Thursday, December 31, 2009

Year 2009

Normally at this time of the year I am away from civilization and any gadgets opting to stay away from hullaballoo of celebration and inebriated minds. This year is different. I am a student at Indian Institute of Management, Ahmadabad and no amount of wishing is going to whisk me away from this place into my snow covered summits. As an alternative my mind tried to grasp at how or where did the year go? This is a summary. I am also aware as I jot down my thoughts that perhaps none of you have any interest in the content of this post even then, as my social media friends say that a blog is your own diary. Anyone else reading it is incidental and someone finding it even remotely likeable and readable is intensely rewarding and fulfilling.

At IIM, we are told almost every day that ‘we must believe only in numbers’ so a play with numbers first. Among 31536000 seconds that 2009 has (every year except a leap year has the same) or had I spent 10368000 on expeditions that included two major and few minor ones; also crossed the Arctic Circle several times, climbed two icy summits and many rock and ice walls. Slept through 6570000 seconds (give or take few hundred perhaps). Around 1314000 seconds went gobbling up food and god alone knows how much to digest. Traveled over land, water and through sky for around 5184000 seconds using all kinds of manmade modes of transportation except a submarine. Scribbled on a computer or on a piece of paper to come out with articles, posts, etc for around 3628000 seconds. Around 1080000 seconds sitting or sleeping through classroom instructions. Close to 72000 seconds attending musical or theater performances and the balance 3320000 seconds engaging into various sorts of activities that included twiddling my thumb, day dreaming, lecturing, having fun, making and losing friends, reading books, photography, socializing and smiling.

Few things of note happened around me during 2009. Navy finally decided that it had enough of me and accepted my pre-mature resignation. Two interesting expeditions where I did glacier mass balancing and honed my skills at scientific methods of studying glaciers and climate change. Did few first ascents in the outer Himalayan ranges. Represented India in BMC’s International Climber’s Meet at Scotland. Gained virtual presence through this blog. Became a TED Fellow. Delivered several lectures on my climbs both in and outside the country. Several of my articles got published worldwide. Had only one near fatal accident. Lost nearly a dozen friends in the mountains. Made innumerable friends from across the globe; several of them with the potential to be life-long ones. Met two people I have always admired and beyond meeting them, becoming really good friends. Two dear friends got married. I gained and lost a really good person as a friend within the span of less than a month due to my sheer misdemeanor. Managed to raise substantial funding for my villages. Finally attended an organized institute of knowledge (IIM). And on the personal front I failed miserably on an aspect I thought I would succeed.

2009 has been a journey of learning and rediscovering myself as it has been a wonderful voyage. I am now a year closer to eternity or perhaps one year further from mortality. Whichever way I might look at it, I am still a traveler with a mountain in the horizon beckoning his eager heart who is destined to his journey without destination. Wishing you all a wonderful new year.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Climbing Jargons 2

Continuing with climbing jargons:

Mantel: A technique wherein a climber grasps a hold waist-level and powers the body upward with minimal assistance from the feet.

Match: To grasp a hold with both hands, or to place the feet side by side on the rock.

Mixed Climbing: Ascending a route by a combination of methods, e.g. mixed free and aid climbing; also, ascending a route wherein both rock and ice, and sometimes snow, are encountered.

Moraine: An accumulation of stones and various debris pushed into a large pile by a glacier.

Multi-Pitch Climb: A climb that is longer than a single rope length, necessitating the setting of anchors at progressively higher belay stations as the climbers ascend.

Munter Hitch: A belay knot through which the rope slides when pulled in one direction and brakes when pulled in the other.

Nailing a route: A descriptive term that refers to aid climbing with pitons, which are hammered into a wall's cracks to provide protection.

Névê: Permanent granular snow formed by repeated freeze-thaw cycles which is found above the head of a glacier.

Nubbin: A small rock protrusion, often a crystal, that can be utilized as a hold.

Nut: A metal wedge with a wire loop that is inserted in cracks for protection.

"Off Belay!": Vocal signal from a climber who has reached a safe stance and no longer requires protection from his or her partner.

Off-width: A crack, dreaded by most rational climbers, that is too wide for a hand or fist jam and too narrow to "chimney." Generally awkward and strenuous to climb, and difficult to protect.

"On Belay?": Ritual query from a climber to verify that his or her belayer is ready to belay the climber.

On-sight (or "On-sight Flash"): Leading a climb with no falls and no "dogging" (hanging on the rope) on the first attempt without any prior knowledge (beta) of its features or difficulties.

Open Book: A dihedral, or right-angled inside corner.

Overhang: Rock or ice that is angled beyond vertical.

Pendulum: To swing on a rope across a rock face to gain a distant anchor point.

Pitch: A section of rock between two belay points, no more than the length of one climbing rope.

Piton: Metal spike or peg of various shapes and configurations that can be hammered into the rock for protection, primarily in aid climbing.

Pocket: A hole formed by a depression in the rock. Usually measured by the number of fingers that can be crammed in it.

Portaledge: A lightweight device consisting of stretched nylon over a metal frame which can be hung from a vertical rock face to provide a place to rest/sleep on big wall climbs.

Protection (or Pro): Any anchor (such as a nut, chock, camming device, piton or stopper) used during a climb to prevent a fall.

Prusik: A sliding friction knot used to ascend a rope; to ascend a rope by means of such a knot.

Pumped: A condition of severely depleted strength and lactic acid burn caused by overworking the forearm muscles while climbing.

Rack: The collection of protective devices that a climber carries on a route, attached to harness loops or on a sling slung across the shoulders.

Ramp: An ascending ledge.

Rappel (or "Rap"): To descend a fixed rope by means of mechanical braking devices.

Redpoint: To lead a route from bottom to top while placing one's own protection, without falling or hanging on the rope.

Rime: A thin crust of icy snow which accumulates on the surface of rocks.

Roof: An overhanging rock ceiling.

Rotten Rock: Unreliable rock which has a tendency to break off under a climber's weight.

RP: The original brass nut or taper, a small and effective form of protection for clean aid.

Runout: An uncomfortably long and often dangerous distance between two points of protection.

Saddle: A high pass between two peaks.

Scrambling: Easy, unroped climbing.

Screamer: A long fall.

Scree: Small loose rocks that gather on the slope at the base of a cliff.

Second: The climber who follows a lead up a pitch, belaying from below while the lead advances, then ascending to the end of the pitch.

Serac: A pinnacle or tower of ice, usually unsafe and unreliable in nature, and prone to toppling in warm weather.

Sharp End: The top, or leader's end, of the rope.

Siege: To mount an extended assault on a mountain by moving laboriously upward through a series of progressively higher camps. Siege tactics include the use of oxygen, previously cached equipment dumps, and high-altitude porters to do the heavy lifting.

Sherpas: An ethnic group of Tibetan origin living below Mt. Everest in the Solo Khumbu area. From the Sherpa's effective monopoly as high-altitude porters, the name has come to be applied generically to all who work in that profession.

Sirdar: The head Sherpa on an expedition.

Slab Climbing: Climbing a smooth sheet of rock that lacks large handholds by holding the body out from the rock and using friction and balance to move around and up the slab.

SLCDs: Spring-loaded camming devices, such as Friends or Camalots.

Sling: A length of nylon webbing which is either sewn or tied into a loop and is used in conjunction with the rope and anchors to provide protection. Also called a runner.

Smearing: A technique of applying to a rock slab as much of the sticky sole of the climbing shoe as possible to achieve maximum friction.

Spindrift: Loose, powdery snow.

Sport Climbing: Ascending routes of extreme gymnastic difficulty protected by closely spaced bolts.

Spur: A rock or snow rib on the side of a mountain.

Static Rope / Line: Special climbing rope used ( usually 8 or 9 mm in diameter ) as fixed rope / line for jumaring or rapelling that does not stretch.

Stem: To bridge the distance between two holds with one's feet; to push against adjacent or opposing walls with the feet.

Stopper: A trapezoidal metal wedge of varying size attached to a loop of flexible wire which is fitted into cracks and depressions in the rock to provide protection for an ascending climber.

Talus: An accumulation of rocks and boulders that have fallen from a crag or face to form a steeply sloping fan at the base.

Top Rope: A climbing rope that is anchored from above.

Topo: A sketch of a route showing its line, bolt placements, belay stances, crux and rating.

Traverse: Moving sideways across a section of terrain instead of directly up or down.

Undercling: A usually awkward and tenuous hold that requires applying upward pressure on a downward facing hold.

"Up Rope": Command shouted by a climber when he or she desires a tighter, more secure belay.

Verglas: A thin coating of ice on rock which makes for extremely dicey climbing conditions.

Webbing: Flat nylon tape or tubing used for slings.

Weighting: To delicately rest one's weight on a piece of protection to test its security.

Windslab: A type of avalanche which occurs when a snow layer compacted by wind settles insecurely atop old snow; when it detaches it falls in large slabs or blocks of snow.

Wired: To have a route totally figured out.

Woodie: A homemade climbing wall.

Zipper Fall: A fall of such length and velocity that the climber's protective devices are ripped from the rock in rapid succession.

Climbing Jargons

Like any other sport or field of science, climbing and mountaineering is replete with jargons or terminologies that we often use to indicate objects, climbing scenarios etc. It is imperative to understand these terminologies without ambiguity or confusion for you to climb or to read climbing technical books. In my blog I use these terms frequently. Many of you have asked me to put down a climbing lexicon for common usage. Here is the first part. If there are any climbing jargon you have come across or heard and I have not covered in this list (including in part 2) then do leave a comment on that and I will explain it later. Unless you are a regular climber and climb often with people from different nationalities, memorizing these jargons are not necessary though a general understanding will help you to grasp and enjoy the climbing nuances. Here they are alphabetically: -

Abseil: German term (also employed by the British) for rappel; a method for descending a fixed rope by means of sliding and braking mechanisms known as belay devices.

Aid Climbing: Direct use of fixed or placed protection (pitons, spring-loaded cams, bolts, rivets, etc.) to support a climber's weight and assist in upward progress.

Aid Route: A technical rock climb that requires the use of artificial devices such as pitons, spring-loaded cams, bolts, rivets, etc. to support the climber's weight for upward progress.

Alpine Style: An ultra-lightweight method of climbing in which equipment and food rations (i.e., comfort and security) are trimmed to the barest essentials in order to facilitate a swift ascent to the summit.

AMS: Acute Mountain Sickness. A group of symptoms brought on by lower blood levels of oxygen at higher altitudes. Symptoms include headache, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, malaise and disturbed sleep.

Anchor: Point where the rope is secured to the rock with either fixed bolts, rocks, trees or non-fixed gear to provide protection against a fall.

Approach: The route undertaken to reach the technical portions of a climb.

Arête: A sharp ridge of rock or snow and ice found in rugged mountains or when two planes of rock or snow wall jut from a face and intersect.

Ascenders: Mechanical sliding and braking devices used to move up a rope. Sometimes generically referred to as the brand name Jumar.

ATC: Air Traffic Controller. A popular belaying and rappelling device which, when used in conjunction with a locking carabiner, provides a safety brake on the rope.

Bail: To give up on a rock climb or summit attempt for reasons that range from the legitimate (weather, lateness, injury, fatigue) to the suspect (hunger, thirst, discomfort, job obligations, waiting wives, husbands or significant others).

Base Camp: The lowest, largest (and most luxurious) fixed camp on a major ascent.

Bat Hook: A bat hook is a hook filed to a sharp point for tapping into shallow drilled holes for aid climbing.

Belay: Safety technique in which a stationary climber provides protection, by means of ropes, anchors and braking devices, to an ascending partner.

Belay Device: A forged metal device of various configurations through which a climbing rope is threaded and then linked to a carabiner in order to provide friction to brake a fall.

Belay Station: A stance on a rock face of varying degrees of discomfort from which a climber provides roped protection for his or her ascending partner.

Bergschrund: A gap or crevasse which appears between a glacier and the upper snows of a mountain's face.

Beta: Any advance information (weather, rock or snow conditions, terrain features, local lore) which helps in planning or negotiating a climb.

Big Wall Climb: A technical rock climb so long and sustained that an ascent normally requires more than a single day.

Bird Beak: A thin, hooking-type piton used to hook small cracks. Bird beaks are easily removable and used on clean ascents.

Bivouac: A temporary camp — sometimes planned, often not — that provides little or no shelter from the elements. Bivy, or Bivi, for short.

Black Ice: Permanent ice found in shady couloirs or on steep north faces that is usually extremely hard, dense and difficult to climb.

Bolt: Stout metal pin drilled in the rock of steep routes to provide permanent protection for climbers.

Bomber: Has extremely high quality and dependability. Usually refers to a handhold, but can also describe a piece of equipment, a campsite or any generally positive or beneficial item or state of being.

Bong: No, not that. It's an extra-wide-angled piton used primarily in the early days of big wall climbing.

Boulder: To climb short, hard routes on low-lying rocks without protective gear.

Bucket: A handhold large enough to latch the entire hand onto — as with the lip of a bucket.

Buttress: A rock formation that projects out from the line of a face.

Cam: Generic term for mechanical spring-loaded devices of varying sizes and manufacture (Friends, Camalots, TCUs, etc) which can be inserted in cracks to secure a climbing rope.

Campus:Dynamic climbing move executed using the arms only, orignated by Wolfang Gullich.

Carabiner: Forged aluminum or steel devices of various shapes (oval, D-ring, etc.) with a spring-loaded gate through which a climbing rope can be threaded. The most basic all-around tool on a climber's rack, they are used variously for such activities as belaying, rappelling, prusiking and clipping into safety anchors. (Common usage: "Biner").

Chalk: Powdered magnesium carbonate used by climbers to dry sweaty hands.

Chickenhead: A protruding lump found in granite which provides excellent handholds or foot placements.

Chimney: A crack large enough to climb inside of.

Chute: A very steep gully. (Chute is French for "fall," and refers to the rockfall often found in such gullies.)

Cirque:A steep-walled mountain basin which usually forms the blunt end of a valley. (French for "circus.")

Clean: To remove the protective gear placed by the climbing leader while ascending. Usually accomplished by the following climber, or "second." Also can refer to climbing an aid route without a hammer.

Cleaning tool: A narrow metal device with a hooked end used for removing nuts or cams stuck in cracks. Also employed post-climb as a beer bottle opener.

Clipping in: The act of a climber using a carabiner to connect to belays and anchors or to connect ropes to protection.

Col: A dip in a ridge that forms a small, high pass.

Copperhead: A malleable chunk of metal (once made of copper, but now often aluminum), swaged (attached) to a flexible wire loop, that can be hammered into small depressions in the rock for protection in aid climbing.

Cornice: An overhanging mass of wind-sculpted snow projecting beyond the crest of a ridge; generally an extremely dangerous feature of terrain.

Couloir: An open, steep gully, usually containing ice or snow.

Crack Climbing: Free climbing up a rock by wedging one's hands and feet into a crack in the rock and pulling upward.

Crampons: Spiked metal devices which attach to climbing boots to provide purchase on ice and firm snow slopes.

Crank:To pull on a hold with maximum force; to expend total effort in any endeavor.

Crevasse: A crack in a glacier surface of varying width and depth, caused by the movement of the glacier over underlying irregularities in terrain.

Crimper: A negligible hold that accommodates only the fingertips.

Crux: The most difficult section of a climbing route.

Daisy Chain: A nylon sling sewn into loops; also used to provide supplemental security at belay stations.

Deadman: An alloy fluke or plate which is placed into deep snow to provide an anchor.

Dead Hang: To hang from a handhold with arms straight so body weight is supported by the skeleton rather than arm muscles.

Deadpoint: A dynamic climbing technique in which a hold is grabbed at the very apex of upward motion, thereby placing the smallest possible load on the hold.

Dihedral: A point where two walls meet in a right-angled inside corner, ie. an "open book."

Downclimb: To descend a mountain or a rock face without weighting a rope; often accomplished without protection, and hence potentially the most dangerous part of a climb.

Dry-tool: To ascend a section of rock using ice tools, a common technique employed on routes that contain both rock and ice sections.

Dyno: Short for "dynamic," a gymnastic upward leap for a distant hold.

Edging: A climbing technique in which the thin edges of the climbing shoes are used to stand on small footholds.

Etriers: Portable "step ladders" usually made of nylon webbing clipped into protection and used to progress upward on steep, featureless rock in aid climbing.

Exposure: The condition of being on high vertical rock with full consciousness that nothing exists between you and the distant ground but thin air.

Face Climbing: Ascending rock that is predominantly made up of finger pockets and thin edges.

Fall: To retreat in dynamic fashion from a climb.

Fifi Hook: The fifi hook is attached to the climber's harness and serves as an emergency or temporary method of clipping in to a piece of gear.

Figure Eight Knot: The basic climber's knot. When retraced, it is used to attach a climber's harness to the rope.

Fingerlock: A crack climbing technique wherein the fingers are wedged (often painfully) into a crack for purchase on the rock.

Fist Jam: Similar to a finger-lock except that the entire fist is wedged into a crack.

Fixed rope: A rope anchored to a route by the lead climber and left in place for all who follow. May also be left by an unknown climber for an unknown length of time. Used to ascend and descend the route when the climbers want to sleep on the ground or are shuttling gear up.

Flared:A crack or chimney whose sides are not parallel, but form two converging planes of rock to the back.

Flash: To successfully lead a climb you've never previously attempted - with no falls or "dogging," (ie. hanging on the rope), but with prior knowledge (beta) of its features or difficulties.

Follow: To be the second climber up a pitch, belayed by the leader from above.

Free Climb: To ascend steep rock without recourse to artificial aids, using only the hands and feet to propel oneself upward. (Although ropes and anchoring devices are employed for protection, they are not used to bear the weight of the climber or for upward progress.)

Free Solo: To climb with no protective devices whatsoever, relying solely on strength, agility, technique and an ability to accept or ignore the consequences of long falls from high places.

Friend: Trade name for one of the original spring-loaded camming devices.

Front Point: A technique for ascending steep or overhanging ice. The two forward points and two vertical points of the crampons are used for purchase simultaneously with the supporting balance of hand-held tools, such as ice axes.

Glissade: An exhilarating (or terrifying, depending on the circumstances) slide down snow or ice on one's feet or backside.

HACE: High Altitude Cerebral Edema is the most serious form of altitude sickness, involving swelling of brain tissue. Symptoms include loss of memory and coordination, vision disturbances and hallucinations, paralysis and seizures. Immediate evacuation and treatment is imperative.

HAPE: High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, is a dangerous form of altitude sickness involving fluid buildup in the lungs. Symptoms include breathlessness, fatigue, pink sputum and increased heart rate. Going to lower altitude is highly recommended.

Hand Traverse: Climbing laterally on rock where there are no footholds.

Hanging Belay: A generally uncomfortable belay stance on steep rock where there is no place to stand.

Harness: A strong belt made of nylon webbing with leg and/or chest loops used to secure the climber to the rope and to provide a repository for gear.

Haul Bag: Large, heavy, unwieldy bag used to carry food, water and gear on big wall climbs. Also know as a "Haul Pig," or just "Pig."

Headwall: The point where a cliff or mountain's face steepens dramatically.

Hexcentric: A hexagonally shaped nut attached to a flexible looped wire which is inserted into a rock crack as a protective climbing device ("Hex" for short).

Honed: To be in top condition for climbing.

Hooks: Small metal devices used to grip tiny ledges or small holes.

Hypothermia: Abnormally low body temperature caused by exposure to cold and wetness, symptoms of which are sluggishness, reduced mental capacity and apathy.

Ice Fall: A feature of a mountain's terrain in which a glacier falls so steeply that it creates a series of crevasses and ice pinnacles. Usually one of the most dangerous features encountered on a mountain climb.

Ice screw: A threaded piton made of aluminum or some other light metal designed to bore into ice securely enough to act as a protective anchor.

Jamming: A technique for climbing cracks in which the fingers, hands, or feet are wedged inside a rock crack to gain purchase and facilitate upward progress.

Jam Crack: A crack which is wide enough to accomodate a hand, fist, arm, foot, or elbow (or combination thereof).

Jug: To ascend a rope using a mechanical sliding/braking device.

Jug Hold: A handhold so luxuriantly secure that it can be grasped like a jug handle. Also known as a "Bomber."

Layback (Lieback): A technique wherein a climber's hands are positioned to pull on one side of a crack while the feet push in opposition from the other, facilitating a crablike advance up the rock.

Lead: To be the first climber up a pitch, placing protection in the rock along the way while being belayed by a partner from below.

Locking Carabiner: A carabiner whose gate can be screwed or locked tight for increased security.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Wilderness Survival – Ten Must Haves in the Outdoors

Dear Friends, if you are a regular visitor to my blog then it is safe to presume that you do have some amount of interest in venturing into the outdoors and wilderness; cerebrally perhaps if not always physically. You might also be venturing into the real outdoors where survival might often be a direct outcome of your own actions and the gear that you carry with you. Far from civilization or any mortal help it is wise to be prepared for the unknown, for that uncertain factor that even the best laid plans cannot rule out.

I always have a ready backpack in my home along with a ready survival pouch. I just replenish the contents as and when they get consumed or else expire due to shelf life. But never would you find even a single content missing from my packs, even when I am at home. Well, I am an extreme outdoor person and I always expect and am ready for a disaster. Like I often say that with me around, you are safe from any kind of disaster including nuclear fallout. I do exaggerate about the ‘nuclear’ bit, but who knows! I am yet to be in a nuclear fallout zone. While we plan a lot on our food, clothing, and other gear we often oversee the survival stuff. So here’s my general guide to ten ‘must have’ things without which you must never go into the wilderness. Having said that, I must confess that there are hundreds of instances when people survived impossible odds (self included) in the outdoors without anything besides their own wits and common sense. The things I have recommended for the list are readily available anywhere. Though there are many other specialized items that can be carried though not readily available (certainly not in India and similar countries).

1. Source of fire: A match box (weather proof/water proof/ storm proof is best), lighter, magnifying glass (can be used to burn dry leaves or papers under bright sun), flint stone, few extra strips of matchbox strike edge, etc. Almost anything can be used for burning, but starting a fire is the most important step. I normally carry few really good match boxes with long wax-coated matchsticks (wrapped in double plastic) and a storm proof lighter. My compass has magnifying glass as well. If you have seen ‘Man Vs Wild’ in Discovery then you might have seen Bear Grylls (I knew his father well) lighting fires by rubbing dry woods etc. While this is very much possible, it is a really difficult and time consuming process. Far easier is to have a real source of fire. Now it is another matter altogether is how to build a rapid and sustainable fire when your source of fire and the combustibles are limited. You cannot keep wasting your precious matchsticks or candle wax or kerosene etc with failed attempts at building a fire. Though I generally teach this as a part of my practical ‘wilderness survival’ workshop over a period of five days, it is suffice to assert for the sake of this post is that, you must start a fire small. First thing to light up should be something small and manageable that will catch fire easily, e.g. dry grass, twigs, leaves, used toilet paper, small pieces of woods. As these catch fire, slowly feed other bigger pieces. You can gently blow into the fire from a side, keeping the direction of your blow parallel to the ground so that the breeze reaches the bottom of the fire, feeding it further.

2. Source of light: Though source of fire is also a source of light, the source of light must be sustainable over a long duration hence objects like; headlamp, torch, etc is a must. Along with it you must carry enough number of batteries (Duracell is best, though they don’t pay me any endorsement royalty). If you will be exposed to severe cold or wet climate or both then keep one set of battery change per 72 hrs of your outing. A watertight carrier for your source of light is a must and also a shockproof protection. Always carry spare bulbs and fuse as well. During normal use configure your lamps (in case of multiple LEDs often you can select different configurations) for optimum usage so as to conserve battery power. Ideal combination of halogen and LED or between hallo and beam options can make your batteries last much longer. If you can, then do carry a back up, like a smaller torch or headlamp, e.g. Petzl Tikka.

3. A multi-purpose knife: Nothing can still beat a Victorinox Swiss Knife. I have nearly a dozen multi-purpose knives yet I use my basic 12 function Swiss knife the most. Among other things it has a tiny screw driver, tweezers, scissors, bottle opener, pen and a pin. Just buy it, even if you are not going into the outdoors. Please don’t fall for the Swiss Knife that comes with torchlight; it is simply a marketing gimmick. It doesn’t help in real outdoors.

4. Length of rope: No, this is not for hanging yourself if you have the inclination. A rope is really a lifeline when you need one. If you are not into mountain climbing or dangerous treks then simply go for a regular 6 – 8 mm rope that we use for webbings or as runners. About 5 meters long should suffice in most cases. A rope has so many applications that your own mind and imagination is the limit, so no point in listing them out here. If you wish to learn more then do enroll for my wilderness survival workshop.

5. Prismatic Compass: Unless you are a master of astral navigation by the sun in day or stars by night then you would do very well by having a compass at your disposal in the outdoors. There are many kinds of compasses in the market. A prismatic compass with embedded spirit level for determining true horizontal is recommended. Most normal trekkers or outdoor enthusiasts are not expected (in India certainly) to carry fairly accurate and well-surveyed contour maps or to have the knowledge to read it in conjunction with a compass either hence what is important for you to know is the general direction to things like the nearest highway or road, village, river, hill ridges, etc that can serve as a landmark and lead you back to a familiar place from there. Despite being a master of astral navigation I always carry a compass to cater for cloudy skies. There are of course numerous means of using nature and natural phenomenon to orient yourself and find the general direction but they come after years of experience or from a practical workshop. If some well-informed individual tells you that you need to apply variation and deviation correction to your magnetic compass bearing in order to use it effectively then please don’t get worried. For ordinary usage like yours, V and D can be safely discarded. It will perhaps be of utmost importance if you are in the vicinity of our earth’s magnetic poles. But if you are already there then I don’t think you need this post anyways. Your idea here should be the ability to get back to a recognizable landmark from where eyeball navigation will lead you to safety. So while entering the outdoors and wilderness, mark the landmarks that you encounter, make a note, sketch etc along with the direction in which you are heading. Therefore to return you need to return the same way (in the opposite bearing to the one you are following while going away).

6. Source of Food: While this may sound obvious it is surprising that even veteran wilderness experts sometime don’t include some vital food in their survival pack. I am presuming that even if you have lost everything else, you still have the survival and emergency pack on your person. For the same reason you cannot include food items like your staple diet or fancy biscuits in this. Here you can only include food items that are: edible, tasty perhaps, offers high mass to calorie ratio, easy to carry, needs no cooking or preparation at all, enough to sustain you for 48 hrs (anything more than this you should start eating what the outdoors offer, aka Bear Grylls). Suggested items here, which I often carry: mars bar (20 gm bars), glucose cubes, 250 gm of sattu, etc. Please remember that these are not to be consumed otherwise and if nothing happens then they should return home along with you.

7. Polythene Packet: Go for a clean, sturdy and large (you should be able to pack in your upper or lower half into it with room to move) polythene packet of 5 ltrs by volume and 50 microns by thickness at least. Anything higher would only be better. If this is confusing, simply do the following; fill up the packet with 5 kg (by weight) of water, tie it up securely from the neck and let it fall from a height of 10 ft. If it doesn’t burst then it is good. Carry two or three such packets. Again this has multiple usage like collecting and storing water, catching moisture or melting snow, used for greenhouse effect, rain shelter, staying afloat in water, etc.

8. Whistle: Even if you are a pro like the mass murderer nicknamed ‘Whistler’ please keep a whistle with you. A sturdy plastic whistle is better than a metallic one. The ones used by birdwatchers to call out to birds are also good. Ideally, as I always do, your Swiss-knife and the whistle should be tied in one string which is always around your neck or waist. Go for a high pitched whistle and all the members in the team should ideally carry the same sounding whistles and if not then do get acquainted with the different sounds. If there is a likelihood of the members getting separated or if one has to scout forward to determine what lies ahead, etc then you can work out a sound signaling system to communicate. I follow a very simple system: 1 whistle: are you ok or I am ok, 2 whistle: go forward or I am going forward, 3 whistle: come back or I am coming back, 4 or more whistle by anyone means an emergency (so everything else is to be left and the team must regroup immediately to locate the member in distress),

9. Toilet Paper Roll: I actually discourage use of toilet paper for its designed role in the wilderness as far as possible. Using water, however freezing it might be, in the regular Indian fashion is the best when answering nature’s call. Even soft snow is a good substitute. Well, this is not a post on ‘outdoor ablutions’ so let’s stay focused here. Keep a small role of TP in your emergency survival pack for real emergencies.

10. Small Medical Pouch: Carry just the basics like Bandaids, chlorine or iodine tablets, tablets for stomach infections, headache and body-ache, clean cotton balls, small plaster roll, etc. This is over and above the medical items that you will carry as a part of normal group gear.

I am presuming that you will be wearing a watch so I have not included it in the above list and as well as a small notebook. There are many more things that one can add to the above list, but let’s be purists here. Given a choice your emergency survival pack can be as voluminous as your regular backpack but then survival means real emergency situations where you will be using lot of improvisation, adaptation and your god gifted ‘common sense’ where each item will be used in multiple roles to extract maximum benefit from the same object. This is called maximizing of minimum resources. If you put your head down then I am sure you would be able to come up with many more uses of the items that I have mentioned above. Hopefully you will be able to survive the first 48 hrs using these and your head. If no rescue reaches you at the end of this period and you can’t find yourself out of danger then my friend it is time you attended my workshop. Though said in a lighter vein, what I mean is that there is no better teacher than ‘experience’. You will become a real survivor only if you get into these situations… though I would hope not. So it is best to get into simulated emergencies where everything is real except that there is a latent thread of safety somewhere that would not let you die or get damaged dangerously.

So next time when you head off into the outdoors do carry the above and you will not regret the extra bit of weight on your back. One final word of caution; survival and emergency pack is for each individual in the team so everyone must have one for herself and under no condition is it to be handed over to another.

Carrying survival pack is not going to help you survive without application so when you get into an emergency, for heaven’s sake do not panic. Do not start crying or regretting of what you have landed into. Emergencies are one in a million incidents, be thankful that you have fallen into one and enjoy the experience keeping your wits with you. You will come out of it; I promise. Happy surviving!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Seeking Santa Claus – Close Encounters of Elfish kind

This is the jolly festive season of Christmas and all things good so let me today tell you how and where I met the grand man in red suit and what happened thereafter.

To begin with, I have three distinct links to Santa Claus: (a) Our first names start with identical alphabet (b) Quite like him most of my life I have spent in extreme cold and snow laden places and in Polar Regions (c) We both travel the world spreading joy and cheer and smiles at strange and dark places. To my knowledge he never went to South Pole and here I actually outpace him. All this definitely makes me Santa’s country-cousin if not a direct descendent.

Just like any of you, especially when you were a child (and I hope you still are), I have always wondered about the things that Santa is known for. His red suit, elves and reindeers, his gifts, why does he come through the chimney, did he ever fight with his wife, why does he go Ho Ho etc, and above all why is he so fat. So I always knew that if I ever met him I am going to quiz him like never before.

Being born in a typical Hindu home Santa never looked for me on Christmas or on any other occasions either, neither did my dilapidated house have a chimney and I had never seen a mistletoe or a Christmas tree in reality till I was 15. Reindeers were as distant to me as Alpha Centauri. But I knew of Santa and his mischievous elves and his reindeers for sure. I had Christian childhood friends and the cookies and cakes that I loved to eat at their homes always told me that Santa was definitely a good man and a nice one to meet. As my fondness for mountains and cold places around the world grew I also realized that sooner or later I am destined to bump into Santa’s home since he essentially lived in and around the Arctic Circle. All I had to do then would be to simply walk up to his porch and give few decisive but delicate taps on the door and ask my questions while enjoying some home cooked delicacies from Mrs Santa Claus’ kitchen; or so I thought.

I met Santa on eight occasions at eight different locations on Earth; which are his designated and often locally claimed residences including summer or winter retreats though one of them seems dubious as you would discover later. This is more than I can say for my own blood brother who lives in Rome whom I have met only thrice in the last twenty years. Now friends hop into my sled and let’s meet Santa.

Chugging along the Alaska Highway (ranks in my top ten road journeys in the world) from Yukon to the White Mountains in Alaska while we crossed the Canadian border, the border guard dropped in smilingly as he stamped my passport and wished me to hand deliver a letter from his daughter to Santa Claus. Are you serious I asked! Of course he is; my friend and driver assured me, we would be going through North Pole, Santa’s home. Stunned I allowed my heart to stop leaping like a tree frog. Really… wow, I finally said. Sure thing, I took the pink envelop from the jocular guard and we sped off into the horizon. That was my first meeting with Santa. Five hours later we roll into the drive way of Santa Claus even as the early winter dusk obliterates the pale sun from the sky filling it up with streaks of orange twilight as far as one could decipher. Go ahead, Sat, my friend says, deliver your letter. You will find me in that pub. As I zip up my down jacket into the chilly breeze I wonder what Santa is doing at nearly 2 degrees south of the Arctic Circle. Though I couldn’t argue with the choice of his village, after all he does live in North Pole.

With less than 2000 permanent residents, North Pole is a small township outside Fairbanks, Alaska. It is absurdly far from the other four North Poles (geographic, magnetic, geomagnetic, NP of inaccessibility) and the only one with permanent human dwellings. It is a beautiful quaint little picture-perfect habitation of really warm and loveable people. The house of Santa is a long portico wooden building, white all over with red bordered frameworks. You simply cannot miss it, as a huge fiber glass statue of the man himself greets you outside. Murals depicting Santa’s stories cover the outer wall. It is his dwelling cum toy manufacturing unit. Surprisingly at this hour there are no visitors outside the house. Pushing all my incredulity aside I step up to the main door and tap the knocker. A while later the door opens.

A short statured man with an impish smile, dressed in green shiny overalls and red elfish cap looks out. He smiles and raises his eyebrow. He looks similar to Pepper Minstix (the elf guarding Father Christmas’ hideout) from my fairytale book. I have a letter for Santa, I say. He sizes me up and down and realizes that he is indeed talking to an adult. He cannot see you right now, he is busy; you may leave the letter with me, the elf says. I have come from very far, I insist. How far, he asks. India, I blurt out. That takes him by complete surprise. Really, he says. I show him my passport. He holds the door open and shows me to a wooden floored room with a comfortable hearth blazing on one side. As I look around I have no doubt that I am indeed at Santa’s house. There are piles of gift boxes, letters from all over the world, dolls, etc littered around. Few minutes later Santa enters. Shell shocked I shake his hand. He is a rotund and jovial man of indeterminate age, though if we believe the legends then he has to be around 400 years at least. He offers me coffee and cake. We chat amicably about things I never thought I would. I ask him my ‘Santa questions’ and he quizzes me about India. After around 10 minutes I take my leave, he is the Santa Claus and I know that each second of his time is precious. He bids me goodbye at the exit and confirms I am the first visitor from India at his door.

My next encounter with Santa happens nearly a year later at a place around 8000 km from the first. For most people Santa is a native of Scandinavia and lives somewhere in the Lapland (land of midnight sun), which arguably can include the northern ends of Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Greenland (Denmark) though most Finnish would argue that Lapland is their exclusive territory. Poor Russians don’t even have an opinion or claim to citizen Santa though the entire Northern Siberia bordering Finland Lapland qualifies to be so. Therefore on my first trip to Scandinavia when I land at Oslo, the first thing I ask my friend is whereabouts of Santa. She gives me a queer look and predicts that I am suffering not only from jet lag and delirium but perhaps starvation as well, emaciated as I used to be in those good old days.

She drives me home and I meet her octogenarian grandmother. The sweet lady confirms that Santa has two homes in Norway though being summers I may not find him at either. As our climbing calendar is quite full, Emma, her grandma and I head off to Drøbak, the nearest of Santa’s Norwegian home to Oslo. The 40 km journey is gobbled up in under 40 minutes under the old lady’s deft driving. Even if we were on a wild goose chase (as Emma tells me); I like the journey for the astonishing beauty of the landscape and my friend and grandma’s happy songs. It turns out to be a tiny village located on the east bank of Oslo Fjord. A typical harbor habitation, the air reeks of fresh sea and marine life. We park the car short of the village square and cross its cobblestoned corners and enter the lanes looking for Santa. I spy a round signboard hanging from a tree, warning that Santa might be skittering around delivering his goods. Grandma assures me that in summers he is usually inside his toy factory. Emma makes a face; even then she looks radiant as the dawn.

We amble through slope-roofed cottages and gardens, walkways and neatly trimmed pathways but barely come across a soul, leave aside the man in red suit. Suddenly we burst upon the sparkling blue sea and the harbor. I have to check myself; the sight takes my breath away. Before we can reach the pier we walk through a sparsely populated outdoor café. White awnings throw shade on the tables. The smooth breeze cut across the fjord and ruffles my hair. Maple trees wave gently. Emma brightens up, she loves water. Grandma goes out of control, she loves surfing. I am ecstatic, I love everything within sight; and I wonder where’s Santa? We gather our thoughts over frothing cups of Norwegian coffee and plot our next move.

Emma insists we hire a boat and go swimming. Granny refuses to give up and so do I. Granny asks a passerby and the gentleman laughs, laughs at me specially and then points in some indeterminate direction. While Granny jumps up in joy, Emma longingly eyes the wafting blue waves. Let’s go, Granny declares triumphantly. We enter another lane and then another and another finally coming across an orange-grey house with big lattice covered bay windows that doesn’t look even remotely like Santa’s home. Granny knocks on the door while Emma and I stand at a safe distance admiring the stone fountain nearby. A pale man opens the door and chats up with Granny. I eye him carefully. He is trim and tall without any beard and is dressed in an open khaki shirt and khaki slacks. After a brief moment Granny gestures; meet Santa, Granny introduces. Even as I shake the proffered hand, I say silently, no ways. This is the con of the century. It is vacation time for me, my elves have gone home as well and so has Rudolph and his friends; Santa explains. He will grow big and fat by winters, Granny assures. I ask him my ‘Santa questions’ and he spins some really interesting yarns. We talk, we laugh and we take leave. On our way home Granny confides that we had just visited the famous Tregaarden’s Julehus founded in 1976 to merchandise Christmas and Santa related products. It also runs Santa’s post office where children and parents send their letters to Santa. In real terms Santa does not have a home in Drøbak and the guy I met is the postmaster. I told you, Emma bounces from backseat. Drunk in Drøbak delicacies and delectable diversities I am far too merry to care and I agree with Granny that the postmaster is as good a Santa that Santa can be.

Continuing my journey through Scandinavia, I have my next encounter with Santa in about a month after Drøbak, in Mora. As we drive towards Lake Siljan from Stockholm I wonder once again why is Santa so far down south at 61 degrees North. While we zip through the Swedish tundra I remain silent taking in the spectacularly pristine landscape. Nestling by Lake Siljan, Mora sits right in the largest meteorite crater in all of Europe. Mora has many claims to fame, one being the home of Santa (according to the locals) and the other being the end marker of Vasaloppet, world’s longest and oldest cross-country ski race. While Mora is a diminutive human habitation of exotic panorama, Lake Siljan is immense and vibrant blue. We visit Tomteland, the theme park and finally I find myself at the door of Santa’s home. You can’t miss Santa’s caricature on the rooftop in his sled with the reindeers. We find Santa outside playing with few kids. He is exactly the way he should be, remarkably similar to the one in North Pole. We chat up a while, meet the elves and two of his reindeers; Comet and Cupid, Santa informs. Rudolf is out, he offers. I ask my ‘Santa questions’ and we take his leave.

I have to wait for two years before I meet him again in his so called actual Lapland territory of Finland. With the natural wonders of Finland in mind I opt for the rail journey to Rovaniemi, the capital of the Lapland Province, which has the most authentic claim to Santa Land. Straddling plumb the Arctic Circle I have no doubts that Santa indeed lives in Rovaniemi. Who wouldn’t? I would, if I could. There’s not a spot in Finland that wouldn’t accelerate your heartbeat and in Rovaniemi it will pause for you to catch your breath and eyes in that order. It is among the prettiest cities I have ever seen anywhere on earth. The air is cold and clean and the Kemijoki River winds its way through. The ski slopes and the distant snow covered hillocks beckon me fondly. No one has to tell me, it is writ everywhere right from the station where I disembark. Santa peeps out of large signboards and effigies. I drop my bag at my friend’s place and take off on a trot for Santa’s village around 14 km away. It is late autumn and the sky is faintly abuzz with the northern lights. A passing motorist gives me a lift to the village. Santa’s village at Rovaniemi is the official residence and work place of Santa. It is rather a mini-complex of different workshops and offices run by a well informed and happy bunch of humans besides Santa and his elves. The place is full of kids and adults simply hanging out and having fun. There’s enough distraction and food for everyone. Thick layer of snow lies on ground. People crowd into the souvenir shops and pet the reindeers roaming around freely. I go to look for Santa and he proves elusive. He could be anywhere, one of the elves inform. I have to make two more visits before I meet the man. Finnish Santa is fun, though he speaks little and laughs more. He is jocular as he can be, bearded to his knees and portly as a polar bear. He expresses his surprise as to how far I had traveled to gain his company. I ask him ‘Santa questions’ and he asks me about India. He has never been there, he confides. I invite him to my home, you will love it, I assure him. One day for sure, he says while parting company. During our conversation I learn that he actually resettled himself from his secret home in the mythical mountains of Korvatunturi in the Urho Kekkosen National Park further north bordering with Russia and is an extremely dangerous place to go. Since everyone wanted to meet him but none could reach Korvatunturi he shifted to Rovaniemi, which is well connected to the rest of Finland. Excited I ask him for directions to his original home; sharing with him some of my extreme adventures and he agrees that perhaps I will be able to reach there after all.

When I return home and tell my friend I got to travel to Korvatunturi, he laughs. It’s a story cooked up by a radio jockey half a century ago, he tells me. There’s nothing there, he assures me. Is there such a mountain and such a national park, I ask and he affirms that there is. That finalizes my decision. I check the map and find that the park is around 250 km further north way too deep into the Arctic. I also learn that all roads further up were closed due to heavy snow. But I am adamant, if Santa can go so can I. I gather information and learn that there are indeed few private logwood huts in the park where some people do travel in the winters on sleds. I scour through Rovaniemi, almost driving the pretty pair of lasses at the tourist office out of their mind till I finally find a hunter’s son who is going into the area to look for his dad. He is delighted to find my company. It is a long and incredible story as to what happened thereafter and is way beyond the purview of this post, suffice it to say that we managed to find his dad and Santa’s secret hideout and even met Santa in person and returned alive and healthy to Rovaniemi after an incredible adventure lasting eleven days.

My sixth Santa encounter takes place at his northernmost residence (holiday home rather) at Uummannaq, West Greenland. It was my first trip to Greenland and even reaching Uummannaq is an adventure in itself. I was a part of a glaciology study team hence everything was paid for; else I don’t think I could have ever managed it. It is pointless here for me to talk about Uummannaq since the place is so extraordinary and the adventures that I had there are among my finest may be I will write a separate post about it later. Let’s focus on Santa here. While en route I had no inkling that Santa had a home there. Only when we landed at the helipad did I see a tiny notice saying that Santa visited Uummannaq on vacations. None of my companions, several of them Greenland veterans, knew about it either. On inquiry from our local guide, who in turn led me to an old seal hunter; from whom I learn that there is a hut on the distant shore of Ikerasak Island where it is said that a big fat man in red suit comes once in a while, though he is not sure. My head spins as my imagination flies asunder in pure joy of exploration and the story unfolds into a drama. I won’t deliberate over it any further and will leave you with the thought that did I find Santa’s home in Uummannaq and did I meet the man himself!

The only time I visit Santa during Christmas is in 2007 when I pass through Norway on my way to the northernmost human settlement in the world; Svalbard. I know of the place from my earlier visit to Norway and I had done my research and train bookings, etc long before I arrive in Oslo. After presenting myself at our Oslo Embassy, I board the train to Tynset from where I will take a bus to Savalen, one of the official and legitimate residences of Norwegian Santa. Norway in winter can only be described as one of those places on earth that are totally out of the world. The train cuts through the snow draped fur forests as I look around and smile at my fellow passenger. It is jam-packed. People from all over the world want to reach Savalen during Christmas. Everyone is jumpy-happy; children are running all over, adults are past caring. Santa is everywhere. It is the big day. I am carrying my tent and would be camping on the snowy outdoors as the hotel rooms are way too expensive. I discover with joy that there are many following my suit. The compartment is overflowing with skis and camping gear. Every now and then someone or the other breaks into a carol or ‘Jingle bell…’ with the rest chirping in. I feel I am aboard the ‘Christmas Express Train’ to eternity.

The moment I spill out of the bus, literally carried and pushed forward by my excited fellow revelers I know that at last I have found Santa in his real den. Though Savalen is a good 4 degrees south of Arctic Circle I feel Arctic air in my lungs and the contagious festivity. It is impossible not to break into a song and dance. Unending ski slopes dotted with snow covered pines, and wave of crowds around takes me back to my childhood where anything could be possible. Soon enough Rudolph appears poking his red nose at us followed by his brethren. Santa’s logwood cottage throws lights all around. I simply move along with others taking in the wonders one after another. Elves and Santa’s helpers are everywhere. A team of huskies lap around as well.

I stick around in Savalen for two days and do everything that one possibly can in the Arctic; hurl myself on skis whispering to the rushing breeze, take endless tumble on snowboard (of all the winter sport, this is my Waterloo), skate on frozen lakes, chase the huskies, feed reindeers, gobble cookies, cakes and coffee at Santa’s kitchen, dip in smoking thermal pools, gaze fondly at the northern lights and meet Julenissen (Norwegian Santa). Predictably, he is fat, jocular, goes ho ho ho, and wears his trade mark red suit. He offers me Norwegian waffles as well. When my departure is evident my heart urges me to linger. The one at Savalen remains till date my most enchanting Christmas.

Earlier this year I find Santa in the land of elves, fire and ice. You got it right, in Iceland. Icelandic claim to Santa has always been regarded dubious by most Santa aficionados and honestly the Icelandic themselves are not too keen to press the point further. Just like their regular fun loving and carefree attitude any Icelander would say, it is the way it is, take it or leave it. They have their own version of jólasveinarnir, a mischievous bunch of 13 elves who live in mountain hideouts and invade the towns and villages during Christmas fortnight. This is my third visit to Iceland and I have no doubts that Santa’s elves are definitely somewhere around, if not the man himself.

Iceland is a mystical land and even an hour’s drive out of Reykjavik in any direction will transport you into a land of fairytales. In this trip I head for the northeastern-most region of Iceland. I camp in Husavik and proceed further. I have never been this North in Iceland before. Barely a slingshot south of Arctic Circle I am hopeful of meeting the man in his Icelandic avatar. During my epic walk from the shores of Greenland Sea to Myvatn I cross glaciers, ice caps, torrential waterfalls, bubbling geysers, mist, rain and storms and amidst all that, the man in red suit. This time he is riding a RV. He offers me a lift, which I gratefully accept. We talk and we laugh. He is modern Santa and has replaced Rudolph with his RV; he is equally comfortable with his GPS, Satellite phone, Mac book and other luxuries of technology. He has a sizable library and surprisingly he has been to India as well. I say hello to his wife, the lovely blue eyed Mrs Claus. We are on vacation, she informs since it is early June and far from Christmas. Santa drops me off the highway and speeds away with a loud ring from his bell and ho ho ho. As I stare dumbfounded at the receding RV I read for the first time the red letters on its rear door: Santa Courier delivers anything anywhere anyhow. The unmistakable Rudolf stares out from a logo beneath the letters. Predictably he is carrying a mail delivery sack on his back.

That brings me to the end of my Santa encounters. Throughout this post I am sure I have raised more questions than answers and many of you are eager to unravel further, but I have only little to add.

My ‘Santa questions’ that I asked to all the Santa’s I met produced answers startlingly similar in content and color though worded differently perhaps. They all insisted that I tell others, especially back in India how to reach Santa Claus. So here are the contact details of Father Christmas (of only those who can be reached):

Santa Claus House
101 St. Nicholas Dr.
North Pole, Alaska 99705
Phone: 1-907-488-2200
Toll Free: 1-800-588-4078
Fax: 1-907-488-5601

Santa Claus
Julenissen i Norge
2500 Savalen

Santa Claus
1440 Drobak - Drøbak

Santa Claus
Santa Claus` Main Post Office
Santa Village, Fin – 96930 Napapiiri

As evinced from above, Alaskan Santa is most tech-savvy.

I am aware as much as you are by now that the eight Santa’s I met across were not the same person and were all mortals like you and I and so were the elves and the reindeers. But the legend is larger than life and makes us believe what our minds reject. When I pointed out that it is nigh impossible for them to reach out to nearly 3 billion children worldwide they all told me the following: Since I can’t be everywhere for all the children at the same time, I have delegated the task to all the parents and through them I fulfill the child’s wish. But only problem these days are that most of the parents themselves don’t believe in me anymore. Can you do something about that, since you travel so much and meet so many people.

I promised that I will try and this post is it. Well it all boils down to your belief really. Santa can be everywhere and nowhere. But if I had the power to decide then I would place him at the most beatific of his legendary homes, Greenland. I would have loved to build a home for him in the Himalaya too but it won’t suit Rudolph and his friends who pull Santa’s sled.

Just few days before the Climate Summit at Copenhagen starts I call up Santa to inquire if he would be there too since his Arctic world’s existence is severely threatened. I work in this field along with several international organizations and am keen to know Santa’s point of view. Perennially jovial, he sounds rather subdued.

I worry about global warming, Santa says. What are we going to leave for our children since essentially we live in times borrowed from their future! I sincerely hope and wish that the adults and the world leaders and every parent on this planet will take the steps necessary to stop our planet from destruction. We speak for nearly a quarter of an hour. I inform him that my paper for corrective measures is being presented there. While ending the call, I assure Santa that we will do whatever he wants us to do. He has spread happiness and selfless cheer over centuries to each one of us and as children he had given wings to our dreams and hope; this is the least we can do for him and for our children.

I am sure you all will join hands with me in leaving a better and healthier world to our children. We owe it to these little angels; we are living in times borrowed from them after all.

Merry Christmas, love, joy and peace to all of you from all the Santa’s across the world

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Can I go to the Mountains – A Beginner’s general guide to the Himalaya

Genesis of this post lies in an evening several years back in Mumbai. I had just delivered a talk on my climbs and as I came down from the stage a group of people surrounded me with their smiles and greetings. Once the crowd thinned marginally I noticed a young couple, shy and hesitant, hovering at the periphery looking at me expectantly. The beautiful lady was visibly pregnant. Our eyes met and I smiled back and they stepped forward. While shaking my hand, she asked, ‘Can I go to the mountains?’ And the husband mumbled, ‘You know…’ I nodded knowingly.

But in reality, ‘I did not know, I still do not know.’ I have no idea if a pregnant lady can go to the mountains. I have no recollection now of what I had said then but what I do remember was my complete amazement at the lady’s desire and spirit and her husband’s willingness to share her dreams. At a time when most women would stay put at home surrounded by near and dear ones opting to be pampered this woman here actually wanted to visit the mountains. I don’t know who they were or if they did eventually go to the mountains but if they are reading this then I would want them to know that this post is dedicated to her and to countless women around the world and the ones that I come across who simply knock me off my head with their courage, visions and lofty spirits. I salute them from the deepest core of my heart.

I get this question all the time and my stock answer is, ‘Of course you can and you must go to the mountains.’ And I mean it in all sincerity so the other day someone asked the methodologies as well and then I realized that I got to come up with a kind of beginner’s guide to the mountains. So here it is, since even I was a beginner to the mountains one day and like any of you was hesitant, apprehensive and seriously in doubt of my capabilities.

There are absolutely no hard and fast rules or do’s and don’ts for going to the mountains though there are guidelines and suggestions, which I would share with you. But please understand right at the beginning that to enjoy and immerse yourself into the supernal world of the mountains you don’t need to be an extreme climber like me or even a climber for that matter. There are many saner ways of enjoying the heights that do not demand a very peak physical output or extended time periods. Whatever is required already lies within you; you were born with the ingredients mapped in your genes. If you are human, I am guessing here that no other species has yet started reading my blog; then you can visit the mountains. There is absolutely no age or sex barrier either. Toddlers barely out of their cribs do pretty well up there as do octogenarians. I know since I have seen them and have accompanied them as well. Before we get down to the ground and get dirty I would like to add that it is not possible for me to cover all the aspects of going into the mountains, and I would endeavor to cover different topics like camping tips, medical tips, safety tips, etc in my forthcoming posts but if any of you have any specific queries as well please do leave a comment along with your email id and I will get back to you.

As a complete beginner you must first decide what you wish to do in the mountains. If you simply want to travel to some Himalayan holiday resorts in some popular hill stations then this post is not for you. I cannot advise you on that. But if you wish to go beyond the so called peripheries of civilization and go walking or ambling or trekking in the hills then you are at the right place. You may or may not wish to camp out on your first outing even then it is ok. Whereas if you wish to become a real and serious climber then too you must spend at least one season up above the snow line to really know if you have the aptitude for this sport. I have seen many youngsters who straightaway come for the basic course and then realize that they are not up to the rigors and risks of mountain climbing.

Preparation: Though one of your reasons for going to the mountains should be to increase your fitness level, even then building it up prior to the trip would be helpful and would make the experience more enjoyable. A brisk walk for an hour every morning for a month prior to the trip should be enough for most of you. If you can add stair climbing of a high rise building then it would be better. Practice 15 minutes of daily pranayam as well. These essentially apply to those of you above 40 or those who otherwise are sedentary and on the overweight side. Those with high BP and pulmonary ailments should not ideally cross 10,000 ft on their first trip. Please carry medications as prescribed.

Where to go: Pick up an easy and well known trail or place for your first trip to the Himalaya. You can choose to go to a hill resort and look for easy walking trails around the place. Often the most reliable sources of information are the respective state tourism websites, check the trail and route grading according to your team size and strengths. Read and study as much as you can; a good place to find such information is the site. Ask others who have done it before or have experience in such matters. Your first objective should ideally be one that is just within the outer periphery of your physical limits. And do go to a place that is scenic rather than aim for altitude. Pick up a trail that will give you awe-inspiring views of the majestic snow clad mountains. A trail that takes you through villages and lets you experience local cuisine, color and culture is even better. Read up books on Himalayan flora and fauna that you are likely to find in the region. Don’t exceed your walking distance to more than 8 – 10 km and a height gain or loss of more than 1500 ft per day.

Team: Don’t be a soloist like me, ever. Go with a jolly and well-compounded team. The team should have evenly fit members and ideally one super fit as well. Ensure that this super-fit person doesn’t have a propensity to show off. His fitness is more as a backup. Plan to carry not more than 10 kg on your back. Ideal team for first timers would be 6 – 8 members within similar age group with similar interests. There should be one unanimously chosen team leader. The team leader must drill into everyone to leave all their mental and normal life baggage back home and only carry their spirits to enjoy life to the hilt. In short please become and behave like an excited kid in a candy store.

Duration: Your objective will determine your duration as well. A week long (road-head to road-head trip) is ideal for beginning. Else you can chose to do short hikes on trails around the place where you stay. For instance there are many short trails in and around Manali that can be done in a day’s hike from your hotel. Likewise for almost all the hill stations.

What to carry: I will put up a complete list equipment, clothing, etc later, but for the time being what you must have is a good footwear. It should be comfortable enough to move your toes, since toes really hurt on your way down if there’s no room for movement. An ankle length water resistant boot with a good gripping hard rubber sole is ideal. There are many brands available today. Depends upon your budget really. We do have few dealers in India today supplying good quality foreign brands in footwear. Ideally you should wear out this shoe before you step into the mountains. Never take a new shoe for a hike. Thick cotton socks are best for hill walking and you must carry at least three pairs. Carry a sturdy walking stick or ski pole for support. Carry a pair, like I do, if you have any back or lower limb problem. Whatever you may carry to the hills, don’t carry anything new. You must have already tried and tested each one of them while at home. It’s better not to come up with surprises in the outdoors, though I harp about surprises all the time. Then comes choosing the ideal rucksack, headlamp, sleeping bag, carry mat, etc. etc. I will give a complete guide to buying trekking gears later along with the ideal list of equipment.

When to go: Most mountain trips are enjoyable in the summers (April – June, mid September – early November). During monsoons any of the regions with less precipitation like Lahoul, Spiti, Ladakh, etc are good. Sikkim can be visited during the winters too, so can you visit the outer and the lesser Himalayan ranges. Most of the Himalayan belt gets heavy rains and it is best to avoid this season. Though mountain weather can never be predicted with certainty and over the last three or four years I have noticed a tangible shift in weather patterns due to climate change phenomenon and global warming. Rains make trails slushy and dangerous along with threats of landslide, even the road journeys can be risky, hence do avoid mountains in the rains.

How to walk: The universal mountain rule is: slow and steady. All those who have climbed with me know my pace. There is no point in running since the mountains are not going to run away and your trail walk should be fun, enjoyable and please do stop periodically to look at the roadside flowers, or dip your hand in the gurgling brooks. Do pet the mountain dogs and the sheep and pat the back of the curious children barring your ways. Smile as much as you wish and can, greet people on the way. Breathe deep and evenly. Your heartbeat is bound to rise in frequency in direct proportion to the altitude and your efforts, you will sweat, you might even wish at some point that you shouldn’t have read this post but all said and done, your heart and your limbs are enjoying the walk, just be slow and steady. It is unwise to stop on a rise so stop before you start climbing, take few really deep breaths and outs to empty your lungs of any old stale CO2 saturated air, drink water and then start the upward march. Do it slow and stop once you have reached the top. Along with other things happening inside your body, the view too would take your breath away. Whenever you find breathing difficult do the following: using short, quick and sharp puffs of air through open mouth empty your lungs completely till you can feel it collapse and then gently and slowly breathe through your nostrils filling up first your lungs to their bursting capacity. Repeat this 5 – 6 times and you would get your breathing back like magic. Whatever else might happen, never panic, don’t worry, nothing is going to happen to you. If you find it really hard going then just sit down at a place, preferably on a rock or wood, above ground, drop your backpack and drink water. Take few pictures as well. Chat, joke around, pull someone’s legs, munch on some biscuits, break into a song, anything that your heart fancies. Don’t rest for too long either since you don’t want your body to cool down completely. Ideally you should aim to have breakfast around 7 and strike off around 8 and walk till about 1 pm or so. While on the move you should have water bottle and something to eat close at hand. Even if you are moving as a group each member must have her own water bottle and eats. Fill up the water bottle at every opportunity from the rivers, waterfalls, etc. Ideally you should drink at least 2 liters of water during your walk of 5 hrs. While descending don’t ever run, lean back into the slope keeping the CG between you and the ground behind you. If the slope is too steep then you can come down sideways keeping weight more on the rear leg; a supporting stick would be invaluable. Carry your backpack high on your shoulders so that the bottom of the sack rests on the small of your back. Don’t pull the shoulder straps too tight. None of the straps on your backpack should hang loose. Overall please do remember that you are not in a competition and you are not competing with anyone. Your team mates could be slower or faster than you but you need to find your own rhythm, speed and ease of walking. Thereafter just stick to it. Believe me; in the mountains a person who is seemingly walking at double your speed has barely an advantage of few minutes over you. And while he is zipping by, perhaps shaking his bottom at you in jest, remember that he is actually missing out the pleasures of the journey itself. Whichever way you may look at it, being slow and steady is the winning formula.

What to do: As you would realize you would be walking only for a small duration in the day and you must fill up the rest of the hours by engaging in various associated activities of the trip. Please assist your support staff of porters, cook, guide etc in the following: preparing ground and tent pitching, collecting water and deadwood, disposing garbage and cleaning the area before departing next morning, tending to the pack animals (horses, mules, donkeys, etc), building camp fire, distributing tea and other meals, etc. Also interact with local people, shepherds, and other hikers on the trail and gather local knowledge, make new friends, marvel at the star studded night sky, have fun. If you have any skills then do share with others. Your support staff is a wealth of knowledge but they are generally shy and hesitant to mix up with the guests, but do sit with them and you will pick up amazing stuff. In short please engage yourself in as many things you can while on the move. You are having a unique and perhaps never before experience, so make the most of it. My own expeditions and climbs are often more memorable for what all I experienced outside the real climb.

What not to do: I will only touch upon the main points. Please understand and respect local customs and culture and abide by them. Always remember that you are the outsider, you are the guest here the onus lies on you to maintain the decorum of the place. Never litter the trail or your camping site ever. Do not drop anything on the way. Please get back everything that you carried in with you. In your normal life would you visit a friend’s house and leave your garbage there? The same applies to the mountains. If possible carry back the garbage left by others before you. Do not offer any money to any villagers or children on the way come what may. Unless you have used their support for something specific and they have asked for so, otherwise don’t. Just because you have some ready cash in your pocket doesn’t mean you are wealthier than them. Don’t offer food either to anyone unless someone visits your campsite. On the way back it is best to hand over all your food leftovers to your support staff, they know best what to do with it. Please dissuade from handing out chocolates and candies to village kids. It spoils their habits, and honestly they don’t need it. If you really wish to indulge them then ask them to pose for pictures and share your background with them. Sit for a while if you want and chat with them. I always smile at the kids and ask them to show me the trail or walk with me, I ask their names, what do they do, etc but never offer any money or sweets even if they ask for it. Please remember these kids are not beggars so don’t spoil them. Don’t throw garbage or waste products in the river ever since somewhere down the villagers would be using the same water for drinking and bathing. The mountain rivers and waterfalls are very tempting to jump into and please do so if you are at least 5 – 6 km away from the nearest habitation. Do not pluck flowers en route, though you can pick up the ones already fallen and press them as a present for your near and dear ones later. Do not disturb the wildlife and tease the monkeys etc. You are the intruder here so they always have the right of the way. If you leave them alone and give them wide berth so will they reciprocate. Maintain your silence and don’t disturb the tranquility of the mountains. You can of course shout in joy and break into a song and dance but please never be raucous. Though in the cities I listen to music all the time, in the mountains I don’t carry any radio, ipod, etc. Listen to the sounds of nature; it’s a melody beyond imagination and replication. I will end this point with the age old wisdom: shoot only with your camera and leave only your footprints.

Record Keeping: No matter how much you might have read or heard about the trail you are doing, even if you have done it before, each time it is a unique experience. Though I am rather tardy in this respect but I would suggest that you do keep a diary and take pictures along with sketches if you can. Your records can always help those who would follow you. Once you get back as a seasoned Himalayan pro, believe me you will be beseeched by your friends, families, colleagues alike to let them in to your new found wisdom. So go ahead and do show off your pictures, your insider knowledge of what happens in the greatest mountain range on earth.

How to organize: Though I always profess a self-organized trek, for first timers it is best to go with an agency. This would entail a higher cost but it is worth it. An agency will take care of all logistic and administrative requirements so that you can just land up and meet the support team at a pre-determined location. Once you gain experience then you can choose to do it yourself. The most mind boggling and time consuming part of any expedition is the food and fuel planning. You can discuss your food preferences with the agency as well. Most agencies offer fixed schedules and itineraries and you can pick up one suiting your time, budget etc. Every state tourism offers their in-house trips which are reliable and generally good. Though in these trips you might end up joining other groups as well. There are few basics you must remember while looking for an agency. Ask others, take recommendations, look at their websites, client comment’s etc, and do talk to them. Even a cursory conversation will tell you if they are reliable and competent. At every road head there are few local agencies as well, who normally are sub-contracted by the bigger city based agencies so if you know any of the local guys then go to them first. Self organizing is great fun and you can always hire things like kitchen items, gas, tents, etc from many agencies which will make your overall budget much less. In most of the road heads you can pick up your basic food items as well. So if you are willing to take the risk then plan to spend two days at the road head to look for a local guide and porters and cook, complete your purchases and take off on the third day. For sure you will forget something in the first few occasions but it is great fun to learn this way. Better still if you plan to cook yourself and only hire porters for load carrying.

Budgeting: As a thumb rule, if you hire the services of an agency then be prepared to shell out around 1500 - 1800 INR per head per day all inclusive (food, porters, cooks, guide, tent, etc). This is applicable for minimum team strength of 6. If the number falls below this then the charges per head would go up. Bigger and more reputed the agency is; it will charge higher fee. Finally it will depend upon you what kind of amenities they are offering and you want. Do remember that when we go into the mountains and the outdoors we actually want to experience the outdoors so don’t ask and settle for homely comforts and cozy beds. Then you could have stayed home as well. Do undergo certain amount of hardship, believe me you would enjoy it more. For self organized trips you can easily reduce this expense by half.

Safety: The safety factor is paramount for any outdoor activity. Go slow, take lesser number of halts and ask if you feel lost. On a popular trail there would always be someone around to show you the way. Drink as much water as you can and eat small snacks in between. Cover your head always with a small cap or bandana, etc. A great way to hike is to tie an umbrella to your sack. When crossing landslide areas do check for any likelihood of imminent boulders and mud slide and cross it fast. Any rivers or streams to be waded en-route should be done in the early morning hours and from a wider point preferably. Don’t pluck unknown fruits and eat, they could be poisonous. Carry a straw for drinking from little pools of water. There are countless tips for safety, please exercise your discretion. Atop all, as a group please stay together within visual and calling distance. A whistle can be life-saving.

Recommended Trips: Though there are zillion treks for first timers in Himalaya, I would recommend: Sandakaphu, Pindari, Har ki dun, Valley of Flowers, Deoria Tal, Chandrashila, Madhyamaheshwar, Stok Markha, Beas Kund, Chandratal, Chandrakhani, Tapovan, etc.

While concluding let me add, since this is my blog and a mean for self marketing, if any of you feel the above beyond your grasp and do want more clarity then you can of course hire my services as an adventure consultant, and I will make and arrange the entire package for you.

So what are you waiting for! Happy Himalayan Hiking Holidays… I will still see you on the top!

P.S. You can apply the above guidelines to any outdoor trips I suppose, be it in the Western Ghats or lesser mountains

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

My Top Ten Climbs in South America Andes

For me a mention of South America always conjures up visions of some of the finest mountains and glaciers in the world. It is my single most favorite continent on Earth and if not an Indian I would have definitely wished to be a South American; a Peruvian or an Argentinean to be more specific. The largest and most voluminous natural feature of South America is certainly the Andes range of mountains. The Andes run almost the entire length of the continent’s western edge starting from Venezuela to Chile and Argentina passing through Columbia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. It is nearly 7500 km long and averaging around 250 km at its widest. Towards the south it is often referred as the Patagonia sub-range. During my several journeys to the continent I have covered quite a bit of this massive mountain range, which is home to some of the finest and most technical mountains on Earth. Topographically the longest mountain range in the world can be divided into Northern, Central and Southern parts. I am fortunate to have climbed in all the seven countries that Andes pass through and during these climbs while I gained countless new friends I also lost several old ones. It is not an easy task to come up with my top ten climbs in South America but I think the list that follows is as close to one I can manage. The ones that got left out were severe and enchanting too.

How or why did I choose the following ten and why not the others; would perhaps be a question I need to address before proceeding further. I always prefer to climb those peaks that are lesser known, lesser climbed, more technical and demanding, requires commitment and offers sustained degrees of difficulty and where there is a fair chance of losing one’s life or limbs or both. These ten mountains and the routes I followed all offered these aplenty. Altitude is never my top criteria though I have ended up climbing some of the world’s highest peaks and neither is proportionate beauty. To me every conical summit and mountain is of incomparable beauty. These peaks are not easy by any standards and must be attempted only by those who are at their peak physical fitness and technically sound and only with fellow climbers they can trust with their lives. If I were to extend the list to the top 20 climbs of my life, most of these peaks will feature in that too. As you will discover I did not reach the summit of some of them, which does not mean I didn’t climb them, and I climbed them since I was lucky enough to be with some of the finest alpinists in the world. During these climbs I witnessed death on more than one occasion and amputations as well. In our normal sense of the word, these could also be among my most horrific climbing experiences yet I consider them the most sublime and memorable and fulfilling.

A word of caution to any aspiring climber wishing to attempt any of the following peaks; don’t attempt them if you are not already leading 5.9 grades on rock and V-5 on ice and only with partners who are better than you. Ideally these peaks should be attempted by a team of 4 or a pair where at least one member can lead 5.12 and VI-6 without stretching his or her limits. Even then the summit may prove elusive since Andean weather is among the most notorious and unpredictable. These ten peaks are not mentioned in any order, though you will notice the obvious that only three nations out of the seven Andean ones find mention. As much as I wanted to include some of my climbs from Ecuador, Bolivia and Columbia, I simply couldn’t if I were to maintain my neutrality. Absence of Cotopaxi and Chimborazo are glaring and so are Huascaran, Alpamayo, Chopicalqui and the now famous Siula Grande.

1. Yerupaja (6617m) Peru. The second highest peak in Peru is a majestic mountain of sheer vertical rock faces and ice flutings. The final summit ridge increases your heartbeat since it is thinner than a knife edge and you have to keep it between your knees most of the time. Going up the west face I must have had at least half a dozen heart attacks if not more. Located in the Cordillera Huayhuash range it is surrounded by some of the most stunning mountain architectures in the world. I would rate the Cordillera Huayhuash circuit among the top ten treks on earth so even if you are not a climber but reasonably fit, you must head off into this mountain wilderness pronto.

2. Huantsan (6369m) Peru. It is the second highest summit in the Cordillera Blanca Range and despite having an easy approach from Huaraz it is rarely attempted or climbed. The altitude is often debatable though 6369 is now the accepted one. I and my team had drawn a lopsided W on its north face on our way to the summit. Though not extremely difficult in most parts, the sustained seriousness is of the highest order. There wasn’t a moment during our four days on the face that we could relax or let our focus waver.

3. Chacraraju (6108m) Peru. Definitely the crowning glory of the Cordillera Blanca Range, Chacraraju is often included amongst the most difficult mountains in the world and is rated as the toughest climb in the continent. You can read a detailed account in my November post ‘Life off the edge part 3’. In this climb I paired with Nat and for reasons beyond our control we missed the summit by less than 100 meters. It is also a peak I will never return to.

4. Artesonraju (6025m) Peru. Those who climb in Peru might express their surprise at my choice of Astesonraju since it is not really a very difficult climb, though the SW face by which we had climbed it isn’t an easy proposal either. Located right in the heart of the Cordillera Blanca Range it finds mention in my list not due to its severity alone but also for its supreme symmetry. I have no idea why it is not included among the ten most beautiful peaks in the world. It is mostly left alone under the shadow of its more famous neighbor of Alpamayo. Before I take you out of the Cordillera Blanca Range, let me tell you that a walk through the Cordillera Blanca Circuit is certainly among my top ten treks in the world. Now even after this if you are not packing your bags for Peru then I don’t know when you will. By the way I do not represent Peruvian Tourism in India.

5. Jirishanca (6120m) Peru. Our west face direct on this peak is most certainly among the toughest climbs of my life. Located in the Cordillera Huayhuash Range Jirishanca is often called the ‘Matterhorn of the Andes’ though I would prefer to call it the reverse. On any given day by any given route it is much more difficult and certainly much higher than Matterhorn. Our climb came to a premature halt barely 80 vertical and 130 horizontal meters from the top since when we broke through to the summit ridge we found that it was corniced beyond belief. During the few steps that we did take on it seemed like being afloat on thin air. Perhaps for the first and the last time, my nerve ran out, and I opted to return. We were a team of four and while I and my partner decided to abseil off, the other two continued. We never saw them again.

6. Taulliraju (5840m) Peru. If there is a category of mountain peaks that are among the most viewed, photographed and admired and at the same time the least attempted or climbed then I guess Taulliraju would be the number one in such a list. Being right in the middle of the great Cordillera Blanca Santa Cruz hiking trail it is impossible to miss the sheer rock and ice cascading down this under 6000m peak. Even a cursory glance from the most unexcitable amongst us would draw a gasp. There are no easy routes on this mountain. Come to think of it, there are no routes at all except the ones that you can imagine in your mind while you deliberate over the mental conditions of the few fools on earth who would actually try to find one. I am or was one such fool. Since then I have grown wiser and have begun to respect life and nature’s supremacy. My attempt through the NE face remains in the realm of fantasy. Even today when I ponder as to what would have happened if I did not bail out nearly a hundred meters from the top I wonder who or what on earth had named this peak after ‘a little blue flower’!

7. Cerro Torre (3133m) Argentina. Standing like a Masai spear piercing the sky above at the eastern edge of the Patagonian ice cap and within the precincts of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, Cerro Torre is a mountain that is coveted and feared by all. More than its sheer faces it is the unpredictable weather that has returned some of the best climbers on earth from below the summit. It is a small mountain, rather a rock tower by any standards. Even then it takes nearly a week to climb to the top and return. It has one of the highest failure ratios in the world. There are hundreds of stories of climbers returning from Cerro Torre dejected after surviving some extreme weather and climbing conditions. If there is one mountain on earth that needs supreme technical skills and even higher proportion of luck to summit then it is Cerro Torre. Though inadequate in the former, I must have had a bigger dose of the latter since I did manage to stand on its needle like summit for less than five minutes and gape down on earth with a satisfaction that now I had seen it all.

8. Fitz Roy (3375m) Argentina. Together with the neighboring group of Cerro Torre peaks, Fitz Roy offers the finest kind of big wall climbing anywhere outside the Karakoram ranges. It is the stuff that legends and dreams are made up of and often give rise to new ones as well. I managed to climb a variation of SE and SW ridge route on my second attempt only since I had unwittingly paired up with an absolutely insane climber who convinced me that we had to tread where eagles feared to fly. Hanging thousands of feet above ground while being buffeted by the Pacific storms, with my fingers, limbs and mind freezing off I had felt no fear since I had crossed the point of any feelings. While descending from Fitz Roy after the first unsuccessful bid I had promised that I wouldn’t return to its flanks for all the wealth in the world. In under a year I was back trying to kill myself in a fashion as morbid and gruesome as possible without being Jack the Ripper. Till date I have no explanation why I returned to FR but as I reminiscence I am happy that I did and even happier that I returned alive. It stands among my finest climbs.

9. Torres Del Paine, Central Tower (2460m) Chile. Viewed from far, this group of three rock towers looks like a row of shark’s teeth planted on ground. At first glance no one even thinks that he or she is going to climb it, even if that were the objective in the first place. Neither did I. The breathtaking lacustrine panorama crowded with condors, guanacos and rheas rivets the mind and vision to an extent that one simply looks at the towering towers at the horizon without actually registering the details. Undoubtedly, the Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile is one of the most amazing sights that nature created on earth. The complete circuit is among my top ten treks in the world for sure. After few preliminary A+ climbs I headed for the Central Tower in the company of one of the finest rock wizards I have ever known in my life time. Surprisingly we had discovered each other only few days ago within the park. I tore a ligament, fractured my fingers and returned from within kissing distance of the top with a deep gash on my head and a deeper sense of wonder within after four agonizing days on the tower. This is another of the peaks that I will never return to not only because I am physically not capable any more but also since my partner of yesteryear is no more to goad and guide me on such an insane route.

10. Aconcagua (6962m) Argentina. The highest peak in the world outside of Asia would not find mention in this list if I had done it by its normal (NW ridge) route. The combination of foul weather along with the medium grade difficulty posed by the South Wall Route made it an experience worth remembering. Being my first attempt on the highest peak in southern hemisphere and therefore considerably expensive by my standards I had to take the call of either doing it by its very easy normal route or by a more difficult one. Carrying my own summit within me, I faced little deliberation before settling for the South face route. The four member push to the summit stays in my mind not necessarily for the climbing difficulties but for the severe weather and the fact that two of my partners lost their toes to frostbite at the end.

P.S. This post is dedicated to my brave friend Ashwin who had specifically asked for it. He is not a climber per se and will never be but he is an intrepid and carefree lad who simply refuses to give up on any enterprise his big heart fancies. He recently underwent a traumatic experience that could have shattered his mind more than his body but he has bounced back with greater strength. Like I always say; there are many Everest’s in a person’s lives and we each climb them in our own special ways. No one is stronger or weaker than the next, it’s your Everest and it’s your way. All you must do is to keep climbing. Here’s to you Ashwin, keep climbing and I will see you on the top!

The above picture is courtesy NASA through creative common's license