Ishani Sawant, a 26-year-old alpinist from India, first fell in love with the outdoors and mountaineering on a trip to the Himalayas she took at age 13.
She can recall being waist-deep in snow, while everyone else was only up to their knees or ankles, as they walked along glaciers at the mountain's summit. It was on that trip when Sawant first fell in love with camping, wildlife and hiking. She loved all of it and knew she was addicted.
Thirteen years and dozens of certifications and courses later, Sawant is working this summer as a rock climbing guide for Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA), a local organization focused on connecting people with the outdoors. Her journey to Missoula has not been an easy one, but she said her hard work and relentless determination is what’s gotten her to where she is today.
At 16, Sawant began volunteering every weekend at rafting, backpacking, and waterfall rappelling locations around her hometown, Pune, in the western part of India. Eventually she began teaching those activities, which only increased her love for outdoor sports.
As she began choosing her career path she ran into obstacles. Many people in India do not see mountaineering as a suitable career path for women, she said. “Why should she go into the mountains? She should get married,” Sawant recalled people saying.
Sawant attended Indian Law Society's Law College in her hometown, graduating with a law degree. She said the experience helped her realize that she couldn’t imagine working in an office, on a 9 to 5 schedule.
Sawant’s current career as outdoor recreation guide and mountaineer breaks many of the gender norms for Indian women. Sawant said she owes much of her success to the support of her mother, who fielded calls from family members who would tell her mother that Sawant should not be taking risks, hiking in the mountains. “If she breaks her arm, who will marry her?” people would ask her mother when Sawant went off on expeditions.
Sawant said she had to work twice as hard as the men to achieve the same things. Often, she would work out for eight or more hours — climbing in the morning, and building her strength through exercises like pull-ups in the afternoon.
She remembers being at the gym until late at night, sometimes 10 p.m., when everyone else had gone home hours before. It took years for her to win the trust of the men with whom she climbed. Many would say, “I won’t climb on a girl’s belay,” she recalled. Finally, after continually proving her skill and strength, she won over their trust and began being invited along on expeditions.
Throughout her career Sawant has continually broken records and beat expectations. In July 2013, she and another woman from Delhi climbed Mount Stok Kangri, the highest trekkable peak in India at 20,550 feet, in two days. The trek set a new record for Indian women in alpine climbing.
In June 2016, she was one of 20 women worldwide invited by the British Mountaineering Council for an international trad climbing meet. Later that summer she became the first woman to solo climb Mount Kanamo, at 19,600 feet. In November 2017, she became the only Indian certified by the American Mountain Guide Association.
While continuing to go on expeditions and competing, Sawant also hopes to share her love of the outdoors through teaching the next generation of outdoor recreators. She hopes she can ignite the love of the outdoors that her first trip to the Himalayas did for her.
“I believe the outdoors has the ability to transform a person,” Sawant said. That’s why she has chosen to teach. She said even if people only spend a short amount of time outdoors they can learn a lot about themselves. The wilderness forces you to be independent, but a team player. Responsible, but also spontaneous and flexible. This is especially helpful to children who are still learning who they are and who they want to be.
Sawant also wants to be involved with raising awareness on the importance of conservation as more and more people begin recreating outdoors. Children need to be taught right away, she said, to leave no trace and respect the natural world.
And that’s exactly what Sawant gets to do here in Missoula. Sawant, a National Outdoor Leadership School graduate, found MOLA’s job listing for a climbing guide on the NOLS website. Porter Hammitt, director of MOLA, hired Sawant during her interview, impressed with her qualifications and eager to give her the opportunity to work in Missoula.
Sawant said she is grateful for the opportunity and support she has received from Hammitt. MOLA’s youth camp gets youth out into the outdoors, allowing Sawant to share her passions with the next generation of mountaineers and alpinists.
“Outdoor education is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life,” Sawant said.