By Maya Lalchandani
What does 25-year-old Deeya Suzannah Bajaj think of when she’s on top of the world’s highest mountains, armed with sheer grit, knee-deep in snow, knowing she is courting danger by her very presence there? “I remind myself that this is what I trained for, I am meant to be here, I am stronger than this moment. I think of the family that has supported me and the fact that I was treated like an equal, and I push like I have never done before, and I win,” she says.
And win, she did. Along with her father, the famed adventurer and Padma Shri awardee Ajeet Bajaj, Deeya peaked Mount Everest in May 2018, becoming the first father-daughter duo to ever accomplish the feat together. That wasn’t enough for her. The Gurgaon-based girl has been in the news continuously since February 2019 for all her climbs to six of The Seven Summits (the highest mountain in each continent).
Such courage and perseverance begins young. Initiated into adventure sports when she was just six years old, Deeya and her sister’s summer holidays were always a series of outdoor sports and treks, scaling mountains and skiing across slopes of snow. After all, they were the children of two intrepid parents, Ajeet and Shirly, who founded Snow Leopard Adventures in Rishikesh in 1990, which today is considered one of India’s top adventure-travel companies.
When she was old enough, Deeya completed the Adventure course at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi. Her first ‘real’ expedition was a 14-day long ski kayaking trip off the fjords of Greenland, living in extreme conditions in tents along with her father. At 14, she saw the Greenland icecap for the first time, a huge expanse of ice considered the second largest in the world. Her father heard her say she’d like to return, so three years later, he took her back.
This time, it was for a cause. Though Deeya’s own parents had never let her feel lesser than any boy, the tomboyish teen managed to develop a keen understanding of gender bias in Indian society early on. She often visited a children’s boarding school on one of her family-owned adventure campsites in Haridwar, which had been started for the underprivileged children of parents with leprosy.
The 17-year-old Deeya was struck by the fact that only boys were given place in the school. Dissatisfied by the answers to her questions about it, she decided to raise money for girl students with the help of her own school, and along with her family and friends, to coerce the NGO to change their boys-only policy.
Her cause took her to Greenland again. In sub zero temperatures (minus 40 degrees) and wind speeds of 40 km/hr, Deeya skied eight to 10 hours every day across the icecap over 21 days, making her the youngest person in the world to ski across the Greenland icecap at 17. She got people to pledge money for every kilometre that she skied, raising a cool Rs 10 lakhs for 550 km. The money went to funding 12 little girls in two rooms at the Haridwar boarding school, where her mother Shirly is a director. Now, seven years later, they fund 35 girls.
“Since adventure sports are always only offered to and experienced by only boys in this country, I feel lucky that I was always encouraged to take this up,” says Deeya, adding, “I want to send out a message that women can climb higher than Mt Everest if only we put our minds to it.” Her father Ajeet avers, “To make the country a better place, we must leverage the strengths and values of women and girls as well.”
At age 18, Deeya’s school-leaving present was climbing Mt Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe, before she headed to do her graduation from Cornell University. While in the US, she taught kayaking and cross-country skiing, and worked part-time taking students on treks. After one more advanced course in mountaineering, she was in her senior year in college when she started planning for a trip to Mt Everest.
“Training was so much fun,” she reminisces. “We hit the gym with a vengeance, we ran, we swam, and stayed in peak form.” The father-daughter duo went on four practice trips, two to Ladakh, and one each to Nepal and France.
Their journey started from Tibet on April 10, 2018, and they planted the tricolor on May 16. Deeya actually made it to the summit 15 minutes ahead of her father, as Ajeet’s oxygen mask had malfunctioned. Deeya was climbing ahead and the weather conditions were too bad for her to wait, so she ploughed on. “It was a difficult call, but one that I had to make,” she explains.
She reached the peak at 4.30 am plunged in darkness, but as morning broke, she saw the sunrise along with her father who reached soon after her. It was a moment frozen in time as they broke down, emotionally spent. “There was a lot of relief. We had both done it again. But then we were reminded of the treacherous way down, and scary thoughts clouded the happy high,” she narrates.
There have been a whole bunch of climbs post Everest, and three major expeditions as well. “Going out there into the wilderness is what grounds me. Mother Nature takes care,” affirms Deeya, who has led an expedition for seven students to Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania; climbed Vinson Massif in Antarctica; and has just got back from successfully summiting Aconcagua in Argentina. The next peak will be Mt Denali in North America in May.
No matter how experienced and ready one is, Deeya shares, there will always be a moment on the way to a summit when one asks oneself, “Why am I here?” It is those moments – when one summits one’s own inner mountains – that are the most challenging and undoubtedly the most rewarding.
Maya Lalchandani is a Mumbai-based entrepreneur, writer and the author of Paiso (Penguin Random House).
First published in eShe magazine’s April 2019 issue
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