Her still somewhat blue toe-nails and healing blisters are grim reminders, but she does not need them to vividly recall the blissful joy that capped her emotional push to the summit of Mount Everest. The 15 minutes that she spent on the peak on May 19 this year to become the oldest Indian woman to scale the world’s highest mountain will remain etched in her mind for all time to come.
Yet, with a matter-of-fact countenance, Sangeeta S. Bahl insists that Mount Everest is only a milestone in her larger quest of the Seven Summits. “It is only a part of my journey. Mount Everest has its own charm and everyone understands that. And everyone thinks it is the hardest. There is a reverence, a status attached to it. But I have to climb Denali in Alaska,” she says.
That ascent, which she targets next year, will enable her husband Ankur Bahl and her to become the oldest Indian couple – and perhaps in the world – to join the Seven Summits Club. She does allow herself some moments to reflect on the journey to Everest.
The Jammu-born former Miss India Finalist, who later rose from a flight services attendant to being Cabin Services Director in Emirates, returned to India after marriage to set up her own image consultancy. With her climb, she also sought to raise awareness about breast cancer with the Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai.
“I turned back last year without being able to summit. I went this time with extreme determination but also hard training, physically and mentally. I did not have a single headache this time or suffered from anxiety pangs. What I had inside was a great deal of calm. I did not feel any pressure and was happy. I looked forward to each day,” she says in her office after a healthy breakfast.
“The expedition taught me to take responsibility for everything. If you make your own decisions, you don’t blame anyone else. I had everything my way this time. It helped me learn to be self-reliant in life too. I succeeded on this climb was because I owned it. I also learnt to become a bit detached,” Sangeeta Bahl says.
“I always believed that I would summit this time but reaching South Col Camp 4 (approximately 8000m) was big and a reaffirmation of that belief,” she says. “For, I had been to Camp 3 earlier. I was prepared for the climb to Camp 4 as I had been told that it was going to be tough. I connected with climbers, watched videos and trained in the Sahyadri range to improve climbing on rock.”
There was also something else that made her resolve to complete the ascent. “I met someone who was with me on my earlier climb. ‘Oh! You have reached here?’ he sniggered. It was a reinforcement for me. ‘I will see you after the Summit,’ I told him. I was more determined and had the inner strength and conviction that I would do it,” she recalls.
The taunt could have had a draining effect on her mindset, reminding her of her having to return from Camp 3 in 2017, but Sangeeta Bahl used it to her advantage. Then again, her success came on the back of hard work, which itself was the result of lessons learnt from the 2017 effort that ended in Camp 3.
“I worked on my upper body strength because I knew I would be jumarring all the way to the top. I trained four times a week in the gym and two or three days outside, including climbing stairs. Towards the end, I would sometimes climb stairs between two and three hours, going up and down 29 floors eight times in a neighbourhood apartment complex in Gurgaon,” she says.
“I had no issues climbing, but I faced problems when leaping across crevasses, because it impacted my knees. I would tell myself that I can do it. Never imagined that I would not succeed this time. I learnt from a friend, explorer Satyabrata Dam, in 2012 to embrace any situation. I accepted everything that came my way. There was some negativity around, but I ignored it.”
Sangeeta Bahl learnt lessons from her 2017 experience and incorporated them in her training in 2018. “I owned my climb this time. I chose my own people. I wanted my climb to be in my control. My decision-making and communication with the Sherpas was in my hands this time. I had been weighed down by the expectations of the group I climbed with the last time,” she says.
“I termed this camp the Happy Camp. Everyone had the same goals. Since I was peaceful inside, I accepted a lot of things that I probably did not in 2017 when I questioned a lot of things. I had also been over-confident back then. I had climbed two high 6000m peaks and thought that would take me to Everest. I brought myself under pressure last year,” she admits.
Mother of a teenaged son, Arnav, she ensured that she enjoyed herself through the climb. “I made sure I looked after myself. I ate the right things. I did not spend time in useless banter with people. I read a lot. I read the Mind Gym and it was part of my trek. I would read a few pages every day and feel empowered. It was all about the power of the mind and its use with great advantages. I looked forward to each day, slept well and laughed a lot this time,” she says.
"Mount Everest and the Seven Summits are not my destination. I know I can make a difference in people’s lives and I am working on what I can do for others,” she says, indicating that she seeks to empower women achieve their dreams. “That is an Everest in its own. And I am confident that I will get to that peak as well.”