The Untold Story Of Deepali Sinha, India's First Female Mountaineer - Homegrown

The Untold Story Of Deepali Sinha, India's First Female Mountaineer

 “To say yes to one thing, is to say yes to all existence.” 

-Waking Life

When it is one major feat that defines your career, it’s easy to focus on that one achievement to wax eloquent about. But when you’ve spent your entire life tearing up stereotypes, refusing to let setbacks deter you from all your varied inclinations and scaling one height after another, that’s a life that bears awe-inspiring stories worth recounting.

Kolkata-based Deepali Sinha is not a lady who’s afraid to crease the fabric. She has a long history in breaking the mould and ultimately, conquering peaks. Almost 50 years ago, she made history by being the first person in India to organise and lead the first ever all-ladies expedition to Ronti in Garhwal Himalayas from Eastern India in 1967, aside from being the first amateur female mountaineer in the country as well, a pioneering feat in the field of ladies mountaineering activities. And – believe it or not - five years before that, she had no idea what mountaineering even was.

When we heard about the incredible feats she’s engineered, we got in touch with her with scores of questions to find out more. Calcutta to Bombay is quite the distance and while she confessed that she wasn’t too comfortable with email – she said she’d find a way. Deepali Sinha hand wrote answers to each and every question we threw her way, scanned up all the sheets and emailed them over. We might have been surprised by this spirit of tenacity had we not heard her incredible life story but all we were left with was the incredulous realization of just how thoroughly underreported this woman’s story has been.

Deepali Sinha's Handwritten responses and photographs
Deepali Sinha's Handwritten responses and photographs

Piecing together her timeline through her right-slanted cursive, here’s the life of a woman who took to the mountains in the 1960’s, at a time when women even venturing outdoors raised eyebrows. Come see for yourself where the journey’s taken her:

Discovering the ‘Art of Climbing’

“I got into mountaineering absolutely by chance,” Deepali recalls. “When I was in second year graduation student in Shri Sikshatam College and was engaged in NCC activities, there came a circular which said there will be a basic mountaineering course of 32 days in Himalayan Mountaineering Institute of Darjeeling, and interested cadets could give in their names.”

She put her hand up not even knowing what ‘mountaineering’ meant at the time, and asked her father about this when she came back home that day. Her dad admitted that he didn’t really have much of an idea about the activity either, but assured her saying that it must be the art of climbing, but he remained uncertain as to what the method or process would be. “Both our questions were pretty similar,” she says. “We wondered what it would be like – would I be learning to climb like a lizard, frog or monkey? Anyway, I turned up for the selection process at Fort Williams and was nearly rejected for my low weight. But in Darjeeling I could prove myself and showed them that I could withstand all kind of storms, clearing all the blowing, pulling and other tests. At last, I was selected as a trainee to complete the Basic Course of the 1964 batch.”

This was Deepali’s first visit to the Himalayas, with the whole course being conducted in the Sikkim Himalayas at a time when Sikkim was still a separate monarchy. This visit opened the doors to a life dedicated to mountaineering and there has been no looking back for her since.

Getting down the basics at The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling

“The first visit to Himalayas through my course in 1964 changed my life and outlook towards life,” she relates. “I discovered myself anew and realised that being an urban girl who loved home, I could endure all the difficulties, the chilling cold, the outdoor atmosphere and the tent life etc. That gave me strength to build up my spirit.”

Deepali decided to carry on with adventure activities, and through the Basic Course of Mountaineering at the foundation learnt about mountain walking, rock climbing, trekking, ice craft, rappelling, knots and glacier walking. She tells us there were also other basic skills she had to learn such as the maintenance of rope and other equipment as well as a course on first aid, camp hygiene, flora and fauna, map reading and various other activities.

“The most valuable lessons from IMF,” she is certain. “Have been those of team building, discipline, empathy and on top of all these – a love for nature and enough respect to not ruin the serenity found in it.”

Her First & Only Inspiration

“My father, Dr Debendra Chandra Sinha, who was a medical practitioner by profession was also very interested in sports and cultural activities,” she says. “He nearly pushed me to join my first mountaineering course even when all my other family members were opposing his decision.”

Deepali shares that her father was a reformer in his own locality, and was very keen on breaking all myths associated with women that dictates that girls should not leave the house, or take part in any outdoor activity, let alone go around climbing mountains. Her father even encouraged her to join pilot training sessions so she could learn to fly an aircraft. “Though I had to fight with the aviation department to get a scholarship, which I received later, I enjoyed my flying hours at Behala Flying Club,” she says with evident nostalgia. “I completed 80 hours of flying to get a private pilot license. In all these fields, and in many others, my main source of inspiration and financial backup was my father. In the 60’s, he believed that the world was changing and that girls or women would soon be excelling in all the fields which, till then, were ‘meant for men’ only and very soon, women power will lead our country towards progress and prosperity.”

After Choosing the Mountaineering Life

When asked if she ever faced opposition for her choice of profession, Deepali says, “Of course - from every corner. Right from family at home (except my father) to neighbours and society at large, everyone was asking one question to my father - ‘Doctor, you are letting her go and explore the unknown - that is all right, but have you ever thought of her future?’ In those days, the end of the 60’s, it was not very popular for girls to stay out of the house without guardians – that too, for so many days, in an unknown surroundings with lots of hindrances, natural and manmade.”’

She contemplates that everyone had only one thing to say about her mountaineering – that it would be difficult to find her a husband, and that she might not be able to bear children because of overexertion in the mountains.

“As for sacrifices, in that sense, I did not have to make any,” she concedes. “But my education did suffer a bit. I could not complete my Master’s degree on time, and my LLB degree was also on the back-burner. But my life was quite easy-going. Attending Law College early morning, then Flying club, then back to university again before French/Hindi classes in the evenings. It was lovely that I was able to do such a variety of things at that age, at that time.”

When it comes to the sort of lasting impact mountaineering has had on her, she elaborates that besides teaching her about activities like rowing, aero modelling and rock climbing, it was her more intangible learnings that really stuck with her, especially qualities such as courage, fearlessness and honesty. “Mountaineering did have an effect on me,” she reflects. “I started being more organised, determined, fearless and honest. All my actions became more disciplined and methodical.”

The Mountaineering Family

“In my 50 years in the field of adventure, I came into contact with a lot of renowned names and superstars, really, of the mountaineering world,” Deepali relates.

Deepali Sinha with pioneering British mountaineer Chris Bonington, a friend and a big influence.
Deepali Sinha with pioneering British mountaineer Chris Bonington, a friend and a big influence.

Tenzing Norgay or Sherpa Tenzing - one of the first people in the world to reach the summit of Mount Everest - was Deepali’s teacher, friend and, at one time, her neighbour, and she also trained under Nawang Gombu, who for a long time held the record of being the only man to have climbed Everest twice. Other pioneers who would go on to become the Everest heroes of today, such as Edmund Hillary, Peter Hillary, Chris Bonington, Doug Scott, Raymond Lambert, Maurice Herzog, Norman Dyhrenfurth and Captain M.S. Kohli are other names she mentions, saying, “Everyone greeted and encouraged me as I was so young, and Bengali girls were known to be very timid and soft. It was gratifying and motivating to have so much support within the community.”

Rubbing shoulders with the who’s who of the mountaineering circle, Deepali Sinha organised one expedition after another starting with the iconic Ronti trek to 19,893 feet in the Garhwal Himalayas in 1967. There has been absolutely no looking back for her since, and she has led 12 expeditions in all till date, including two unnamed peaks - one of which is located in the Shigri glacier, that she even named herself!

The Roadblocks Along the Way

“Oh, there were many challenging moments,” Deepali Sinha tells us. “For our first expedition in 1967, after all the publicity was done, donations collected, sherpas booked, rations packed, I received a letter from the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, New Delhi, saying that they would not permit our team to go and climb Nanda Ghunti as we had previously decided. This was a setback for the teams, and for the whole state.”

The team was not going to take no for an answer, though. With the help and active involvement of Sri Prafulla Chandra Sen, ex-Chief Minister of West Bengal, Deepali went to meet Mrs Indira Gandhi and convinced her about their ability to successfully complete the expedition. After a couple of meetings and a long discussion, she was able to convince the Prime Minister, who quickly gave the go ahead to then Defence Secretary Mr HC Sarin and, incidentally, also the President of IMF, the supreme controlling authority of Indian mountaineering activities. “But we had to change the peak to Ronti (19,893 feet) in Garhwal Himalayas, as our team did not have any members with advanced training, other than me,” she explains. “So beyond 20, 000 ft would be risky for us. The first stepping was quite challenging, and the rest of the journey was naturally a mix of challenges and overcoming them.”

The Flip-side of Being The ‘First Lady’

Being the first woman actively involved in adventure in the 1960’s, Deepali recalls that at one time, she was the only organiser and leader in this field but gradually, other girls and women started joining in as well, despite there being few trained and able mentors at the time. “I had to tackle money matters, so I started organising ladies’ expeditions and ladies’ trekking teams side by side – and then I also went on to conduct the first all-ladies rock climbing course in ‘Susunia Hills’ in 1972 the most popular sports among the rock climbers. So there was certainly a lot more responsibility.”

Then to Now – What Has Changed for Women in Adventure Sports?

“Women in sports in India have always had a bright future, especially in adventure sports – but they didn’t have enough opportunity. At least 20 years later, the picture has changed quite a bit,” Deepali says. “Bachendri Pal made Indian women proud by being the first Indian lady mountaineer to climb Everest. Girls were inspired and many started taking to mountaineering as a hobby, with trekkers varying in age group and backgrounds.”

“Still, all-ladies’ expeditions were few, because this kind of activity is very, very expensive,” she explains. “We could not arrange a sponsor or donor; it wasn’t like these days’ agency-oriented climbs. We had to do everything on our own – right from packing the boxes to arranging the team members and tracking the route etc. These days, the agencies do most of the work. We used torn, broken and half-spoilt dresses, equipment and accessories, but these days all modern upgraded goods are used. That obviously saves energy, man power and many other things. ‘Modernity’ is welcome but the romance or charm of the physical challenge is gone.” 

Deepali is the first and still the only one to deliver lectures on women mountaineering in India and exhibit photographs in Indian High Commission in London on invitation.

Team Dynamics

“Travelling in small teams is always better,” she says. “I have travelled in three to 20 member teams before and I could manage leading both sizes equally well. In fact, leadership is a different quality. It doesn’t always mean what a fine climber you are but depends on how you are able to handle different kinds of characteristics and ego problems of your members. It needs one to take the right decision at the right time, indiscriminately.”

The Biggest Learnings

“To be self-dependent, to study your own shortcomings, and not to hurt others’ egos,” she rattles off. “It’s also important not to spoil your surroundings over the course of your travels, and not to underestimate the local people. Most of all, make sure you enjoy yourself – but don’t show off.”

Laying Down the Foundation with ‘Pathikrit’

The first Indian all-women’s mountaineering club, called ‘Pathikrit’ was founded by Deepali in 1967 after completing her training at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, and it was this organisation’s first venture that was the landmark ladies’ mountaineering expedition to Ronti.

The association has also gone on to take part in training adventure enthusiasts in rock climbing, nature study, high altitude trekking, map reading etc. besides organising expeditions to Himalayan peaks in different regions. They have also organised exhibitions in youth festivals in Calcutta University on mountaineering and allied subjects which included botany, geology, zoology and anthropology.

Life As A Lawyer

Deepali studied Law from 1965, and went back and completed her LLB degree in the mid-1980’s after focusing on her first love, mountaineering, in the interim. She registered herself with the BAR Council of West Bengal and started practising at Calcutta High Court when her son went to college. and it has been 35 years since. While she started off with criminal law, she practises civil law today and is also involved with Legal Aid Services. 

“I am connected with 4 Legal Aid Services and regularly attend the High Court Legal Aid clinic to serve the public,” she explains. “At present, I’ve started the ‘Deepali Sinha Foundation for Nature, Culture and Adventure’ to serve society by providing opportunities for adventure activities to students whose parents are from lower income groups. The Foundation has already donated a pair of tracksuit, a pair of sports shoes and other sports equipment to the only girl, who is mentally challenged, from West Bengal selected for the Special Olympics to be held at Los Angeles this year. The Foundation has also sponsored five students for kayaking training this summer.”

Deepali has also worked with various NGOs and organisations for mentally and physically challenged individuals, and is presently practising law in Calcutta along with running her own Foundation. All in all, her story encapsulates it best--hers is a truly emblematic of a life lived to the fullest, without once compromising on that which truly drives her.

[We’d like to thank Ranadeep Chakravarty, Deepali Sinha’s son, for bringing to light his mother’s fantastic journey of adventures and these images from the ‘60’s-‘70’s that have us in raptures. While several articles in print have appeared about her pathbreaking feats, there is little to no documentation digitally, and we feel privileged to restore its place in the ranks of inspirational stories in the virtual sphere that truly deserve to be shared.]

[This interview was exclusively conducted with Homegrown’s editorial team. Any usage or repurposing of Deepali Sinha’s stories or photographs requires prior permission from the source, so please contact us at [email protected] for any further enquiries.] 

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