We’ve all been to several hill stations just to catch a glimpse of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak. The view of Mount Everest not only looks enchanting but also brings joy to the eyes of many far-flung tourists and nature lovers. But hardly anybody knows how difficult and challenging it must be to climb atop the highest peak of the world. One has to be mentally strong and physically fit enough to scale the world’s most dangerous peak. Kalpana Dash, the 52-year old mountaineer from Sariapada village in Dhenkanal district certainly knows a thing or two about Mount Everest who created history in 2008 by becoming the first Odia ever to reach the Mount Everest summit. Hailing from a small village in Dhenkanal district to reaching the top of Mount Everest is no mean feat. The lady of steel who sacrificed her career as a lawyer to pursue her sole dream of scaling Mount Everest has given inspiring goals for thousands of youngsters across the globe. We met the mountaineer and got to know the travails of summiting Mount Everest, her miraculous rescues.
As a child, Kalpana used to watch her father climb atop local hills along with his friends which inspired her. At times, she used to accompany her father Late Gunanidi Dash who encouraged her for physical fitness and she enjoyed the thrill in climbing the hills. He dreamt of her daughter scaling Mount Everest one day. Kalpana was active in sports and long distance athletics at school as well. Though Kalpana enjoyed adventurous sports she never aspired to become a mountaineer in the future.
Hailing from a conservative Hindu family, Kalpana wasn’t allowed to explore the adventurous side of sports. Hence her love for adventure sports took a backseat when she pursued higher studies. Kalpana was forced to take up law though she resisted but went ahead with her studies. Though she took up several cases as a lawyer, Kalpana was still waiting for the opportunity to explore the beauty of nature.
One fine day, Kalpana met Srimati Ranjana Chopra, the then Collector of Dhenkanal district and inquired about mountaineering and its career prospects. Buoyed by the positive response, she then applied for Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) in Darjeeling to get basic mountaineering training in 2001.
Kalpana shares an interesting incident of how she was initially disqualified on health grounds. “When I took admission at HMI, I was disqualified during the medical test. I was told that I had some breathing issues. I was in no mood to accept the rejection. So I asked a nursing assistant to re-conduct the test. Surprisingly she told me that everything was normal. The doctors there again conducted the medical test and I got through,” she says. There has been no looking back for the mountaineer since then. She did advance mountaineering, search and rescue, alpine climbing and Methods of Instructions courses among others to hone her climbing skills.
In 2004, Kalpana attempted to scale Mount Everest but it was a failed attempt. She didn’t have proper climbing shoes then. As a result, due to frostbite, she had to return back. In 2006, she once again tried to scale Mount Everest but had to return midway due to inclement weather. “I wasn’t ready to return back. I was so angry that I had a heated argument with the Sherpa. I told him that I was ready to die but I won’t return back without reaching the top, no matter what! He didn’t allow me at all. So I returned back with a heavy heart,” reminisces Kalpana.
After two failed attempts, any mountaineer would’ve been broken from inside but Kalpana was a strong and courageous girl. She once again prepared herself and used to trek Kapilas Hill in Dhenkanal numerous times a day and kept herself physically fit ahead of her third attempt.
On 21st May, 2008, Kalpana created history by becoming the first Odia ever to scale Mount Everest. But the journey to the the highest peak in the world was never easy for her. Kalpana says, “The ghost of previous two failure attempts was hovering in my mind but I was confident to reach the top. I faced a huge setback initially. My climbing rope broke mid-air and I fell from a great height. Though I survived the fall, I suffered multiple injuries. I fractured my knee and was profusely bleeding. I remained bed-ridden for 15 days. During that time, I had lost all hopes of going atop Mount Everest. Fortunately I was given proper treatment and I recovered in time. I knew I had very less time to get acclimatized with the climate but I braved all odds and went ahead with my team. On 21st May, 2008 at 11.10am, I successfully reached the summit of the world’s highest peak. I couldn’t believe my eyes that I was on Mount Everest. I remembered my father as he had always dreamt that I’d scale Mount Everest one day. It was very harsh climate there and nothing was visible. We were all tensed. I prayed to Lord Jagannath and miraculously within seconds, the weather became clear. I tied his banner there and returned back safely.”
But on reaching the base camp, Kalpana complained of severe abdominal pain. She had continuous vomiting and was unable to walk. Her health condition got so serious that she was admitted in ICU for seven days. Kalpana was suffering from severe high-altitude sickness. The doctors were in a fix because neither the medicines nor the treatment were working on her. They had lost all hopes. “I could see death very closely. I wasn’t able to speak nor express well at that time. I too wasn’t sure if I’d be able to see my family members anymore. Only my brother was there with me praying ceaselessly for my speedy recovery. Thankfully, my health condition improved after seven days, it was really a long and tough battle with death. I think the blessings of Lord Jagannath and my family members saved me that day,” she quoted. When Kalpana reached home, the left portion of her body got paralized and she thought she won’t be able to climb any more in the future. But with her family’s care and support, she was back to normalcy.
After the Mount Everest success, Kalpana was far from getting over. In 2010, the brave mountaineer attempted to climb Mount Denali, the highest peak of North America but it was an unsuccessful attempt. But then she followed it up with successful climbs of the highest peaks of South Africa (Mount Kilimanjaro) in 2014, South America (Mount Aconcagua), Europe (Mount Elbrus) and Australia (Mount Kosciouszko) in 2015.
The mountaineer rues lack of support of the Govt. and private sectors for the adventure sport. “Mountaineering is an expensive sport. One cannot survive as a self-funded climber alone and the lack of sponsors for the sport will never encourage the youngsters to take up adventure sports in the future”.
Kalpana has no regrets that her passion for mountaineering has interfered in her professional and personal life. “I was very focused from the beginning. Scaling Mount Everest is no child’s play. It requires years of practice and hard work. I chose to remain unmarried for life. I knew my love for mountaineering, its my destiny call. My family has always stood by me and my decision like a pillar and I’m grateful to them till my last breath,” says she.
Kalpana was often fondly called as the ‘miracle girl’ by her fellow mountaineers. She has been miraculously saved several times from the clutches of death during her expeditions. “I’ve been in dangerous situations numerous times. But by the grace of God, I’ve been always lucky. (Laughs) Once I remember during a mountain expedition, a huge rock was about to fall on me. My fellow mountaineers thought the rock would hit and crush me but thankfully it went across by me very closely and I was saved. There was another instance when we faced a dangerous avalanche. I was buried under the snow. Everyone thought I was dead but I was rescued safely by the team. In another similar incident, we were resting under a tent when there was heavy snowfall out of nowhere. I was again buried under the snow. My fellow mountaineers digged me out of the snow and I was saved,” she recalls.
While mountains and mountaineering have always fascinated Kalpana, the mountaineer finds solace in writing religious mantras during leisure time. “I love spending time with animals and birds and taking care of them. I do a lot of social activities in my free time as I believe in giving back to the society,” says Kalpana.
Despite facing hurdles and hardships in life, Kalpana has never learnt to bow down. She not only takes pride to have made her state and country proud at the international level but is also happy to have inspired many young girls and boys who look up to her as their inspiration. “I’ve never learnt to accept defeat. I will fight and struggle till the end. My next aim is to successfully climb Puncak Jaya (highest summit of Mount Carstrensz) in Indonesia in October this year. If funded properly, I’ve kept my eyes on the highest peaks of North America (Mount Denali) and Antarctica (Mount Vinson) later next year. With this I will complete all the highest peaks of the seven continents.She aspires to scale Mount Everest again so that she can be the oldest Indian woman to climb. Mountaineering was, is and will always remain my first and last love,” says Kalpana with a smile.
Kalpana has an inspiring piece of advice for all the girls. “Never demean yourself by thinking that you’re a girl. Always take pride in being a girl! People would demotivate you. But never pay heed to them. Rather believe in yourself, your power and your capability. Then nobody can stop you from fulfilling your goals!”
By Subhojit Panda