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  • Tania Haldar

HPR Hero: CHHANDA GAYEN

What if you were so poor that each meal you had to have, depended upon your ability to sell petty household items? What would your daily thoughts and actions consist of? How would your situation shape every decision you took on a day to day basis? Would, by any length of imagination, scaling the highest point in this world be a part of your thoughts? Most likely not. But for a certain girl from in a small town close to Kolkata in West Bengal, India, a dream was born. The dream to reach the highest point in this world. Literally.


Meet Chhanda Gayen. A woman in her twenties who had nothing but the bare minimum to keep both ends together, dared to dream of something apart from struggling just to keep alive. Watching a group of young boys scale the rocky face of a hillock nearby was enough of an adrenaline rush for this little girl. A single minded focus entered the very spirit of Chhanda - to reach the top of the world’s highest mountain: Mt. Everest. And then on, nothing could replace her dream. And how could it, as nothing else on this planet was higher than that. The small town where Chhanda comes from, there is no access to artificial rock climbing clubs. Enrolling into a top flight climbing course in the country was neither a choice, nor a distant possibility for her.


But when passion is your driving force, handicaps seem mere part of the package. A basic rock climbing in the Susunia Hills of Purulia was possible, and thus came the first taste of climbing in 1998. From there it took her 8 more years to be certified from the premier Himalayan Institute of Mountaineering, Darjeeling with an ‘A’ Grade. A gold medallist in swimming and national level champion in Taekwondo and Karate, she climbed the Mount Yogin 1 and Yogin 3 in 2008 – and became the first Indian to do so in the same day itself. But bigger things awaited her. After a couple of climbs in between, she embarked on what is every mountaineer’s dream.


In May 2013, Chhanda Gayen, at this time 31, became the second woman from Bengal to scale the Mount Everest. She also became the first civilian woman from the state to do so. But this girl, who loves riding fast on a motorbike and crooning to Bangla and Hindi songs, wanted a bit more. And she was in a hurry too.


She went on to climb Mt Lhotse, the fourth highest peak in the world, within the next 52 hours. Only she can tell us how it feels to look at the moon behind the Everest, standing at 28,169 feet. She has certainly done India proud to have been the first ever woman in the world to climb Everest and Lhotse – back-to-back within 52 hours! A true story of grit and determination, dreams and inspiration – here’s Chhanda giving a glimpse of her struggle, grit and the “ultimate” experience.


“Many things that come easy for a lot of people, weren't applicable to me. Nor was I privy to the opportunities that big city people have, staying in Kona in Howrah. Our family’s financial condition didn’t really allow anyone to think beyond the limited sphere. So finally when I was capable of actually taking a shot at the world’s highest peak, reality hit me. I had the credentials and the skills. But that was it. I hadn’t done anything worth mentioning before that, and so I couldn’t expect anyone to sponsor me. You can’t just walk up to corporate or a person and say that ‘I can climb the Mt. Everest, so please sponsor me. It was a really difficult time. You need a lot of physical endurance in mountaineering, sometimes that’s beyond your imagination.


The weather too plays a big factor, and therefore you have to be in top physical condition. I have always been an athlete and an avid swimmer which helped shape me in my formative years. For one single climb, months of preparation goes in. And even then, the time-window to succeed is very limited. I was desperate to make my preparedness count. But I just didn’t have the money. I had asked for assistance, but few came forward. I don’t blame them because climbing the Mt Everest is one sure-shot way of losing your life if even a little something goes wrong. And then stepped in my angel.


The one person, who should have been the most frightened, decided to throw that thought in the back-burner and help me out. My mother. Mothers in India usually save their jewelry for her daughter’s marriage. But my mother sold whatever little she had and decided to fund my attempt. But how much jewelry could my mother provide - actually not even 25 per cent of my entire expenditure that cost Rs 18 lakhs (approximately 30,000 USD).


So after her jewelry, came our LIC papers and everything else that could be mortgaged. When I think of it today, I get shivers down my spine. ‘What was my mother thinking? What if I had failed? What if something untoward had happened? What would she have done after that, with practically nothing left?’


I was still short of money. Thankfully a nationalized bank and state’s youth department provided me with rest of the money and I embarked on a two-month long uncertain journey. My father, my biggest supporter used to accompany me on most of my previous expeditions. But he passed away in 2010, leaving a vacuum within me that can never be replaced ever again. It was he who had made me realize that I can actually fulfill my dream, that I can actually climb the Mt Everest. Now with him leaving my hand halfway through my dream, I carried on, clutching only onto his belief in me and I reached the base camp.


The acclimatization process is a detailed one. Once you reach an altitude that high, one needs to gradually blend with bone chilling temperature and thin air. Also, many days are spent playing the waiting game as the weather can be bad for days at length. Over the next more than one-and-half months, our gradual ascend continued. Apart from the difficult terrain that is a mountaineer’s ultimate challenge, what moved me most were the dead bodies dotting the mount. They were all climbers like me – death claimed some even before they could realize the Everest-dream, and others never came back to tell their tale. They all lay there, some for over decades now – in nature’s best cold-storage.


In the wee hours on May 18th 2013, we marched on and conquered the last few hundred meters to the top. The next couple of hours brought with it, magic! Every day, there are many people doing the same thing around the world at the same time. Sleeping, eating, talking, watching TV etc...But on that dawn, there was only one person standing on the highest point on Earth watching the sun come down below her feet! And that was me! I had conquered my fears! I had finally achieved my dream that was born within me years ago. Yes, I had done it, and the feeling was magical! But 8,848 meters is not really the height where you can sit and enjoy the view or bathe in your own glory. The weather would have deteriorated, so we started descending. Everest was done. Yes, it truly was! But that wasn’t the end of my journey. I wanted to push myself more. And almost immediately, I saw my next goal - Mt Lhotse – the fourth highest peak in the world at 8516 m. But as I was to find out Lhotse was even more difficult that Everest. The former has been climbed by quite a few people and therefore the route can be termed ‘safer’. But I wasn’t willing to give up.


Despite being told from the base to come back as the back-to-back physical exhaustion can be fatal, I didn’t want to let go the chance. I guess it was the realization that this may be my last chance – ‘I never had the money, I may never have it again. So if I’m here now, I shall give it everything I have.’


The climb to the Lhotse peak threw up similar sights; rather even more dead bodies lay on this route. But this time around I was moved little and was determined to complete the climb. I remember on the last leg of the climb barely a few meters away from the summit the space was so less that I actually had to step on dead climber’s hand for the final push. And 52 hours after I had seen the world from atop it, I was seeing Everest once again – this time from Lhotse’s peak. I didn’t know what my future had in store for me. But all I knew was I had done it.


It was only later that I knew that I was the first woman to do this ‘hurried trip’ of Everest and Lhotse back-to-back, but at that moment it was only bliss. I had proven my father right, I had not let down my mother, I hadn’t disappointed anyone who supported me. And I had given myself the courage that would from now on pave my life’s path in a different way,” concludes Chhanda.


CHHANDA GAYEN'S STORY THAT WAS WRITTEN IN JANUARY 2014 TOUCHED THE HEARTS OF MANY. I WAS SHOCKED AND SADDENED TO HEAR THAT GAYEN DIED IN AN AVALANCHE IN ONE OF HER EXPEDITIONS LATER THAT SAME YEAR. OUR THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS GO OUT TO CHHANDA'S MOTHER AND TO ALL HER WELL WISHERS. WHILE SHE LEAVES A HUGE HOLE IN THE LIVES OF HUNDREDS, WE THANK HER FOR LEAVING US WITH HER HEROIC STORY AND THE INSPIRATION FOR THE REST OF THE GIRLS IN HER HOMETOWN TO PASSIONATELY FOLLOW THEIR DREAMS, COME WHAT MAY, AND TO LIVE LIFE LIKE HEROES.


CHHANDA, THANK YOU FOR BEING THE FIRST EVER HPR HERO. You live on gloriously, even in death.


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