Published: 28th July 2021
She's on top of the world: Meet women trek leaders, adventure junkies who are taking the world on a trip
These women are encouraging a whole generation of young climbers to break free and lead expeditions and treks and find their space out there. We check out what powers these trendsetters
It is not the mountain we conquer, we conquer but ourselves
Sir Edmund Hillary
The Everestian mountaineer's most-quoted line is something women trek leaders in India, decades later, sweat by. Leading treks or climbing mountains professionally is rarely chosen by women in India - not because of societal and family pressures, but because it is physically and mentally exacting.
However, a few women have taken it up for the love of exploration and leading others to find this joy while clambering up the odd cliff. We talk to women from different walks of life who are trek leaders and have been part of some of the most challenging treks in recent Indian history. This is their story.
The mountain calls to her
There are no big, fancy goals such as making money from leading treks or buying expensive items. All I want is to explore places through trekking and be there to lead many people like me, says Mansi Dave, who has led four treks in the past few months. A full-time UX designer in Gujarat, Mansi never thought that she would fall in love with trekking until she met her friend Hemal Patel. She recalls, "Hemal and I have been friends for a long time now. In 2017, when I met him, he told me about hosting a trek show on his YouTube channel and that he was looking for a woman to join him. I asked him if I could do it though I did not have any experience in terms of trekking."
Mansi Dave, Trek leader and UX designer (Photos: Mansi Dave)
Hemal suggested she get that experience first - and so, they went on their first trek to Manali in 2017. "We both loved the journey and the process of walking on the not-so-well-known routes in Manali. In 2018, Hemal started Youth Camping India, an organisation to facilitate trekking for youngsters who are interested in it. From then on, I have been working with him as a part-time trek leader. For the past three years, I have led four treks in different parts of India. The number would have been higher but with the continuous lockdowns, we couldn't do much," says this 25-year-old.
Mansi has led treks in Manali, Kasol in Himachal Pradesh and the Saputara and the Pavagadh Hills in Gujarat. She says, "The most challenging trek among all these places was in the Saputara Hills. When we reached the Hatgadh Village Fort, we heard from the villagers about how a leopard came every day. We were a team of five people and were worried about running into the animal. Therefore, we carried an axe with us to defend ourselves and all five of us divided the timings among ourselves. When the other three members were asleep, two of us would be awake to guard the camp."
Next, Mansi and her team are planning to go on a trek to Leh and Ladakh before the season ends in September. "I also encourage a lot of young girls to join us for the trek. When they are with us, we ensure that we take all the safety measures, provide them with sanitary napkins and also all the toiletries required," says Mansi.
When adventure can be therapeutic
When Tanya Ginwala spoke about Adventure Therapy, we wondered how adventure could work as a form of therapy? But Tanya, who has worked as a clinical psychologist for more than five years in Pune, has been practicing adventure therapy for the past year. She is also the founder of Qualia Mental Health, an organisation that works with patients having mental health issues. She says, "I believe in taking my clients outdoors rather than speaking to them or counselling them within four walls. And that's what I have been doing from the past few months. Now, I have shifted from Pune to Himachal Pradesh to organise adventure therapy treks"
Tanya Ginwala, trek leader and founder of Qualia Mental Health (Pictures: Facebook)
After completing her MA in Psychology, Tanya attended several workshops and short courses organised by different individuals and organisations who are into adventure therapy around the world. She says, "I have learnt trekking and mountaineering by attending workshops and courses for a short time. In 2018, I completed my Certified Mountaineering Leadership Management programme organised by the UIAA. Later, I also worked with an NGO called Adventures Beyond Barriers where I would take people with disabilities on treks, marathons, on dives and so on. In fact, organising treks to the Sahyadri Hills in Maharashtra was a real fun trek. I did not need any route planning for this place because these hills are literally my playground when it comes to trekking."
Coming back to Adventure Therapy, what exactly happens during these treks? Tanya explains, "Therapy refers to talking to people, understanding their mind and problems that they go through. In adventure therapy, I take them out into nature, forests, hills and mountains to talk to them and understand them. Usually, these treks are really slow as we need to connect with them and be sensitive in our conversations. There are different formats that we follow in adventure therapy and these formats are customised according to the number of days the clients want to join us on trek. Some formats can be customised for a day and some for eight to ten days. These formats include nature connection, forest healings, trekking, forest bathing and a lot more."
Besides all this, Tanya also leads a study group. "I organise talks, seminars and video conferences by experts so that I can build a community of adventure therapists. There are many people who are into mental health space and want to implement adventure therapy in their own ways around the world."
Turning the world into her home
Ishani Sawant was only 13 years old when she went on a small trek to the Himalayas. She not only fell in love with this adventure but decided that she wanted more. She says, "Coming from Pune, where there is trekking and mountaineering culture among people, I too volunteered to be part of groups that went trekking during weekends. I volunteered with various travel companies to carry the bags of trekkers or assist them. I volunteered only to learn the skills needed."
Meanwhile, Ishani also completed a basic and advanced mountaineering course from Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarakhand. She explains, "After completing a law degree from ILS Law College in Pune, I did not want to practice law. In fact, my interest was towards mountaineering and rock climbing. That's why I completed a certified course in rock climbing at the American Mountain Guides Association. This was an added advantage for me to train people and lead mountaineering treks in countries like the US and Hong Kong. Hence, my year is divided as per my work schedule between the US, Hong Kong and India. I have been trekking and leading, guiding people for more than 10 years now and have forgotten to keep a count of the number of treks that I have led so far."
Ishani Sawant, Mountaineer and trek leader (Pictures: Facebook)
Despite being in the field for a decade, Ishani feels that women are still stereotyped when it comes to mountaineering and rock climbing. "Once, when I was deputed to train men at the National Defence Academy in rock climbing, they were sceptical about the way I would teach them. Some even laughed at me because they thought that I wouldn't know anything about rock climbing. But after a few days of training under my wing, their perceptions changed. More than the challenges that we face physically in mountaineering, women go through mental challenges in terms of fighting stereotypes and breaking social barriers."
She picks out climbing Mount Menthosa in the Lahaul-Spiti region of Himachal Pradesh as the most challenging one. This 30-year-old says, "The peak is 6,443 metres high and one has to be careful while climbing the peak. One mistake or a wrong prediction of route will land you in danger."
Currently, Ishani is living in Manali and wants to start her own cafe along with a rock climbing training academy for youngsters. She says, "I plan to climb more mountains and peaks which haven't been climbed or explored by people in the world. There are many virgin mountains and I would like to explore them all in this lifetime."
Choose between profession and passion
Choosing between what you love to do and what you are expected to do is a bit difficult but one needs to stand up for themselves, believes Galaxy Pandey, who is originally from Uttar Pradesh but was born and brought up in Mumbai. After completing MBA in 2013, Galaxy worked in the field of digital advertising in a corporate company. But the 9 to 5 job made her life monotonous and boring. That's why when she got the chance to quit and take up trekking professionally, she dove in headfirst.
She explains, "I was doing really well in digital advertising. During this phase, when I went out with my friends for small treks, I loved to spend time amidst nature, seize the day and live it. But my friends took up these small treks to drink and smoke in the woods which never attracted me. Hence, I went on treks organised by travel companies. After trekking to four different places, I thought to join a professional trekking company in Mumbai. That's how I joined Wander Womaniya in 2018."
Galaxy Pandey, trek leader, Wander Womaniya (Pictures: Galaxy Pandey)
Since 2018, Galaxy has lead treks for people of different age groups. "Unlike the 9 to 5 job, trekking is real fun. Here, I get to meet different people, strike up conversations with them and understand their culture too. So far, I have done more than eight treks for adults as well as women above 50. I have lead treks in Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Shimla and Manali," says Galaxy.
Even after spending three years trekking and travelling across India, Galaxy's parents haven't been able to reconcile themselves to the idea of her profession. She says, "Usually, it is difficult for girls to convince their parents to allow them to go on a solo trek. This is no different for me. When I told them about leaving my job, they never liked the idea. Even today, they ask me how travelling can be a passion or profession. They say it is a weird profession to choose and girls must not get into it. However, this hasn't stopped me from achieving my goals. I lcontinue to encourage more women and girls to take up trekking and go on solo treks. This will not only make the community bigger but also help us remove those misconceptions among people."
In the next five years, Galaxy wants to explore as many places as possible, while trekking around the world.