"Yes, we did it," screams Karthikeyan in exaltation and relief. Kathikeyan and his daughter Kaamya were standing 6,960 metres above sea level with temperature dipping as low as -40°C with a sense of accomplishment in their minds. Kaamya was holding her father's fingertips with stars in her eyes.
And Kaamya Karthikeyan once again etched her name in the annals of mountaineering history. The class 7 student has scaled four summits! This feat is nothing but a distant dream for students of her age.
Twelve-year-old Kaamya, India's pride in mountaineering, is the daughter of Naval commander S Karthikeyan and Lavanya from Palakkad in Kerala.
When the authorities denied permission to Kaamya, citing her young age, to scale the highest summit in South America, Karthikeyan had no option but to approach a court in Argentina for the requisite nod. After a brief legal battle, he got a favourable court verdict.
Armed with the court order, the father-daughter duo wasted no time in scaling Mount Aconcagua, the highest peak in Argentina at 6,960 m, and Kaamya became the youngest in the world to set foot on its summit.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his monthly 'Mann ki baat' address to the nation in February said, "Our girls are reaching new heights. Kaamya is the best example for that; she is brilliant."
Girl who walks with her dad
Kaarthikeyan, an officer at the Western Naval Command in Mumbai, earlier had to face one question from a younger Kaamya, "Why do you always go to the mountains?" For that he didn't give a verbal answer but took her with him during his subsequent expeditions.
Now, Kaamya has scaled all the highest peaks in four continents of the world. She can achieve a 'mountaineering grand slam' if she conquers the highest summits in the other three continents – Asia, which has Mt Everest, Antarctica and North America. She is planning to complete this unique feat in the next two years.
'Let her reach the sky'
Though Kaamya started to climb the mountain ranges of the Himalayas from 2015, Karthikeyan and Lavanya realized her potential in mountaineering in 2017. The trio scaled the Mount Stok Kangri, which is 6,154 m above sea level, in Ladakh in August 2017. Mountains with an altitude of more than 6,000 m will truly test the mettle of a mountaineer. Heights in excess of 6,000 m are riddled with danger and there are instances of climbers gasping for oxygen.
Karthikeyan, Lavanya, and Kaamya continuously walked for 19 hours from the base camp at 4,700 m to reach the peak of Mount Stok Kangri.
"Are you aware that you have set a record for being the youngest to scale a summit that is more than 6,000m above sea level? And are you feeling tired?" asked the couple. Kaamya nonchalantly replied that she was not tired. That time Karthikeyan was convinced that Kaamya should grow to reach the skies.
Karthikeyan decided to hone his daughter's extraordinary skills in mountaineering. A dream task was presented before her – to scale the highest mountain peaks in all the seven continents, and to travel through north and south poles. And Karthikeyan named this incredible expedition 'Mission Saahas.'
Kaamya set foot atop Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa at 5,895 m, at the age of nine along with Lavanya in 2017. She showcased her prodigious talent in mountaineering by conquering Mount Elbrus (5,642 m) in Europe and Mount Kosciuszko (2,228 m) in Australia in June and November 2018 respectively. Kaamya also holds the record of being the second youngest person to reach the base camp (5,600 m) of Mount Everest.
By the end of 2018, Kaamya had set her eyes on Mount Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America. Karthikeyan was quite aware that this was going to be a harsh expedition for his daughter and decided to set aside a year for training. Three factors make Mount Aconcagua a mountain to climb. The terrain is desert-like bone dry and there is a dearth of oxygen beyond 3,000 m due to lack of vegetation. The climbers have to endure high atmospheric pressure due to the summit's proximity to earth's equator and also brace for strong winds from the nearby Pacific Ocean. The strong winds will only worsen the extreme cold conditions prevailing in higher altitudes.
Karthikeyan concentrated on a training programme to increase the stamina and endurance of his daughter. A year of rigorous training provided the desired results. As part of the training, she completed with ease the mountain climbing expeditions in the Himalayas. And eventually, Karthikeyan led her to the arduous task of scaling Mount Aconcagua.
Court battle in Argentina
The duo reached Argentina on January 2 this year with plans to start scaling Mount Aconcagua from January 8. But everything turned topsy-turvy when they approached the Aconcagua National Park authorities for permission to climb the summit. The officials informed that only persons above 14 years of age are allowed to scale the peak. But they also gave the advice to get out of the tangle – approach the court. Karthikeyan, along with his daughter, walked straight away to the court. The court judge was startled to see a father-daughter duo from India pleading before him to grant permission to climb Mount Aconcagua. The judge transferred the petition for hearing to a higher court and observed that such a plea was coming before him for the first time in his life.
The higher court asked Karthikeyan and Kaamya to submit medical and fitness certificates. After the requisite documents were produced, the court gave another direction to consult a cardiologist, specialist in sports medicine and psychologist. The judge finally gave the nod for the father-daughter duo to scale Mount Aconcagua after the court was satisfied with the certificates given by the specialists.
A broken dream
Both took the first small step towards conquering Mount Aconcagua on January 17; ten days behind schedule. With the help of a guide, the duo started climbing, which was strenuous, for days together. The weather conditions changed for the worse as the altitude increased. Undeterred, Kaamya moved forward with dogged determination and overcame the challenges thrown at her by nature. When the team reached 5,800 m, the guide put his foot down and said that he was reluctant to lead Kaamya after this point and suggested that they could return.
Kaamya pleaded with the guide to continue climbing as they were just 1,000 m away from the peak, but he stood his ground. Kaamya stood in the vast expanse of the mountain range hugging her father braving extreme cold conditions. The guide even declined the request to move towards a camp that was only 200 m ahead of them. With all hopes shattered, Kaamya and her father began the descent with a heavy heart. When they came to a camp 300 m below, the tent where they stayed was not to be found, as the guide had removed it, and the next camp is 4,200 m down. Karthikeyan held his dejected daughter tight as he descended the mountain and finally they reached the camp on January 26.
Loads of love
"I want to conquer this summit," said Kaamya to her father while they were preparing to return to India. Sensing the determination of his daughter, Karthikeyan met with another guide, and that guide expressed his willingness to help them out. The expedition got a new lease of life on January 28 and the trio started trekking from early morning. But now the snowfall was pretty heavy compared to last time. After tirelessly walking on nearly 3ft-thick snow for four continuous days, they reached the final camp at 6,050 m above sea level on January 31.
The duo started climbing the last one km to the peak from 5.30 am the next day. The trek was treacherous as heavy snowfall and thick mist made life difficult for Karthikeyan and Kaamya. Moreover, the temperature plummeted to minus 40 degree celsius. Kaamya set foot atop Mount Aconcagua at 4.30 pm after walking continuously for 11 hours. This is a feat that is unique for Kaamya. The duo also unfurled the tricolour on the summit.
Kaamya's next goal is to conquer Mount Everest, the highest mountain on earth. Preparations are on and Karthikeyan is by her side to provide all help and assistance.