Published in The Independent, June 2010
All images are subject to copyright @ Musa Ibrahim
Musa Ibrahim became a household name overnight after being declared the first Bangladeshi to reach the summit of Mount Everest. The nation’s newest sporting hero has received a tide of tributes over the last three weeks and he has no doubt inspired countless others to pursue yet unfulfilled dreams. For Musa, the expedition was the end of a ten year journey as well as the beginning of a new life. For the first time, he provides an in-depth account of the 43 day expedition to the world’s tallest mountain.
Musa Ibrahim was born in 1979 and grew up in Thakurgaon district in Rangpur Division. From a young age, his imagination was captured by a distant view of Mount Kangchenjunga in India, the world’s third highest mountain. Musa said, “I was fascinated by mountains during my childhood. I thought they were made of sand, because when the sunlight hit the mountain it was really white.” At the age of 21, Musa began to dream of climbing Mount Everest. He said, “Back then I had no idea about mountaineering. Everyone said I was crazy. I used to quote the Adidas saying – ‘Impossible is nothing.'”
Musa was not to be deterred by the mostly flat topography of Bangladesh, whose highest mountain is just an eighth of the height of Mount Everest. Musa undertook his first expedition to the Himalayas in 2002 when he was 22, and he has returned annually ever since. In 2007 Musa founded the North Alpine Club of Bangladesh and last year he successfully scaled Annapurna IV in Nepal. Before setting off for Everest’s 8,848 metre summit, Musa undertook a three month training regime that included getting up 5.30am every morning to spend an hour jogging five kilometres in a local park. However despite being physically fit, Musa was finding it impossible to obtain the necessary funds for the expedition. By the time he departed he had raised 12 lakh taka, but this was only a quarter of the amount required. Musa said that when he approached several organisations, his request was met with comments such as “Why are you here? Go yourself – this is not our business.” He said, “That was really hurtful and I was disappointed.” Musa was extremely grateful when his sister offered to provide the rest of the money, and now that he has successfully completed the expedition, new offers have been forthcoming.
Musa left Bangladesh for Kathmandu on 8 April 2010 and after buying his expedition gear and completing the relevant paperwork, he set off for Nyalum in Tibet, two days later. Musa was struck by the stark scenery of Tibet, and was almost immediately hit with a severe altitude-induced headache that was to last for the next eight days. The pain disturbed his sleep for several nights. Musa said, “In high altitudes, it’s common to develop a headache in the back of the head – but in my case, the headache was in a line, from the back of my head to the front. I told my sherpas but they had never heard of such a thing.” Musa followed the sherpas’ advice by drinking five litres of water a day, but it wasn’t until he had spent three days at base camp – at an altitude of 5,200 metres – that the headache disappeared. Musa said, “I was almost at the point of having to cancel the expedition. But after my headache had gone I was fine with the altitude and day by day my performance was really good. I was really enjoying everything.”
Musa and his two sherpas joined a 26 member expedition group that used the North Alpine route on the Tibetan side to reach the summit of Mount Everest. In order to properly acclimatise, Musa traveled back and forth from base camp to advanced base camp three times. He said, “The road was covered with stones and from middle camp to advanced camp it was totally icy. I saw a beautiful big lake that originates from a glacier, as well as deer, Himalayan hens, and different species of birds.” Musa reported seeing chuffs up to an altitude of 8,300 metres.
In order to sustain his energy while climbing and carrying around 12 kilogrammes, Musa needed to consume at least 4,000 calories a day – around double his normal intake. However Musa found it impossible to consume the Chinese and European meals being served up by the cook. Musa said, “I couldn’t sustain myself for long on that food, so I stopped eating it.” Musa’s sherpas begged him never to say that he was hungry, because there is a local superstition that to do so brings bad luck to the mountains. For the next four days straight, Musa ate nothing but beaten rice, with occasional snacks of chocolate and biscuits. Laughing, he said, “I did get a little bit sick of it.” By the time Musa had left advanced base camp for the final time, he had finished reading the autobiography of the sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who in 1953 was the first person to conquer Mount Everest, along with Edmund Hillary. Musa said, “I felt like my story was being told in his book. Tenzing was the first person to climb Everest and it changed his life. I felt that my life would also change if I could do what he did.”
Before starting the final ascent from advanced base camp, Musa fastened his ice boots and crampons, and wore a headlamp and a head-to-toe down jacket. As the temperatures dropped to around minus 20 degrees Celsius, he added three more layers of clothing. A sherpa lent him a second pair of socks, which were very heavy and were worth a staggering $400. Musa said that he felt exhilarated as he set off. “I felt like the mountain was calling me,” he said, smiling.
Musa’s steady progress attracted compliments from the sherpas, and his group arrived at North Col (7,100 metres) the following day in fine weather. But by the next morning, a strong wind was blowing and it began to snow heavily. Musa said, “The wind was so strong that I saw other climbers’ tents flying away before my eyes. We felt that we too were going to fly away.” No one was inside the tents at the time, but much expensive equipment was lost. The group had no alternative but to wait out the storm, which lasted 24 hours. Musa said that he felt frightened and frustrated by the weather conditions, but that he was preoccupied with protecting his own tent. Whilst being interviewed, Musa crumpled a box of tissues with his fist to demonstrate how the wind pressed against his tent. Just as the group were contemplating a descent, the wind settled down and they were able to proceed from North Col to Camp Two, at 7,500 metres. From this point onwards Musa said he was “totally dependent” on his oxygen tank. To reach Camp Two, Musa traversed a glacier on a 45 degree slope and thereafter encountered a rocky rather than icy terrain. At 4pm on 21 May, the group reached 7,700 metres and set up their tents on a rock face. Due to strong winds, no one could safely emerge again until 5am the following morning.
Musa arrived at Camp Three after seven hours of climbing. By this stage, he had entered the “death zone.” When altitudes are higher than 8,000 metres, the low levels of oxygen and freezing temperatures make it impossible for most humans to survive for more than two or three days. Most of the 216 fatalities on Everest to date have occurred in this zone – as Musa was acutely aware. He said, ‘At this point I started to feel that nobody could survive here for long – the oxygen levels were so low.”
After drying out their belongings and resting, the push for the summit began at 8pm on 22 May. Musa and his group were not alone – there was in fact a queue of around 60 people. Musa said, “Everyone was using a single rope. It was a really amazing sight to see all the headlamps in a line in the distance.” The terrain on the way from Camp Three to the summit was a lethal mixture of rock and ice face. During this stage, Musa fought to overcome the fear of heights he sometimes experiences.
After reaching a vertical rockface, the final phase to the summit involved traversing an overhang at 8,600 metres. As Musa approached it, his oxygen mask brushed against the rock and the tube developed a leak. Musa said, “The oxygen was escaping into the air rather than going inside me. I felt like I was dying.” Musa’s ordeal lasted for 30 seconds before a sherpa noticed the problem and set about repairing the tube. Musa explained how difficult and dangerous it was to make repairs whilst on the overhang, and expressed deep gratitude for the sherpas, whom he described as “amazing people.” He said, “I learnt so much from the sherpas and I was astonished by their climbing skills. I saw one sherpa carrying 103 kilogrammes, which was beyond my imagination.”
After emerging from the rockface, Musa saw the long ice slope that led to the summit. Throughout the expedition, Musa said he had been worried about the possibility of arriving at the summit during the night, which would prevent him from witnessing and capturing the panoramic views on camera. As it turned out, Musa’s timing could not have been more perfect – he made it to the summit of 8,848 metres at 5am on 23 May just as the sun was rising. Musa described looking out onto a “valley of clouds” and watching an enormous shadow being cast behind Mount Everest. Musa immediately hugged his sherpas, then hoisted the Bangladeshi flag and had his picture taken standing next to a rock statue of Buddha. He said, “Standing on top of Mount Everest was one of the greatest moments of my life. Before I left, I believed that if I could climb this mountain, my real life would start. Now I feel that my dreams for society and myself can be more easily achieved. I struggled and worked hard for many years for this.” He added, “My dream was also for the people of Bangladesh – I felt that they were wishing for my success from a long way away. I am proud to be the first Bangladeshi to reach the summit.” Musa said the expedition had felt like a race against time, because another Bangladeshi climber was making a bid for the summit at the same time. The two men did not meet in person, and the other climber was forced to return to base camp due to bad weather at North Col.
After spending 25 minutes on the top of the world, Musa turned his thoughts to getting down safely. The three day journey down is notoriously dangerous, and one of the scariest moments of Musa’s expedition still lay ahead. As Musa began his descent, he passed four dead bodies that had been left lying on the glaciers. One corpse was still hanging from a safety rope. He said, “Seeing that, I told myself that I must get down.” However Musa’s energy reserves were badly depleted from the last 40 days of climbing, and he was forced to stop and rest frequently, despite warnings from his sherpas. At one point Musa felt so exhausted that he simply lay down in the snow. “It was suicidal,” he gravely recalled. Good fortune arrived in the form of a climber from Australia called Brendan Mamoney, who checked Musa’s oxygen pressure and discovered a leak in the tube, which he promptly repaired. Another climber called Steven Green from Britain gave Musa power gel and juice. After five minutes Musa had recovered enough strength to walk. Nevertheless, the exhausted climber continued to snatch brief amounts of sleep while standing on a 500 metre vertical ice wall, attached by a single carabiner.
Musa returned to his wife, Ummey Sharaban Tahura, and his one year old son Wasi Ibrahim Raiid, in Dhaka on 2 June. After recounting the expedition, I asked Musa what new challenges he has set his sights on. Smiling, he said, “I have so many things to do.” It seems that now nothing is out of Musa’s reach, whether it be swimming from Teknaf to Cox’s Bazar or initiating a mountaineering institute to teach young Bangladeshis about mountaineering. Musa may also one day become the first Bangladeshi to travel to outer space, as he plans on doing a space walk. Musa currently works as a sub-editor at The Daily Star, and he would like to devote his free time to environmental awareness campaigns and working with disadvantaged young people. Musa said, “I want to make the people of Bangladesh plant a single seedling every six months. If we do this, there will be 16 crore new plants in our country within half a year.” When one reflects on all that Musa has achieved and the obstacles he has successfully overcome, it is impossible not to have faith in his vision for a brighter future.