My mother has an interesting bunch of friends. One whom they call Lady Shashi Tharoor (I guess that’s self-explanatory), one who has the best managerial skills and the highest pair of heels, one who is one of the youngest professors at India’s most coveted college and on occasion tells me to get her drink by saying, “Tumhe paal poske isiliye toh bada kiya hai so that you get me a glass of vodka!” The list goes on and on. But they are a tight knit pair. I believe my friends are my family and that stems from the fact that these are the friendships I grew up seeing. Neeraj asked me to write an article on a female traveller who inspires me. Some names came to my mind, adventurers I see exploring on Instagram to wanderers whose stories I read in the Traveller. As impressive as they all are, somehow none struck a chord. Then a friend asked me, “What about aunty’s friend whose stories you keep sharing with your trippers?” La di da, I had to look no further. The inspiration had already been near home. Meet my mom’s friend, Ritu Chopra – painter, traveller, adventurer.
When menopause came knocking, she threw herself back into nature because she believes that nursing your problems at home can only magnify them while facing a problem head on can conquer it. And she conquers it best in nature where she feels one is more connected with oneself. In 2013 her back problems started as she had a slip disc bulge. In 2015 came menopause. And in 2018, she had a ligament tear and fluid. None of these years did she cease to take on any of her adventures. In fact, in 2018 she struck off the Everest Base Camp trek from her bucket list. Her stamina never failed her so trekking up wasn’t a challenge but the trek downwards felt the brunt on her knees. She didn’t have her knee brace but she had to keep going so she took Lord Shiva’s name with each step and made it through. She says different people believe in different things and in tricky times such as these one should think of what they believe in and that will keep them going because a trek isn’t as much about the physical challenge as it is about the mental one. Doctors and friends told her to take it easy with her age but you can’t stop a force of nature. One day finally there was a physiotherapist who told her to go on because she said she knew that if she stopped her it would only pinch her and not do her any good. She insists that her adventures have actually strengthened her and improved her present state, as opposed to what others feared. Today she has done 15+ 7 days or longer treks including Everest Base Camp, Har ki Dun, Milam Glacier, Nanda Devi, Khatling Glacier, Gaumukh – Tapovan, Kuari Pass, Dronagiri, etc. This is excluding any trek that’s shorter than a week and it’s a ball park number as they never kept a count. You see it was never about the number of treks but the sheer love of trekking itself.
How did it all start? Well, her husband, fondly called “Chopi” uncle was an avid trekker practically his whole life. When their son was 2 years old, the three of them went for their first ever trek as a family. Aunty strapped her 2 years old son, Akul, on her back and trekked up some 80kms! Then there was no looking back. In fact, the family recreated some photos 18 years apart, at the same Khatling Glacier trek!
I’ve heard of couples doing a bunch of different things in the name of romance. But for me, personally, uncle aunty are goals. Why? Well, the year they had their 25th anniversary they were both turning 50 too. They said, kuch alag karna hai. Aunty suggested scuba diving and uncle suggested paragliding. Each was apprehensive of the other’s pick. But who aapne suna hoga na, “love conquers all”? So, after a little back and forth, they made a pact, to do both. She laughed as she told me that on their anniversary, they were busy studying, after all they had to get their padi certification. Sometimes a couple strikes a Titanic pose for romance, sometimes they dive in waters to swim with fishes and gaze at corals. Sign me up!
And if two adventure sports weren’t enough, she did sky-diving too, in that same year. Fab at 50 and how!
As for paragliding, today she holds a P3 APPI paragliding pilot license. She enjoys the thrill of paragliding so much that they have their own gliders today. They’re planning on visiting France this summer only for paragliding and “none of that touristy stuff”. Well!
She tells me how at the paragliding institute a couple of people would ask her age. She never thought of it as much but one boy told her he wants to take her picture to show it to his mom, to tell her that she can do it too. That’s when she realized that the adventures she so dearly loves don’t see as many female participants of her age. Her message to all women out there is that at this age and stage a phase of your life has ended and you are finally free. So, if you won’t explore your passions now, when will you?
I ask her about an achievement and she mentions cycling 200kms in one day! During her trips, they carry cycles along so that they are free to cycle about and explore wherever they go.
She talks about summitting Stok Kangri just last year in 2019 with her husband and son which was a family triumph, to say the least.
As I continue to be amazed by her, she tells me about something called “Via Ferrata” which she tried in Loen, Norway. Its where you climb a rock lined with narrow steel cables and ladders. As if I wasn’t inspired enough already, this is now something that I’m adding to my bucket list! Aree Google it and you’ll be dying to try it too.
I find inspiration in her, just as she does in the mountains. A painter by profession, she says she has so many experiences to share but she couldn’t write them to truly express. But if you have one look at her paintings you will see starkly all that the nature lover wanted to express.
Her outlook in life is that she turned 50 and thereafter took a U-turn and came back to 28. So, she’s set to try more exercises and move her paragliding license a level further up, planning to do a 30meters dive next time and continue to explore nature which she refers to a privilege. I tell her how I’ve narrated her story to so many people. Often, I have trippers struggling during a trek and someone says they’re too old or unfit for something and they can’t do something like this again. I tell them about Ritu aunty and how she tackled medical problems by throwing herself into the throngs of adventure itself. She smiles and reiterates that if your mind is strong, you can take on any challenge head on. She leaves me with the mind-stirring question, “If you didn’t know your age, how old would you be?”