International Everest Day was declared in the memory of the first summit of Mt Everest on May 29, 1953. And on May 29, 1965, in a stroke of serendipity, (now retd) Major Hari Pal Singh Ahluwalia, became the first Indian to summit Mt Everest. Throughout his career, this recipient of the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Arjuna Award has contributed to adventure, sports, environment, and disability in the capacity of an author and social worker. Here, the 83-year-old tells The Morning Standard how mountaineering has evolved and offers some tips to trekking enthusiasts:
It has been 55 years since you became the first Indian to scale the Mount Everest. How does it feel?
I feel honoured. Our journey came at a time when India was only a toddler trying to get a foothold in the global arena, after it became free from the British rule and survived a war each with two of its neighbours. After two failed attempts before in 1960 and 1962, there was high expectation from our team. Looking back, the first thing I remember is the sense of utter humility that struck me at the height of 8,848 metres.
What is the difference you see in mountaineering today as compared to your time?
Mountaineering has become easier with technology for weather prediction and better equipment, and accessible even for amateur trekkers with the burgeoning outdoor adventure companies in India. However, some things remain unchanged. We still cannot predict devastating calamities like an avalanche. Garbage disposal remains my top concern. Even plastic pollution is a serious environmental threat there. Only a limited amount of people should be allowed at a certain time.
Any tips you would like to give this generation of mountaineers?
Respect the mountain. Mount Everest is known as Sagarmatha or ‘peak of the heaven’ in Nepal, and in Tibet as ‘Chomolungma or Goddess Mother of Mountains’ – the names signify what this mountain means for the locals, and it is the responsibility of the mountaineers to respect that emotion. Mountaineers should realise that in spite of superior technology and gears, they are at the mercy of nature. So, focus on the journey, enjoy every step and breath, and extend a helping hand to whosoever you can. Trust your mountain guide. Too many accidents have happened because these rules were not followed. Also, one big mistake is to bracket mountaineering with other adventure sports. Mountaineering is more than that. It builds your character by instilling humility, determination, patience, resilience, and a sense of brotherhood.
What got you interested in mountaineering?
Mountains have been a part of my life from the beginning and eventually, unknowingly, became my inspiration. Having been born in Shimla, studied in Dehradun and Mussoorie, I had developed a knack for rock climbing, and after my first posting in Kashmir, that streak continued and still exists. My family always encouraged outdoor activities. My mother was very pious and gave me a picture of our first Sikh Guru Nanak Dev ji to place it on the summit.
You have orchestrated many initiatives for the disabled. What is your motivation?
A few months after scaling the Everest, I was seriously injured in the Indo-Pak war in September, 1965 and was confined to a wheelchair for life at the age of 26. All my dreams lay shattered. But thanks to my training in the army and as a mountaineer, attempting to achieve the impossible is a habit. I spent long months at various hospitals and was finally sent to Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the UK. Every subsequent visit to the hospital reinforced my conviction that India desperately needed such a world-class hospital. I became obsessed with my dream of building such a hospital. It seemed impossible as I had no funds, no medical knowledge and managerial experience. But climbing Everest taught me not to give up, just re-double your efforts. With immense hard work and blessings from family and friends, I set up the Indian Spinal Injuries Center in New Delhi, which is now a world-class hospital for treating all types of spinal disorders.