<%-- Page Title--%> Endeavour <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 152 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

April 30, 2004

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High Ambition
The Would-be Mountaineers of Bangladesh

Mustafa Zaman

The news of a group of young trekkers getting ready to give a shot at climbing Mount Everest may result in mixed reactions. As a people of low-altitude alluvial plain, many Bangladeshis might consider mountaineering to be too ambitious an undertaking. But as the first group that came back from a month long basic course in mountaineering, it can be surmised that, with the right amount of drive coupled with perseverance, anything can be accomplished.

As the trainees articulate their dream and the hardship suffered in the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, they reveal an ambition gelled by the thought that no Bangali ever made it to the highest summit. They would like to change that. The four who came back after receiving basic training are unanimous on this point. The goal has been set, now all that is needed is perseverance to train themselves for the next five years, the calculated space of time of preparation in the run up to the first attempt.

It was in last September that Shamsul Alam Babu, Sadia Sultana Shampa, Musa Ibrahim and Shirajul Haque joined the Everest Team-1. Two groups, one of the seniors and the other consisting of the college-going enthusiasts, who would train for mountaineering, was formed with Enam Ul Haque, the only Bangladeshi to have travelled to the Antarctica, as the convener. From that group, six members took the first step to educate themselves. Among those six members of the senior group, four joined the March session and came back with their resolve multiplied.

These four have their different occupations to pursue. The only female member of the team is a student of geography at Jagannath University College. She is Sadia Sultana Shampa, whose passion for mountaineering has set many a male eyebrow skyward. Though one would be in danger of painting a generalised picture of the male psyche if the reactions of the males are overemphasised, it is true that Bangladesh still remains at the throe of a traditional view that sees women in fixed roles. As for the men in the team, they are struggling to strike a balance between their jobs and the newly acquired passion. Among them, Shamsul Alam Babu is a freelance photographer, Musa Ibrahim is a feature contributor to the Daily Prothom Alo, and Sirajul Haque Sagar is an architect.

"It all started from the meetings we used to have every third Wednesday of each month in Enam Ul Haque's house. As trekkers we used to set our programmes and modalities in these gatherings," says Shamsul who belongs to the Bangla Mountaineers and Trekkers Club of Azimpur. "The idea of forming a group that would prepare for Everest climbing came to Enam bhai," adds Musa.

It was in 2003, when two of the members of the Bangla Mountaineers and Trekkers Club, Rifat Hassan and Muntasir Mamun, came back from Nepal after attending the 50th anniversary of the first summit by Edmond Hillary and Tenjing Norgay Sherpa, that Inam Ul Haque decided to form the mountaineers groups. "The two visiting members came back with a load of photographs, and it was at their exhibition at Drik gallery on September 9, 2003 that the decision to form groups of mountaineers was finalised,"

Shamsul let us know. They were all harping on the one and only idea: "being so close to the Himalayas, no Bangladeshi ever felt the urge to conquer the world's tallest summit". The Bangladesh Everest Team-1 that was formed last September under the supervision of Enam has embarked on a mission to change that history. If they fail to succeed, at least they would leave back a history of attempts for others to fall back upon.

Shamsul harks back to history, "Radhanath Sikder was the Bangali who discovered the height of Everest; he was working as the surveyor general under George Everest. But it's a pity that Bangalis failed to follow up this act". It was Muntasir's unending enthusiasm that made him privy to the mountaineering related information. "He culled the addresses of the institutions in India for us," says Shamsul.

The institute crowns the Jayal Parbat in Darjeeling. At 7,000 feet altitude, it mostly facilitates the Indian defense personnel, but it takes in general public too, though with a higher fee. For foreigners it is 500 dollars, though for Bangladeshi enthusiasts it was cut down to 200.

The expeditions of these trekkers turned mountaineers are being sponsored by Mountain Dew, a concern of Transom Ltd. "At the initial stage we had to spend from our personal coffer. I went to extract information on admission in last November on my own," Shamsul says. By that time Mountain Dew has become their partner in this endeavour.

The quartet's firmness in pursuing their goal is a much-needed quality. The basic course was the first hurdle that they had to go through. "The course calls for extreme physical activities in extreme conditions. Every day was a blight of sorts, but we were determined not to give up," says Shirajul.

Musa's affinity with the mountain began at an early stage. "My childhood was spent in Panchagar, from where the Kanchanjangha is visible. I spent days savouring the natural splendour by bunking school," Musa relates. His childhood played a part in catalysing his ambition.

He contributes travel pieces to Prothom Alo. "If I were a regular staff, I would not have been able to have the time to travel or trek the way I do," says Musa, who is all bucked up to go to Nepal to trek the trail leading to the 'base camp' in the Himalayas which is at altitude an of 18,500 feet.

Shirajul, on the other hand, works at a job that seems incongruous with his passion for climbing. As an architect of Concord Real State, he is torn between his job and his passion. It takes a lot to convince his superiors and colleagues the purpose of his yearly excursions that take him away from his workplace for many days. He is convinced that a study tour to India as a student of Khulna University triggered his zeal. "Now after returning from trekking, many ask how it was on the Everest, they simply don't have any idea of how long it takes even to prepare for the Everest climbing," adds Shirajul.

The first rule laid down by the Nepal Mountaineering Association is that each climber must prove to have successfully accomplished a summit at 2,000 feet altitude first. It is only after this that a mountaineer may receive the green light to climb the highest summit.

Living in Dhaka means living almost at the level of the sea, as it is only at an altitude of 35 feet. Mountaineers from this region certainly have few hills to climb. But these four think otherwise. They believe that there are peaks and ridges that represent years of training possibilities. "Even rock climbing can be practiced in the hilly district," says Shamsul.

Like all the other fellow trekkers, Sadia too had to go through the trail that led to the summit of Keokaradong. All of them were trained under SG Kibria Dipu and after conquering Bangladesh's highest peak, were ready for the professional courses.

Sadia inspires either awe or derision from a cross section of people. "My mother, maternal uncle and grandmother were supportive, otherwise many still think that mountaineering is not for women," Sadia says, who while disembarking from the bus at dawn during their return trip from Darjeeling surprised many as she was carrying her huge rucksack on her back. Sadia let us know that among 55 trainees at the institute, there were only eight female aspirants, and among them seven were Indians.

These four are now waiting to get enrolled in the next advanced session, the only thing that stand in their way is the reluctance of the Indian High Commission in issuing the visas. The other group -- the Mountain Dew Extreme Team -- is now in Darjeeling. It headed for Darjeeling a couple of weeks back. The Everest seems to be turning many young people towards taking mountaineering as a serious sport. Sadia sums it up well by saying, "I started with the ambition to conquer the Everest, but now I feel that I will try and be a mountaineer first."



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