Standing at a magnificent 22,054 feet, the Stok Kangri Peak in Ladakh offers the most exciting and challenging trek for mountaineers and trekkers alike. And to scale this formidable peak in two day affords a high of a different nature altogether. That is exactly what Ishani Sawant did. In the process, she also created a new record in Mountaineering history.
Hailing from Pune, Ishani has been working as an adventure and outdoor tour trainer and guide. She has done a degree in law at Pune Law College. Initially, she began with weekend treks around the region, but today she guides people through various different outdoor activities and events.
It was during a trip to the Himalayas when she was 13, that Ishani found her true calling. She says that during the time she was awestruck and completely taken in by the mighty Himalayas. She busied herself taking photographs of the mighty mountain range with her rudimentary camera. Those photographs later became her companion and a constant reminder of the wondrous mountains.
While mountaineering as a sport is not unheard of in India, there are not many women practitioners in the field. Ishani counts among the few women that have taken to mountaineering as a serious sport. Being a trainer and guiding people in the outdoors came quite naturally to her. It was not just a means of livelihood but also gave her much needed exposure to the outdoors.
The mountains are awe-inspiring and mountaineering is a true test of one’s courage and mettle. She says that with every climb one needs to push oneself. There are times when , you aren’t sure if you can complete a route and you are in the mercy of nature and climatic conditions. The routes that were once ascendable become difficult. She says that the risk factor is unimaginable and at most times beyond your regular capacity, and you need to push yourself. However, she adds every time you finish a climb or a summit, the sense of satisfaction and peace you get is immense.
Ishani adds that mountaineering teaches you focus and humility. One small mistake in a tough route can be fatal. So every time you climb, you need to be prepared, you simply cannot afford to be callous or careless, and you can be alert and aware only if you respect the mountains. “There are no meetings, appointments or deadlines on the mountains. The only thing that matters is you and the mountain,” adds Ishani.
It was literally an uphill task for Ishani when she first started mountaineering. She adds that the idea that a girl would try mountaineering was not something her family was comfortable with, it needed some convincing.
In the initial years, Ishani had to deal with defiant men in the profession.
“You can literally count on your fingers the number of women who pursue mountaineering. Initially, the male climbers did not trust me and were quite sceptical of the idea of me belaying. It is this scepticism that is one of the reasons many girls quit. However the men I trained with were quite supportive, I never had any privileges, if the guys had to 50 pull-ups so would I,” says Ishani.
Regardless, Ishani marched on. She believes it was her dogged determination and commitment that finally shut people up for good. At the age of 18 Ishani enrolled for training at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, which helped her hone her technical skills.
Ishani also trained in rock climbing and other adventure sports that helped give her that edge over others. Over the years she has led several expeditions in the northern part of India and taken several local teams on their treks and camps in the Sahyadri region.
The great mountains have been a teacher to Ishani and taught her that while nature is a benevolent giver, it can just as easily unleash its wrath. Ishani remembers one lesson very well. The devastating flash floods in Uttarakhand in 2014.
Their journey began at Uttarakashi, and the group was all set to head out on a mountaineering expedition. Unfortunately they got stuck in the floods for four days. It rained continuously for four days. They walked right through the paths of death and destruction. “There were days when they would just have black tea in the morning, a boiled potato and a chapatti. There was just water and destruction everywhere,” says Ishani.
There were times when they had to make their own paths and climb mountains. The regular trails were destroyed. They passed through devastated and completely deserted villages.They had no shelter, but had to break through locks of public schools and try to survive the nights in these areas. “There seemed no stopping, our minds, bodies, hearts and even our shoe soles were completely worn out,” remembers Ishani.
“We were so close to the summit of Draupadi Ka Danda (DKD2) and yet we could not get there,” says Ishani. This in turn led to her Tsomori Lake adventure. After spending days in a region that faced devastation, Ishani feislt she needed to complete an expedition and this is what led to the Tsomori Lake Alpine style trek.
The trek was not the usual route of Leh to Manali but was from Manali to Leh, “We met a friend, Archit, who was heading there and we decided to be a part of the team. We carried all our equipment, tent, clothing, food supplies we need and headed out,” says Ishani. Their breakfast consisted of tea, lunch was two cashewnuts, two almonds and two walnuts and dinner was instant noodles or pasta. “We had to find our way as we had maps that were three years old and over the period of time landscapes had changed, the rivers had shifted course, every week we had a landslide. This is the Himalayas, one of the youngest ranges; these things are bound to happen. We had to discover and rewrite a few routes. We made our own campsites, it is something I will never forget,” says Ishani.
The flash floods had prepared her for alpinism, “the floods had trained us to live in the worst conditions and situations, after that it was easy,” says Ishani. Ishani is uncertain of what challenges the future holds but one thing she’s certain of. She intends to spend more time in the outdoors. “After the 10 days in Tsomori in alpine style and Stok Kangri, I don’t think anything is impossible, you just need to have faith in yourself,” says Ishani.
Ishani currently has won fourth place in Rock Climbing Open Nationals at Sikkim and is also looking for sponsorship for her serious adventure pursuits.