Despite recent injury, mountain biker Vamini Sethi scaled Siachen glacier
Passion has many forms, adventure enthusiast Vamini Sethi’s led her to the mountains and the Siachen glacier.
We get up, get dressed, go to work, and on the weekends drag our tired bodies and minds to the closest watering hole or shopping mall. A few of us pursue hobbies and learn new things and yet others prefer to spend the weekend in bed catching up on lost sleep.
But there are some others who take the path less trodden, push their boundaries and, hence, stand out from the crowd.
Vamini Sethi is a case in point. Corporate worker by day and mountain biker by night, she threw caution to the wind and decided to push her limits by trekking to Siachen glacier last year. When she peeked into her bucket list, one goal stood out over others - the Siachen glacier. She had been trying her luck for the past three years but this time round struck gold when her application was selected out of 2,300 applications and shortlisted by the India Army.
We caught up with Vamini to find out about her trek, and how she managed to find the time to train for such a grueling task while still pursuing her day job as Vice President of Business Management at Royal Bank of Scotland.
Though Vamini has been riding since childhood, she took it up seriously only after 2011. That same year she won a mountain biking race in the expert category and hasn’t looked back since.
The 31-year-old has hit some milestones in this field. She ended with a back-to-back podium finish at the 2013 and 2014 MTB Shimla, a two-day mountain biking race. In 2013, she took the toughest race in the world: the seven-day MTB Himalaya. In 2014, she did the Manali to Leh as part of Times Passion Trails, a 10-day ride through some of the highest passes in the world. In 2015, she rode across Sri Lanka making it to the Limca Book of Records for the longest distance covered by a woman in a foreign country.
Vamini has managed to do all of it while holding onto a steady job. It has not been an easy ride but keeping her priorities right has helped. “My life changed ever since I started riding and following my passion. I remember there was a time when I would party till late and come back home at 4 am. Now I wake up at 4 am to train on my own. Anyone working for a corporate would agree that after finishing a hard day at work there is hardly any time left for anything else. That’s where I had to take another look at what I chose to prioritise. I stopped partying, watching TV, catching up with people socially and cut down on time spent on Facebook or WhatsApp. I saved as much time as I could and used it to train myself.”
Riding has also allowed her to overcome the challenges in life.
“Every time there is a situation, I go out riding and that gives me time to think.”
The twist of fate
In May 2016, while Vamini was looking to cycle from India to Thailand via Mynamar on the newly built tri-lateral highway in 2016, she had a hamstring energy and was advised by her physio to avoid riding for a few months and rest her overused muscles.
A few months later, she got selected by the Indian Army for the trek and decided to have it off her bucket list. “I have always believed in myself and my limits, however, my parents were worried. They had seen a show on TV on Siachen and knew what I was signing up for. My parents have always supported me in my endeavours, but this time they were nervous and asked me not to go. This was the first time I could sense their discomfort,” she says.
World’s highest and coldest battlefield
The India Army occupies Siachen glacier, one of the highest battlefields in the world, and a testament to the intermittent clashes between Indian and Pakistan since 1984. With temperatures dropping to minus 60 degrees in winter, it is one of the harshest terrains in the world, and “yet it is”, says Vamini, “the place of wild roses, ironically that’s what the word 'siachen' means.”
Vamini found herself in a mixed group of people that the Army takes to Siachen every year, such as civilians, military cadets, defence personnel, and media. The aim is to give them a firsthand experience of the inhospitable terrain and weather conditions in which our brave soldiers serve the nation.
The trek took place from September 15 to October 15 last year.
The journey to the glacier was overwhelming, extraordinary and certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience as one cannot go there even if they want to. There was a sense of fulfilment when I held the Indian tricolour after reaching the Kumar Post, the point till which civilians are allowed.
The battle of wills
The test of mettle started way before the trek. A gruelling round of training ensured that the people who wanted to quit before they actually hit the trail would have the opportunity.
While I was somewhat aware of the training that the Army imparts to get one physically fit and properly acclimatised to climb the glacier, there was a huge difference between expectations and reality.
Since a lot of trekkers had quit halfway through the trek last year due to lack of physical fitness, they had to be evacuated using the chopper from the world’s largest helipad, on the glacier itself.
The trainings would start at 5 am and finish at 8 am and as Vamini says, “there was no mercy.”
Along with classroom lectures on the history of glacier, medical issues and prevention etc., the physical training looked at acclimatisation and learning skills such as snow craft, rock craft, running with loaded rucksacks, walking while tied to a rope with each other (so one can be pulled up in case of a fall into a crevasse) and other survival techniques.
The three-stage commando style training tested each of the trekkers physically, mentally and emotionally. The first round started from Leh, and then the second was at Siachen Base Camp and last one at North Pullu, which is at the altitude of 15,800 ft.
There were regular medical exams. It was very important for us to clear all the medical exams as it formed one of the major selection criteria for moving up to the next stage in the journey. There were times I would sit and question myself ‘What am I doing here’. The training was so rigorous that it made me believe that I'm a soldier and pain is nothing but a myth.
The final haul
Vamini recollects the trek and describes it in her words as:
"As the journey to the glacier began, we were roped up with each other trekking across the harsh terrain, through moraines, snow and deep crevasses. We had to trek at the speed of the leading rope member and in our rope, which in our case happened to be military cadet. I did find myself mostly struggling to match up to his speed at that altitude with limited oxygen."
"Unlike all the other treks that I have done before this one didn't give me a chance to look around as we had to constantly look down while trekking due to broken moraines and watching out for any crevasse that can be life threatening. I eventually got into a state of trance while looking down and trekking for hours without stopping or talking. Every day, there would be only one break for 7-10 mins (at half link- as they call it) during the entire trek."
"There were times when I had frost on my specs that I was wearing under my snow goggles, when the strap of my bag would fall off the shoulder or the strap of my shoe (double layered shoe called scarpas weighing over 3 kgs) would start dancing, almost about to open at any time. In all such cases, I had to wait to get to the half link as stopping would mean stopping not just your own rope but all the ropes as we were made to walk in a line."
During the night at the campsites their tents were set on blocks of ice covered with parachutes to avoid them from melting. Since it was too cold to move around the trekkers spent most of their time in their tents. Believe it or not, Vamini chose to read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, a personal account of the 1996 disaster at Mt. Everest when eight climbers were killed and several others stranded by a rogue storm.
The tough gets going
As it was a month-long expedition in a no network zone, there were times when the going got tough especially without the link with family and friends and the world in general.
There were moments when I was in pain due to my old hamstring injury and I had to let pain submit to my will, when I found myself all alone missing my family and wanting to go home just because I was exhausted both physically and mentally even before the trek was started.
It was perhaps easy to give up but Vamini’s willpower and training kept her on course.
“Going by the principle that I follow in life -Always finish what you have started, I would get up each day and give it all that I had and some more.”
The writing on the wall at the base HQ- 'Here great courage and fortitude is the norm' kept pushing her to not give up. There were other sources of inspiration too, such as one of the Army jawan at Kumar post who told her, “We have been here for so long that it feels like Chandigarh.”
One of the most poignant moments for Vamini was leaving behind a note in the snow with a message. The note was from a sister for her brother who had served in Siachen and passed away in 2004. The sister is a friend of Vamini’s.
I was teary eyed when I was putting that note in the snow. I couldn’t capture that moment as we were not allowed to carry cameras, however, that moment will be with me for the rest of my life.
Looking down but looking forward
Vamini has big plans up her sleeves for this year but does not want to spill the beans just yet.
Meanwhile, she is happy to have completed the Siachen glacier trek. Among other things such as pushing her boundaries to the last mile, it has taught Vamini how to look down and walk in life. It has also taught her how to stand tall and still be humble.
And yet another message on the wall at the base camp HQ will be a reminder of the sacrifices of the Army and never let Vamini forget the time she spent on the trek- 'Land so barren and mountains so high that only the best of friends or worst of enemies come and visit us.'
“Staying on the glacier for a few days made me realise how lucky we all are to be living at the sea level. For us it was an expedition, we went up there and came back." She adds,
However, our soldiers stay there for months regardless of how tough it gets by each passing day. A big salute to the Indian Army and the brave jawans who have sacrificed everything for the sake of the motherland.