Bachendri Pal, (born May 24, 1954, Nakuri, India), Indian mountaineer who in 1984 became the first Indian woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest.
Pal was born into a rural working-class family in what is now Uttarakhand and was one of seven children. A gifted student, she encountered stiff opposition from her family and relatives when she decided to opt for a career as a professional mountaineer rather than as a schoolteacher. She soon found success in her chosen field, however. After summitting a number of smaller peaks, she was selected to join India’s first mixed-gender team to attempt an expedition to Mount Everest. Beginning its ascent in early May 1984, her team almost met disaster when an avalanche buried its camp, and more than half the group was forced to abandon the ascent because of injury or fatigue. Pal and the remainder of the team pressed on, and she reached the summit on May 23, 1984.
Pal achieved immediate fame, and in 1985 she returned to Mount Everest to successfully lead an all-woman team to the summit. She led an all-woman rafting expedition down the Ganges River in 1994, covering over 1,500 miles (2,500 km). In 1997 she led an all-woman team on a successful 2,500-mile (4,000-km) transit of the Himalayas, beginning in Arunachal Pradesh and concluding at the Siachen Glacier. She was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian award, in 1984.
Wednesday marks 60 years since the first successful ascent of Everest and mountaineers in Nepal are commemorating the day Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s reached the highest point on Earth.
Just over three decades after they conquered the mountain, Bachendri Pal became the first Indian woman to do so.
It was 23 May, 1984 and she was 29 years old.
Ms. Pal, now 59, led the way for several Indian female mountaineers to follow her up Mount Everest, including most recently Arunima Sinha, who this month became the first female amputee to reach the summit.
In 1993, Ms. Pal took India’s first all-women expedition to Everest. Seven of the 16-strong Indo-Nepalese women’s Everest expedition reached the top, including Santosh Yadav, who became the first woman in the world to climb Everest twice in the same year.
Ms. Pal also mentored Premlata Agarwal, who in 2011 at the age of 48, became the oldest Indian woman to get to the summit. Ms. Pal is the founder of the Tata Steel Adventure Foundation, an initiative by the steel giant to support people in adventure sports, and still leads expeditions in the Himalayan region.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time, Ms. Pal talked about the struggles she’s faced as a female explorer, the ego of male mountaineers, and her sense that climbing Everest is losing its charm.
The Wall Street Journal: What motivated you to take up mountaineering in the first place?
Bachendri Pal: I was a very good sports person.
However, growing up, my first priority was completing my education.
Other than this, I was always very restless and proactive. I was always very fond of the outdoors. Mountaineering was a part of my lifestyle. I was born and brought up in the mountains. [WSJ: Ms. Pal comes from a small village in Uttarkashi, a town in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand.]
I spent a year at home [after training to be a teacher], doing nothing, only looking for a job that I wanted. It was during this time, I met Colonel Premchand, a renowned [Indian] mountaineer.
He was visiting the village and when he met me, he asked me stop wasting my time. He told me about the famous Nehru Institute of Mountaineering [in Uttarakhand]. He said ‘You’re living right next to the place that so many people visit from across the world to get trained in mountaineering.’ This made me feel like I had become a little complacent.
And that was all I needed, someone to point my weakness out so that I could mend it and make it my strength.
WSJ: How did your family respond to your decision to take up mountaineering?
Ms. Pal: When I was selected for my Everest expedition, my family, of course, did not seem very positive. They thought I was pursuing a very far-fetched dream. Everest to them was synonymous with risk, death and hardship. Unfortunately, nowhere in our education system are we taught to convert a hardship into a challenge and overcome it. But I was stubborn and determined. I never thought about taking up mountaineering as a career option but I didn’t want to let any opportunity slip out of my hands. It was exciting. However tackling the family and society was a big challenge. All I used to hear around me was, ‘What will you achieve by climbing a mountain?’
WSJ: When and where was your first climb?
Ms. Pal: The first peak I climbed happens to be my favorite. When I was doing the female-only advanced mountaineering course at Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, I climbed a peak in Uttaranchal, called ‘Black Peak,’ which is at a height of 6,387 meters. It was during the time I was still training and the amount of appreciation I received for my technique and stamina was exceptional.
I was one of the two girls who were selected to climb from the lower camp, right up to the peak. The rest of the climbers were asked to pitch a camp at an intermediate point. It was a full-fledged test of my endurance.
WSJ: What has changed from the mountaineering experience then to how it is now?
Ms. Pal: We had to constantly perform and outperform every day. Each day was a battle to get that one spot in the summit team. There was a limited budget and even access to basic equipment, let alone advanced equipment, was not very great. Only the best of the best used to make it. You had to perform, not just physically, but also behaviorally.
The climb still exists, you still use your feet and apply the same techniques, but it’s not as challenging.
It could be safe to say that the experience of climbing Everest is, in a way, losing its charm. It’s not about teamwork anymore. Now it’s more about an individual’s achievement and you learn less that way.
WSJ: In the initial stages, did you face challenges accessing training and procuring equipment etc.?
Ms. Pal: I think these challenges existed then and are still prevalent. But my experience tells me that these hurdles are not very prominent when compared to the mental challenge one has to conquer.
I feel that was a time when Indian women still had a lot to prove. There were not very many role models or examples of successful expeditions that women had undertaken.
And to add to that…I had less than three years of experience when I climbed Mount Everest.
As girls we were taught that boys are stronger than us. These kinds of stereotypes were always very pronounced.
While I was summiting Everest, the expedition team consisted of six women and 13 men. It’s true that not all women made it to the top, but even some of the men couldn’t scale at the higher altitudes. The success or failure of any mountaineer is definitely not determined by their gender. In fact, I would like to add that I could reach the top because of the support and training of all the team members. I owe my success to all of them.
WSJ: In one of your essays you write that ahead of summit day “there was also a doubt in your mind about the mentality of other male climbers.” What do you mean by this?
Ms. Pal: I saw the ego of my male counterparts being hurt when they felt I had begun to outperform them. No kind of help from a woman was welcome. In fact, they felt awkward receiving help from their women counterparts.
I don’t know whether mindsets have changed with time, but the feats women have achieved over the years, have forced them to change.
WSJ: In a lot of mountaineering courses men and women train separately. Even the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, India’s primary mountaineering institute, makes that distinction. Do you think this is justified?
Ms. Pal: No. I think this kind of distinction is not justified. We’re no longer in a day and age where men and women should be treated differently. In fact, everyone’s strengths and weaknesses are pronounced during training. Only when they train together, will there be greater understanding and moreover, increased respect for each other’s abilities.
- Arunima Sinha, the first female amputee to climb Everest, during a press conference in Kathmandu, May 28.
- Prakash Mathema/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
WSJ: A lot of women, including Arunima Sinha, now look up to you for inspiration. But, as the first Indian woman to conquer the mountain, who did you look up to before making the ascent?
Ms. Pal: To be very honest, I wasn’t very aware. I came from a very small village. I just went with an open-mind. I took it as a sport. I had only read about Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary in a textbook in the final year of primary school.
I didn’t look up to anyone. I used to dream and introspect a lot. That’s what kept me going.
WSJ: Having led several all-women expeditions, what do you think is the recurring apprehension among women who decide to take on what is considered to be an “unconventional” thing for women to do?
Ms. Pal: I feel women are held back because they hold massive responsibilities at home. And, if they don’t receive support and encouragement from their families, it can really limit their aspirations. Above all, they need to have a fighting spirit and they really need to leap forward and dream big.
WSJ: Do you think women make better mountaineers than men?
Ms. Pal: I led an all-women Indo-Nepalese expedition in 1993. It was during that time that I noticed some qualities, which are unique to women. This was visible even in the way they addressed the Sherpas, the kind of respect they gave [them and] each other. The women carried some ‘aam-papad’ [a mango-based snack] and they made sure that each member of the expedition team got a bite. The inter-personal relationships they managed to build were so strong. It was like a family up on the mountain and this is what is needed when you’re scaling altitudes and there’s always a fear of losing hope. These small things definitely contribute to certain behavioral attributes that are as important in mountaineering as the physical strength.
But, I would like to add that we must try and learn from the brilliance of nature. The mountain, for instance, doesn’t distinguish between a woman and a man. At the end of the day, we’re all mountain lovers.
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