During the last few days of “Screwed Up-Fest”, an ice-climbing festival organized by 4Play, all participants were aiming to climb a 300 ft long frozen waterfall that they had christened “Big-Daddy”. Initially they reckoned they could do it, two days later their optimism had transformed into fear. Massive falls, prospective hypothermia and countless minor injuries persuaded everyone to form this opinion. Oblivious to this tension, Prerna Dangi munched a cheese sandwich and sorted her gear for the climb.
One by one she clipped all pieces of gear in her harness, in retaliation chunks of ice broke off the waterfall and threatened to rain over her. The bombardment continued as she marched to the base of the route. Crunch, crunch her ice-tools bit the ice like shark’s teeth. Her movements were powerful yet graceful; slowly she climbed up the first pitch. Perched nearby were two fellow participants who were planning to retreat. They offered to belay her.
The sun was setting in the background, as Prerna raced up “Big-Daddy”. The only way to make it past the high-point was to climb quickly, without placing any protection. Be Bold or Go Home, Big-Daddy was taunting those who dared. Prerna must have sensed the code. She climbed past the “no-fall zone”, a euphemism which explains the consequences of a fall. For a few moments everyone witnessing the act froze, participants whispered to each other, “What if she falls, tell her to put a screw in!” Unconcerned about the panic, Prerna continued climbing methodically. There were moments when only one of her ice-tools was supporting her. People sitting close-by held their breath; finally she climbed up to a ledge and anchored herself in. She couldn’t complete the line, but the style with which she climbed was a level above everyone else.
Climbing like other sports has many sub-disciplines. Half the styles are relatively safe but a few still remain fatal. One such discipline is ice-climbing. One needs to climb in sub-zero temperatures, negotiate unstable terrain and place their own protection. It’s one of those dark arts of climbing which only a handful of people try. On one hand falling isn’t an option and on the other one needs to be bold, climb fast and carry less gear. Consequently climbers have to take a huge amount of risk; calculated risk would be a more accurate term.
Prerna is one of the few people who are pushing the sport of ice-climbing in India. It all began in college when she started climbing in an artificial wall; slowly her skills started developing. In 2013 she climbed Stok Kangri (6,153mtrs) alpine style. Normally fit people complete the climb in four days. Prerna and her partner took only two; they summited on a windy day and had to descend during a heavy blizzard. Next she climbed Mt. Khangsering (6,360 mtrs), “around this time I started realizing that I could perform in altitude and that made me curious. I wanted to push my own limits and see what I could do.“ she says.
In the next two years Prerna managed to climb Denali (6,190mtrs), the highest peak in North America. An unnamed 6,000 m peak in 36 hours and during winters she started exploring the sport of “ice-climbing”. Unlike other alpine climbers Prerna is also a capable rock-climber. In 2015, she won a bronze medal in the National Climbing Championship. She participated in the IFSC Bouldering World-Cup, 2016 Navi Mumbai. She has also attended training camps in Russia, Slovenia and the U.K. Today these experiences allow her to assess situations more holistically and perform in ways others may find “risky”.
One of the hardest parts of being an athlete is dealing with injuries, in the year 2016 Prerna had to undergo a shoulder surgery.
“Things changed for me after my injury, I couldn’t use my body like I used to. One of the hardest parts of having an active lifestyle is that you cannot simply sit in one place, after injuries you are forced to do just that. I started climbing again after a break of six-months, and then I got injured again in Slovenia during another training camp.” Rest or periods of inactivity are disastrous for people who are looking to improve their skills. The most difficult part is acceptance, acceptance of the fact that your body has changed. I personally know many people who have stopped climbing because it’s difficult to take all the foundational steps all over again.
After six months of rehabilitation the doctor allowed Prerna to lead a trek to Churdhur Wildlife Sanctuary. “It was great to freely move outside after a long time. Above everything I felt humble to have the ability to move”. Though Prerna’s perspective had changed, she still had to overcome other obstacles to regain her abilities. “Rock Climbing felt different after two injuries, my body had changed and I had to relearn everything, this time in a new way.” She didn’t climb outside, trained alone and with a singular focus.
Her training was evident during the “Screwed Up Fest”, she could climb things faster and more comfortably than all other participants. In the end she was awarded the title of the “Lead Ice-Mafia”, a moniker which explains her brilliance. Often the essence of an achievement is lost in the nuances of story-telling fortunately after fest, Prerna headed for Spiti. She stayed there for two weeks and established some of the most cutting edge ice-routes in India.
Prerna Dangi is one of the very few Indian athletes who have been exposed to the international standards of climbing. Merge her learning from foreign lands with the potential available at home, a style which will help inspire the future generations.
2017 has been a year where top female athletes have been breaking records. Here is one such story of Gowri Varanashi, the first Indian woman to climb a route graded 7b+ – “French Indian Masala”.
Author: Aditya Pande
A climber hailing from a quaint hill town of Kumaon, Uttaranchal. Focused towards staying healthy and efficient, in the mountains and in the cities.