Following her passion and creating her own trail, Toolika Rani, has an inspirational story. Whether it was a life and death situation or staggered by the vastness of God’s creation, this is a story of her triumphs:
1. When and how did you realize that Mountaineering is what you’d like to pursue ahead?
Nature has always been one of my closest friends, in addition to God. So, it was quite natural that I would do something that kept me in close contact with her.
It was however, in 2007, that I got into adventure sports. It began with River Rafting in Indus, in Sonamarg. Then in 2009, I did my Basic Mountaineering Course. The same year, I was chosen for the Indian Air Force mountaineering expedition to Mt. Stok Kangri. We submitted it on 11 August 2009. The entire process of climbing, pushing the limits and finally reaching the top transformed me as a person. It made me aware of my fears as well as the latent strengths. There was a thrill in challenging oneself to a difficult task and striving towards it, and knowing about oneself more deeply in the process.
It was also a realization that human beings were just a small speck in front of the vast nature...so no point keeping any inflated vain egos. What are really essential to live was air, water, a few clothes, food and shelter. Rest all was immaterial. There was a peace and simplicity in the life in mountains, not found in the chaotic hustle of cities...so it was this combination of realizations that made me aware that it was the mountains where I belonged.
2. Moving away from a well-treaded path, what were some of the challenges you’ve faced to reach where you are today?
Since I was an officer in Indian Air Force since 2005, the opportunity to plunge in adventure sports came rather easily to me. But to maintain it required hard work. It needed acute time management to perform my duties as an officer, and maintain the highest level of physical fitness that a challenging sport like mountaineering requires. So, I did not have much time for social life as immediately after my working hours, I hit the gym or the track for running. But the discipline had already been installed in me during my training in the Force, so I could manage.
Another major challenge was financing. Mountaineering require special equipments and hence it is a highly expensive sport. I was fortunate to do my Basic and Advance Mountaineering courses through Air Force, also my training at Siachen Glacier in Ice Craft, and my initial 05 Expeditions to Stok Kangri, Bhagirathi 2, Kamet, Saser Kangri, and Mt. Everest. But during my second attempt on Mt. Everest in 2012, no financial aid was forthcoming from anywhere despite my efforts. I have found over the years that almost all of my fellow Indian mountaineers face the same sponsorship problem. So, I decided to took out all my savings, my parents did the same and we financed the required Rs. 21 lakhs on our own.
Then, the patriarchal mindset of course kept questioning my choice of climbing mountains. Being a female wasn't it better to settle down in a conventional life? But of course, I chose my way of life not merely as a female, but as a human being aware of her inclination, potential and strength.
3. Among all your climbs, which is the one that resides in the fondest of memories?
All my expeditions have incidents that are close to my heart. Each of them provided me a deeper insight into life. Climbing was never a merely physical engagement for me, it was more spiritual. Life and death situations arose on many of the mountains I climbed..and each time when I came back alive, life felt so precious and beautiful. While Stok Kangri is close to heart because of it being my first summit, Kamet gave me a very close encounter with death and changed my perspective on life and death, Saser Kangri showed that I could climb with a fractured ankle too, Everest revealed the full force of nature and gave me not only the glimpse of unimaginable beauty but also a lifelong gift of a frost bite and a little amputation on my toe. Climbing a virgin peak in Himachal was a different thrill altogether to be the first team to set foot atop that mountain.
However, it was Mt. Damavand in Iran, the highest volcano of Asia, that I remember most fondly, because of the warmth I received from my fellow climbers and Iranian friends. To witness the culture of Iran was myth breaking. Also, I got the privilege of becoming the first Indian woman to climb Damavand in 2015. Then came Winter trek to Annapurna, unguided, the first by an Indian in winters and without a guide. And Kilimanjaro in Africa in 2016, Mt. Elbrus in Russia in 2016, Mt. Nun, and Kanamo in Kashmir and Himachal respectively. In total 23 mountaineering and trekking expeditions till now, a host of experiences tested my nerves and enriched my heart. There were falls in crevasses, falling on an ice wall, slipping on a narrow track, almost plunging into a river, surviving fierce snowstorms through the night, and avalanches and also a night out at 14,000 feet.
4. What would be your advice to the modern working women?
Work is what gives a person his/her identity and satisfaction. So, work for your passion, however hard and long the path is. There is no substitute to hard work and endurance. Nor is there any short cut to success. So, if you want to excel, be ready to sacrifice a lot of things. However, don't forget to enjoy the small joys on the way, the nature's gifts, the human warmth, a child's smile, a gesture of kindness. After all life is only one, to work and to live. So, live deeply, without comparisons, as everybody has a different destiny to fulfill.
6. Talking about clothing, what is your 5 minute dressing ritual?
For me it is almost always a five minute dressing, whether it was my Air Force uniform (I took retirement in Dec 2015, in order to climb more freely and fully), or a Sari for a party, or a track suit for running.
However, I am most comfortable in my trousers, a loose shirt, sports shoes and a pony or a high bun. Complete casual, though I dress up as per the occasion. If I’m going to deliver a motivational presentation to students, I wear formal trousers and a collared , full sleeve shirt, with hair in a bun. To receive an award, I wear a formal collared, plain, silk and khadi mix kurta. A bit of kajal and lip gloss is the only make up I wear. With Sari, however, all the traditional jewellery is also thrown in.
7. 5 essentials for women to carry while going trekking/mountaineering?
A Swiss knife, a pair of extra shoe laces, sunscreen, lip balm (chapped lips otherwise pain a lot with blood coming out), sanitary napkins (the periods go haywire sometimes)
8. What is your next quest?
I am planning to climb Mt . Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest peak of South American continent in December 2018. Preparation is already on.
Toolika Rani was commissioned in the Indian Air Force as a Flying Officer in 2005 and worked as an Air Traffic Controller and an Outdoor Training Instructor in the Indian Air Force Academy. She retired as a Squadron Leader in December 2015 to pursue mountaineering as a full fledged passion. Climbing mountains since 2009, she has successfully summitted 10 peaks, including Mt. Everest, Nepal, Mt. Damavand, Iran, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, Africa, Unnamed Virgin peak, India among others. Her achievements have been featured in Hindustan Times, Deccan Chronicle, The Hindu to name a few.