In March this year, Aparna Prabhudesai, 48, will lead a group of trekkers to Everest Base Camp (EBC). Early next morning, the lot will hike onward to Kala Patthar (5,643m) from where one can see the sun rise over Mt. Everest.
Four years earlier, Prabhudesai had made the same trek for the first time. She started for Kala Patthar way before the others, knowing that speed wasn’t her forte. It wasn’t until past 5am that she finally trudged up the final slope to her destination. The sun was already out, stirring the valley below from the overnight freeze; her plan had fallen flat. Everest stood grand in the distance and at that moment, Prabhudesai decided that she wanted to climb the mountain.
Once she got back down and reunited with a friend, she told her about the plan.
“Of course you can do it. Do we want to do it this October itself?” her friend asked in jest, knowing the magnitude of the climb.
“In 2017,” Prabhudesai replied calmly.
It could well have been another conversation on the spur of the moment, easily forgotten after returning to the bustle of Pune. Only in Prabhudesai’s case, there was a point to be proved. In April last year, she took the North Col route to finally stand atop of Everest. While hundreds of climbers reach the summit these days, this feat was special, given that in 2012, just standing on her two feet was a task, let alone climb a mountain.
It was during Diwali that year when Prabhudesai felt a shooting pain in her knees as she eased out of bed. Soon, she realised that there was something grievously wrong when standing on her own strength was difficult. For the next few months, a wheelchair and walker became essentials.
“I had knee and bone trouble, hairline cracks on both legs and tried every possible treatment there was for it. I got fed up of doctors making a guinea pig out of me. When my doctor brother from Toronto took a look at the medication, he realised that it was just a cocktail of painkillers because of which I had some relief,” Prabhudesai recalls.
“We checked for everything—rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, bone cancer—but no one could really figure what was wrong.”
Back in the day, Prabhudesai was alien to the world of sport. Yet, a few months later, she decided to accompany a friend on a hike to Triund near Dharamsala.
“A trek sounded exciting, though I could hardly believe she was taking me along. Between her and the guide, I was carried most of the way,” she says.
On her return, her brother suggested that she build some muscle, as it would take the weight off her bones. Prabhudesai also wanted to quit the entire support system that enabled her to stand. As a corporate trainer, a walker in tow never augured well for her profession and soon, her brother sent across customised braces that formed a skeleton for her legs. Armed with the right gear, Prabhudesai took to running—her first, a 3km distance in June 2013 which she run-walked with the encouragement of some friends.
“The running was liberating and I gradually started increasing distances. The pain was always there, so I simply started living with it. I was also making good progress, so I decided to take on EBC,” she recalls.
By then, Prabhudesai had grown as a runner, rising through the ranks to graduate to a marathon.
“I’ve been carried away from finish lines, and this one time in Mumbai, I don’t know if I had even crossed it. The pain gets unbearable at times even today, all I can do is be prepared,” she says.
After coming back from Nepal, she pursued the basic and advance mountaineering courses, then climbed to Stok Kangri (6,153m) and to Nun (7,135m) to understand the challenges posed by high mountains.
To realise what it took to be on her feet for about 11 hours, which is the duration she estimated the summit push on Everest to be, she ran a 75km ultra in November 2016. Finally in winter next year, she made a three-week trip to Leh and settled into a regime of walking up and down a hill in her complete mountaineering gear—at times, thrice in a night—to get used to the freezing climes, as well as the equipment.
The level of endurance was only possible thanks to a rigorous grind that she had followed back home—a good five hours on average each day. From running around town through the week, to hill running and ascending a flight of 2,200-odd stairs, the workouts were mixed up to kill the monotony. The weekends were spent climbing at Sinhagad with a 30kg backpack. The preparation in place, it was now time to plan the climb up Everest.
“My father was a colonel in the army and had spent almost 11 years between Siachen and Kashmir. I had grown up with a story of him buried by an avalanche, lying next to a dead comrade until he was rescued. He lost two fingers to frostbite. The north side is an extension of Siachen and I knew that’s the route I wanted to go,” she says.
Four years after that piggyback hike to Triund, Prabhudesai set out for Kathmandu and on to Lhasa. A three-day drive got her to base camp and after a few days of rest, the acclimatisation runs began that included a day spent at North Col at about 7,100 metres. It was now time for the summit.
Estimating a 12-hour push, Prabhudesai left the final camp at 9pm. In her backpack were the same braces that had been her lifeline for the last few years. She swore she wouldn’t take them out, but there was still the fear of “what if”. The security was vital, despite the fact that she was lugging deadweight at those altitudes.
At 8,500 metres, the fatigue caught up with her, as did the mind games.
“I stopped for a minute and wondered if I really wanted to do it. I had come higher than anyone had in my family and could simply turn back,” she says.
“Then I thought—I don’t quit. I’ve never done it before and am not about to start doing that now.”
On 22 April at ten past four in the morning, Prabhudesai took her last few steps on the ascent. This time, she had made it to the top well in time to catch the most spectacular sunrise from the highest point in the world.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.