Ama Dablam, “Mother’s Necklace”, also referred to as the "Matterhorn of the Himalayas", is one of the most technically difficult mountains to scale. It is featured on the one-rupee note of the Nepali Rupee and is distinct with its soaring ridges and steep faces. For mountaineers the world over, this is one of the hardest climbs to make, as it features blinding snow, sheets of ice, and gritty rocks and remains the one that is the most unchecked on wish lists. “While wearing my crampons at Camp 2, I suddenly felt the first cramps. Ignoring the pain, I continued to walk for 45 minutes before collapsing like rubble. I couldn’t move an inch," admits Prakriti Varshney, the only other Indian woman to have scaled this mountain. “I had tears gushing down my face. I was cursing my luck as to why I was born a girl. I had worked so hard to get here, but I could barely find the strength to carry on.” My sherpa had broken down in tears too, watching my uncontrollable sobbing," the young mountaineer reveals uncharacteristically. “It was the most unexpected of obstacles. I had my periods sneak up on me at around 6,000 m, out in the cold. I had a sharp pain searing through every part of my body.” Yet, with some rest and a lot of encouragement, Prakriti braved the extremely high winds and made it to the top, where she removed her gloves and unfurled the vegan flag while battling a frost nip in such unforgiving weather. It was a mixed feeling. Exhilaration and pain rolled into one, but the views were breathtaking. "I could see Mt. Everest from here, so close, and this was when I decided I was going to conquer the highest of all mountains.” Thus, the dream was born.
When you meet Prakriti Varshney, she confounds you. Spunky, spontaneous, and spirited, this 27-year-old has more life and vitality packed into her little 5-foot body than most big athletes. Her cheerful disposition is contagious, not something one was warned about earlier. But inside that little body is the unmatchable resolve that has made a habit of breaking all known stereotypes. She was a fashion designer, a victim of incessant bullying while growing up, short, hailing from a modest financial background, a vegan, and a normal middle-class child with the responsibilities of being the eldest of three children. She had scaled nine mountains in the past year. On May 12, 2022, Prakriti added another feather to her hat: becoming the first female vegan to scale Mt. Everest. But behind Prakriti’s paradoxical tale is a story of self-actualisation against all odds.
“My father is a civil engineer, my mother a homemaker. I was a really outgoing kid, but I was never athletic. There was a reason for that. In school, I was bullied a lot because I was short. Even though our family didn’t come from money, in the 6th grade, my father decided to shift me from a government-run school to a private one. I wanted to go talk to students and explore myself, but other students would mock me. I was made to feel ashamed of not knowing English. I wouldn’t go out during the lunch breaks. For three years, I was lost. I could have played basketball, kho kho, or kabaddi, but I didn’t because I didn’t fit in.” Later in life, not fitting in would provide the much wanted respite from the bane of normality that most of us subscribe to.
She continues, “Right after my graduation in fashion design, I joined a start-up. I would start at 6.30am, travel for three hours, and work at my office till 9 pm, only to repeat the motions of the day six days a week. Sitting in the cubicle, I'd wonder, "Is this what my life was to be?”
In a bid to challenge herself, she took to solo travelling at a time when unassisted late-night travel was a thing unheard of for most young women. “On one random trip to Manali, I landed up in Manali and wanted to stay there for my break. One of my friends showed me a 45-year-old house, the very first I had seen, and I was smitten." In what would seem like an impulsive decision, Prakriti decided to renovate the house with her meagre savings and move in. “I realised that mountains are my happy space.” Her friends were shocked at such an unexpected decision, Manali was where people came for 3–4 days from cities to switch off, not to permanently relocate. Nobody understood her unchecked urge to adopt this new lifestyle.
Prakriti, as the name suggests in Hindi, stands for nature. Prakriti, the person, is truly a force of nature. “It’s all about how badly you want it and it is about focus. If you want to get where you want to, there is no excuse,” she muses. Climbing an 8,000+ m mountain in a sub-optimal oxygen environment is a gargantuan undertaking. It needs money, training and oodles of confidence to challenge the status quo. “In subzero Manali winters, I would wake up at 4.30 am to do my runs, yoga, strength training, and meditation. I live all alone with my two dogs, so my day would otherwise be spent raising money through crowdfunding, cooking, and eating. I wouldn’t meet anyone for five months. No family, no friends, no nothing. This was routine for months on end,” Prakriti reveals. All this dedication would later bear fruit. Her sherpa, Mingma Dorje, who had climbed Everest 11 times and had sceptically evaluated her on the first meeting, would later concur that “he’d never met any Indian girl like her before."
”For Prakriti, climbing Mt. Everest was not just about reaching the top in one piece. “I wanted to live it. Even if I close my eyes today, I can reimagine myself on top of the world. I was in all of my senses. I was taking in the spectacle around me. While most mountaineers were on the mountain top for 10–15 minutes, I was there for 50 minutes. Imagine, close to an hour on top of the world,” she gushes.
The expedition to Mt. Everest is spread over 45 days. You start by gaining 500 m every day for the first ten days till you reach the Base Camp. The journey from Base Camp onwards is a matter of focus and acclimatisation as every step beyond the 7,000 m range is a heavy one. Before you can start scaling Everest, you need to adapt your body to the extreme conditions through various mountain rotations. Every decision matters, and time is a different currency.
“Some people choose to cross the Khumbu glacier thrice in a bid to stay low at the Base Camp while scaling higher. But that wasn’t for me. The Khumbu glacier is notorious for being dangerous; it moves every day, icicles fall frequently, and avalanches occur on a daily basis. So we climbed to about 6100 m and returned back to sleep and acclimatise for two days, before leaving for the Khumbu icefall for the first rotation.” For Prakriti, who had already scaled nine mountain peaks previously, this was still easy.
For the second rotation, she started from Camp 1 at 6,100m, the same altitude as that of Lobuche East, where she camped for a day, then moved to Camp 2 for the next, before reaching Camp 3 and returning to Camp 2 to sleep. Touching Camp 3 meant going to 6,900 m and returning back. Beyond this point, even the ablest body starts to react to the environment. You consciously sign up for symptoms such as dizziness, hallucinations, and oxygen deprivation. Those with Everest experience will tell you, an Everest expedition is not a sprint, it is a marathon. Only fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Rest is as important as movement. And thus, the mountaineer-sherpa duo returned to Camp 2 and 1 to rest for two days.
The next day came with unforetold news. There was a cyclone incoming from the Bay of Bengal that would hit Everest. When these fast gales hit Everest, things promised to become totally unpredictable. With the fear of a cyclone hanging overhead, even a single casualty meant canning the whole expedition. A similar incident had happened earlier, and 12 sherpas were tragically lost to an avalanche. Thus, the plan to make for the summit push was moved forward by five days. No newbie could be mentally prepared for such a fast detour on the Everest, and Prakriti had her first bout of anxiety. With some friendly Nepali cajoling by the all-knowing-sherpa, the young mountaineer calmed down to rest and prepare before vowing to make the summit dash at the first window of opportunity.
The next day was going to be nerve-racking experience and Prakriti’s biggest test of endurance. Onwards to Camp 3 at the frigid 6,900m mark, it was time to wear the oxygen mask. This was an intimidating proposition because Prakriti had never trekked with an oxygen mask in tow. She shared her apprehensions with the sherpa. “I feel okay. I don’t want to use it just yet. Maybe at the third camp?” The sherpa warned that they only had six oxygen bottles between them and Prakriti wouldn’t be able to acclimatise properly to the high altitudes. Begrudgingly, Prakriti wore the mask and started to walk softly up the summit. “This was the hardest part of my climb. I just could not breathe. I was constantly fidgeting with my mask, taking it off every few steps to breathe fresh air. At 7,000 m, my mask broke because of constant shirking and placement. This was devastating.
”Out on the cold mountain climb, with snow smashing in her face, Prakriti thought this was the end of her big quest.
Her now annoyed sherpa questioned, “How do you expect me to take you to 8,000m if you will act this cranky at 7,000 m? You will die!”
She reassured her guide, Mingma Dorje, that she would continue till Camp 3 without the mask as they inched along. When they eventually reached Camp 3, Prakriti went into a silent limbo mentally. “I secluded myself from the group and went into a zone for two hours. I wasn’t able to respond to anything. I refused to eat or drink anything. I was overwhelmed that I couldn’t go on with a broken mask,” she reveals. On closer inspection, Mingma realised that Prakriti was showing all the symptoms of high altitude. He offered her his mask warily to make her feel normal.
The moment she put his mask on, a surge of oxygen rushed through her veins.
“I was stunned that I could breathe so easily.” Curious, the sherpa inspected her oxygen mask only to realise that a small hole in the oxygen pipe was leaking all the air.
They exchanged their masks while the sherpa went in search of an extra mask amongst the other expeditioners. “Within 15 minutes of me breathing through his mask, I was back in my spirits, talking, smiling, eating, and drinking.” It was a new lease of life and Prakriti would rise from the ashes to take on Camp 4 the next day after some rest. For tonight, she would watch the glorious milky way sparkle in the night sky.
On the Everest climb, you encounter two of the most difficult points on the way to Camp 4. The first, called The Yellow Band, is a sedimentary sandstone on the Lhotse Face, which is the first rock a climber touches. At 25,000 ft, your crampons hit hard on the rocks as you pull on for 100 meters. The second junction, called the Geneva Spur, is a large rock buttress near the summits of Lhotse and Everest at around 26,000 ft. These climbs can make anyone anxious. The Geneva Sprur is freakish as it is flanked on either side by two steep gullies, which after fresh falls of snow become dangerously exposed to avalanches, but after dry spells turn to grooves of bare ice. Prakriti ambled on, her initial anxiety slowly dissipating. “With words of confidence from my guide, I moved on steadily.
The next morning, Prakriti started early in order to avoid the traffic while the sherpa packed up behind her. She started the climb, and reached about 7,700 m, and unbeknownst to her, had started to slow down. At such high altitudes, the oxygen wears thin and the brain gets foggy. “In about 100m, I picked up speed to reach the 8,000 m mark. When my group caught up in an hour, everyone sprawled down on the ice, drowsy and exhausted, while I was busy putting up a tent with my guide,” she laughs. This gregariousness was surprising.
“At such low oxygen levels, you feel very sleepy; in fact, most deaths happen because people fall asleep at this altitude without cover,” she reveals.
Following a rest of six hours, they started to make their way to the summit in the night. Yet again, she started early by herself and reached the South summit by 4.30 am. Here she decided to rest. “Let’s wait for sometime. If we reach the summit early, we won’t be able to see the views from there and I wouldn’t be able to click any photographs,” she shares amusingly. The incredulous sherpa obliged, before they started the climb again. Finally, they reached the summit.
A few minutes after reaching the Everest peak, Prakriti took a few moments to take it all in. It was a beautiful experience. I felt, correction, was on top of the world.
The views that greeted her at the peak were surreal.
“I was stunned into silence. The sights were so breathtaking. When you are at the South Ridge, towards the summit, you can see the whole of Everest’s shadow on the left. It is a stunning view as the sun comes up from behind the mountain and the whole shadow falls in a perfect triangle. You are truly on top of the world because you seethe highest mountains in the world far, far below you,” shares Prakriti as she relives the moment. “You know intrinsically that the earth is round, but when you turn on your GoPro camera, you can actually see the curve in front of your eyes. You can see the whole of Tibet from your vantage point, the roads and the inhabitation, although movement to Everest from there has been blockaded by the Chinese right now,” reveals Prakriti.
“I didn’t talk much; I was only thinking. I’ve made it! This wasn’t easy, but here I am! This was easy. Look how fast we came!” A fleeting moment of hubris, before the voices in the head slowly started to slur.
Her oxygen was running low because she had conserved oxygen and not changed the tanks earlier! “My dear sherpa rushed to fix the mask to a new canister and it took about a minute and a half. I felt like I was dying. My mind went delirious as random thoughts started to fog my mind. I was thanking mom and dad for their faith in me. I was in gratitude to the thousands of good samaritans who had generously donated me hundreds of rupees during the crowdfunding. Thoughts flooded my head on how, if only I had raised 10 lakh rupees more, I could get to Lhotse peak too. Why was my new British climber friend not waving back at me? Is he in trouble?” Suddenly, a fresh abundance of air poured through Prakriti’s lungs, the oxygen tank was back on! Prakriti was back in her element.
“I took a few moments and prayed in gratitude.” She adds, “I was lucky to have spent about 50 minutes on top of the Everest because I had reached early. Most climbers can only spend about 15 minutes there on average. I was so grateful for the experience. My heart swelled for the people who contributed to my cause, my sherpa, and the team.
”And thus was born Prakriti Varshney, the first female vegan on top of the world. “I wanted to attempt the climb as a vegan. “All the other 24 in the team were non-vegetarian, but my diet kept me safe. Your body becomes a mess at those altitudes. You need medicine to stay sane. I ate daal chawal, I was light and easy.”
Prakriti's dream came true with visions of prayer flags fluttering in the air and clouds of plume above, from which rises the towering Everest. “I am resting it out for a few months. I have debts to repay. However, the next adventure is just around the corner. My next stop will be Manaslu, the eighth highest mountain in the world,” she signs off with a glint in her eye.