Yashasvini Verma of Amity International School, Noida speaks with Mrs Chetna Sahoo, a mountaineer with extraordinary zeal and courage, who summited the world’s highest peak at an age many perceive to be ‘too old’ for such a feat. Read the full interview below or listen to the audio at this link: https://soundcloud.com/reflections-magazine/interview-with-mrs-sahoo-everest-summiteer.
Interviewer: Hello, everybody. I am here today with Mrs Chetna Sahoo. She has summited Mt. Everest and [our issue], The Extremities of Being, is all about taking to the extremes of the human mind and human body, and today, I am here with one of the people who has truly shown us that it is possible to do so. Ma’am, I would like to give it to you.
Mrs Sahoo: Hello, I am Chetna Sahoo. I was born in Gujarat but I came to Orissa after getting married and am presently settled in Kolkata. From the age of fifteen I have been participating in outdoor activities and from then on, more than 33 years later, I am doing mountaineering, trekking, parasailing and other activities continuously. There are lots of reasons, I definitely saw big dreams which I couldn’t fulfil due to other causes, and any mountaineer’s biggest dream is to touch the peak of Everest. By chance at the age of fifty, this dream was successful.
Interviewer: What inspired you to take up mountaineering?
Mrs Sahoo: There is a place in Gujarat called Junagadh. In the first year of college, I got the chance to do a basic course in rock climbing. When I was there in the mountains, I felt as if they spoke to me, I felt they lived, and I enjoyed their company. A good instructor said “If you like mountains so much, why don’t you take training for mountaineering?” and then I realised that there were three institutes in India for this, in Uttarkashi the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, or NIM, one in Darjeeling called HMI, and one in Manali. So I applied for all three and did a basic as well as an advanced course in Uttarkashi. So this way, from Gujarat, started my journey in the mountains, and when I first saw the Himalayas, in 1995, I kept feeling its call to me, and I go there frequently till date and will keep going there.
Interviewer: Have you ever taken an interest in any other sport, or done something as physically depleting?
Mrs Sahoo: I took part in NCC, so through that, I got the chance to go parasailing and Para jumping. I put in a lot of effort for that, so for one year I pushed my limit to be selected, and was luckily also selected until I had to drop it at the last moment because of my mother’s death. Otherwise, I jump at the chance to take part in any sport, be it swimming, athletics, javelin throwing, shot put, etc. I take interest in all of these, and I love to play Kabaddi as well.
Interviewer: How was it like pushing your limits for the climb to Everest? How was it like training for it? What did the first training feel like?
Mrs Sahoo: Only those who do mountaineering understand the real meaning of Everest. Firstly, it is the highest point, and with me, the main difficulty was my age, I was 47 when I decided to try and summit Everest. So at that time, and at this age, nobody is willing to sponsor you, and per person, you have the expense of 25 lakhs, and we couldn’t get a sponsor. So I and my husband decided to put all our earnings into it because we generally worshipped the mountains, and like our religion says that we should do the “Char Dham Yatra” (Pilgrimage to the four supreme places of worship) before we die, similarly, it is a mountaineer’s dream to visit all the highest peaks and pay homage to them. So I had to be prepared, [of which] the first factor was my age. Secondly, I am the mother to two children, who were 13-14 years of age when I decided, explaining to them my decision, and thirdly, everything needed for Everest, I had to take out 7-8 hours every day, even with my family and other responsibilities. So when I made a timetable and started off, the first day I thought about how I could do this continuously, but they say, “If you see a dream, see such a dream that does not let you fall asleep”, and my dream was like that, because I had a desire, and from desire we find a way. We start building a path for it, and that is what happened with me.
Interviewer: We’re told that the weather there is very unpredictable, that you get very few chances when it is good enough to climb in, so was there any time that the weather got so bad that you thought that was it? That you could not go any further?
Mrs Sahoo: Yes… if there is something main in Everest, the first thing is the weather, and the second is oxygen. In 2014, when we first went there, then on the very first day, 16 Sherpas, who were getting everything ready, died, and the government closed climbing, and all climbers had to return. For all our years of preparation, we had to come back in a month, and we weren’t allowed further than the base camp. The second time we went there, in 2015, it was still not meant to be, and an earthquake occurred then. There were so many casualties in Nepal then that summiting Everest got closed again, and we had to come back down again. So the dream of 30 years, the dream that I had been seeing from the age of 15, when I went to fulfil it at that age, then God was taking more tests, returning in ’14 and ’15. When we finally went in 2016, then there was a weather window, you also need one and a half months’ acclimatisation for Everest, and Base Camp, Camp 1, Camp 2, Camp 3 and Camp 4 are at a certain height, then we went to Camp 1 from base camp, and came back after freeing the load, went to Camp 1 and spent the night there, and like that, there are three to four rotations till Camp 3. Then, when your body is fit enough, you get the weather window of one week. But in 2016, the weather was good only on the summit day, and the rest was very windy. So, the worst weather I faced was in Camp 3, when the wind speed was 180 km/h. The climber in front of me was lifting from the slope and coming back down, there was that much wind. We had to face this, and even after summiting, the weather deteriorated sometimes, but we knew it was temporary. But sometimes, you do not know whether you will be able to complete [the climb].
Interviewer: You just mentioned that you don’t know if you’ll be able to complete the climb. Was there any time during summiting that you lost hope?
Mrs Sahoo: Yes, many times. The South Col is such a place that it is also called the ‘death zone’, above 8000 metres. What happened with me there was that I got a cough and cold at Base Camp. When you go to such a height, it continues to pertain. After the last summit post, I got such a bad cough and cold, and I had so many blisters in my mouth, that my tongue was dotted with them. The oxygen mask didn’t work as my tongue got stuck to the roof of my mouth due to it, and I couldn’t take it in. That is when I felt that I may not be able to do it, and I requested my Sherpa more than once that I wouldn’t go any further. But he had experience, he saw that my foot was okay, that it was just something in my mind, so he motivated me, and it is destiny, that whenever you lose hope, you find someone who lifts you up, and your inner strength, that has been helping you somewhere or the other throughout your life, and belief in yourself, [both help you]. So I didn’t give up.
Interviewer: You just mentioned the ‘death zone’ on Mt. Everest. What did it feel like, being there yourself, seeing so many people who had tried to achieve the same thing as you but couldn’t?
Mrs Sahoo: Yes, a lot of deaths happen in the South Col, there are even many dead bodies still lying there. Some are hidden, some are open. [So] I was mentally prepared for this from the start, that I would see such things, and before going I read ‘Into Thin Air’, my husband had told me to read it, that he will talk to me afterwards. So I did, and he asked me what I felt after reading it. I said I have to go to Everest once. He told me that after reading the book most people drop the idea in fear of all the hazards there. When we leave, [for Everest and] for the death zone, we make a will and go, because we know we may not come back. Before going I was well-prepared mentally, what a place that is. I studied a lot for it, and also prepared myself by doing Yoga and other things.
Interview: What did you feel like being on the peak of Mt. Everest, literally on top of the world? Happy, exhilarated, relieved, or something else entirely?
Mrs Sahoo: To be honest, on finally reaching there, you don’t feel anything. I just looked to my left, China, Tibet, looked all around me once, I realised that there is no place higher to climb, that this is [the top of] all the Earth, That God has given me the opportunity that I became one of the people who had summited Everest. Sagarmatha is called Goddess Sagarmatha, and [taking her blessing and] worshipping and taking the blessings of the peak of Everest, I touched my Sherpa’s feet, and my one worry was that I had to get back down, and I was also prepared for the fact that most deaths occur while getting back down, because the climber is very tired, it is more than 17-18 hours when we summit. I had started off at 9 o’clock in the night and I had reached at 12:40 the next day. So after [climbing] for so many hours, your body does [tire]. So this was my only worry.
Interviewer: Did you face any difficulties in coming back down? Can you elaborate on them a little?
Mrs Sahoo: Yes, it also happens because when you reach, you are very exhausted, when you try to reach a goal, you put in all your energy. I had a cough and a cold, and I had lost hope a little already in the beginning, but I was pushing myself, pushing to my extreme limits, and I never thought I had so much energy hidden energy. Along with physical, I feel, a lot of mental strength is also pushed. Mental strength because earlier in 1997 I had done a Trans-Himalayan journey, Arunachal [Pradesh] to the Siachen Glacier. [For] 4500 km, and a non-stop journey which was also a world record. So in that journey [we] sometimes walked 12, 13, even 14 hours nonstop. So I had that in me. Secondly, during descent, you’re exhausted, and if your oxygen finishes and does not get replaced, you can get hypoxia, all higher altitude sickness, in which you can lose all mental balance, and you can faint, and if it stops for too long, you can get frostbite, which happened to me. After summiting when my oxygen was changed, I had lots of problems during descent, and for 7-8 hours I was on a thin line, I could have died any moment, or live. Even in this situation, I took out that moment.
Interviewer: The theme of our current issue, ‘The Extremities of Being’, is about the extreme parts of the human mind and body, our emotions and actions, and the world around us. According to you, what are some things you’ve experienced or seen people do that are so extreme that they go beyond human limits?
Mrs Sahoo: Everest, in itself, is an extreme, because it is the highest peak in the world. There is only 1/3rd oxygen there. With me, there was also the age factor. Fourthly when you reach that place, I was half unconscious due to the lack of oxygen. So I was partially listening to my Sherpa and was partially in dreamland. But my Sherpa kept reminding me of my children, Nanu and Teesta, my son and daughter, to keep remembering them. I constantly thought of them. So I knew I had to go back, for my children, and tell my story. So my inner, hidden [strength] really supported me.
Interviewer: Do you think your determination, really helped a lot?
Mrs. Sahoo: Yes, lots.
Interviewer: As humans, are always to do things in moderation, that we should be balanced, that we should not go beyond a certain line. Yet we look up to people who break these bars, push their limits and achieve the unachievable. What are your thoughts on this? Are extremes always bad?
Mrs. Sahoo: No, not always, but definitely if you are not prepared for something, suppose if I don’t have physical fitness today, and I eat more than I should, then I will fall sick. But if I am a sportsperson, and my daily routine is good, I can digest what I eat and my body can generate energy from it. The extremes that you do, what kind of extreme is it? Something like Everest, is always extreme, everything in it is extreme. So everything that comes with an extreme, good or bad, will also be extreme, you will get extreme happiness, and extreme pain. It can be of any manner, and you have to be ready to accept it.
Secondly, when you go to do something extreme, if you are mentally prepared, well prepared, then that extreme will not be bad for you, and after achieving it, you will get motivation and inspiration for another leap. It is a new invention. Like me, with frostbite, [in a place] where people couldn’t stay for half an hour, I stayed 8-9 hours with very little oxygen, eight of my fingertips are pressed, and my cheeks have permanent marks of frostbite, but I keep those marks as a remembrance of Everest. I consider it an award that Goddess Sagarmatha has given me. I have not taken plastic surgery. It is a fruit [of my efforts] that if anyone sees me, they will see my extreme beauty in it.
Interviewer: Do you have any words for our readers and today’s youth?
Mrs. Sahoo: I will definitely say that if you have a dream, you have to be ready to fulfil it, and before doing that, there is one thing that you have to keep in mind, that is you cannot waste time, you have to plan properly , and secondly, even I have done it, dreams are different, and everybody has a different Everest in their lives. For example, students in tenth or twelfth, that is their Everest. For parents, seeing that their child grows up well educated and happy is their Everest. As a mountaineer, climbing Mt. Everest was my Everest. In this, there is a life and death factor, and we shouldn’t stop dreaming by thinking of death. Death is death, anywhere, anytime, everyone does not die in the mountains. We should not stop dreaming in fear of death. Parents stop their children if they want to do something extreme. I would like to tell those parents as well that death can be anywhere. But it should not block dreamers. If you want to fulfil a dream, plan properly, and give it your all, and you will know when you do. When you want to do something, you will immerse in it in a dedicated way and won’t be wasting your time.
“Khudi ko kar buland itna, ki har takdir se pehle, Khuda bande se khud puchhe, bol teri raza kya hai.” (When you find your destiny, you have to be so sure of yourself and so dedicated that even God is forced to ask you what you want as your fate). But that is it, be so strong, that whatever dreams you have, you can enjoy the journey to them, you sometimes may not reach the goal, but that journey in itself is very beautiful, and not only for oneself, but for others, it is an example and motivation.
Interviewer: Thank you so much ma’am for being here today, thank you for your wise words.
Mrs. Sahoo: Thank you!