“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” – Edmund Hillary
A tranquil little hill station in the mountainous region of Uttarakhand, Bageshwar lies at the confluence of rivers Sarayu and Gomti. Located at an elevation of 3,300 feet, it is also famous for its 7th-century Bagnath shrine, the verdant tea estates of Kasauni and the picturesque trek to Pindari glacier.
However, what has truly brought this Himalayan town into the limelight is the remarkable achievements of a young girl from the remote village of Teihaat. A local celebrity in Bageshwar, Pooja Mehra is one of the ten National Cadet Corps (NCC) cadets who successfully climbed the Mount Everest in April 2016.
What makes her story even more special is that her endurance came from working in fields, collecting fuelwood in forests and helping her mother with household chores.
“I am the only girl in the family besides my mother. I work all day at the field, milk the cows, wash them, cut grasses, sow seeds and reap crops – everything that’s required to do in fields. I also help my mother in the household chores,” Pooja told Times of India.
A sports enthusiast (she was national level kabaddi player in school) and NCC cadet, Pooja was a class 12 student of a government college when she first heard of Mt. Everest from her seniors during a mountaineering course at Darjeeling’s Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI).
The world’s highest peak and the challenge it posed to mountaineers struck a chord within Pooja and she promised herself that she would climb it someday. With this steely resolve always at the back of her mind, the young girl began her training, honing her mental and physical strength for mountaineering expeditions.
Other than taking on a greater share of the household chores, Pooja began going for a 10 km run every day followed by rigorous physical exercises for an hour. She would also work on farms belonging other people to supplement the family income — the harvest produced by the family’s small patch of land was barely sufficient to make ends meet.
Her father, a farmer who doubled up as a bus driver in spare time, would intermittently return home with his additional salary and whatever vegetables he could procure. Even then, the family earned a little less than Rs 9000 a month from the farming and the driving.
This was the reason why Pooja never followed a special diet — she drank a glass of milk daily and ate whatever humble meal the family could afford at that particular time.
In 2015, the aspiring mountaineer climbed the Trishul peak (23,360 ft) in Auli region of Uttarakhand and the Nag Tibba peak (19,688 ft) in the Manali region of Himachal Pradesh. It was after these successes that Pooja received a letter from NCC informing her that she had been selected for an expedition to the Mt. Everest.
The delighted young girl conveyed the information to her family only to realise that scaling Mt. Everest was an easier task compared to changing the entrenched patriarchal beliefs of the society.
Pooja’s neighbours warned her parents — who were already worried about her safety —against sending her on the expedition. The family was told that these expeditions were not meant for girls and that Sagarmatha (another name for Mt. Everest) was a place from where no one returned.
But undeterred by these challenges, Pooja stood her ground, defending her decision and dream to climb the world’s highest mountain. When her parents wavered, she requested her teachers to convince them, and they agreed to do so. And thanks to these efforts, her family finally relented.
In January 2016, Pooja left for a rigorous month-long training camp at Siachen Glacier along with the nine other cadets who had been selected. Two months later, the team headed to Nepal, reached base camp on April 21 and then underwent a month-long intensive winter training session.
After being acclimatized at 23,000 ft and 26,000 ft for several days (and getting frostbite on the way up), the day Pooja had been eagerly waiting for finally arrived. Led by Col. Gaurav Karki and Maj. Deepika Rathore, on May 21, the 18-year-old successfully scaled the world’s highest peak at about 11 in the morning.
About a week later, a triumphant Pooja returned home to an avalanche of articles, awards and felicitations. In fact, on Republic Day 2017, she and the nine other NCC cadets — Rigzen Dolker, Tashi Kaskit, Trishala Gurung, Staniz Laskit, Baljeet Kaur, Lalrintluangi, Tsering Angmo, Sulaxchana Tamang and Kumari Nutan — were awarded the prestigious Raksha Mantri Padak by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar.
But the gritty girl is not done yet. Pooja wants to complete college, help her family, do a professional mountaineering course, and last but not the least, serve her country by joining the Indian Army. In all these endeavours, here’s wishing her all the best!