“It was truly a top-of-the-world feeling. Not a cloud in the sky, no obstruction between the horizon and me… Sitting on the platform I had made with my ice-axe, I had a clear, 360-degree view. I knew my life would change after that moment.”
Life did change. Flight Lieutenant Nivedita Choudhary became the first woman from the Indian Air Force (IAF) to summit the Mt. Everest – and the first woman from Rajasthan to achieve this feat. In fact, she was feted by the state chief minister for her rare achievement. “The one hour I spent on world’s highest point etched my name in history. It will always be the best moment of my life,” she says with a smile.
It was in October 2009 that Choudhary, an IAF officer who had just joined the squadron in Agra, chanced upon a broadcast calling for volunteers for IAF’s women expedition to the Everest. She volunteered for the extreme adventure activity “just like that” – without realising that, three years later, she would do what no woman in the air force had ever done. The other women Everest summiteers on her team, Squadron Leader Nirupama Pandey and Flight Lieutenant Rajika Sharma, climbed the peak five days later.
Of course, these are not the only firsts to Choudhary’s name. Just a year earlier, she had been the first and only IAF officer to date to scale the 7,557-metre Mt. Kamet, India’s highest climbing peak. Recalls the 27-year-old, who went to a government girls’ school in Jaipur, “Kamet was more eventful than Everest. The weather was very bad. There were no ropes and the route was full of hidden crevasses. Half way, we considered aborting the attempt. I had an Army ‘jawan’ (soldier) and an airman with me. As the senior-most in the team, I had to take a call. We could have been lost in the snow or have fallen into a crevasse since we couldn’t see a thing. But I thought, let’s do it. I was thinking a successful ascent would erase the memories of the previous attempt in 2005 when the IAF team had been caught in severely turbulent conditions and had to be rescued. I am happy I took the risk.” On the descent, though, they mountaineers did meet up with a rescue team looking out for them with high-intensity lights and whistles.
For Choudhary, the Kamet expedition was a precursor to the Everest mission. Incidentally, it was the third expedition for the IAF women mountaineering team after Mt. Stok Kangri (6,153 metres) in August 2010 and Mt. Bhagirathi-II (6,512 metres) in September-October 2009. Before she started off on her mountaineering trips Choudhary had undergone a month-long training in basic mountaineering in Darjeeling in November 2009 and it was on the basis of her performance there that she had made the cut for the Everest expedition. The Everest expedition was flagged off a day after she turned 26 on April 13, 2011. Thirty-seven days later, she was literally on top of the world.
The youngest woman on the team – comprising eight women officers, one medical officer and eight male soldiers – Choudhary gives a blow-by-blow account of the attempt. “We were at south col on May 20. The weather was initially bad, with wind speeds of 40-50 knots. Our team leader, Group Captain Dahiya, was in two minds. We started walking from the summit camp (8,000 metres) at 10 p.m. after the wind calmed a little. My Sherpa didn’t take oxygen. After two hours, his body gave up. I looked back and there was no one behind me. My spare oxygen bottle was also with him,” she recalls.
Undeterred, she decided to trace her way back a little and look for him. It was only after an hour of descend that Choudhary found him. “I gave him oxygen and waited another hour before the two of us began our ascent. At 3 a.m., I was at the balcony, the only place where climbers can stand straight – otherwise it’s all inclines of 60-70 degrees. Finally, at 8 a.m., I had conquered the world’s highest mountain peak,” she says.
Corporal Raju Sindhu summited an hour later. Squadron Leader Nirupama Pandey and Flight Lieutenant Rajika Sharma along with Squadron Leader D. Panda, Sergeant Jasbir Singh and Corporal Ganesh Pokhariyal, triumphed five days later. The entire IAF team, which had followed the southeast ridge route – Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had used this route in 1953 during the first Everest ascent – despite facing technical challenges thrown up by the extremely volatile Khumbu icefall, had successfully put seven climbers on the Everest.
Choudhary, today, is a firm believer that women make successful mountaineers, “I would say, it’s easier for women (to scale such heights). It’s more a mind game than entailing physical strength, and women are always mentally more stable and can take more stress than men.”
Mountaineering, however, was never her first love; it was the skies that had captured her imagination. Although she had completed her Bachelor’s degree in Technology from Jaipur’s Arya Engineering College, engineering was always her second option when it came to a career. Her heart was set on being an officer in the Air Force. “I was in the NCC Air Wing in college and I got a chance to fly a little bit. It entailed just one or two sorties in a Super Dimona aircraft, but I decided I wanted to be in the Indian Air Force,” she elaborates.
Choudhary appeared for the Service Selection Board (SSB) examinations in the final year of engineering and got selected. Today, she is a navigator in the transport fleet and flies the A-32 aircraft. In her never ending list of firsts is also the fact that she is the first person from her family to join the defence forces. Her father, Prabhakar Singh Choudhary, 53, was a farmer in Mukundgarh village, in the Nawalgarh tehsil of Jhunjhunu district, before he shifted to the state capital in order to ensure that his three children – two daughters and a son – had access to better education and employment opportunities. The family led a humble existence, living in a modest home, and since her father couldn’t afford expensive private education, the two girls, Nivedita and her younger sister, Deepika, went to the Gandhi Nagar Government Girls’ School.
An inspired Deepika, who also completed her engineering from Jaipur, has followed in her sister’s footsteps. She worked with Engineers India Limited for a year before getting commissioned in the Indian Navy in 2011. “Deepika had watched me and was very impressed by the disciplined, safe and respectful environment for girls in the defence forces,” explains her proud older sibling.
The next project Choudhary has set for herself is to climb all 14 eight-thousanders – peaks that are more than 8,000 metres high. So far, only two women – 38-year-old Basque Spanish Edurne Pasaban Lizarribar and 41-year-old Austrian Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner – have done this, and it’s no mean task. Pasaban, in fact, completed this feat in May 2010, nine years after she climbed her first 8,000 peak, the Everest.
Choudhary isn’t sure if she can summit all 14 peaks as an IAF officer before she retires at 35. But she still has eight years to go and the spirited young woman nurses “high” ambitions.