Last month, Sangeeta S. Bahl became the oldest Indian woman to summit Mount Everest. The 53-year-old mountaineer, who has already climbed six of the seven highest peaks in the world, speaks to Bulbul Sharma about the ups and downs of her Everest expedition.
“I looked around and thought, ‘I can’t believe that I am at the top of the world.’” Sangeeta S. Bahl, the 53-year-old Gurugram-based mountaineer, is describing what went through her mind when she became the oldest Indian woman to have scaled the highest peak in the world, Mount Everest.
Bahl had attempted to make this physically and mentally gruelling journey to the summit last year as well, but couldn’t complete it because of health issues. She was evacuated after reaching Camp 3 in 2017. But her latest expedition, which began in April this year, was a resounding success.
“It was a dream come true for me because it didn’t happen last year,” Bahl tells Guardian 20. “I was very emotional. I was actually crying when I was walking up. I was like, ‘Thank you god!’ Because I was able to do it this time. I was patriotic too and I also sang ‘Jana Gana Mana’ at the summit. The Carpenters’ song ‘Top of the World’ also resonated in my mind.”
For about 15 minutes, Bahl stayed at the “very windy” summit of the mighty mountain, getting photographed by her two personally hired Sherpas. (Both the sherpas, having each completed nine full journeys to the summit, are veterans of the trade.) “Everest is nothing without the sherpas,” says Bahl. “They are so strong and they carry the entire luggage up and down.” Bahl now aims to promote, and create awareness, of the whole sherpa culture, which plays a major role in helping mountaineers to scale Mount Everest.
In total, it took Bahl almost two months to summit Chomolungma, a common Tibetan name for Mount Everest. She left her home for the big expedition on 28 March, and returned victorious on 27 May.
While it usually takes nine days to reach Everest Base Camp, she took five extra days to complete this initial leg of the journey, taking a detour of about 535km with the intention to acclimatise better—a lesson she had remembered from her 2017 attempt.
“To scale Mount Everest,” she says, “it takes two months because you are continuously going up and down to get your body acclimatised. So when you reach Base Camp, you have to start doing the rotations. Rotation means that you have to go up higher to the other Camps and then come back. So I did two rotations. First, you go to Camp 1 and come back. The second time, you go to Camp 1, Camp 2, touch Camp 3 and come back. This is done till the first week of May.”
When it comes to summiting Mount Everest, there is, at the most, a couple of weeks’ weather window every year that all mountaineers have to target. Outside this span, and round the year, the summit is extremely windy, thanks to the 100mph jet streams blowing at that altitude.
“This time we were lucky, since we had a weather window of 11 days straight, which is a record in itself,” says Bahl. “In fact on some days this year there was hardly any wind at all.”
Having completed all the obligatory rotations between Camps 1, 2 and 3, Bahl left the Base Camp on 14 May and began her ascent towards the Khumbu Icefall, also known as the most dangerous icefall in the world. Most experienced climbers prefer to pass over the Khumbu Icefall during the night, because the snow in the dark hours is quite hard, making it a relatively smoother climb. And there is no avoiding the Khumbu Icefall as well. All climbers have to go through this landmark six times on their journey towards the summit—four times during the first and second rotations, and then twice during the final trail to the summit.
After leaving the Base Camp on 14 May, Bahl began her “summit push”, which lasted around six days. She finally reached the summit of Mount Everest on 19 May at 7:10 a.m.
Never at any point did Bahl feel limited by her age or physical ability. She tells us she didn’t face any health issues during the entire two-month span of her Everest expedition. “I have never had better health than what I had when I was on Mount Everest,” she says. “I was eating well, I was drinking well and I was resting. On mountains, you don’t sleep through at one go because of the winds. You sleep for a few hours, and then you wake up. Despite all that, I made sure that I felt healthy all the time.”
But maintaining good health is only half the job in mountaineering. Every step poses a new challenge, and every challenge is magnified manifold on Mount Everest. “The most challenging part,” Bahl says, “was to traverse the ridge [between Camp 4 and summit] because there are sharp blocks on either side. On one side, there is Tibet and on the other there is Nepal. If you miss one step you will be gone forever. You have to be very aware all the time.”
Bahl is on a mission to summit seven mountain peaks around the world. Mount Everest was her sixth, and no doubt the toughest ever, climb. But this adventure wasn’t quite as difficult as she’d imagined it to be. She says, “I thought climbing Mount Everest would be very difficult but it wasn’t as difficult because I have trained so much since I came back last year from Camp 3. I was determined more than ever to literally kill myself to complete the summit. I pushed myself to the extreme. All the discipline and hard work helped me. I had five years of training, since I have climbed other peaks. There is no better experience than being on the mountains, facing the weather and actually being on the terrain. It is the experience of the mountains that counts… My passion for mountaineering couldn’t have been complete if I hadn’t been trained. I was thoroughly prepared for this and I’d had a lot of endurance training.”
In addition to Mount Everest, Bahl has scaled Mount Kilimanjaro (in December 2011), Mount Elbrus (July 2013), Mount Vinson (January 2014), Mount Aconcagoa (January 2015), and Mount Kosciuszko (October 2016) until now. That makes six out of the Seven Summits—seven highest peaks across seven continents.
Both Bahl and her husband—who is also a mountaineer and has climbed Mount Everest in 2016—were denied admission into a reputed mountaineering school because of their age. But later, Bahl managed to train with a veteran mountaineer in the United States, who had himself scaled Mount Everest in the past. The couple now owns a mountaineering company, Impact Mountaineering Co., and mentors adults who have a passion for trekking and mountaineering.
On the kind of training she had to undergo before taking on Mount Everest, Bahl says, “I am climbing the Seven Summits, so my training is an ongoing process. It is the experience on the mountain that helps. I climbed two 6,000m peaks—Lobuche and Stok Kangri—just before Mount Everest. Then I went to Ladakh in early March for snow-conditioning. I walked with heavy backpacks for 7-8 hours straight for five days. I also went to Kyadari in Maharashtra, which is a rocky terrain, in January this year, because I wanted to train myself for Geneva Spur, a rocky patch above Camp 3, where climbing with heavy backpacks is very difficult.”
Additionally, she has been following a strict fitness regimen—lifting weights thrice and doing cardio once, on a weekly basis. Bahl, a former model and Miss India finalist, is also very specific about her diet and has always believed in leading a healthy lifestyle.
Her next target is summiting the seventh peak on her list—Mount McKinley in Alaska—which she hopes to accomplish in June 2019. That’s when she turns 54.