Mind over matter or human grit, call it what you will. How a young woman found solace in summiting mountains and the strength to leave a shattering past behind her
BY RUKMA SALUJA
Born and raised in Birmingham, England, Kamal Kaur had no idea she’d be summiting peaks and looking forward to scaling the next one even before she had time to get over the mountain blues. She sort of stumbled into it when after school she began volunteering at care homes for the elderly and for troubled children. Odd sort of career choice for a teenager, you might think. But as with most things, the universe conspires to bring you to a certain point from which you begin to make informed decisions.
“I had a rather troubled childhood,” Kamal revealed during a recent visit to Delhi from London where she lives. For one thing, the family of immigrants (from Ludhiana, Punjab) was conservative, and she wasn’t able to reconcile that aspect of her life with the ‘open’ society around her. She was unable to understand why she couldn’t be like her schoolmates, dress the way they did and go where she liked the way they did. To top it all, she had a learning disorder, which she wasn’t willing to get diagnosed as she didn’t want to hear that she was not up to the mark. Now, in hindsight, she knows that specialised teachers could have helped her deal better with dyslexia. It didn’t help that the neighbourhood she lived in was not quite an oasis of peace; there were gangs of young men on the prowl and women were not safe. Inter-religion rivalry was rife and hatred towards ‘the other’ resulted in gang wars that spilled onto the streets.
“I was abducted and gang raped over a week.” The voice is stark. She has learned to voice it. She knows she has to live with what happened and that she has had to move on. “I don’t know how many men there were.” Six months after the horror, she lost her mother and didn’t know how to cope with what had happened. Those abusive hooligans were never found or tried, and she herself was able to get counselling only many years later. In the meanwhile, she spiralled into the hellhole of alcoholism. “I found myself slipping into destructive behaviour; I was drinking and veering towards violence, which is when I decided I needed help. There were only two directions to take—towards drug abuse and drinking
or I had to pull myself out of this.”
Kamal began to volunteer at care homes for children and teenagers with mental health issues. “I was exactly in the place where I could be of help.” So, when an abused youngster tells her ‘you don’t know what it’s like’ she is able to really empathise, share her own experiences and show a way out. She got into fitness as part of the activities at these centres. As her fitness levels increased, she was asked to participate in a 24-hour challenge to run through The Fells. “It was a lark. I was fit and feeling good and it was a lot of fun.” She was then asked to be a part of a charity event to summit Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. “That was my first real mountain trek and was the most exhilarating.” The smile is back on her
face. There, she got into a conversation with a group who had just done Aconcagua in Argentina and thought, okay, why not?
Now, it’s part of her life, an addiction of sorts where she’s always planning her next summit. It’s as if she can’t get enough. The most challenging so far was Ama Dablam in Nepal. “I caught a stomach bug in Delhi and carried it with me.” A foolish move perhaps because she had to return after three days. She recovered and, determined not to go home without a climb, went right back. “The Sherpa had to push me up to the plateau on the summit and I collapsed the moment I set foot there.” Kamal has summitted 12 mountains, including Everest, Meru, Cho Oyu in Tibet and Elbrus in Russia, and been part of mountaineering expeditions to Denali in Alaska and the Pyrenees.
Sports injuries and extreme cold do not faze her. She shrugs them off as they are par for the course. The mental challenges are harder to overcome. She says, “It is always hard to continue when you are tired, or battle with the thoughts that go through your mind whether they are old memories that haunt me, self-doubt in my ability, when the negatives of the climb can overpower the positives.”
But that hasn’t let her down. Her eyes light up at the thought of all the peaks out there that she must climb. “Ooooh, now there’s a question, there are so many, but for now…. Makalu, Kanchenjunga, Nanga Parbat, Broad Peak, Shishapangma. Then there’s the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc in the winter, Alpamayo. I’d love to climb in Bhutan. The world has an abundance of wonderful places I’d love to climb… but definitely these, I know.”
Her learning disabilities meant that she didn’t enjoy studying; she worked in hospitality and retail which helped fund her love for summiting. Working in stores that sell outdoor goods is on point as she’s able to talk about her experiences which helps customers make up their minds about what they need to get for their own travels.
“The biggest realisation, I think, is knowing that human survival instincts definitely do exist, to trust my gut instinct, my own ability and what determination and sacrifice can do when it comes to achieving and attempting my goal. I learn something new every time I do something and I just keep growing and hoping for the better.”