Women are a lot of things. We’re complex, we’re coffee-fueled, we smell good—sometimes we smell bad. Sometimes we’re hangry. But one thing is certain—we’re hustlers, we are strong, and we are gritty. Welcome back to the second season of For the Love of Climbing.
This episode is brought to you by Deuter, Gnarly Nutrition, Allez Outdoors, and Têra Kaia. Music by: “Southside” by Lee Rosevere, “Ichill” by Kakurenbo, “Blue Highway”, “60’s Quiz Show”, “Well and Good”, “Knock Knock”, “Threshold”, “Quatrefoil”, “Samara”, “K2”, “A Soldier’s Story”, “Driftwood”, “Three Colors”, “Pives and Flarinet”, and “Good Times” by Podington Bear. Sound effects by Mike Koenig, Daniel Simion, and Isaac Ionescu. A HUGE thank you to Chad Crouch, aka Podington Bear, for the support and to Peter Darmi for all of his help.
(KATHY KARLO): This podcast is sponsored by Deuter, one of the leading backpack brands that will help you hit the trails with confidence and comfort, but most importantly–your snacks. Deuter has a history of first ascents and alpine roots. Their head of product development even climbed Everest once, in jeans (hashtag not fake news.) Deuter is known for fit, comfort, and ventilation. Founded in 1898, Deuter believes in good fitting backpacks, so you can focus on way cooler things like puppies, pocket bacon, and gettin’ sendy, whether at the crag or in the alpine.
– We’re working with Better Help to connect you to licensed therapists. They’ll match you with the perfect therapist for a fraction of the cost of traditional therapy. You know who goes to therapy? Prince Harry. Emma Stone. Jenny Slate. Kesha. Therapy is beautiful—everyone should go to therapy. Go to betterhelp.com/climbing to sign up and receive one free week. It helps support this show, and it helps support you.
– This podcast gets support from Gnarly Nutrition, one of the leading protein supplements that tastes “whey” better than they need to because they use quality natural ingredients. So, whether you’re a working mom who runs circles around your kids on weekends or an unprofessional climber trying to send that 5.13 in the gym, Gnarly Nutrition has all of your recovery needs. The only question you need to ask yourself is: Are you a sucker for anything that tastes like chocolate ice cream? (Yeah, me neither.) Gnarly Nutrition is designed to enhance your progress—and taste like a milkshake, without all the crap.
(FEMALE VOICE): Today we’re going to talk about “allez”. “Allez” means “come on!” in a way, or to encourage. Ok! We are done with the simple and normal uses of “allez”, now let’s cut to the chase:
(KK): Allez Outdoor Personal Care products are made by climbers for those who love the outdoors. Their rich and repairing ingredients for their skincare collection are inspired by desert landscapes, and their simple and recyclable packaging makes them eco-sustainable. Allez commits to protecting the open spaces that we love by partnering with the Access Fund and 1% for the Planet. You can win a years’ supply of Allez product by following them on Instagram (that’s Allez Outdoor: “A-L-L-E-Z”), posting a story about an upcoming or past adventure and tagging them. Allez will announce one winner per episode. Allez Outdoor—made by climbers, for those who love the outdoors.
– Têra Kaia, made by women for women, is redefining the standard with sizing. The TOURA basewear top is their swim-friendly sports bra that’s designed for outdoor adventure—so you can hike, sweat, and climb to the summit in comfort. You can even wear it camping for days on end—it just about never gets gross (trust me, I have tried.) You can take 10% off with code “fortheloveofclimbing” and show your support for the show. Go ahead and throw out your other sports bras because #basewear is the only top you’ll pack. Feel naked, go anywhere, look great.
(SUDHA PAMIDIMUKKALA): I think I’m just going to introduce myself as just “Sudha”, that’s it.
(KK): Sudha and I sit in her kitchen where she’s making me breakfast. It’s late October and the air is crisp and cool—perfect sending temps. I’m on my way to Philadelphia from the Gunks but I stop in New Jersey to meet Sudha for a few hours, and I’m greeted by her dog at the door.
I’m a few minutes early and Sudha immediately starts preparing uttapam, which is a type of dosa from South India. Unlike typical dosa, which is more like a crepe, uttapam is a thick, savory pancake.
It smells soo good as it sizzles on the stovetop. It’s crisp on the bottom but soft and fluffy on top, because of the fermented lentils and rice batter. Sudha serves it with chutney. She then peels the skin of several pomegranates as she tells me how much the seeds remind her of her father.
(SP in background): I don’t want to give up that slot again. Right? I might never get that opportunity again. So, I’m going to go.
(KK): We talk about racism, growing up in India, and her struggle to find climbing partners as a female mountaineer and mother.
(SP): If I don’t summit, I don’t summit. I’m going to go be on Denali. You know? So, again I went off by myself.
“How come you’re gone for so long?” and “What did your daughter do?” It’s mostly women asking me these questions—not as much the men, you know? Just like, women are mostly family-oriented. There’s a lot of times in my own life that I’ve accepted some things as I go because I’m a mother, I can’t do that. Kind of feel like, “Ok. That’s where my place is. Maybe I should just do that.” We all talk about: “Well, how come there are not as many women out there?” I know why. Society puts different expectations on a woman versus a man. Society sets you back from moving forward and, unfortunately, from my experience, it’s mostly women setting women back. We don’t encourage each other as a man would encourage another man.
(KK): You’re listening to For the Love of Climbing Podcast. This is not a climbing podcast. Well, sorta. This is a funny, sad, and somewhat uncomfortable podcast about choosing vulnerability and talking openly about our pain. This podcast is sponsored by Dirtbag Climbers. Here’s the show.
(SP): I grew up in southern India and moved here when I was about twenty-one. I had a great upbringing in many ways because my dad was totally open-minded. Single father, raised me: and that’s where I feel my free spirit comes from. Because he’s never told me in my entire life, “You’re a girl—you can’t do that.” Never. And then, what surprised me is I never felt like I can’t do that because I’m a woman ’til I was in a Western society and started doing things that were not common for Western women to be doing that, let alone an Indian woman to be doing that. Why can’t I do anything? And I just wanted to do anything that I felt excited about. I thought I could just do it. I rode a motorcycle because it’s just natural for me. And everybody was like, “I never took you for a—” what’s that?
“— motorcycle mama.” You know, that’s what my colleagues would even remark. Growing up in India, I wanted to ride a moped and back then, none of the women rode in my town—which is actually a capital city. It’s not like a small village. We just asked my dad, “Dad! I want to get a moped.” and he’s like, “Yeah, sure. Go get a moped.” He never said no to it! And then, I remember actually when my sister and I were riding mopeds—they took a picture saying that, “Now women are riding.” The article in the newspaper! So, we were the first ones to ride in my town at that time.
(KK): Back home, societal norms encouraged Sudha to focus on her studies. More than education though, society put an emphasis on getting married and starting a family. But because her father had such a progressive mindset, Sudha instead moved to the US and she received a double masters degree in computer science and math. It was a different life from where she had grown up and she missed her father, but she enjoyed the new life she had built, despite naysayers from back home.
(SP): The reason I moved was really just because my sister was here. You know, I was missing my sister because I grew up without a mother and looked up to my sister as my mother. And when she moved here, and I wanted to also come follow her. Friends and even my cousins that were intelligent and wanted to study were not encouraged to go to college because their parents thought the best thing to do for a girl is to get them married and otherwise, they’re a burden. So, a woman doesn’t need to study as much. Not my father. My father never looked at us as a burden because we’re girls and then, once my sister left to go to school in the US and I was like, “I’m so lonely! I miss her.” and he said, “Who’s stopping you?” My dad was definitely criticized: “What are you doing? You know, they’re single. How come you’re sending them away?” To the point even, “Why are you getting them educated so much because then you’ll have to find somebody that’s as educated as them.” And my dad was just like, “My daughters want to study, they’ll study. And they want to get married, they’ll get married.” That was his attitude. He just did what felt right for him, and what he thought was right for us.
Asian society expects you to just go get a good education, go get a good job, make a lot of money, and you’re successful. That’s where they drive you towards. We’re talking about bubbles, that was the bubble that I grew up in—is that education is the most important thing. But that’s not really true at all. For me, the most important thing and best thing that ever happened to me by coming here is that I discovered the open spaces.
(KK): Sudha didn’t have the luxury of open spaces growing up in India. It was just so overpopulated that the idea of enjoying the outdoors recreationally didn’t really exist. Even hiking is still kind of a foreign concept there. In 1996, Sudha began working as an IT consultant, which kept her busy—not only during the workweek but during weekends and evenings as well.
(SP): “What are you doing this weekend?” and I’m like, “What else would people do on weekends? I’ll be in the lab working on my project.” So, I never got the concept of doing stuff on weekends either. I was always just like, studies.
(KK): Sudha buried herself in her work until one day, a co-worker invited her to a slideshow about the Appalachian Trail. Sudha had never heard anybody talk about the outdoors like that and was in absolute awe. Friends invited her to go hiking through an outing club at work, and a day hike quickly turned into whole weekends spent climbing, rafting, and more.
(SP): I went with her and she was trying to quit smoking at that time, so she didn’t enjoy it and I had a blast. Now I had plans for the weekend! I would work all week but every weekend I would just go hike. And then, one thing led to the other. They would talk about, “Oh, we’re going canoeing.” I’m like, “What is that? I want to go canoeing! I want to go rafting.” I just fell in love with the outdoors. To me, it brought a different self of me out—in wonder, in excitement, in love.
So, there used to be a motorcycle club that they went for lunch rides. And I was like, “Oh, I always rode mopeds and scooters back home and I love it!” On one of those lunch rides, I mentioned to them that I went rock climbing about a month ago and I just loved it. Lucky me, that one of the guys knew somebody that climbed at the Gunks. So, he said, “Do you want me to introduce you to him?” and I’m like, “Yes, please!” I remember my very first climb was actually Gelsa that he took me up, which had a little traverse. I guess being the “newbie”, I slipped on the traverse and took a little swing. My friend that took me there, he made a remark: “You are fearless!”
(KK): In discovering the outdoors, Sudha found her happy place, which is also conveniently where she found a husband—it was through the outing club at work. And she wasn’t particularly interested at first, but suddenly the pressure to get married and start a family started to feel real.
(SP): Again, being a woman, I guess your biological clock is running. Everybody started saying, “Oh, you should get married.” I was like, “Ah, ok.” The outdoors is very important and I thought he is also into the outdoors, and I told him that that’s the most important thing for me. I just asked him to get married without really even dating. There’s not that much of that concept of dating in India. I also, I think, felt too, is to just give into what the society was expecting of me at that time. I just wanted to show them that I could get married if I wanted. I wasn’t living my life at that time. I was living what was expected of me: getting the education, getting the job, and getting married. Then, I had a daughter.
And by this point, already I have done every peak in Catskills in the winter. I didn’t mind sleeping in the cold or sleeping in the tent and spending time out when it’s a blizzard. And I remember during that time, my friends would say, “Oh, god. I’m so happy! Tonight I’ll be sleeping in my bed.” and I’m like, “I don’t know. I never feel that excitement. I’m sad that we have to now go back to living in between four walls.” I never missed the comforts of home at all. I just was at home in the mountains. Even after I had my daughter, I would backpack. I would put her in the front pack and I would carry a backpack on my back. I think my daughter was about five months old when I first did a backpacking trip with her. Everybody used to make the remark that, “Once you have a kid, that’s going to be the end of it.” But for me, it’s like nothing could stop me. So, I would just take her with me and it’s like the best thing because she had a grand old time and I had a grand old time. You know? It’s just great.
(KK): Having a daughter wasn’t going to stop Sudha from spending time outside. In fact, it only encouraged her to spend more time outdoors with her daughter—taking her on backpacking trips and going hiking and rock climbing in the Gunks with her. I watched Sudha carefully with every word she spoke. I watched as her eyes lit up as she described snow camping in the dead of winter or ice climbing in the Catskills, where I’d first met her about a year ago. Being outdoors filled every corner of Sudha’s life, and began opening doors to new opportunities. In 2008, Sudha decided that she wanted to climb Kilimanjaro.
(SP): I asked my husband, “Let’s go do Kilimanjaro! I want to really go climb Kilimanjaro.” and he was also open to that and my in-laws were also nice enough to say that they would watch my daughter. The best part about climbing Kilimanjaro is meeting all these people from all over the world that are just starting to mountaineer and they were telling me stories: “We do this in Italy” or “I did this where” and I was like, “Wow!” I came back from that trip, I guess I always had the passion, but it lit up in me, right? The light was lit. Every chance I had at my work, I had a little downtime I’d be looking to see what else. At work, someone mentioned the Seven Summits. And then I was like, “What is that?” and I started just looking on the computer. No Indian has done the Seven Summits. I wanted to be the first Indian to climb the Seven Summits.
(KK): The Seven Summits are the highest mountains of each of the seven continents, and summiting them is no small feat. The internet told me that it can take years to complete all seven and it’s considered one of the highest respected accomplishments within the sport of mountaineering. To be honest, I’m mostly into type one climbing—but that’s just me. Sudha, on the other hand, wasn’t afraid of the challenge and she friggin took that summit by storm.
(SP): After I came back from Kilimanjaro, I came all energized like, “There are so many mountains to climb! So many places to go!” and then my husband saying that, “I’m not into climbing big mountains and I don’t want to do that anymore.” I kind of was a little disappointed because even though I wasn’t as aware of what I really wanted to do at that time, I still knew the outdoors was important to me. So, that was all I was focused on. Like, he loves the outdoors, I love the outdoors. That’s the most important. When we came back from Kilimanjaro, his family was just very proud that he’s climbed the highest in Africa: “Look! Bill went to Africa and climbed a big mountain!” and then he didn’t want to do it anymore—but I still wanted to do.
(KK): Kilimanjaro changed everything. Sudha thought about the Seven Summits every waking moment, and she began making plans to become the first Indian woman to summit all seven peaks. But, as it turned out, things had changed for her husband after Kilimanjaro as well.
(SP): And at that time, then my husband said, “Oh, no. Because it will affect my retirement plans.” Right? That’s the first time I felt, I don’t know, let down. Not because I can’t do the Seven Summits. It’s more about: here I am, making way more money than my husband. Never once thought, “Oh, but he doesn’t make as much.”—because the outdoors was important to me. And he didn’t say, “Isn’t that dangerous? What if something happens to you?” The first thing that he said was, “You can do it as long as it doesn’t affect my retirement.” It’s ok, you know, I don’t need to climb Seven Summits. Anyway, for a little bit, I just let it go.
(KK): Disappointment would be an understatement. But, despite putting her dream on hold, Sudha stayed active in the outdoor club at work. She still went hiking, she still climbed ice, and she still went rock climbing in the Gunks. But the more time she spent in the outdoors, the more Sudha saw how being a woman was an actual barrier.
Wait, what? Some of you might be saying to yourselves: “But climbers are way more woke than that!” or “I’ve never seen that happen in my gym.” Well, you’re wrong. And this was Sudha’s experience:
(SP): There was one time on an occasion that my daughter was on a Girl Scout outing and one of the parents mentioned that he hikes Adirondacks 46ers. And I was so thrilled because it’s just such a commitment to go by myself and I was like, “Wow! I always wanted to do that. So, any time you’re going, could you let me know?” And on that outing and stuff, he said, “Oh yeah, in a couple of weeks we’re planning.” I happened to call his home and his wife picked up the phone and she said, “It’s bad enough that you’re leaving your family and going and he’s leaving his family and going and I don’t appreciate him going with another woman. So, please don’t call.” Here I am, in Western society. I’m married to a Westerner. I thought Western society was open-minded and I’m hearing that I’m a woman so I shouldn’t be going with another man for a hiking trip? I shouldn’t be leaving my daughter for a week and go climb a mountain? And it just…it kind of sets me back in a way. I used to go with the full vigor, like, “It’s me! I can do anything.” Now I’m like, “I’m a mother—so I shouldn’t be doing that. I’m a woman—I don’t know if they would like it if I ask them that I want to join.” And also, from the experience of looking for partners: I’m a woman and I’m an Indian woman. They think I’m going to be a weak link. Even after they get to know me, they would say that, “Yeah, because I’ve never seen another Indian woman climb.” So, sometimes I lose out because they don’t give me the opportunity to get to know me.
(KK): Diversity in climbing is a difficult conversation for a lot of people. Despite growing support, the majority of climbing and other outdoor sports are still overwhelmingly homogenous, which can be a huge barrier of entry for some. Diversity in climbing is an emotionally loaded conversation, one that a lot of people tend to avoid. And if you’re one of them, it’s ok to admit that. But initiatives like Brothers of Climbing, Brown Girls Climb, and Melanin Basecamp aren’t avoiding them because they’re uncomfortable—so be sure to check them out after the episode. Leaders like Bethany Lebewitz, Melise Edwards, and Danielle Sky (*total sidenote, this is not in the actual transcript but her name is Danielle Williams. I just always forget because her Facebook name is “Sky”, whoops!) are prompting both companies and consumers to reconsider what representation in outdoor spaces look like. And, a lot of the work that these women and so many others do is possible because of the power of social media.
But social media didn’t always exist (at least not the way that it does today). Ok, humor me for one second. Once upon a time, people used to rely on (and I’m totally going to sound like a dinosaur when I say this) a website called meetup.com. Pre-Instagram age, this website was primarily utilized to facilitate meetings of groups of people—and it was the perfect tool for Sudha to find climbing partners.
(SP): Back then, social media wasn’t there. In a way, I feel like if social media was there back then, I would have been somewhere else (laughs). But there were all these big groups of people climbing and I said, “How do you guys know so many climbers? I only know one person.” They’re like, “There’s social media groups. There’s meet-ups. And do you go to the gym? You can meet a lot of climbers.” And I’m like, “Oh, I don’t really go to the gym. I just go with this one person that asked me to go climbing.” So, then I went back to my desk next week
I’m working and looking for: what’s a meet-up group?
(KK): Sudha relied on the world wide web and found herself a partner for Aconcagua, which is one of the Seven Summits. Even though Aconcagua is considered one of the easier peaks to climb, an average of 3,500 people attempt the summit every year but only less than half will complete it. After she applied for a permit, her partner wound up dropping out because he didn’t feel like he was ready—but Sudha was and her mind was already made up. She wasn’t going to let that, or anything stop her from going.
(SP): When I went to Kilimanjaro with my husband, my family readily offered to watch my daughter. But then when I said I want to go climb Aconcagua, they said “Make your own arrangements.” because now they’re not happy that I’m going without my husband. The thing here is that I worked for an undersea fiber-optic transmission field and we used to have cable stations all over the world and I would travel many times for a couple of weeks on a business trip. That time, they would come and help me with my daughter. But if I went to climb a mountain for a few weeks, then all of a sudden it’s become, “How can you abandon your daughter and do that?”
And I’m like, why is it abandoning? I cook every meal for my daughter and my whole family. My daughter never ate in the cafeteria. Every meal, I would wake up and make her breakfast before she left for school. I would make lunch. I would make dinner. And if I was going away for a few days, I would make sure there was food in the refrigerator, cooked—ready to eat. I did laundry, I did everything—but the minute you try to go do something that you love to do, it was just like, “We’re not going to be encouraging you in that.” But for me, nothing was going to stop me from what I wanted to do. So, I was stubborn. Nothing brings me down. I went through all this and I’m not going to let this stop me now. So, I’m going to go by myself and I’m going to go as far as I go. If I don’t summit, I don’t summit. But I’m just going to go do this trip. So, I took off.
(KK): Some people don’t even like going camping by themselves, let alone go climb a 22,000-ish foot mountain. Aconcagua is the highest peak in South America, as well as in the Western Hemisphere outside of the Himalayas. Oh, and did we mention the blizzards yet? But you could drop Sudha off in the middle of the woods, in winter, and she would never feel out of place. Not even for a second. Sudha has a rule where she never takes the same trail twice. She always tries to find a circular route, and that’s exactly what she had planned for Aconcagua.
(SP): So, same thing on the mountain: I wanted to circumnavigate the mountain. So, I wanted to go from one end and come back on the other. Anyway, I wanted to do the more technical side which is the Polish Glacier side and then come back from the Normal Route. Climbing with a guide was never an option for me because that’s me. My thing of climbing mountains is always that mountains should be climbed on your own terms. So, I can’t get mules because that would be like cheating! I was going to carry my entire weight on my back and do this expedition by myself. And one good thing about it actually: I’m moving so slow. It’s not physically possible for me to move any faster than I was because I have all this weight on me—which helped me acclimate. I didn’t even have a headache one day on that entire expedition. That’s one advantage of carrying my own load. So, I was happy that at least there was one good thing about it.
(footsteps crunching in snow)
So, the rangers on the Polish Glacier side—they were really friendly. We were cooking together, we were doing yoga together, we were doing day hikes together and really had a good time. Then I started moving up and I was just still doing really well—acclimating myself, drinking enough water. I just did really well. And I started moving up. I moved up to 20,000 feet camp. There was nobody. It was just me. Just me. I thought, “Oh, tomorrow I’ll summit.” Summit is about 23,800 or something like that. “I’ll summit tomorrow and then I’ll go back down to the Normal Route.” That was my plan. But, right after I moved to the 20,000 feet camp, it started blizzarding outside and trapped me in my tent for a couple of days.
So, what happened during that time is that because it’s so cold and stormy outside, I stopped melting snow for drinking water. So, I wasn’t drinking as much. I would put some snow in my water bottle and put it in my sleeping bag and that would barely melt and I would just drink a little bit—but I wasn’t drinking as much as I should so, my body’s, at this point, getting dehydrated and I didn’t really realize that. I guess if I had some sense, I would have probably packed up and just given up and gone down—but I felt like I can do this.
(KK): Assuming that I could even get that far—which would be a pretty bold assumption—I probably would have packed up, too! But Sudha waited her time out on the mountain for two days. Do you know what you could get done in two whole days when you’re not stuck in a tent in the middle of a blizzard? I don’t know, probably a lot if you’re, like, a motivated person. Online trip reports talk extensively about the section before the summit called the canaleta, which is a steep, talus field-like section. Sudha had read that most people leave their backpack before making the summit. She decided that she could move faster if she didn’t have the weight on her back.
(SP): It’s only another five hundred feet to the summit at this point. So, I left my backpack down and I really couldn’t spend much time at the summit because it was bitter cold. And I started coming down. Getting through the canaleta was treacherous travel—exposed travel. And I made the summit and I turned back…my headlamp dies.
(KK): Well, shit. The good news is: we already know she makes it. The less good news is that Sudha was stuck up there all night, pacing back and forth to keep herself warm. It wasn’t until the next day that she finally made it back down to camp. Ready for the descent, things quickly went from bad to worse.
(SP): And I was exhausted because now I’m out on the mountain for about thirty-six hours almost. And I made it to my tent and I just was laying down. At the summit, it was so cold and I took my glove off to take one picture but that exposed my bare skin and right away gave me frostbite on my fingertips. And then I spent the night in that bitter cold, so my toes also had a bit of frostbite. Then the rangers showed up.
(KK): From what she could understand, there had actually been an earthquake and a helicopter was coming to evacuate her. Because she had frostbite, they told her that she needed to evacuate for her safety.
(SP): I was trying to tell them that I’m really exhausted—I want to come down tomorrow, but they’re insistent. And I said, “Ok, then. Let me pack up my stuff.” and they said, “No, it’s fine. There’s other rangers coming. They’ll bring your stuff. Just come down.” So, I took my backpack and that’s it. We come to the 17,000 feet camp and they said, “It’s too windy. A helicopter can’t come here. So, just keep walking down.”
(footsteps slowly crunching in snow)
11,000 feet. My camp is at 20,000 feet—I am at 11,000 feet now. I had such a great time with the rangers on the Polish Glacier side, I had no reason to think that anything but they’re being helpful. But as soon as I came to the basecamp, the rangers just disappeared. And I didn’t know what to do now. I had none of my stuff with me and I didn’t know. I happened to see another mountaineer that just made it to the basecamp on the Normal Route and I just started telling him that I summited last night and I have a bit of frostbite and I’m not sure, I can’t find the rangers. So he said, “Let me see if I can go find and I’ll talk to them,”—because he spoke Spanish. He’ll talk to them and he’ll let me know. He comes back and he says, “Sudha. They’re not going to help you.” They told him, “Don’t worry about that black woman. She’s just running away from somebody on the other side of the mountain. I was like, what? And he said, “You have three things going against you. You’re a woman, you’re dark-skinned, you’re by yourself. They’re not going to help you. Did you not know that about Argentina? That it’s not a place for a woman to travel alone.” I said, “No!” I’ve always traveled everywhere and I would tell my boss that he can send me to Timbuktu, and I’ll go. I thought that the world was so nice that you could go anywhere and I never had any reason to think otherwise. So, then he said, “No. They’re not going to evacuate you. They’re not going to do anything. And if you want, you can just share my tent for the night.”
I had nothing: no sleeping bag, nothing. I just laid on the floor that night. Because I was doing the trip on my own, I also made a decision to just only take one pair of boots, which were my plastic boots. And the next morning, my toes were blistered. Like, both my big toes were blistered. Right? Now I had to put those heavy boots on my blistered toes in the morning and the basecamp doctor, who spoke English actually, she showed up for the first time. She hasn’t provided me any help when I came down the previous night and she was saying, “What are you doing?” And I said, “I’m hiking out.” And she said, “Oh, no—because the helicopter will be here.” And I was like, “I really need to go and catch my flight.” And then, other rangers show up. And they said, “We are rangers here, that means we’re the police. If we tell you you can’t leave, you can’t leave.” And I‘m like, “I’m really sorry. I really need to go.” And I started taking stuff and then they said, “Let us have your passport because we have to check you out.” That’s the first time fear came in me. I was like, “Oh my god. If I give them the passport, would they give it back to me? I don’t know.” So, I lied to them. I said I left it up in the tent.
They were just so ruthless. The doctor said, “You don’t need that backpack to go out.” So, they wanted to steal my backpack off my back. I had a pair of gloves on my hands—they wanted the gloves. They’re like, “You don’t need the gloves. You don’t need those things.” And I said, “But how am I going to hike thirty kilometers?” and she says, “I can give you a shopping bag to put your water and food in .” And I said, “No, I can’t.” And I just started walking. And the rangers literally followed me for a few kilometers, just to intimate me. So, pretty much on that mountain, I lost everything that I took for my expedition. It’s not humanly possible for me to go back up 10,000 feet to get my stuff—and they knew that. That was the reason why they took me away from my stuff. They had no intention of bringing it down to me—nothing.
(KK): Dalai Lama was once asked what troubles him the most about humanity and he said that people are created to be loved and things are meant to be used, but we live in a society where things are being loved and people are being used. The rangers on the Normal Route only cared about what they could take from Sudha and showed not even an ounce of compassion. The entire experience left such a bad taste in Sudha’s mouth that she started to question whether or not she needed to climb anymore. She was happy hiking back home in the Catskills, and she was happy to put her passion to climb big mountains on the back burner for a little while.
(SP): I am just happy being outside. I just want to enjoy the outdoors and it’s more about the people. Right? Frostbite didn’t really deter me from wanting to do it. It’s fine, I’m fine. I’m lucky enough that I didn’t lose any of my digits (laughs).
(KK): I don’t know that anything could have deterred you, at that point. You had a birthday party to go to!
(SP): (laughs) Yeah, yeah.
(KK): Even though Sudha made it back down the mountain in time to catch her flight, because of the earthquake, it was canceled. Sudha had summited on the tenth and came back down on the eleventh, but the delay caused her to miss her daughter’s birthday on the fourteenth. This was another reason why Sudha asked herself if these big objectives were worth it.
(SP): When I called to wish her a happy birthday, she was crying. She was crying, saying: “Mommy, why aren’t you here?” And she had plenty of family here, right? Her dad and her grandparents and rather than them all saying that, “We’ll have another birthday party when your mom comes here,”—rather than that: “See, your mom didn’t even come back for your birthday.” So, that’s what made her sad. And I said, “No, honey. You knew—I told you I was going to come back. It just so happened that I couldn’t come back.” So, once again, you kind of feel like—what is so important that I had to climb Aconcagua? What is so important, why do I have to make my little girl cry? That’s what I feel like. So many men out there are doing so much and I bet you they’re never told that, “How come you abandon your family? How could you leave your daughter and do this? So selfish.” Another thing, also, if a man does climb a mountain and they’ll talk like: “Wow. Your father is so brave. So courageous. He does amazing stuff.” When a woman does that: “Your mom is so crazy.” Why?
(KK): There’s still a huge controversy surrounding the subject of women high altitude climbers. And when I say controversy, I mean double standard. Ask anybody and they’ll tell you that women are judged more harshly than men for engaging in the same behavior. As a woman mountaineer, Sudha was subject to that same double standard. When she wasn’t fighting the mountain, she was dealing with constant pushback. In 2012, Sudha had one more phone call that made her question her passion again. This time, it was as she was preparing to summit Denali.
(SP): And on that trip, when I called home, my daughter was crying because my husband was drunk. She didn’t know what to do. And I didn’t know till that point that he even drank, really. I didn’t know that. So, I didn’t know what to do so I said, “Can you please call Grandma? Tell her to come home.” And then I also called his mother, saying that, “Could you please go home because I don’t know what’s happening there.” And then she said, “You shouldn’t be leaving your family and going climbing mountains. One more mountain you climb—I’m going to file for the custody of your daughter.” It’s not that her son was drinking while there was an eleven-year-old daughter in the house, but it’s my fault that I left the family to go climb. I’m all the way in Washington—helpless. What am I going to do? Maybe somebody can say, “That’s so selfish of you. Why did you still go climb Denali?” But I had a plan. It was happening one way or the other. You know, I’m going to make that happen. There was nobody stopping me from going to that mountain at this point. I still went and climbed Denali. But, when I go to climb a mountain, really summiting is not important. I know in my head I want to summit but the thought is, “I want to go experience Denali.” That was the thought: “I want to go experience Aconcagua. How does it look like? I want to be on it.”
Luckily for me, that the weather was just perfect. Denali was a much better experience then Aconcagua too, because…
(KK): People weren’t trying to steal your stuff?
(SP): Exactly. They’re really nice. There’s ranger support everywhere. The whole trip was very enjoyable. You know, I summited. Not one mention of like, “That’s amazing that you climbed something.” Nobody mentions anything about what I just did. It’s not like I did it for them but it’s just the fact that how it was celebrated when I climbed Kilimanjaro versus how it was totally ignored when I climbed Aconcagua because it was just by myself—other than the fact that they would mention to my daughter how crazy I am: “Your mom’s just crazy. She’s taking off again on one of her crazy things.”
You know what my sister said?: “Why do you have to talk about negative stuff?” Because it’s always shame. If you don’t portray yourself as this perfect person with the perfect life, you’re putting the family to shame. Even just my Aconcagua story—I feel like I want to say it somewhere public because you want other women to know what actually happens there. Do you want another woman to end up in a situation that you did? Tell your story. So, that maybe there’s another woman that wants to go and they’ll read your story and at least be aware what can happen so they can guard themselves. I wasn’t aware. I was seeing the world as rosy at that time and I was like, why would I not trust somebody? Just for that. Just to make people aware. Not that I want any sympathy—nothing like that. But it’s more about like, be aware. These things do happen even though you may not come across it in your daily life.
(KK): In addition to being threatened for her husband’s decisions, Sudha also receives harsh criticism from her side of the family, too. Most of the criticism comes from other women. Hearing this made me want to explore the gender double-edged sword a little bit more and I asked myself how many other women have to navigate these kinds of conversations in their daily lives. The answer is too many. It only emphasizes the importance of hearing stories like Sudha’s.
(SP): Coming from, again, Indian culture, I think if you’re not making money or moving up in your career, you’re basically a loser. This is the thing again: a woman is supporting her family. A man can turn around and say, “No, you can’t do it because it’s going to affect my retirement plan.” (pause) Would a woman ever dare to say that to a man if a man was the one supporting the family? And even in the climbing community, people make the comment: “You’re too crazy!” but I don’t see them saying the same thing to another man. And I question myself. Many times, I’ve questioned myself. Why am I so different from others? Why can’t I be just happy just to be a mother? I try. I try to give up but my soul dies, I feel like. And I heard someplace, something about: “Don’t die while you’re alive.” So, I tell myself that I am dead without the outdoors.
To my daughter, we always say that: “Realize your ability. Realize your true potential.” And why am I not doing that? I know my potential—that I can climb these mountains. I’m capable and I want to and that’s what I love. And why am I not doing what I’m preaching to my own daughter? When I get outside, it’s not a positive experience. I go through that phase and then I say, “If your daughter were to say this to you, what would you tell her? Would you tell her, ’Yeah, it’s ok honey. It’s not important.” I would not, right? So, then why would you do that to yourself and what are you teaching her? For my daughter, even though people think it’s the other way: that for your daughter, you shouldn’t climb. I feel like it’s just the opposite. For my daughter, I should climb. For my daughter to realize that it’s ok as a girl, as a woman, or as any human being, should follow their passion. Just do whatever makes you happy, whatever makes you feel alive. For me, the outdoors makes me feel alive. I don’t have to climb hard but that’s what my heart always craves—adventure. So, I think I won’t ever give it up but there are definitely times now that I keep questioning myself.
(KK): This is Sudha’s story, but it’s also a story for women everywhere. It’s a story about discovering the breadth of what it means to be a woman, and a little reminder that we can all strive harder to celebrate the adventurous women, and those who identify as women, in our lives with the respect and support that all humans deserve. Women are a lot of things. We’re complex, we’re coffee-fueled, we smell good—sometimes we smell bad. Sometimes we’re hangry. But one thing is certain—we’re fucking hustlers. We are strong, we are gritty, and we’re determined. Sudha found her place in the mountains, and this is her story. Sharing stories like these is meant to inspire, to heal, and to empower us—and to act as a reminder that a woman’s place is exactly where she wants it to be.
(SP): And that’s the reason why I feel like sometimes it’s so hard for a woman to follow her passion. I’ve realized my passion late in my life. I’m a mother, I already am a wife. I just tell other women that, please, encourage each other. And if you have a passion, follow that. Don’t let the society lead your life. Make your own. I have lost a lot of time trying to make others happy and there’s no point in crying over spilled beans or whatever but now I want to live every minute doing what makes me alive. You know, what makes me, me. It’s time for me to live my life. Better late than never. So, I’m going to live my life. Because I’ve gone through it, that’s what I like to tell all the women out there, to young women especially: don’t let your life pass you by like I did. Just realize your passion and follow that. Go after it. Just because we’re women doesn’t mean that we can’t. Yes, we can.
(KK): Even though I still have no idea what I’m doing—things are happening. And if you’d like to help out and support this podcast, please check out patreon.com (that’s P-A-T-R-E-O-N) where you can sponsor us for as little as $1 per episode. It really helps keep this podcast going, and I’m so grateful for all of your help. Special shout out to Cameron MacAlpine because he makes this thing sound good.
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(SP): I just want to tell Alex Honnold: can I just be your cook? Because I was listening and he said he’s a vegetarian. And I was thinking, can I just make your meals and if you ever need a belay, I’ll belay you. And, just keep me outside.