Twenty seven years ago, Canadian national Patrick Morrow at 34 was the first to successfully climb the seven highest mountains in the world that feature in Reinhold Messner’s list.
Earlier this year, Premlata Agarwal, a homemaker from Jamshedpur, became the first Indian woman to achieve the feat. One would imagine that the accomplishment and receiving the Padma Shree would be Agarwal’s most memorable moment.
But, it isn't. For the 48-year-old, receiving the Best Trainee Award from Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) in Darjeeling was the most memorable. But that's what makes her the person she is.
“I led a lifestyle earlier where I managed the household with the help of a retinue of staff, I socialised and went shopping. With that kind of routine, I never imagined I was cut out to be a mountaineer. But winning the trainee award (from HMI, Darjeeling) was the best feeling in the world. It made me realise my potential,” says Agarwal.
While her family only recognised her as a devoted housewife, ace mountaineer Bachendri Pal saw in her the rock solid determination. Recalling the conversation with Agarwal in 1999, Pal says, “She looked fit. She had immense enthusiasm to give her daughters adventure training and knew what it takes. I realised she herself was mentally prepared (for mountaineering) and asked her to join too."
Intitaly, Agarwal didn't take Pal seriously. But when she did get into it, she had what Pal calls the “jasba” and “junoon”.
“Many people want to take up mountaineering, but most give up midway. It’s a lonely struggle, it's about hardships and taking risks, but Premlata (Agarwal) continued,” adds Pal.
Snubbed at first
At 35, when she first enrolled for the basic course at HMI, a person looked at her and said, ‘Kahaan kahaan se log aate hain’. Afraid that she would be sent back, she didn’t reveal to the authorities at HMI that she was a mother of two daughters. “Similarly, when I went to climb the Everest the guide thought my daughter would take up the actual journey.
When he realised I was the one to attempt scaling the peak, he said that foreign women can do it, they are fit; but I am an Indian. He asked me if I was sure,” says Agarwal.
These words could demoralise anyone, but not Agarwal, the words only strengthened her resolve. During the climb to Everest, Agarwal suffered a stomach ailment, she couldn't digest water and was on antibiotics but didn't stop. At 23,000 feet, she got caught in bad weather and the team considered returning to the base camp.
“When I called my father he told me it was better to die trying than come back, especially since I was so close. That's when I told the guide that I will resume climbing if the
weather improves,” she says.
Everest wasn't the most difficult
After scaling Everest, Agarwal thought the other mountains would be easier but Denali (Mt. McKinley) and Carstenz pyramids proved to be even more challenging. To reach the base camp of Carstenz, Agarwal had to walk 100km through a rainforest where it rained constantly.
“There were insects and the water would some times reach till the waist. At times the muck got into my boots, which couldn't be changed too often,” she says.
While scaling Carstenz, Agarwal often survived on rice and water. It was rocky and slippery and she had to crawl to cover certain stretches. “While returning my leg was swollen because a stone got stuck in it. I wanted a helicopter rescue, but the weather didn’t permit that,” she recalls.
In 2008, she scaled Mt. Kilimanjaro and conquering Everest in 2011 gave her confidence to take up the Seven Summits challenge. In 2012, she failed to summit Denali, but successfully climbed Mt. Elbrus, Aconcagua and Carstenz.
In early 2013, she scaled Mt. Vinson and completed the challenge in May by conquering Denali. “Denali was difficult because the ridge was narrow and there were no porters; we had to hike with 55kg. I prepared for the second attempt by scaling Tiger Hill with 25kg of load daily.”
Learning from the mount
Rough weather put a pause in Agarwal's journey at Denali, “At minus 35 degrees, your urge to pee increases, and you can't do it in the open for environmental reasons. But you still drink water to avoid dehydration.
Earlier, it was difficult to manage without servants, I had to dress right, do my nails etc., now I carry the gas cylinder on my own and wear whatever I feel like. I’ve learnt to live in the present and take in all the happiness around. In the field, it takes mental strength to stay ahead,” says Agarwal.
Now, she intends to look for more challenging peaks to scale and encourage the next generation to get into mountaineering. "It teaches you a lot about yourself," she says. In September, she will accompany a group of housewives for a trek.