditions at the time: “Maps weren’t easily available. Our expeditions were exploratory in nature, so there were no reports to refer to. For equipment, we had to make do with old World War II era equipment from Chor Bazaar! Snow shoes could only be arranged if you had friends abroad.”

Despite the constraints, and at a time when mountaineering was mostly practised by the armed forces, Kapadia and a small team of civilian mountaineers achieved much, including the first ascents of tough Himalayan peaks like Devtoli (6,788 m), Kalabaland Dhura (6,105 m), Bandarpunch West (6,102 m), Laknis (6,235 m) and Lungser Kangri (6,666 m), among others.

Kapadia with Tenzing Norgay in the 1960s. Photo courtesy: Harish Kapadia

Kapadia, like all alpinists, is no stranger to Himalayan accidents. In 1969, while climbing Tharkot in Kumaon, an entire party was swept away by an avalanche. Thankfully, everyone survived. However, in 1970, tragedy struck when an expedition team that Kapadia was part of lost four members to an avalanche on Bethartoli Himal South. In 1974, while returning from Devtoli, the southernmost peak of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, Kapadia fell into a glacier and had to be carried off the mountain. He spent the next two years on crutches. Then there was the dramatic rescue of the British climber Stephen Venables in 1992, after he fell from Panch Chuli V, breaking his knee and ankle.

As an expedition leader, Kapadia is famous for taking every possible precaution, but as a climber Kapadia is more stoic about accidents. “When I fell into the glacier on Devtoli, I wasn’t thinking, I was just trying to survive, fight back. That’s all that mattered. At first, I was determined to survive. Later I was determined to climb again. Because if you don’t go back to the mountains, you don’t recover fully.”

Kapadia atop Lungser Kangri in Ladakh with Tso Moriri in the background. Photo courtesy: Harish Kapadia

Writer and editor

If Kapadia the alpinist is indefatigable, the same can be said about Kapadia the writer and editor. Although book deals and speaking assignments to augment the income have been in vogue among Western mountaineers for decades, Kapadia was among the first Indians to seize the opportunity in India. His first book, Trek the Sahyadris, was published in 1977 and is a classic among trekkers from Mumbai. Kapadia, who came from a family of cloth merchants in the city, would use every opportunity to go hiking and climbing in the Sahyadris as a young man.

“The Sahyadris are home,” he said. “For nearly 30 years, I explored the range systematically. It’s a challenging range and I honed my skills here. The Sahyadris are the true foundation of everything I’ve achieved.”

Since then, he has written over 15 books, including the series Across Peaks and Passes, High Himalaya Unknown Valleys, Into the Untravelled Himalaya (2005) and Exploring the Highlands of Himalaya (2006). Each of these is a veritable goldmine of Himalayan information, all gleaned first-hand, along with minutiae of the exploratory history of the great range.

Kapadia has also served as the editor of the Himalayan Journal, one of the oldest mountaineering journals in the world. In two stints, from 1975-1985 and then from 1990-2010, Kapadia published some of the biggest names in mountaineering in the journal, and helped maintain records of some of the most important climbs and exploratory trips in the Indian Himalayas and beyond.

Mountaineers Stephen Venables, Dave Wilkinson and Harish Kapadia enjoy a Shikara ride before their Rimo Expedition in 1985. Photo courtesy: Harish Kapadia

Exploring blank spaces

Kapadia’s reputation and standing among the mountaineering community is predicated on his keen interest in exploration – filling in the “blanks on the map”, as the legendary explorer and one of Kapadia’s heroes Eric Shipton put it. Maps of the Indian Himalayas are notoriously difficult to come by, in part due to the difficulty of obtaining Survey of India maps. In this context, Kapadia’s exploration of Himachal, Kumaon and Garhwal have yielded invaluable information for generations of trekkers and climbers.

A personal tragedy spurred Kapadia to take up a cause dear to him. His son, Nawang Kapadia, a lieutenant in the Third Gorkha Rifles in the Indian Army, was killed fighting terrorists in Kashmir in 2000, just two months after being commissioned. To deal with his loss, Kapadia embarked upon a mission to de-escalate conflict in the region, along with a proposal to turn the Siachen glacier into a peace park under international supervision and halt its ecological damage. He has seen governments come and go, but remains firm in his belief that statesmen with enough willpower can make this happen.

“I still believe this is the best way,” he said. “It’s in the hands of the governments, and as you know, getting India and Pakistan to agree upon something is never easy.”

As for whether there are still any blank spaces left to explore, he pointed out that many of Arunachal Pradesh’s valleys have never been properly charted. In the past decade, Kapadia has dedicated himself to exploring the state. “Those forested valleys are changing fast,” he said. “Roads and dams are being built, forests are being cut.”

Other valleys and ranges to explore, he said, were in the Eastern Karakoram, around the Siachen glacier. This, despite the fact that Kapadia has himself explored large swathes of the Karakoram range, leading successful joint Indo-British, Indo-French and Indo-Japanese expeditions between 1985 and 2003 (when getting mountaineering permits this close to the Line of Control with Pakistan was even harder than it is today).

In the past, Kapadia has quipped that the most difficult part of any expedition is traversing bureaucracy. But he has insisted persistence always pays. Today, with the Piolets D’Or in his bag, Kapadia remains one of the most decorated Indian climbers in the world. This win takes pride of place beside his IMF Gold Medal, the Josh Lynam Medal in Ireland, the King Albert I Mountain Award in Switzerland and the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award in India.