Born on 24th May 1954, Bachendri Pal, an Indian mountaineer, turned 68 this year. On 23rd May 1984, just a day before her birthday, she made history by becoming the first Indian woman to climb Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak. On achieving the feat, she joined the ranks of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, the first men to scale Mount Everest.
She not only made the nation proud, but her achievement inspired a lot of people, especially women in India. Her name has simultaneously been associated with women’s empowerment in India.
Pal had faced a lot of challenges before she achieved this success. Hailing from a small village named Nakuri in Uttrakhand, India, she was born in a rural working-class family and was one of seven siblings. Though conservative society of that time didn’t even allow women to go to school, let alone become a mountaineer, she succeeded against all odds.
Back then, girls were not extended even basic school education, and boys were sent to school. However, against all odds, Pal did her schooling. Though her parents thought she would study only till 10th class, her school principal sent a special request to let her continue her studies as she was a very good student.
She then went on to complete her B.Ed and MA from DAV Post Graduate College, Dehradun. She planned on getting a job and supporting her family financially. But, her encounter with the principal of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) changed the track of her life.
Although she faced strong opposition from her family and relatives who wanted her to become a school teacher, it didn’t change her aim of becoming a professional mountaineer.
Pal was always fascinated by the trekkers who used to pass by her village, and the opportunity to be part of the institute that could convert her interest in a career led her to achieve the best in the field of mountaineering.
After having done summits of a lot of smaller peaks, she soon got selected to be a part of India’s first mixed-gender team to attempt an expedition to Mount Everest. The historical event has had its fair share of difficulties.
India’s mixed team was divided into two teams, and Pal was part of the forward team. Pal’s team almost met a disaster when an avalanche happened to their camp, which was set up at 24,000 feet. This incident left many team members, including Pal, injured.
The injuries and the fatigue discouraged the members from going any further. However, when Pal was asked if she wanted to continue the summit, she immediately said yes.
On her decision to not quit even after a near-death experience, she stated that “I wasn’t feeling scared. There was a fresh determination in me. I thought if I survived the avalanche, if I am still alive, it should be a signal for me to go ahead. My parents always used to say after every bad moment comes a good moment. Thank god I took that decision because whatever I am today is all because of that decision.”
Even after her achievement, she faced a lot of ruthless comments from society, who were still questioning her future career options. Pal got offered a job at the Tata Steel as a sports assistant at their Adventure Foundation, that had changed the opinion of the people about mountaineering and girls’ education and career.
Pal had mentioned in an interview, “When I got a job at Tata Steel, it changed people’s mindset that scaling mountains can also result in a job at such a prestigious organisation as Tata Steel. Before the job offer, I was leading a lonely struggle as people wouldn’t allow their daughters to talk to me, and they would mock me for sitting at home despite all the education.”
Pal has led many mixed and all-women expeditions after the ‘Everest 84’ achievement. In 1985, she led an all-woman team to Mount Everest.
Again leading an all-woman rafting expedition from Haridwar to Kolkata in 1994, she covered around 2500km. Starting from Arunachal Pradesh and concluding at Siachen (Ladakh), she led an all-woman team on a 4500km long trans-Himalayan expedition in 1997.
Recently in 2018, she was part of Mission Ganges, where a team of 40 people collected over 55,000kg of garbage, travelling from Haridwar to Patna on rafts.
Pal has received numerous honours for her accomplishments, including the Padma Shri in 1986, the Arjuna Award in 1994, the National Adventure Award, and the Padma Bhusan in 2019.
In 2019, she took retirement from Tata Steel, where she worked on numerous programs to support and empower women in mountaineering. She is leading her recent initiative called ‘FIT@50’, where a team of 12 members aged 50 or above will be undertaking a five-month-long Himalayan journey.
About this initiative, she said that “even though age will be a challenging factor, we intend to set an example for all women and raise hope that it is possible to stay fit and healthy in the senior years too.”
Her story of determination and hard work has inspired a lot of people and will continue to inspire a lot of people in the future as well. It has not only inspired women to take up sports as a career option but has also helped change societies’ aged-old thoughts on girls’ education and career.
Pal is a girl from a small village who reached as high as Mount Everest even after so many difficulties. Her story is an inspiration for anyone fighting for a positive change.