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Bachendri Pal, born in 1954 in Nakuri village, Garhwal, India, is the first Indian woman (and the fifth in the world), to scale the Mt. Everest, the highest peak in the world. She scaled the peak on 23rd May 1984, and stood on the summit of Sagarmatha (the Nepali name for the Mt. Everest) at 1.07 p.m. IST, and remained there with one of her co-mountaineers, for 43 minutes.
Bachendri Pal was born into a family of very moderate means, in 1954, in a village named Nakuri in Garhwal. Her father, Kishan Singh Pal, was a small trader who used to carry provisions like wheat flour and rice from India to Tibet on mules and goats. Eventually he settled in Uttarkashi, where he married; the couple had five children, Bachendri being the middle one. Bachendri was an active child, and did well in her school; she excelled in sports too, and at the same time was singled out in school for punishments for a variety of petty misconducts.
Her first exposure to mountaineering was at the age of 12, when during a picnic she along with several schoolmates climbed a 13,123 feet high peak. They could not climb down as it had already become dark and had to spend the night at the peak without any food or cover. The experience remained ingrained in her memory, heightening her love for adventure and the mountains. Despite many constraints, she continued her schooling and completed it successfully. On being persuaded by the principal of her school, her parents sent her to college. She completed her graduation, becoming the first girl of her village to do so. While doing her graduation, she also secured the first position in a rifle shooting event, beating other boys and girls. She also completed university courses leading to securing an MA and a Bachelor's degree in education.
Her family was facing financial troubles and she wanted a job desperately. However, the offers coming to her were not of her choice. She shared with her parents her desire to become a professional mountaineer. The family was “devastated,” as for them, her relatives and local people, the most suitable job for a woman was teaching, not mountaineering.
However, Bachendri did not budge from her determination. She joined the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM). She was declared the best student and was considered as “Everest material”. In 1982, while at NIM, she climbed Gangotri I (21,900 ft) and Rudugaria (19,091 ft). Around that time, she got employment as an instructor at the National Adventure Foundation, which had set up an adventure school to train women to learn mountaineering.
In 1984, India had scheduled its fourth expedition, christened “Everest ‘84’”, to the Mount Everest. Bachendri was selected as one of the members of the elite group of six Indian women and eleven men who were privileged to attempt an ascent to the Mount Everest, Sagarmatha in the Nepalese. The news made her filled with a sense of ecstasy and excitement. The elite team was flown to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal in March 1984; and from there the team moved onwards. Recalling her first glimpse of the Mount Everest, Bachendri once reminisced: “We the hill people have always worshipped the mountains … my overpowering emotion at this awe-inspiring spectacle was, therefore, devotional.”
The team commenced its ascent in May, 1984. On the night of 15th-16th May, 1984, Bachendri and her tent mate were sleeping in one of the tents at Camp III at an altitude of about 24,000 feet. At around 00:30 hours (IST), at around 24,000 feet, she was jolted awake; something had hit her hard and she also heard a deafening sound; and at the same time she found herself being enveloped within a very cold mass of material. A serac on the Lhotse glacier, above the Camp III has slid down, and fallen on the camp raking havoc at the camp. Her tent mate using his knife could slash his way out of the mass of ice. He, thereafter, assisted Bachendri to dig her way out of the mess. Many members of the team were injured, and became unnerved; and they climbed down to the base camp. Despite an injury on her head, Bachendri chose to continue the ascent.
On 22nd May 1984, some other climbers joined the team to ascent the summit of the Mount Everest. Bachendri was the only woman in this group. They continued the ascent climbing “vertical sheets of frozen ice”, cold winds sometimes blowing at the speed of about 100 km per hour, temperatures touching below up to minus 30 to 40 degrees Celsius. On 23rd May 1984, Bachendri reached the summit of Mount Everest, and at 1:07 PM IST, she was standing at the peak (29,084 ft) along with one other climber. The peak was small to accommodate two persons; and there was a vertical drop of thousands of feet all around the peak. So they first made themselves secured by anchoring themselves by digging their ice axes into the snow.
Bachendri then sat on her knees, touched the summit with her head in the Hindu gesture of thanksgiving to the almighty; took an image of goddess Durga and a copy of Hanuman Chalisha (the Book of Forty Verses of Hanuman) and placed them in the snow. She remained on the summit for about 43 minutes, and took some photographs too. She became the first Indian woman to scale the Mount Everest, and the fifth women in the world.
She climbed down and reached the base camp safely. Her achievement brought her congratulations from many quarters across the world. In India, the President, the Prime Minister, and J. R. D. Tata congratulated her in person.
She continued to be active after ascending the highest peak in the world. In 1985, She led an Indo-Nepalese Everest Expedition team comprising of only women. The expedition created seven world records and set benchmarks for Indian mountaineering. Nine years later, in 1994, she led an all women team of rafters. The team coursed through the waters of the river Ganges, covering 2,500 km from Haridwar to Kolkata.
Presently, she is working at a senior position in Tata Steel Adventure Foundation of the Tata Group. Her job includes training the management teams of the Tata Steel to build the team spirit through adventure activities like trekking and mountaineering; rowing and rafting; and spending time in camps and learning survival skills in difficult conditions.
Encapsulating the reasons of these adventure activities, she has once said: “Many people suffer from a misconception that mountaineering is just climbing and descending mountains with a rucksack. Well, it is much, much more. Any person who has had some experience in this will tell you how the adventure toughens a person, both mentally and physically. Both trekking and mountaineering are ideal and ultimate tests of human endurance. They teach you how to deal with critical situations; they force discipline and leadership qualities, humility, courage, self-respect, and self-confidence, besides bringing one in contact with people from different areas and different cultures.”