(January 4, 2022) In early 2020, Indian girl mountaineer Kaamya Karthikeyan travelled halfway around the world to reach Mendonza in Argentina — the base town for Mount Aconcagua. Accompanied by her father, an Indian Navy officer, the mountaineer was to obtain a special permit from the Aconcagua National Park to scale the highest mountain peak of the Andes mountains. Yet, within hours of her arrival, she was confronted by a mountain of challenges, not just the permit. As a minor, the authorities wanted a resolution from the court.
“Will a 12-year-old be able to climb this mountain peak?” the court enquired, ordering a series of medical tests. Stranded for 14 days, experiencing red-tapism on foreign soil, finally luck favoured Kaamya. The judge went on leave, was replaced, and he fortuitously was a mountaineer himself! He swiftly went through Kaamya’s credentials and granted her a permit. Challenges overcome, Kaamya made India proud by becoming the youngest in the world to summit Mt Aconcagua.
The 14-year-old Indian mountaineer
“Whenever I felt tired, I did not look at how much more was left. I looked back at how much I had climbed and put one step in front of the other. I was right in front of the pack, happily chatting with the guides ,” smiles Kaamya Karthikeyan in an exclusive chat with Global Indian.
Born in Visakhapatnam (Andhra Pradesh) in August 2007, Kaamya was barely three when she started accompanying her parents on trails in Lonavala, where her father Navy commander S Karthikeyan was posted. By seven, she was trekking the Himalayas. Her first expedition above 6,000 meters to Mount Stok Kangri in August 2017 made her the youngest girl in the world to have scaled a peak at those dizzy heights. “Scaling this peak three days short of my 10th birthday was special. I had been to the base in 2012 when my dad was climbing it, and had wondered when I would climb it too. There I was, after five years,” says Kaamya, now 14, and a class nine student at Navy Children’s School in Mumbai.
Her father had completed his mountaineering courses and was training in and around Lonavala. Both Kaamya and her mother would accompany him on easy trails, and that is where her love for the wild was cemented. Once her Navy father started leading expeditions, his daughter wondered why mountains attracted her father so much to leave the family for days on end. She asked her mother, and “she told me to find out first-hand. So I did my first Himalayan trek in Uttarakhand,” says Kaamya, whose mother Lavanya Karthikeyan heads a Kindergarten school.
She explored beautiful treks across Chandrashila, Kedarkantha, Roopkund, Brighu Lake, Har-ki-dun and Sar Pass. In May 2017, she trekked to the Everest base camp. After climbing Stok Kangri, the Indian girl mountaineer asked her father what next. He questioned whether she even realises that she had climbed a peak higher than the highest peaks in five of the seven continents!
“That is when we got the idea of Mission SAHAS,” informs the teen. Under the umbrella of Mission SAHAS, Kaamya climbed the highest peaks of Africa (Mt Kilimanjaro), Europe (Mt Elbrus – where she set the world record for being the world’s youngest to ski descent from the peak), Australia (Mt Kosciuszko) and South America (Mt Aconcagua). “I also climbed Mt Mentok Kangri in Leh in 2019, summitting my second 6,000 metres plus peak as a practice climb prior to climbing Aconcagua,” informs Kaamya, who is an avid runner, cyclist, skier and scuba diver.
Conquering Aconcagua has brought laurels her way – The Pradhan Mantri Rashtriya Bal Puraskar for her remarkable feat, and she was the first to virtually interact with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in February 2020. “I was elated. The PM advised me to treat this award as a stepping stone for future accomplishments and not as an achievement by itself,” says the girl whose newfound interest is debating, and has tried to get into the national debating squad, and is also the first runner-up at Mindwars — a debating TV championship.
Training hard, and long
Training for such expeditions is tough. Kaamya would run over 10 km or cycle for 20-25 km four days a week. On other days, she would do indoor exercises or climb stairs at her 21-storeyed apartment complex in Mumbai (helped train her muscles). And on weekends, a trek on the Sahyadri mountains helped with balance training.
Gulmarg has been her winter training ground for the past six years. “In early 2021, I had the opportunity to train with the Army’s High Altitude Warfare School where I practiced techniques like walking with trekking shoes, skis and sledge pulling,” informs the hardworking girl who has also participated in the junior national skiing and snowboarding championship in Gulmarg.
In the tough terrain of Arunachal Pradesh, she also did a basic mountaineering course from the National Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports.
The future is bright, and peaking
Kaamya’s schedule is packed in 2022-2023. “I hope to climb Mt Denali (the highest peak in North America), Mt Vinson Massif (highest in Antarctica) and ski to the South Pole. That would leave Mount Everest and a ski traverse to the North Pole for me to complete my mission and become the youngest in the world to have completed the Explorer’s Grandslam at just 15,” she pipes.
Before her expedition to Mt Elbrus, she had the opportunity to meet legendary naval mountaineer Captain MS Kohli, the leader of the first successful Indian expedition to Everest in 1965. “He told me whenever I felt tired on a mountain, I should always look back instead of looking ahead — advice that has greatly helped me,” says Kaamya who is also learning Bharatnatyan, and is a grade 2 and grade 5 pass piano player (Trinity College of Music).
The will to succeed
“I enjoy the journey, not just the destination. I love being in nature’s lap and pushing myself. I like the competition within – it keeps me going,” says the girl whose mother was her trekking-partner early on, and now with climbs getting tougher, treks with her father. She thanks her school for being supportive too.
Mountain climbing has its own perils, and Kaamya recalls an avalanche hit her group during her recent expedition on Mt Trishul in October 2021. “Sadly, we lost a few close friends but thankfully we returned safe. It has made me more respectful of the mountains, and more determined. Mission SAHAS is my way of paying tribute to the lost souls,” she says.
Not sure how she finds time for normal girly activities amidst peak hunting, she loves reading adventure/crime thrillers, the Famous Five series by Enid Blyton, and Agathe Christie. Her idea of a birthday celebration is to take her friends for a hike! “The path to the summit is not easy. But if I can do it, so can you,” smiles the mountaineer who always carries a small idol of Lord Krishna, and always bring down something special from each expedition as a souvenir.
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