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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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