Making mountains her life, one peak at a time

first_imgMumbai: Kanamo in the Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh, is no stroll in the park. At 5,970 m, it is a tough climb even for an experienced trekker. To scale this peak in just two days is exceptional. Last year, in July, Ishani Sawant, 25, did just that. What’s more she did it solo, carrying all her food, climbing gear, tent and high altitude clothing.“It was intimidating,” she admits. “I hadn’t been there before. The trail to the summit was not visible, as it had snowed heavily for previous two days. But it was an amazing experience. I had to find my way, navigate in the fresh snowfall. But it was an out-of-this-world feeling, to be alone, on the top, to talk to no one for two days, just you.”Love at first sightThe Pune resident fell in love with the mountains on a trip to the Himalayas when she was 13. She remembers being awestruck by their grandeur. “I kept clicking pictures of the mountains.” She knew then that she wanted to make the mountains her life. While it wasn’t easy to convince her parents to let her pursue her passion — “I hail from a middle class family where mountaineering as a profession is unheard of” — her mother quickly became very supportive. “She always believed in me and this kept me going.”Ms. Sawant is a qualified lawyer, with an LLB from ILS Law College, Pune, which she followed with a Diploma in Forensic Science. But she knew that adventure was her real calling. “While studying law and going to court, I used to go for adventure events on weekends. That made me so happy and it was so contrasting to the court atmosphere. I decided to become a professional alpinist.”So, while she was getting her more conventional qualifications, she also worked on her mountaineering. When she was 18, she enrolled in the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. She graduated with A grades in both the basic and advanced mountaineering courses from two of India’s top mountaineering schools, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (in 2009) and the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (in 2013). She has also taken courses in rock climbing and water kayaking in 2015, completed a Trip Leader India Course in 2016 from the National Outdoor Leadership School, and is a certified Wilderness First Responder from the Hanifl Center in Mussoorie.First climbHer first professional climb was in June 2013, when she, part of a team of four mountaineers, crossed the Parang La pass (5570m) in Ladakh and trekked to Tso Moriri, climbing Alpine style, which means climbing in a self-sufficient manner, carrying everything one needs, rather than setting up fully stocked camps on the mountain.Looking back, she says it was difficult at first to find acceptance from the mostly male mountaineering community. “Initially guys didn’t want to climb on my belay,” she says. (A belay is where one mountaineer holds a climbing rope secure, giving a climbing partner an additional element of safety.) “I had to keep proving myself again and again. I used to train with them and then wait after every one was gone to train more, do more pull ups and abs. It has been a very tough journey but I love the entire process. Now as I go climbing, my mates are confident about me, which has in turn upped my own courage.”Invisible slopesLearning the skills and acquiring the expertise was tough, but things got tougher after that.Climbing as a profession is not an easy one to follow in India. There is a huge difference in infrastructure, she says, which she only realised when she went to the U.K. in 2016 — as one of only 20 women from all over the world selected — for the International Trad Climbing Meet organised by British Mountaineering Council. “It was there I realised that there is no dearth of talent in our country. However, the reason why upcoming athletes switch to regular professions is lack of facilities. All good equipment and shoes we have to import from abroad, which makes mountaineering super expensive. We do not have sports physiotherapists to handle rock climbing injuries on the field or in the gym. There are not many trained coaches to teach us the latest methods and workouts. Most importantly, we do not have the mindset that rock climbing and mountaineering is also a profession. It is only a handful who rise above this all and still have that madness to pursue it.”Money crunchThe expense, and the fact that mountaineering is just not a viable profession in India means that getting funds is all uphill. “Mountaineering is an expensive sport, so I am finding it difficult to fund my adventures. I hardly go to Himalayas considering the huge costs involved in travel and equipment rent.”Ms. Sawant has not managed to find sponsors yet, so she spends her weekends teaching at adventure events to fund her own training. She uses her web site to share her adventure experiences and all the things she does to earn money for her adventures.This is in addition to her day job. In 2017, she added to her qualifications by completing a Distance Masters in Sports Management from the Institute of Sports Science and Technology, Pune, to help her learn about business. She is an entrepreneur, and her firm ProEdge conducts customised adventure events, including trekking, bike rides, rappelling, rafting, paragliding and camping. “I am internationally certified, not only in mountaineering and rock climbing, but also as a First Responder. So I am well equipped to handle wilderness emergencies and skilled to run these extreme sports events smoothly.” She also works with people with disabilities, running adventure programs for Adventures Beyond Barriers, and conducting rappelling and tandem cycling events for visually challenged people to take part in, along with sighted people, to promote inclusivity. She also trains cadets at the National Defence Academy in Khadakwasla, Pune, and has constructed a climbing wall for the academy.Conquering oneselfHow does she fit all this in? “I have realised that when you push your limit, your limits push back. So we should constantly endeavour to keep pushing towards our dream. No matter in which field you are, learning happens when you step out of your comfort zone and so something that you felt you couldn’t.”Her relative youth is also a handicap when it comes to being taken seriously as a mountaineer, and she is determined to change perceptions on that front too. “It really does not matter whether you are young or old, a man or a woman, an able-bodied or handicapped: the mountains are there for all. They do not become smaller if you are a kid or a woman or a handicapped. Mountains do not differentiate, then why should we? I live by this philosophy and hence been able to come this far.”For Ishani Sawant, life is all uphill; and that’s the way she likes itlast_img

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