Just an hour before she was to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 2011, Premalata lost one of her gloves. The weather conditions were extreme, so she was told to turn back. Going ahead would make her a victim of deadly frostbite.
Distraught at having to go back, she was just about to descend, when she found a pair of gloves lying in the snow left by someone else!
“Fate plays a vital role in everyone’s life, not only mountaineers. I lost my gloves and found one in the same spot and came back without any misadventure. I believe it was fate that brought me back unharmed on the grounds to fulfil my other mountaineering aspirations,” she says, speaking to The Better India.
Meet 54-year-old Premlata Agrawal, a homemaker who became the first Indian woman to have achieved the record of climbing the Seven Summits at the age of 50 and the oldest Indian woman mountaineer to scale the highest peak in the world, Mount Everest, in 2011.
Conferred the prestigious Padma Shri in 2013 by the Government of India, she is also a recipient of the exemplary Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award 2017 for her mountaineering achievements.
Premlata was born to businessman Ramavatar Agrawal and a humble homemaker Sharda Devi in the tiny village of Sukhia Pokhari in Darjeeling district of West Bengal.
Growing up in a joint family, where over 30 people stayed in the same home, Premlata was one of the nine children. A healthy kid at school, she never backed down from participating in any of the school sports or games. Despite being the last runner to cross the finish line and deemed a laughing stock, she was optimistic to never leave a race in-between with the fear of defeat.
She was only out of higher secondary school, when she married journalist Vimal Agrawal in Jamshedpur, at the age of 18. Premlata is a mother of two wonderful daughters.
It was a usual day when Premlata took her daughters to the JRD Tata Sports Complex in Jamshedpur, for their training in tennis. There she noticed on the notice board a Dalma hill Trek (a small hill on the outskirts of Jamshedpur), organized by the Tata Steel Adventure Foundation. She decided to participate in it. Much to her surprise, she stood third amongst over 500 participants.
When she visited the TSAF office to collect her certificate, following her win, she was awed at the many pictures of legendary mountaineer Bachendri Pal’s Himalayan adventures. At that point, she decided she wanted her daughters to join adventure sports.
She headed straight to the office and was dumbfounded when sitting right in front of her was the legend herself, her now, mentor Bachendri Pal.
On hearing her desire to get her daughters admitted to the course, Bachendri Pal asked Premlata, “Why don’t you join instead?”
She did not think twice before agreeing. She was 35 at the time.
In 2008, she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in South Africa under the guidance of Bachendri Pal. It was when she was descending the mount, which Bachendri looked at her and said, “Prem I think you should try to attempt Mount Everest, you have all the abilities to summit Everest.”
She promised to speak to Tata Steel for sponsorship if Premlata agreed. But Premlata asked for time and decided to her back after talking to her family. It took her more than two years to answer. In that span, she managed to marry her daughter and send her younger one to pursue her PG.
When she asked her husband about the Everest expedition, he nodded instantly encouraging her. “When Bachendri Pal thinks you can do it then you should go ahead!” he said.
Her family including her in-laws have supported her in all her expeditions ever since.
At 48, armed with Bachendri belief that age was just a number, Premlata started training to ascend the highest peak of the world.
There were several challenges she faced on her path to record-breaking feats.
“Apart from language barriers, a persistent pain from an old ankle deformity kept challenging her. Food preferences and extreme oscillating climatic changes were the hardest to cope with,” she says.
The only thing that kept her going was the determination to put her nation’s tricolour atop the summit.
She recalls some of the most difficult challenges in her 17-year-old mountaineering career.
“My Sherpa was stunned when he learned that it was I, and not my daughter, who was to be a part of the Everest expedition. He immediately discouraged me by saying that my age and physique was not suited for the gruelling and life-threatening climb. During the climb, he continued to dissuade me. When I lost my glove, he warned me that I would be a victim of frostbite and advised me to turn back. But I remained unfazed.”
At 26 thousand feet, their team had to turn back due to non-conducive weather conditions. When the weather turned suitable, onward they marched yet again to conquer 29,029 feet.
“My willpower proved a balm to my painful ankle. My determination had a mellowing effect on my leader and Sherpa who then boosted my morale. And there I was, savouring the inconceivable joy atop the world. My spirit thanked the Almighty, and my heart and mind raced to my family. I had planted my country’s flag on Everest,” she says.
On 20th May 2011, at 48 years old, Premlata became the oldest Indian woman mountaineer to unfurl the tricolour on the world’s highest peak.
She describes that moment atop the peak as witnessing creation in all its entire glory.
“The feel can only be treasured in the mind, heart and soul by a person who has ‘actually been there.’ It cannot be defined; it needs the will to dare and experience the joy of attainment,” she says.
Her first attempt at unfurling the National flag atop Mt Denali in North America was foiled due to foul weather. But she refused to give up. Armed with the tricolour around her, that metaphorically was the fire covering her spirit according to her, she started anew and conquered Mount Denali.
It is this determination that led this Indian woman mountaineer successfully plant the Indian Flag atop each of the Seven Continental Peaks with undeterred pride.
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In her message to readers and aspiring mountaineers, Premlata says, “Though mentally difficult initially, the fact remains that when I, a mother of two grown-up children, could put across my desire simply and honestly with total success in mountaineering, why can’t you? After all the ultimate situation for us women in all spheres of activities is just one question—Do we get what we deserve?”
She understands the responsibilities women have towards their home, business or job, but she believes every woman should take a break sometime. “You have to select an outing to suit your inlaid spirit of adventure,” she says.
She looks up to two women in her life as her role models- her mother and her mentor, Bachendri Pal.
For the women, who want to look up to her as a role model, she says, “I would like to be remembered as a homemaker who set out with a spirit of adventure to attain success on the base of hazardous challenges.”