Mumbai, May 8
It was a challenge that Priyanka Mohite took up in 2013. It finally got fulfilled in May 2022 — nine difficult years in which the 30-year-old mountaineer from Maharashtra constantly worked, planned and dreamt of completing a challenge no Indian woman has ever achieved — climbing five mountains of 8000 metre and above height.
In 1975 when Junko Tabei of Japan became the first woman in the world to climb Mount Everest, she conquered what was till then a male bastion — a challenge considered too tough for the weaker of the sexes.
Since then, many women have climbed Mount Everest and many similar peaks, conquering male bastions in mountaineering — and other fields too.
This week Priyanka, the woman climber from Satara district in Maharashtra, fulfilled her dream of becoming the first Indian woman to climb five mountains of 8000m and above height.
Priyanka, who works for a pharmaceutical research company in Bengaluru, climbed Mount Kanchenjunga, at 8,586 metres above sea level, the third highest mountain on earth, on Thursday (May 5) at around 4.52 PM.
Many hurdles along the way
Priyanka, a recipient of the prestigious Tenzing Norgay Adventure Award in 2020, set the record by climbing Mount Everest in 2013, Mount Lhotse in 2018, and Mount Makalu in 2019, Annapurna 1 in 2021, and completed the monumental challenge by summitting Mount Kanchenjunga on May 5, 2022. She is the first Indian woman to climb Annapurna 1 and Makalu.
For most people not well-versed with the world of mountaineering, these were only five mountains. But for those really in the know, Priyanka had to cross many more mountains on the way — hurdles that may not be as high but not insignificant either.
She was thwarted by the natural disaster in Nepal in 2014-15, the Covid-19 pandemic in 2022, financial hardship due to lack of sponsors and societal pressures that women face every day. But she was determined enough to conquer all and also the five 8000ers.
Start of the dream
The dream to summit the five 8000 metres and above mountains started one fine day in 2013, soon after Priyanka Mohite had climbed Mount Everest. She took up the challenge because there were very few from India that have attempted the feat.
"There are 14 8000m-plus height mountains in the world — seven in Nepal, two in China and five in Pakistan. As Indians, we can't climb in Pakistan. In 2013, I climbed Mount Everest, at that time I decided that I would go for these tough 8000 metres mountains because there are very few mountaineers from India who have done this. Nowadays women are also climbing but very few of them are taking this challenge," Priyanka told IANS in an exclusive interview after returning to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal from Kanchenjunga.
Although she started the project in 2013, she could not take the next step till 2018 because of the snowstorm that devastated Nepal in 2014. The next year, it was the earthquake that devastated the country, pushing Priyanka's plans further.
"In 2014-15, I can say I was unlucky because of the natural disasters in Nepal. I was at the base camp to climb the fourth tallest mountain, exactly near Everest, called Mount Lhotse. But I was not able to climb," she said.
Natural disasters delay her
For the next two years, Priyanka took a break from mountaineering, pursuing her career and raising funds for her next expedition.
"In 2018 I summitted Mt Lhotse, the fourth tallest and I was like 'yeah, that's one more for me'." in 2018, she also climbed Mount Makalu, which is the fifth highest mountain on the planet.
Three down and two more to go for Priyanka.
"In 2019, I saw Kanchenjunga and I wanted to do it in 2020 but could not because of the Covid-19 pandemic. We all know that happened, everything got cancelled," says Priyanka.
According to Priyanka, Kanchenjunga was the toughest of the five peaks and needed a lot of teamwork and preparation. She wanted to do that soon after things opened up in 2021 but could not as not many mountaineers were ready to team up for the challenge.
"It's huge teamwork actually, we need a big team because the routes are very long, we need to fix the route and everything. So, in 2021 there were very few climbers who wanted to climb Kanchenjunga, so we dropped the plan," says Priyanka.
Instead, she summitted Mount Annapurna 1, the 10th tallest peak in the world and considered the toughest among the peaks.
"In 2021, I climbed Annapurna 1, which is one of the trickiest among the top mountains and I became the first Indian woman to climb that. Even Makalu, I am the only Indian woman to climb it," says Priyanka of her proud achievements.
Dedicated to frontline workers
She decided that 2022 was the year that she had to finally do Mount Kanchenjunga and complete another dream of her — dedicate something to the frontline workers of the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.
"In 2020, I wanted to climb this and dedicate it to our frontline workers because I also belong to the pharmaceutical industry. I work for a research firm called Aurigene Discovery Technologies in Bengaluru."
Priyanka finally surmounted the challenge of India's highest mountain and the world's third tallest peak to honour the frontline workers, who had worked tirelessly during the pandemic to save numerous lives.
The final challenge
Priyanka's preparations to climb Mount Kanchenjunga lasted nearly a year as she would wake up at 5 a.m. daily to work on her physicals, build her strength and stamina, and gear up for the rigours of climbing the highest mountain of the country.
"I practiced a lot. It was really a big struggle for me to get the sponsorship for that. I remember that I got it on April 1 that one sponsor, who was not related to (mountaineering) said they were ready to sponsor it. So, I was really lucky to get it," says Priyanka.
With the mountain climbing season towards the end, she had to take a lot of tough decisions — like flying directly to the base camp.
"I started around April 15 — from Mumbai to Kathmandu. It is not a good idea to directly fly to the base camp but as I had a very short time, I really flew from Kathmandu to the base camp, which is at around 5,500 metres. It is really huge and next time I will definitely not do it."
The big challenge was to get acclimatised to the conditions because Priyanka was coming from Mumbai, where the temperatures in April were around 40 degrees, whereas Kanchenjunga was experiencing snowfall and the temperatures were in the minus.
"Within two days, I went to 6000m and came back to acclimatise. We did another rotation — camp to 6200m and then to 6500 for acclimatisation work, and then we found out that May 5th was really good weather, we were checking the weather constantly."
So, they climbed from base camp to Camp 2 on May 2 and then Camp 2 to 3 on the 3rd and from Camp 3 to 4 on May 4. Camp 4 is the final stop before they made a push for the summit. It is also the most difficult part of the climb on Kanchenjunga because of the rocks, big and small, that make climbing very, very tough.
"On the night of May 4 around 8.00-8.30, we started for the summit. There was bad weather, there was around 15-16 cm snowfall, so we had to fix the rope very hard. It takes around 30 hours to go to the top and come back to the camp.
"We fixed the rope till the top, it was a huge challenge for us to fix the rope till the top, it was the very difficult part, very difficult to fix the rope on the rocks, small rocks, big rocks and it's very hard to climb on those rocks, with the clamp on, the shoes, which have spikes to be stable on ice but not on the rocks,"
Priyanka eventually managed to reach the summit at around 4.52 p.m. on May 5.
"It was a really very technical mountain and it was very tough. But it was a very beautiful one — you can see Nepal and India because you are at the top," says Priyanka.
Now that her dream is fulfilled, Priyanka does not want to stop and continue adding more than 8000 metres and above peaks to her mountaineering resume.
There are many more challenges and Priyanka says she will continue to pursue them as long as she can.
"Fortunately, I have a family that has supported me wholeheartedly. Never stopped me from pursuing things I wanted to. Marriage and family will come when it is time for that but I want to continue mountaineering even after that. I want to marry someone who would support my dreams," says Priyanka.
She knows that mountaineering is a dangerous, risky and deadly pursuit and she has seen it from close quarters as an Indian climber, who was part of the Kanchenjunga expedition died this week, just a few hundred metres from the peak.
But Priyanka wants to dream on, adding more 8000ers to her record tally. A mountain is no limit for her.