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.


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

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“There is no dearth of talented sportspersons in Kashmir. Give us facilities”

In 2019, Kashmir was virtually cut-off from the rest of the country after Article 370 was revoked and the state was put under lockdown. Why the Indian Army and the Jammu and Kashmir police were tracking down Ishrat Akhtar, a wheelchair basketball player, is a fascinating story, but also a grim reminder about how difficult it has been for sportspersons, especially para-sports players, from Kashmir


Swati Subhedar

On August 25, 2019, Ishrat Akhtar, a wheelchair basketball player from Bangdara village in Baramulla district, about 54 kms from Srinagar, was holed up in her house. The state was virtually cut-off from the rest of the country after Article 370, which gave Jammu and Kashmir special status, was revoked on August 5 and the state was put under lockdown.

There was a knock at the door. Akhtar’s father Abdul Rashid Mir, who works in the water department in the Public Health Engineering Department in Baramulla, froze when he opened the door and saw Army and police personnel standing outside. A policeman was holding his daughter’s photograph. He asked Rashid if Akhtar was his daughter. Rashid nodded. What happened next was the most thrilling experience of twenty-four-year-old Akhtar’s life.

Why the security personnel were tracking Akhtar is a fascinating story, but also a grim reminder about how difficult it has been for sportspersons from Kashmir, who have to deal with situations that are beyond their control. For Akhtar, who represents India on the world stage in wheelchair basketball, life has been full of challenges from the moment she met with a life-altering accident in 2016 and decided to give wheelchair basketball a try a year later.

Twenty-four-year-old Ishrat Akhtar represents India on the world stage in wheelchair basketball.
The accident, recovery, and taking up basketball

Akhtar’s life changed forever in 2016, an uneasy year for the Kashmir valley. In a freak accident, she fell from the ledge of the second floor of her house. The fall was so bad that she injured her spine and had to be taken to the district hospital in Baramulla, and later, had to be shifted to the Bone and Joint Hospital in Jammu. Shifting her from one hospital to the other was a task for her family as the Kashmir valley was in a state of turmoil at that time and it was affecting her treatment. She was operated upon six days after her fall, but even after the surgery, she could not feel her legs. Her world came crashing down when she overheard the doctor telling her father that she was paralyzed because of the spinal cord injury and she would have to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. After returning home, she was bedridden for eight months.

“I had never seen a wheelchair before and the fact that I had to get used to it was making me depressed,” she said. A few months after the fall, she visited the Voluntary Medicare Society in Bemina, Srinagar. The center helps in the rehabilitation of physically and mentally challenged individuals. “I was here for about a year. Initially, I would exercise, and thanks to the physiotherapy sessions, I could at least sit. The boys over there would practice wheelchair basketball. One day, I decided to join them,” said Akhtar. That moment changed her life.

“I didn’t even know I could play basketball, but I was good at it. I attended my first camp at the Srinagar Indoor Stadium in 2018. My performance was good and I was selected for the nationals that were organized in Tamil Nadu. I was the only girl from Jammu and Kashmir. In 2019, I visited Mohali for the second nationals. I made it to the Indian team as my performance was good,” she said.

Ishrat’s life changed the moment she decided to give wheelchair basketball a try
When the Army and police came knocking

“In August 2019, the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India was trying to get in touch with me, but the phone and Internet connections in the valley were badly hit, and so it couldn’t,” said Akhtar. The Federation wanted to inform Akhtar that she had got selected for the Asia-Oceania Wheelchair Basketball Championship, scheduled to be held in Thailand in November-December that year, and had to go to Chennai to attend a national camp. It was an important championship as it was also the qualifying event for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.

How Akhtar was eventually tracked and how she made it to the camp in Chennai is the most thrilling experience of her life. “Former Navy officer Louis George is the coach of the India women’s wheelchair basketball team. He was casually talking to his friend Colonel (retired) Isenhower. George sir mentioned that he was not able to get in touch with me. Isenhower sir asked for my photo and my address. George sir didn’t know my exact address, but he knew that I lived in Bangdara village,” she said over the phone, her voice beaming with excitement.

She added: “Isenhower sir first got in touch with the Army. The Army contacted the Jammu and Kashmir police in Baramulla. The Army men posted there, along with some police personnel, reached Bangdara village. They didn’t know my exact address, so they knocked on each and every door and that was how they found me! I am grateful to the police and the Army for tracking me down,” said Akhtar.

It was for the first time that Akhtar was stepping out of her house when the situation in the valley was so tensed. Plus, she was escorted by the police and Army personnel, who had made arrangements for her to fly to Chennai for the national camp, which made her nervous. But when the entire village came to cheer for her while she was leaving, that motivated her. “When I reached the camp in Chennai, everyone was so happy and also very surprised that I had made it,” said Akhtar.

Ishrat with Union Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports, Kiren Rijiju, who gifted a sports wheelchair to her
“There is no dearth of talent”

After attending the camp in Chennai, Ishrat also got an opportunity to meet Kiren Rijiju, the Union Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports. “He was very kind and promised all the help. He also said that he will provide me with a sports wheelchair,” said Akhtar. The wheelchair did arrive almost a year later, at a time when Ishrat was dealing with another lockdown. This time it was the nationwide coronavirus-induced lockdown.

When asked how has she been practicing during this lockdown, Ishrat said: “I had to attend a camp in Surat. My tickets were booked. But I had to cancel that because of coronavirus. It was disappointing. But I am happy that I got the wheelchair, which was promised to me. It will help my game considerably. It’s difficult to practice in a regular wheelchair. But because I could not go to my academy because of the lockdown, I would practice at home. There are many talented players in Kashmir, but they don’t get opportunities as there are no facilities. It’s even more difficult for para players like me. The government should look into this,” she said.

When asked if the two subsequent and prolonged lockdowns in Kashmir and the intermittent episodes of disturbances have affected her game, she said: “Yes, but these things are beyond anyone’s control. I have to get used to the problems. For instance, the academy where I train is 75 kms from my place. It takes me 1.5 hours to reach the academy. Now, they send a vehicle, but earlier, my father would take me and bring me back. I owe my success to him and I want to win medals for him.”

This is Part 2 of our series ‘Unbound’ – a spinal cord injury awareness series. Read Mrunmaiy’s story Rafat’s story Garima’s story Preethi’s story, Suresh’s story, Kartiki’s story, Ekta’s story.