Climb every mountain

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India’s first female amputee mountaineer is on a quest to scale the highest peaks of every continent

Where there is a will, there is a way, says a resolute Arunima Sinha. The 28-year-old former elite athlete is India’s first female amputee to successfully climb Mount Everest. Amputee-mountaineers Tom Whittaker (1998) and Rhonda Graham (2011) are the record holders for first male and female respectively. A mission near impossible, even for the able bodied, the treacherous 8,848m hike to the pinnacle of the sacred Himalayas has become a symbolic pilgrimage for record-setting, awareness-raising and charity drives, since Hillary and Norgay’s maiden conquest.

For Arunima Sinha though, it all started as a deeply personal journey during the darkest period of her life.

“Mountaineering is an unforgiving sport, where there are no second chances. Fundamental to the quest is self-belief, mental resilience, patience and humility,” explained Sinha, who was recently awarded the Padma Shri. “On the slippery slopes of Mount Everest, there is no room for ego.”

Having conquered the world’s highest mountain, Sinha is now on a quest to tackle its humble cousins across the seven continents of the world. An ardent devotee of Ramakrishna Paramahans and Swami Vivekananda, she plans to consecrate each peak with their idol.

Arunima Sinha was in Australia recently to climb Mount Kosciuszko, scaling the 2228 metres on 15 April with relative ease. Sinha as already ascended the peaks of Kilimanjaro (5895m) in Tanzania; Elbrus (5642m) on the Russia-Georgia border; and McKinley (6194m) in Alaska. She is now training her sights on Aconcagua (6962m) in the Andes and Vinson Massif (4892m) in Antarctica.

“Each mountain has its own unique challenges. I want to dedicate my achievement to those who give up hope so that they never lose heart and achieve their dreams,” Sinha said.

“By conquering all the seven summits I will prove that physical disability can never be a hindrance in achieving your life’s goal if you have mental strength, will power and determination,” she told Indian Link in Sydney.

The former elite volleyball player lost her left limb in April 2011, after she was thrown off a moving train at Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh for resisting a chain-snatching attempt by unidentified offenders. She was en route to New Delhi for a job interview with the Central Industrial Security Forces. Lying helplessly on the tracks for over seven hours, she was run over by an oncoming train before being rescued by villagers and transported to the local hospital. Such horrific episodes are not uncommon in India’s central heartland. Luckily for Sinha, she was airlifted to All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi for emergency treatment. A woman of limited means, she also managed to find a sponsor for her prosthetic treatment.

“Those four months were the turning point of my life. I was quite literally reborn in the trauma unit of AIIMS,” Sinha recalled in chaste Hindi, speaking of her antaratma, or inner soul, being wakened.

“Perhaps this was my destiny but I was determined to shape it myself henceforth. Inspired by cricketer Yuvraj’s Singh battle against cancer, even as I lay there on the bed, I resolved to achieve the impossible. As an amputee, I dared to dream of Everest,” she boldly admitted.

For Arunima Sinha, Swami Vivekananda’s clarion call – “arise, awake and stop not until the goal is reached” – shone like a beacon of hope in those very dark times. “Both my faith and my family were my firm bedrock,” she remembered.

Contacting Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to scale Everest, Sinha began her training in earnest after her discharge, first at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering at Uttarkashi and later at Tata Steel Adventure Foundation. Sinha’s grit and determination moved Bachendri to tears. In preparation for the treacherous task ahead, she ascended the 6150-metre high, Island Peak and 6662-metre Mount Chamser Kangri in Lhadhak.

Barely two years later, in May 2013, Arunima Sinha realised her dream, scaling the summit of Mount Everest after a 52-day hike.

Sinha’s life changing experience has also attracted Hollywood attention, with a potential film on the cards. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently launched her autobiography Born Again on the Mountain.

Besides conquering her personal mountains, Sinha simultaneously embarked on yet another ambitious journey – to launch a state of art, multi-sport facility for the physically challenged and financially under-privileged.

“Having achieved my goal, I want to help physically challenged people achieve theirs so that they can also become self-dependent and nobody looks at them with pity.”

Sinha’s grand plans have begun taking shape with the purchase of land in Unnao district, Uttar Pradesh. With 35 needy students already under her wing, the centre will be named Chandra Shekhar Azad Viklaang Khel Academy.

“Sport makes people resilient. It builds focus, courage and endurance,” Sinha explained.

“Through this academy I want to provide a platform for the differently abled, so they can stand up for themselves. As an amputee, I can understand their pain and anguish. I want to train them, make them independent and strong. My objective is to empower them through our complete support so that they can get equal opportunities and full participation in society.”

From an absolute nobody, Arunima Sinha has made a name and place for herself. “I want to create more Arunimas in this world. I have the fire in my belly and the courage to put up a fight. Many cannot stand up for themselves. I believe it is my duty to inspire fellow Indians to overcome hurdles.”

With this aim in mind, Sinha has also travelled the length and breadth of India motivating people to take up a lakshya or challenge. She is particularly keen to engage with the youth and has been invited by peak corporate and educational bodies to give motivational talks.

Fresh from her Australian conquest, Arunima Sinha is already planning another trip Down Under to ski the slopes of Thredbo and is hoping to find a benefactor.

Her odyssey has already brought in much financial support and raised the profile of the physically challenged, but as she admits candidly, there are still miles to go.