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A life of fearlessness, passion & purpose: Indian climbers and their love for mountains

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By Shreya Upadhyaya

Chances are that you had never heard of Malli Mastan Babu until there were reports of a missing Indian mountaineer a few days back. The 40-year old breathed his last in the place he lived for – the mountains. Hailing from Nellore in Andhra Pradhesh, he was the first Indian to summit Mount Vinson Massif, the tallest peak in Antarctica. In 2005, he summitted Mount Kilimanjaro on January 20 in three and a half days.

“Mountains retained its favourite child” – a Facebook page, Rescue Malli Mastan Babu, announced on April 4, 2015 after Chilean teams found his body in the Andes range. Several expressed their grief on social media platforms and distraught friends and fellow mountaineers spoke about the inspiration that Malli has been. But in a country where cricket is the staple sport and in a world that doesn’t see very many mountaineers, Indian climbers like Malli continue to scale new heights (literally) one after the other. So what is it that keeps them going?

The one name that comes in mind when one thinks of mountaineers in India is Bachendri Pal, the first Indian female (and fifth female) to ascend the Mount Everest in 1984.

Bachendri was born into a rural working-class family in Uttarakhand and was one of seven children. Once she chose to be a professional mountaineer, Bachendri did not look back, despite stiff opposition from her family. Her persistence led her to guide an all-woman rafting expedition down the Ganges, covering about 1,500 miles. The Padma Shri awardee also led an all-woman team on a successful 2,500-mile transit of the Himalayas, beginning in Arunachal Pradesh and concluding at the Siachen Glacier. “If women are strong, the nation will be strong,” Bachendri has always maintained, adding that as citizens, each of us should be prepared to handle any situation instead of always depending on the army for help.

Santosh Yadav became the first woman in the world to climb the Mount Everest twice in less than a year (in 1992 and 1993) and the first woman to successfully climb Mount Everest from Kangshung Face. Born in Haryana, Santosh’s love for the mountains took her into the unknown range of Aravallis. Determined to take forward this casual stroll, she ran away from home to attend her first mountaineering expedition. She saved money and enrolled at Uttarkashi’s Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. However it was not a smooth start for the mountaineer. In her own words, Santosh’s parents were “very orthodox and (they) were dead against her decision.” Their focus was on marrying her, and hers was on scaling the Mount Everest. Although she had to fight it out to reach her goal, Santosh says the feeling of standing atop some of the highest peaks in the world is immensely satisfying.

Other mountaineers such as Harish Kapadia, Balwant Sandhu and Captain MS Kohli have been success stories in their own right – at times a helicopter rescue from a 6,200-metre deep gorge, at other times a dislocated hip-joint. These mountaineers chose not to give up in times that tested not only their strength but also their patience. Soon after they continued with the same zeal.

Arunima Sinha, world’s first female amputee to climb the Everest, is a story of inspiration. She attributes her motivation to the horrific incident that made her lose one of her legs. “Life does not stop. I did not want to spend my life on the wheelchair”, she said in an interview. Labeled as “crazy” and discouraged when she talked about climbing, Arunima found solace and encouragement in Bachendri Pal. Even though Arunima did not find support from her family initially, it was not long before her parents came to terms with it. Regardless of constant physical ailments throughout the trek, she knew that there is definitely no gain without any pain.

At the age of 16 years and 11 months, Arjun Vajpai became the youngest Indian to climb the Everest in 2011. He achieved this feat at an age of 16 years, 11 months and 18 days. He broke the record set by Krushnaa Patil who had climbed the summit at the age of 19 years.

India’s tryst with the mountains does not end here. She still produces men and women of steel that leave behind everything to pursue their calling.

Some like Malli leave the comforts of a luxurious white collar job while others rise above physical limitations to conquer not just peaks but will power as well. Each mountaineer has a story to tell and a story to be left behind. For now they are believing in themselves, chasing their dreams and are definitely setting great examples – if only we care to look.

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Roopkund Bones Study Reveals Mediterranean Migrants in Himalayas

Mediterranean migrants in the Himalayas: Roopkund bones study

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The study involving 28 researchers from institutions in India, the US and Europe revealed that the skeletons belonged to three genetically distinct groups. Pixabay

A study by an international team of scientists has revealed that ancient DNA from mysterious skeletons found in and around Roopkund Lake show there were Mediterranean migrants in Himalayas.

The study involving 28 researchers from institutions in India, the US and Europe revealed that the skeletons belonged to three genetically distinct groups.

The study, published in popular science journal ‘Nature Communications’, covered 38 skeletons found in Roopkund Lake and once thought to have died during a single catastrophic event. However, researchers found that they died in multiple periods separated by at least 1,000 years.

Genome-wide ancient DNA reveals that 23 of the individuals had ancestry that falls within the range of variation of present-day South Asians. A further 14 had ancestry typical of the eastern Mediterranean while one individual was found with Southeast Asian-related ancestry.

According to Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), which was part of the study, it was the first ancient DNA ever reported from India.

Nestled deep in the Himalayan mountains at 5,029 metres above sea level, Roopkund Lake is colloquially referred to as “Skeleton Lake” due to the remains of several hundred ancient humans scattered around its shores.

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Nestled deep in the Himalayan mountains at 5,029 metres above sea level, Roopkund Lake is colloquially referred to as “Skeleton Lake”. Pixabay

“Little was known about the origin of these skeletons, as they have never been subjected to systematic anthropological or archaeological scrutiny, in part due to the disturbed nature of the site, which is frequently affected by rockslides, and which is often visited by local pilgrims and hikers who have manipulated the skeletons and removed many of the artifacts,” says the study.

“There have been multiple proposals to explain the origins of these skeletons. Local folklore describes a pilgrimage to the nearby shrine of the mountain goddess, Nanda Devi, undertaken by a king and queen and their many attendants, who “due to their inappropriate, celebratory behaviour” were struck down by the wrath of Nanda Devi. It has also been suggested that these are the remains of an army or group of merchants who were caught in a storm. Finally, it has been suggested that they were the victims of an epidemic.”

The researchers analyzed the remains using a series of bioarcheological analyses, including ancient DNA, stable isotope dietary reconstruction, radiocarbon dating, and osteological analysis.

They obtained genome-wide data from 38 individuals by extracting DNA from powder drilled from long bones, producing next-generation sequencing libraries, and enriching them for approximately 1.2 million single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) from across the genome.

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According to Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), which was part of the study, it was the first ancient DNA ever reported from India. Pixabay

A total of 76 skeletal samples (72 long bones and four teeth) were sampled at the Anthropological Survey of India, Kolkata. Skeletal sampling was performed in dedicated ancient DNA facilities at CCMB in Hyderabad.

A subset of samples were further processed at Harvard Medical School, Boston.

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“We first became aware of the presence of multiple distinct groups at Roopkund after sequencing the mitochondrial DNA of 72 skeletons. While many of the individuals possessed genetic information typical of present-day Indian populations, we also identified a large number of individuals with genetic makeup that would be more typical of populations from West Eurasia (a term used in the study to refer to the cluster of ancestry types common in Europe, the Near East, and Iran)” says Kumarasamy Thangaraj, co-senior author and chief scientist at CCMB.

Dr Kumarasamy and then CCMB director Dr Lalji Singh, who is no more, had initiated the work of sampling the skeletons at ancient DNA lab more than a decade ago. (IANS)