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Mind over Everest

Majid Maqbool | Updated on: Jun 08, 2018
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The oldest Indian woman to scale the peak, Sangeeta Sindhi Bahl let her brain rule the body on the ascent

At 7.10 am on May 19 this year, Sangeeta Sindhi Bahl (53) became the first woman from Jammu & Kashmir and the oldest Indian woman to scale Mount Everest. Bahl, who was born in Jammu, broke the record held earlier by Premlata Agrawal (she was 48 when she climbed the world’s highest mountain).

“I cried as I reached the summit. It felt like a dream,” says Bahl, who had to be evacuated last year, along with six other climbers, from the higher camps of the Everest after her health deteriorated. That was her maiden attempt to scale the Everest. But this year, she was well prepared and in better health. “I have had more failures than successes, which pushed me to strive further,” says Bahl.

Last year, Bahl remembers breaking down in the helicopter on her way back after being evacuated from Camp 2. “It was a crazy year when people talked about my failed attempt,” she says, “but I made it a point to give my best and the result is that I am successful this year.”

Earlier, Bahl used to struggle on mountain climbs but coming to grips with the right technique in recent years has helped her, so has hours of training in the gym. For scaling Everest, she built her upper body strength. “Hauling yourself up on the rocks there requires brutal strength at altitude. I trained on rocks with full mountaineering gear in early February, climbed 6,000-m peaks, went for snow conditioning to Ladakh... basically I left no stone unturned,” she says

Before starting her ascent this year, Bahl ensured that she was physically fitter and in a good mental frame. She also meditated daily to stay calm and focus on her target. “This time I have climbed the Everest with a relaxed state of mind, without a single headache in nearly two months,” she says. “It has been a beautiful journey on which I was accompanied by two amazing Sherpas — Ngaa Tenji Sherpa and Nurbu Sherpa — who supported me a great deal.”

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Victorious: The Everest has dangers lurking in every step, and the ascent can be daunting if the climber is weak-willed and under prepared.

The Everest has dangers lurking in every step, and the ascent can be daunting if the climber is weak-willed and underprepared. “After Camp 2 during the summit push, it is a mind game because you are physically exhausted. I stayed positive the whole time, telling myself that I can do it,” Bahl says. On her summit night, snowy winds blew at high speed, which made the group of three halt its movement at points. “At 6.12 am, at the south summit, the winds grew very strong and crossing the Hillary Step was a huge challenge,” says Bahl. “But not once did I think that I won’t make it.” The trek down from the summit was hard on her knees though.

Bahl, a Miss India 1985 finalist, is also the founder of Impact Image Consultants in Gurugram. Apart from working with the aviation industry — during which she designed uniforms for airlines in India and abroad — she has also groomed contestants of Femina Style Diva over the last five years.

Bahl took up mountaineering at the age of 46. In December 2011, accompanied by husband Ankur, also an accomplished climber, she ascended Mt Kilimanjaro (5,895m) in Kenya. In 2013, she scaled Mt Elbrus (5,638m) in the Caucasus Mountains, Europe’s highest peak. In 2014, she became the third Indian woman to climb Mt Vinson (4,876m) in Antarctica. In 2015, she conquered Mt Aconcagua (5,791m), the highest peak of South America. She has now climbed six of the seven highest peaks in each continent. “Over the years I have improved my training regime. My husband has been a constant source of support and his guidance in training has helped,” she says.

Has it been difficult at her age to stay away from home for months together, trying to scale one summit after another? “Age has never been a deterrent,” says Bahl. “I thrive on challenges and that is what pushes me to go further.”

Bahl has some advice for fellow climbers. “Follow your heart, read voraciously and have a purpose in life,” she says. “Move away from technology from time to time and connect with people. Stay fit, exercise every day is what I would say to especially those over 40. Eat sensibly, because you are what you eat.”

Majid Maqbool is a journalist and editor based in Srinagar

Published on June 08, 2018

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