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High Rise

Ice maidens

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AIMING HIGH: Expedition leader Col Ajay Kothiyal was instrumental in helping the team bond

A feeble voice, from a certain mountain peak 8, 848 metres high, squawked through the walkie-talkie : "Sir, we have done it. " That was Colonel Ajay Kothiyal's most joyful moment - the moment when India's first all-woman team led by him scaled Mount Everest - but not before he started worrying about the climb down.

His fears were unfounded. The Indian Army's 70-day all-women expedition to the world's highest peak was a 100 per cent success - well, except for two avalanches. Kothiyal, a veteran leader for mountaineering expeditions, had handpicked seven women after a rigorous, bone-chilling training period (two months at Mamostong Kangri Glacier and extreme winter training for a month near Manali at minus 30 degrees).

The team is almost like one of those '90s national integration advertisements with members from Rajasthan (Capt Deepika Rathore), Maharashtra (Capt Prachi Gole), Karnataka (Capt Smitha Laxman), Nagaland (Major N Linyu) and Uttarakhand (Capt Namrata Rathore).

Kothiyal, who has been on two Everest expeditions but hasn't yet climbed the summit, says that he did doubt if the all-women's team would be able to make it initially. He says with a laugh, "I am unmarried;the only woman I have dealt with all my life is my mother. And to handle a team with seven women at these heights..."

A modest, charming, vivacious leader who always has a joke up his sleeve, Kothiyal adds that when the team members left India they were ordinary girls but now they are extraordinary. The bonding is evident in the team as the members poke fun at each other and fall laughing on each others' shoulders.

The expedition was one of many firsts - Subedar Rajender Singh Jalal was the first Indian to scale to the top without oxygen, Linyu was the first woman from Nagaland to climb it, and Laxman the first from Karnataka. It was also the first time Discovery Channel (India) climbed with an army team to film it. Many of the decisions were also made on the go for instance, Jalal had no plans of climbing without oxygen and videographer Gary J Lamarey had no plans to climb at all but did summit with the team.

The team (total strength of 17) was divided into two for the two summit attempts. The first one didn't succeed. The team wasn't even sure if the second attempt would be possible - it was the most crushing moment after months of built-up to the climb.

Kothiyal said that as a leader, the decision to abandon the first attempt was the hardest and the most disappointing for the whole team. However, they waited, and at the next clear window of weather, the team decided that even if they did it at the slowest pace, they would not turn back this time.

This has been one of the busiest and worst years for Everest. The climbing season saw almost a dozen deaths on the mountain and one May weekend saw 200 climbers tied end-to-end in the race to the top (82 climbers summitted on one day). Namrata confirmed that they were climbing almost toe-to-toe with many other groups from around the world. At Hillary's Step (the penultimate hurdle), Sangwan had to wait on one leg, resting the front of her body on ice for 45 minutes. "I was completely frozen by the time our turn for the summit came, " she says.

"There were a lot of Indians too - hobby mountaineers - and we saw at least 45 cases of extreme frostbite, " she says. The army doctor, Nitin Ahuja, also found himself attending to a Pune mountaineer who was suffering from cerebral edema at the Everest Base Camp. Unfortunately, the climber died later in Pune. In spite of the commercialisation at the top of the world and how easy it seems from a distance, the climb is still fraught with danger, death and injuries that can cripple climbers for life. Sangwan and Lakshman suffered from chest infection and debilitating headaches and had to recoup at the base camp.

But it wasn't just about casualties they came to know of from news reports. The team saw a sherpa right in front of them plunge to a bloody death into a crevasse below and another getting fatally hit by a falling rock. Gole says, "At one spot, we saw six dead bodies tied to each other. It was scary, demotivating and humbling. But as we are taught in the army, we saluted them and moved on up. "

The women themselves had many nerve-wracking moments on the climb. Gole, for instance, passed out outside her tent one night on her way to nightly duties because she didn't use oxygen (supplemental oxygen is required beyond the South Col at 7, 920 metres). Namrata, on the other hand, was chased by an avalanche. "It was on the way from Camp I to the base camp that someone screamed 'Avalanche!'. I looked back at a fast descending ice monster and ran but I forgot to remove and re-clip my carabiner and I fell. I looked back again and said ta-ta, bye-bye to my parents. I thought this was it, " she says. Luckily for her, though, she was hit by the fag end of the avalanche and ended up just covered with a layer of snow.

The team of amateur climbers, not surprisingly, was thankful for the mental preparation during the training period, which included 100-metre dashes in five feet of snow in freezing temperatures. But when they had to climb the last 200 metres (which takes about 60-90 minutes) they thought of Bachendri Pal's remark, "When the body is tired, the mind should take charge. "

Where the women's minds did not work, however, was the camp kitchen, jokes Kothiyal. "They only knew how to make water from ice. They would all walk into the kitchen like James Bond and then no one would eat for two days, " he adds. The team, during the trip, survived on ready-to-eat packets of shahi paneer, palak paneer, dal makhani and jeera rice, diluted with a lot of water. Kothiyal leans in and says conspiratorially, "Actually it is best when you mix dal makhani with mushroom soup powder. I hope the Taj doesn't discover the secret. "

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