Pithoragarh’s Sheetal youngest woman to scale Kanchenjunga
Born in a small village of Pithoragarh, she fell in love with the mountains at an early age. At the age of 22, Sheetal Raj has become the youngest woman to scale Mount Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world.
“When our Sherpa told me we have reached the top, my body was suddenly renewed with energy. It was like a live wire coursing through me. I got extremely overwhelmed, broke down and hugged the Sherpa. It was unbelievable,” said Raj describing her experience of being on the top of the 8,586-metre high summit on May 21.
Raj, daughter of a taxi driver father and homemaker mother, was in love with the mountains since childhood. “I used to accompany my mother when she used to go into the jungles of mountains looking for wood. The view from there and the silence made me feel very peaceful,” she said.
She got her first opportunity to be a part of a climbing expedition in 2014. “I was a member of the NCC unit of my college. They informed us about this expedition and I really wanted to go. I told my parents it was a trip, but even then they refused. I convinced them somehow. Once I came back, they got to know it was a mountain expedition and I got a lot of backlash from my family,” she said.
After much difficulty, Raj got her parents on board and regularly started going on expeditions. She completed a basic mountaineering course from Darjeeling’s Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in 2015. “We were a batch of 150 girls. During the course, we had to climb a peak called Rinok. Only 53 of us managed to do that. After that we had another expedition, which I also cleared. The final one, also known as the pre-Everest was Mount Trishul. Only 15 of us scaled that summit,” Raj said.
When she came back from the expedition, Raj learned that she had not been selected for the expedition to Mount Everest. “The news shook me completely. I couldn’t believe it. It had a deep impact on my mental condition. I dropped out of my college as I didn’t feel like doing anything. It almost took me a year to come out of that depression,” Raj said.
In the meantime, Raj applied for a membership at Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF), the apex national body for organising and supporting mountaineering expeditions. “Many young boys and girls volunteer for taking part in expeditions organised by IMF. Last year, we had planned an expedition to Satopanth Glacier for ONGC. Sheetal Raj was one of the five members from IMF who went on the expedition,” said Colonel (retired) HS Chauhan, the president of IMF.
Chauhan said Raj’s performance in the expedition was exemplary and was appreciated by all. “When I talked to her, I got to know she comes from a financially weak background. We were then planning the Kanchenjunga expedition for ONGC. So, I recommended her name to ONGC’s authorities and they agreed to include her as a part of the expedition and cover all her costs,” he said.
The Kanchenjunga expedition was flagged off in April. “The expedition takes place in Nepal. Once we reached Hapur Khola, we started our trek to the base camp. It took us 15 days to finish that,” Raj said.
Raj and her team made the first attempt to scale the summit on May 12. “From base camp, we had travelled up and crossed camp 1 and 2. We were at camp 3 when we suddenly heard a loud explosion and the ground beneath our feet started trembling. We got to know an avalanche had hit,” Raj recalled.
Following bad weather, Raj and the team retreated back to the base camp. “The leader was suggesting that we should drop the idea of scaling the summit. I was crushed when I heard that. Coming so close, I did not want to lose this opportunity,” Raj said.
The team, however, decided for the weather to clear and started their ascent again on May 18. They crossed camp 1, 2 and 3 and reached camp 4 on May 20. From there, they began their ascent to the summit at 7pm.
“We reached the top at 3.30am on May 21. I felt like I was home, but it was too dark to see anything. We waited for the sky to get light. When finally the sun rose, it was surreal to watch. On one side, we could see India, on the other, it was Nepal and in front of us was the China border. The experience was surreal,” Raj said.
She later learnt that she had become the youngest female climber to scale the peak. “We were informed by Nepal tourism department that Sheetal Raj became the youngest female in the world to scale the summit at the age of 22. We are extremely proud of her,” Chauhan said.
Raj plans to scale Mount Everest in 2019 and is currently seeking sponsorship for the same. “The expedition can cost up to 20-25 lakh rupees and I can’t afford that. I’m looking for sponsors so that my dream comes true,” she said.
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