Baljeet Kaur’s eyes light up every time you ask about her very first expedition. She vividly remembers the day when she first saw the sun peep through the peaks to make the surroundings of Manali’s Mt Deo Tibba look as if they were painted with colours of gold — it was a moment of everlasting love, deeply entrenched in her psyche. This was something that would allow her to embrace all the challenges that sprung up during her tiresome journeys while scaling some of the highest mountains of the world.
That this love affair would turn deadly one day never crossed her mind. Or so she believed. “I know it’s a part and parcel of mountaineering but nothing of the sort had ever happened to me before. I knew it was going to be a tough expedition, but I also had the self-belief that I would summit Annapurna,” says 27-year-old Baljeet, who hails from Mamlig village of Solan.
Last month, between April 17 and 18, after summiting Nepal’s Annapurna I, considered one of the deadliest treks in the world, Baljeet was declared missing while descending, even dead at one point, before eventually being rescued from near Camp IV. “I still can’t feel any sensation in my fingers and I am having trouble breathing,” Baljeet shares.
What began as a routine outing on April 16 upon reaching Camp IV turned into a nightmare for Baljeet. Having taken to the trek without supplemental oxygen in the afternoon, it was always going to be a tough climb to the 8,091-metre peak. But things took a terrible turn when her original sherpa, assigned to her by Pioneer Adventure, a mountaineering agency, delayed the climb with her, she says.
“I only had an inexperienced porter to begin with at the time. It was his first 8,000-metre climb,” recalls Baljeet.
Yet, she was undeterred and was joined by another sherpa roughly 300 metres from the summit on April 17. “He told me that my primary sherpa had asked him to become the guide as he was unable to come due to some reason,” she adds. “That person hadn’t slept for two nights and had joined us after having completed the summit on the night of April 16 with another climber.”
Baljeet could sense the danger involved in doing back-to-back treks and her fears were proved right when the trio huffed and puffed to the top of Annapurna I at eventide. At that point, acute mountain sickness and hallucinations had begun overtaking the three.
Having burned a great amount of daylight, it was time for them to climb down now. Nearly 100 metres down from the summit, Baljeet’s hallucinations got severe. From seeing a child offering her a flag for completing the trek to imagining someone with a flashlight cutting through bushes, Baljeet was now grappling with illusions. The sherpa and porter were also getting delirious for they didn’t have much oxygen left.
“I remember seeing some tents and a couple sitting on either side of me, inviting me to come inside. I was trying to get into one but just couldn’t. I also remember asking them for warm water,” she shares.
Once she snapped out of it, Baljeet told her guides to take the lead and that she would follow them. It had scarcely been 10-20 steps before a panting Baljeet collapsed on her knees and was soon embroiled in a spat as she was slowing them down. It all boiled down to the sherpa deserting her. Later, the porter, too, asked to leave.
All by herself, she started seeing things again. It was the couple once again, this time luring her into unwinding. “They were telling me to remove the down suit, shoes and just relax,” she shares.
“No way, I need to get down to the camp!” she’d answer, much to her relief as she narrates the experience; and it turned out to be a life-saving decision. A tired Baljeet then dozed off and woke up all curled up after a couple of hours, with the bone-chilling wind buffeting her under an ominiously dark sky.
It was midnight and Camp IV was afar. But she could see a light shimmering in the distance — it was the camp. Since it is 1,400-1,500 metres away from the summit, there was a chance she could be rescued midway. A brief self-pep talk and a few slaps on the face were what got her going. She staggered along some 200 metres in her descent. It had been more than 36 hours without food, oxygen and water by then. With her motor skills weakening, she was erring in the basics, like changing safety anchors.
Finally, as the night turned into day, Baljeet managed to get closer to the camp and shielded by a cliff thinking of her next move. She fished out her phone in an attempt to read Gurbani and at 7:48 am on April 18, just minutes before sending a distress signal, she reached out to one of her roommates. “It meant she was still alive. Otherwise, the news of her going missing was killing us until then,” reckons Priyanka Burman, who befriended Baljeet in 2014 during a marathon. “We immediately rang up the agency and urged them to take out a rescue mission.”
“I’m alright, get in touch with Pioneer,” Baljeet wrote in another text Priyanka received at 11 am, confirming about her survival and shedding the load off her team. Around afternoon, the agency airlifted Baljeet to the base camp.
The news of her rescue spread like wildfire, but Baljeet’s mother Shanti Thakur was utterly unaware of the entire episode back home at Mamlig village. “I was busy reciting Gurbani. It was only after my brother (Vinod) broke it to me that I came to know,” she avers. She never accepted that her daughter could have died. “I had full faith in God and didn’t beseech Him once to save her because I knew in my heart that He won’t let anything happen to her,” Shanti adds.
Even as a child when Baljeet would ascend a tree to pluck leaves for the cattle, Shanti never used to worry. She didn’t find a reason to, since “the almighty has always looked out for the family”. The only thing that is making her restless these days is the media hounding her. “After all she has gone through, there is nothing more important than resting right now. I’m afraid that repeating the trauma time and again could take a toll on her mental health,” she says.
To most of the country, the mountaineer was unheard of before this occurrence even though she is the first Indian woman to climb Mt Everest and Mt Lhotse in 25 hours and the first-ever Indian to scale Annapurna I, Kanchenjunga, Everest, Lhotse and Mt Makalu in 30 days.
Her journey began in 2014 as an NCC cadet, when it put out a vacancy for an expedition to Everest which was to happen in 2016. She was included as a reserve and got a lucky break but fell 300 metres short of summiting it when the chance came. Afterwards, a discouraged Baljeet didn’t resume mountaineering for three years. In between, she sustained herself by giving yoga classes, dance lessons, sewing, leading local treks as a freelancer, etc.
“I have fended for myself since I was 12. And when my sister (Amarjeeet Kaur) passed away in 2013, the responsibilities multiplied. So, this wasn’t something new to me,” recalls Baljeet, who is the eldest of four siblings. From a tender age, she was thrust into providing for the family as her father, Amrik Singh, who’s a retired HRTC driver now, didn’t earn much. In the front yard of their village home, she would “grow vegetables and sell these to make ends meet”.
Hope floated in 2019 when she got selected for the Indian Mountaineering Foundation’s Everest Massif Expedition for 2020, which included scaling four peaks — Mt Nuptse (7,862m), Mt Pumori (7,161m) and Mt Lhotse (8,516m), along with Mt Everest (8,849m). She was sent to the Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering in J&K’s Pahalgam where she polished her skills by climbing 6,000m peaks before being chosen for the gruelling test of Pumori.
She suffered back-to-back setbacks before this break, as initially her dream of climbing Everest remained unfulfilled and then Covid derailed her plans. However, she returned to scale Pumori in 2021 and became the first Indian woman to do so. Everest happened the following year.
With 8,000-metre peaks on her mind and mountaineering being a costly affair, she has turned to sponsors to nurture her career. However, it has not been easy — she has been labouring to get a lucrative sponsorship and earlier had to resort to crowd-funding and sending emails to companies to get a look-in. For the fateful Annapurna trek, she could only garner Rs 50,000 through crowd-funding. Her family and friends had to chip in the rest.
“I still owe Rs 10-12 lakh in Nepal for the two expeditions, the other one being Mt Manaslu. Annapurna alone costs approximately Rs 15 lakh and I had a sponsorship of only Rs 9 lakh. There’s still much to cough up,” Baljeet reveals. Priyanka says they have no idea how they are going to repay the debt. “At the end of the day, nothing matters more than seeing Baljeet in the pink of health again.”
Travails are sure to linger, but just as Baljeet Kaur did in the snow, she hopes she will emerge like the blazing sun over the lofty mountains. She’s a mountain girl, after all.
For the Record
First Indian woman to climb
Mt Pumori (2021)
Youngest Indian woman to climb
Mt Dhaulagiri (2021)
First Indian woman to climb Mt Everest and Mt Lhotse in 25 hours (2022)
First-ever Indian to summit five 8,000m peaks — Annapurna I, Kanchenjunga, Everest, Lhotse and Mt Makalu — in 30 days (2022)
Photos courtesy: Baljeet Kaur
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