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No mountain too high for Bachendri Pal

Harpreet Kaur Lamba | Updated on: May 31, 2019
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Thirty-five years after she became the first Indian woman to climb the Everest, the summiteer recalls how she almost didn’t make it to the top

Why did he want to climb Mount Everest, British summiteer George Mallory was once asked. Because it is there, he famously replied. Ask Bachendri Pal, and she will tell you something that she has always believed in: Because it opens up the world.

Thirty-five years after she scaled the highest peak in the world, Pal — the first Indian woman to do so — wants to tell people how mountain climbing is more than just an expedition.

“I always tell women that there is nothing they cannot achieve. Conquer your inner Everest first and then no mountain will be unscalable,” she says.

Awarded the Padma Bhushan earlier this year, Pal is the founder and director of the Tata Steel Adventure Foundation in Jamshedpur and has guided more than 4,500 women on numerous mountain expeditions.

Pal, then 30, was the only woman in an Indian team that climbed Mount Everest on May 23, 1984. But she almost never made it to the top, she tells BL ink .

“Not many know this, but I was actually on the verge of losing my place in the team the night before we scaled the peak. We had reached South Col and were waiting for our ascent. One of our team members required help and I went downhill to provide him with water and other supplies. This angered some of my team members, who said I had taken a huge risk and put my life in danger. I thought I did the right thing by helping a team member,” the Jamshedpur-based mountaineer says.

Some of them demanded that she be dropped from the team, Pal recalls. “They also said: ‘She is just an overconfident girl and cannot achieve much’. Thank God, our team leader did not listen to them,” Pal says with a hearty laugh.

Pal has always broken barriers — from the time she was a child. She wanted to study, which many in her tiny village Nakuri in Garhwal, Uttarakhand, frowned at. “In my village, if girls studied till Std 10, people would say ‘she is mad’. Who cared for girls or their education? I did an MA and a BEd. No one — not even my parents — approved of my becoming a mountaineer,” she says.

Her first training took place in her hilly village. “I used to cut grass and get wood from the jungles,” she says. “Mountaineering came naturally to me. Mountains are my soul and life. I am a woman of the mountains and will always be one.”

Pal, who also works on gender issues and is involved in social causes such as cleaning the Ganga, believes that the Everest climb changed her life.

“Things changed when I scaled Mount Everest. Suddenly, people had respect for me. The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi came to our village and mentioned my name. She said, ‘This girl has achieved so much’ and I became a hero,” she recalls.

Though the 1984 feat won her praise, it didn’t help get her a job or funds to pursue mountaineering. Then, she adds, JRD Tata of the Tata Group invited her to Jamshedpur and asked her to set up an academy and train youngsters in mountain climbing.

“The Tatas changed my life. I was given a handsome salary, had full authority to put things in place and a chance to create my own future. No one had put so much trust in me before,” she says, and adds that the Tatas had given her ₹1,500 before the historic climb. “In those days, that was a lot.”

The financial security helped her plan her future. “Those were not the days when people believed a woman could achieve anything in life — forget mountaineering. And here was a group that opened up an entire institute for mountaineering.”

Pal nurtured the institute. She led all-women expeditions in 1993, 1994 and 1997 that created seven world records and set new benchmarks for Indian mountaineering.

“Mountaineering is a discovery of life, the discovery of one’s dreams. It doesn’t only mean hoisting a flag at some mountaintop. The experience translates into so many things,” she explains.

Last year, Pal, along with many youngsters, worked on a project to clean the River Ganga. Together, they took out 55,000 tonnes of waste from the river.

Pal, who is about to retire from the institute, says that she is now going to actively work for social campaigns. She also plans to move to Dehradun.

“What is a life that is not spent towards a cause? I want to be engaged in work that inspires the youth, makes a difference to society and especially women,” she says.

The Everest experience has taught her that nothing is impossible.

“For me, my journey to Everest symbolised women’s empowerment. It was an awakening of my abilities. In the end, the choice is yours — to stop or keep pursuing,” she says.

Harpreet Kaur Lamba is a Delhi-based sports writer

Published on May 31, 2019

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