Exploring the Vertical: An Alaskan Adventure with Prerna Dangi
Who doesn’t love the childhood thrill of climbing trees? Gazing up at the daunting tower of bark and leaf from below, fingers searching blindly for cracks and crevices to latch onto for a better grip, until, at last, you stand amongst a canopy of green, gazing at the world below. It was this simple childhood pleasure that defined the life of explorer, athlete, badass thrill-seeker, and professional climber, Prerna Dangi, aka The Pahadi Girl.
Born and brought up in Delhi, Prerna’s earliest memories of climbing were of the trees of her ancestral village in Uttarakhand. Spending much of her time in the outdoors, Prerna explains that she never fit the definition of a true ‘City Kid’. “I was a bit of a mixed Pahadi kid in the city.” Prerna says, “I don’t remember thinking of the outdoors as a special thing. I was a sports geek. I liked movement,”
Growing up on the playing field, Prerna spent her days playing basketball and other sports, before finally discovering the joy of athletic climbing while in college. A professional climber, athlete and guide, Prerna has since tamed both rock and frost, frozen wilderness and barren desert, and is one of the most prominent names in the Indian climbing scene, having summited the greatest heights both in India, and around the world.
Absorbing herself in the challenge, Prerna explains that she fell in love with the variety of the sport, both in terms of physicality, as well as on a much more personal and spiritual front. “I think the biggest factor is that you are connecting with nature, it’s not a sport that occurs within a man-made realm. The lessons you learn stay with you,” Prerna says, “You might go onto a rockface and you think, this is too big, this is too hard, I can’t climb this mountain- and the thing is, the mountain is not going to change, you’re the one who’s going to change,”
It was this journey of constant self-evaluation and spiritual realisation that brought Prerna to the foothill of one of her greatest adventures yet, when at the age of 21, she ventured into the frozen Alaskan wilderness, on a quest to summit the highest peak in Northern America; the picturesque and unforgiving, Denali.
°An Alaskan Adventure
Prerna’s Alaskan adventure began 6 years ago, on a bright sunny evening in the days leading up to the summer solstice, which, at that latitude, meant over 20 hours of functional daylight for the region. Armed with her trusty backpack and supplies, and accompanied by Angel Robledo, a companion from her previous climbing ventures in Himachal Pradesh, the two-woman team began their journey with a journey aboard a small, ski-equipped aircraft big enough to seat 4, which carried them across the dense forests of Denali National Park, the winding and twisting topography of the Alaskan Range, before safely depositing them at the Kahiltna International Airport, from where their journey would truly begin.
Originating from a glacier at sea level, the towering natural structure of Mt. Denali stretches up 6190m into the clouds, with an average success rate of 50% making it to the summit. With over 28 days to spare, Prerna and Angel decided to take the regular route up the mountain, hoping to acclimatise to the high vertical gain before trying a harder variation that was steeper and demanded more technical proficiency. Going the distance on their own, Angel and Prerna decided against taking advantage of the services of a guide up the mountain, doing everything together.
As we talk, Prerna recounts a harrowing experience on the journey up to the summit, one that threatened to change her life irreversibly and end her career in professional climate prematurely.
Climbing up a headwall with a fixed rope attached to it, Prerna hung, suspended amongst the cliffs and crags of snow, when she began to feel a tingling numbness in her hand. Attributing the sensation to her low tolerance for cold, and her physical propensity to be overcome by The Screaming Barfies, (an aptly named condition from which one first experiences numbness, followed by a rush of hot blood to the area, likened to a raw thawing feeling that prompts both tears and screaming) Prerna climbed on.
It wasn’t until she lost complete operation of her hand that Prerna halted their ascent, and decided to ask the person ahead of her for help. “So, I remove my backpack and the glove to replace it with a mitten, to find a blue hand. In minutes, I felt warm blood rushing back to the thawed hand though. I barfed with pain and the whole drama. Took me a while to realised that after putting on my down layer, I hadn’t loosened the backpack straps and the right one basically cut off my circulation severely causing the hand to go numb. It was a strikingly strange pain that I felt thereon in my palm which bothered me for a whole month!” Prerna says. Luckily, her hand survived the scene, and the adventure continued.
Unlike her previous escapades in India or overseas, where streams and pools for a quick wash could be found even in snowy alpine climates, Denali offers little scope for personal hygiene. Dependent on their limited supply of gas with which to melt snow for water, and cook meals within their tents, Prerna soon encountered an unexpected side effect of going 30 days with no running water.
“My hair- I washed it, and it was just stuck, and I wanted to just chop it off!” Prerna says, “Luckily, I found somebody who gave me the ultimate conditioner hack, she put loads of it in my hair and told me to leave it on for one and a half days- and it worked! She saved my hair.”
Among her many ups and downs from base camp to the summit and back, Prerna and Angel found themselves amongst the cream of the professional alpinists and athletic community, crossing paths with Killian Jornet, a Catalan Ultrarunner who happened to be setting the world record for climbing Denali in an hour and 40 mins, at The Windy Corner, a tricky section atop the mountain. “He probably took his one and only break on the mountain to let my partner know that it wasn’t safe to stop there, while we were taking a quick break. By the time we had reached the camp we were headed towards- our destination for the day- this guy had climbed the remaining 6000 feet to the summit and skied all the way back down!”
Other encounters with fellow adventurers saw the young Pahadi Girl in the company of 2 veteran high altitude mountaineers and guides, with a total count of 14 summits of the highest peak in the world, Mt. Everest amongst just the two of them. “It was amazing, the feeling of chilling (literally) at the base of Denali, with these legendary mountaineers and to hear stories straight from the horse’s mouth,” Prerna says, “It brought these characters from the books alive in front of me as flesh and bone!”
When asked about the most memorable part of her trip, Prerna explains that the summit was only an additional achievement to the many experiences she had along the way. “If we had not summited, only one of the memories would be slightly different.” Prerna says, “I had the time of my life, and it was the biggest adventure that I could have asked for at that age. It changed the way I saw things, the way I interacted with people, the way my mind kind of opened.
°One of the Boys Girls
A rapidly growing community in India, the climbing scene has fewer female members to speak of than it does males. To Prerna, who had been a rebel from her early childhood, these invisible glass ceilings in a primarily male-dominated profession were challenges she couldn’t wait to overcome.
“I think it’s a very systemic problem, because a lot of factors are not in our direct control, even if someone tries, there’s more obstacles than encouragement, and it’s a combination of things that have been created by us personally inside our heads, and by the people and culture around us. In general, we have fewer women stepping out and stepping up to claim male-dominated spaces,” Prerna explains, “There’s a lot of apprehension on the women’s side to even enter the sport when really there’s nothing to lose. That ability to take a healthy risk doesn’t come easily for a lot of women. We’re nurtured to be nurturing, to be a safe space, a provider of comfort, not somebody who does whatever the hell they want, who takes healthy risks like falling in muck– that’s a common thing to do, that you would encourage your boys to do. It’s the reality of the situation, and it’s a really long-changing process for that to become more neutral. When the upbringing becomes neutral, we will then have individuals, men, women, non-binaries who will just be people, who will see things for what they are, regardless of what they are.”
With athletics playing a big role in her upbringing, Prerna was never hesitant to try and fail in front of people, a universal fear across genders when faced with the prospect of something new. Challenging the societal expectations of how a woman should look and behave, Prerna was motivated by her love of the sport, which propelled her onward to pursue her passion, and inspire others to seek their own limits along the way.
“I wanted to do what I was told not to do. I was told a lot of times to not do what the guys were doing, and I’d go up to the guys and do what they were doing just because I wasn’t supposed to be doing it.” Prerna explains. “In my climbing journey, I have realised that images are powerful. sometimes a flicker of an image is enough to believe that something is possible and to get going. I gleaned hope from many such images. I wanted to be capable like the person in them it was just a foundation of things I started doing that helped me help others, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally.”