Explained: How a Kerala trekker was rescued after a 48-hour-long struggle

Lieutenant Hemant Raj, who was a part of the rescue team, says that the mental courage and optimism of Babu was crucial in saving him.
Authorities rescuing Babu from the hill
Authorities rescuing Babu from the hill
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The crack in the rock was barely large enough for 23-year-old R Babu to squat, his long legs curled against his body as he waited for help to come. Against the craggy brown face of the steep hill in Kerala, he remained a light blue speck in the distance, 400 metres below the top of the hillside. Visuals showed him standing at one point, signalling with hand and thumb for a sip of water for he had been surviving without sustenance for 48 hours. Babu’s story began on Monday, February 8, ending victoriously near midnight the next day. But the journey and rescue of the young man left the country holding its breath until then.

The fall

The story started on Monday morning when a group of four young men had started trekking on the Cherad Hill in Malampuzha. It was adventurous and fun until the afternoon, when Babu, slipped and fell over the hill only to find himself in a small ridge on the side of the hill — a cavity so small that he could barely sit properly.

After using everything from wooden sticks, logs and ropes to help Babu and seeing that their attempts were futile, his friends went down the hill and informed the local residents and the police by that evening. Meanwhile, Babu had started sending selfies and images to his family, who forwarded it to the police.

The challenges

The steep terrain meant it was a very difficult path for the fire brigade and Malampuzha police. After reaching the spot around 12 am, they could not commence the rescue operation due to lack of lighting and the team camped there. According to reports, they did not think that it would be such a difficult rescue operation that night.

The next morning when they could not spot Babu, the team started getting antsy. A drone was deployed by the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) and used to scan the place to find where he was stuck. After Babu removed his t-shirt and used it as a flag, they were able to spot him squatting on a narrow ridge.

Soon after, a Coast Guard Chetak helicopter from Kochi was brought in, but the chopper could not go anywhere near the gap Babu was stuck in due to bad weather. The helicopter could not hover near the mountain's leeward side either due to high air turbulence in the hillock as the Malampuzha Dam is nearby. Palakkad Collector Mrunmayi Joshi Shashank jumped in and sought the Navy’s help to carry out the rescue operation with their helicopter. A rope was lowered from the helicopter, so as to help Babu catch hold of it and come up. However, the helicopter had to return after a while as this too did not work.

A day later, and no success

After over 24 hours of rescue operations, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan stepped in and sought the Army’s help. The Army deployed two teams consisting of qualified mountaineers and rock climbing experts from Parachute Regimental Centre, Bangalore and Madras Regimental Centre, Wellington. The Army units reached the spot on Tuesday night. Lieutenant Colonel Hemanth Raj – who knows Malayalam and was a part of the team in order to communicate with Babu – told Twenty Four News that the team arrived at around 11 pm at night and started climbing down the hill. “We were able to reach around 200 metres from where he was located and spoke to him twice. We motivated him by telling him not to fear and that we were there. As we could not see him in the dark, we spoke loudly and it gave us hope,” he said. The area where there was flat ground where they were standing was roughly 400 metres above that cavity, and due to this he said it was risky to rescue Babu at night.

The next morning, on Wednesday, a team of seventy-five persons including three Army units, Air Force personnel and 20 officials of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), led by Colonel Sekhar Athri commenced the rescue operation. Attempts were made to give him food and water through drones, but as it was not possible, the Army personnel climbed down with the help of a rope and gave him food and water.

The rescue

Hours after locating him, an Army mountaineering party climbed down to the spot where he was trapped and pulled him from there to the top. After securing him with ropes and cables, a weak Babu was carried halfway to the top. On the first sight of Babu, the entire crowd could be seen breaking into applause. Babu was hugged and patted on the back by people who he was seeing for the first time, but who were crucial in saving his life. Upon reaching the top, Babu thanked all those involved in his rescue and even went on to kiss a few personnel on the cheek as a token of his appreciation. Meanwhile, his family were in tears and uttering prayers. Babu's family members, after the rescue, told the media that they had full faith that the Army would save him.

He was then airlifted by an Indian Air Force helicopter and taken to Palakkad District Hospital, where he is currently under treatment. The rescue operation had been named as ‘Op Palakkad’ by the Indian Army and was launched under the aegis of Lieutenant General A Arun, General Officer Commanding, Dakshin Bharat Area.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan thanked the entire team who were part of the rescue operation. "We would like to thank all those who assisted in the rescue operation, including the soldiers of the Madras Regiment of the Indian Army, the soldiers of the Para Regiment Center and the South Indian Area GOC Lieutenant General Arun, who coordinated the rescue operation," a CMO statement said. It also issued a statement saying that the treatment and care needed by Babu to regain his health will be provided as soon as possible.

Those who watched the rescue from afar waited anxiously as Army teams moved steadily as per their plan. “This is a very normal issue as far as we are concerned. We do this regularly in the northeast areas. All of us in the team are mountaineering course qualified members, who are climbers and specialists in rescue missions. The only issue was reaching the spot because of the complicated terrain, which was barren and steep,” said Lieutenant Hemant and added that the team had studied the terrain via Google Maps and earth, and had a plan by the time they reached the spot.

He added that along with the technology, drones helped the Army in locating Babu and said that all those present at the spot were very supportive, including the NDRF, police and locals. “Each and everyone in Kerala stood together for this, it is the reason for the success of this operation,” he added.

Speaking about Babu, the lieutenant said that he possessed mental courage and was an optimistic person. “He had so much confidence and spent two days without food and water, which is a big thing. He also followed whatever instructions we issued and so it was easy to lift him,” he said.

Stating that the terrain was not suitable for trekking, Hemant said that only highly trained professionals with equipment can trek in this spot. “Trekking is an adventurous sport, but we have to take precautions and go with a trainer and with professional guidance. Safety is of paramount importance. We need both equipment and training and it is not advisable to go to such places without any of these,'' he ended with a note of advice. It has now been a little over 24 hours after Babu was rescued and he is now recovering. 

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