Trekking with the legend – Padma Shri Bachendri Pal Madam

Mam

Some things we never imagine in life, not even in our wildest dreams. Trekking with Padma Shri Bachendri Pal Madam was one such thing for me. It just happened.

During Young India Fellowship program, I got the opportunity to work on a project with TSAF, Tata Steel Adventure Foundation. Since the historical ascent of Mt. Everest in 1984, Bachendri Madam heads TSAF.

As part of the project, I, along with my two teammates, visited TSAF’s camp site in Uttarkashi for 3 days. Bubbling with excitement, we started our journey at 5 on a November morning from Delhi. After an exhausting day, we reached the camp site in darkness. Hemant, our Project head, introduced us to Bachendri Madam right before dinner. Well, I was no longer tired.

During dinner, we found out that there was a leadership course going on for a group of Tata employees. They were going for a 3 days trek. Bachendri Madam was also going with the group. We were supposed to accompany them on their first day. A trek with Bachendri Madam! It couldn’t get any better.

Next morning, we began the trek. Initially, we all started together but later my teammates, new to trekking, decided to slow down. To keep the interview going, I went ahead with Madam. I had already read her biography ‘Everest – My Journey to the Top’ and accounts of her other expeditions. But nothing could compare to listening to her experiences in her presence. It was a privilege.

Madam talked about her humble beginnings, her 1984 Everest expedition. I imagined the young Bachendri Madam in my mind; an ambitious young lady with nerves of steel. She attributed her success in life to the values given by her parents.

Bachendri Madam showed remarkable integrity from young age. On her successful ascent of Everest in 1984, she was showered with lucrative job offers. Everyone, be it government or private, wanted her in their organization. But Bachendri Madam chose to stay with Tata. In her own words, “Tata supported me when nobody knew me”.

After successful summit of Everest, Madam set up TSAF from scratch. She visited leadership schools outside India, did courses and learned from their experience. She overcame every challenge to build TSAF.

In my conversation with Bachendri Madam, I found a lady who was way ahead of her time. In spite of education and resistance from society, she chose a career in mountaineering at a time when people didn’t consider anything, except teaching, as a profession for women. She stood against evils of society from time to time. She faced the wrath of Indian society when she stood by the family of lovers boycotted by her village. She raised her voice against the suffocating norms of Indian society to help others. She successfully led all women Indo-Nepalese Everest Expedition in 1993 against the doubts of everyone. Her Trans Himalaya expedition, traversing Himalayas from Arunachal to Siachen, was an exemplary feat. Madam proved her mettle again and again.

In the evening, while talking to the two Everest trainees, Poonam and Swarnalata, I got a glimpse of Bachendri Madam’s impact in young people’s lives. As told by Poonam and Swarnalata, “We knew nothing. Bachendri Madam taught us how to talk, how to eat, how to take care of ourselves and how to be a good mountaineer, during our time in Everest Base Camp. She fed us with love when we visited her home.”. The girls were focused and excited for their impending training in Argentina in January.

The next morning, Poonam, Swarnalata and I trekked till near by Damini Top. We went running, singing old hindi songs and returned in half ‘n hour.

As I parted ways with Bachendri Madam, I couldn’t stop smiling. I’ll remember her 🙂

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Basic Mountaineering Course experience

As I’m writing this piece, I’m trying to figure out the beginning of this. Getting a seat in Basic Mountaineering Course in any of the Institutes in India is itself a daunting task. They get full; well not just months but an year in advance. I applied in HMI (Himalayan Mountaineering Institute), Darjeeling in November 2016. I got a seat in women only batch of May 2017.

We were more than 60 women in the batch. We belonged to different parts of India and came from different walks of life. We also had one Japanese and one German lady among us. We had three women from Indian army and one from Indian Air Force too. The age group varied from teenagers to 40 years old.

The first morning in HMI, I woke up at 5 by the hustle outside our room. I came out to find girls staring in awe at the mountains far off. From HMI hostel, we could see the mighty Kanchanjunga range .

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Kanchanjunga range seen from HMI, Darjeeling.

After the P.T. on first day, we were divided into 9 different teams/ropes. After all, mountaineering is a team sport. Each team had 6-8 members. Each member led the team for 3 days in the course.

The course was divided into two phases: training in HMI, Darjeeling and training in HMI Base Camp, Sikkim.

During the time in Darjeeling, we had 5 km run every morning followed by P.T. exercises or yoga. Rest of the day was a mix of theory classes and practicals. We learnt knots. We learnt natural rock climbing and rappelling on Tenzing rock. We also had artificial rock climbing practice on indoor and outdoor walls. We received all the mountaineering equipments. After a week, we had our practice trek to Tiger Hill. It was 12 km one way. If clear weather, one can see Sikkim Himalayas, Nepal Himalayas and Bhutan Himalayas all together from Tiger Hill.

One day after Tiger Hill trek, we left for HMI Base camp. We moved to Yaksum, Sikkim by cars. From Yaksum, we began our trek to base camp. First day we entered Kanchanjunga National Park and trekked 14 km to Tshoka. We stayed one day in Tshoka for acclimatisation. From Tshoka we moved to Zongri. That day it rained like cats and dogs. We trekked the 11 km distance completely drenched in rain. Next day it continued raining. We trekked 13 km from Zongri to reach the base camp.

Base camp was a beautiful place. But the idea of spending 10 days in complete isolation with 50 people living in a single hut was something for each one of us. We acclimatised for one day. Then our glacier training began on alternate days. We used to trek two hours one way to reach Rathong glacier. We had ice climbing, rappelling, jumaring, crevasse rescue and anchor base training on glacier. Last day, we had our ice climbing test. Meanwhile, we had our theory lessons in base camp. After glacier training, we had one day of height gain. B C Roy peak of height 17,000 ft was chosen for us. It was a clear day. We started around 6 in the morning from base camp. But as it happens with mountain weather, it turned really bad during the climb. Five of us reached closest to the top. But 150 m away from the summit, we had to turn back due to worsening weather. It was overwhelming to experience what an expedition feels like. One day post the height gain, we left base camp. While returning, we covered the distance from Base camp to Yaksum in 2 days only.

On reaching Darjeeling, we had our graduation on the auspicious date of 29th may, the day Tenzing Norgay conquered Mt Everest and also the birth anniversary of Tenzing Norgay.

Twenty-eight days were amazing learning experience. I got more than I expected, be it the technical knowledge of mountaineering or experience of mountains. But the most amazing part of the journey were the people I met.

Love got a new meaning when I met the young lady who is working hard to save money to get married in Everest Base Camp to the love of her life, a mountaineer.

The army officer, 3 months into her marriage, taught me about leadership and giving your 100% in everything you do.

I have heard people complaining about how they are too old for things. Well, a 29 year old lady, quitting her government job of 7 years, just proved it’s never too late for anything.

I met someone who in spite of being selected for Masters program from London School of Economics, is crazy for Young India Fellowship. 😀

It’s said that mountaineering is like the mother of all sports because in mountains there is no second chance. You make one small mistake and it costs you something. But we are humans and we all make mistakes. I met someone who learned the lesson hard way. He climbed Everest but lost his two fingers due to frost bite because of not being able to see little snow inside his gloves.

I met Sirs who reminded us not to consider ourselves girls but humans first.

I learned there is so much scope to be better than who I was yesterday.

I hope mountains call me again, may be for advanced course. It’s time​ for home now. 😀

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Mountains of Darjeeling covered by clouds 🙂

Things to carry for mountains

If you have trekked in mountains with rucksack on your back, you know the struggle of keeping the weight to minimum, yet having all the necessary stuff. Having done a 7 days trek in Kashmir and basic mountaineering course, here are few things that I learned to keep in mind while packing for mountains.

Bag cover A must to have if you are traveling in rainy season. It’s better to pack all your stuff in a big polythene sheet before putting it inside rucksack.

Poncho/umbrella Again can’t do without in rainy/snowy season. If you go for poncho, make sure it’s of good quality. Umbrella may appear uncomfortable  at first glance but it helps better than poncho if you can walk with it. Choose as per your convenience.

Water Bottle Keep a 650 ml or 1 l bottle as per your need. Alhough water is available in mountains from rivers and streams, it’s better to know your route beforehand and decide accordingly. Some people prefer water bag with sipping pipe since unlike water bottle you don’t need to take it out of rucksack for use.

Sunglasses If you’re going to glacier or high altitude ice areas, keep one or more sunglasses unless you want to suffer from snow blindness for few days.

Sunscreen/buff Personally I rely on buff far more than sunscreen to protect my face from sun. It also saves my face from cold. Some people find it difficult to breathe through buff. You can use masks with openings around nose. Use sunscreen on any exposed area.

Gloves A good pair of gloves to keep your hands warm. Make sure the size fits you well. It’s better to have water proof gloves if you’re expecting rain or ice.

Long socks Help protect against snow, leeches etc.

Foot powder Smelly and sweaty feet is a common condition when traveling long in mountains.

Blister tape No matter how good one’s shoes are, one should always be prepared for blisters.

Wet wipes To save your ass, literally. Keep enough.

Vaseline Good to use on any chaffed area or otherwise too.

Torch Electricity is a luxury in mountains. I prefer head torch since it keeps my hands free. Remember to keep extra batteries as per your need.

Polythene zippers Good to keep things like mobile, money and daily dose of dry fruits.

Toiletries in small sizes.

P.S. I’d keep adding more to the list.