Who Was the First Indian Woman to Climb Mount Everest?

The great nation of India has a deep fascination with Mount Everest and has given us many fine mountaineers. We hear a great deal about the first Indian men to climb Everest, but who was the first Indian woman to climb the world’s highest mountain?

The first Indian woman to climb Mount Everest was Bachendri Pal, reaching the summit on May 23rd, 1984, one day before her 30th birthday.

You might expect the first Indian woman to climb Mount Everest to be a city-dwelling middle class woman from a wealthy family. But Bachendri Pal was very far from that. Read on if you would like to know more about her…

The First Indian Woman to Summit Everest

Bachendri Pal was born into a Bhotiya family on May 24th, 1954. The Bhotiya ethnic group, like the Sherpas are of Tibetan heritage and, like the Sherpas have a physiology well adapted for living at high altitude.

They live along the Indo-Tibetan border within sight of the Himalayas at elevations ranging from 6,500 feet (2,000 m) to 13,000 feet (4,000 m). Pal’s father, Shri Kishan Singh Pal worked as a border trader who supplied groceries from India over the border into Tibet.

Bachendri Pal
Bachendri Pal – courtesy of President’s Secretariat (GODL-India), CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Little Bachendri was born to her mother, Hansa Devi in the village of Nakuri, in the Uttarkashi region of the Indian state of Uttarakhand.

Her family were rural working-class people, but by dint of hard work and innate intelligence she did well at school, ending up with an M.A. and B.Ed. from the Post Graduate College in Dehradun. (Source: brittania.com)

But instead of becoming a teacher, Bachendri Pal had other ideas.

Bachendri had had a taste of mountaineering when she was just twelve years old. She climbed a 13,123 ft (4,000 m) high mountain during a school picnic!

Then, encouraged by her school’s principal she attended a course at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. This had been established at Uttarkashi on 14th Nov 1965 to honour Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, who loved the mountains.

Bachendri Pal became the first woman to climb Mount Chaukhamba I (in the Gangotri Group), height 23,419 ft (7,138.1 m) and Mount Rudragaria 19,091 ft (5,818.9 m), both during 1982.

At the same time she became an instructor at the National Adventure Foundation, which had set up an adventure school for training women in the skills of mountaineering. As a result she was selected for India’s first mixed-gender team to attempt Mount Everest. Her first sight of the mountain had a profound effect on her, as it has for many of us:

“We, the hill people, have always worshipped the mountains… my overpowering emotion at this awe-inspiring spectacle was, therefore, devotional.”

Bachendri Pal (source: Everest – My Journey to the Top, her autobiography).

The serious climbing on Everest started in May 1984. Then an avalanche struck one of their high camps, burying it in deep snow, and more than half her expedition members had to abandon their attempts due to fatigue or injury. But Bachendri Pal and her remaining teammates pressed on and she reached the summit of Mount Everest on May 23, 1984. (source: wikipedia.com)

She had demonstrated that even a working-class woman from a rural part of India could reach the top of the world, given enough intelligence, drive and determination.

indian flag on a summit

Climbing Everest lends enormous prestige in India, and Bachendri Pal became famous throughout the land. The following year she returned to Mount Everest and led an all-woman team to the summit.

Demonstrating that her adventurous nature wasn’t confined just to the mountains, in 1994 she led another all-woman team, this time on a raft 1,500 miles (2,500 km) down the sacred River Ganges.

Three years later, in 1997 she led yet another all-woman team, this time on a long traverse of the Himalayan mountain chain, from Arunachal Pradesh in the east to the Siachen Glacier in the west. This was a 2,500 mile-long journey (4000 km). As a result of her Everest summit she won India’s fourth highest civilian award, the Padma Shree. (source: wikipedia).

“Adventure should be part of everyone’s life. It is the whole difference between being fully alive and just existing.”

Bachendri Pal (source: goodreads.com)

Who is the Youngest Indian Woman to Reach the Summit of Everest?

There is another example of an Indian woman from an unprivileged background who found success on the world’s highest mountain.

The youngest Indian woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest was Malavath Purna, aged thirteen.

Yes, you read that right: Malavatha Purna, or “Poorna” was just thirteen years and eleven months old when she topped out, becoming the youngest Indian and the youngest female person to reach the summit.

Like Bachendri Pal she came from a small village: Pakala in the Nizamabad district of Telangana state. Her father, Devidas Malavath, encouraged her to join the Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society (TSWREIS) when she was just ten years old.

Indian flag against a snowy mountain

TSWREIS exists to give residential high-quality education to poor “Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, and Other Backward Caste students” (source: Wikipedia).

Her father wanted Poorna to get a better education and experience a better life beyond her village. There she was talent-spotted and selected for a mountain climbing workshop, where she was trained by Shekhar Babu, a professional mountaineer (source: thehindu.com).

“Stepping out of my village gave me opportunities I didn’t even dream of. In my new school, I felt like a newborn butterfly emerging from her her cocoon,”

Malavatha Purna (source: thehindu.com)

The question that comes to mind when you read a story like this is: how many more Poornas are there? And how many have we missed? In 2017, a film was released simply named Poorna. In it, Aditi Inamdar played the role of Poorna, and this film showed how education can change the lives of girls in rural India. As did Poorna herself.

Who Was the First Disabled Indian Woman to Climb Everest?

Mount Everest has become a symbol of aspiration to many of us, and surely none more than to Indian women mountaineers.

Arunima Sinha was the first disabled Indian woman to climb Mount Everest, topping out in May 2013.

Her’s is an even more extraordinary story than those of her predecessors. Arunima Sinha was a national-level volleyball player when she was thrown off a moving train by thieves and fell onto the opposite tracks.

Lying there stunned she was run over by another train, which crushed her leg beneath the knee. Doctors had to amputate the limb. Here’s the story in her own words:

“I resisted and they pushed me out of the train. I could not move. I remember seeing a train coming towards me. I tried getting up. By then, the train had run over my leg. I don’t remember anything after that.”

Arunima Sinha (source: wikipedia).

Lying in hospital, her young life in ruins, Arunima wondered what to do next:

“”I was an amputee now, and people were looking at me with pity in their eyes. I decided then and there that I would do something to prove myself. And mountaineering was the only option. It was the only option where there were no chances of saying sorry. If you committed a mistake, life would be the one saying sorry to you,”

Arunima Sinha (source: Indiatoday.in).

Then Arunima Sinha came to a decision:

“When I was undergoing treatment at AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences) for four months, I could not do anything on my own. But then one day I decided to climb the Everest.”

Arunima Sinha (source: firstpost.com).

Amazingly, she wasn’t the first woman amputee to attempt the mountain. 61-year-old American woman Rhonda Graham, a left-leg amputee, climbed Mount Everest in October 2011.

And while filming Everest: Beyond the Limit in May 2006 I climbed with Mark Inglis, a New Zealand double amputee who summited on 15th May, 2006. Mark had lost both legs to frostbite on Mount Cook in 1982. I remember him telling me that at least he didn’t get cold feet! (source: wikipedia).

What is interesting is that for all these people Mount Everest became a symbol of success they strove for. And this is why some other kinds of mountaineers keep well away from the highest mountain in the world.

You might also be interested in the first Indian man to climb Everest, too.

About Graham Hoyland

Graham was the 15th Briton to Climb Mount Everest. He has spent over two years across nine expeditions to the mountain and is the author of Last Hours on Everest, the story of Mallory and Irvine's fatal ascent.