'I want to climb all the high peaks'
New Delhi: When Sunita Singh from the state of Haryana climbed Mount Everest in May, she immediately bestowed all credit for it on her parents. "They let me fulfil my childhood ambition and I dedicate this achievement to them," she said.
Twenty-six-year-old, Sunita is the first woman from her community (Gujjar) to have climbed Mount Everest. She intends to achieve a lot more, which, as the situation stands for her, seems difficult. Mainly because she comes from a humble background.
To realise her dream of climbing the highest peak in the world, her father, an inspector in the Border Security Force, took a loan of Rs2.5 million (Dh183,550) from a distant relative. Almost half that amount is yet to be paid back. And unlike well-off parents, who manage to find sponsors for their children, Sunita is struggling to find a godfather, who can bail her out and understands her heart's desires.
She speaks to Gulf News about the trials and tribulations in her life.
GULF NEWS: You neither belong to a family in which adventure sports run in their blood, nor were you exposed to arduous heights, so how did the idea of mountain climbing germinate?
SUNITA SINGH: My grandmother, who lived in Kisrpura, a tiny village in Alwar district of Rajasthan, should be credited for exposing me to the mountains. When I joined school in Alwar, I used to do a lot of trekking, accompanied by my grandmother, as the school was on a hilly terrain. With time, my interest in mountains grew and I spent a lot of time climbing the hills.
At what age did it become a passion?
As a 13-year-old, I was addicted to watching the National Geographic Channel. One day, I saw a programme Mission Everest. It was shot at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi. I immediately noted down the contact number and called up the institute saying I wanted to climb Everest and when I could join.
The official at the other end was very patient and polite. He explained that it was not a live programme, but a recorded event that was telecast repeatedly. He said I was too young to consider climbing mountains, as the minimum age for doing a basic and advanced course was 16. The official suggested I pursue my studies and approach them after few years.
So did the obsession wear off for some time?
No, it didn't. I was only biding my time and understood the value of education. In between studies, while in school and college, I kept doing short-duration trekking courses that lasted from four to 14 days.
In addition, I did water sports and skiing courses. During school and college, I had even joined the NCC (National Cadet Corps). In NCC, the cadets are given basic military training and are exposed to lot of rigours and trekking. All this helped a great deal in the years that followed.
What was the reaction of your parents towards your interest?
My father was not very forthcoming. He even dissuaded me because of the costs he had to bear for the training courses I kept insisting upon doing from time to time.
But the day I told him that my ambition was to climb Everest, he said that such lofty ideas were meant for the rich and I should either study further or get married.
By then, I had graduated and had no intention of doing Masters. Saddened by the thought that my ambitions were making him anxious, I told him I would make him feel proud of me one day.
So did that time come soon enough?
I enrolled myself for the basic and advanced mountaineering courses in Manali and Darjeeling. These were followed by some more expeditions, wherein I climbed five peaks in Uttarkashi, Manali and Darjeeling.
Thereafter, last year, I forwarded my portfolio to the mountaineering authorities in Nepal for the Mount Everest expedition. And got selected.
What were your immediate concerns then?
The only issue was the expenses. I was told that approximately Rs2.5 million was required. This came as a big jolt, as never in my wildest dreams I expected that such a whopping amount would be required.
How much time did you get in between the selection and mission?
I got about nine months to prepare myself. And this was probably the most difficult time in life. I couldn't expect a sudden windfall and prayed for things to work. Since the expedition required that I be fit, I got into yoga, cycling and other workouts. I vented out all my frustrations during the daily five-hour exercise I did for four to five months.
So how did you manage to get the required amount?
People with contacts are able to find sponsors easily, but my family knew nothing about it. My father then inserted a request in a local daily for sponsors. Fortunately, some distant relatives read it and offered to pay the amount without any interest. This meant we had to repay them as early as possible. It was a huge burden. But since the immediate crisis was over, I was hopeful for a better future.
Didn't the state government offer any assistance?
No, in my case it did not help, though there were other four climbers from our state who received Rs300,000 each before the expedition.
What about the honours and prize money that one gets after the achievement?
With the fulfilment of my dream of climbing Mount Everest, I hoped life around me would change. It had been a long struggle to make my dream come true. I had always expected to earn respect from society for the Gujjar community, categorised under ‘other backward classes' to which I belong. Of course, several Gujjar organisations honoured me. And the Rs1.2 million cash prize that I got, we paid to our relatives. But the debt of Rs1.3 million still remains. And recently, the Haryana government has announced a Rs250,000 award, which I have yet to receive.
Will it mean an end to a bright career in mountain climbing and settling down?
I cannot say that because I wish to climb the other 13 highest (over 8,000 metres) peaks in the world. If that happens, I will be the second woman in the world to do so. For these triumphs, I am looking for sponsors and shall be grateful if help comes by.