The Amputee who climbed Everest

“Arunima, your oxygen supply is going to finish soon. Let’s go back.”

Surprised, Arunima turned to face the Sherpa. She was standing at Hillary Step. Barely fifty metres away was the summit of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world. There was no way she was turning back now.

Zinda rahi toh you can always try it the next time.”

Arunima carefully weighed her options. If she failed this time, she could say bye-bye to all the sponsorship she had received. The golden chance, that she had now, was once in a lifetime opportunity. Who knows whether things would ever be the same again. No, she couldn’t let this opportunity go waste.

Brushing aside the Sherpa’s advice, she renewed her ascent.

An hour later, she was standing at the highest point in the world. She wanted to shout. She wanted to scream. She wanted to tell all those who doubted her that she had done it. With her heart fluttering with excitement, she looked around. It was a breathtaking sight. She unfurled the Indian flag, hugged it tight and held it in her hands. Pride was evident in her eyes. Only when you are in an alien land, far away from your country, do you realise the importance of your national flag.

She asked the Sherpa to click a photograph.

The Sherpa was unhappy. He knew that with each passing second, the chances of Arunima reaching back safely were decreasing. Nevertheless, he obliged.

Arunima was not done yet. She asked the Sherpa to make a video as well. She had already stocked her bag with extra batteries and other necessary paraphernalia.

The Sherpa shouted, “Have you gone mad. If continue behaving like this, you are not going to reach down alive.”

Arunima was past caring now. Even if she didn’t reach alive, she knew that she had fulfilled her mission. If not her, then at least this video should make it to the youth of her country. They were the ones she dreamed of inspiring with this achievement of hers. Her story would provide a ray of hope to all those who had lost their fighting spirit.

Arunima’s will prevailed and they shot a video as well. Finally, the descent began.

As Arunima climbed down, supported by a rope, her happiness knew no bounds. Today, her life had come a full circle. Most people had called her mad, when she had expressed her desire to enter the world of mountaineering. With one leg amputated and a rod in another, along with three fractures in the spine, the chances of her being able to get up from the bed seemed pretty slim. And at that moment she had expressed her desire to climb Mount Everest. No wonder, people reacted sharply. But none of them knew what was going on inside the mind & heart of this young girl. Or they would have realised that she was dead serious about her words.

The Sherpa wasn’t wrong in his estimate. Arunima’s oxygen supply was dwindling fast. Climbing down without artificial oxygen was not impossible, but the physically demanding nature of the journey, did not leave people with the energy required.

Few hours later, the inevitable happened. Arunima’s oxygen supply finished. Her body demanded more oxygen but the valve did not have anything to pump back. Her body, already crushed with fatigue, completely gave up. Her legs wobbled and she fell down.

Sherpa turned around and spoke in a encouraging tone.

“You have to do it Arunima. You have come this far. You can’t give up now.”

But no matter how hard she tried, she didn’t just seem to have the strength to get up. She could feel the life ebbing out of her, slow and steady.

As she lay there, numb with shock, Arunima recalled the night she was thrown out of that moving train. Her only crime had been to put up resistance to a group of miscreants who were trying to steal a chain she was wearing. Unluckily, at the same time, a train was coming from the other side. She slammed straight into it and fell onto the tracks. The train ran over her legs. For seven hours that night, she lay on the tracks, crying for help. Nobody came to her rescue. Late in the night, a few rats were enticed by the inviting smell of her fresh blood. And they happily nibbled away at the open wounds on her legs. Physically, she couldn’t move an inch. But her mind was fully conscious and she could feel each and every moment of that living hell. In the morning, when the villagers shifted her to the local hospital in Rae Bareilly, the doctors had to amputate her leg without anesthesia (which was unavailable due to shortage). The fact that she was a national level volleyball player brought her media attention. The government took notice and shifted her to the AIIMS trauma centre. A few months later, as she lay recovering on a hospital bed, she read a newspaper report with the following headline: Arunima jumped out of a moving train as she did not have a valid ticket. The earth slid from beneath her feet. She couldn’t believe her eyes. Here she was, fighting life and death, and there, newspapers were having a field day,making up all sorts of nonsense about her. Her family members refuted the allegations. The story died down. However, a few days later another story appeared, claiming that she had attempted suicide. This unprovoked humiliation was too much for Arunima. That very moment, while she lay immobile on her hospital bed, she decided, that one day she was going to show everyone who she really was. Today was the time of these motor mouths. But her time was going to come. And then, she would show them the stuff she was made of. That was the day when Arunima made mountaineering her passion. Her mission. And her obsession.

Without any oxygen supply, death was impending. Yet, a strange feeling was nagging her. If God had given her the strength to survive those seven excruciating hours on the railway tracks, then surely he would not let her die in such an ordinary manner. Didn’t he save her so that she could create history?

And then, something unexpected happened. It was almost as if her thoughts had been heard by the almighty. She saw a climber huffing and puffing towards her. As he reached within earshot, the Sherpa urgently enquired.

“Do you have an extra oxygen cylinder to spare?”

“Yes.”

“Arunima, you are so lucky.”

She could hear full throated laughter inside her head. The only reason she had reached this far was because of her complete disregard for luck and kismat.

She took the spare oxygen cylinder. With the help of the Sherpa, she placed the oxygen cylinder in her backpack. As she inhaled the fresh oxygen, her entire body felt rejuvenated. Filled with confidence, she began her descent once again.

But her troubles were not over yet. Barely a few minutes after she had started to descend, her prosthetic came off. Simultaneously, she noticed that blood had started oozing out of fingers. Her hand had turned red. The outside temperature was close to -60 degree Celsius. Frostbite was common among mountaineers climbing in such conditions. If her hand turned black, then it would also have to be chopped off. Out of fear and desperation, tears welled up in her eyes.

The Sherpa reassured her. “The only way we are going to be saved is if you keep descending.”

Arunima nodded and wiped the tears from her eyes. Crying was not going to get her anywhere. Holding the prosthetic, she dragged herself down for some distance using a rope. Beneath a rock, she took shelter, fixed her prosthetic and began the descent with new found vigour. Mustering every ounce of strength she had, she made her way down.

The descent to camp 4 that usually takes around seventeen hours took her close to twenty eight hours. Finally, as she reached camp 4 and unzipped the tent, her team members gave her a look of pure, unadulterated shock. Each of them had only one thing to say.

“We thought you were not going to come back.”

She smiled. How couldn’t she. She owed it so many people. She owed it to those who considered women to be less capable than men. She owed it to those, who believed that the physically disabled were less capable than normal humans. She owed it to those who thought that middle class people shouldn’t dream too big. Yes, she owed it to every single one of them.


The inspiration for this article comes from this amazing INKtalk given by Arunima Sinha, a former national level volleyball player, whose left leg had to be amputated after she was thrown out of a moving train in April, 2011. In May, 2013, she became the first female amputee (and the first Indian amputee) to climb Mount Everest. If you wish to learn more about her inspirational journey, I would urge you to watch the aforementioned talk given by her.

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