Priyanka Mohite’s first tryst with the mountains was while in school. There was nothing she enjoyed more than being out in the nature. Little did she know then that she would be a part of mountaineering history in the years to come.
How Priyanka Mohite made history as the first Indian woman to scale 8,000-metre-high Mt Makalu
Priyanka Mohite was yet to find out about Mt Makalu, the fifth highest mountain in the world at 8, 485 metres, in 2012. However, in the same year, she found herself on the summit of Bandarpunch (6, 316 metres high) in the Garhwal Himalaya, while undertaking the advance mountaineering course at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarakhand. Indeed, it was her first ascent of a Himalayan peak, but back then, she barely harboured any ambitions of climbing some of the highest mountains in the world.
It’s been 35 years since Bachendri Pal became the first Indian woman to scale the Everest. Ever since, a good number of climbers, both men and women, have gone on to achieve the same feat. But other 8,000-metre-high mountains like Makalu have remained relatively untouched, especially by Indian women, all of which changed on 15 May when Mohite became the first Indian woman to stand atop Makalu.
Makalu was Mohite’s third outing up an 8,000-metre-high wall (first being Everest in 2013, followed by Lhotse in 2018), but her affair with the mountains started over a decade ago in a corner of her first grade classroom, daydreaming about an escape to the hills.
Priyanka Mohite hails from Satara in Maharashtra — a town at the foothills of the Sahyadri. She read about the exploits of Chhatrapati Shivaji in school, which were brought to life thanks to her uncle, who would take his nieces and nephews on hikes every weekend.
“I really love history, and one of the first forts I went to was the Ajinkyatara fort (in Satara). It was really inspiring to learn that I was treading the same path as Shivaji Maharaj. It also gave a lot of context to what I was studying at school. But as the treks grew harder, my uncle asked us to join a professional trekking group, so I started going to the mountains with Kailash Badal from Sahyadri Trekking,” the 26-year-old recalls.
After a few treks, Badal noticed a spark in the young climber and introduced her to rock climbing. He took note of her perseverance and mental strength, following which he suggested to her parents that they allow her to climb the Himalayas some day.
However, Mohite soon found herself in the tenth standard, and much like her peers, focused on graduating school in the coming years. After passing her 12th board exams in 2010, the budding climber decided on pursuing a course in basic mountaineering, despite securing a seat in Biotechnology at Satara’s YC College.
“I saw snow for the first time in the Gangotri region, where we gained 17,000 feet. I was thrilled to be in this environment,” she says.
On further completing the advance mountaineering course, Mohite wanted to continue sharpening her skills by scaling peaks such as Bhagirathi, Satopanth and Shivling in the Indian Himalayas. But destiny had different plans in store. Soon after, her friend called to check if she was interested in a pre-Everest selection climb. Priyanka agreed in a heartbeat.
“We were invited to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling by Col. Neeraj Rana, who was retiring as principal. I climbed Frey and BC Roy peaks for just Rs 5,000, which I thought was a great deal!” the mountaineer says with a laugh. “I was fresh and the selectors were quite impressed with my technical skills and resilience, given that I pulled off a double march on the return despite an injury. Even before I left, I was told that I had made the cut for Everest.”
ON THE WAY TO EVEREST
The expedition was scheduled for the spring of 2013, which meant Mohite would have to skip her final college exams. But with her parents’ support, she began training and raising funds for the climb simultaneously.
“After my first press conference, I remember that a stranger found his way to my house and handed me Rs 500. It was the first contribution towards the climb and I can never forget it,” she says. Mohite was merely steps away from bringing her dreams to fruition.
On 17 April, the mountaineer first caught sight of the Everest on reaching base camp. Things were on track until 21 May, the scheduled day of summit, when her Sherpa fell ill, and they were forced to return to the final camp at South Col.
“It wasn’t worth risking both our lives, so I was forced to spend an entire day at South Col, while six of the other nine members got to the top. I begged Col. Rana for just one shot at the summit, since I had missed out due to no fault of mine. So he contacted the agency and I was soon accompanied by another Sherpa,” she says.
On 22 May, Priyanka Mohite climbed the Everest, only to set her eyes on a mountain that she had seen on her descent — Lhotse.
UNLUCKY ON LHOTSE
On her return, Mohite enrolled in a masters in Biotechnology course, while continuing to train. However, Lhotse turned out to be a real test. In 2014, all expeditions were called off after an accident killed 16 Sherpas in the Khumbu Icefall. The following year, she escaped with her life after the devastating earthquake struck Nepal.
“I didn’t have a scratch on me, really fortunate. I was part of the rescued and was traumatised to see so many dead people around me. I used to have nightmares; when someone shook their legs at a table, I felt like the earth was shaking. It took about two months to get over it,” Mohite says.
A few people discouraged her from taking on Lhotse, since the mountain had seemingly been rejecting her for a couple of years now. It wasn’t worth the risk, they said, but her father, Mangesh, egged her on. So, Mohite made a quick escape to go climbing in Himachal Pradesh in September 2015.
On successfully ascending Kilimanjaro, the climber regained her confidence once again. Despite a failed attempt at scaling Elbrus in the following year, Mohite decided to try and conquer Lhotse one more time, in 2018.
“On both the previous attempts, tragedy had struck a day after I arrived at base camp. So, I was quite jittery when I got there and glad when nothing happened the following day. I was quite confident of my attempt after that,” she says.
On 16 May, she stood atop Lhotse, from where she spotted her next climb, Makalu.
ON HER WAY UP MAKALU
On taking up a job in Bangalore, splitting time between work and passion proved to be a challenge for Mohite. But the climber powered through, and finally landed at the base camp on 24 April, to start journeying towards Makalu.
For a week, their progress was hampered by bad weather. But soon, she achieved her high point at 6, 900 metres, and returned to base for the final push.
On 14 May, 8 pm, Mohite set out for the summit from Camp 3, which is at an elevation of 7, 400 metres. The idea was to go straight for the top without halting at the final camp. Along with her climbing partner, Pemba Sherpa, she continued to climb through the darkness, until a torch malfunction forced them to pause. They would have to wait for another group of climbers, who were trailing them by about 30 minutes, to reach their spot.
“It was windy and cold — quite tricky to stop in those conditions but then we had no choice. I drew strength from chanting Ganpati bappa’s name during the tough moments,” she says.
When daylight broke, the duo had already reached the French couloir, from where they could see the summit. By 9 am on 15 May, Mohite had created history. “It didn’t strike me that I was the first Indian woman on the top. I was happier that I had summited on my mother’s birthday and was eager to talk to her,” Priyanka says.
By noon, Mohite had already climbed down to Camp 3. She decided to push on to base camp while there was still light. On reaching her destination at around 8 pm, Priyanka finally called her mother to wish and share the historic news with her.
Finally, the first Indian woman to scale Makalu could catch up on some well-deserved sleep. But as she drifted off to her world of dreams, visions of a snow-clad peak kept running through her mind’s eye. Mohite was already on her way up the Kanchenjunga.