It’s been almost two months since massive floods hit the remote northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, but villagers in the mountainous Himalayan region are still devastated, digging out, and mourning lost loved ones.
The exact number of dead likely will never be known, but the Indian government has put it at more than 6,000. More than 100,000 people were rescued.
The floods were caused by the region’s heaviest monsoon rains in decades and by the collapse of at least one high-mountain glacial lake.
Since then, Indians have streamed into the area by helicopter and by foot to assist in the relief efforts. And among them one volunteer in particular has stood out.
Her name is Bachendri Pal and she has extraordinary experience climbing in the Himalayas. Almost 30 years ago, she became the first Indian woman to reach the summit of Mt. Everest.
Pal says her ascent into the mountains this time was also extremely treacherous.
“We had to take a winding route, very tricky,” Pal told the BBC. “One wrong step and we’d find ourselves in the river below. In one village we discovered that 20 houses had been washed away. We talked to around 56 families, gave them tents, tarpaulins, solar lanterns, water filters and blankets, and food packets.”
Pal says climbers like herself are uniquely prepared to take on such missions. And in her case, she says she felt obliged to join the relief effort.
“As mountaineers, we are trained to challenge ourselves,” she said. “But it’s not enough to just climb a mountain. Our society should benefit from such training, and people should learn from mountaineers so that they can take care of their own countrymen.”
But Pal says the answer to the threat of flooding in the Himalayas goes beyond heroic rescues. It’s also about smarter development in the mountains.
She believes the devastation in Uttarakhand could have been avoided through better planning.
“It feels great that at such time I can be of service here. But we need to realize that we cannot control the Himalayas like we want to. We have to learn from this and live within our limits,” she said.