The Greatest Conquest
He crested the peak like it was the last thing standing between him and paradise. His feet so blistered he could barely walk, still he’d made the climb, every last step of it.
From atop Draupadi Ka Danda II in northern India, Siddharth Singh Kasana peered down at the world 5,700 meters below, his heart full. Beyond the reflection of his sunglasses, no one could see the tears, hot pools pressed against ice-crusted lashes. But they were there.
“I saw 90 peaks of the Himalaya before me, all covered in snow,” says the 27-year-old from Dehradun, a city of 578,000 in the Himalayan foothills. “When you’re standing up there, it feels like you’re on top of the world, like you’ve achieved everything. We were allowed 45 minutes on the peak. I cried for 30 of them.”
This was no ordinary feat, no ordinary peak. It was a towering 18,700 feet, the highest Kasana had ever climbed. It was everything.
“Once you’re epileptic in India, you’re no longer socially acceptable,” Kasana says. “People ignore you, they don’t want to be with you. Once you reach the top you can tell everyone, ‘I’ve achieved this.’ It’s yours forever.”
A Father’s Love Inspires Passion
Kasana had dreamed of becoming a commercial pilot. When the epilepsy diagnosis hit at 19, he put that dream on the shelf along with so much else. The journey to 18,700 feet started with the prodding of his father, who challenged Kasana to try mountaineering (a combination of rock climbing, ice climbing and hiking).
Father and son had trekked together since Kasana was 6 years old, when they’d walk 14 km (8.5 miles) to area temples and back again. “I wasn’t the kind of child to sit on ponies,” Kasana says. “I wanted to move.”
Climbing Mountains, Reaching New Heights for People with Epilepsy
Twenty years later, backed by his family’s enduring love and support, Kasana is still moving. In 2017, through India’s esteemed Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, he took up the sport and came alive. He lost weight and gained confidence, aspired for greatness and achieved it. With his epilepsy, Kasana often stays close to home. But mountaineering makes him feel like he can conquer the world.
In an advanced 28-day course hosted by Nehru Institute in May 2018, Kasana and his team rose at 1:45 a.m. to summit Draupadi Ka Danda II. The thermometer cracked a brutal -18 degrees Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit).
“In that kind of cold, it takes 30 minutes just to put your boots on,” Kasana says.
It was an arduous journey over rock, snow, ice and rivers. Kasana geared up with crampons, an ice axe, an ice hammer, ropes and so much more. At 5:45 a.m., the sun swept in, lighting up the Himalayan range in purple, orange, gold.
“That was our reward,” Kasana says.
By encouraging his son to take up mountaineering, Kasana’s father lit a fire that seems to be an eternal flame. Next up, the 6,300-meter Mount Bandarpunch (often called Mount Bandarpoonch).
“If you go toward the mountains in India, that’s where you find the peace,” Kasana says. “I feel like the mountains are calling me, like I need to be there. You inhale the clean air, absorb the purity of your surroundings. The mountains bring out the positive in me.”
A Mountaineer’s Mindset
It’s a strong statement from a man who has struggled with emotions since starting epilepsy treatment. For four years, medications have successfully controlled his tonic-clonic seizures (also called grand mal seizures), but they hinder his coordination and mood. On top of that, simple partial seizures, 15-second bouts that halt his speech and fill him with fear, continue to strike six times a day.
Still, Kasana never stops believing that just as he conquers mountains, he’ll conquer epilepsy. If he closes his eyes long enough, he can see it. For him, epilepsy is another important trek. “The main thing is to never give up. That’s what I tell myself, never give up.”
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Please note: All photos courtesy of Siddharth Singh Kasana.