Sometimes, Mount Everest is just the beginning, not the peak of mountaineering ambitions. Gargi Gupta talks to intrepid adventurers who aim to complete the seven-summits challenge, climbing the highest mountains on all seven continents
The first time Toolika Rani, 32, attempted to summit Mt Everest, she was part of an Indian Air Force (IAF) all-women expedition. But the IAF officer had to turn back at 22,500 feet, less than 5,000 feet short of the top, because her feet had turned numb in sub-zero temperatures.
That rankled; the next year, Rani tried again – this time on her own. It wasn’t easy. With no one to support her financially, Rani, who comes from a modest background, had to fall back on savings and loans from her parents, friends and family to raise the Rs25 lakh needed for the expedition. Having exhausted her leave, she couldn’t take a break, and all training had to be done after she got back from work. Even the expedition had to be scheduled during her two months’ furlough that year. Rani made the summit, fulfilling her dream of unfurling the tricolour on Everest, but suffered such severe frost-bite that at the time, doctors said they would have to amputate two toes.
Most mountaineers’ ambitions would have been fulfilled with Everest. Not Rani’s. It took two years for her to recover, pay back the money she’d borrowed and arrange for more funds to pay for expeditions. And Rani was back on the mountains.
Her goal – the seven-summits challenge, which comprises climbing the highest mountains on all seven continents. Rani took voluntary retirement from the IAF so she could concentrate on climbing and, as a preparatory exercise, led a team to a 6,050m virgin peak in Himachal Pradesh. In 2015, she was the only Indian in an international climbing expedition that climbed Mt Damavand in Iran, the highest volcano in Asia.
Prepped up thus for the seven-summit challenge, she climbed Mt Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak in February this year, completing the climb in just five days instead of the seven-eight that mountaineers usually take. In April, she decided to take on Mt Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe.
“The climbing season starts in June, but I decided to go earlier because it was more challenging,” says Rani. She didn’t succeed – knee-deep snow, rains and wind speeds of 90-95km per hour kept her from the summit.
She remains undeterred. “Because the challenge was so much more, my learning curve on this climb was also greater,” she says. Next on the agenda is Mt Aconcagua in South America in December this year.
The big prize
Mountaineering is a lonely sport, a way of pitting oneself against nature. And once mountaineers have bagged the highest prize, Mt Everest, some like Rani find the lure of tougher challenges hard to resist. The seven-summit challenge is the next big prize that more than 350 people across the world have completed. Among these are five Indians, but there are many others waiting to join their ranks.
Noteworthy among these is Arunima Sinha, the first female amputee in the world and the first Indian amputee to climb Everest in May 2013. She’s already done five peaks of the seven – Kilimanjaro and Elbrus in 2014, Puncak Jaya and Aconcogua last year. Then there’s Satyarup Siddhanta, a software engineer in Bangalore, who has climbed four – Elbrus, Denali, Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro. Krushnaa Patil from Maharashtra, the youngest Indian to climb Everest (the second-youngest to do so then – May 21, 2009) has done six: Everest, Kilimanjaro, the 4,892 m-tall Mt Vinson in Antarctica, and Aconcagua. Jogabyasa Bhoi, a primary school teacher in the small village of Ropar in Kalahandi, Orissa, one of the most backward districts of India, has climbed four – Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Puncak Jaya and Aconcagua.
“Passion” just about sums up what drives these mountaineers do test themselves on the treacherous slopes.
“It’s the ultimate challenge,” says Rani, “testing your body to the ultimate. I also feel that my feats are a message to all of humanity about what women can achieve.”
Something similar drives Arunima. “When I came back from my Everest triumph and so many people came forward to congratulate me, I realised how I had become a source of inspiration to people – and not just the handicapped. That gives an impetus, when you do things not just for yourself, but for the country, for humanity itself.”
Premlata Agarwal, a housewife in Jamshedpur, started climbing when she was 35, after her daughters had grown up; she was 49 years old when she completed the seven-summits challenge on May 23, 2013, becoming the oldest woman to do so.
“Mountaineering is a sport that pits man against nature, and against himself. The challenge is to keep going when you are so tired or breathless that you feel you can’t put one step forward. The feeling of conquering nature is incomparable. It brings a sense of peace that nothing else does,” she says.
Others have found inspiration elsewhere. Orissa’s Bhoi says he feels a sense of the divine on the mountains. “It was motivated after reading Sri Aurobindo’s poem, Savitri,” he says.
But however high the motivation, the biggest hurdle for those who can’t get corporate sponsors is the crippling lack of finances. “It takes Rs25 lakh to go to Everest. That’s how much you have to pay in fees. Add to that the cost of gear and training. For Antarctica, you need Rs40 lakh,” says Bhoi.
“There are very few sponsors for mountaineering. The government too does not encourage expeditions even though achievements like those of my daughters bring glory to the nation. I have been spending out of my own pocket on their training, expeditions, special diet and other needs,” says Col Virendra Singh Malik, the father of Nungshi and Tashi Malik, the only twins to have completed the seven-summit challenge.
The Malik twins have been fortunate, says their father, in getting scholarships to study and live in New Zealand, which has a better infrastructure for mountaineering. This way, at least, they get to follow their dreams.