Why this cancer-survivor took her three kids to Kilimanjaro | Condé Nast Traveller India | India


Vedant Talati was just 11 when his mother, Radhika Iyer Talati, asked him if he would like to make a trek instead of going on a safari. The youngest of three siblings, Vedant readily agreed. And so, in 2014, Radhika, aged 42 at the time, led her children Vedant, Lavanya and Goutami (11, 17 and 19) up Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. 

Radhika’s own uphill journey began a lot earlier. Settled in Vadodara since her marriage, she has been diagnosed with two types of cancer one after the other. After surviving uterine cancer in 2004, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. At the time, she was running her own event management company, while also raising three young children with her husband. After her second diagnosis, she decided to pursue therapy and healing through yoga. This wasn’t just about survival—she wanted a different lifestyle.

In the quest for alternative healing, Radhika found herself with two options: Kerala or the Himalayas. Although she knew nothing about the mountains, she chose the Himalayas. She would have to spend weeks away from her family, and as mother, Radhika was anxious. But she realised that the only way to sort through the apprehensions was to be honest with them. “I remember her sitting me down and telling me about her cancer, explaining why she had to go,” her daughter Lavanya tells me over the phone, “Even at that age, it made me realise why this was so important for her.” 

Eventually, what was supposed to be a month-long trip to Baba Dhuninath’s ashram in Bhagsunag village in Himachal Pradesh, became a four-and-a-half month experience that changed the way Radhika perceived her life. 

Radhika Iyer Talati at Deo Tibba, Himachal Pradesh
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When she called them from the Himalayas, she told the kids about everything—the good days and bad days, the spiritual learnings and the hard lessons. It is this honesty and trust that has come to define their relationship. It is also the very reason her children agreed almost immediately to scale nearly 19,000 ft with her. 

It was there, as she spent her days practising yoga and meditation and interacting with people from across the world, that Radhika was able to see her life for what it was. “We get so tangled in routine that we never really have the time to think about what our lives are like,” she tells me. “I had the opportunity and luckily even the grace to accept that experience at the time.” 

While Radhika’s husband, Amit Talati, much preferred a simple safari trip to mountaineering, it was important to Radhika that her children share her experiences. Amit was more than understanding of this, and actively supported their adventures.  Most parents would avoid potentially uncomfortable travel with children, but Radhika looked at the bigger picture. “Being in the mountains gave me so much happiness,” she says. “How could I not share that with my children?” 

Radhika and Goutami at Kailash Mansarovar, one of the Panch Kailash mountains.

But the decision was far easier than the climb. While Goutami, the oldest, had scaled few of the Panch Kailash mountains with her mother in the past, this was Vedant and Lavanya’s first trekking experience. The decision to scale Mt. Kilimanjaro was spontaneous, and while the family did do their research, it was more important to Radhika that her children enjoy the experience of it. There were no practise treks, a choice she now admits was a poor one. But she made sure her children kept an open mind. “I remember mom telling me to visualise the process, to imagine the incline and the ground beneath my feet,” Goutami says. There was a mental mountain to climb before getting to the physical one. 

It wasn’t all smooth scaling though. Stella Peak, their target, was at 18,885 ft, at the end of a four-day climb. But at 15,000 ft, the journey started taking its toll. Vedant began experiencing altitude sickness, with an increased heart rate, nausea and exhaustion. The friends they were climbing with were worried for the young boy. For the first time, Radhika was doubting her decision to bring her children along in such extreme conditions. “A lot of people thought I was putting too much pressure on my children or expecting too much of them,” Radhika says. “I knew I wasn’t forcing the experience on them, but imagine being at 15,000 ft. and questioning every choice you’ve made for this trip.” Although it was an exceptionally difficult night, she saw in it an opportunity to give her children something valuable. “That night, I sat them down and said: ‘In life, there will be many instances when the people around you will tell you to stop and go back. But you need to keep climbing that mountain. That’s what life is all about.’ ”

The view of Mt. Kilimanjaro as Radhika and her children trekked on

The group scaled Stella Peak a few days later. When they made it, it was like the exhaustion and fatigue from the trek had disappeared. “Because it’s too cold, you can’t stay too long”, Radhika says, about reaching the peak, “So, we spent those few minutes first in silence, then took pictures with lots of group hugs and smiles. There was definitely a spiritual sensation. For that moment, it felt like a universal connection had been made.” Goutami did one better and went ahead to scale Uhuri Peak at 19,341 ft.

Radhika and Goutami at Mt. Kilimanjaro

The family says the experience brought them closer. “When you see the way someone behaves in adversity, you really start seeing them differently,” Goutami tells me. “All of us are very attached to mom in different ways. But these experiences made it a bond beyond motherhood.” She fondly recalls the trip, the memory of her mother walking steadily behind her and her siblings, their laughter echoing through the mountains. 

Radhika and Goutami at Kailash Mansarovar, one of the Panch Kailash mountains.

Along the way, the children were able to interact with several locals and learn about the surroundings from them. “Speaking to people beyond your circle is not something you would otherwise get to do,” Lavanya says. “But during the trek, I learned so much from the locals— the way they understand nature, the significance they attach to various rivers. It is a great way to learn about your own cultural heritage”. What started out as a physical experience, ended as a spiritual one for all of them. “Most people my age would judge spirituality,” Goutami tells me. “But going on treks like these helped me have a more open mind. There is wealth in science, and there is also great wealth and knowledge in our culture. I realised that both are important in their own way.”

Radhika and Lavanya at the Deo Tibba mountain, Himachal Pradesh in November 2020.

Over the years, trekking has become a regular feature in their lives. Last year, Goutami and Radhika finished scaling the excruciating Panch Kailash mountains, the five holy peaks said to be the abodes of Lord Shiva. Their next big trek will be Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina, and they hope to continue scaling different peaks in the Himalayas and the North East of India. In 2009, after her second diagnosis, Radhika vowed to go to the Himalayas at least once every year for 18 years. It’s been 11 years since. “I never knew the mountains before,” she told me. “Now I am an out-and-out Himalayas person. It doesn’t matter which peak I’m scaling. I can see the Himalayas in every mountain I climb.” 

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Radhika’s advice for scaling mountains:

  • You don’t need the most expensive or fancy equipment. Stick to what you need and stay within a reasonable budget
  • Try not to drown yourself in research. Make sure you have your basics covered, but beyond that, allow yourself to go with the flow. Trust the process.
  • Trust the locals. Make the effort to speak and interact with them. And most importantly, listen to what they have to say.
  • It is not a race, it is a journey. Take it one step at a time.
  • Be respectful of nature and the opportunities it allows you. None of us are beyond it. 

You can follow Radhika’s on Instagram here

 



Updated: January 27, 2021 — 3:00 pm

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