A 'trip' is mostly a way to unwind for most us, unless you are blessed with a profession that takes you places. But there are few for whom a certain journey is much more than little joys of life. It's in fact life-defining -- or even threatening. I am privileged to come across someone who defines true-inspiration. I hope the story of making her dream come true is an example for all those who wish to follow their passion.
It’s true that dreams inspire people, but it’s on that person to pursue it. We all dream big, but only few of us actually go for it. Then there are many of us with many dreams, so we always have an option to be happy with the alternative. But what if you dream of the Mount Everest? Well, there is no option as only one place can be called ‘the highest’ on the planet. And neither there is a choice to dream about anything bigger! So there’s only one way out – grind your teeth, lock your focus and go for it.
For Chhanda Gayen, it all started pretty early in life. Watching a group of young boys scale the rocky face of a hillock was enough for an adrenaline rush. And a little encouragement from parents did the rest. There was no access to artificial rock climbing clubs and from a humble living where the daily bread still comes from selling milk and petty grocery items, enrolling into a top flight climbing course wasn’t even a distant possibility.
But when passion is your driving force, handicaps seems mere part of the package. A basic rock climbing in the Susunia Hills of Purulia was possible, and thus came the first taste of climbing in 1998. From there it took her 8 more years to be certified from the premier Himalayan Institute of Mountaineering, Darjeeling with an ‘A’ Grade.
A gold medallist in swimming and national level champion in Taekwondo and Karate, she climbed the Mount Yogin 1 and Yogin 3 in 2008 – and became the first Indian to do so in the same day itself.
But bigger things awaited her. After a couple climbs in between, she embarked on what’s every mountaineer’s dream. And this year in May she became the second woman from Bengal to scale the Mount Everest. She also became the first civilian woman from the state to do so.
But this girl, who loves riding fast on a motorbike and crooning to Bangla and Hindi songs, wanted a bit more. And she was in real hurry too.
She climbed Mt Lhotse, the fourth highest peak in the world, within the next 52 hours. Well, only she can tell us how it feels to look at moon behind Everest standing at 28,169 feet. What we can say is, India is proud to have the first ever woman in the world to climb Everest and Lhotse – back-to-back within 52 hours!
A true story of grit and determination, dreams and inspiration – here’s Chhanda giving a glimpse of her struggle, grit and the “ultimate” experience.
“Many things that comes easy for a lot of people, wasn’t applicable to me. Staying in Kona in Howrah, nor was I privy to many things that big city people has. Our family’s financial condition didn’t really allow anyone to think beyond the limited sphere.
So finally when I really got into a position where I was capable of actually taking a shy at the world’s highest peak, it was a difficult state to be in. I had the credentials and the skills. But that was it. I hadn't done anything worth mentioning before that, and so I couldn't expect anyone to sponsor. You can’t just walk up to corporate or a person and say that ‘I can climb the Mt Everest, so please sponsor me’.
It was a really difficult time. You need a lot of physical endurance, sometimes that’s beyond your imaginations, in mountaineering. And therefore you have to be in top physical condition. I have always been an athlete and an avid swimmer which helped in shaping me in the formative years.
Also the weather plays a big factor. For one single climb, months of preparation goes in. And even then, the time-window to succeed is very limited.
So I was desperate to make my preparedness count. But I simply didn't have the money. I had asked for assistance, but few came forward. I don’t blame them because climbing the Mt Everest is one many sure-shot ways of losing your life if a little go wrong up there.
But the one person, who should have been the most frightened, decided to throw that thought in the back burner and help me out. Mothers usually save their jewellery for a daughter’s marriage. My mother sold whatever little she had and decided to fund my attempt. But how much jewellery could my mother provide -- actually not even 25 per cent of my entire expenditure that cost Rs 18 lakhs. And so after the jewellery, came the LIC papers and everything else that could be mortgaged. When I think of it today, it sends down shivers down my spine. ‘What was my mother thinking? What if I had failed? What if something untoward had happened? What would have she done after that with practically nothing left?’
I was still short of money. But thankfully a nationalised bank and the state’s youth department provided me with rest of the money and I embarked on a two-month long uncertain journey.
My father accompanied me many a times on my previous expeditions. But we had lost him in 2010. It was he who had made me realise that I can actually climb the Mt Everest. So with his thought in mind I reached the base camp in April.
The acclimatisation process is a detailed one. Up their one needs to gradually blend with bone chilling temperature and thin air. Also, many days are spent playing the waiting game as the weather can be bad for days at length.
Over the next more than one-and-half month our gradual ascend continued. Apart from the difficult terrain that is a mountaineer’s ultimate challenge, what moved me most were the dead bodies dotting the mount. They were all climbers like me – death claimed some even before they could realise the Everest-dream, and others never came back to tell their tale. They all lay there, some for over decades now – in nature’s best cold-storage.
In every sport, mind plays an important part in deciding the ultimate outcome. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by such sights and thoughts along with the extreme physical exhaustion. My Sherpa and sole companion, Tashi, kept telling me not to think too much and concentrate on the climb.
It was in the wee hours on May 18 we headed for the last few hundred metres to the top. And in a couple hours came the magic moment. Every day, there are many people doing the same thing around the world at the same time. Sleeping, eating, talking, watching TV etc etc... But on that dawn, there was only one person standing on the highest point on Earth watching the sun come down below her feet. It was magical.
But 8,848 metres is not really the height where you can sit and enjoy the view. The weather would have deteriorated, so we started descending.
Everest was done. Yes, it truly was. But that wasn’t the end of my journey. I wanted to push myself more. And so Mt Lhotse – the fourth highest peak in the world at 8516 m.
But as I was to find out Lhotse was even more difficult that Everest. The former has been climbed by quite a few people and therefore the route can be termed ‘safer’. But I wasn’t willing to give up. Despite being told from the base to come back as the back-to-back physical exhaustion can be fatal, I didn’t want to let go the chance. I guess it was the realisation that this may be my last chance – ‘I never had the money, I may never have it again. So if I’m here now, I shall give it everything I have.’
The climb to the Lhotse peak threw up similar sights; rather even more dead bodies lay on this route. But this time around I was moved little and was determined to complete the climb. I remember on the last leg of the climb barely a few metres away from the summit the space was so less that I actually had to step on dead climber’s hand for the final push.
And 52 hours after I had seen the world from atop it, I was seeing Everest once again – this time from Lhotse’s peak.
I didn’t know what future had in store for me. But all I knew was I had done it. It was only later that I knew that I was the first woman to do this ‘hurried trip’ of Everest and Lhotse back-to-back, but at that moment it was only bliss. I had proven my father right, I had not let down my mother, I hadn’t disappointed anyone who supported me. And I had given myself the courage that would from now on pave my life’s path in a different way.”