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The Everest of life

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Summiteers Bachendri Pal (standing, centre) with her team mates from the women’s expedition to Mount Killimanjaro
Summiteers Bachendri Pal (standing, centre) with her team mates from the women’s expedition to Mount Killimanjaro

Bachendri Pal leads an all-women’s team to Mount Kilimanjaro this Monday. Anjana Rajan meets the intrepid climbers

If 60 is the new 40, 40 is the new 20. But even 20-year-olds often baulk at the idea of walking a kilometre to the office, or cooking in the summer heat, or carrying their own shopping home. Fitness is fun, but fun is not always a healthy robust existence. Unless it concerns 45-year-old Prem Lata Agarwal from Jharkhand, or her team mates on the all-women’s expedition to Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro. The group sets off this Monday from New Delhi. The expedition is led by Bachendri Pal, India’s first woman — and the world’s fifth — to conquer Mount Everest.

Prem Lata, married in her mid-teens, had never adventured even as far as college. But after her daughters were born she decided to keep herself busy by joining a fitness club in Jamshedpur. It was there that Bachendri came to conduct a course. During the course she convinced Prem Lata that age was no bar and she should join adventure sports. Prem Lata and her daughter both joined. And, like a sensible climber, Prem Lata has never looked back.

Overcoming fears

“You too can do the course and become a mountaineer,” Prem Lata coaxes, explaining that by the time one completes the course, one has lost any fears one may have had. Rajal D. Patel of Gujarat didn’t have any to lose. “Mujhe dar var kuch nahin lagta (I am not afraid of anything),” says the 26-year-old sports teacher. As a class XII student, she saw a TV documentary on Bachendri. “I was interested in sports but had never done mountaineering,” says the kho-kho player and NCC Navy gold medallist. “After I saw the documentary, I told my sports sir I wanted to go to the mountains, to the snows. He told me, you keep your feet on the ground.”

Discouragement could not ground her though. She took a rock climbing course and later trained in basic and advanced mountaineering in Darjeeling. Today her dream of accompanying Bachendri on an expedition is coming true.

While Anita Soren is among the youngest at 22 and has been doing adventure sports since class IX, others like Sushma Bissa (42) and Lovely Das (37) are trail blazers in their society. Sushma, a doctorate holder in Music, was bitten by the adventure bug after her marriage to mountaineer Magan Bissa. “I used to feel left out when I attended mountaineers’ meets and people asked, ‘Are you a mountaineer too?’ I was 30 when I did my basic mountaineering course.”

Though her husband was supportive of her other adventure training, says Sushma, who does bungee jumping, para plane, paragliding and other activities, he did tell her she was starting mountaineering at an age when others considered retiring. The initial adjustment to cold and pain proved so difficult that she wrote her husband an irate letter from the camp at Gomukh, “Why didn’t you stop me when you knew it was so tough!” However, by the time she descended, her confidence levels were surging, and she, like all her counterparts on this expedition, is a veteran of several summits.

Lovely from West Bengal, a three-time college-level national yoga champion, points out what is echoed by the entire team, from Bachendri down. “The self-reliance, the endurance, that you gain on these trips all stay with you.” On her way to join the expedition, Lovely recounts gleefully, a Jamshedpur railway station porter asked if he should lift her bag. Another porter told him, “They are mountaineers. They don’t need your help.” She feels exasperated when she sees folks dependent on vehicles and labour-saving aids. Similarly, it is Prem Lata who carries the family’s gas cylinder up the stairs.

The Kilimanjaro expedition, scheduled for an unusually fast ascent — the group is to return on July 6 — is part of Tata Steel’s centenary celebrations. Bachendri is all praise for the company, whose backing helps her empower women, she says. Because these are life skills, and as Bachendri puts it, “All of life is an Everest.”

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