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Scaling new heights

Rachna Bisht-Rawat, Feb 3, 2013: 2:24 IST

TElly REview

bravehearts: The seven Indian Army women who scaled the Everest.
‘Everest: Indian Army Women’s Expedition’, covered the expedition of seven Army women, right from the team’s selection, training and preparation to the ultimate hoisting of the national flag atop the Everest, writes rachna bisht-rawat

At 5.40 am on a cold morning, Major Neha Bhatnagar stood breathless on top of the highest peak in the world — the Everest; the light of the rising sun bathing the landscape in a warm red glow.

Down below stretched the vast Tibetan plateau, submerged in a sea of foaming clouds, with some glaciers and peaks breaking through in jagged interruptions. “In all my fantasies over the years, that was how I had always imagined it would happen. I experienced every ray of the sun. My body was numb. It was like a dream, the ultimate dream for any mountaineer.

The tears just kept dropping from my eyes and I woke up to reality only when they started freezing on my cheeks,” laughs the spirited lady officer who was part of an Army team of seven women who summited the Everest under the leadership of Col Ajay Kothiyal, KC, SC, VSM, himself a distinguished mountaineer, last summer.

What followed were hugs and tears that bridged the communication gap between the mountaineers of various nationalities who had also summited the peak that morning.
“Everest is not a lonely climb,” says Neha.

As many as 42 groups were hosted at the Everest base camp when the Army team had started, and even though there were many who turned back, there were still a lot of groups climbing up that night. Each had its own agenda, but the shared thrill of the winning moment drew them all together. “You really don’t need language to communicate. Smiles and tears are enough,” laughs Neha.

Path less taken

The daring quest of the lady officers to conquer the highest peak in the world using the South ridge — the same route that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay did — was captured on camera by Discovery Channel’s cameraman Gary Jarman Lamare, in a show partnered with the Indian Army.

The programme was filmed using the latest high-altitude shooting technology and the captured footage includes an avalanche, the unfortunate death of a Sherpa in a crevasse, and rock falls on the near-vertical Lhotse face. It was not just Gary Jarman Lamare who was filming the contingent, cameras were also strapped to the helmets of some of the climbers to make the film more authentic.

“That was a tough season to climb the Everest,” says Neha. A major US group with 52 members aborted the climb since they felt it was too dangerous that year. Even the Army Women Officers’ team had to return once. “We came back praying to the mountain gods that they give us an opportunity. You fail only when you attempt. We wanted to make at least one attempt,” says Neha.

Between stress and tensions and scary reports that the climbers got to hear each day about so many climbers having died or reported missing, the girls spent an emotionally harrowing time at the base camp. One night, 200 people had to come down; six people died and four went missing, yet the most tragic story was that of a 16 year old girl and her father who were trying to set a record. The girl managed to summit, but died on the way down. Her father had to carry her body down, recounts Neha, remembering how fragile their state of mind was at that time.

Treacherous climb

Yet the team, of whom half of the members were girls, had a do or die attitude towards the climb and when their leader told them that there was a two day weather window to do it, they decided to give it all they had. The summit night was treacherous. The women climbed up on a moonless night, by the light of the torches fixed to their helmets.

The mountains were grey since at that gradient ice cannot settle on the peak, Neha recounts. The team climbed through the night and what struck her the most was the first dead body they encountered. It was that of a man in a red down suit who appeared to be sitting on the side with a rope still tied to him, his feet in crampons. “I first thought he was a mountaineer taking rest. But when we reached him, we realised he was dead. And that he had died quite recently too. It was a chilling experience to cross over him to go ahead. From his clothes, we could make out he was a Canadian,” she says.

On their descent, the women crossed eight more dead bodies that they had not noticed in the darkness of the night. Some of them had been lying there for a long time since they were in different stages of decay. All these chilling moments are included in the film that covers the team’s selection, their training and the ultimate hoisting of the national flag atop the Everest.

Right from the days in Delhi when they had to run 10 km each morning, poring over books related to Everest, learn Nepalese in the daytime and hit the gym in the evenings to be physically fit; one full year of training and two phase selections, one at Siachen Base Camp and the other at Manali, to prepare for the final summit, the film covers most aspects of the expedition by the seven women and 10 male climbers and support staff.

What made the expedition more distinguished was the fact that the Discovery Channel cameraman summited the peak along with the Army team, pushing himself through challenges like avalanche, turbulent weather and crevasses.
The film was aired on Discovery channel on January 25th, the eve of the Republic Day, with a repeat on January 26.

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