More than her 38 years into mountaineering, during which she and two others became the only women in the world to ascend Nanda Devi—one of the Himalayas’ most feared peaks—Chandra Prabha Aitwal’s singular achievement is the fact that she is still climbing mountains. India’s oldest active woman mountaineer, now 68, will receive the Tenzing Norgay Adventure Award for Lifetime Achievement on Sunday, four days after leading an expedition to Jaonli (6,632m).

Superwoman: Aitwal is one of three women to have ascended Nanda Devi. Courtesy Indian Mountaineering Foundation

Yet, in the country’s climbing fraternity, “Chandradidi" evokes as much sympathy as admiration. Despite a career that saw her notch up ascents of giants such as Kamet (7,756m), Abhigamin (7,354m), Satopanth (7,075m), Kedar Dome (6,830m), Bhrigupanth (6,772m), Bhagirathi II (6,512m), Nanda Kot (6,861m), Gangotri I (6,672m) and Jogin III (6,116m)—besides the prestigious Nanda Devi—she still regrets missing out on Everest.

In 1984, when the IMF launched an expedition with the aim of putting an Indian woman atop Everest, Aitwal made it to the summit camp as part of the team. Along with her was another great Indian mountaineer, Prem Chand, revered as the first Indian to climb the most difficult and dangerous peak in the Indian Himalayas: Kangchenjunga, (8,586m). Aitwal refuses to speak about what transpired at the summit camp but Prem Chand is said to have confessed to a friend that “standing within reach of the summit of Everest, I had a change of heart; I felt I should give up Everest and enable others to have it". Since summit parties are generally made up of pairs, Aitwal was forced into this “sacrifice".

The story is often retold in mountaineering circles and one version adds that Aitwal “cried so much she became dehydrated".

A more pragmatic version comes from Rita Gombu Marwah, another member of the team who herself missed the summit by just about 200m. “We felt so sorry for her. They decided to send the younger ones to attempt the final climb instead of her," she says. But Marwah’s uncle, Dorjee Lhatoo, one of the expedition summiteers who also helped in Bachendri Pal’s final push to the summit, is emphatic that Aitwal would have made it.

“She was fit and still young enough. That was her one real chance to climb Everest," he says. Nearly a decade later, as deputy leader of the 1993 Indo-Nepal Women’s Expedition to Everest, Marwah tried to persuade a Sherpa sardar to take Aitwal to the summit. She recalls that the man refused bluntly, saying, “She’s too old." By then, she probably was.

Yet, it was in pursuit of her Everest dream that Aitwal became part of the finest hour of women’s mountaineering in India. In 1981, while preparing for the world’s highest peak, the team that eventually headed to Everest in 1984 attempted Nanda Devi (7,816m). Considered the most difficult peak in India after Kangchenjunga, Nanda Devi had never been climbed by women until Rekha Sharma, Harshwanti Bisht and Aitwal made it to the summit.

“We took 25 hours from the summit camp to the top and back to the camp. We needed crampons because there was a lot of hard ice but there were also rocky patches and crossing them while wearing crampons was very hard," recalls Aitwal. She and her partner Sonam Paljor even slipped and plunged down a slope before managing to dig their ice axes into the snow and coming to a halt, a hair’s breadth from a cliff edge. But, she says, “It was the most technically satisfying climb of my life." In the 29 years since 19 September 1981, no other woman has climbed Nanda Devi.

Over a lifetime that saw her remain unmarried, Aitwal has been officer on special duty, adventure, to the Uttarakhand government and has won the Padma Shri, Arjuna Award, National Adventure Award and IMF gold medal.

But she is most emotional when she talks about her introduction to mountaineering. “I was a teacher in a government school in Pithoragarh. In 1969, there was a circular about a mountaineering course at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi. I applied. Two years later, I did the course."

And the crow’s feet crinkle further: “I was a simple village girl from Kumaon and I was thrilled to see Garhwal and the Ganga. But the joy I felt during the course cannot be described."

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