In conversation with Toolika Rani (T.R), mountaineer and Squadron Leader. The retired class one officer of Indian Air Force has achieved many heights, including Mt Kilimanjaro the highest peak in Tanzania, Mt Damavand the highest volcano of Asia, Mt. Stok Kangri, Mt. Kanamo, Mt. Bhagirathi 2, Mt. Kamet, Mt. Saser Kangri, Mt. Elbrus, Mt. Nun. Toolika has done 22 mountaineering expeditions and treks in India, Bhutan, Nepal, Africa, Iran and Russia. Find out more from the woman herself;
Tell us more about yourself, your profession;
As a person I perceive myself as someone with an inquisitive mind who measures conventions on the basis of rationality, humanity, equality and their relevance to present times. I studied at Meerut and now reside in Lucknow. I am a science graduate and did my post- graduation and NET (qualification for Associate Professor) in History. I have been an NCC (National Cadet Corps) cadet, a Ranger and a debater. I joined Indian Air Force in 2005 and served for 10 years in Air Traffic Controlling and as an Outdoor Training Instructor in Air Force Academy, Hyderabad.
And your passions for scaling the mountains;
I began mountaineering in 2009 as part of Indian Air Force team. Later it grew into my blood so much that I started spending all my days off climbing mountains. Till now I have done 22 mountaineering expeditions and treks, including Mt. Everest, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Damavand, Mt. Tochal, Mt. Stok Kangri, Mt. Bhagirathi, Mt. Kamet, Mt. Nun, Mt. Elbrus, Mt. Saser Kangri, Mt. Kanamo and a virgin peak in Himachal. I have also done White water Rafting, Parasailing and Mountain Trail running, exploring my strengths and weaknesses. Working out is a part of daily routine. Reading, writing articles on travel and adventure, composing poems and interacting with people from different cultures are my hobbies.
Do you think keeping up with your passion is a challenge?
Doing anything unconventional requires enormous courage, persistence, determination and hard work, in addition to the ability of taking criticism, sometimes unwarranted as not everyone understands and appreciates your drive and urge to go after your dreams. But the best is to persist, because people’s perceptions quickly change with your success.
Do you think there is gender gap or an information gap in outdoor adventure sports?
There may not be an overt gender discrimination in extreme sports but women by the virtue of their physical limitations have to work harder. They also have to battle societal perceptions to enter and continue in such sports, as pressure to “settle down” is more severe on them. Sometimes lack of gender sensitive infrastructure creates hassles.
Why do you think there is an information gap between traditional sports and alternative sports?
Traditional sports get more media coverage, also the jobs in sports quota include only traditional sports and not the adventure sports. Adventure sports are riskier and in many cases more expensive and exclusive. Until recently, these were mainstream for only armed forces in India. Due to the above factors adventure sports are seen more as ‘craziness’ than a possible career. Lack of government patronage except in form of training institutes is also one reason. But since climbing a mountain or swimming across English Channel, or cycling around the world are now been connected to national honour and glory, the media coverage is increasing and more awareness in society is being spread.
Getting into sports is much more difficult when you don’t come from a financially strong
background. Do you think this statement holds ground?
Yes, since sports require specific equipment, specialised and sustained training, customised diet, and total dedication of one’s time, attention and effort, sports people need financial support. You can’t do another job for your sustenance and continue in sports side by side. I will take example of my own sport – mountaineering. Climbing Mt. Everest cost me Rs. 21 lakh. Since I was an officer and my family background is good, I could afford it, it still took out a major chunk of our family’s savings. But one can’t afford to spend lakhs every year on expeditions, and mountaineering certainly is not about climbing just one mountain. It’s an ongoing process. Here comes the role of government and corporate sector. It is heartening to see government coming up with schemes like ‘Khelo India’ which holds a lot of promise, but it is confined to the traditional sports. For adventure sports we have to still rely on corporate sector sponsorship, which require a lot of networking, marketing etc. It is an irony that a sportsperson has to devote more time in writing sponsorship applications, pursuing corporate houses, giving presentations in order to continue in the sport, while all that they should be doing is to practice and hone their sport skills. I have been fortunate to find support in form of Amar Ujala, the leading Hindi Newspaper, which sponsored my expeditions to Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, and Mt. Damavand in Iran, and has been consistently supporting me in various ways. Even Abhinav Bindra or Saina Nehwal needs sponsors, though they come from decent backgrounds, because sports people do need that support to avail of world class training, equipment etc. I would be happy to see the same understanding percolate to adventure sport sponsoring.
What do you do now, how are your engaged currently?
Apart from working out and climbing, which are essential to my existence, I am preparing for civil services, so that I can reach a strong position where I am able to get sponsors for my further climbs, can make a positive contribution in the adventure sports infrastructure, can help out more people realise their dreams and potential, especially in sports. I travel a lot because I love to witness the vast diversity of our nation and the human race in other countries. I write article in newspapers and magazines such as The Outdoor Journal, Hindustan Times, Amar Ujala, the Pink Khabar etc. I also deliver lectures and presentations in educational institutes and corporate houses to emphasise on the supremacy of human will, spirit and determination. Mountaineering ethics such as perseverance, faith, hard work, never say die attitude are equally relevant in all walks of life. So, through my pen, spoken words, and my climbs I attempt to create awareness about adventure sports that it is not just a sport, it is a way of life. It is a means to self- discovery.
How important it is to be in sports, doesn’t matter which? And do you think it has power to change your life?
In my opinion sports must be an integral part of everyone’s life. Not everybody needs to be a professional sportsperson. A World Health Organisation report of 2018 says that only 34% Indians are physically active, and that is a major reason of increasing burden of lifestyle diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, heart diseases etc. So, importance of sports from health point of view is self- explanatory. Sports improve one’s personality in manifold ways. It makes one more mentally alert, less emotionally strained and more optimistic. It inculcates values such as persistence amidst adverse conditions, a will to hang on and continue, no matter what. Through surviving avalanches, wind storms, snow blizzards, falling down a mountain slope, spending a night out under a plastic sheet in mountains, fighting hunger, thirst, severe sunburns and losing a part of my toe in amputation due to frost bite, I have learnt to harness my hidden strength in adversity. By seeing death and injury from close quarters, I have learnt to cherish life. How wonderfully blissful it is to be alive and healthy! Sports teach you concentration and optimal utilisation of your ability. Whether it is making a penalty goal, or navigating rapids in river rafting, or landing safely after a skydive, or making your way up on an artificial sports wall, or hitting your ice-axe and crampons in an ice wall, you focus all your energy on that one task in front. Mountaineering especially teaches you that all you need to survive happily is a few clothes, some food, water, oxygen, shelter and a bit of luck. Rest all that we accumulate in our lives is pure add-on.
What challenges did you face while being in the Air Force during your expeditions?
It was the Indian Air Force itself that initiated me into adventure sports, so, I owe my career in adventure to the Force. There were my superiors who recognised this talent and drive in me and gave me opportunities to participate in rafting, trail running and mountaineering. My colleagues did my share of work when I was away on expeditions, and were always a huge support. I did my basic and advance mountaineering courses and training in Ice craft in Siachen glacier though IAF, along with my initial 05 major Himalayan expeditions. So, IAF gave me a platform from which I was launched into adventure sports. Yes, like any other organisation, it had its primary work commitments. So, sometimes getting leave was a bit difficult. Especially when I planned expeditions abroad, it took around three months and a lot of paperwork back and forth to get intelligence clearances, which is quite understood being a Fauji officer. Managing time for extensive work out with my Air Traffic Controlling (ATC) day and night shifts was challenging. However, despite all this, I would conclude that IAF planted and nurtured the seed of adventure in me. As I grew, I became independent.
Do you see a change or evolution in the mountaineering industry from the time you started till now?
Yes, there is more information available regarding mountaineering. People are opting adventure sports. There is an encouraging trend to film sports videos and run trekking agencies to turn it into a career prospect. Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF), New Delhi is providing more opportunities and support to climbers. Seeing women entering into it is heartening. I feel proud when I see some of my trainees from Air Force Academy undertaking mountaineering courses and expeditions. However, what’s disconcerting is a rush to create ‘records’. The motive to climb to gain fame and become a celebrity is not the right foundation. There is need to create a climbing ecosystem to support more exploration of Indian mountains. It will create local jobs, more revenue for the states, and spread awareness about mountaineering. Adventure is just not recreation, adrenaline rush and thrill. It has to be seen and supported as a personality building activity and a career option. Simultaneously environment awareness has to be developed so that we don’t leave out mountains littered and make the very source of water polluted.
Was it tough for you to continue your passion and profession after marriage?
Marriage does bring additional responsibilities, more so for women. Social perceptions regarding household responsibilities need to change further, and be more accommodation of women’s existence as professionals also. Marry Com is a perfect example of how a woman can continue excelling in her sport even after marriage and kids. International Labour Organisation (ILO) report says that Indian women’s participation in labour force is a dismal 23%, as against 42% in Malaysia, and 44% in Bangladesh. The major reason is social perception that women of well off families don’t need to work outside. This mindset needs to change. A woman shall have the freedom to utilise her talent and fulfil her professional aspirations as an individual, and not be burdened with paying for the so called family honour with sacrificing her individual place in the professional arena. Work is not a merely economic activity, it is an identity and dignity provider. In my case, I foresee myself continuing with climbing throughout my life. Having a partner from the same field helps in generating this understanding.
Why do you think women are always judged for their endurance and strength?
It has a lot to do with the advertising industry. Repetitive depiction of women as slender, submissive and delicate has entrenched wrong parameters of femininity in our psyche. Every
sportsperson, regardless of gender, needs certain amount of muscles, endurance and strength. And work out is the only way to gain that. I am glad that more women wrestlers, boxers, climbers are emerging and are being applauded. Perception depends on what kind of role models we present in front of our kids. Yes, I have heard demeaning comments on my obsession with building muscles and abs. But I have also gained appreciation and respect for my achievements in Air Force and mountaineering. So, I would say, rather than calling sportswomen ‘manly’, just call them ‘strong women’. After all we have examples of Rani LaxmiBai, Ahilyabai, Chand Bibi, Razia Sultana, Begum Hazrat Mahal and many more warrior queens. They must have had enough endurance and strength to do sword fights we are all so proud of. The women pilots who fly fighter jets today, the ITBP women soldiers holding a rifle for hours, the women army officers who fire missiles, the woman biker we all saw this Republic day standing tall on her bike, Saina, Sindhu, Sakshi, Dipa Karmakar who made the nation proud in Olympics have all reached here after heavy physical training. We need to highlight such things more. Just project right role models, perception will change. And reduce the gender stereotypes while raising children.
What are your next expeditions in the planning?
Mt. Choyu in Nepal, Mt. Aconcagua and Mt. Ojos del Salado in South America are the next, along with a couple of Indian peaks that I have in mind.
Would you like to extend a message to our readers?
I would say, “Persist”! If you want something, find ways to get it. Learn from nature. All the lessons of life are displayed there. A river finds its way through boulders, valleys, plains, all kinds of obstacles to reach the ocean. So, don’t blame outside circumstances if you are not yet able to achieve your goals. Introspect, modify your methods, enhance your efforts. Opposition will be there initially if you are on an unconventional path. Channelise criticism into positive stimulus. And be ready for a long haul. It takes time to build and achieve anything substantial. So, patience and hard work is the key. Failures and frustrations are a part of the process, learn from them and keep moving! Success is like running a marathon, it’s not a sprint.
[I.C] We love speaking to women who have achieved their dreams and extend inspiration to more women and men to follow their passions and break through their own limitations. Here is one great conversation with Toolika Rani and her story. We are glad we have the opportunity to speak to such amazing women through Inspire Crew, stay tuned with us for more stories and more badassery!
Image credits: Toolika Rani