A Tribal Girl’s Journey From An Army Porter Dressed As A Boy To The First Woman Everester from North East India!

TINE MENA: THE FIGHTER

A young girl tucked far away in a remote corner of rugged terrain, expanse of wild greens, icy streams and colossal mountains so close that she could hear them roar, as if calling out to her. She fought and fought hard to slowly but steadily tread her path towards the top of the world to create history. There are some stories which touch the heart so deep that it becomes hard to disconnect. Tine Mena’s is one such story, she inspires and pushes to achieve the best version of ourselves. I recently heard from someone, as long as you live, struggle will accompany you so no matter what the goal in life is, there are lessons to be learnt, motivation borrowed and an unwavering resolve to just go for the peak you wish to conquer in life. If Tine Mena can, so can all of us!

Here’s an excerpt from my interview with Tine Mena, who climbed Mount Everest at 25 in 2011 making her the first woman in North East India to achieve this feat. There was an earnestness and humility of a simple yet passionate woman who lives where she belongs, in the lap of nature, in a remote corner of India hoping to encourage, guide and change young lives with mountaineering and adventure sports like she did hers’.

Tine Mena photography: Roing, Arunachal Pradesh

Tine Mena was born in Echali village in Arunachal Pradesh, cut off from civilisation. She is the eldest of the two surviving children out of 17. The rest passed away during childbirth due to lack of medical care.

Tine with her parents & younger sister

Belonging to the Idu Mishmi tribe of the state, hunting animals was a regular ritual both for survival and as part of custom. Tine often accompanied her Naba (father), Buge Mena on his hunting trips witnessing some hair raising scenes of animal-human encounters in the wild.

Tine’s father Buge Mena in traditional Arunachali clothing

We lived a poor tribal life with no comforts, disconnected from any basic facilities. There was no concept of agriculture in the village so we sustained on exploits from my father’s animal hunting.

Homes in Echali village

But Tine was made for bigger encounters with near death, fighting nature’s fury on her way to conquering the highest peak known to man, Mount Everest! And conquer she did when all seemed to go against her.

Tine hails from a village where electricity, roads or even food cultivation was a crisis.

We used to walk 3 days on foot to the nearest village where we could get rice to eat.

Tine and her family later moved to Roing, the district headquarters of the Lower Dibang Valley for education and a more accessible life. To make a living and contribute to running the household, Tine enrolled herself with the Indian army as a porter, well not as a girl!

I was 17 when I started working as an army porter in my district. Girls were banned from applying as a porter but I was desperate to earn as my father couldn’t bear all the expenses, so I dressed up as a boy and was inducted by the Army. We used to carry almost 20 to 25Kgs of weight for 5 to 6 hours daily for Rs 1500.”

Representational image from The Week

Soon my lie was caught but realising that girls could do it too, the Army lifted this ban.

It was during her porter days where she clearly displayed her strength, stamina and endurance that came naturally to her from living in the mountains, when she was encouraged to take up serious mountaineering.

Tine was shown the Everest dream at a time when she didn’t even know what Everest was!

Mount Everest image for representational purpose

Eventually Tine managed to enrol herself at the Manipur Mountaineering Institute in 2008 and later trained at the Himalayan Institute of Mountaineering, Darjeeling bagging the gold medal for the best student in her batch in 2009.

Tine climbed Mount Kolahi, Jammu and Kashmir in 2009 organised by NE Adventure Foundation Guwahati, Shivalinga (6543 mt), Garhwal in 2010 and finally Lama Wangden peak (6200mt), Sikkim as part of her pre-Everest expedition organised by Indian Mountaineering Federation.

Images from Tine’s various mountaineering expeditions

It was time to go all guns blazing towards her goal but her preparation was marred by tragedy. Tine lost her mother.

When I was training for advanced mountaineering with a single minded focus on Everest, my mother passed away. It was a painful time and I was going to give up because I was not in that mental state of mind but my father supported me and encouraged me to fulfil my Everest dream.

But the road to Everest was not an easy one. As a private climber Tine had to gather a fund of almost 25 Lakhs to cover her expenses for travel, licenses & permissions in Nepal, her sherpa, tents, oxygen, food and gear.

I had no money. With my mother’s demise and financial constraints, I didn’t think I would make it. I worked hard and did a lot of labour work like tree cutting, breaking boulders and selling broom sticks, herbs and vegetables to save for Everest.

There was still a long way to go before Tine had the money she needed so she made an appeal for funds . Fortunately help poured in not just from government employees and local politicians but also from people in her district who contributed with whatever they could.

The day of my travel for Everest summit was just 10 days away and I was still short of Rs 15 Lakhs. I wanted to let it go but I still took one last chance and approached Jindal Steel & Power in Arunachal. They agreed to sponsor!

The price for gear and equipment for climbing Everest were exorbitant which I couldn’t afford so I bought everything second hand from a store in Nepal with whatever money I was left with.”

Representational image from one of Tine’s expeditions

Tine’s ascent to Everest was an adventure of another level, there came a point when she and her sherpa Tsering Dorje were not sure whether they will make it back alive.

We faced heavy snow storms and blizzards. It was blinding and the icy winds were so strong that it seared right through our bones. The tents had blown away and we saw all the other climbers had started to make their way down giving up on their dream of the Everest peak but I did not. This was after all a chance that I fought for so hard till the last ray of hope.

Actual image from Tine’s Everest expedition

I insisted to my sherpa that we must continue. Fortunately we found a tent of one of the climbers and waited till the storm subsided. There was hardly any food left so I wrapped a piece of cloth tight around my stomach to resist hunger.

Image sourced from slideshare

On 9th May 2011, after more than 15 hours of unforgiving and harsh obstacles, Tine finally accomplished her mission of looking down at the world from the top. At the age of 25, she had successfully summited Mount Everest making her the first woman from the North-East to do so!

Image sourced from slideshare

I can’t describe what I felt at the Everest peak. There was a flood of emotions. There was no one else there, just the two of us as everyone had already retreated because of the hostile weather condition. I wanted to scream and tell everyone, I did it!

Tine had not just traversed a journey of 15 hours, it was her perseverance, grit and determination of all those years that she struggled and fought to elevate herself from a small remote village and emerge from oblivion to limelight.

After all the accolades though, the limelight soon faded and Tine’s struggles continued. Her house was destroyed in a fire and she lost all that was dear to her including her Everest records, pictures and certificates. With the help of villagers and some local assistance, she built a house for herself again but earning an income has been a challenge.

Image of the lost home

10 years passed but the job promised to Tine by the government after her Everest achievement remained unfulfilled until recently when the Arunachal Pradesh cabinet headed by Chief Minister Pema Khandu announced the appointment of Tine Mena along with another Everester from the state, Tapi Mra as Adventure Promotion Instructors in the Department of Youth Affairs. While the news has already floated in the media, she is awaiting her official letter of confirmation and assurance of a source of income (as of the day of interview on August 10, 2021).

Screenshot from East Mojo article

I want to urge our country’s youth to go outdoors, explore and develop a love for nature, sports and adventure. And I hope our government encourages and facilitates more youngsters who do not have the financial means or the right training to help them achieve their goals and make their country proud.”

Tine with husband Pronov and sons

Settled in Roing with husband Pronov and two young children, Tine runs a home stay called Mishmi Hills Camp and an adventure school offering various activities in Arunachal Pradesh. Tine is also fond of riding bikes and photography.

Tine’s Mishmi Hills Camp in Roing

Published by Geetanjali Prasad

For a decade or so, I worked as a television news reporter, producer and anchor and dabbled in genres like entertainment, business, real estate, sports and travel for different television channels. Currently since the last five years, I am taking care of the subject of climate change and green buildings by visual storytelling through digital platforms for an American organisation. I have started this blog purely for love of writing and pursuit of extraordinary stories (as the name suggests) by looking for people who have done immensely inspiring work or overcame situations that demanded exceptional grit and determination. I want to document and share these stories with the world in the hope that it motivates more people including me to be just a little kinder to everything and everyone (including animals & environment) around us, a bit more fearless to fight for what is right and the endurance to achieve what we envision.

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