Reaching Mount Everest base camp … one step at a time

On May 3, the day the world was celebrating Eid, at 11 AM, the mighty Himalayan mountains reverberated with the sound of the Indian national anthem. A team of nine, that included a double amputee, a visually impaired judo player, a blade runner, and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, among others, reached the Mount Everest base camp, situated at the height of 5,364 meters. One of them was single-leg amputee and dancer and national wheelchair basketball player Chanchal Soni, 14, who hails from Nari, a small village in Chhattisgarh. She scaled the summit with the help of ordinary crutches and became the youngest single-leg amputee climber in the world. It was her first mission, and she says it certainly won’t be her last. However, all her future missions depend on something crucial … funding. Soni feels her story did not get the kind of attention it deserved, and more coverage might help her secure funds for her future missions. Being a platform that promotes equality and inclusion, we decided to tell her story.

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Swati Subhedar  

The telephonic interview with Chanchal Soni, 14, who lives in a hostel for special children and children with disabilities, in Dhamtari district in Chhattisgarh, was set for 11:30 am. At 11:20, Soni gave me a call to inform me that she was all set. During the interview, I smiled every time she, very innocently, said she wants to be a “mountner” (mountaineer) and do “mounting” (mountaineering), but the passion with which it was said was unmissable. After the interview, she called me again to tell me: “No one has asked me these questions before. Please write a good story. It will help me get funding for my September summit to Mount Kilimanjaro.”

Just last month, on May 3, Soni, who is a single amputee (below knee), scaled the Mount Everest base camp along with nine others from Chhattisgarh and became the youngest single-leg amputee climber in the world to do so. The mission was spearheaded by Chhattisgarh-based double amputee Chitrasen Sahu. One of the objectives of his initiative “Mission Inclusion” is to bring behavioral change in society when it comes to persons with disabilities. Apart from Soni and Sahu, the nine team members included a visually impaired judo player, a blade runner, and a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

The team started the journey to the Mount Everest base camp, situated at the height of 5,364 meters, on April 24, and completed the mission on May 3 in record 10 days instead of 17.

Chanchal Soni, 14, at the Mount Everest base camp. Presently, She is the youngest
single-leg amputee climber in the world

“I had never seen snow before”

“The first thought that came to my mind after reaching the base camp was ‘I did it’. It was not easy. On the first day itself, the rubber base of one of my crutches came off because of which one crutch became shorter than the other and it made the climb all the more difficult. In addition, big boulders were kept for the convenience of other trekkers, but they proved to be a major roadblock for us,” said Soni.

It was for the first time that Soni was walking in ankle-deep snow and encountering nail-biting cold. “It had snowed just two days before we reached. I was not carrying proper warm clothes. We shopped in Kathmandu, and I bought woolens and a raincoat. It was not easy to walk wearing so many layers, but it was so cold that I could not even take them off,” she said.

She added: “As it was my first summit, for the first time I was experiencing the discomfort one feels when the oxygen level dips. They would monitor our oxygen thrice a day. It was all new for me. I had been practicing for one year before the mission. I would walk for 12 kms from Rudri (a small town in Dhamtari) to the Gangrel dam every day. I also went trekking to the hillocks nearby. But that walking was all on straight roads. This was something different.”

Considering the team was a mixed lot of able-bodied and differently abled climbers, they would keep each other motivated throughout the trek. “One day I almost fell into a deep valley. That day I got really scared and felt I would not be able to make it. But my teammates motivated me, and I kept going. When we reached the base camp, we clicked many pictures and sang the national anthem. It was a special moment,” said Soni.   

Soni is also passionate about dance and is popularly known as a one-leg dancer

Embracing her disability

Born on January 15, 2008, in a village called Nari in Chhattisgarh, Soni was quick to accept and embrace her disability. “This is how I was born. But as I child I was very restless and while playing would easily climb trees and scale walls. Looking at my agility people would say I can easily climb mountains. I was fairly grown-up when my aunt told me about people who scale summits. That stayed in my mind and that became my dream. Since then, I was determined to do mounting (mountaineering),” said Soni.  

Ironically, it was her other passion, dance, which opened the world of opportunities for her. She is popularly known as a one-leg dancer in the state. “Since childhood, I loved the rhythm of music. Initially, I would watch videos and dance at home. Then I received training. Soon, I started performing at cultural events. A few years back, I performed at the annual Kumbh mela in Rajim (a small town). The video went viral, and my picture was carried by local newspapers. In one of the interviews, I had mentioned that I wished to become a mountner (mountaineer). Luckily, Chitrasen (Sahu) bhaiyya (brother) saw that interview and got in touch with me.”   

Soni is the youngest national wheelchair basketball player in the country in the senior category 

Youngest national wheelchair basketball player in the country

Sahu, who is known as “half human robo”, is a blade runner, a national wheelchair basketball player and swimmer, a motivational speaker and an inclusion and disability rights activist based in Chhattisgarh. He got in touch with Soni and trained her to play wheelchair basketball. When she went to represent Chhattisgarh at the nationals held in Mohali (Punjab), she became the youngest national wheelchair basketball player in the country in the senior category.  It was in 2019. The global pandemic, which forced all of us to stay indoors, was a major dampener for Soni as well.

“It was during the pandemic period that we started planning for summits and working on the logistics. What I have learnt is getting funds for these summits is the toughest. People make promises, but when it comes to parting with funds, they hesitate or simply disappear. I had to cancel two missions because of a lack of funds. Finally, the Mount Everest one somehow worked out. Now again we are trying to get funds for the upcoming September summit to Kilimanjaro. Again, despite the recent achievement, I am facing similar problems,” said Soni.

Soni with her mother, her biggest cheerleader

“In the absence of funds, how will these children fulfill their dreams?”

Soni’s biggest cheerleader is her mother, Manju Soni, a single parent. Her husband, Sanjay, who owned a jewelry shop, passed away in 2016 after a prolonged illness. Since then, she has been living in a locality named Naya Para in the state capital Raipur and sent Chanchal to the hostel for special children in Dhamtari. Her siblings – an elder brother and a younger sister – live with her relatives. Manju makes a living by cooking meals for families.

 “I am grateful to Chanchal’s mentors at the hostel. It’s a charity organization so I don’t have to pay any fees. They have been really motivating and whatever my daughter has managed to achieve so far is thanks to them. Given our financial condition, I would not have been able to support my daughter in all these endeavors,” said Soni.

She was extremely skeptical when her daughter told her that she was going to scale the Mount Everest base camp. “But I let her go because it was her dream. There were network issues, and I could not talk to my daughter while she was on her mission. However, I would drop a message every single day and wait for a response. Those days were tough. But when I came to know that the team had reached the base camp, I was very happy. I had never imagined that my daughter could achieve something like this. Now I am more confident to send her for her future missions.”

Lack of funding is an issue that bothers her as well. “Not everyone is financially stable. There are children who are born with disabilities. One can’t change that. But the least the government can do is to help such children in every way possible to keep them motivated,” she said.     

During the telephonic interview when I had asked Chanchal to comment on what she thought about inclusion, there was long silence. She thought very hard and said: “Inclusion means children who are born without any disabilities should allow us to play with them. Full-grown adults should stop looking at us with pity and they should not taunt us. It’s because of this attitude prevalent in our society, parents don’t allow children like me to step out. They keep them protected at home or they start feeling ashamed of our existence. It’s because of this pressure that many children like me are not able to do anything. This should change and this is what inclusion means.”   

Also read: The international wheelchair basketball player from Kashmir

Also read: The Tokyo Paralympian from Haryana

We do hope that you enjoy reading our stories. We are a very small team of two; with no funding or resources to back us, and your contributions will help us in keeping this platform free and accessible for everyone. If you wish to contribute, click here.

Seven continents, seven summits and Mission Inclusion 

These days, Chhattisgarh-based Chitrasen Sahu, 28, is extremely busy. As I write this story, he is finishing travel formalities and trying to secure the last leg of funding for his upcoming expedition to Mount Acconcagua. At 6,962 meters, it is the highest mountain in the Americas. Previously, in 2019, he had scaled Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, in 2020 Mount Kosciuszko, mainland Australia’s tallest mountain, and in 2021 Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Russia. He is the first double amputee from India to achieve this and his aim is to scale seven summits present in seven continents. “Half human robo” Sahu, also a blade runner, a national-level wheelchair basketball player and swimmer, a motivational speaker and an inclusion and disability rights activist, is on “Mission Inclusion,” and this is his incredible story.

Swati Subhedar

On a humid summer day on June 4, 2014, Chitrasen Sahu, 21, a civil engineering graduate, boarded a train heading to Bilaspur district in Chhattisgarh from his hometown Balod. At Bhatapara railway station, Sahu got down to buy a bottle of water. Little did he know that his life was going to change forever, and an ill-fated moment was going to snatch away from him his dream of joining the armed forces.

While he was buying water, the train started moving. His hand slipped while trying to board the train, and his feet got stuck between the platform and the moving coach. He lost one leg, and due to medical negligence, a few weeks later, the doctors had to amputate his other leg as well.

Sahu, belonging to a farmer’s family in Balod district of Chhattisgarh, may have had to let go of his dream of joining the armed forces, however, the incident only strengthened the fighting spirit with which he was born. It’s been just seven years, however, in less than a decade, Sahu, now 28, has an impressive portfolio under his belt. Some of his achievements include being a national para-swimmer and a blade-runner, representing Chhattisgarh at the national level in para-basketball and carrying out skydiving and scuba diving with artificial limbs. Over the years, he has also groomed himself to be a motivational speaker and aims to help other persons with disabilities in every possible way.

However, his most distinguished achievement, which has earned him the nickname of ‘half human robo,’ is that he is the first double amputee from India to scale Mount Kilimanjaro (the highest peak in Africa), Mount Kosciuszko (mainland Australia’s tallest mountain) and Mount Elbrus (the highest peak in Russia). His mission is to scale the seven highest summits present in seven continents, just to prove that there is nothing that persons with disabilities can’t achieve. After ticking three peaks off his bucket list, he now desires to scale Mount Denali (North America), Mount Everest (Asia), Mount Vinson (Antarctica) and is presently looking to secure funds so that he could scale Mount Aconcagua (South America) in January 2022. Sahu believes by scaling these summits he should be able to achieve his goal of ‘Mission Inclusion’ — an initiative started by him whose objective is to bring behavioral change in society when it comes to persons with disabilities.

Why the need for Mission Inclusion?

“While standing in a row, we may come across as the odd ones out, however, one must acknowledge that we are still standing in the same row as the others,” said Sahu, who is presently working as an assistant engineer with the Chhattisgarh Housing Board in Raipur. As it happens with most people with disabilities, Sahu had to deal with a lot of negativity that random people threw at him soon after the accident. It was not easy to snap out of it, but Sahu managed thanks to his supportive parents and close friends and later took upon himself the responsibility to motivate other persons with disabilities so that the journey becomes slightly easier for them.

“The aim of my initiative Mission Inclusion is to bring behavioral change in society towards persons with disabilities. In our country, people stare at persons with disabilities. Then, they immediately want to know your story. Mission Inclusion aims to make people aware. For instance, the basic thing is you should always ask before helping a person with any kind of disability, rather than just jumping to help him/her. My vision is to uplift their morale and boost their confidence so that they start believing that it isn’t too difficult to live with a disability once they accept it, embrace it, and find ways to use their limitations to their advantage,” said Sahu, a TEDx and motivational speaker.

He added: “Often, persons with disabilities also have to deal with stress, depression and anxiety. We have volunteers who make sure that they get proper counseling. So far, we have managed to help nearly 2,000 people with counseling … some of them were battling suicidal tendencies. With assistance from other stakeholders, I have helped nearly 100 people in getting artificial limbs and assistive devices. Plus, they also must be financially independent. We apprise them of various existing government schemes and policies that aim to assist persons with disabilities.”

When the need arises, a soft-spoken Sahu turns into a fierce inclusion and disability rights activist. “In 2017, I bought an automatic modified car, but was denied license and registration because of my condition. I fought a legal battle and after 20 months, finally won in the Chhattisgarh High Court. This win paved the way for the reopening of lakhs of such cases in the state. Now, no one denies persons with disabilities driving rights,” said Sahu.

Chitrasen Sahu is a motivational speaker. The aim of his initiative ‘Mission Inclusion’ is to bring behavioral change in society when it comes to persons with disabilities

Scaling seven summits to achieve Mission Inclusion

“In May 2018, Chhattisgarh-based Rahul Gupta, who goes by the moniker “mountain man” held a press conference after a successful climb of Mount Everest. I attended the press meet and was fascinated. I approached him and asked him if a double amputee can climb mountains. Soon, we started training! We worked really hard for the next 1.5 years,” said Sahu.

After extensive training, Sahu was confident of scaling Mount Kilimanjaro. At 5,685 meters, it is the highest peak in the African continent. Gupta accompanied Sahu for the first expedition.

“On September 19, 2019, we started climbing. After four days, on September 23, at 11 am, I was at the peak holding the Indian flag. I have no words to describe the feeling. The last day was especially tough. The temperature had dipped to minus 10 degrees and chilly winds were blowing. We were 12 hours away from our destination. As it’s a volcanic mountain, it tends to get slippery. We kept going and, in the process, I sustained injuries. But we did not stop. When we reached the peak, I went numb with happiness. Five years back I was in the hospital, figuring out the way ahead and five years later, I was at the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro,” said Sahu.

After achieving this feat, there was no looking back. Sahu then aimed to scale the highest peaks in all seven continents. Next year, in 2020, his next stop was Mount Kosciuszko, which, at 2,228 meters, is mainland Australia’s tallest mountain. In 2021, his climb to the peak of Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Russia (5,642 meters), wasn’t an easy one. “I felt sick the moment we started climbing. The temperature was in the range of minus 15-25 degrees. I could see snow for miles, which was beautiful, but the winds were ruthless. It was so bad that I threw up a couple of times. There came a moment when I felt I won’t be able to complete the mission. That thought gave me the required push. I popped a pain killer and picked myself up, after which there was no looking back until I reached the peak.”

To know more about Chitrasen Sahu and his missions, watch this video

Next stop …  Mount Acconcagua

These days, Sahu is busy finishing travel formalities for his upcoming expedition to Mount Acconcagua, which, at 6,962 meters, is the highest mountain in the Americas. I could feel the rush in his voice when we spoke over the phone. He had a long to-do list. However, he was a bit anxious about the task that topped the list – securing the final leg of funding for the expedition for which he will leave from Raipur on January 2, 2022.

“For such expeditions, we have to carry two pairs of prosthetic legs; one that we use and one spare one. We have managed to get funding for one pair. We are still looking for sponsors who could fund the second pair. These expeditions are costly. All inclusive, this expedition is going to cost me approximately Rs 17 lakh. I need special equipment and clothing, which cost Rs 75,000. One pair of prosthetic legs costs Rs 6 lakh. The climbing fee is around Rs 3.37 lakh, and the expedition guide is going to charge Rs 2.25 lakh. Yes, raising funds for these expeditions has been a challenge. Mountaineering is something new, hence there is hesitation. I hope initiatives like Mission Inclusion would instill confidence in people and things will change,” said Sahu.

Chitrasen Sahu with his family

Befriending the mountains

“What I love the most about these expeditions is that mountains can’t distinguish. Scaling a mountain is a challenge for all. The low oxygen level, the snow sickness, the extreme weather conditions … everyone gets impacted by these factors. I just have a carry an additional weight of my artificial legs. That’s the only difference. All one needs is passion, dedication, and the hunger to reach the top,” said Sahu.

And what do mountaineers do when they reach a peak? How do they celebrate?

“I did pushups after reaching the peak of Mount Elbrus! Usually, the first thing I do is to remove my artificial legs, and then I just look around at the mountains and marvel at their beauty. Then the photo sessions begin! Along the way, we meet so many people from different countries. We all become friends and share our stories. That’s what I love about each journey,” said Sahu.

These expeditions are often very risky. In September 2021, almost a month after Sahu reached the peak of Mount Elbrus came the disappointing news that five mountain climbers lost their lives after they were caught in a blizzard. How do Sahu and his family and friends deal with this anxiety? “I have a simple funda. You will never know what’s in store for you. Just keep following life’s journey.”

If you wish to help Sahu raise funds for his upcoming expeditions, you can connect with him at halfhumanrobo@gmail.com or visit his website.

We do hope that you enjoy reading our stories. We are a very small team of two; with no funding or resources to back us, and your contributions will help us in keeping this platform free and accessible for everyone. If you wish to contribute, click here.

Include us … that’s all people with spinal cord injuries are asking for

Because of the lack of support and access to the right tools and opportunities, majority of persons with disabilities don’t manage to find employment. Those who do, they face serious difficulties at workplaces as most offices continue to remain inaccessible or are not very inclusive when it comes to accommodating persons with disabilities.

Similarly, para-sportspersons have to struggle to find wheelchair-accessible stadiums, training institutes and coaches who are equipped to train persons with disabilities.

In some countries, including India, persons with disabilities have to make an attempt to fit in. To sensitize people, September is dedicated to spread awareness about spinal cord injuries. We spent the whole of September 2020 talking to those who are living with a spinal cord injury.

Each story is an inspiration — some found strength in sports, others in academics, while a lot of them are busy looking after their children and managing their families and at the same time being financially independent. Inclusion and acceptance … that’s all that they are asking for.

Follow this link (https://bit.ly/2Z73HwC) to read all the eight stories.