WG. CDR SUDHIR KUTTY (RETD.) – THE GREEN CRUSADER
Live every day like it is your last! Better said than done right? There are some people though who are so driven by passion that they’re lucky to be able to do just that.
Wing Commander Sudhir Kutty (Retd.), not only served his country as an Indian Air Force officer but also continues to live his passion for the outdoors. His experiences are a testimony to a life we’d only wish we could have.
Born to a middle class family as the youngest among three children, it wasn’t until he met an army officer for the first time who gave wings to the idea of the Indian Armed Forces in former Wg. Cdr. Kutty’s mind. And he’d soon know, wings they were, quite literally.
He continues to travel in his quest for adventure and love for the mountains, simultaneously propagating preservation of the environment which is a crucial need of the hour.
Here are excerpts from my chat with former Wg. Cdr. Kutty. Read on to know more about his experiences and beliefs on which he leads his life, in his own words.
GIVING WINGS TO HIS DREAMS OF THE INDIAN AIR FORCE
“I was I think in 10th class around that time. An army officer, known through a family friend visited our home and the interaction with him left a lasting impression on me. His confidence and overall personality was something I wished to emulate.”
Staying close to the Juhu aerodrome and seeing planes overflying daily, made me veer to the Air Force. The idea of flying to new destinations seemed enticing.
Around that time, one of my friends in the colony, a few years elder to me joined the National Defence Academy (NDA) and that sealed the deal for me.
Luckily, I managed to clear the NDA entrance exam in the first attempt and joined as an Air Force cadet.
CULTURE SHOCK AT THE NATIONAL DEFENCE ACADEMY
“Once at the NDA, it was a culture shock for me from the casual metro life of Mumbai to a strait jacketed one as an NDA cadet, It was an experience of un-learning and re-learning various concepts of life that taught appreciating the minute things otherwise taken for granted and treating every individual on his own merit irrespective of where they came from.”
The process of learning to fly and manoeuvre the aircraft over the Ganga and Sangam in Allahabad and finally being cleared for a solo flight was something I will always cherish. I was subsequent moved to navigation.
One person whom I will always remember is my first flying instructor, who took a lot of pain to teach me. And I mean literally lot of pain, because at times, when he did not get the desired response from me during the flight, he would hit himself over his knee and end up limping out of the aircraft (generally, the reverse was the case for some of my other course mates!). He used to blame himself for not being able to help me cope up and would try different methods with me. He kept in touch over the years and once when he met three of us who were his former pupils, he ditched an official social engagement to connect with us.
Then there was also a Flight Commander in the transport squadron. A bunch of us sneaked out in the night on our bikes to Sum Sand dunes in Jaisalmer where we were posted and returned to base early in the morning, totally exhausted. We were woken up soon after, hardly getting an hour’s sleep, with instructions to get ready since the Flight Commander had planned a picnic to Sum sand dunes for the entire Squadron that day. It was his way of punishing us!
SURVIVING IN ADVERSITIES
I have been a navigator in the AN-32 (Antonov 32) and IL-76 (Ilyushin 76) cargo aircraft and flown extensively across the length and breadth of the country.
I have also served as a Survival Training Instructor at the Jungle & Snow Survival School. During this period, I was also able to satiate my thirst for adventure, participating in mountaineering expeditions, undergoing river rafting and paragliding courses, completing endurance races, trail runs and marathons.
“One of the earlier survival manuals used to recommend that after a crash, the pilot should move slightly away from the wreckage and take a smoke to gather his wits!!!”
The guiding principle for survival is to stay close to the crash site so that it is easy for the search party to locate. However, when flickering lights of distant villages seem to be within easy range, the aircrew unmindful of the hazards of the snow-covered terrain try to reach habitation and as a result lose their lives due to extreme cold.
“Conduct of survival training courses give an insight into the true character of an individual, since one’s primal instincts kick in during extreme crisis.“
The survival course exposes the Air Force personnel to stressful situations and develops their will power to overcome their fears.
FACE TO FACE WITH THE EVEREST
In 2004, I was a member of the IAF Pre-Everest expedition to Mt. Kamet (25, 640 ft). Around 6 in the morning when we reached around 24,500 ft, one of our fellow team members who was roped up with me, suddenly started running and shouting and then fell unconscious. Sometime later, he regained consciousness but was delirious and started removing his clothes, throwing them off the ridge and trying to move. On realising that he was suffering from hypothermia, we tried our best to keep him warm using our jackets and gloves and secured him with ropes till the rescue party arrived. All of us returned to the summit camp where he was given oxygen and stabilised.
“However, during this process, I ended up suffering from snow blindness. I had to negotiate the tricky descent to the lower camp completely blinded, relying totally on the instructions of the leader while rappelling down towards the camp, from where helicopter evacuation was being planned. By this time, another team member also developed frost bite, leading to 3 casualties needing evacuation.
“We were at an altitude of 23,260 ft, which is beyond the ceiling of 23,000 ft of Chetak helicopter. No one in the world had ever attempted landing a helicopter at such a high altitude let alone evacuate casualties from an unprepared, snow bound and sloping piece of ground. Despite the deteriorating weather, severe turbulence, gusty jet stream exceeding 120 KMPH and low margin of power available, Wing Commander SK Sharma, landed at the site not once but three times to evacuate the causalities.
It was the highest ever landing and casualty evacuation by any helicopter at that time and in the process set a world record which has been recognised by Limca Book of World records and got a mention in the US Aviation Hall of Fame.
“Finally when we landed at the Military Hospital in Bareilly, I had suffered severe frostbite on my hands and tip of the nose. A long period of treatment resulted in recovery of sensation in all the limbs except for a partial amputation of right ring finger.”
CLIMBING EVEREST FOR BRAGGING RIGHTS
Climbing Everest has become highly commercialised and marketed as a to do item on a bucket list.
“With adventure tour operators offering end -to-end services, and literally guaranteeing to drag you on the summit, if you have the money, it attracts a large number of novices without any mountaineering experience. The sole aim is to gain bragging rights of having stood on top of the world.”
In addition, various state governments in India, who otherwise do not promote mountaineering or other adventure sports in a big way, also offer some monetary benefits, awards or jobs to individuals for climbing Everest. This attracts a large number of desperate Indians trying to summit Everest, flouting all safety protocols, leading to death and accidents on the mountains.
However, this does not take away from the purists or the Alpinists who attempt to scale Mt. Everest, either without oxygen, climbing solo or exploring difficult routes to the summit.
PROMOTING SUSTAINABLE TRAVEL IN THE MOUNTAINS AS GREEN CRUSADERS
As part of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF), The Himalayan Club as its Honorary Secretary and founder of Bayberry Adventures along with Col. Asheesh Istwal (Retd.), my efforts are directed towards promoting ecological preservation and sustainable & responsible tourism practices.
“After serving in the Armed Forces for over 20 years we decided to dedicate the rest of our lives to curate responsible and sustainable experiences that would help travellers connect with the hills in their most raw and uncorrupted form while simultaneously empowering the local communities.”
We are passionate Green Crusaders, earnestly committed to sustainable travelling. We believe that travelling and experiences are strong influences that mould a character. The process is still on to achieve the right balance between commercial viability and eco-friendly activities.”
I have also been a key participant in the IMF’s Clean Himalayas Programme. We have launched cleaning expeditions on popular mountaineering and trekking trails across the Himalayan States. Under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan we have coordinated cleaning and awareness campaigns in remote Himalayan regions, tapping into CSR funds of PSUs like ONGC, Coal India and Ministry of Youth Affairs programme funds.
Another programme, which I was closely associated with was Climbathon-Himalayan Mountain Leadership programme, which is a platform that brings together practising mountaineers from India and abroad with the objective of broadening and deepening their ‘mountain sense’ through mutual sharing and learning, under the mentorship of experienced instructors. The 24 day programme with 17 days spent on the mountains, is designed for active mountaineers who are looking forward to enhance their foundational knowledge, skill and leadership through sharing of experience and expertise, structured by a problem based group learning.
Getting involved in various activities and new initiatives of the IMF like Mountain Film Festival, webinar series and other social media channels, help me connect to the younger generation of mountaineers and adventurers.
FATHER’S PRIDE, MOTHER’S NIGHTMARE
My father was very supportive of my decision. I remember he had attempted to enlist for the Army during the Chinese aggression in 1962, but was turned down due to his eyesight. Mother was not very happy to let go of her youngest child.
“Even now at 46, my mother expects me to check in every day to ensure that I am alive and kicking. The days when I am not in communication range while on an expedition are a nightmare for her.”
But she has a better understanding now that I am more at peace during my outdoor pursuits.
PEACE AT THE MOUNTAINS
Pictures from various expeditions (clock wise): Stok Kangri Ladakh, Alpine camp glacier, Chadar trek Ladakh and Siachen base camp.
I find myself totally at peace while I am in the mountains.
“It is a humbling experience to see the enormity of the mountain ranges and compare the pettiness of one’s ego and problems, which then start to seem insignificant in their presence.”
Life also takes a slower speed in the mountains as the anxiety, urgency and rush of city life reduces.
“The concept of time of the mountain people helps you appreciate life better and savour the experiences that life throws at you.”
Challenges on a mountaineering expedition help you realize your innate mental and physical capabilities.
The actual thrill comes during the process and not the probability of reaching the summit or achieving a record. It is also very difficult to describe the experience through words or photographs but it is something only a fellow adventurer can understand.
Wing Commander Sudhir Kutty (Retd.) is based in Mumbai and runs Bayberry Adventures which aims to promote ecologically responsible and sustainable model of travelling in the mountains. They organise trekking experiences from Everest Base Camp to Nag Tibba trek, Chopta trek and more. For more information take a look at their website.