About a year ago, Priyanka Mohite, 28, would wake up every morning at 4:30am to the sound of her alarm crying out: “Mission 8,586 metres”. The little message was something that she had recorded, the altitude of Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, that Mohite hoped to climb in the spring of 2020. Once awake, Mohite would don her shoes and hit the road for a run.
And then, the covid-19 pandemic struck, bringing an end to her aspirations. It wasn’t until spring of this year that she set foot in the Himalaya. The objective this time was a testing climb up Annapurna I (8,091m). No Indian woman had stood on the summit before. Mohite changed all that on April 16. “It was an incredible feeling to reach the top and as the first Indian woman to do so. I think it was special also because of the uncertainties related to this climb,” Mohite says.
It all started when the lockdown was announced. The strenuous training regime was brought to a temporary halt, but her work at Syngene, the research arm of Biocon in Bengaluru, only got more hectic. The day started at 4.30am as always, though this time around, she would don a lab coat and step out to work. “I am a research associate in the biology department, where our main work is related to antibody discoveries. We were developing the Elisa test kit for Covid-19 at the time using samples from across India. I would get home by 3.30pm and after a short nap, gear up for the next day,” she says.
It was only in August that Mohite could put some sort of a routine in place. A quick chat with her father, Mangesh, planted the idea of summiting two 8,000m peaks in the spring of 2021, Kangchenjunga and Annapurna I. This meant additional work to build her strength and endurance. Though she couldn’t make it to her favourite training ground, the picturesque Sahyadri mountains around her hometown of Satara, she made the most of the hills around Bengaluru and started rock climbing and hiking. Once the gyms reopened, Mohite was the first to line up to train. Her diet was tweaked to add mass, since most climbers tend to lose weight after a climb. She added longer runs to the routine, a slow-paced 12km on the weekend to get used to staying on her feet for a longer duration of time.
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“I’m not a great runner, so I would have to push myself to keep going. I realised that to climb the second mountain, it was a frame of mind that I would have to get familiar with,” Mohite says.
As things panned out, there were few teams attempting Kangchenjunga, a mountain that needs many hands working in sync for a shot at the summit. Mohite now considered climbing Annapurna I, and then its neighbour, Dhaulagiri (8,167m). After five days of quarantine on arrival in Kathmandu, she set out for Pokhara and onward to Dana. On March 28, a scenic helicopter ride took her to Annapurna Base Camp (4,300m).
In 1950, Annapurna I was the first of the 8,000ers to be climbed by French alpinists Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal. The mountain draws a fraction of the climbers that Everest does, which undoubtedly has a lot to do with the latter being the highest mountain in the word. But another reason is that Annapurna I is a difficult mountain to climb. The popular French route up the mountain is constantly pounded by avalanches and rock fall, and the weather too can be fickle. According to the Himalayan Database, as of 2019, Everest has a success rate of 62%, for Annapurna I, it is at 33.8%.
Mohite arrived at base camp with the experience of having summitted Everest, Lhotse and Makalu. At the base camp, she noticed an unusually high number of teams gearing up for the climb this season. “A lot of climbers like me who had planned Kangchenjunga were now attempting Annapurna I. In 2019, there were around 32 members who reached the top, while this season, 70 climbers were on the summit,” she says.
The Annapurna Base Camp is at a relatively low altitude. For a successful attempt to reach the peak, which is over 3,000m higher, acclimatising to altitude is key. The mountain is also known to present short windows of good weather. After a discussion with her high altitude guide, Mingma Dorchi Sherpa, the two decided to head out for the summit at the first opportunity that arrived, even if it meant encountering a number of other ascending climbers along the way.
On April 2, the two of them headed out for their first acclimatisation climb. They could go no further than Camp 2 due to the constant avalanche threat and after spending two days there, she returned to base camp for rest.
They returned to Camp 2 on April 11, ready to push on for the summit. An avalanche roared down a neighbouring gully as they climbed to Camp 3 the following day. Though Mohite had seen a few in the past few days, this one was close, passing with a sound so terrifying that she stopped dead in her tracks, wondering of the consequences if she had been in its path. For the next two days, she felt uneasy at camp, as she heard more avalanches crashing in the distance. Finally on April 14, they headed for the summit behind the rope-fixing team that was responsible for opening the route to the top. At 7,500m, the rope team ran out of line and turned around. Mohite and Ming Dorchi too had little choice but to return to the summit camp (Camp 4) after seven hours of climbing.
“It was disappointing to not make it on the first attempt. Things were far worse now, as you had to gear up mentally for another climb, while hoping that the weather would hold. I had to keep warm, eat, hydrate and be prepared to set out the moment the route to the top was fixed. And there was always the question—what if you didn’t make it on the second attempt as well?” Mohite says.
More rope was dropped by a helicopter at the final camp on April 15 to link the final section of the peak. With no summit attempts possible the previous day, all teams had now gathered at Camp 4, hoping to make their push once the lines were fixed. It started snowing at 8pm, and Mohite and Mingma Dorchi decided to delay their departure. Doing so, they ran the risk of getting stuck behind slower climbers, but they hoped to save their energy by not having to clear a path through the snow by following in the footsteps of those who had started earlier. At 1am, the two left their tents and soon started passing other climbers. The fresh snow and favourable weather conditions made the climb a breeze, helping them make rapid progress. At 1.35pm, they soaked in the view from the summit and 15 minutes later, started descending.
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By the time they reached Camp 4 again, it had been over 16 hours since they had started out. Mohite felt physical discomfort in the right hand and took off her glove to see that two of her fingers were frostbitten. After passing an uneasy night at the summit camp, they set out for base camp. The deep snow made the descent laborious, and a whiteout at Camp 2 threatened to halt her progress. But her fingers were a concern and they continued their descent, reaching base camp after a gruelling 11-hour slog.
The second-degree frostbites on her fingers needed attention and it was evident that the climb up Dhaulagiri would have to wait. After a quick helicopter ride back to civilisation, it was time to celebrate the climb, and plan the next one.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.