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The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir

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Athletes

Jul 16, 2018

One Indian Woman’s Climbing Journey: Battling Social Stereotypes

For five years, Prerna Dangi perfected her climbing, whilst dealing with frequent issues of body image and gender bias in India.

WRITTEN BY

Jahnvi Pananchikal

India has witnessed the rise of female mountaineers like Bachendari Pal and Santosh Yadav, who paved the way for younger adventurers to keep trying. Prerna Dangi had the courage to choose a similar path. With resilience and self-motivation, this Indian climber was inspired by supportive parents and close friends, to top one of the hardest ice-routes in the country.

Climbing is changing my body. Do I want that? It made me question. I later realized that I just want to be a climber.

When Prerna arrived at the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF), she was excited to meet her fellow climbers. This was her first climbing endeavor with a wider group and a better wall, having initially discovered the sport in St. Stephens College, Delhi. During that period, whilst climbing a giant wall in front of people assessing her skills, something strange happened. Guys noticed her big arms, and made sure to point it out. She had hoped to get some feedback on her climbing technique.

That event, however, was a turning point for Prerna. “Climbing is changing my body – do I want that? It made me question it. But I later realized that I just want to be a climber,” says Prerna. She is one of the relatively few, fully dedicated recreational female climbers in India. She is 25 years old and has a significant number of climbing and mountaineering adventures to count among her experiences.

One of the recent ones was in January 2018 when she climbed the 350 ft high frozen Dankar Monastery Fall in Kaza, Spiti. During her adventure, she was accompanied by Project Wild Women. This was the product of preparation that included some nine frozen waterfalls from WI Grade 4-7.

That’s the achievement, but what about the journey, and what did it take to get there?

Photo Credit: Kopal Goyal

Struggle is at the core of climbing, and has also been a part of Prerna’s social context. She recalls an ice-climbing experience in Manali before gaining recognition for Dankar Monastary Fall. There were 15-20 climbers competing in the festival, organised by a local production house. There were almost nine climbers and only three participants had tried ice-climbing before.

Prerna was one of the two girls in the group, and didn’t have a climbing partner to belay her. When everyone tried and failed, she was the last one left. “No one asked me if I wanted to do it,” she remembered. “I was a new person in their community. I felt that the rest of the team was oblivious to giving someone new an opportunity. I found someone to belay me, and went to reach the highest point on the icefall.”

In other instances, Prerna realised that everyone is not the same. In 2015, Prerna headed out with two fellow climbers, Bharath and Karan, who discovered the Shilla Nallah ice route in Spiti. The three climbers courageously experienced the bad weather together, including a small avalanche, while trying to climb the fall. “They saw me as a climber, and put trust in me. My performance improved. They didn’t confuse ability with gender.” Later, she even found a fellow female climber, Vrinda Bhageria. They go on climbing adventures whenever they get a chance.

A strong and supportive ecosystem can make a huge difference. Prerna had to be patient to find the right people who supported and motivated her. Until then, she resorted to a change in attitude. “Earlier, when I climbed with people and noticed that they are not nice people, I wouldn’t be as motivated and see myself withdrawing from giving my all,” she remarks. “There were more people to pull me down than to support me, even if just for fun. They would tell me that for a girl, I climb so well. I was really bothered by this.  But now, I am able to see the good in people, learn from them and move on. I don’t let the badness get to me.”

“As a woman, I’ve had to prove myself before being accepted as a competent climber.”

“I want to become an internationally certified rock and ice guide. This will allow me to increase the scope of this field, provide an outlet to more people to push themselves in the outdoors. It is also the only way I feel I can inspire some sort of a change in my surroundings.”

No matter how the outer world was, Prerna’s family consistently encouraged her throughout this crazy ascent to freedom. Not only did they support her, but also exposed her to the initial playground in rural India.

Photo Credit: Prerna Dangi

Prerna’s dad hails from Tikhunkot village in Uttarakand. One needs to hike to get to this isolated village in the mountains. Her family lives in Delhi, but for almost 10 years, they would visit the village for a couple of months every year. That’s where Prerna learnt the value of simplicity and nature, but most importantly, the joy of climbing.

“I’ve been climbing trees since I was very young. I don’t remember being scared of heights and falling,” she laughs.

“When I first climbed a big mountain, I felt humbled.”

As she grew older, Prerna discovered her deep interest in varied sports, but was smart enough to realize the importance of good academic grades to keep everyone happy. So she studied hard and played harder. It worked. When teachers at school suggested to her parents that she should reduce play time, they just responded, “but she has got good grades anyway.”

Years later, thanks to family and her deep inclination towards adventure sports, Prerna ended up climbing 10 frozen waterfalls and the highest mountain in North America as part of a two-women team without a guide. Additionally, she has attempted the routes of East Tosh Glacier (6,450mts) and T 16 Virgin Peak Expedition (5,800 mts).

“Climbing is the only thing where I push myself all the way, and I won’t give up until I fall. You will fall whether you reach the top or not.”

With that attitude, her achievements as a climber are no surprise.

Prerna feels optimistic about the future of climbing in the country. “India is going to be the ultimate climbing playground,” she says. “We have everything from trad and sport to boulder and alpine in the coming years. We have so much untouched, unexplored territory waiting to be discovered and cultivated.”

Until more adventures, here is to never giving up.

Follow Prerna Dangi on Instagram here.

Keep reading more about female Indian adventurers, such as Malavath Poorna, the youngest person ever to summit Everest.

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Expeditions

Jul 29, 2019

Trans Himalaya 2019: Breathless in the Himalaya

In an unprecedented Himalayan snowfall, ultra-runner Peter Van Geit breaks out his ice axe to access undocumented passes in the High Himalayas.

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WRITTEN BY

Peter Van Geit

Last month, The Outdoor Journal received the first contact from Peter Van Geit on his 2,500 km self-supported journey across 100+ Himalayan high passes in Himachal, Ladakh, and Uttarakhand, accompanied by filmmaker Neil D’Souza. In his latest update, Peter navigates unpassable verticle cliffs and holy glacial lakes along his spellbinding adventure.

After completing the entire length of Uttarakhand in 17 passes, I entered the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh. I had been doing 600-700 km ultra runs through this beautiful state in previous years on lesser-traveled roads in remote valleys. This time I was targetting several passes across the high mountains in three major sections: the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) a wildlife sanctuary and protected biosphere, the Dhauladhar range separating the Kangra plains and Chamba valley, and the Pir Panjal range separating Chamba from Lahaul. As of mid-July, I completed 45 high altitude passes touching 4,600 meters and heavy snow due to unprecedented snowfall this winter.

Shepherds from Barmour descending from the snow-covered Chaurasi pass at 4700m in Chamba valley on their way to graze their herds in the high altitude meadows around the Chaurasi Ka Dal lake.
Panoramic view from the Gaj pass at 4100m from the Dhauladhar high range onto the snow-covered Lam Dal Lake in the upper range of the Chamba valley. Late summer after the snow melts tens of thousands of pilgrims visit this holy lake.

Climbing above 4,000 meters in early summer meant cutting through steep, frozen snow gullies with my ice axe, opening several passes not yet traversed by anyone or following the fresh trail of the shepherds who had just migrated across some passes. With the Northeast monsoon setting in soon, I’ll be moving next to the high altitude deserts of Lahaul and Zanskar to complete several 5,000-meter plus passes and come back down to Garhwal in Uttarakhand in September once the rains in the lower Himalayas subside.

Read next on TOJ: Alpine-Style, Ultra-Challenge in the Himalayan High Passes

GHNP is cornered between the high ranges of the Parvati National Park and Kinnaur. Three major rivers flow through this national reserve: the Tirthan, Sainj and Jiwa Nala separated by sharp, steep rising ridges. With no accurate trail info available on the Internet (no blog references meant few people or none have hiked here) I explored all three valleys using a very rough PDF sketch map made available by the tourism office and crossed over through three steep passes. The park has some of the steepest and most inaccessible rock cliffs I have encountered. Losing the trail here meant getting stuck inside near-vertical cliffs.

Sharing a cup of tea beneath the onset of the monsoon clouds with these shepherds while climbing up to the Waru pass at 3870m while crossing over the Dhauladhar range from Chamba valley to the Kangra plains.
Hospitality in the mountains. Night stay and dinner with these two shepherds on a ridge above the Jalsu pass in the Dhauladhar range of Himachal. Beautiful views on the snow-covered Mani Mahesh in the background, one of the seven Holi shrines of lord Shiva.

Once the snow melts on the higher ranges, many young men in Uttarakhand and Himachal go out in search for the “Jungli Nalla”, a high altitude medicinal root which is smuggled across the border from Tibet into China. One kilogram fetches 20 thousand rupees ($300 USD). Spending one and a half months in the mountains provides sufficient income for the rest of the year. While hiking deep inside the GHNP, I came across several villagers digging for both roots as well as large, beautiful rock quartz crystals.

Dhauladhar is a 4,000-meter plus mountain range which rises up steeply from the Kangra plains between Dharamsala and Palampur. Several passes cross over to the beautiful Chamba valley fed by the Ravi river which flows down from the high ranges separating Kullu-Chamba-Lahaul districts. There are several high altitude glacial lakes in the Dhauladhar which are considered holy and visited during an annual late summer pilgrimage by the local people. Most of the lakes were still covered under a thick sheet of frozen snow when I passed by.

Woman carrying home firewood from the forest in Lug valley in Himachal Pradesh for cooking purposes. With no road access or electricity in many remote hamlets, people rely on natural resources for home building and cooking.
Two Gurjar (mountain tribe) from Mumbardar in Chamba valley of Himachal were grazing their buffaloes in the alpine meadows above the clouds and upon seeing me passing by immediately invited me over for dinner and a night stay in their mud home.

I crossed five passes in the Dhauladhar: Baleni, Minkiani, Indrahar, Waru and Gaj pass between 3,800 to 4,300 meters coming across heavy snow at the North facing (less exposure to the sun) Chamba side. The most adventurous was Waru at 3,870 meters, a lesser-known pass used only by shepherds (which means undocumented) where I lost the trail several times. Trying to get back on track, I had to scramble through dense forest and climb down through several side gullies which had cut deeply into the valley slope resulting in several “free solo” moments while climbing down 100-meter plus vertical drops. I survived several breathless and adrenaline rushing moments here until I set a foothold on firm ground again.

One of the near-vertical rock descents into a snow-covered gully which deeply cut inside the main valley while navigating my way “off-trail” to the Waru pass across the Pir Panjal in Himachal.

The Pir Panjal is a high range of 5,000meter peaks separating the Chenab river valley (geopolitically split across Pangi and Lahaul districts) and Chamba valley. Shepherds from Chamba annually migrate with large herds of 300 to 1,000 sheep and goats across several very steep 4,500 meter passes to graze the high altitude meadows of Pangi and Lahaul which produces better quality milk and meat. They return home only five months later at the end of the summer before the passes close again.

Camping below the stardust of the milky way while camping at Trakdi along the Manji Khad stream inside the beautiful Dhauladhar mountains near Dharamsala in Himachal.

I crossed the Marhu, Darati and Chaurasi passes touching 4,200 to 4,600 meters, all undocumented, following the footsteps of the Gaddis or shepherds who had just crossed over. The most adventurous and scary one is Darati, which is a sheer vertical 1,000-meter rockface that seems impossible to climb at first sight. From steep snow-covered ridges on top of the pass to a labyrinth of narrow passages through steep rock faces, one can only imagine how shepherds traverse these with 500 sheep. About 5% of the sheep do not make it alive to the other side.

Shepherds from Chamba Valley, Himachal at the base of the Darati pass waiting to cross over the steep snow-covered pass in early July across the Pir Panjal range into the high altitude meadows of Lahaul.
Women at Kalprai village in Chamba valley harvesting wheat on the rooftops of the mud separating the grains from the stem by hitting with large sticks while rhythmically rotating in a circle.

I experienced one of the most spellbinding moments in my entire journey so far while I was about to climb up the Chaurasi pass. At exactly the same moment, a massive herd of more than a thousand sheep and goats descended down the snow-covered pass displaying their natural skill to traverse these very steep slopes. They were guided by ten shepherds from Barmour district in Chamba on their way to the fairytale Chaurasi ki dal glacial lake surrounded by lush green meadows dotted with alpine flowers of all colors of the rainbow.

One thousand sheep descending from the snow-covered Chaurasi pass (4700m) in the Chamba valley in Himachal on their way from the plains to graze the high altitude meadows. They will only return home 5 months later at the onset of winter.

The most memorable moments in these remote valleys of the Himalayas have been my encounters and night stays with the Gujjars, or mountain tribes. Small, remote hamlets far beyond the last villages deep inside the forest, completely disconnected from civilization. These tribals live with their cattle in large beautiful rock and mud shelters built with huge pine tree trunks. They graze their buffaloes, horses, and sheep in the meadows which stay together with them under the same roof. Each and every encounter along my way with these native people has been one of heartwarming hospitality. After a full energy-draining pass crossing, ending up around a warm fire in a mud home eating freshly cooked food with these families who consider you as one of their own is beyond words.

Unseen hospitality with the Gujjars or mountain tribes in Chamba, Himachal who live disconnected from society deep inside the forests in mud homes grazing their cattle in high altitude meadows.
Overnight stay and dinner with the mountain tribes at Rali Dhar in Chamba, Himachal. The lady of the home is preparing yummy rottis (flat breads) on the fire with buffalo milk. They stay under one roof with their cattle.

Peter will continue to share his field notes with the hope of inspiring others to explore these beautiful locations. You can read more about Peter’s experiences and motivations in his interview here – Alpine-Style, Ultra-Challenge in the Himalayan High Passes. Stay tuned on The Outdoor Journal for Peter’s next update along his 2,500 km journey.

To follow Peter’s expedition, visit his blog.
Facebook: @PeterVanGeit
Instagram: @petervangeit
Chennai Trekking Club

For more Neil Productions, visit: http://neil.dj/
Facebook: @neilb4me

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