Growing up in the quaint little town of Coorg, the wilderness was part of Meghna’s natural environment. For her, exploring fields, coffee estates and climbing small peaks with her cousins was just an organic extension of spending her childhood in a hill town. But she never imagined that the outdoors would become her office one day!
“I did not know what trekking was,” she confesses.
Today, Meghna is one of the few women trek leaders in the outdoor industry in our country. Here’s her story.
It all starts with unsatisfying job(s)
After finishing her schooling in Coorg, a very reluctant Meghna was asked to choose a college in Bangalore to finish her education. Moving to Bangalore, her friends and family believed, was needed for her to experience city life. “I have never been a city person till date,” Meghna says.
Meghna chose to do a Bachelor’s Degree in Tourism, as it piqued her interest. However, after her graduation, she hopped from one travel company to another. She worked with Kingfisher Airlines as a customer executive, with MakeMyTrip where she customised travel plans for international tourists and then, with Enchanting Travels. These jobs made her restless. None of them satisfied her innate thirst for adventure.
“I took these jobs only because my father wanted me to gain some work experience,” Meghna admits.
Going back to Coorg to manage her family’s coffee plantation
In 2012, her life took an unfortunate turn. She lost her father.
She returned to Coorg to be with her mother and help with the family’s coffee plantation.
“A coffee plantation usually lasts for about 8 months. The remaining four months, you have no work,” says Meghna. Having an excessive amount of idle time on her hands did not suit her. She immediately started looking for a job.
“In Coorg, you can either run a resort or look for a government job,” she says. She tried working in a resort but found the working hours exhausting. Her mother encouraged her to let go of that job and find something that suited her better.
It was around this time that she went on her first hike with a friend to Brahmagiri.
She enjoyed her first trek so much that she went on many more. This was when her love for outdoors crystalised and an interest in trekking emerged.
Learning about mountaineering as a career
Her life took another turn in September 2015. On an impulse, she tagged along with her friend on a trip to Ladakh. Little did she know that a seed would be sown in her that would take her career in a different direction altogether!
In Ladakh she heard of the trekkable peak of Stok Kangri. It was the highest mountain she could see from Leh.
Until then, she had not known of the peak and had very little knowledge about mountaineering and the outdoors as an industry. Curious and intrigued by the idea of climbing a peak, she went about gathering information about mountaineering courses. An alpine climber from Manali told her where she could apply.
She applied for the Basic Mountaineering Course at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) as soon as she came back from Ladakh.
“I had no intention of entering the outdoor profession. I just wanted to try it,” she says.
Learning of the importance of a strong will in the outdoors
The course, however, ended up pushing her beyond her limits. She learnt this right at the beginning of her mountaineering course.
“As soon as we started climbing from Yuksom, I realized that by not following any fitness regime and neglecting my body, I had made a mistake. And by the time I reached the first campsite Bakhim, there was a whisper in my head asking me to give up,” Meghna shares.
However, that did not deter her from going ahead.
“Before heading to the course, there were a lot of people who discouraged me. So I did not want to be laughed at for trying something that was beyond my limit.”
The challenge of the outdoors, Meghna realised, was far more mental than physical. The mind gives up far more quickly than the body. “I realised that in a situation like this, it is your mind that plays games. If you have that strong will that pushes beyond your own self-doubt, nothing is difficult to achieve.”
Over the course of the month, as she learnt the ropes of mountaineering, she discovered a resilience within herself. The course also boosted her confidence and developed her leadership skills.
Soon after completing her course, she returned to Ladakh to scale the mountain she first heard of — Stok Kangri.
Learning To Be An Outdoor Guide
Once back home, she started leading treks in Coorg. Her clients were often tourists staying at homestays run by her friends. For a year, she leads treks around Coorg as a freelancer. Later, for six months, she explored treks around the region for her cousin’s tour agency.
In January, she returned to Ladakh to do the Chadar Trek. While on the trek, a friend suggested joining a local company in the Himalayas as a trek leader. Motivated by her friend’s words, she joined Kailash Rath treks as a Camp Leader on a four-month contract. After her contract with them expired, she scaled Stok Kangri for the second time and trekked the length of Markha Valley in Ladakh.
This was an experience that made her realize she needed more training in the mountains. Soon, she applied for an Advance Course in Mountaineering at ABVIMAS in September 2018.
After the course, she returned home. “I was in the mountains for more than six months. I wanted to rest for a while and spend some time with my mother before heading to the mountains again,” she says.
Finally, in January 2019, she applied to be a Trek Leader at Indiahikes. And when there are applicants with such vast experience, knowledge and a thirst for learning, we absolutely admire them at Indiahikes.
Lessons from life as a Trek Leader
“Every bit of my life as a Trek Leader at Indiahikes is beautiful,” Meghna said. She has moved from one state to another to lead treks – from Brahmatal and Sankri in Uttarakhand, and then to Kashmir.
The mountains, she believes, has taught her patience. “My temper seems to have been lost amidst these mountains,” she says. “ I have always been a confident woman. However, I would say by managing different people, my confidence has gone up exponentially.”
Her favourite part about being in the mountains is speaking and living with the local people. They would wash clothes together, eat together, cook together. “ I did not miss the network or have any thoughts about home,” she says.
“On every slope, the locals have taught me something important that I could have never learned in any classroom,” she notes. “In Lohajung, I learned to not to get too involved with anything in life, if it’s not doing any good to you. In Sankri, I learned camaraderie – how to work together in a group, and how it helps you in a different way.”
The challenges of the outdoor life
Life in the great outdoors is not rosy though. “There are a lot of challenges in outdoor life. Sometimes it’s unpredictable weather, and sometimes it’s your health and on one odd day, it’s the people in your group,” she says.
Life in the mountains can also make you homesick. “And especially when you miss home-cooked food! Being a South Indian, I have never been a dal and roti person. But I am getting used to it now,” she chuckles.
As a woman trek leader, she faces another challenge. On the first few days of her periods, it becomes difficult to manage her body’s exhaustion and pain with trek leading duties. “I have to make sure that all the requirements of my trekkers are met, and I need to be available all day and night. Walking continuously on the day becomes exhausting. Sometimes, mood swings also trouble me in those first two days,” she laughs.
However, despite the challenges, Meghna feels completely at home in the mountains now. “I never liked working in the cities anyway. I have a lot of freedom and happiness here. I don’t want to lose it. It’s a very rewarding and respected job,” she says.
She does admit that it gets difficult because there aren’t as many women trek leaders as there are men. “But the staff are amazing. They never make me feel like I am the only girl amongst them. They are very caring, warm and hospitable. They make sure that I am comfortable,” she says.
Advice to the aspiring
Meghna thinks everyone should try doing what they love at least once. “Living your passion and earning from your passion at the same time is satisfying. A lot of people don’t realize the potential they have because they don’t explore,” she says.
She also observed that her mother has been instrumental in her outdoor career. “My mother has never interrupted or questioned my career choice. The only thing she asks of me is to keep in touch with her. So, I make sure to talk to her whenever I have time because it’s only once in six months that I get to go home. I am doing what I like because of my mother,” says Meghna.
She hopes that more women enter the outdoor industry
The road ahead
In the outdoors, Meghna finally found a job that quenched her thirst for adventure. It is a lifelong commitment to the wilderness now — until her “knees say otherwise. “
“As of now, I see myself leading more batches to different treks for the next five years. I love every part of my job. I love meeting new people every week. I love experiencing mountains in a different phase. I don’t see myself leaving the mountains for the next few years,” she adds.