By Sudeshna Sarkar
Kathmandu : "Oxygen. Oxygen. I must have oxygen." Winds tossed the desperate cry among the implacable mountains in the 'Death Zone' – the freezing, oxygen-scarce no man's land above 8,000 m. But there was no answer.
"I could feel my lungs bursting," says the wire-thin woman slumped despondently in a chair, both her feet still in bandages and the right thumb.
"My pack grew too heavy and my body buckled. Then everything grew black," says Usha Bista, the Nepali woman who hit the headlines last week after she was abandoned by her teammates on Mt Everest but was miraculously rescued by a group of westerners and their Sherpas,
The next memory Usha has is of someone giving her a vigorous massage.
"There were three of them," she remembers. "They dragged me down and tried to revive me. But I couldn't get up."
An aerospace engineer with Canadian Air Force, Meagan McGrath, 29, an unnamed western male climber and his Sherpa came across Bista on May 22, at a height of about 8,600 m while they were descending from a successful summit of the 8,848 m peak.
They alerted other climbers below, setting in motion a Herculean rescue operation.
When Usha recovered consciousness, she was lying in a tent with a lot of unfamiliar faces surrounding her.
Usha recalls them asking, "Who are you? Where is your family? Who did you climb with?"
"Then they called up by elder brother to inform him I was safe," she says.
The 22-year-old – whose father, a watchman at Ajmeri Gate in New Delhi, died when she was only a year – was brought up along with nine siblings by her mother, an illiterate peasant woman in Patheriya village in Kailali district, one of the most backward areas in Nepal.
"Half the people in my village, which lies in the Terai plains, have never set their eyes upon a mountain," Usha, a community forest worker, says. "When I was young, I was a tomboy, doing things girls didn't do. I played volleyball and was included in the national team.
"That's when I learnt about mountaineering. A new door opened before me with new opportunities. I wanted to climb Mt Everest since no one from my region had done it."
It was a tough raising funds.
"People demanded sums like Nepali Rs.2 million (approx $30,000)," says her brother, Bimal Bista. "However, this year, a group of people decided to climb the peak with the flags of Nepal's ruling eight parties and place the photographs of the people martyred during the pro-democracy movement last year.
"It was a matter of national pride and the government waived the licence fee.
"They asked for Rs.1 million and we thought it was a deal."
The seven-member Democratic Everest Expedition was headed by Ang Ngima Sherpa, who had summited the peak earlier, Everest legend Ang Rita Sherpa, known as the Snow Leopard because of his ascent 10 times without bottled oxygen, and Dorjee Sherpa, with 12 summits to his credit.
"I felt I was in safe hands," Usha says. "Even if I couldn't make it to the summit under my own steam, they would drag me to the top."
However, things turned out different.
"We went door to door to raise the money," says Usha. "People who worked as domestic help gave Rs.50, porters Rs.100, former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba Rs.200,000 – everyone chipped in."
The Bistas gave Rs.900,000 to the team and promised to pay the remaining Rs.100,000 after she came back.
"But we received a threatening call from Ang Ngima Sherpa from the base camp," says Bimal. "If you don't pay up the remaining money as soon as possible, your sister will face serious trouble, he told us."
When the journey to the summit began, Usha says she was mentally tortured by the team, who didn't cooperate.
"I had hired a Sherpa with my own money," she says. "But Kami Sherpa refused to go any further after we reached the last camp. I have frostbite, he told me. I can't go any further."
She also says Ang Ngima tried to dissuade her from going any further.
"I was mad," she says. "After having spent so much money and effort and having come so close to my dream, how could I go back?"
"I told them, if no one comes with me, I am going on my own."
She says she had lost her water bottle and asked her teammates several times to give her water.
"No one listened," she says. "Then someone said, you can drink once you get to the summit."
When she had climbed up to nearly 8,600 m, Usha could see Ang Ngima summit. Incredibly, he was accompanied by Kami Sherpa, who had claimed to have frostbite.
The Bistas want unwary climbers to know about the pitfalls lurking behind expeditions.
"Some of them are into it to make a quick buck and don't care what happens to the people with them," they say.
"Snow Leopard Ang Rita never went beyond the third camp. And Dorjee, after he had set out with the Democratic expedition, went off with a western team."
Ang Ngima has not contacted the family since the fateful day when he left Usha in the Death Zone.
The phone number he had provided now belongs to someone else.
Nepal Mountaineering Association, the key agency for mountaineering, was reported as saying it would undertake an investigation.
But with Nepal's record of not a single commission having ever dealt justice to victims, it remains to be seen if the promise is kept.