10 local women hike Kilimanjaro: ‘If you can do that, you can do anything’

Climbing to the top of one of the tallest peaks in the world takes strength, endurance and motivation.

It’s a journey one group of Charlotte-area women embarked on together more than a year ago. The 10 women experienced something few people in the world will know. On Valentine’s Day, they saw the a sunrise from the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

“It’s a life-changing experience for sure,” Krupalli Reddy, an IT professional from Marvin, told Channel 9′s Ken Lemon.

“It was soulful,” said Deepika Jalla, another climber and a data manager in Weddington. “I’ve never seen the best sunrise.”

The women trained for their incredible feat at Crowders Mountain, which is also where they met Lemon for a unique conversation. They sat on the rocks almost campfire-style, with trees on one side and the tallest buildings in Uptown Charlotte in the distance on the other side.

Lemon heard from the 10 accomplished women with an amazing story to share for Women’s History Month.

(PHOTOS: 10 local women hike Mount Kilimanjaro)

He got a ride to the top of their training ground, which is 1,600 feet at its highest point, though their real test dwarfed that. Mount Kilimanjaro stands at 19,300 feet -- 12 times the size of Crowders.

It is a memorable milestone in so many ways. They are believed to be only the second large group of women of color to climb the highest free-standing mountain in the world. All of the women are of south Asian descent, and almost all live in the Charlotte area.

The first group made the climb last fall.

Beyond Reddy and Jalla, there is team leader Indu Vaidyanathan, an entrepreneur who says she is a chief adventure officer from Charlotte who organizes memorable excursions all over the world. Others from Charlotte include Deepika Dave, a structural engineer, Rihea Bhagia a UNC student at UNC-Chapel Hill, data manager Padma Bulusu, and IT Manager Rakhi Nagrani. Data consultant Meghna Joshi is from Weddington, Raji Patel is self employed in Mount Holly and Anita Juneja is the CEO of a mental health clinic in Irmo, South Carolina.

Some of them other grew up like a lot of girls everywhere: Being taught that young woman are limited.

“It feels some frustration inside,“ said Bulusu. “Some kind of frustration, because you know, the limitations are not really coming from the individual. It’s set by the societal limitations.”

Joshi is a former beauty queen.

“I was crowned as Mrs. India International. And I didn’t want to live with one title that people say that, you know, ‘she’s the pageant queen, all she knows is to be in her pageant,’” she said. “Why didn’t we even wear high heels and look certain way I know, I’m more to that.”

Some of them are runners and hikers.

“It’s about pushing your limit, challenging yourself, right,” Jalla said. “So we’ve been to Crowders and the next one is like, no, maybe Utah Parks and like, what’s next? What challenges you?”

These women sought to break the mold. Bhagia is the youngest at 21 years old.

“I always find it helpful to be in nature to find what’s next for me,” she said.

Her father died of stomach cancer about six years ago. He was her motivating factor.

“I did a lot of outdoorsy activities with my dad, he’s the one who got me into golfing and to skiing and hiking,” she said. “He passed away a few years ago. So coming back to do something that I know meant a lot to him meant a lot to me.”

Anita Juneja is the oldest climber at 61.

“Raising three children and having a comfortable life working full time, for me, I thought this is it,” she said. “But as a kid, I remember I used to get a lot of mountain dreams.”

Like all the others, she was drawn in by a proposal from Indu Vaidyanathan, a solo hiker who said women are often taught to set their needs aside and care for others around them. Vaidyanathan literally made it her business to push for healthy, outdoor lifestyles for women.

“I think we all found our independence, in our own way,” said Vaidyanathan. “Our freedom to explore quite a bit in the opportunities that were given to us.”

Last November, they started training on Crowders Mountain. Bulusu recalls the hardest part of their trained near the top of the peak over western Gaston County. Jalla said it git easier the more that trained.

“When we started first with the weighted vest for one week, I was like ‘oh my God, I can’t walk,’” Jalla said. “And it got better and better. And on third time, it was like it’s part of our body, right?”

They felt ready when they left North Carolina and landed in Tanzania in February. They had porters and guides helping them complete a weeklong journey, a manageable climb to the top and a distance of 42 miles. To put it into perspective, imagine walking from Uptown Charlotte to Statesville, uphill and in the elements. At least once, they climbed sideways, using their hands and feet to grips holds in the rock face.

“Embrace whatever comes rain, snow, whatever, so we were prepared,” Juneja said.

They were not ready for harsh winds the night before their final climb. Their faces were animated explaining that part of the trip to Lemon.

One of the climbers recorded video of the wind shrieking as it whipped the tent from the inside.

“It was rushing, windy,” Dave added. “It was like all our tents was like knocking. ‘Boom, boom, boom.’ It was like take your passport and jacket like so we can go back.”

The group laughed at that comment from a safe spot, with thousand miles away and several weeks removed from that moment, but it wasn’t a joke at the time. Some of them seriously considered quitting hours from the top.

“We were closing our eyes in the sleeping bag because some object came and hit our tent,” Jalla said clenching her fists.

They survived that night and didn’t climb again until 11 the next night. The wooden steps they trained on at Crowders Mountain would have been a luxury on Kilimanjaro. Lights from their hats are the only light they had. A guide chanted from the front of the group leading the way in the frigid dark.

Juneja called it “the toughest thing I’ve done in my life.”

“Walking in the dark with almost no sleep for two nights and in minus 10 degrees. I couldn’t feel my fingers,” she said.

They wore seven layers of clothes to try to stay warm. Bulusu said she would have stopped in fear if she could have seen the terrain hidden in the dark.

“It kind of tested my limits,” Jalla told Lemon. “Physically, mentally, emotionally. Oh my god. If I knew all this is coming up, maybe I would have been worried.”

The trip they were well prepared for the fruit fews days had stopped being trivial. It was now a challenge.

Nagrani said it was tough during the final steps in the dark.

“But we were having one mantra, pain is temporary pride is forever. That I will walk. I crawl, but that’s my goal,” she said.

Joshi said this taught them to lift each other up.

“Each one of us were in rock bottom shape,” she said. “One day we would be smiling and giggling. The other day somebody would be crying, but each one, we were there for each other. That matters a lot, so, the friendship that we have, building the relationship we have, we’ve gone through so much during this hike so this is amazing to have this kind of support around.”

Their walk in the dark lasted for hours until they saw something very few people in the world will ever see. Vaidyanathan, the team leader, stood in the dark with a few women around her and pointed to the horizon. In a video of the moment, the camera pans as she says, “Look at the beautiful sunrise.” The ladies watched the sun rise from almost as close as you can get to it while still standing on earth.

Lemon asked them to think back on that moment.

“I didn’t realize my own potential, what I’m capable of,” Juneja said.

“I was just realizing if you can do that, you can do anything,” Joshi chimed in.

Dave also said she was grateful for the guides that led them up.

That beautiful sun slowly baked them for the next three hours. Being so close to the sun meant no shade as it conquered the sky. They had a two-day hike back, but their mind set was now as high as their ambitions.

The trek created an incredible bond for the ladies, who said they went up seeing themselves one way and came down different people.

They stood together on Crowders Mountain, posing with medals given to them celebrating their climb. The medals are outward reflections of what they now feel inside.

“Unless and until you get out of that comfort zone, you will never know what you’re capable of achieving,” Vaidyanathan said. “So it is so critical to just take that one step.”

“Before the trip, I had my own insecurities,” said Reddy, who had a fear of heights. “But once this has been done, I just could not believe though, you know, I kind of rediscovering myself, both physically, mentally, and spiritually.”

Lemon asked the group to speak to the young ladies they used to be -- girls understanding the limitations the world wanted for them and the dreams they want for themselves.

Bhagia said she would tell her younger self “keep believing in yourself.”

“If you set your mind, you can do anything,” Nagrani said. “I would say the limitations that we feel, it’s not from outside. It’s our own mind that’s keeping us small. So after achieving this goal, I will tell nothing is impossible.”

“Keep dreaming and, make those dreams alive,” Vaidyanathan said.

The ladies ended the interview with the chant guides taught them on their climb. The 10 voices together rang out over Crowders Mountain closing with uniting words, “One team! One dream! Nonstop! To the top!”

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