The moun­tain girl who saved 500 lives

Mamta Rawat, 24, risked her life to res­cue hun­dreds of chil­dren and tourists stranded on a moun­tain dur­ing dev­as­tat­ing floods in Ut­tarak­hand, In­dia, not stop­ping even when her house was de­stroyed, re­ports Feby Imthias

Friday - - Front Page -

Twelve-yearold Soon Paral couldn’t con­tain her ex­cite­ment. “Ooh, look at that pretty flower and that lovely but­ter­fly and that colour­ful bird,” she grinned. The lit­tle girl was part of a group of 30 chil­dren on a trek led by guide Mamta Rawat and was en­joy­ing the flora and fauna of the 3,657m tall Da­yara Bu­gyal peak in the north­ern In­dian state of Ut­tarak­hand. “I can’t wait to reach the top,” the sixth-grader smiled, be­fore chas­ing after a but­ter­fly. They had been trekking for over three hours in one of the most stun­ning high-al­ti­tude tourist des­ti­na­tions in In­dia and had stopped to take a break.

Mamta was about to cau­tion Soon to be care­ful about loose rocks when she heard a far­away rum­ble. Look­ing up, she noted rain clouds gath­er­ing on the hori­zon. “Chil­dren,” she called out, a note of cau­tion in her voice. “We should start mak­ing our way back to camp now. It’s go­ing to rain.”

The weather had been per­fect, with no hint or warn­ing of thun­der­show­ers, when they’d set off that morn­ing on June 16 last year. Although caught un­awares, Mamta put on a brave face as she didn’t want to scare the chil­dren. “I hope I can get the kids down to base camp be­fore the rains ar­rive,” she thought, gath­er­ing them around her. “Don’t

One wrong step would send Mamta and the chil­dren plung­ing 40m down into swirling wa­ters

worry,” she told them, “just stay by my side at all times.” One girl looked frightened. “Shall we start run­ning down?” she asked, but Mamta, just 23 at the time, shook her head. “All of you just stay with me. I’ll take care of you and lead you down safely. I prom­ise.”

With­out wast­ing time, Mamta, who knew the moun­tain­side well hav­ing lived in the foothills all her life, picked out a shorter, eas­ier route. As she led the chil­dren, the skies be­gan to blacken with dark clouds. A streak of light­ning tore over­head and an omi­nous clap of thun­der boomed. “I’m scared,” whim­pered Soon, hold­ing Mamta’s hand firmly. A minute later, the skies opened up and the rain came pelt­ing down. None of them had ex­pected a thun­der­storm so were dressed in light sum­mer clothes, which were soon soaked. Mamta, hair and clothes stick­ing to her, bent her head against the rain and con­tin­ued down, check­ing con­stantly on the chil­dren as the de­scent was risky and they had to make their way past some treach­er­ous precipices. Now, with the heavy rain and fast-fad­ing light as the storm be­gan clos­ing in, the risks would be mul­ti­plied.

As the group was walk­ing down they saw large sheets of ice, dis­lodged by the heavy rain, come cas­cad­ing down the moun­tain. “Small rivulets merged to form quick-flow­ing streams that be­gan to gush down the moun­tain, wash­ing away ev­ery­thing in its path,” re­calls Mamta. For­tu­nately, her 12 years of ex­pe­ri­ence on the moun­tains had taught her which way to go. “I knew the more dan­ger­ous routes so avoided them,” she says.

But as they ploughed on, the group saw parts of the moun­tain­side crum­bling un­der the on­slaught of the rag­ing rain wa­ter. Vast swathes of it were be­ing washed away in the tor­ren­tial down­pour. “Two- and three-storey build­ings that hugged the moun­tain­side were col­laps­ing like sand­cas­tles in a storm. It was very scary,” she ad­mits. “My only mis­sion was to see that all the kids, many of whom were cry­ing and scream­ing in fear, were safe.”

After guid­ing them past the dan­ger­ous precipices – some of which dropped 800m – Mamta gin­gerly led them to the next big hur­dle - the rick­ety rope-and-wood bridge across what had, in just a few hours, be­come a rag­ing river, the Assi Ganga.

Mamta be­gan to carry one child at a time over the bridge, which was threat­en­ing to snap at any mo­ment. She knew that one wrong step would send them plung­ing 40m down into the swirling wa­ters.

As she car­ried one girl over, she lost her foot­ing and lunged to the side of the bridge. For a sec­ond, fear raced through her as her right leg dan­gled dan­ger­ously over the side. But cling­ing on to the rope with one hand and hug­ging the child with the other, she pulled her­self up. Breath­ing a silent prayer, she con­tin­ued over the bridge, mak­ing it safely to the other side.

“Don’t worry, you are safe now,” she screamed to the wail­ing child

‘It­wasn’t easy to main­tain my bal­ance be­cause the woman was un­con­scious and couldn’t hold on’

over the sound of the rain. The many trips across the bridge was a daunt­ing task, even for a sea­soned guide like Mamta who had com­pleted a climb­ing pro­gramme from the fa­mous Nehru In­sti­tute ofMoun­taineer­ing. A free­lance in­struc­tor with INME, a Delhi-based ad­ven­ture sport company that or­gan­ised chil­dren’s ad­ven­ture camps, Mamta had done sev­eral treks with chil­dren’s groups but it was the first time that her res­cue skills were be­ing put to the test in such ad­verse con­di­tions.

Although it was har­row­ing, Mamta was con­fi­dent in her abil­i­ties and was sure she would be able to save ev­ery one of the cold, shiv­er­ing, scared chil­dren. “From the mo­ment the rains started, I de­cided I would not wait for res­cue teams to come up. I knew it would be dif­fi­cult and wait­ing on the moun­tain­top in the rain with the chil­dren was not a good idea.”

More than three hours after they be­gan their de­scent, Mamta took the last child in her group into the safe con­fines of the camp build­ing.

“The kids were cry­ing and shiv­er­ing in the cold. Many of them couldn’t be­lieve that they had made it down the moun­tain alive and were hug­ging their wor­ried par­ents, who had as­sem­bled in the camp,” she says.

But Mamta knew that her job was not over. Rather, it had only be­gun. Some of her guide col­leagues who were man­ag­ing the base camp told her that there were hun­dreds of tourists and pil­grims – there are a few shrines in the re­gion – who were still stranded on the moun­tain. The brave, unas­sum­ing vil­lage woman did not have to think twice.

After en­sur­ing the chil­dren were safe, Mamta grabbed a rain­coat, then raced out once again and be­gan scram­bling up the slip­pery and hazardous moun­tain. “I am a res­i­dent of Ut­tarkashi and I am trained not just to be a guide but also to res­cue peo­ple in moun­tain dis­as­ters. If I do not use my skills to help peo­ple in times of trou­ble, who will?” she asks.

She had no uni­form, no map or lo­gis­ti­cal support. “But I know the moun­tain­side like the back of my hand,” she says. “And I knew where the tourists were likely to be. I wanted to res­cue all those who were stuck on the moun­tain.”

Head­ing up a route taken by pil­grims, she trudged as fast as she could in the pour­ing rain, dodg­ing loose boul­ders and rocks that were rolling down the moun­tain.

Some 40 min­utes later, she spot­ted a woman ly­ing on the way. A mid­dle-aged pilgrim, she had sprained her foot badly while de­scend­ing in the rain and had fallen un­con­scious in the cold, harsh con­di­tions. Mamta tried re­viv­ing her but when she found she couldn’t, she de­cided she wouldn’t waste time. Hoist­ing the woman on her back like a rucksack, the guide car­ried the pilgrim and be­gan a daunt­ing 3km walk down the rocky hill­side. “It was not easy to main­tain my bal­ance be­cause the woman was un­con­scious so she could not hold on to me tightly,” says Mamta. But with­out miss­ing a step the guide trekked down the moun­tain to a tem­po­rary camp, from where she was able to sum­mon an emer­gency he­li­copter to rush the woman to hos­pi­tal.

Barely paus­ing to catch her breath, Mamta then raced back up the moun­tain once again to bring down more groups of tourists who were stranded and did not know the way down in the storm. All through the night and for the next three days Mamta went up and down the moun­tain alone, busy sav­ing peo­ple, paus­ing only when her en­ergy lev­els dipped to sus­tain her­self on pack­ets of food dis­trib­uted by vol­un­teers and rest­ing for just a few hours. “Mamta is truly a hero... an un­sung hero,” says Anusha Subramanian, founder of the char­ity Sum­mit­ing4hope, which is help­ing the peo­ple of Ut­tarak­hand who lost their prop­erty and liveli­hood in the floods. “Mamta’s ef­forts ap­pear more praise­wor­thy when you re­alise that she did not stop her work even when she learnt that her own house had crum­bled in the floods.”

The small two-room struc­ture that was her home and a small gro­cery store ad­join­ing it were se­verely dam­aged by the rag­ing tor­rent.

After con­firm­ing that her fam­ily – two brothers, a sis­ter-in-law, nephew,

niece and her el­derly mother – were safe and had been moved to a re­lief camp, Mamta con­tin­ued to help peo­ple stuck on the moun­tain.

“There was no point cry­ing over what was lost. I wanted to help those who I could,” says Mamta.

In all, the plucky woman saved the lives of more than 500 peo­ple.

Over the next few days the world would learn that the flash floods and rains in the state had caused wide­spread death and de­struc­tion.

‘There was no point cry­ing over what we’d lost. I wanted to help as many peo­ple as I could’

The Man­dakini River swelled dan­ger­ously, wash­ing away build­ings on its banks. More than 600 peo­ple were con­firmed dead, 5,000 are still miss­ing and bil­lions of dirhams worth prop­erty was dam­aged.

Although she be­came a hero in her lo­cal com­mu­nity, Mamta found she did not have a home to re­turn to. Forced to stay in a tem­po­rary res­cue camp set up by the gov­ern­ment, along with sev­eral other fam­i­lies who had lost their homes in the flood, Mamta was ever ready to un­der­take more res­cue mis­sions. “There was a lot of work to be done,” she says. “Lots of peo­ple were in need of help.”

Although sto­ries of her brav­ery made na­tional head­lines, Mamta ap­pears mod­est. “I only wanted to help as many peo­ple as I could,” she says.

Anusha, an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist, is full of praise for Mamta. “She is an amaz­ingly brave and self­less girl,” she says. “When asked if we could help re­build her house, she re­fused say­ing that it would be bet­ter if we used the aid money to build a cable bridge across the river so it would help all the vil­lagers in the area as all the old tem­po­rary bridges had been washed away in the floods.”

It was Mamta’s self­less­ness that in­spired Anusha to set up the char­ity and start the process of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of the peo­ple of Ut­tarak­hand who had lost their prop­erty and liveli­hood.

“Ut­tarak­hand is like home to me be­cause I did a moun­taineer­ing train­ing course at the Nehru In­sti­tute. Last year’s tragedy in­creased my con­vic­tion to do some­thing for the peo­ple here. So along with two friends, Guneet Puri and Yash­want Singh Pan­war, I launched the char­ity,” says Anusha.

De­spite Mamta’s protests, one of the first projects they un­der­took was to build a per­ma­nent shel­ter for her. “She was a saviour and she de­served a proper house,” says Anusha.

Work has be­gun on her house and the struc­ture will be ready in a few weeks.

Mamta ap­pears un­fazed by all the praise and pub­lic­ity she’s re­ceived. “My dream is to do well in my job,” she says. Recog­nis­ing her skills, the lo­cal po­lice asked the gutsy moun­taineer to train women in moun­tain climb­ing and high-al­ti­tude res­cue. “It’s nice to get back to my beloved moun­tains and help women stand on their own feet,” she says.

Rain caused wide­spread death and de­struc­tion in Ut­tarak­hand in June last year

More than 600 peo­ple were con­firmed dead in the 2013 floods

Mamta (right) with her fam­ily in their tem­po­rary shel­ter

Mamta’s house was ren­dered un­in­hab­it­able by the floods

Mamta cur­rently shares her sin­gle room with six other peo­ple

Sum­mit­ing4hope is build­ing this house for Mamta and her fam­ily

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