“Smiling pictures taken at high altitudes are very deceptive. There is so much struggle behind that smile, it’s unbelievable.”
It was difficult to decipher her maze of emotions over a Whatsapp call, two time zones apart. A day after she summited Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua in February this year, Vamini Sethi was poised over the phone. “Climbing has toughened me and made me humble at the same time,” said the 33-year-old corporate leader, who is also a professional mountain biker with several achievements under her belt.
Having set a target of scaling seven mountain peaks across the world, Vamini Sethi has successfully completed three, including Mt Kilimanjaro (5,895 meters) in Africa, Mt Elbrus (5,642 meters) in Russia, and Mt Aconcagua (6,962 meters) in Argentina. Now, the penultimate, Mount Everest, is up next in a few days.
Here indianexpress.com speaks to Vamini Sethi about some of her learnings from her climbing experience.
Can you share your experience from climbing the last few summits and which was the most challenging till now?
Of the last few summits, it would be hard to decide the most challenging one as the summit push for any climb above 6,000 meters is hard. Every summit throws up a different kind of challenge and I have struggled every time and have come out stronger with each successful summit.
Every time I come home from an expedition, my mom asks me in excitement if I have had fun. Fun? If this were fun, everyone would be doing it. Smiling pictures taken at high altitudes are very deceptive. There is so much struggle behind that smile, it’s unbelievable.
High altitude climbing is an extreme sport, with technical gear and equipment, bone-chilling temperatures of -30 to -40 degrees, cold winds at 120 kms/hr, no bed to lie on, no proper food for days, no toilets, wrapped up in uncomfortable clothes and equipment, fighting with your body to adjust to 60 per cent lesser oxygen, dealing with massive headaches and nosebleeds. It’s life-threatening. I still climb because it teaches me discipline in everything I do. It is a way to test my limits, to see how far I can go and experience the pleasure of overcoming excruciating pain and winning against it.
How did you prepare yourself mentally and physically for such a monumental effort to climb seven peaks? What’s your mental game like?
One can prepare for the physical challenge, however, mental strength comes from within. If you think you can do it, you can. However, you also need to train very hard to be extremely fit and you need to be trained on the signs that mean danger and need to keep listening to what your body and your guides are telling you.
I give 3-4 hours in the morning to training every day.
These climbs are very tough and one cannot take up such expeditions without training. I have been training for the past several months and have been following a scientific training that I bought online from a renowned mountaineer. The program is based on heart rate monitoring and provides a training stress score (TSS) to each workout. This helps me improve my performance and endurance levels. I wear a heart rate monitor belt for accurate results. It’s an aggressive training that aims to increase the size of the arteries as it carries oxygen-rich blood to the brain.
Many women look up to you for following your passion, and they see their dreams and ambitions when you fulfill some of yours. What’s your message to women who want to pursue their dreams?
If you have dreams, breaks them into goals and then pursue it. We all have multiple roles to play while juggling career and family. In the midst of a busy life, do take out time for yourself to do what you always wanted. Start believing in yourself and even the sky will not be the limit then. In my 14 years of work experience, I have been able to achieve most of what I wanted to. I can confidently say that you can have it all, provided you are willing to work for it. Work, marriage, family, money should not be an excuse of not doing what gives you satisfaction. At the end of the day, let there be no excuses, no regrets.
You are a corporate leader at the same time a woman who carefully balances family life and her passion. How do you maintain the delicate balance?
It is always challenging and stressful to manage anything that goes beyond Family and Work however I feel life is all about the choices we make, the discipline we follow and actions we take. Anything of value doesn’t come easy. I have had my own struggle but in the end, it all seems to be worth it. The respect and glory from each climb live forever. You become a storyteller and everyone is interested in hearing about “The Zen” discovered up there in the mountains.
I remember writing about you when you climbed the Siachen glacier. What has changed in you as a person and how do you deal with this change?
Siachen is where it all started, that’s when I first heard about the stories of Mt. Everest from the Army officers and I was intrigued. The journey since then has been exciting. It started with doing a course in mountaineering followed by 5 high altitude summits including Kilimanjaro ( Africa), Elbrus ( Russia), Mera ( Nepal), Kanamo ( India) and Aconcagua (Argentina )
Climbing has changed my life. It has toughened me and made me humble at the same time. I smile more and worry less. Climbing is sport that takes away all the complicated stresses of life and makes me focus on the most basic necessities of life such as water, food and breathing.
In a few days, you’re going to attempt Everest. How did you prepare yourself for this? What are all the challenges and opportunities before you?
I guess one can never be fully prepared for such a climb. There is always niggling doubt because it’s serious business and life-threatening. What you can do is train well and get the right kind of experience before it. I have done my NIM, trained scientifically for over a year and climbed high altitude peaks to get ready for Everest. I have done four high altitude climbs in the last year as part of the preparation for Everest. I started with 5,000 meters and slowly progressed to 7000 meters to get used to the experience of high altitudes. Life is uncertain and one would never know when the game changes.
Can you also share some of your most vulnerable moments during some your climbs and how you dealt with all that because we all have weak moments.
My most vulnerable moments have always been the summit push. I always struggle to get sleep one night before the summit due to anxiety issues and the final push becomes far more difficult when one is sleep deprived. But like they say, what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.
You always link yourself to a social cause. Last one being ‘Save the girl child’ during Mt Kilimanjaro climb. Is there one for Everest as well?
This time I will spread awareness about human trafficking. In India, girls are trafficked every day from their homes, parcelled into trains, and drugged and sold across the country. I am doing this climb to support Waste Management Society, an anti-human trafficking organisation, who completely devote their time to save girls from this terrible plight and ensure they build a future for themselves. I have taken up the responsibility to help rehabilitate at least 100 girls who have been rescued by WMS from forced commercial sex work.