Volume 16 Number 6
Women on Top of the World
01 December 2003

Yana Bey encounters heartbreak and triumph as a team of Indian women conquer Argan Kangri, an unclimbed peak in the Karakoram Range.

It is mid-morning on 17 July 2003 and I am perched on a rock in Camp I (5,190 metres), facing the icefall of the Phunangma glacier in Ladakh, India. The mountains towering into the azure sky above our heads are part of the eastern Karakoram Range.

We are a group of nine women mountaineers, accompanied by four Sherpa guides and a kitchen staff of three-all men. We are attempting to climb the untrodden peak of Argan Kangri (6,789 metres).

The peak has been attempted only once before: in 2001, by a team of ace men mountaineers-led by the legendary British climber, Sir Chris Bonington, and the well-known Indian explorer and climber, Harish Kapadia. Even for seasoned mountaineers like them it was a treacherous climb. The mountain drove them back with thigh-deep, soft snow on its flanks.

Nevertheless, we’ve been in high spirits-with an instinctive feeling that the elements are on our side. Our tents are filled with clothes, down jackets, sleeping bags, woollen gloves and socks, snow boots, and oodles of sunblock, moisturiser, lip balm, cleanser-as well as the routine climbing paraphernalia of ropes, crampons, harnesses, descenders and carabiners. The kitchen tent-from which a mouth-watering aroma of lentils, vegetables, chutney and soup waft out at mealtimes-makes this inhospitable, boulder-strewn campsite a home away from home.

Within an hour, the exuberance and goodwill that sustained the team through a trying three-day trek from the roadhead of Tirit shatters like glass.

From my rock, I watch Bimla Devi Neoskar, from Maharashtra, walk to the stream at the foot of the camp. She is sobbing while washing her face. Another team member, N Ayingbi Devi from Manipur, appears more in control of herself as she enters the tent and crawls into her sleeping bag. It’s apparent that both need space right now. They have spent the past hour crying uncontrollably after they were told they would not be part of the summit team which is to leave the next day for the higher camp and tackle the unknown upper reaches of the mountain en route to its top.

I sympathize with them but also with the leader, Rita Gombu Marwah, who is from Delhi. She has the unenviable task of taking decisions that will ensure success without jeopardizing safety. The four toughest members-Rita herself, Phul Maya Tamang, Sushma Thakur and Kavita Barthoki-make a dream team. They walk at the same pace. All are full-time or part-time mountaineering instructors and this gives them an edge in fitness and acclimatization.

The strength of a team is the strength of its weakest member and there is no berth for laggards. Neoskar and Devi cry out, ‘We walk just a few feet behind them.’ Neoskar is returning to climbing after a decade. She was part of the women’s team that went to Everest in 1993. She didn’t make it to the final team. Marriage and two sons followed. She and her husband now run an adventure club in Nagpur.

Neoskar speaks of her Everest expedition, ‘There too, I missed going to the summit. For five or six years I cried every day. I am known in Nagpur; I am honoured at Women’s Day functions and I am invited to speak on Everest. My husband says I should feel fulfilled with all this. But I wanted so much to make it to the summit this time.’

Devi explains why the stakes were so high for her. ‘My mountaineering club president said that if I don’t climb the peak on this expedition, my name will not be forwarded for future expeditions.’

This is the little-known side of mountaineering: the heart-burning that is part of 99 per cent of expeditions. Very rarely do all members of a team get to the summit. Chronicles of successful expeditions focus on the glory of the summiteers, not the pain of those who did not get selected for the final climb.

Three days later, our four teammates become the first climbers to stand atop Argan Kangri. ‘Aha, once again we’ve proved that women are better than men,’ they crow as they trudge back into Camp I. The Sherpas concede that the girls are tougher than the men mountaineers they have been with.

That evening, a near-full moon appears as the sunset tinges the surrounding peaks with pink, then orange, then cerise and finally pink again. Everyone chips into the hunt for dried dung deposited all around by grazing yaks. The dung makes an excellent fuel for a bonfire. As the flames start rising, illuminating the girls’ shining hair and eyes, the Sherpas begin to sing a catchy Nepali folk song. The four victors break into an impromptu dance. A fifth figure joins in as they circle the fire. It is Neoskar, raising her hands to clap, shutting her eyes and swaying to the lilting tune. She has conquered her demons.

This article was provided by the Women’s Feature Service in Delhi, India.

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