In sports like cricket and football you have a stadium full of 80,000 fans cheering for you. In mountaineering, it is the opposite. In the solitude of white mountains and blue skies you have to motivate yourself to win against the vagaries of nature while at the same time live your dream of reaching the top.
Such is the story of Saachi Soni, 20, a BA (Hons.) Mass Media and Mass Communication student from Indraprastha College for Women, who has gone on to achieve laurels for herself and her country as India’s youngest woman to have been selected for an expedition to Mount Everest by the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. She was also the first from the country to reach Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest peak.
Unlike other students of her age who used to spend their vacations watching movies, visiting grandparents or joining summer school, Saachi, then 7, used to go snow skiing in the valleys of Gulmarg and Manali. That’s where she fell in love with the Himalayas. Seeing her admiration for the mountains and realizing her potential in adventure sports, her father got her enrolled for basic and advanced courses in mountaineering, snow skiing, water and rescue search operations.
The young girl’s passion for mountaineering defeated every hardship that came her way. Throughout her teenage years she trained and scaled summits in Gharwal and Sikkim Himalayas like Mt Bandarpunch (21,600 ft), Mt Renok (18,000 ft), Mt DKD (17,800 ft) and Mt VC Roy (20,000 ft), before getting selected by the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling for the first ever student expedition to Mt Everest (8.850 ft).
Her selection for the expedition was based on a rigorous training program, in which she had to scale two technical peaks wearing shoes weighing 2kgs each and carrying 25kgs loaded bag packs. Saachi says these were the 14 crucial hours when she felt she was carrying her entire life over a distance of 40kms.
And as she describes the obstacles she faced, her travails take on a new meaning.The young mountaineer experienced low oxygen levels, bleeding through the mouth, an empty stomach, fierce wind, steep crevasses, and avalanches. The most devastating was seeing the dead bodies of her fellow climbers lying on the way and being faced with the dilemma of whether to help them or move forward and save oneself.
Towards her ambition to climb the highest peaks of all the seven continents, she recently scaled the summit of Europe’s highest peak, Mt Elbrus in Russia. “We were 12 climbers from different parts of the world. I was also named the “mountain machine” of the team because I was the first person to summit the peak. The climate was extremely harsh and there were moments when I wondered if I’ll be able to return back to my family and friends. When I looked down from the crevasses, I could see no end,” she recalls.
“My expedition was flagged off by the Home Minister of India. Despite winds blowing on my face at the speed of 200kmph and standing with my feet bleeding due to shoe bites, I was emotional when I unfurled the tricolour and sang the national anthem. It was a proud moment, I kissed and bowed at the peak and thanked the mountain for allowing me to step on it.”
Saachi’s daily 6 hour rigorous training schedule on an average includes running for 10-15kms, weight training, push-ups, swimming, yoga and playing football in the college grounds with the children of the staff quarters and nearby slums.
Often, her ability to manage college studies with training comes into question. But she is strongly supported by Dr Babli Moitra Saraf, Principal, IP College who says the college believes in walking the extra mile to enable those who show special abilities. Saachi Soni has been bestowed several awards like The Best Student Award, Principal Honor Roll Call and Young Achievers Award by the college. She is also grateful to the Vice Chancellor of DU for providing her waivers for examinations and helping her achieve her dreams. Funding for expeditions can sometimes be a task as arduous as climbing a mountain peak itself and Saachi relies heavily on government and private firms for sponsorships.
The young ‘mountain machine’ is determined to bring a change in the perspective towards mountaineering as an adventure sport and career option. Currently she works with WWF India as a motivational speaker to promote mountaineering by the producing videos and photo journals on the topic.
Her future plans include improving infrastructure facilities for mountaineers in India and introducing mountaineering and climbing as sports at the school level. She feels this would be the best way to hone leadership qualities in students and prepare them for hurdles in life.
We wish Saachi Soni all the very best for all her ventures!
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