Q 1. What inspired you to climb Mount Everest? Twice?
Ans: Desire to reach the peak of my own limits. Due to its sheer altitude, Everest represented the heights of endurance a human being may muster. Challenges have always thrilled me, and I seek opportunities to stretch my limits. However, for me, climbing Everest wasn’t a thought out plan. It was rather mountaineering as a whole which enthralled me, due to its capacity to provide an avenue to pitch a person against the harshest conditions and bringing out the best in him/her. More importantly bringing out the worst in a person, so that we become aware of our dormant traits. The latent strengths and weaknesses all are exposed. Opportunity to climb Everest came my way due to my being in Indian Air Force. IAF had planned the first women officers’ expedition to Everest and I volunteered for it. But, during the process of preparing for it for two years, four expeditions, training in Siachen Glacier twice, Everest took complete possession of me. Gradually as I expanded my physical and mental prowess in mountaineering, it loomed large on my mental horizon as the ultimate destination. However, during my first attempt in 2011 with IAF, I had to abort my summit bid due to a combination of factors. But, a dream unaccomplished keeps rankling in your soul. So, I mounted a second attempt next year in 2012, this time as my own individual expedition. The stakes were higher this time, my entire leave of a year, and huge sum of money, my and my families’ entire saving, and the tag of “being crazy” for spending Rs. 21 Lakhs just to climb a mountain! But, it was a matter of realization of one’s potential. And thus, nothing else mattered. By summitting Everest, I conquered my own fears and weaknesses. Self-realisation was the only goal and Everest provided the best medium for it. The charm and glamour attached to it, I realized much later.
Q 2. What does it take to summit the highest peak on earth?
Ans: Attitude! A never say die spirit! Everest demands a complete transformation of one’s personality. You have to practice possessing an eternal positive attitude, immense patience, ability to endure pain for long torturous hours and above all giving control of your body to your mind. In mundane terms, of course it requires the basic climbing knowledge, extreme physical fitness, and finances.
Q 3. What was the biggest challenge you faced while on a pursuit to summit the mountain?
Ans: Managing finances, which is a greater challenge than climbing the mountain itself. Mountaineering being a specialized activity, requires specific equipment, clothing and logistics arrangements. Though I could pool in my savings for Everest, and even other expeditions after that, it rises as a formidable challenge every time one plans to climb a peak. Unlike for other sports, sponsorships prove a straining chase. Most of the times, I end up emptying my own account. For Everest specifically, time management was also a task. Since I was working as an Officer in Air Force, balancing work and training schedule was a herculean task. I generally ended up running or gyming at wee hours or late night. I kind of turned into a machine which worked for twenty hours everyday. Another challenge came on the mountain itself on the summit night. At 27,000 feet, while climbing towards the summit, I started feeling cold in my left foot. From my previous experience, I knew if I continued, it could turn into frost bite and a possible amputation. That was a moment when I had to opt between the physical survival and self esteem. I chose the later, though not without precautions. I gulped a frost bite preventive pill Trental- 400, and continued. Thousands of ice cold needles kept pricking my foot for hours before it became numb. By the time I reached the top in the morning, I had crossed that threshold of pain beyond which it becomes a mere mechanical sensation.
Q 4. Did you fear losing your life trying to climb Mount Everest? Did you overcome that fear? If yes, How?
Ans: Fear of dying is an eternal truth every living being experiences. I was no exception. But, that fear was present during my first attempt. On the second attempt, I was prepared to die. It was a battle between me and the mountain. During the two month long expedition, whenever any set back came, I used to have a dialogue with Everest, “You can either give me injury or death, but I will continue moving till the time I am alive. You do what you can, I will do what I can.” Here, I don’t intend to promote foolhardiness, but merely a determination to go beyond the perceived limits of human body. A will to persist in adverse circumstances. Careful planning and situation assessment are equally essential virtues of a good climber. Regarding overcoming the fear, when you chose self esteem over everything, the fear of death cannot stop you.
Q 5. What are the worst and the best thing about climbing Everest?
Ans: Worst is its commercialization. The false, inflated sense of glamour attached to it. Due to it, a lot of people attempt to climb Everest for wrong reasons – limelight and fame. And somewhere it tends to obscure the real purpose of mountaineering. The crowd on the mountain now a days is dangerously huge. The best thing, however, is that it absolutely breaks the myth of human superiority. The vastness and magnitude, the sheer height, that towering pinnacle makes you feel so small. By climbing mountains, I have learnt to be humble. And it has taught me the value of perseverance and hope. On the mountains, conditions keep changing with time and nothing is final. Same is the case in life too.
Q 6. Shepras are well known in the mountaineering community but not beyond the community. What do you have to say about them?
Ans: Sherpas play a vital role in the success of an expedition. They should get the recognition they deserve. Mountaineers have the added responsibility to present a balanced picture of all the elements of climbing when they interact with the public. I have fond memories of my Sherpas and the bond goes beyond a pure commercial association. They are warm hearted, simple and hardy people. Though mountains are a means of livelihood for them, the sense of respect they possess towards mountains is something everybody should learn from them. In near future, I intend to write a book on Sherpas, exploring their association with mountaineering expeditions and how it has transformed their lives, both ways.
Q 7. What is the physical, emotional and financial requirement to undertake this adventure?
Ans. Extreme physical fitness is required to undertake an adventure of this kind. No amount of training is enough to prepare for the assault on the nerves and muscles it inflicts. Climbing vertical icewalls for hours with a rucksack, in an oxygen rare environment demands repeated simulations of it on the ground. Thus a combination of endurance, strength, speed and flexibility training coupled with enhanced lung capacity is essential. Emotionally one has to be prepared to face death and other unforeseen situations, learn to be calm and alert under adverse circumstances. I read a lot of mountaineering books to picturize what all could go wrong and how great climbers had reacted. Composure, determination, observation and analysis power and a decisive nature is a must to survive in mountains. Financially, climbing Everest is extremely expensive.
Q 8: What changes did summiting the Everest bring in you?
Ans: It has taught me humility and power of hope and perseverance. Though I was always close to nature, now I value it even more. When you grasp for breathe, you understand the value of air, when you are on the verge of fainting due to thirst, and eating cold, biting snow, you understand the value of water. For resting only a yard is enough, same as is required after death. And, the importance of a small, warm gesture is understood when you are struggling to survive in extreme harsh conditions. So, I am more humane now. Another thing that I have learnt is to never abandon a task undertaken in between. If you persist long enough, it is ultimately done.
Q 9. Share with us the happiest and the lowest point in your journey to the peak.
Ans: I remember the sinking feeling of utter dejection when my application for sponsorship was diplomatically rejected by a reputed adventure foundation. It, however was overcome as mentioned earlier through self- financing. During climbing, I had a bout of mountain sickness at the Lohtse face at 22,000 feet. One entire night I kept sitting doubled up due to chest pain, wondering if it was the end of my expedition. I came down to recuperate in the gap between the acclimatization phase and the summit bid. Alone in a small wooden cubicle, anxiety and pain kept me awake the whole night. I was relieved when next day my vital parameters such as pulse rate, oxygen saturation etc were found normal. I recuperated fast and regained strength and during the summit bid felt quite strong. Contrary to the general belief, the happiest moment was not on the top, as the task was yet half accomplished. Getting down safely was equally important. So, only when I was able to reach back the relative safety of the summit camp at 26,000 feet, the realization dawned that finally now I was emotionally released by Everest. I lay down near my tent on the rocky slate pieces, under the vast open sky and wept. At that moment I felt what liberation of soul means.
Q 10. What will you say to the youngsters that aspire to follow your steps and see the world from the highest point on land?
Ans: It is essential to reach the highest point within ourself before we reach anywhere else. So, do dream big, but don’t forget to stretch your limits everyday. Assess the requirement of the task ahead, and mould yourself accordingly. Most importantly, BELIEVE! Believe in the power of dreams and hard work. Lastly, the way no defeat is final, no success is final either. So, as the logo of my alma mater HMI (Himalayan Mountaineering Institute) says, “May you climb from peak to peak!”
About the interviewee:
Squadron Leader Toolika Rani (retd.), was commissioned in Indian Air Force in 2005 and retired in 2015 as the Outdoor Training Instructor in Air Force Academy, Hyderabad. She became the first woman from Uttar Pradesh to climb Mt. Everest in 2011. With 22 mountaineering expeditions and treks in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Africa, Russia, and Iran, she is the first Indian woman to climb the highest volcano of Asia, Mt. Damavand in Iran. Mt. Stok Kangri, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Kanamo, Mt. Tochal, are some other peaks she has climbed. Mt. Bhagirathi, Mt. Kamet, Mt. Saser Kangri, Mt. Nun, Mt. Elbrus form her other expeditions. She has been awarded Rani Laxmibai Veerta Puruskar by U.P. Govt., FICCI Global Woman Award, Hindustan Times Woman Award and Amar Ujala Prathma Award to name a few. A nature lover at heart, she writes adventure and travel articles for various newspapers and magazines and enjoys interacting with people from diverse cultures.