Baljeet Kaur, Mt Everest and the conquest of challenges
For most mountaineers, fundraising is as big a task as climbing the mountain itself
On 21 May, Baljeet Kaur found herself alone at the Balcony, a feature at about 8,400 metres on Mt Everest. The going until then had been rough since leaving Camp 4 on the South Col, and the conditions demanded rapid progress if she was to get to the summit. Kaur, 26, however, came to a halt. Her body refused to move, as a rush of agonising memories started playing with her head.
In 2016, she stood at the same spot on Everest. There was a spring in her step and in that moment, everything had felt right. She soon changed her oxygen cylinder and continued on her climb. Then, it all fell apart.
A few minutes later, she found herself lying in the snow. Her mask had malfunctioned, cutting the oxygen supply. With no spares on hand, her climb was over.
“If I wanted to stay alive, I had to start descending. I had failed a number of times in life, but this was the one that hurt most. Is time main nahin, mere sapne toote the (It wasn’t me but my dreams that had shattered),” she recalls.
“From below Camp 4, I could see the summit of Everest. And I told her – you’ve denied me this time. But I’m going to work hard and come back, try stopping me then,” Kaur adds.
The wait to get back to Nepal was unnerving. But when Kaur landed her next opportunity to go back to Everest, she had the world of mountaineering sit up and take notice. In a month’s time starting 28 April, she made it to the summit of five 8,000-metre mountains. It included two of the most demanding peaks – Annapurna I and Kanchenjunga. It included the biggest of them all, Everest, her twin, Lhotse, and the fifth highest mountain, Makalu. And it was testimony to the dreams of a simple village girl and her honest efforts towards shaping her destiny.
The town of Solan is nestled in the Shivalik hills of Himachal Pradesh. Kaur grew up in the hamlet of Panchrol, an hour-long ride from the district headquarters. As the eldest of four siblings, a lot of the early learning happened outside of school.
“My mother would set out early morning for the hillside to collect grass for the cows. It was my responsibility to tend to my two sisters and brother. By the age of eight, I was cooking meals for the entire family,” Kaur says.
Life wasn’t easy growing up as one of three girls. Kaur recalls how the neighbours would call her mother names for not bearing any boys. The three sisters always needed a guardian to go with them, even if it was to the grocery store nearby.
“During the early days, my parents were reluctant to support us. I grew up in a space where the birth of a girl was considered apshukan (ominous). And where they were married off at 18 years,” she says.
Once the chores were out of the way, she had just about enough time to run the 2 km distance to school. It was only then that she was a child again, out and about, playing everything from volleyball to kabaddi. The grades were never a concern until she flunked Class 7.
“That moment changed my life and I transformed into a good student,” she says.
The grades picked up here on – English, she admits, was the weakest link, mastered on bus journeys over time. Outside of class, she discovered the National Cadet Corps (NCC). The uniform fascinated her, with secret ambitions of joining the Indian Army someday. Every morning, she would reach the school ground to watch the march past, on certain days, even before the cadets arrived.
“I too wanted to be a part of the NCC, but since there were too many aspirants, I had to back out,” she says.
Tragedy struck the family in 2012 with the passing of her younger sister, Amarjeet. It was all too much for Kaur to handle.
“I was the one who had brought her up and it felt like I had lost my own child. It really affected me. I was just not my usual self after the incident. A few days later, I walked up to my parents and told them – you’ve lost one girl today and probably regret all that you denied her. Please give me the freedom to do things my way,” Kaur recalls.
Since that day, her parents extended their support in everything Kaur wished to pursue. One of the early decisions was to join the NCC in college. In the time ahead, it would change her life.
There was a bustle amid the NCC cadets one morning. On offer was a Basic Mountaineering Course at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling, for those who got picked. For Kaur, it was the realisation of a dream that she had long discarded as impossible.
“In school, we had a story about a village bumpkin, who gets paid to lead a foreign expedition and returns highly sophisticated. I had laughed it off – whoever gets paid to climb mountains, we did it all the time back home,” she says.
Then on another morning many years later, she was wrapping paranthas for her sisters in a newspaper. It carried an article about an Everest climber.
“I couldn’t believe how much money it took to climb Everest – Rs 30 lakh! I bundled it away alongside my aspirations. I would never be able to afford it,” she says.
Only now, she had her first realistic chance at getting trained to climb a mountain. However, she was deemed underweight by the seniors, seriously denting her prospects. So, she started training and put on enough weight to make the cut a few months later.
After finishing the course in January 2015, Kaur had the first opportunity to test her skills on Deo Tibba, a 6,001-metre mountain near Manali. That May, she was at altitude for the first time. The snow thrilled her and she felt completely at home at higher camps.
“I was out and about, never tired, heating water for the other climbers and attending to every chore there was. I felt a lot of good vibes from the mountains,” she says.
After making the summit, she was selected for an expedition to Mt Trisul (7,120m) in September – though she did reach an altitude of 6,800 metres, Kaur never had a shot at the summit as part of the second party. In January 2016, she dealt with the freezing climes of Siachen Glacier.
After excelling at every test thrown at her, Kaur was picked on the Everest expedition in Spring 2016. It was the moment she had been waiting for all her life. But things didn’t go quite right after the oxygen mask malfunction. Once home, all she hoped for was another shot at Everest.
For a year after the Everest debacle, Kaur cried as hard as she trained. She approached every source – renowned mountaineers and established organisations – to get on a team, but never heard back. In June 2017, she pursued her Advance Mountaineering Course from the Atal Bihari Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports.
There was now just one aim – to keep the funds ready for her next shot at Everest. She started leading commercial treks and took on every opportunity to wander the mountains. Back home, she taught acting and dancing, and joined troupes to be part of stage shows and street plays. She even tended to washing and cleaning chores in other people’s homes, besides working hard hours in their fields.
“Ever since I turned 15, I haven’t taken any money from home. Back then, I didn’t want too much – just enough to fund my studies and that of my siblings. Now, I had only Everest on my mind. Kyunki main fail wahin se hui thi (Because that’s where I had failed),” she says.
It was a long wait, but in 2021, she got picked on an Indian Mountaineering Foundation expedition to the Everest massif. She was on the team that climbed Pumori – a 7,161-metre peak, also known as Everest’s daughter. Alongside Gunbala Sharma, she became the first Indian to reach the summit.
“It was a technical climb, quite risky. From the top, I turned towards Everest and said – koi baat nahin, is time aapne nahin bulaya. Par aapki beti se to milwaya (You didn’t invite me this time, no problem. But at least you got me to meet your daughter),” she recalls.
In October that year, she went to Dhaulagiri when most people asked her to avoid the mountain. According to the Himalayan Database, the seventh highest mountain had seen only 13 successful climbs since Spring 2018.
“A few asked me to pick another mountain that had a better success rate. I too realised that I would have no support after a second unsuccessful attempt. Lekin meri kismat badi achhi thi (But fate was on my side),” she says.
Yet again, Kaur became the first Indian woman to climb Dhaulagiri. It allowed her to dream big and set the tone for her boldest project yet.
For most mountaineers, fundraising is as big a task as climbing the mountain itself. Kaur was now toying with the idea of climbing four 8,000ers in a single season. She was looking at an amount exceeding Rs 76 lakh. The permit for Annapurna I was arranged after she reached out for her savings. On the advice of Vinod Gupta, managing director at Meridian Medicare, who had supported her previous climbs, Kaur moved to Gurugram in October 2021 to connect with other sponsors.
Each day, she would rise at 4 am to go running. Come evening, she would hit the gym for another training session. It was a routine she followed for four months, right through a freezing winter. In between workouts, she would write emails to absolutely anyone who could fund her climbs. She says she would have written about 3,000 mails and taken over 500 calls to raise money.
“I didn’t know how to write professional emails, so I spent time understanding that through online resources. Somebody told me about LinkedIn and I started using it to connect with people. I got few replies, mostly rejections,” she says.
Despite her best efforts, the funds just about trickled in. It was also the first time she had been away from home for an extended period of time. Most festivals were spent working out in an empty gym. On the days she got lonely, she would visit a gurudwara nearby and sit quietly in a corner, reflecting on life and the challenges that had constantly been thrown at her.
“It would get really difficult on some days and I really missed my family. I asked God where I was lacking and what it would take for me to achieve my dreams,” she says.
It wasn’t until a few weeks before she left for Nepal that she managed to gather a part of the funds to book her Everest permit. The rest were still hanging in the balance.
After two rotations on Annapurna I, Kaur was set for the summit push. A line of climbers meant that she had to spend an extra day above Camp 3, but on April 28, she stood atop the tenth highest mountain in the world.
“It’s one of the most challenging mountains and a few sponsors were eager to know if I would make it to the top before backing me. After that climb, my funding for Everest was sorted. But my aim was to go to Kangchenjunga as well,” she says.
She returned to Kathmandu and over the next nine days, took on a relentless chase to sort out funds. A few showed interest, but her wait continued. With time running out, she had to settle for Everest. But Delhi-based Rodic Consultants called her in the nick of time and on 12 May, Kaur climbed to the summit of Kangchenjunga.
Bad weather bogged her down for a few days. It was when she asked her agency to secure a permit for Lhotse as well. Finally on 17 May, she arrived at Everest Base Camp and settled into her tent for some rest. But she was soon informed that the window of good weather was rapidly dwindling – she would have to leave for the summit in a few hours.
“There was little choice but to get going. Then again, Everest kept playing on my mind because of my past experience,” she says.
There were few other climbers on the mountain as she headed for the summit. Heavy dumps of snow had made the going difficult, yet she trudged along ahead of her climbing partner, Mingma Sherpa. She said a silent prayer as she went past the Balcony. Soon, she was on the summit of Everest. After a brief rest on descending to Camp 4, she turned to Mingma and asked if he was ready to take on Lhotse.
“He thought I was a little crazy. But I had all the energy to keep going. This is where I come alive,” she says.
That evening, they made tedious progress up Lhotse, battered by heavy winds and falling snow. However, the storm soon moved towards neighbouring Everest and Kaur summited the fourth highest mountain in bright sunshine. Once back at base camp, a celebration unfolded. But Kaur had a bigger appetite for one last climb, rather than the cake.
“Climbing Everest was a dream come true, a relief. If I had made it on that first attempt, I would probably have been working a stable job today, maybe even had kids. That unsuccessful attempt was what pushed me deeper into the world of the high mountains,” she says.
“I was satisfied until I heard that there was still a window for Makalu. I was already in debt, yet confident that I would be able to raise the necessary funds that I owed the agency. As a last resort, I had made up my mind to avail of a loan,” she adds.
When Kaur summited Makalu on 28 May, she had smashed multiple records. In a month, she had climbed five of the biggest mountains that a lot of climbers take years to achieve. Amid the celebrations, she craved just one thing.
“I wanted to see my family. Maine unhe bataya tha ki main ek naya savera lekar vapas aaongi (I had told them that I would return with a new dawn). That moment had finally arrived,” she says.
The author is a freelance writer from Mumbai who thrives on narrating a good story. Views expressed are personal.
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