Fifty-year-old Premlata Agrawal shrugged off self doubts and discouragement to become the oldest woman to scale Mount Everest. VIJAY LOKAPALLY tells the story of her incredible journey
The glittering trophies that adorned the shelves at home, all won by her brothers, were a daily reminder. “I yearned to win some for myself,” reminisces Premlata Agrawal, nee Garg, the oldest Indian woman to scale Mount Everest. She accomplished the feat at 48 after 13 years of motivational pursuit of a dream that was born from a casual conversation with Bachendri Pal, the legendary mountaineer.
The conservative housewife in a Marwari family was willing to traverse the harsh world of mountaineering, a preposterous thought for an “obese” and “shy” woman. But her husband, Vimal, became the key supporter to pave the way and she emerged a glorious role model for young girls striving to realise their dreams. “Kitchen to mountain tops,” was how he described Premlata’s momentous journey in May 2011 when she hoisted the national flag atop the highest peak of the world.
It set her off on a self-discovery that changed her life. What more, she wondered. “More peaks,” goaded Vimal. “Imagine, there was a time when I had to hold on to my pallu strongly when pillion riding with Vimal,” she laughs. Today, she drives around Jamshedpur on a scooty, warmly recognised by the citizens for her adventurous streak.
She was married at 18. At 34, she won a 5-km event and with it came five thousand rupees as prize money. “I was tempted to buy a trophy and give it an exalted spot in the house. I wanted a trophy, not money,” says Premlata, who was always last when participating in school races. “But I always finished the race.”
“No big achievement if I allowed her to pursue mountaineering,” Vimal says sincerely. “I am proud that my wife is a star in Jamshedpur. We are Marwaris but I didn’t care what people thought. My parents were over-protective but never objected. My father has a huge scrap book of her feats.” Jogging in track pants was the first “bold and brave” step that she took. And never looked back!
Mt. Aconcagua, Mt. McKinley, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Elbrus, Mt. Vinson Massif and Mt. Carstensz were conquered one by one in the span of two years. Premlata had proved what Bachendri had proclaimed — “Nothing is impossible.” A girl who never went to the market alone was now a woman trekking on some of the most arduous and treacherous routes of the world.
Premlata had overcome “self doubts” and “discouragement” from Sherpas, bouts of dehydration and fatigue when climbing Everest. From rising at 3 in the morning to completing exercises during short breaks in the midst of household chores, she stayed determined and focussed. “It was not easy because of the conservative background that I come from, but my family, husband, daughters were my greatest source of encouragement and inspiration,” acknowledges Premlata, who is indebted to Tata Steel for financial support. “I must mention Hemant Nerurkar, Sanjiv Paul and Nand Lal Rungta for their timely help at various stages.”
Every mountain confronts you with unique challenges. “You battle icy winds and sometimes fear, with just God as friend. Some places you don’t have porters and have to lug a 60-kg weight. Only when you return home you realise the importance of little things, the essence of people, food. You begin to find joy in small things and, most importantly, you stop complaining.”
Premlata, 50, is looking forward to rallying the youth to take to adventure sports and mountain climbing as healthy hobbies. “Age is no bar,” smiles Premlata who calls her conquests as India on 7 summits. Incidentally, she still yearns for a trophy!