Summit fever

Debapriya Nandi | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on June 17, 2016


Avalanches or accidents are no deterrents for Bengal’s women mountaineers

There is a buzz at the usually quiet Kolkata airport. People look up from their smartphones and make way. It’s homecoming for Sunita Hazra, 42, who was part of the tragedy-hit Everest expedition of May 20.This season, 11 mountaineers from West Bengal tried to scale the world’s highest peak. Eight succeeded despite the harsh weather conditions. Sunita’s story of survival grabbed headlines across the globe, thanks to a fellow climber — Briton ex-serviceman Leslie Binns — who abandoned his climb some 500m from the Everest summit to bring her back to safety.

At the airport, Sunita is surrounded by a small huddle of people. It includes her son and husband, who hug her before letting her smile wearily for the cameras. Her cheeks are covered by red blotches, her hands are bandaged, but there is contentment too, beyond just relief. “We need to go now, she needs to be taken to the hospital,” informs her husband Sudeb, 44, who runs a shop for mountaineering equipment in south Kolkata.

Sunita, who is the assistant health officer of Duttanagar, had dreamt of the mountains even before she married Sudeb. “She always wanted to be a mountaineer. She became a nurse to save money for this,” says the proud husband, betraying no trace of jealousy over his wife’s first love. “When we got married, I knew she’d save for her expeditions. I knew it would be a priority. My parents didn’t mind at all, because Bengal has a history of women mountaineers,” he says.

More than 45 Indian women have followed in the footsteps of Bachendri Pal, who, in 1984, became the first Indian woman to summit the Everest. There are records galore — in 1993, Dicky Dolma, only 19, became the youngest Indian woman to ascend the peak; and Premlata Agarwal, at 48, became the oldest in 2011; in 2013, Chhanda Gayen and Tusi Das were the first women from Bengal to achieve the feat. Of the 11 climbers from Bengal this season, three were women. “Today, more and more women come to us for basic mountaineering courses, but within a few days of training, they want to know how soon they can scale the Everest,” says Suman Dey of North Face Kolkata, a mountaineering club in Shyampukur, a middle-class neighbourhood. Nearly half the trainees attending their annual winter basic mountaineering camp at the Ayodhya hills (Purulia) are women. “There are middle-class homemakers, working professionals and college students as well. I even have retired bank clerks who want to be trained in mountaineering. They may not be in the fittest physical condition, but their willpower is strong as steel,” says Dey.

Weekday afternoons at the North Face club are “lean patches”. “Not many people come in at this time of day,” says Dey. Yet at 3 pm sharp, braving the unforgiving afternoon sun, Payel Sanyal, 21, walks into the office. The second-year student of Jaipuria College in north Kolkata wants to enrol for the beginner’s rock-climbing course this winter at the Susunia hills of Bankura district. Sanyal, attired in a lime-green salwar kameez, confesses she is not used to “roughing it out”. Yet, she wants to challenge herself. “One of my classmates went to the camp last year, and she had wonderful things to share about the training. I was never keen on strenuous activities like mountaineering or rock-climbing, but after listening to her I thought I should attempt something adventurous,” she says. Does she think she will persevere to make a full-fledged expedition to Mt Everest? “That will be fabulous and I have thought about it. But as of now, I am taking baby steps. Let me weather the first few stages,” she says.

Just last month, the husband-wife team of Pradeep and Chetna Sahoo, along with fellow climber Debraj Dutta, had scaled Mount Everest before events took a tragic turn on May 20. (After nearly 400 climbers had scaled safely during the fortnight before May 20, the mishaps that followed underscored the perilous conditions of the area above 28,000ft. This “death zone” is has notoriously low temperatures and thin air.) It was the Sahoo couple’s third attempt in three years. “We were failed by the weather the last few times, but this time it worked,” says Chetna, 49, a homemaker. She acknowledges that they were “extremely lucky” this time around. “I know that things could have easily gone bad, but mountaineering always involves uncertainties. We had good guides,” she says. “And I was determined to see this through,” she continues. Indeed, many who have climbed Mt Everest feel that the six-plus weeks at Base Camp engender a tedium that leads to low-grade depression. More often than not, the biggest battles mountaineers have to fight are with themselves. “It was a matter of putting one foot in front of the other and then finding the will to do it again,” says Chetna.

It was the same steely determination that defined Chhanda Gayen, the first civilian woman from West Bengal to scale the Everest in 2013. On May 20, 2014, exactly two years before this year’s mishap at the Everest, Chhanda, along with two sherpas, went in an avalanche while descending the western face of Mount Khangchendzonga in Nepal. Subsequently, all three were declared dead. “Chhanda was into mountaineering from a very young age. Apart from many small trekking and climbing expeditions, she attended several training programmes for mountaineering. She was inspired by my mother, who was also into trekking when she was young,” says Tanmay, Chhanda’s brother.

During that fatal expedition, Chhanda was also accompanied by Tusi, who survived as she had taken a different route. Now living in Delhi, Tusi is married to Anit Sah, who runs a mountaineering and adventure sports company. “I chose Anit only because he understands and supports my passion for mountaineering,” she says. Tusi, who ran an eggs stall at a north Kolkata market before she tied the knot, was determined to be a mountaineer from a very young age. At a humble, two-room shanty in Dum Dum Park, Tusi’s mother Sabita proudly shows her daughter’s medals and certificates. “She would finish school, go for training and then go to the market to take care of the stall. Then again she would get up early, go to the wholesale market to buy eggs, run the stall for most part of the morning and then go to college,” says Sabita. The family never questioned Tusi’s mountaineering ambitions because that’s what kept her going. “Tusi lost her father when she was very young. She has shouldered the responsibility of her family since then. It was only her mountaineering dreams that brought some colour into her life. How could we object to that,” asks the mother.

Ujjwal Roy, 52, a mountaineer and a policeman who scaled the Everest in 2013, says women mountaineers should never feel disadvantaged. “In those extreme conditions, all human beings are alike. As long as we are fit and have enough mental strength, we will tide through,” he says.

Debapriya Nandi is a freelance writer based in Kolkata

Published on June 17, 2016
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