“Five Shy Girls Have Date With Bear,” read the Times of India headline from October 1970.
“We were women climbing a Himalayan peak, I don’t understand why they thought we were shy,” MC Usha said, laughing at the headline. “We walked for four weeks in deep snow, pitched our own tents, went where no Indian women had been before.”
In 1970, five young women embarked on an all-women expedition to climb Hanuman Tibba, a difficult peak and the highest in the Pir Panjal range. All the women in the team were from Delhi, between the ages of 20 to 25. MC Usha, who led the expedition, was the eldest of them.
“The bear was the scariest part of the expedition,” she said, “but it is nature, you cannot think you know everything when you’re climbing into nature.”
The trek began at Beas Kund in Himachal Pradesh, the base camp, and went up to Hanuman Tibba at 5,940 metres. After the peak came a slow descent. In 1970, Hanuman Tibba was unmapped – there were no blogs, agencies or guide books, and the group’s course was charted as a matter of discovery, with advanced level bouldering and many accompanying risks.
The slow ascent
Usha tells her four-year-old grandson about the bear she met on her way up the mountain, but he refuses to believe her. He looks at the old photographs she shows him, and insists her nose is too long.
Black and white photos are not real life, he screams.
Usha assures him that the photographs are more real than anything he sees on the television.
Born to a family of liberal thinkers and scientists, Usha grew up in a home where she was encouraged to challenge boundaries. She remembers spending hours with her father, peering at his plants, waiting to begin exploring the world outside the confines of her hometown.
Usha studied economics and library science at Delhi University, and the campus’ proximity to the Delhi Mountaineering Association, led her to sign up for a basic mountaineering course at 21. Within two years, she had completed an advanced mountaineering course, and proceeded to train further in the hills.
Before she left for Hanuman Tibba, Usha was working at the Indian Council for Cultural Research as a programme director, organising national and international events, meeting delegates from various countries that reinstated her desire to explore.
“When they gave me permission to form an all-women expedition to Hanuman Tibba, I decided to go looking for the women myself,” she recalled. “I knew they were out there.”
The search was accompanied by a year of arguing for permissions with the Indian government and a sexist bureaucracy.
“It took a lot of convincing, I had to talk to many directors, plead with the Delhi Mountaineering Association, but eventually they agreed,” she added. “Then came the difficult part. Convincing the parents.”
Usha went door to door, convincing fathers that she would take care of her fellow mountaineers like they were her children.
“My father didn’t allow me to go at first, there was lots of crying,” said Bharti Banerji. “It was Pujo and he wanted me to be at home. Finally, my brother flew down to convince him, and I was allowed to go – my father always listened to him.”
After Hanuman Tibba, Banerji went on to summit several more mountains in Garhwal and North India, after which she would settle down in Delhi, where she lives now with her family.
“Everyone was worried about how we would get married,” she said. “They would ask – but what will happen to your skin? Women weren’t allowed to climb with men, but they were also not allowed to climb without them. It was very confusing.”
The women trained for Hanuman Tibba and other summits at Darjeeling, where they also coached young children at summer camps. During training, they were taught to boulder, cross rivers, set tents, carry loads, face wild animals, and never leave a course mate behind.
“We couldn’t find a real doctor, so we took along a gynaecologist,” Usha remembered. “It was funny, because she didn’t know much about the injuries we would endure during climbing. Each of us had to make sure we could do everything – cook, climb. The segregation of duties is a masculine habit.”
Usha’s favourite photograph from the expedition is one of all the girls around a campfire.
“When you are alone in the mountains with a group for four weeks, everyone else outside ceases to exist,” she said. “Your family becomes a distant thought, and the rest of the world seems like a figment of your imagination. This is the hardest part, but the people around you help you deal with this solitude.”
At 72, Usha lives in Delhi with her husband Gulzar Ahmed Naqvi, an Urdu scholar and poet she met during her time at the ICCR. She manages a house full of demanding grandchildren and the occasional request for an interview.
Once she had conquered Hanuman Tibba, Usha and her friends continued to scale other peaks. Along with another one of her closest friends, Bharti Dixit, Usha went on to summit Markarbeh, and also led an expedition to Lahaul Spiti.
Dixit, whose parents fought the British Raj in 1947, was fortunate not to face any objections from her family when she told them she wanted to be a mountaineer.
“My mother was a wrestler and a judoka when she fought for independence,” she said. “There was a statue of her in Calcutta when I was growing up, and I wanted one for myself.”
At present, Dixit lives in Allahabad with her husband, a retired army officer.
“Often, climbing and mountaineering are associated only with strength,” Usha said. “People believe mountaineering takes muscle, but it takes more than that. It takes imagination, determination and more than anything, compassion. Women have all of that.”
Usha's favourite memory from the Hanuman Tibba expedition is of a day when they washed their hair, put away their gear, and sat on the rocks soaking everything in. Soon, they began to talk about about what saris they would wear for their welcome party, once they returned to Delhi. Some men from the Border Security Force, also taking a break nearby, heard them and laughed.
“Women!” they exclaimed.
“We could climb these mountains in our best silks,” Usha said. “Could you?”