Indian Mountaineering Foundation’s first female president, legendary mountaineer Harshwanti Bisht, joins Himalayan ecology


The first woman to reach the top of Nanda Devi, Bisht leads the Save Gangotri campaign which also involves regenerating the endangered Himalayan birches that gave our elders the Bhojpatra for writing

Chances are, 67-year-old Harshwanti Bisht had an academic existence in academia, far from the high mountain world for which she is best known today.

A fortuitous event first brought her to these ethereal heights. This left her delighted and she decided to put her books aside in order to pursue her climbing goals.

Over the years, Bisht has had a number of firsts to his name. In 1981, she became the first woman alongside two others to stand atop Nanda Devi – at 7,816 meters, it is the highest mountain completely in Indian Territory. And last month, she was elected president of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF), the first time a woman will lead the organization in its 60 years of existence.

The fifth of seven siblings, Bisht had a traveling existence during his youth. His father’s job, Hoshiyar Singh Bisht in the Indian Army, took the family across the country. After retiring as a major, he decided to settle in Kotdwar, which lies at the foot of the Uttarakhand mountains.

The hills around the city turned into a playground for Bisht at first. She would be outdoors, completely at home on hikes, climbing trees to pick fruit and tackling steep slopes with relative ease. But at that time, she still focused on academics.

“After completing my Masters, I wanted to pursue a doctorate in mountain tourism. I wanted to visit the mountains to have a first hand experience of life there and I asked my dad to send someone to accompany me. He suggested that as an adult I was able to pursue these goals on my own, ”Bisht recalls.

A few weeks before the conversation with his father, Bisht had attended a lecture on mountaineering given by Colonel LP Sharma, who was then director of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM). She is considering her options. A mountaineering course would allow him to understand how great mountains were climbed, the process of organizing expeditions, the money involved every step of the way and how it benefited the local population. And of course take her near the great mountains.

There were protests from his parents, who believed that doctorates should be pursued within library boundaries, while also referring to research papers and books. The logic of taking a mountaineering course just hasn’t crossed their minds.

“But I was pretty firm that I had to go. Tourism at the time was Delhi, Agra and Fatehpur Sikri. I wanted to study mountain tourism and there was no literature on it. So it was up to me to observe things and write something about it, ”she says.

For the moment, studies have taken a back seat. In 1978, Bisht continued his basic mountaineering course at NIM and two years later completed his advanced course from the same institute.

“There were very few women climbing back then. Most came from cities like Bombay and Calcutta (now Mumbai and Kolkata), rather than mountainous regions, ”she says.

In 1981, Bisht was invited to an alpine-style climbing camp in Uttarkashi. It was also there that they selected the team for Nanda Devi’s rise in August later that year. Bisht was chosen from the 12-person team alongside five other women.

“My parents were really bored at this point. They said I joined the course to continue my education and now looking to climb mountains. I really didn’t have any answers for them, but I knew I had to go, ”she says.

Nanda Devi is found in the Garhwal Himalayas and was first climbed by Bill Tilman and Noel Odell in 1936. It was the highest mountain to climb, until the ascent of Everest in 1953. The locals of the region worship the mountain as a deity. In 1976, five years before Bisht and his team reached the mountain, American mountaineer Willi Unsoeld attempted a climb up the mountain alongside a team that included his daughter, Nanda Devi. After her death on the mountain, a heartbreaking episode that has become an integral part of mountain folklore, locals dissuaded other women from attempting the climb.

“We were told a few times that the mountains didn’t like the presence of women and that we would not be accepted. The discussions around us scared us, but there was always that enthusiasm to climb, ”says Bisht.

“At the time, I had no idea the mountain and how difficult it was to climb it,” she adds.

Nanda Devi is located in two concentric rings of high mountains. The most feasible approach via the Rishi Ganga Gorge is an expedition in itself. The team took a week to reach base camp on August 22. They transported loads and established camps over the following weeks. By September 14, they were at Camp 4 (7,400m), preparing for the push to the top. But the bad weather got them bogged down at the camp for the next few days.

“It was even difficult to get out of the tent – a snowstorm was raging outside, very windy. The more experienced climbers suggested that we wait for the weather before making an attempt, ”says Bisht.

Finally, at 2:30 a.m. on August 19, six team members left for the summit in three pairs of twos – Bisht had teamed up with Rattan Singh, Chandra Prabha Aitwal with Sonam Paljor and Rekha Sharma with Dorjee Lhatoo. They progressed slowly, wading through deep snow until all three teams reached the summit late in the evening between 5 and 6 p.m. They have now started to descend into the darkness, aided by the full moon and the beams of their headlights.

“Rattan Singh realized we were tired and suggested that we both line up with Chandra Didi and Paljor. After continuing to descend for a while, Paljor slipped on the ice and began to slide. We slid about 100 feet, until Rattan Singh stopped our fall with his ice ax. It was a miraculous escape from death, ”Bisht recalls.

The descent there was even more careful. After 24 hours from the start, Bisht once again fell into the summit camp. She was exhausted, but thrilled to have made it to the top. Since then, no climber has climbed Nanda Devi. Returning home, the three women were recognized for their classical ascension and have been honored in many places. But there was one praise that was close to his heart to this day.

“My parents finally gave in – tum bohot ziddi ho aur ab tumhari zid puri hui (you are stubborn and now your stubbornness has been rewarded), ”she recalls telling him.

However, three years later, Everest experienced a heartbreak. After four ferries through the Khumbu Icefall from Base Camp to Camp 1, Bisht was asked to carry loads to Camp 3. She remembers leaving her woolens at camp and turning back instead. to risk frostbite to the toes.

“When the top teams were announced, I wasn’t there, even though I most deserved it. I was given the opportunity later, but I refused to make an attempt, ”Bisht says.

“Every time you go to the mountains, you prepare for it and you work really hard. So it was very disappointing not to have reached the summit of Everest. That’s why I decided to quit mountaineering and focus on academics, ”she says.

This visit to Everest gave him the opportunity to observe the work Sir Edmund Hillary had done for the people of the Solu-Khumbu region – from building schools to hospitals to conservation work. in Sagarmatha National Park. It was inspiration enough for her to do something besides pursuing teaching work and a doctorate, which she finally completed in 1993.

She set her gaze on the region of Gangotri which she had visited several times over the years. The impact of tourism and pilgrimages was evident and had led to large-scale deforestation, in addition to the accumulation of waste. In 1989, she surveyed the region and launched the “Save Gangotri” campaign. She opened a nursery in Chirbasa with the aim of regenerating the birch forest that had been destroyed earlier around Bhojbasa.

Harshwanti Bisht Himalayan Birch Nursery at Chirbasa near Gangotri

“The forestry department did not have young trees. We have tried vegetative propagation but without success. So we had to collect seeds and sow them, then move the saplings to two sites to finally see some success, ”she says.

A healthy birch forest flourishes in the region today. Besides the planting campaigns, Bisht also took his students on clean-up expeditions and to educate them about conservation. For her efforts, she was awarded the Sir Edmund Hillary Mountain Legacy Medal in 2013.

“If the area is completed, there will be no tourism, no pilgrimage and no income for the locals. This is the message we are trying to get across to visitors and mountain people, ”she says.

After nearly two decades as a member of the IMF and the last two years as vice president, Bisht was elected president. The committee also has new faces including young people, who Bisht hopes will bring new ideas to do something for the youth of the country.

“I would like to encourage technical climbing, not climbs like Everest which mostly see commercial expeditions where Indian mountaineers pay and Sherpas do all the work. In 1984, we did it all ourselves: clearing the road, fixing the ropes, loading the ferries and setting up the camps. India needs more technically sound mountaineers who can climb on their own rather than making those commercial climbs, ”she said.

“I would also like more women to take up mountaineering, especially those in the mountains. There are still not as many as there should be, ”she adds.

Bisht believes that mountaineering has given a new dimension to her life, without which she would have lived the life of any other teacher.

“Mountaineering gave me the vision that we need to think about conservation, what we can do for mountain communities, for the environment and ecology, and the sport of mountaineering itself. Everything that has happened in my life has been spontaneous and in large part because of mountaineering, ”she says.

Shail Desai is a freelance writer from Mumbai who loves to tell a good story. The opinions expressed are personal.

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