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Ambition peaks at 53!

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She plans to lead the first ever team from the North-East to climb the world's tallest peak..

Nasim Akhtor, a schoolteacher from Guwahati, is determined to create history for herself and her region.
Nasim Akhtor, a schoolteacher from Guwahati, is determined to create history for herself and her region.

Teresa Rehman

It's a bold decision to take at the age of 53. But Nasim Akhtor, the first woman mountaineer from North-East India, is as strong as the lofty Himalayas. At an age when most retire from sports, she has taken the ultimate vow — to lead the first ever team from North-East India to climb Mount Everest. There is no tinge of misgiving to her resolve. “I have everybody's love and prayers,” she says.

She had always nurtured a dream to conquer the Everest. “I may not be that strong physically now but I have mental conviction. I have never wanted to go it alone. Instead, I wanted to lead a team from the region. Today, many years have gone by and I am old, but at least the dreams of many other young mountaineers will be fulfilled,” she smiles. She narrates the story of a mountaineer who tried to climb the Everest twice but could not complete either attempt. He was then asked “Why the Everest?” To which he replied, “I wish I knew. Then I would not have gone.”

The young mountaineers who will be part of the expedition throng her residence for advice in Guwahati. On July 20, 2009, she led a pre-Everest trek to Kolai peak in Kashmir. In March 2011, she expects to lead the team to Mt Everest. “We are hoping for sponsors since the cost of the expedition will be around Rs 3 crore,” she says. She rues the cricket obsession in the country and observes, “Big companies only want to sponsor cricket, not other sports. There are occasions in the past when I had wanted to do something but failed because of lack of money.” In fact, as Secretary of the Northeast Adventure Foundation, Nasim has long been planning to set up an adventure institute in the region because its pristine nature lends itself to adventure sports but things have not worked out yet.

A schoolteacher by profession, Nasim prefers to call herself a ‘mountaineer'. And why not? Mountaineering has given a new meaning to her life. Born into a middle-class Muslim family in Guwahati, it was only because of the constant encouragement of her liberal mother, Mazida Begum, that she could indulge her tomboyish obsession. Her father, a contractor in the army, died when she was two years old.

Standing out from the rest

Nasim always stood out within her circle of friends. She still remembers the day when she got her first pair of trousers stitched for a mountaineering expedition. It led to many taunts from people who did not understand what mountaineering was about. Her mother then told her, “You will have to be appropriately dressed on all occasions. If you do mountaineering, you will have to be dressed like a mountaineer.” She also remembers her mother reassuring her by explaining that whenever a person does something pioneering, it is inevitable that he or she will face impediments. Those words helped her become even more determined to pursue a passion many considered ‘manly'. And she did face challenges — both physical and social — so much so that even marriage proved to be an elusive proposition!

But Nasim always managed to juggle her government job with mountaineering. “Sometimes I went without pay, sometimes on special leave and sometimes without increment,” she laughs. She was fortunate that Guwahati's Nehru Stadium was close by and she could easily access its sporting facilities and meet people associated with adventure sports. The doyen of mountaineering in Assam, the late Rohini Bhuyan, was her mentor. Nasim also had the opportunity to meet world-famous mountaineers and work with them at the New Delhi-based Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF). She was a Governing Council member of the IMF for nine years.

Nasim was only 16 when she met ace mountaineer Tenzing Norgay at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling, where she had gone trekking as part of a 25-member team from Assam. Recalls Nasim, “I had heard about him since I was a child, read about him in books. I was excited to see him.” She met up with him several times after that and Norgay once told her, “You will fall in love with Baba Himalaya.” After she came back from the Himalayas, he asked her, “How did it feel?” She could only say, “I want to go back.” Since then she has always looked upon the Himalayas as a father, constantly giving her strength. “He seems to reassure me. He seems to tell me, ‘look, I am standing tall in spite of all odds, you should learn from me',” smiles Nasim. Whenever she is alone or in trouble, she asks Baba Himalaya to give her the fortitude to move ahead. “When I lost my dear ones, Baba Himalaya always gave me the courage to pick up the pieces of my life once again,” she remarks.

She also met Edmund Hillary several times while she was in Delhi and he had even expressed interest to come to Guwahati. That visit did not work out but Nasim was able to bring Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei, the first woman to climb Mt Everest, to her city and interact with local mountaineers.

Many feats to her credit

Nasim has several feats to her credit. She was part of the All-Assam Ladies Expedition in 1986 to Kangyisay in Ladakh Himalaya, scaling a height of 21,132 ft. The expedition holds a record for being the first Indian women's team on Ladakh Himalaya and the world's first all-women team to reach the Kangyisay peak.

The highest she had managed to climb was to the White Needle peak at the Zanskar range in Jammu and Kashmir in 1987. “I have seen the Himalaya from every location — from Kumaon, Darjeeling, Kashmir, Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh. It looks magnificent from all angles,” she says.

Like all serious mountaineers, Nasim views climbing as a vocation and not as some kind of glamorous activity. Every time she confronts the Himalayas, she feels like dedicating her whole life to it. Whenever she sits in a tent pitched on a snow-covered mountainside with the moon shining on the snow, she feels as if she is in some kind of communion with God.

When her mother, who had stood like a rock behind her, breathed her last, Nasim was busy organising a national rock climbing training programme in Guwahati. Three days after her demise, she was back at the camp. “I felt like I had lost everything yet I went back to the camp. My mother used to tell me that even if she dies, I should not give up my mountaineering,” says Nasim.

Nasim, incidentally, is a firm believer and always appeals to the Almighty to come to her aid before she begins a climbing expedition. Ever the pilgrim, she now plans to surrender herself to the tallest peak in the world and create history for herself and her region.

Women's Feature Service

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated March 12, 2010)
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