We want to introduce as many people as possible to the mountains, the outdoors, says Anusha Subramanian

In the mind of the layperson, there are for-profit companies riding numbers and non-profit organisations driving community benefits. Shall the twain ever meet? Why, they have — that’s the kind of venture, one that turns a profit and also brings about social good, co-founded by Anusha Subramanian, an independent journalist and a mountaineer.

Anusha Subramanian began trekking in the Western Ghats of India when she was seven, and she has never stopped climbing since then. Photo courtesy: Anusha Subramanian

Mumbai-based Anusha works with her business partners and fellow climbers, Shashi Bahuguna and Guneet Puri, both based in Uttarakhand, to organise and lead treks for Bohemian Adventures LLP.

An Indian adventure company run by three women climbers would be quite special by itself, but what is even more outstanding is the company goal. “We want to introduce as many people as possible to the mountains, the outdoors,” said Anusha, speaking to Connected to India.

Business partners and friends Guneet Puri, Anusha Subramanian, and Shashi Bahuguna. Photo courtesy: Anusha Subramanian

When she says “as many people as possible”, she literally means just that. For this outfit, anyone who wants to go on an adventure is welcome — age no bar, medical conditions no bar, permanent or temporary disability no bar. The team will not reject anyone as unfit for adventure, as long as a detailed interview and medical assessment can be done. “Inclusive adventure” was her goal from the beginning, said Anusha, for whom the turning point came a little over a decade ago.

UK-based client Sudhir Krishnan (right), who has Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system, on a guided climb with Anusha towards the Everest Base Camp. Photo courtesy: Anusha Subramanian

She won the Chevening scholarship (in the UK) for journalists and came back to India with her head buzzing with new ideas. But the traditional Indian newsroom was slow to change, so Anusha quit a prestigious business magazine in December 2012 and took the plunge into independent work without any job offer.

“What I knew was I’d get something and do better. I was not scared at all,” recalled Anusha. “I said, ‘Something will work out.’ Then a colleague said, ‘You have your other passion also.’”

There is always happiness in the hills. Photo courtesy: Anusha Subramanian

Describing this “other passion”, Anusha said, “I have chronic asthma but I have been trekking in the hills since I was seven.”

“I first started climbing in the Sahyadris (aka the Western Ghats), and I never stopped. Luckily, I had a doctor who said that physical exercise would be good for me. I also played basketball in school and college and reached the national level. When I had a full-time job as a journalist, I would still climb on my off days or during vacations.”

Anusha with her local associates at Harishchandragad in the Sahyadris, aka the Western Ghats. Photo courtesy: Anusha Subramanian
Anusha (right) along with a friend-and-client and a local guide on a ski trip in Dayara Bugyal, Uttarakashi, Uttarakhand. Photo courtesy: Anusha Subramanian

In order to hone her already acquired skills, she underwent training in 2009-2010 at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), located in Uttarkashi, where she met Guneet. Through the training, “I wanted to understand the nuances of climbing, so that I could guide better”. NIM also made her a certified mountaineer.

Mere months after quitting full-time business journalism, Anusha’s life changed — in June 2013 came the devastating Uttarakhand flash floods, which ravaged the temple town of Kedarnath and the surrounding valley in Uttarkashi district. Massive relief and rescue operations were underway, and the now independent Anusha packed her laptop and left Maharashtra for Uttarakhand. “I didn’t have a plan, but I knew my friend [Guneet] would be there,” she said.

While helping with relief and rescue in Uttarkashi, Anusha began working with none other than Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to scale Mt Everest. Pal was in Uttarakhand to oversee the relief assistance by the Tata Group, with whom she has had a long association.

Anusha spent months there, helping and learning about relief work in the mountains. When everything was done, and the relief teams began leaving, she felt that there was still much more to do. That was the idea behind Summiting for Hope, her not-for-profit venture, launched in order to bring some hope to the local people engaged in the trekking industry whose livelihoods had been washed away in the flash floods.

She successfully got together several mountain climbers empathetic to the idea, hired the services of local people, and conducted a trek in Uttarakhand to show that all was not lost.

“We did it in Gangotri, reaching 19,000 feet, the first successful expedition in Uttarakhand after the floods,” she said. Indeed, even before her NIM course and certification, Anusha had climbed up to 18,000 feet. “I had been to the Himalayas, Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand. I wasn’t a novice.”

Anusha and Guneet met Shashi, an Uttarakhandi climber, in October 2013. With the meeting of their three adventurous minds, the idea of an inclusive company focused on trekking and other outdoor activities took shape.

Shashi Bahuguna and Anusha at the Everest Base Camp, while leading a BBC crew. Photo courtesy: Anusha Subramanian

Now this “other passion” is what has become a flourishing career for Anusha. Though her journalism has never stopped, her writing now focuses mainly on making the outdoors inclusive in every way possible and related human interest stories.

She has guided trekking groups where the adventurers were blind or had Parkinson’s disease — conditions that would normally result in immediate rejection by most adventure travel operators — and one of her key goals is to give back to the mountains by training young women as trekking guides.

Anusha and her partners, through Summiting for Hope, sponsor women from Uttarakhand for training at NIM; so far, three such women have taken up the career of being a mountain guide. Her first protégé, named Mamta Rawat, has been a trailblazer in this traditionally male-dominated field. She was later joined by Manju, another woman guide mentored by Anusha.

Engaging more and more women is crucial to making the great outdoors inclusive, but it is not easy in conservative India. “The hard part is getting the consent of the families, and to find women who are very serious about this profession and won’t just quit after getting the NIM training. I do thorough interviews with the girls and also their families,” said Anusha. The ones that are serious and have supportive families, continue as mountain guides even after they marry. The three who have made the cut now have a stable career as freelance guides.

Anusha helped Sanket Bhirud (left), who is blind, complete a 50km trail challenge in 16 hours in December 2019. Photo courtesy: Anusha Subramanian

Anusha’s own career as a mountain guide has become more and more inclusive over the years, as she came in contact with different kinds of people.

In 2014, she and Guneet were in Kashmir to work for flood-affected people. In 2015, she returned from the Everest Base Camp on the Nepal side, and then went back almost immediately as a journalist, as a massive earthquake levelled parts of the Himalayan nation. Besides reporting, she also lent a hand with the relief work in Nepal, drawing upon her experience.

This followed a stint as a researcher finding “unsung heroes of India” for the BBC, an assignment that helped her meet “a blind gent from a Pune-based NGO who was doing inclusive adventure with the disabled”. Anusha said that the meeting “made me look at everything differently and I found it very exciting”.

Tandem cycling with Vishaka, a blind client. Photo courtesy: Anusha Subramanian

The fact that the blind, too, craved adventure and experienced it so differently was a revelation, and she was drawn more into it. “Until 2017, for three years, I did pro bono work for this NGO. For instance, we did a Manali to Khardung-La cycling trip for the blind.”

In 2018 came the opportunity of an inclusive climb of the legendary Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, East Africa. This group had three blind and 10 sighted people, and each blind person had a dedicated guide — Anusha was one of these three dedicated guides.

The Mt Kilimanjaro climbing group, including three blind climbers. Anusha was one of the three guides dedicated to the three blind climbers. Photo courtesy: Anusha Subramanian

Thanks to her and the two partners’ track record, and the meticulous attention they pay to the needs of all their clients, Bohemian Adventures has earned a high degree of trust. “Because we’re three women running this programme, we’ve been able to attract a lot of women, in their 30s or 40s, or even 50s, who want to do treks. That is 70-80 per cent of our clientele — women, children, seniors, disabled people. People trust us more.”

Asked about the risks involved in taking seniors, the disabled, or those with medical conditions, Anusha said, “Adventure sport per se is risky. Safety is paramount. We don’t herd people around the mountains. Our client-to-guide ratio is one is to three. Mostly, it is [any] two of us who lead, sometimes one of us, with maybe a local guide, including a man. We don’t play a volume game, and our rates are higher, but that is how you can be properly self-regulated.”

Her client with Parkinson’s disease was from the United Kingdom and had a perfectly enjoyable mountain trip in India, as the itinerary was customised to the last detail.

“I think the outdoors is open to all; no discrimination. So there’s no such thing as ‘you cannot go there’. We do inclusive treks, and we go well-prepared. We only push as much as our body takes.”

That brought the conversation round to what Anusha herself might aspire to. If she has made it to the Everest Base Camp, would she want to try and reach the summit? What was her opinion on the recent spate of deaths and emergency rescues on Mt Everest during the spring climbing season?

On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the first human footprint on the summit of Mt Everest, Anusha recently shared the stage, for a panel talk at the High Commission of New Zealand in India, with Jamling Norgay and Peter Hillary, sons of the Everest pioneers Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary.

Commenting on what the ultimate mountaineering dream now means, she said, “Climbing Mt Everest has now become an individual sport. When Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary went to the Everest [summit, in 1953], it was the collective decision of the whole group, as they were the strongest; it was not a chase for individual glory.”

Anusha’s own ambitions do not include — as of now — standing on the world’s highest summit. She prefers to keep her focus on Summiting for Hope and to keep giving back to the mountains and their people.