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Athletes & Explorers

Sep 06, 2018

Getting to the Bottom: What It Took for Priyanka Mangesh Mohite to Climb Everest

Summiting Everest is difficult. However, it’s not all about climbing the mountain itself, especially when you’re 21 and on a budget.

WRITTEN BY

Jahnvi Pananchikal

“How did you do it? But you’re really young!” That was what Priyanka Mangesh Mohite began to hear, when she told people about her successful ascent of the planet’s highest mountain. Mohite climbed Everest when she was 21 years old. As remarkable as the feat itself may be, what is also remarkable is her backstory, and the small circle of people that supported her in a part of the world and in an ecosystem where climbing, especially big mountains, is about much more than about just getting up the peak.

“You feel a question mark [on yourself] when others doubt your abilities.”

When we spoke to Mohite, all we heard was laughter and gratitude while describing repeated trips to the mountains, and the people she respects. She continued to smile even when remembering difficult times of self-doubt and lack of financial support.

Mohite is a young and dedicated climber from Satara, Maharashtra, who got very lucky. She wanted to climb Everest, and had just been selected for a government-supported expedition to the world’s highest mountain. But she needed to raise additional funds to round up her share of the budget. Mohite spent six months visiting every corporate office in her town to pitch potential sponsors. She only had two previous mountaineering expeditions to show on her climbing résumé, which certainly wasn’t enough to help her case, despite her confidence. “You feel a question mark when others doubt your abilities,” she recalls. The experience of repeated rejection forced her to reconsider many times, and she came close to giving up the idea altogether. But she kept at it, and eventually, raised seven lakhs rupees (US$10,000) from several small companies and individuals. Then her parents stepped in to help, giving Mohite the remaining ten lakhs rupees (US$14,000) that she needed. [Ed’s note: Everest is most often climbed with commercial expeditions that charge between US$25,000 to US$50,000 per person].

Photo: Neema Thenduk Sherpa

Given her lack of experience, Mohite was not confident about making it to the expedition. She had completed basic and advanced mountaineering courses at one of India’s several mountaineering institutes, and regularly went rock climbing near her town. Despite the fact that today Everest is a commercially-guided peak, someone planning to climb Everest should ideally have been on at least one 8000m mountain, or several high-altitude peaks in a series of serious expeditions. Mohite had only done two serious climbs before, including one 6500m peak – just about the altitude of Camp 2 on Everest. She wasn’t quite experienced yet.

However, with a strong desire to succeed, Mohite found herself a supporter. Colonel Neeraj Rana, former principal of Himalayan Mountaineering Institute was running selections for an Everest expedition they were backing. During training sessions, he noticed how she kept going despite injured knees on a 30km hike. The next day, he took a chance on her, inviting her to join his Everest expedition.

In 2013, Priyanka Mangesh Mohite became the third youngest Indian to climb Everest.

With financial support from parents and a few individuals, and knowing that Colonel Rana trusted her abilities, Mohite embarked on her Everest expedition. In 2013, she became the third youngest Indian to climb Everest. Since then, she’s continued to knock ’em off –  including Lhotse, Elbrus and Kilimanjaro.

Photo: Priyanka Mangesh Mohite

She is not a big fan of groups; others slow her down, she says, and often the expertise of many trip leaders seems questionable. In 2015, after climbing Everest, she went to Menthosa, the second-highest peak in Himachal Pradesh, India. The trip was led by climbers who took a group of 15 people to an advanced camp without checking for incoming weather conditions. The group turned around before the summit due to a huge avalanche, and returned to base camp the next day. Bizarrely, they blamed their lack of success on Mohite, telling her she’d been too slow, with insinuations about her weight.

“It’s hard to go in groups. You should know them; they should be your friends. Plus, you need to feel comfortable following the leader.”

Mohite prefers and respects the disciplined approach and rigorous training methodology of Colonel Rana. They regularly go on expeditions together, along with a couple of Sherpas.  “It’s hard to go in groups. You should know them; they should be your friends. Plus, you need to feel comfortable following the leader. I have that rapport with Colonel Rana,” she says.

Photo: Pemba Sherpa

Mohite feels a certain sense of pride. Her financial troubles are behind her after Everest. Since then, she’s had no more trouble raising sponsors. She met Shriniwas Patil, the former Governor of the Indian state of Sikkim, at an event after her big climb. Patil gave her his personal phone number, telling her to contact him in case she needed help. For her next expedition, she gave him a call, and Patil found sponsors to fund her entire expedition within ten days. This is yet another example that summitting the world’s highest peak despite adequate experience, is often an Indian climber’s escape from financial difficulties, in a country that lacks a healthy ecosystem for outdoor sports.

“I’ve heard Lhotse is very difficult and I really want to climb it.”

When Mohite returned to Everest Base Camp after summiting, she had a chance to speak with her family. Her mother was worried and crying, and her father put her on the speakerphone for everyone to hear. He told his daughter, “I’ll give you anything you want when you come home.” Mohite replied, “I’ve heard Lhotse is very difficult and I really want to climb it. Will you please let me go?” Her entire family burst into laughter. Her mother insisted that she returned home before heading off again on expedition. Mohite simply smiled, dreaming of climbing her next big mountain.

 

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Travel

Jun 14, 2019

Riding Through Rajasthan

On the back of an indigenous Marwari horse, known for its warrior spirit, a female-only group rides 160 miles across India through villages that have never been visited by foreigners.

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WRITTEN BY

Margaret Reynolds

The adventure began before we even arrived at our destination. Racing through the twisting narrow back allies of Delhi, we were late. Our train to Ganganagar was leaving in ten minutes and we hadn’t made it through the swarm of Delhi traffic to the train station. We rounded a corner and came to a screeching halt as the road ahead was completely closed off at the intersection with no hope of a resolution any time soon. Honking horns, a constant accompaniment to Delhi traffic, now rose to a crescendo of cacophonic sounds as frustrated drivers expressed their annoyance. “Out! Out!” our guide shouted, and we leaped from the van and ran through the street. We were weaving around traffic which bolted forward erratically to gain inches, trying to maneuver their way free of the jam, while we stayed alert to avoid being bumped or hit. Some drivers called out to us in Hindi words we only understood by their tone. Blindly following our guide, using our adrenaline to power us through the crowd, we made it to the train and our sleeper cars minutes before departure and hoped that the bags coming behind us on porters made it too!

Author Margaret Reynolds is an experienced horseback rider who prepared for this trip with previous rides in both Europe and Africa.
Some of our group in the sleeper car of train.

Awaiting us in Hanumangarh, a short distance from Ganganagar, was the Bhatner Horse Fair, a once-a-year festival to celebrate, compete, and market the famed Marwari breed indigenous to India and unlike any other breed worldwide. Missing our train would have meant missing the Fair and it was an event that we planned our entire Rajasthan riding safari around.

“We discovered that we were the main attraction.”

The next morning, we arrived at the fair. It was the last day and while most of the events were completed, we discovered that we were the main attraction as they rarely had foreigners, and there were no other women there. We were given the red-carpet treatment since we were accompanied by Raghuvendra Singh Dundlod, affectionately known as Bonnie, a nobleman of the Shekhawati clan and reputed to be the savior of the Marwari’s. He has dedicated his life to the promotion and protection of the breed which he considers the true ambassador of Rajput culture and heritage. We were followed by a beehive of fair attendees, drawn to us like honey, and even interviewed by the local media. It became clear that our presence held so much more value than just our own education and enjoyment; we could offer support to Bonnie’s cause through our words and interest, as well as in undertaking the week-long safari to showcase these beautiful steeds to his countrymen.

Bonnie educating us on the horses while being observed by other fairgoers.
In breeder tent at the Bhatner fair with Bonnie, our guide and emissary (Margaret wearing bright scarf).

The next day we greeted our horses and mounted into traditional military saddles. The horses were proudly adorned with cloth martingales baring the rich red and saffron colors of Dundlod Fort, and the ride began past sheep herds along the Indira Gandhi Canal. These majestic horses, with warrior spirits, known for their stamina and power were the perfect partners for our eight-day safari across 160 miles of desert. We rode through the heart of Rajasthan, across the Thar desert, far from the bustling cities of the Golden Triangle, now populated by robust crops of millet and mustard enabled by the newly built canal system.

Our group freshly mounted ready to ride out. Margaret and Noel on far right.

“These majestic horses, with warrior spirits, were the perfect partners for our eight-day safari.”

The route was a new one as each year the progress of India’s roads, establishment of new agricultural fields and corresponding fences creates the need for a different trail. We passed through villages that had never been visited by foreigners. Women and children came rushing from all directions to shout “Hi” and “Hello” and shyly wave at us. We were followed for miles by young men on motorcycles whose English focused on the word “selfie” as they came armed with their cell phones to take pictures of this unusual parade of noble horses and white-skinned foreigners. We were welcomed guests wherever we traveled.

Passing through a village in Rajasthan.
Being greeted by villagers along the route.

Our first night by the village of Raika Ki Dhani, we were greeted by dozens of villagers who came to watch us—they observed us sharing chai and popadum, a crispy tortilla-like bread spiced with pepper whose flavor snaps in your mouth just like the texture, as we sat around the fire and chatted about our day. Bonnie regaled us with entertaining tales from his many adventures such as the time they were almost attacked by misinformed villagers who thought his group was hunting their sacred antelope. The locals stood quietly, respectfully, yards away and crept ever closer like sandhill cranes, en masse one step at a time, until the camp staff intervened.

Evening view of tents.
Inside view of the tents.

“We were all wearing smiles that transformed our souls and changed us forever.”

In the morning, the son of the landowner on which we camped, fluent in English, came to us requesting our presence at their home in the village so we could meet their women. Delightedly, we accepted and drove to their brick and adobe home in the village. Many generations live together, and women join the family home of their husbands. When we arrived, there were a dozen people and when we left many dozens as villagers heard of our presence and joined the gathering. The women are beautiful, graceful, and shy but so friendly and welcoming. It didn’t take long to bridge the language barrier as they let us hold their children, shake their hand, and take many pictures together. We aren’t sure who enjoyed it more. We were all wearing smiles that transformed our souls and changed us forever by the time we left.

Invited inside a local village family home.

The ride was swift with many fast canters through the desert, lined up side by side on a sandy two-track, with every horse competing to be in front. Astride the powerful Marwari thundering through the desert is an experience in which your soul is freed, and you are in the moment, feeling like you are riding on the wings of warriors past. You hope it never stops and if it were up to Koel, my lovely Marwari mare, it wouldn’t. She is a successful endurance horse that can go forever and is pleased to show you her power and speed.

The famous Marwari inward tilting ears—view to the desert.

Animals are esteemed in India. Cows, dogs and even pigs are considered holy and roam freely throughout India, including the cities. Drivers don’t honk at them even though they honk at everything else. They feast on grass and garbage or food provided by shopkeepers or families. While those of us in first world countries drive through our suburban neighborhoods, expecting to see the standard home with two car garages and the glow of multiple TVs, as we passed each home in the village we found a courtyard with a camel which served as the beast of burden pulling carts of supplies or crops, a few water buffalo that provide milk, a dog or two and likely sheep or goats for milk and meat. These precious animals, so essential for survival, are well cared for in a country known for its poverty.

The indigenous Marwari horse.

Life is simple in the villages. Days are repetitive and the work is essential –laundry, gathering fuel, cooking, and tending fields. Our presence in their villages provided some respite from the day to day existence. Often, a young boy would lead the way through town shooing goats, cows, or other animals out of our path and showing us the way to the community water trough so our horses could have a refreshing break, feeling pleased with his important role.

“The earthiness that filled the air was far preferable to the gagging stench and pollution of the city.”

Unlike the cities with their explosion of people and constant stench created by the recipe of uncontrolled diesel fumes, sewage, and trash, the villages were peaceful and calm. Here the smells were not of diesel but of livestock. Camels, so common in courtyards and hitched to carts, are ruminants. They chew and swallow their food into rumens where it is fermented, then burp it back up into their mouths later for more chewing. It smells a bit like a compost heap on a warm desert day. Cow patties are the most common source of fuel and they are being shaped by bare hands, then dried for use, usually within the courtyard or sometimes on the roof. Inexplicably, these smells weren’t offensive as they seemed harmonious with the way of life and the use of the land and its resources. For this Midwestern equine enthusiast, the earthiness that filled the air was far preferable to the gagging stench and pollution of the city.

Riding through a village.

We rode for 6-8 hours a day stopping for a break mid-day for lunch and a rest, avoiding the hottest sun of the day. Just before lunch, Bonnie’s staff raced ahead of us in the “gypsy” jeep to set up a small camp, with chairs and sleeping pads and to prepare the food, a buffet of vegetarian delicacies such as dal and curry flavored vegetables with steamed rice and endless chapatis. We were reliably greeted by villagers or passers-by, a camel driver, or young lads on their bikes, as we rested. Our biggest challenge was in finding an appropriate and private spot for a comfort break without being observed.

Men gathered with invitations to their homes.
Photo Op and Interview with the local press while the crowd watched. Margaret in a bright scarf to right of the horse.

“The future of the Marwaris has become our new cause.”

Our eight days through the desert was not a ride for the inexperienced. For those experienced riders who have come to believe they have tried it all, this ride surpasses expectations—not just because of the majesty of the Marwari’s but for the combination of culture, history, and riding which is unparalleled. I have worked up to this event by riding through other countries from Europe to Africa and the magic of this ride transcends them all.

Riding through a village being led by a young man.

The Marwaris, which drew us to India like snake charmers beckoning cobras, were everything we expected and more. We learned that they are banned from exportation which is leading to declines in the quality and popularity of the breed. The future of the Marwaris has become our new cause as we have so much respect for these amazing animals.

Dancing Marwari.

The days included challenge and leisure; hardship and comfort; and speed and stillness which have come to define India to me. It is a country of contrasts—from city to village; from western dress to traditional kurtas and saris; from Muslim to Hindu; and from ancient to modern buildings and customs. It is a country with many possibilities and it was exciting to experience first-hand the range of the country’s legacy and promise for its future.

Margaret Reynolds is a speaker, author, and advisor to organizations on improving business performance and increasing revenue growth. She is an avid competitive trail rider, winning back to back National Championships with NATRC in 2017 and 2018. Every year she and her adventurous friends find a new country to explore on horseback. mreynolds@breakthroughmaster.comhttps://www.breakthroughmaster.com/

Feature image: Group send-off at Bonnie’s Dunlod Fort

 

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