Summiting Unexpected Obstacles
By BRIAN SMITH
New Jersey woman climbs 20,182-foot peak, raises $4.5K for No Barriers
LEH, INDIA – Stok Kangri towered above Krithika. But Krithika had no idea that just getting to the base of the 20,182-foot peak would be the hardest part of her journey.
“When I started there were really no barriers to overcome,” said Krithika, a Plainsboro, New Jersey woman who was born in Mysore, India. “I knew what I was getting into. Sure, it was going to be challenging and all those things, but the only barrier was the mountain. But the day after I landed in Leh, everything ended up being a barrier in a weird, coincidental way. I am supporting an organization called ‘No Barriers’ and paradoxically all these barriers showed up.”
When she arrived in Leh, she walked into a spider web of traveler’s nightmares. Krithika had spent months researching and preparing for this climb. She heard about Erik Weihenmayer for the very first time from her husband Suresh. Erik was invited to be the motivational coach at a leadership conference Suresh attended at his workplace. Weihenmayer – the only blind man to summit Mount Everest – is vice president of No Barriers USA’s Board of Directors and inspired by him, Krithika decided to make her trip into a fundraiser for the non-profit.
While Krithika is no stranger to big hikes – she had scaled Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa a few years earlier, trekked Everest Base Campin Nepal and Druk Path in Bhutan, Mt Washington, a few 14ers in Colorado – she said she’s not a trained mountaineer. While Stok Kangri — the tallest peak in the Stok Range of the Himalayas — is the highest peak she was going to attempt, the mountain is supposed to be easily trekked in the snowless months of July, August and September. When she landed however, she learned weeks of flooding across the state of Srinagar had left early and first snow at the summit.
Soon, snow became the least of her worries – the expedition outfitter she signed up with told her they were in dispute with the local tour operators association for various reasons. Until the dispute was resolved, she and the team could not take on the mountain. “We were kept in the dark because they assumed there’d be peace talks and everything would be sorted out by the time we arrived at Leh,” she said. “… It became a political drama and the climb got stuck in the middle.” She was bound to her hotel room waiting, the mountain looming in the distance.
The tour operators association forbid the outfitter’s clients from pursuing local sightseeing trips even until official court orders came down. She pleaded with them, explaining that her hike was to benefit charity. Many of the other local hikers gave up and headed back. She was the only woman trekker from America.
She had lost five days at that point, but got the name and phone number of a taxi driver from a hiker in her hotel. He agreed to take her sightseeing while she waited for the court’s approval. She felt obligated to do something, to go somewhere, to see if there was any other way to scale the peak. The two spoke in secret.
“It felt like I was Tom Cruise in a Mission Impossible movie — if they found out he was hanging out with me, his license would have been confiscated since he was part of the local tour operators association,” she said. The taxi driver said he knew of a room in a guesthouse owned by his cousin in the outskirts of Leh that she could stay in and be safe. In the wee morning hours, she snuck out of her hotel. She left to sightsee before the sun rose and returned under the cover of night. “It was something out of a Bollywood movie scene — how I managed to do this with nobody spotting me. Leh is a very small town where everybody knows each other and word spreads real fast,” she said with a laugh.
With six days left before her flight, Krithika mentioned that she was trying to climb the mountain for charity to the taxi driver. He decided to help and connected her with his roommate who happened to be a mountain guide. This guide was affiliated with a local tour company and happened to have four and a half days free before he had to report to work. He offered to get her the permit to climb Stok and guide her privately for those 5 days, risking his license and livelihood.
The two set off, hiking double the daily distance and carrying extra weight. Because it was so late in the climbing season, they had the mountain all to themselves. They reached base camp and eyed the summit. The conditions at the top were unknown, but it was clear there’d be lots of snow.
At 2 a.m. they strapped on headlamps and set out, ice-climbing gear in tow. Krithika traversed 60-degree slopes dotted with snow, ice, scree and a glacial moraine with crevasses – “you name it,” she said. As they reached the first ridge, which looked like a false summit, the two realized the worst was yet to come. She’d need technical climbing equipment she’d never used in her life to reach the summit. “I got roped in, put on crampons and picked up the ice axe for the very first time in my life,” she said. “I told my guide, ‘I’m going to follow your instructions. This is going to be hands on training at over 5000 meters — no problem. Let’s do this.’” She reached an elevation of over 6,000 meters for the first time. While she wouldn’t have given up, she said the No Barriers mindset helped push her to the top.
“While this was my hardest climb yet, it has without a doubt been the most rewarding life experience — I learned a lot about myself, my mental strength, and how I deal with situations when life throws a curveball at me,” she said. “… I guess I had my angels lined up and it was destined to be. It still feels so surreal.”
After spending about 15 minutes at the summit taking photos and reflecting, Krithika descended, reached base camp at 6:30 p.m., walked down to the Stok Village at the foothills and flew home. After arriving, she called Cindy Bean, No Barriers USA Chief Development Officer, to report the good news.
“Krithika’s journey is an exceptional embodiment of the No Barriers mindset in action,” Bean said. “There were so many challenges and she found a way to complete her climb despite them. We are so honored to have her as part of our community.”
Krithika’s climb raised about $4,500 for No Barriers, which will be used across the non-profit’s three programs – Soldiers, Youth and Summit, Bean said. Her climb was also part of a larger No Barriers initiative focused on Do It Yourself fundraising.
“Do It Yourself fundraising is a great way to engage individuals who want to make a difference in the lives of kids, veterans and people with disabilities in their own way, in their own communities,” Bean said. “For Krithika, it was about climbing a mountain.”