India’s 1st Woman Scientist to Antarctica Shattered Barriers

mountaineer and geologist sudipta sengupta

1970.

Six Indian women in their early twenties — Sudipta Sengupta, Kamala Shah, Nilu Ghosh, Shefali Chakraborty, Purnima Sharma, and leader Sujaya Guha — leave Howrah station and arrive at Manali five days later. From here, with sherpas, porters, a cook, and a few mules, they reach the Bara Shigri Glacier, where their base camp has been set up. They’re all set to go to a brand new and unchartered territory — an unnamed virgin peak in Lahaul, some 20,000 ft above sea level. If they succeed, they will name it Lalana, which means ‘women’ in Bengali.

They’ve heard the warnings. They’ve had their moments of self-doubt. Yet, somehow, it’s only made them more determined to embark upon this mission.

But no one has anticipated yet that some might not make it back down.

professor sudipta sengupta and her team before they set out to scale lalana in the himalayas
The team before the climb began (Photo credit: Sudipta Sengupta)

“We were well-trained and had a meticulous plan,” Sudipta, the deputy leader of the expedition, recalls in a conversation with The Better India.

“If we could overcome hurdles and succeed, it would be all the more satisfying. If we failed, we would try again with the experience gained from this expedition. We did not anticipate how dangerous the glacier would be.”

The road to victory was jagged and filled with near misses. Nights were spent in pitch black, sometimes without any firewood to prepare food. Some days, it poured, even though the region had not seen much rainfall for about a decade. As they climbed higher, breathing became difficult, and the incessant cold began taking its toll. At one point, Sudipta slipped so hard that for a few moments, she was dangling, staring directly into the bottomless pit in a large crevice, before being pulled back up by her team.

Finally, at 10.30 am on August 21, 1970, the team reached atop the virgin peak and christened it Lalana.

“We placed our flag and took photographs. We then put a piece of paper with our names in a water bottle and dug it in the ice for future summiteers to find. We just sat in silence to absorb the breathtaking beauty surrounding us — all around us. We could see several ranges with shining ice-capped peaks rising majestically into the blue sky,” she reminisces.

virgin mountain peak lalana in the himalayas
The destination: Lalana (Photo credit: Sudipta Sengupta)

On 24 August, after the team had returned to their second base camp, they realised that their porter, Lama, and the mules had not returned. Nilu, Purnima and Sudipta set out to look for them in the nearby rocks. When they found no sign of either, sherpas Pasang and Gyalgen, along with Sujaya, Kamala, and Shefali, set out to Batal.

That was the last time they saw Sujaya and Kamala.

“At 6.30 pm, Gyalgen arrived breathlessly and declared, ‘Leader didi mor gayi (our leader is dead)’. We were stunned and took some time to absorb the news,” Sudipta, now 75, says.

Later, the team would learn that Sujaya and Kamala had lost their lives while trying to cross a dangerous stream. Shefali had managed to make it out and had to make her way to the base camp without shoes or her friends.

“For years, I regretted that I didn’t accompany them to that stream. Suja di and I were very close. I don’t know if it’s true, but I believe that had I been there, I would have stopped her and the team from crossing the stream. I think I was more assertive than the rest of the team, and I could judge the dangers better. You can’t help but think you could have changed things.”

mountaineer and geologist sudipta sengupta
Sudipta, now 75, lost two friends and team members during the expedition (Photo credit: Sudipta Sengupta)

The ‘rock reader’

Before the team had scaled Lalana, they had heard many warnings about how dangerous the expedition was going to be — it was an unnamed virgin peak for a reason. But Sudipta, a renowned mountaineer and biologist, has never been one to follow the conventional or stop herself from seeking what lies beyond.

Scaling Lalana is not her only ‘first’. In 1983, she and Aditi Pant became the first Indian women scientists to participate in an expedition to Antarctica. She is also the subject of the ‘Rock Reader’, a children’s storybook by Veena Prasad, which details her adventures to Schirmacher Hills.

Since her team’s expedition to Lalana, no one has successfully scaled the peak again. “One team tried,” she says. “But they couldn’t make it. It was too dangerous.”

When Sudipta entered the fields of geology and mountaineering, both spaces were predominantly occupied by men. In fact, when she began studying geology at Jadavpur University in the 60s, she was one of only two girls in their class of 25. It was also an unconventional subject for a woman to take at the time, but her love for travel, which she credits to her father’s career as a meteorologist, pushed her to take it up anyway.

Sudipta spent much of her childhood amid mountains in Nepal, where her father was stationed at the time.

“I found my love for the mountains here,” she says. “I also spent a lot of time in Kalimpong, where my aunt’s husband was stationed.” Her love for the hills was further strengthened when she met Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary shortly after their historic climb up Mount Everest.

After completing her PhD, she began working at the Geological Survey of India. She then went to the UK and Sweden to do research and returned to India in ‘79. In ‘82, she began working at Jadavpur University as a lecturer.

Sudipta recalls that for the first 15 years of her life, there were hardly any women in the classes, and in many years, there were none at all. The principal barrier, she says, was that the university seldom accommodated women on field trips. It wasn’t until ‘96 that the share of women in the classes improved.

She says it was her parents who pushed her to pursue science. “Many people asked my mother why she would allow me to go out alone into the mountains, but my family supported me. I was hurt many times and heard many insensitive and crude remarks about my presence in the field. It wasn’t just in India — even during my time in London and Sweden, the presence of women in geology was unconventional. But I loved my work, so I didn’t mind the challenge,” she says.

And how did the transition to mountaineering take place?

“While I was pursuing my BSc, a friend told me about a rock climbing course in Susunia Hills. I thought it was interesting, so I agreed. I did really well — I was the best woman trainee there. They asked me to apply for a government scholarship being offered at the time, and in ‘65, I did a basic training course in Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling.”

The expedition to Lalana was Sudipta’s last major voyage. After that, she took up trekking and geological fieldwork but stayed away from serious mountaineering.

A historic expedition

In ‘81, when Sudipta had just returned from Sweden, the first Indian expedition to Antarctica took place.

“I had gained tons of experience in mountaineering and geology near the Arctic circle by then, and in our circles, we would often discuss how great it would be to go there. So when I read the news, I knew I had to apply.”

Sudipta volunteered to join the expedition. “I was rejected, and they told me they weren’t considering women for the mission. But in ‘83, I received a telegram from the government, asking me to come for an interview. Dr Syed Zahoor Qasim, who was the secretary of the Department of Ocean Development at the time, was my interviewer, and he was impressed. My experience in mountaineering and working in cold conditions helped me get selected. I returned to Kolkata elated.”

Sudipta joined the third Indian Expedition to Antarctica to perform pioneering geological studies in the Schirmacher Hills of East Antarctica. The selected team was sent to the High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS), a defence service training and research establishment of the Indian Army.

“The trainer said he won’t be too hard on us because most of us were scientists who weren’t too well versed in mountaineering. Of course, my experience was different. He was surprised,” she laughs. “I was the only woman there since Aditi couldn’t make it to HAWS.”

Sudipta says Antarctica was a male bastion up until 1956, at least. During her expedition, she overheard some jokes about what women here would do without a beauty parlour in the icy continent.

professor sudipta sengupta on the third indian expedition to antarctica
Professor Sengupta and her team during India’s third expedition to Antarctica (Photo credit: Sudipta Sengupta)

“At first, some of them didn’t take Aditi and me seriously. The situation thawed after a bit. Anjali is a marine biologist, so she was mostly on the ship. I was assigned to fieldwork. The conditions were tough, almost the same as mountaineering — the biting cold, the blizzards, our tents shaking in the winds,” she recalls.

She adds that this expedition, too, had its terrifying moments. “One of the helicopters crashed into the icy water. For a few minutes, we were scared that members of the crew had died. Thankfully, they were alright.”

‘It’s a kind of obsession’

During the second expedition she took to Antarctica in ‘89, some crew members weren’t so lucky.

“At that time, four of our team members died due to carbon monoxide poisoning. It was traumatic,” she notes. “Just the day before, they were with us, and suddenly, they were gone. Three of them who died were geologists, so I was working all alone. You are not supposed to venture out alone in such areas, but I had no choice.”

“It’s a kind of obsession,” Sudipta says. “When you are in the mountains or such rough territories, you’re surrounded by fear and uncertainty. But the moment you return to the plane, you know you want to go again.”

mountaineer and geologist sudipta sengupta
Over the course of her career, Sudipta has broken many barriers (Photo credit: Sudipta Sengupta, YouTube)

She has combined geological field studies with laboratory experiments and theoretical analyses throughout her career and carried out structural field studies across various terrain. She has written numerous papers across international journals and has chronicled her Antarctica expedition in a best selling Bengali novel.

She is the recipient of the National Mineral Award and the Antarctic Award by the Government of India and a fellow of the Indian National Science Academy. For her contribution to Earth, Atmosphere, Ocean and Planetary Sciences, Sudipta was awarded the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology in 1991.

Even today, she continues her pattern of deviating from the norm. She never married and lives with her sister, a scientist, in Kolkata.

“All Indian girls face questions when they are not married. But my parents were very supportive. My father always said, ‘It’s your life. If you don’t marry, then that also is your decision. We won’t push you.’ At the time, I thought it was natural. Only later did I realise how rare this was. This was 50 years ago! My father was a scientist, not just by profession but in his core. He believed in human dignity, in human independence.”

Sudipta says that over her journey, she has learned that hard work and sincerity can go a long way in shaping your dreams.

“I worked hard in school, and it opened so many doors for me. Today, when young women geologists see how an ordinary person made their mark where few women previously had, it serves as an inspiration for them to try as well. I would like to believe so.”

Edited by Vinayak Hegde

Author: Aaron Ryan