Anshu Jamsenpa made the fastest double ascent of Mount Everest becoming the first woman to reach earth’s highest point twice in five days.
Who is Anshu Jamsenpa? Google her name and a handful of articles refer to her as a mountaineer and a mother of two. Recent articles highlight her scaling Mount Everest twice in five days, which is set to enter the Guinness Book of World Records. She beat a world record set by Chhurim Sherpa of Nepal, who did the double ascent in seven days in 2011.
But the 38-year-old Anshu is much more than all of this. Meet her and she comes across a petite, beautiful and humble woman but deep within, lies a steely resolve and a personality ready to break stereotypes to live the “life of her dreams”.
In the past, Anshu has won beauty pageants and also starred in a movie Classical Dreams, she was the heart and soul of social groups in the North-east till she gave it all up for her love for mountains. Today, that beautiful face is replete with burn marks that reflect her hardships in the mountain, and she proudly basks in her new-found beauty.
“This is my beauty now,” she says referring to the marks that define her struggles and triumphs in the mountain. “This is what makes me beautiful, my dreams make me beautiful.”
But it was not always like that for the Arunachal Pradesh-based Anshu, who was married at 19 and became a mother of two in her early 20s. Life revolved around children and household till one day, she decided to carve out her niche. Contrary to what most women would have done, Anshu told her daughters what they would have never imagined.
She spoke to them about her love for mountaineering, but also told them to be prepared for a day when she might not return home.
“They were just aged 9 and 5 at that time,” recalls Anshu. “I had finished my course in mountaineering and had decided to pursue it professionally. My daughters thought their mom was going to be in a race like situation where the winner brings home the trophy.
“But then here I could be gone forever and I even came close to death once. So I prepared my daughters. I told them, ‘If I leave you all one day and never return, do not cry. Be proud that your mother was chasing her dream and she went that way. Celebrate my death’.”
Age: 38, Birthplace: Bomdila, Arunachal Pradesh
Has scaled Mt Everest six times
Is a mother, motivational speaker and brand ambassador of North East Tourism
In a free-flowing interview with this newspaper, the woman with resolve higher than the mountains talks about life, its lessons, unfurling the tricolour on Mount Everest and her desire to keep trying out new things till her last breath. Excerpts:
People scale the Mount Everest once and say it is enough. You returned and were back again there in five days! How do you get the courage and motivation to do that?
(Laughs) It is not the first time that I had done the double ascent. The first time was in 2011, and I had planned it this way for this time as well. This is my passion and I love doing that, really there is no great secret to it. I still remember during my basic course they used to show us mountaineering movies and once, one of the trainees said, ‘You are not supposed to show us all this. People are dying and there are so many difficulties. It is scary.’
I was shocked to hear this because when you are here for the training, you know this is a sport where risk is prevalent 24 hours. You cannot leave it behind, you have to make it a part of yourself. So, it is better to watch and face it right now and prepare. A lot of people ask me don’t I feel scared for my life. Of course I do, after all we are all humans. But one of the first things that mountaineering teaches us is to overcome that fear, and then face it with eyes open.
How do you look back at those five days when you scaled Mount Everest twice and created a new record?
Exhilarating, tiring, nervous, happy, scared, jumping with joy, utter peace. It was a mix of all emotions. The first day I reached the summit, I was short on oxygen. It was tough… it was that difficult that even if I spoke, I was losing energy. By the time I reached the top, I was dizzy. I reached the South Col but was feeling weak. But I wanted to go on.
Next day, we came back to the base camp and there were a lot of people who congratulated me. They had no idea that it was only half a job done! People offered me local food and someone even opened champagne. They thought she has scaled the summit and then I told them that I am yet to fulfil my mission and have to go back!
Next morning, I washed my clothes and then we had a meeting. A lot of Indian Army and Navy soldiers were there and they encouraged me. I had gone alone and suddenly I was with my country people. That night itself, I began my second attempt at scaling the summit. I slept only for two hours that day and was exhausted. My body was tired but my heart was up for it. And after a few hours, I was on the top. It was surreal.
Can you describe that world to us?
I wish I could! It is totally different… You can see different peaks, the vast mountain area which signifies life. The vastness engulfs you and you understand how small a speck you are on this earth and it brings gratitude. I feel blessed, closer to God. It is a deep spiritual feeling. On a physical level, it is the pride of representing your country and its billion people with the tricolour in your hands. It is something special.
How was your meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on return?
The first question Mr Modi asked me was, “Why did you go up again?” It was all in jest. I said spontaneously that I wanted to bring this record to India. The other thing we discussed was about mountaineering, because mountaineers do not get any benefit from the sports policy. So I requested him to include it into the national sports policy.
Do you ever feel scared, given that some of the mountaineers who went with you never returned?
It happens… during my first climb this time, I saw one of the overseas climbers die in front of me. I stopped, I was shaken and did not feel like moving ahead. I wanted to help him but there is not much we can do since it is not easy to help in such conditions.
My sherpa and I looked at him and I was in tears. It was my moment of reckoning and I took my time, gathered myself and continued my climb. I am going to write to the authorities to provide better facilities and medical help.
Have you ever had near-death experiences?”
Yes. In 2011, I came close to dying. I was stuck in a jetstream. I prayed and said thank you God, my life was up to here only. We were in such a situation that survival wasn’t on my mind.
I hadn’t seen such a worse phase of nature but luckily we survived. We were heading to the summit from Camp 3 when we got a call on radio that weather wasn’t conducive to progress. Me and my sherpa just looked at each other and didn’t even get time to discuss it… within three or four seconds, we were caught in the jetstream. My sherpa fell and I couldn’t even see him properly. He was not moving and when I called out, he could not hear me. I just thought all is over.
Entire night, we stayed there and I just prayed. I thought of my daughters, my life and said sorry to God for bringing my sherpa to this condition. In the morning, things eased out and we finally managed to find our way back.
But has all this never deterred you from your expeditions?
See, the day we decide to become mountaineers we know there is risk involved. There is not a single time when we are sure if we would return.
But we never think of giving up. All of us have to leave this world one day, we are not here permanently so let us at least follow our passion and do what we want to. Has anyone ever be able to evade death? So why should I think otherwise?
Your daughters are very young (16 and 12), do they never stop you from taking up such excursions?
I got them to sit with me one day and had a heart-to-heart talk. I told them that if something happens to me in the mountains, you should not cry. You should be proud and happy that your mother was a brave woman who died while following her passion.
In 2011, when I took up my first serious and toughest expedition, my daughters were too small. They did not understand the risk factor. It was difficult to make them understand. Also, I had a fear that what if someone puts negative things in their minds and they never get to understand what their mother was doing away from home for so many days.
That fear made me write a diary to them. It was quite an emotional moment. And I wrote to them about how important it was to follow one’s passion. Indirectly, I mentioned that I might not even return one day.
Their reaction was very interesting, especially my younger daughter. She thought it was a sport, just like a race in her school, where one has to finish first or second. So in her sweet, childlike voice, she told me, “So mummy, bring home the first prize!” So, even if they do no understand it, they have embraced it. It motivated me to prove myself worthy to my children.
What is your driving force as you know mountaineering will not make you so popular, neither do you get financial gains?
When I began, people had doubts. I had started late, I was 28, a mother and there were a lot of negative talk. Those doubts became my real motivation in life.
With passage of time, those doubts converted into appreciation. So then that became my motivation. People begin to understand more about mountaineering and some said they were inspired by me. It gave me the push, the energy to continue. But the biggest reason is my two daughters. I always used to tell them to follow their passion. I think the best way to do it is to live by example.
Please take us through your childhood.
I was a good student with a lot of energy. Even then, I used to run and climb on the hills though I did not know that I was so passionate about it. I got married when I was 19 and became a mother at a young age. My husband, Tsering Wange, is the president of Arunachal Mountaineering and Adventure Sports Association and also runs a travel agency. I used to assist him. At times, he was away from home for long periods and I looked after home and work both.
Then how did mountaineering happen?
I always wanted to do something for myself. There was no guidance or time as I got married early and had kids. But slowly, that feeling of doing something for myself engulfed me. I began with taking part in social activities, competed in beauty pageants and won them too, I used to sing at social events and one day, I landed a role in a movie Crossing Bridges in 2013. I took part in car racing, river rafting and even para-gliding. God has given multi talent to everyone and I was exploring mine.
So, you are saying you gave up movies for mountaineering?
One of my friends knew this director and I joked that what about a role for me? Without telling me, my friend sent my photographs and after a few days, they came to my home and offered me that role. I was shocked!
My initial reaction was a no, since I had no experience but then they took a screen test and I finally did that movie. But it was quite tough believe me. Make up, dialogues… it wasn’t easy.
Tougher than even scaling mountain peaks?
(Laughs) Yes, totally. I used to struggle with dialogue delivery and yes, I find mountaineering easy! You can say I left the glamour world since after that I was even invited to take part in Gladrags Mrs India, but my interest was in the mountains. During one of the mountaineering events, I told my husband that I want to try my hand at it. And thus my journey started.
What was the transition like from being a housewife, a mother to a woman who would now be away from home for long periods?
Once my course was done, I had a serious discussion with my husband and told him that I want to scale Everest. The kids were in boarding school at that time. I told him that I will prove myself if you support me.
It also allowed the children to bond more with their father and yes, my husband learnt to cook as well. Before this, he couldn’t even warm food or make tea, he was that bad!
So who is a better cook at home, now?
(Laughs) Well, I had never thought I would get to eat anything cooked by my husband, but now I do. We will leave the discussion on who is a better cook!
Is it true that you once went into depression because of lack of funds and support?
Yes, I was in depression a few years ago because of this. After so many expeditions, I was mentally and physically exhausted because every expedition is an effort. A lot of running around... the resources dried up. There were days I did not want to do it any more but then I pushed myself again.
Earlier this year, I was lucky to get a permit and then find a sponsor for my recent expeditions and I found the courage to return. That is why I am pressing so much for mountaineering to be included in the sports policy. If that happens, we too can compete like other athletes and get government funding.