On Top of the World

These seven women mountaineers from ordinary backgrounds have reached the pinnacle of extraordinary feats

Published: 30th September 2017 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 30th September 2017 06:19 PM   |  A+A-

When sleeping women wake, mountains move,” goes a Chinese proverb. It also sums up the indomitable spirit of seven women mountaineers, who have braved all odds to scale the summits, one peak at a time. They have made their way into the heart of the toughest treks with the smooth reserve of strength, through dense belts of brush and forest encumbered with fallen trees and boulder piles, across canyons, roaring streams, and snowfields, showing forth beauty and courage, to tell the world that there are no mountain high enough. The common thread binding these women is their ordinary background, and their extraordinary feats. These mountaineers—one of whom got the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award last month—are no less than Seven Wonders of the World. Their bravery is the melody of seven notes that make music soulful. Their inspiring tales have all the hues of a rainbow that can regale us with the beauty of motivation.

These women have dwarfed their limitations to leave all and sundry awestruck with their feats. The depth of their determination matches that of seven seas; the expanse of their valour is like that of seven continents and all that they think of mountains, all seven days of a week. They have conquered their fears to tread on a crooked, winding, lonesome, and dangerous trek, scaling the peaks, and standing tall atop them, unfurling the Tricolour, rising into and above the clouds. They have climbed the mountains and got their good tidings, a joy that they wouldn’t want to trade off for any pleasure, power or pelf, not for another seven lives. 

Nungshi Malik and Tashi Malik, 26

“Climbing Everest was our dream, but all the subsequent adventures were inspired by the ‘Indian Girl Child’ cause. Summiting peaks were opportunities to showcase the ‘daily 
mountains’ faced by millions of Indian girls, especially in villages.”

On May 19, 2013, Nungshi and Tashi became the first female twins to scale Mt Everest. Within a span of two years, they went on to add many firsts in mountaineering—the first siblings and twins to climb the ‘Seven Summits’ (highest peaks in all continents) and complete the Explorers Grand Slam and the Three Pole Challenge. At that time they were also the youngest in the world to finish the Explorers Grand Slam. All the above are featured in Guinness World Records.Born to Col VS Malik (retd) and Anju Thapa Malik, the twins were initiated into mountaineering after finishing school in 2009. “We would rather lose ourselves in passion than lose our passion,” say Nungshi, the older among the twins. The biggest influence and ultimate hero in their lives has been their father whom the twins fondly hail as their ‘third sister’. Col Malik left his promising career in the Army to focus on his daughters’ all-round development.

Knowing the magnitude of the Everest challenge, their dad took charge of their preparation. He developed their fitness-training schedule, created a diet plan and ensured that his daughters left no stone unturned. “Most importantly, dad used up his entire life savings, including a gold loan against mom’s jewellery, to fund our adventure trips,” says Tashi. The girls did him proud by holding the maximum number of mountaineering and adventure ‘world records’ by any Indian adventurer in history.The biggest takeaway from these adventures has been a high degree of self-awareness, environmental consciousness and a new found confidence. “Mountaineering has taught us that life contracts or expands in proportion to one’s courage,” adds Nungshi.

The girls hold a bachelor’s degree in journalism, and are also graduates in exercise and sports science from the Southern Institute of Technology, New Zealand. They went on to start the Nungshi Tashi Foundation in 2015 to empower young girls. “Our foundation has two programme verticals—outdoor leadership programme and girls outdoor livelihoods programme,” says Nungshi, and Tashi adds, “Dad has donated a few acres of land in Dehradun, and we are in the process of establishing an outdoor leadership camp there.”

What’s in a name? Tashi is a Tibetan word for ‘good luck’ and Nungshi is a Manipuri word meaning ‘love’.

You are afraid of… Backing out of a dream simply because it’s too daunting and dangerous, and gender deciding one’s merit.

Weirdest quirk. Speaking in different accents and imitating people.

Favourite holiday spot. Bali for excellent food, incredibly friendly locals, geographic contrast, shopper’s heaven, and unique temples.

Bachendri Pal, 63

“I thought God had saved my life and that’s a message for me to keep my destiny with Everest. With truckloads of positivity that dawned on me, I felt recharged and decided to continue the journey, 
a decision which was the turning point of my success story.”

Bachendri Pal was born barely five days before the first anniversary of the first footsteps of man on Mount Everest, and in 1984, she was selected alongside six women and 11 men to join India’s first mixed-gender team for an expedition to the world’s highest mountain.The climb wasn’t easy. On the night of Buddha Purnima on May 15-16, Bachendri’s team met with a disaster that almost thwarted her plans. “I was sleeping at Camp III (24,000 ft approx.) in a colourful nylon tentage camp perched on the ice-crusted steep slope of Lhotse. There were 10 others in the camp. At around 12.30 am, a hard object hit me on the back of my head, and I woke up with a jolt.

There was a loud explosion, and I suddenly felt a cold, extremely heavy mass creeping over my body and crushing me. I could hardly breathe,” she recalls. A tall serac (ice tower) on the Lhotse glacier directly above their camp had cracked, crashed down and developed into a massive avalanche that devastated their camp. Bachendri was rescued by Lopsang Tshering, heaving and pushing away the large ice slabs to remove the hardened snow around her and pulling her out of the ice grave. Many members decided to return to the base camp and abandon their expedition. But Bachendri remained positive, and she was the only woman from that team who chose to continue. The ardour and zeal made her the first Indian woman to set foot on Mt Everest on May 23, a day before she turned 30.

A daughter of the Himalayas, Bachendri has led many expeditions, including the Indo-Nepalese Women’s Mount Everest Expedition, The Great Indian Women’s Rafting Voyage, and First Indian Women Trans-Himalayan Expedition. “The Indian Women’s First Trans Himalayan Journey from Arunachal Pradesh (East) to Siachen (West) in 1997 was the first-ever complete and continuous journey across the Himalayas. It took seven months to complete, and we covered 4,500 km on foot to reach the northernmost tip of India, Indira Col,” she says.

She was honoured with the Padma Shri in 1985, the Arjuna Award in 1986, and the National Adventure Award in 1994. The desire to explore keeps Bachendri on her toes. She leads the Tata Steel Adventure Foundation and is at the helm of its affairs. “After completing one expedition, I always ask myself: what next? The fire in my belly drives me. It gives me a chance to grow as a person, and makes me happy to see others grow,” she quips on her extensive leadership training programmes that help participants conquer the Everest.

Book-wise... Her Everest: My Journey to the Top has been translated into 11 regional languages.
What makes her sad? Cruelty to animals.
An unfulfilled wish. To be with my parents forever.
An actor best fit for her biopic. Kangana Ranaut, because she is bold, strong and also a mountain girl.

Favourite holiday spot. Nepal. I have been there more than 20 times. It is a trekker’s paradise and home of my shrine, Mt Everest. 

Premlata Agrawal, 54

“The adventure that started with a trek had reached the Everest. It was truly an ascent above life’s expectations for a woman who was at the old age of youth, the forties.”

As a child growing up in Darjeeling, the Queen of the Hills, Premlata was fascinated by the towering snow-clad peaks. The view kindled her enthusiasm, and the solitude of the silent and vast elevations of great mountains beckoned her. But these desires remained subdued. Years later, at 37, a chance encounter with Bachendri Pal changed the course of her life forever. “I used to accompany my daughter for tennis coaching at JRD Sports Complex in Jamshedpur. I saw a notice about Tata Steel Adventure Foundation (TSAF) headed by Bachendri Pal organising a hill trekking competition at Dalma Hill. It was my first meeting with the legendary mountaineer.” Fuelled by a burning desire to try her hands at this competition, she went ahead. 

“The wildernesses challenged my complacent conviction that I am not too old for such adventures. I bagged the third prize among some 500-plus participants. Rising high above the level of human sounds and habitations, I found myself at ease in the wild expanses and thrilled in my loneliness with a strange fear and elation,” she recounts. She was invited to join adventure programmes of TSAF, and she went about participating in expeditions after this exhilarating incident. In 2008, she went on to scale South Africa’s highest peak, Mt Kilimanjaro, under her mentor Bachendri. “While descending, she said, ‘Prem, you should try to attempt Mt Everest, you have all the abilities to summit it’. But I had more pressing matters bothering me then,” she says. But once she had decided to go for it, she plunged herself neck-deep into rigorous and extensive training, went up and down the Everest base camp to acclimatise herself, stayed away from family, only to live her dream to be atop the Everest unfurling the Tricolour. She succeeded in her first attempt on May 20, 2011, to become the oldest Indian woman to conquer Mt Everest. She went on to summit the remaining five—Aconcagua, Denali, Elbrus, Carstensz Pyramid and Vinson—in quick succession, and before she turned 50.For her, ageing is a state of mind. She laughingly narrates an incident from her Everest mission when the sherpa accompanying her ridiculed her adventures and told her to avoid it as it wasn’t suited for a woman of her age and physique. “Gender inequality holds back our Indian women,” she rues.

She shoulders her domestic responsibilities with the same ease as she scales peaks and she attributes it all to the steely resolve of Tata Steel, the organisation that sponsored all her adventure trips. In her current role as an officer with TSAF, Jamshedpur, she has designed a programme ‘Beyond Fitness’ to create interest for adventure sports among  women. She also teaches yoga and imparts rock climbing training.She urges others to take small steps that alone can take one to great heights. “Don’t be afraid to start. Just put one foot forward, the other one will rise inevitably,” says Premlata, who got Padma Shri in 2013 and Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award in 2017 for her bravery.

Must-carry items. Hanuman Chalisa, pictures of my spiritual gurus Swami Awdheshanandji, Swami Niranjanji, Swami Satsanghiji and a silver coin that my 
mother-in-law gives me before every expedition.

Happiness is… Being with my daughters. They are my world.

Anshu Jamsenpa, 38

“The thought of summiting Everest crossed my mind while I was undergoing a training course. Climbing Everest was obviously the toughest. Barring my second summit of the double ascent in 2011 when the weather was pleasant, the rest four summits have also been tough.”

Her name means the rays of the sun, and she’s been living up to it, in letter and spirit. Like the sun that shines above the mountain even when the sky is covered with clouds, Anshu, the young mountaineer from Bomdila in Arunachal Pradesh, has been shining on the highest peak of the world and unfurling the Tricolour on five occasions.She’s the fastest woman mountaineer in the world to summit Mt Everest twice in five days, the first woman in the world to do two double ascents of the Everest (first one on May 12, 2011, and May 21, 2011; second one on May 16, 2017, and May 21, 2017) and the first Indian woman in the world to summit the Everest five times.

Her third successful attempt to conquer the 29,029-ft peak was in between the two double ascents, on May 18, 2013.A mother of two girls, Anshu was busy looking after her husband Tsering Wange’s travel and tourism business when she happened to accompany a group of three mountaineers for rock-climbing and river-crossing activities in her hometown. “The month-long Himalayan Trekking Expedition Programme had been planned by my husband’s company. I used to go along with them daily. One day, I just walked up to the trio and told them that I want to try it too. It gave me an adrenaline rush,” she recounts.

The rock climbing incident stoked her dormant adventure streak, and she was enthused to take it up. She was finally initiated into mountaineering in 2009 after being egged on by the mountaineering instructor of the Arunachal Mountaineering & Adventure Sports Association. But the toughest part was convincing family members, especially her husband. “In the mountains, there is no surety. The risk 
factors are always there,” she adds.As someone who yearns to travel to mountain tops, she says it is because there’s a sense of belonging, and an emotional connect. “Mountains bring out the best in me. I’m most happy in their company,” she adds. But she also derives a lot of happiness listening to music and being with her children Pasang Droma, 16, and Tenzin Nyiddon, 12.

In between, she is busy working on her pet project, starting a training institute in Bomdila to encourage other deserving candidates into mountaineering and adventure sports from across the country. “It is just a small piece of land, and the building is yet to come up, but I have managed to train more than 3,000 adventure enthusiasts here so far,” she says with a sense of pride.In an exception to the rule, before scaling the remaining six summits, she has set her eyes on Mount Kangto, the highest peak in Arunachal, which is 23,103 feet tall and has never been climbed, and also summit other virgin peaks in the Himalayas.

A fact not known. She played the female lead in Crossing Bridges that won several awards, including the National 
Film Award.

The weirdest quirk. Keeping a notebook with my favourite songs written in it. Writing songs and singing has a calming effect on me.

Must-carry items to mountains. A photograph of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, my Kindle and camera.

An actor who fits the bill for her biopic. Kangana Ranaut, for being a self-made woman and having the 
courage to speak her mind. 

Arunima Sinha, 29
“It (tragedy) made me firm and more determined. I had lost my leg but didn’t lose my 
heart. I decided that I would live with dignity and self-respect so that people don’t pity me.”

A national-level volleyball player from Ambedkar Nagar, near Lucknow, Arunima was on her way to Delhi to fix an error in the Central Industrial Security Force job application form when she became a victim of a train robbery. She put up a brave fight against the goons who accosted her in a bid to snatch away her gold chain. When they couldn’t succeed, they flung her out of the moving train. She miraculously survived the brutal attack but one of her legs had to be amputated, and a rod was inserted into the other one. The tragedy failed to shake her confidence and belief.

Lying on the hospital bed, she surprised her family with her decision to scale the Everest. “A psychiatrist was sent to my ward in AIIMS, Delhi, to assess if I was in good mental health,” she laughs. Arunima’s mother was a tad upset and worried about her decision but slowly gave in. “She became my pillar of strength and stood rock solid behind me all through. When she realised that I was adamant, and there was not enough financial support for an amputee, she agreed to sell off our land to fund my summit expenses,” recounts Arunima.

She used her willpower to her advantage, and never let her prosthetic limb overpower or diminish her desire. She met Bachendri Pal, and her words encouraged Arunima to move the mountains, quite literally. She started preparations by enrolling in a basic course from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, followed by a rigorous training, and then went on to climb the Island Peak. She did the unbelievable on May 21, 2013, when she became the world’s first woman amputee to scale the Everest. “I am a sportsperson, and that gave me an edge to rise above the odds after such a traumatic fall,” she quips.She was awarded the Padma Shri in 2015. After Everest, she went on to summit five more peaks, Kosciuszko, Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Denali, and Aconcagua; write her autobiography Born Again on the Mountain; and start Arunima Foundation to work for a cause close to her heart, the welfare of the physically challenged and differently abled. 

The foundation has been engaged in activities for skill development, healthcare, environment and social cause, and generating self-employment opportunities for the physically challenged and differently abled, and runs solely on Arunima’s resources.Arunima is also working tirelessly towards her pet project—Shaheed Chandra Shekhar Azad Divyang Khel Academy and Prosthetic Limb Research Centre Society, an international-level sports university for the underprivileged, physically challenged and the differently-abled.

Biggest strength. My family. They are my spine. I stand and stand tall because of them.

Weirdest quirk. I am a stickler for time. 
Also, I am a workaholic. 
I can’t stay idle even for a minute.

An unanswered prayer. Finding a suitable boy, who is the perfect match for me.

Favourite holiday spot. Mountains, for I relax, recoup and rejuvenate my body, soul, and mind in their company.

Poorna Malavath, 17

“The last Camp is called the death zone. I saw many bodies of climbers buried under snow. 
I thought I am so close to my destination, and I have to do it to prove that girls can do anything.”

chandrasekharsingh m

The thought that kept playing in 13-year-old Poorna Malavath’s mind as she went about scaling the highest peak in the world was, come what may, she can’t give up. “I had to do it, for myself, my family and teachers, and lakhs of other girls who hail from a background similar to mine,” says the 17-year-old girl from Pakala village of Nizamabad district in Telangana.

By becoming the youngest Indian to stand atop the Everest and unfurl the Tricolour on May 25, 2014, she has certainly proved that sky is the limit for her.She was studying at Andhra Pradesh Social Welfare Residential Education School/College for Girls, Thadwai, Nizamabad when R S Praveen Kumar, a police officer, and secretary of the society, noticed her prowess at a rock climbing training at Bhongir in Nalgonda district in 2013. “I was scared to see the 750-ft high rock. But I learned rock climbing slowly,” she recounts.

She was one among the 20 who were shortlisted for Operation Everest and underwent eight months of grueling mountaineering training and finally was among the two who were selected. “The instructor at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute kept telling me all through,  ‘what will a kid do?’,” she says.
The expedition began on April 14, 2014. The news of 17 Sherpas being killed in an avalanche saddened her. “It was an unfortunate incident, but I did not let it shake my confidence. There’s no reverse gear in life, and I had to fulfill the dream of so many people,” she says.The climb from the advanced base camp to Camp 1 was the toughest. But what scared her the most was coming face to face with mortality.

What makes Poorna stand apart is the fact that the girl made most of the opportunity that came her way. “One must not lose an opportunity because not many get it in the first place. One must value it and utilise it for one’s benefit and for the welfare of others,” she says. Her parents who work as agricultural labourers laid a lot of emphasis on education. Her elder brother is pursuing an engineering course while she is in the first year of her undergraduate studies.

Things that  she took along to Mt Everest.  An Oxford dictionary and a diary.

A memorable moment. Being in Darjeeling in the winter of 2013 for the first time in my life and seeing snow all around. I had good fun playing with snow.


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