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
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