Meet legendary mountaineer Bachendri Pal - scaling new heights leading an expedition of senior women
March 17, 2022, Updated on : Thu Mar 17 2022 01:16:32 GMT+0000
When Bachendri Pal was in her teens, it was a daily chore for her to go to the mountains to collect wood and herd goats. She never imagined then that one summer day, in May 1984, she would scale Mount Everest and go on to hold the distinction of being the first Indian woman ever to do so.
Today, at 68, the Padma Bhushan awardee is leading a group of 12 senior women on an extraordinary expedition titled ‘[email protected]’, traversing the Himalayas from East to West.
In an exclusive conversation with HerStory, Bachendri gets nostalgic when she reminisces that breaking stereotypes started early on for her.
“In those days, people didn’t even let their girls study. They would only educate their sons so they could support the family. But since childhood, I wanted to study and become a doctor or something. Since I came from a financially disadvantaged family, we didn’t have the means for education, but I had the determination and hard work to study, so I studied privately without going to school or college. My parents thought I would only study till class 10th, but I performed so well that my school principal sent a message to my father to let me continue my studies.”
Of grit and determination
In the late 60s, growing up in the foothills of the Himalayas in a remote village called Nakuri, Bachendri often saw trekkers with huge backpacks passing through, excitedly heading towards the mountains. While most people in her village didn’t take these mountaineers seriously, dismissing it as a daily routine, Bachendri was fascinated by them and their mission – summiting Mount Everest.
But, despite her interest in the mountains, Bachendri decided to first complete her studies and be gainfully employed, as her family firmly believed education was the only pathway out of poverty. She completed her MA and B.Ed from DAV Post Graduate College, Dehradun, and was waiting to get a job when a chance encounter with the principal of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), who was passing by her village, changed the course of her life.
She recalls, “He told me about mountaineering and pushed me to join a course at the NIM. He said since I am an educated woman, I must understand how mountaineering is so beneficial for humankind. How it requires us to set a goal and achieve it through consistent hard work, persistence, and determination. I was so motivated that I sent in an application to join NIM, and I was selected!”
Road less travelled
The fact that Bachendri already hailed from a mountain village helped her immensely during the course, and she passed it with flying colours. At the time, there was also a selection process going on for a “mixed team” to scale Mount Everest. Someone from the NIM administration recommended her name and as destiny would have it, she was selected for the opportunity.
“I got a letter from the Indian Mountaineering Foundation saying that I was selected to be a part of the team to scale Mount Everest, and I had to send in a willingness letter formalising the arrangement,” she reveals, adding she also missed responding immediately to the letter.
Bachendri credits her then instructor for ensuring she responded to the second reminder letter, and understood the significance of the occasion. “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was the moving force behind this expedition, as she aspired to see an Indian woman scale Mount Everest for the first time,” Bachendri says.
The rest, as they say, is history, as 31 years after Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summited Mount Everest for the first time ever in history, and a day before her own 30th birthday, Bachendri Pal became the first Indian woman ever to scale the mighty Everest.
However, if it was lonely at the top for different reasons, it was also so back home. After the initial accolades, Bachendri, who was yet to find a job, had to endure the ridicule of the village folk, who questioned what use a historic feat was if it didn’t help in employment.
Not long after, Bachendri proved that wrong too, when she received an offer from Tata Steel to join their Tata Steel Adventure Foundation as sports assistant.
“When I got a job at Tata Steel, it changed people’s mindset that scaling mountains can also result in a job at such a prestigious organisation as Tata Steel. Before the job offer, I was leading a lonely struggle as people wouldn’t allow their daughters to talk to me and they would mock me for sitting at home despite all the education,” she says.
For over three decades now, Bachendri has been a part of Tata Steel, where she has led several initiatives to empower and enable women in mountaineering.
Bachendri’s latest initiative, ‘[email protected]’, originated from her own experience as she was retiring from Tata Steel in 2019. “Why should I retire when I still feel fit,” she pondered.
“I thought what could be better than an expedition of women aged 50 and above - as it also resonates with PM Narendra Modi’s Fit India movement. So, I decided to take this idea forward with the Tata Steel Adventure Foundation and the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports,” she shares.
It is the first time that such an expedition is taking place in India. Bachendri is excited about the expedition, and shares that her fitness regime in preparation for the expedition now includes running 25 kms every day.
“I always believe that the biggest risk in life is not taking risks. This has given me the guts to take risks, lead many path-breaking expeditions, face numerous challenges, and continue the journey. With the same belief, a team of 12 women will be undertaking a five-month-long Himalayan journey, and the biggest challenge this time is the age factor,” she says.
“My team members are all aged 50 and above, and the expedition’s long duration, and multiple other challenges like emotional, social, and mental factors, fatigue, and weather constraints, make this a unique initiative. But, we intend to set an example for all women and raise hope that it is possible to stay fit and healthy in the senior years too,” she affirms.
The five-month-long expedition involves traversing the Himalayas from the East to West - from Arunachal to Ladakh - covering over 4,977 kilometres and crossing 37 mountain passes. The team commenced their journey at Arunachal Pradesh on March 9th, and will pass through Assam, West Bengal, Sikkim, Nepal, Kumaon, Garhwal, Himachal Pradesh, Spiti, Leh, and Ladakh, before reaching their destination - India’s reclaimed Tiger Hill at Kargil, standing proudly at an altitude of 16,608 feet.
Edited by Anju Narayanan