Ace Mountaineer And Marathoner Mala Honnatti Breaks Barriers Of Age And Gender

What made Mala Honnatti, a banker unused to physical exertion, take up mountaineering in her 30s? Sheer grit and passion, it seems.

What made Mala Honnatti, a banker unused to physical exertion, take up adventure sports in her 30s? Sheer grit and passion, it seems. And, a healthy dose of rebellion against a conservative family and society. At 70, Mala Honnatti’s voice rings with great confidence today. And, she says she owes it all to her determined pursuit of two adventure sports – mountaineering and marathoning.

Her passion for mountaineering has taken her to Himalayan heights of 22,000 ft on many occasions. She has trekked and climbed extensively in the Himalayas for over three decades.

Scaling Mt. Everest is no mean feat for an athlete of any age and she embarked on this challenge at 62 years as a retired banker! Mala was all set to hoist the national flag on the summit of the majestic mountain in 2015. But tragedy struck with the Nepal earthquake and the expedition was cancelled. This was a huge disappointment for her. She would have been the oldest Indian woman to scale Mt. Everest if she had succeeded.

Mala Honnatti is one the senior most women mountaineers and marathon runners in the country. She has run 26 full marathons across the world. She is the first Indian woman to do the full marathon in Antarctica at the age of 58 years!

Breaking barriers

Mala has been breaking barriers and living life on her own terms for several years now.  By opting for male-dominated fitness pursuits and adventure sports, and succeeding in them, she has become a role model for other women.

Mala reveals all the trials of being a woman in a male-dominated world and how she stopped thinking about discrimination early in her journey as “the mountains don’t differentiate between man and woman.”

“Mountaineering is an extreme sport but I soon realized that women cannot expect any special treatment. Men face the same issues of exertion, exhaustion, pain and altitude adjustment as women do. There are no washrooms in the mountains so women have to rough it out like men do. Men have brute strength but, in my experience, women have shown more resilience and patience in the mountains than men. They are better at acclimatization,” says Mala Honnatti.

As a woman, when she started going running or jogging in the early morning on Delhi streets, she would be stared at. People in cars would stop and ask her age. Even cops would stop her. Again, in her gym, she was the only woman in the veteran’s category (35-plus).

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“Yes, I started late and that posed some limitations. After taking up adventure sports I have become thick-skinned about gender discrimination. All I ask myself is when men do what they desire to, why not women?”

Call of adventure

Mala Honnatti has lived in small towns in Karnataka and had not even seen a sports track as a child. Family expectations were to complete her graduation and get married. But Mala was career-minded. “I did BSc in physics and mathematics and then LLB securing distinctions. Then I started working as a probationary officer in a bank. Incidentally, I never got married,” she says.

Mala had been working in the bank for four to five years and was feeling bored. She began looking for something that would challenge her. “In spite of no exposure till then, I had an inclination for physical activities. I was staying in Belagavi at that time. Providentially, karate classes were being run by a ladies club in the adjacent building. I started learning karate and also began playing badminton regularly,” says Mala.

That’s how she started her fitness journey. The physical fitness and mental discipline developed through karate training helped her to be in the forefront in Himalayan expeditions and in distance running as well.

Her first trekking expedition in 1984 was very exciting as everything was new. “I did not feel fear but I did feel anxiety since I was doing something unfamiliar. It is a test of fitness and physical and mental endurance.  You need to be mentally prepared and well informed. And, you should know when to quit. You should not push yourself beyond your limits,” advises Mala Honnatti.

In 1985-86, she did her basic and advanced mountaineering courses from Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling.

Fitness training

“Training and fitness are continuous processes. ‘Get up, lace up and get out of the house’ – that’s my mantra. I intensify the training process a few months before an expedition. I increase running distance and intensify gym workout. Also, I include climbing staircases, climbing hills carrying rucksacks, and more pranayam (to improve lung capacity). Swimming and cycling are also added to work out different muscles. You need to carry a 15-20 kg rucksack on an expedition. So, upper body strength is vital,” explains Mala.

Mountaineering and marathoning are expensive activities. You need a special diet, training, suitable gear, equipment, and so on. I put in my savings to nurture my passions.

Mala quit her bank job in 2007, after three decades, because she wanted to focus on mountaineering and marathoning. In 2009, she became a serious marathoner. In the veteran’s category, she was among the top three marathoners in India at that time.

Today, she leads groups of trekking and mountaineering enthusiasts on trips to Kashmir, Ladakh, Uttaranchal, Himachal Pradesh, and Nepal.  Her enterprise, Maho Adventures, gets enquiries from the US, Dubai and all over India. “I plan different routes to make the trekking more interesting.  This work gives me a different kind of satisfaction,” says Mala.

The Adventurous Pursuits of Mala Honnatti

Mala Honnatti also trains those interested in long distance running and marathons. Today, at 70, Mala is fitter than those who are half her age, and continues her adventurous pursuits with the same zest as a youngster.

These days, she spends time both in Gurugram and Bengaluru in between treks. “Photography goes naturally with the kind of life I lead. It is one of my interests. Earlier, I used to write about my experiences. I am learning about managing an enterprise. I have picked up marketing skills, including social media marketing,” she narrates.

At the age of 67, she did a two-year MSc programme in yoga from Shoolini University in Himachal Pradesh. She attended classes with 26-27-year-old youngsters and topped the course!

“We are seven sisters and two brothers. They are all highly qualified professionals, well accomplished in their fields. I am the odd one out who is leading a nomadic, adventurous life,” says Mala with a laugh.

Apart from physical fitness, adventure sports have given her mental, emotional, social and spiritual benefits, she says. “Spiritually, you feel small and invisible but in sync with nature in the Himalayas. These activities have nurtured my inner growth as a person.”

Age is no bar to do anything in life. “A time of life that is generally viewed as twilight or retirement – I view it as a time to rediscover and reinvent and a time of opportunity and change,”  says Mala.

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About the Author

Aruna Raghuram

I am a freelance journalist and write on parenting, personalities, women’s issues, environment, and other social causes. read more...

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