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Friday, March 18, 2011

First Indian Woman To Climb The Mount Everest

Bachendri Pal is the first Indian woman to climb Mount Everest. She achieved this feat on 23rd May 1984. Bachendri Pal was part of the fourth expedition, named Everest 84. She was one of the members of the elite group of six Indian women and eleven men who were part of the group. Bachendri Pal was the only woman in the group to reach the summit. 

Bachendri Pal was born into a family of very moderate means, in 1954, in a village named Nakuri in Garhwal. Bachendri was an active child, and did well in her school; she excelled in sports too, and at the same time was singled out in school for punishments for a variety of petty misconducts.

Her first exposure to mountaineering was at the age of 12, when during a picnic she along with several schoolmates climbed a 13,123 feet high peak. They could not climb down as it had already become dark and had to spend the night at the peak without any food or cover. The experience remained ingrained in her memory, heightening her love for adventure and the mountains. Despite many constraints, she continued her schooling and completed it successfully.

On being persuaded by the principal of her school, her parents sent her to college. She completed her graduation, becoming the first girl of her village to do so. While doing her graduation, she also secured the first position in a rifle shooting event, beating other boys and girls. She also completed university courses leading to securing an MA and a Bachelor's degree in education. Then she joined the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM). She was declared the best student and was considered as “Everest material”. In 1982, while at NIM, she climbed Gangotri I (21,900 ft) and Rudugaria (19,091 ft). Around that time, she got employment as an instructor at the National Adventure Foundation, which had set up an adventure school for training women to learn mountaineering.

In 1984, India had scheduled its fourth expedition, christened “Everest ‘84’”, to the Mount Everest. Bachendri was selected as one of the members of the elite group of six Indian women and eleven men who were privileged to attempt an ascent to the Mount Everest, Sagarmatha in the Nepaleses. The news made her filled with a sense of ecstasy and excitement. The elite team was flown to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal in March 1984; and from there the team moved onwards. Recalling her first glimpse of the Mount Everest, Bachendri once reminisced: “We the hill people have always worshipped the mountains … my overpowering emotion at this awe-inspiring spectacle was, therefore, devotional.”

The team commenced its ascent in May, 1984. On the night of 15–16 May 1984, Bachendri and her tent mate were sleeping in one of the tents at Camp III at an altitude of about 24,000 feet. At around 00:30 hours (IST), at around 24,000 feet, she was jolted awake; something had hit her hard and she also heard a deafening sound; and at the same time she found herself being enveloped within a very cold mass of material. A serac on the Lhotse glacier, above the Camp III had slid down, and fallen on the camp raking havoc at the camp. Her tent mate using his knife could slash his way out of the mass of ice. He, thereafter, assisted Bachendri to dig her way out of the mess. Many members of the team were injured, and became unnerved; and they climbed down to the base camp. Despite an injury on her head, Bachendri chose to continue the ascent.

On 22 May 1984, some other climbers joined the team to ascent the summit of the Mount Everest. Bachendri was the only woman in this group. They continued the ascent climbing “vertical sheets of frozen ice”, cold winds sometimes blowing at the speed of about 100 km per hour, temperatures touching minus 30 to 40 degrees Celsius. On 23 May 1984, Bachendri reached the summit of Mount Everest, and at 1:07 PM IST, she was standing at the peak (29,084 ft) along with one other climber. The peak was small to accommodate two persons; and there was a vertical drop of thousands of feet all around the peak. So they first made themselves secured by anchoring themselves by digging their ice axes into the snow.

Bachendri then sat on her knees, touched the summit with her head in the Hindu gesture of thanksgiving to the almighty; took an image of goddess Durga and a copy of Hanuman Chalisha (the Book of Forty Verses of Hanuman) and placed them in the snow. She remained on the summit for about 43 minutes, and took some photographs too. She became the first Indian woman to scale the Mount Everest, and the fifth woman in the world.She climbed down and reached the base camp safely. Her achievement brought her congratulations from many quarters across the world. In India, the President, the Prime Minister, and J. R. D. Tata congratulated her in personal.

She continued to be active after ascending the highest peak in the world. In 1985, she led an Indo-Nepalese Everest Expedition team comprising only women. The expedition created seven world records and set benchmarks for Indian mountaineering. Nine years later, in 1994, she led an all women team of rafters. The team coursed through the waters of the river Ganges, covering 2,500 km from Haridwar to Kolkata.

Her Words:
“While climbing a mountain, I come to know about myself, what scares me, and how I deal with my confidence and my determination. I consider nature is not only a great teacher, but as a great purifier… it simplifies the problems, and purifies our paths.”
“Initially it was very difficult for me, I come from a small village, so taking mountaineering as a sport, it was unusual. So, to step out in the beginning from that small village was very difficult.”
“The biggest risk in life is not to take risks.”

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