Thursday, April 30, 2009

Seventy and Not Out - A writer’s impression of his brief encounter with Busybee - Behram Contractor

As I hurried across Dr Dadabhai Naroroji Road near American Dry Fruit store I glanced hopefully at my watch. The minute hand was about to touch ‘5’ while the short arm sat squarely on ‘2’. I was five minutes late for my appointment with Mumbai’s or Bombay’s incessant spokesman—Busybee. Side stepping an approaching pavwala-on-wheels I entered Nanabhai lane, and following a stationary-shop assistant’s raised finger stepped into the ‘Afternoon House’.

A burly guard attired in deep blue blocked my way inside the narrow corridor. On hearing my errand he guided me to the end of the tunnel where I was surprised to find a half-ajar door of tinted glass, which led into the office of possibly the greatest Indian columnist ever.

Through the gap in the door I saw Busybee hunched on his chair in front of a computer, peering closely into the screen and punching at the keyboard with that sort of gentleness that develops only after a lifetime of close association with typewriters (read Remington and Underwoods). He seemed deep into work. Eyeing my hesitation the friendly guard gave me a gentle shove, assuring me that I could walk right in. Busybee would never keep a visitor waiting, even if they were some two-pence writer like me. Grasping the packet in my right hand, which contained a copy of my book (a collection of detective stories), I bounded in with renewed confidence. I have been following the man’s columns for more than half of my lifetime and had absolutely no idea what could I utter as my gambit. But I should have known better.

I covered the distance from the door to his table in three hesitant steps and stood uncertainly akin to a truant waiting to be chastised by the Principal. He must have felt my presence and seconds later turned around and looking up briefly said:

‘Please sit down, I’ll be with you in a minute.’ He went back to the keyboard tinkering.

As I studied the septuagenarian profile who had fathered a whole new era in journalism and whose columns were rivaled only by his own real-life escapades, myriads of which bordered on ‘incredible’, I couldn’t help marveling at Behram Contractor’s single-minded zeal to his life’s occupation. The thickset glasses or the air-purifier running through his nostrils could not mollify the bright sparkling eyes or the perpetually present chuckle at the corner of lips even to the minutest bit. His completely unassuming attire and the trademark ‘seven minutes’ coiffeur from ‘Air Cool’ Churchgate seemed as fresh and usurping as ever. Though I had read all about his ailments, the weakening eyes, the failing lungs, etc. and the tonic-laced diet he had to partake, the dancing fingers on the keyboard or the bird-like pecking of his neck had all the adroitness of a boy in early teens. Precisely sixty seconds later, he pushed the keyboard away and turned towards me, while pulling himself closer to the table where I sat facing him from the opposite side with an expectant smile stuck under my eyes. He shoved aside all the papers, files, and books that lay between us and spread his delicate arms on the table. He stared into my eyes openly and favored me a chuckle of undisguised mirth. Busybee was alive to the brim and enjoying every minute of it in his ‘Behram Contractor’ avatar.

‘So you are the one who will upstage Sherlock Holmes.’ Busybee stated as a preordained prophecy. Till date I have not the slightest clue as to how he could identify me without having uttered a single word from my side. May be I should have fashioned my sleuth on Busybee.

‘I wouldn’t make such a grand statement, but I would surely endeavor…’ I mumbled.

‘But you must, I don’t care much for the Baker street guy. Too archaic and often contrived for my taste. Who are your favorite crime writers?’

‘Agatha Christie to an extent, but I prefer Austin Freeman, Dorothy Sayers, Edgar Allen Poe, Patricia Cornwell among the contemporary genre, and a Polish chap whose name I am unable to recall at the moment.’ I said hurriedly since I wasn’t prepared for the questions.

‘But you missed out Ellery Queen, what about him?’

‘Of course, it just slipped. Ellery Queen is very good and factual. I like him.’

‘He is the best. Do you write like him?’ Busybee inquired with another chuckle.

That reminded me my real errand. I took out the book and scribbling his name and a line of dedication to him handed it over with a palpitating heart. Busybee took it on his palm and weighed it first then studied it carefully from all the sides.

‘Seems all right,’ he remarked. ‘Anything so distinctly heavy has to have something good. I love detective stories, but no one writes them anymore; let me finish your book, I’ll do a review. I hope you can handle constructive criticism!’

‘Coming from you I can handle anything.’ I quipped merrily. This seemed dream come true—Busybee offering to write a review of my first book.

Suddenly he raised his voice and asked his secretary to fetch some books. Moments later two of his books: Busybee Best of 1996 – 97 and Howzzat appeared on the table in front of me.

‘Do you play cricket?’ he asked. I knew his passion for the game.

‘Not anymore, but in college I used to be the university team wicket keeper and opener.’

He scribbled the same on Howzzat and on the other he wrote ‘An author I am going to investigate.’ He sealed both the statements with his autograph and handed across to me. ‘This is the way two authors should meet. Now we have a connection.’

While I acknowledged my gratitude at this unexpected gift from the grand-man he pulled out a white sheet of paper and unscrewed his pen.

‘When did you start writing?’ he asked.

‘Is this an interview?’ I asked completely taken aback.

‘Certainly, I got to develop your character, isn’t it! And I am sure you would want me to be factual. We reporters aren’t good at fiction anyway.’

‘But I wasn’t ready for an interview, may be tomorrow…or some other time…’ I suggested hopefully.

‘Look Satya, I am not asking you about the Ming dynasty, I am asking you about yourself, just speak from the heart, state the facts the way they are. You don’t have to lace up your language with wisecracks or brilliant subtleties. Be simple, be precise and you’ll do fine. And there’s no better time than today. My column for the day is over, so let’s begin…’

And over the next ten minutes or so I immersed completely in a fun packed dialogue with Busybee as he led me from my childhood through my school, family and up to my present occupation as an Indian Naval Officer and a writer with such ease and aplomb that not even for a moment did I suffer the impression of being under trial by one of the sharpest brains that I had encountered in my life. It seemed more like a normal conversation with an old friend. He jotted down all the points and I wondered at his investigative nuances. A brilliant idea flooded my mind and I popped him the question just prior to taking his leave.

‘If you don’t mind, sir, could I use you as a character in my future stories, may be as a mentor to my young detective?’

‘You can, but don’t make him a boozer like me. And call him Behram C. that should keep the people guessing.’

‘Thank you very much sir. I would remember this day forever.’ I shook his hand firmly and turned to go.

‘Do send me a photograph of yours.’ Busybee called from his chair.

‘Sure, sir.’ I assured him and stepped outside. As I pressed the door after me, I spied through the gap that Busybee had again turned towards his computer with the keyboard pulled out.

Notwithstanding my interruption for about a half hour, Busybee was back in the world where he belonged. While I walked out of the corridor throwing a broad grin to the guard, a whole new story had started unfurling into the tiny white room I had vacated a while ago.

And that is how my mind would remember Busybee forever. A fair man in a fair room typing away unceasingly to bring into this world (for us) all that his fair mind was abound. Though I spoke to him several times during the succeeding months over the phone but that single encounter on a tepid Mumbai afternoon would be my only meeting with the Busybee. A doyen of Indian journalism, with his demise we arrived at the end of an era and to the beginning of a legend.

I only hope that he read my book, at least partially if not in totality, and if I could meet him now, I would surely ask, ‘How did you find it sir?’

And he would open his mirthful eyes and staring deep into mine say with the distinct chuckle, ‘Good, young man…but not good enough. You still have to upstage Sherlock Holmes. Write simply, write from the heart.’ And he would turn back to his computer, to begin a new column perhaps and a new ‘Afternoon’ for paradise.

As in life and so in eternity our beloved Busybee would continue inspiring generations of reporters, columnists, editors, and of course novice writers like me to excel beyond expectations and to write from the heart about what we truly believe in.

An outstanding first innings where he carried his bat through and finally had to depart since all the overs had been bowled, Busybee must now be taking stance elsewhere to begin afresh another innings of equal accomplishments.


Kamet - a soliloquy

“It’s really cold,” the funny guy in the red jacket exclaimed through chattering teeth. He rubbed his frozen palms together and grimaced. His companion, the Sherpa, looked equally miserable but remained silent. Perhaps he had accepted such miseries as part of his occupation and had learnt to accept them with equanimity.

What else do you except! I chuckled. At 25,450 ft with gusts averaging around 80 km per hour, it could be anything but warm, and so it has been around my head ever since. As long as I can remember, when I started emerging out of the sea, I have been cold. My memory now fails me but I think it all happened around 60 million human years ago, when I grew out of the continental collision and kept on growing till I stood as one of the highest peaks in the Indian Himalaya. Dwarfed only by my cousin sister Nanda Devi in the neighborhood, I reign supreme across the Indo-Tibet border.

Quite a few have reached where these two now rest, but I think they outclass the earlier ones (thrill seekers) by their stupidity. I have been eyeing their slow progress since they stepped out of their cozy tents around midnight, hoping that all my defenses would eventually turn them back, running with their tails between their legs. But I guess it’s true what they say about such people (who climb up and down icy heights for no reason at all), that they are mad. They even untied from each other short of the half way up and went around to my northwest ridge where no man had ever stepped before. Anyhow, fools will be fools… so I held my peace and now watched them silently as to what would happen next.

“Does he know we are here? Are we welcome or are we intruders?” I addressed Ang Tashi who rubbed my palms hard to get some sensation back. We had been on the move for 14 hours and in the failing light the weather was worsening every minute. We had little time to celebrate. Though Tashi wanted to linger and savor the moment longer, this being his first summit, I knew that time was running out. I looked at Tashi, who glowed from ear to ear under the moribund sun, unable to hide his glee. “Maybe sir, maybe… we believe that the mountains are gods and I am sure we are welcome since we come to Kamet humbly. As you always tell us that climbing is like a pilgrimage, where we come to visit our friends and families and not to conquer them!” Tashi screamed over the hurricane blizzard.

Though both of us looked like Martians and I was sure that even our parents would not recognize us in the picture, we clicked few for the records and quickly shared the flask of cold juice and the last piece of bulletproof chocolate bar. We both said our prayers. Just before we stepped off the summit towards the endless slope of the northeast face, Tashi dropped a solitary cashew nut into the depths of a crevasse and gave one of his contagious grins, “You are correct sir it is bit cold.” I patted him on the back for his sudden enlightenment and off we went. Nothing tied us and we just ran down, slipped, tumbled and kept on going towards Meade’s Col, crunching hard ice, negotiating crevasses and soft patches of snow. Being younger and fitter of the two, Tashi took the lead and I followed his footsteps through the tawny glow of my headlamp. Retreat was uppermost for my body but my mind went back to the days when we had just arrived at the breathtakingly beautiful lake girdled base camp.

I think it was on 23rd May when I first noticed the ant like human figures making their way slowly but steadily over the boulders, skirting the frozen Vasundhara lake. Though quite far from where I stood, I could see them clearly across the intervening ridge. Over the years, I now know when these humans would start arriving. I was expecting them. After a long and harsh winter I too needed some company of the mortals. Though my court comprised of Mana, Deovan, etc but they all were such serious fellows. I liked these descendents of the monkeys who had not advanced much from the tree jumping days. They were like kids, excited and scared, boisterous and awed. I liked to shake their egos every now and then. My only source of entertainment… so I eyed them. From the way he behaved, I could pick up the one that was the head of this group. He did least amount of work and was always served first and of course he carried the smallest pack. I was sure like most of the earlier groups; he too would remain within the comfortable confines of his tent and order others around. However, he proved me wrong on that count at least.

Much to my delight, the way ahead from the Base camp was covered under thick snow and it was much easier to negotiate the moraines in search of our Camp 1. It took us 5 days to shift to Camp 1 at 4950 m. We were in a strange world of snow, lake and crystal blue azure. To our east a huge rock needle speared the sky, rearing its head far above the rest of the ridge. It hadn’t been visited by a human yet and I doubted if it would happen in near future. Up ahead, Devban stood in its regal splendor, showing some of the finest ice lines I had ever witnessed in my life. To commit to any of them would be sheer suicidal as avalanches roared down the chutes relentlessly. To capture up close one of those thundering clouds of snow and ice had been my dream for long. Though I have had my share of being buried under avalanches and near death suffocations, none of those occasions were designed or timed by me. I had only been a hapless victim of ignorance or bad luck or may be both. But this time on our way to Kamet, I decided to go where only fools go. Armed with my SLR and cautioning my team that they might have to dig me out later, I sprinted towards one of the slopes as soon as it dislodged a gigantic avalanche. I had already seen the path that the snow took and had calculated where I must position myself to take a good shot without being caught under the downpour. My heartbeat raced and accelerated as the avalanche grew in my viewfinder and all other noise was hushed by the thunder that roared and echoed in the narrow valley like the mortal cry of a leviathan.

If this won’t kill him then nothing will. Though we are often termed as murderers, we are actually gentle beings. We don’t like to harm anyone who comes to us for a visit. But those who offend us by disobeying the decrees of nature do get their share of misfortunes. I really liked this guy, always running around, gesticulating, laughing in his red jacket. I asked Devban to careen its flank a bit to the right so that the avalanche will not hit him directly. Devban moves slowly and in a bat of an eye the avalanche engulfs the red jacket. I thought that was the last that I would see of this group. But alas, if only fools had imagination and the intellect to leave!

Beyond Camp 2 the going got little tougher. We had to negotiate a steep ice wall and frozen gully with towering rock walls throwing pebbles at us all through. We fixed few ropes up this gully beyond which we exited on a wide snowfield where we pitched our Camp 3. Now we were above the proverbial 6000 m and we forced ourselves to move slow lest the altitude took its toll. Being right on the flanks of Kamet, we could not see its summit dome any longer while Mana filled up our horizon as well as our imagination with the surreal play of light and shade that danced all day long on its snowy slopes. The way to the next camp lay through a mixed ground of rock and ice that towered about 500 m forming a treacherous wall. We adopted the classical siege tactics and fixed the wall over the next two days. Few of the traverses were hair raising to say the least as we front pointed sideways over empty air with freezing gales patting us from below. Ice screws and static ropes disappeared like magic as we hammered our way up and eventually topped up on the ice plateau to establish Camp 4.

These guys were definitely not going to give up easily… I pondered. Do they know that a fellow climber’s body now lies very close to their tents? Would it scare them off when they discovered the cadaver! Did they realize that most of their tents were pitched right on top of a deep crevasse with a narrow neck that could widen through the next few days and could swallow the tents while they slept unaware? I wanted to tell them, caution them… but how could I do it? Now it was up to the red-jacketed guy, who was among the first lot. But look at him, he is busy slurping that rancid cup of tea with no concern in the world while his jolly band of men are singing the praise of the Lord. That made the place festive, I too started to jiggle my head. Seeing my nodding head, the truant clouds over Tibet thought I wanted them around. Soon the blue sky turned dark and somber with clouds rushing in, driven by the blizzard.

We abseiled back to Camp 3 in a hurry as the clouds bore upon us from all sides. By the time I plunged inside my tent a full-blown blizzard had hit us. The night temperature dropped to 18 degrees below zero. Over the next few days, while we ferried load, the weather seemed to be deteriorating each day as the winds picked up speed early noon and blew in blizzards soon after 1 p.m. I estimated we had another week of weather window to climb and retreat from the mountain. Anything beyond may become unpleasant. On 7th June, I lead the first team up the rock wall and occupied C4 around noon. The day was windy and definitely cold. The evening turned crimson as an orange plume enveloped the crests of Kamet and Mana. The night sky lit up brilliantly with blinking stars. Next day we started off for route opening through the heavily broken ice field that lead up ahead. Being high up the sun came upon us rather early and soon we were sweating in our clothes as we progressed slowly through the tottering ice seracs. We went through several crevasses before reaching the vast ice field that gradually ascended to the Meade’s Col. It was like going through a snow desert with no conspicuous objects in sight. We labored up slowly as the peaks of Nanda Devi sanctuary rose along with us to our south. The moment we crested the Meade’s Col a strong blizzard literally blew us back as we had not expected anything of similar magnitude. It was a sheer struggle to even stand up against the wind and the snow flurry.

It was like watching a movie in slow motion. They stood hapless, struggling to hold on to the ground, half-crouched, head bend and body extended into the raging blizzard. 150 km per hour wind battered them while the snow hit them like shrapnel. What would they do now? I wondered. Much to my astonishment, soon two orange dome tents mushroomed within a wall of ice blocks that they erected out of the snow like igloos. Then they ran down. After a quiet day, when no one stirred, they reappeared and I think some of them stayed back at Meade’s Col. Knowing the likes of them earlier I estimated that they were planning to head for my head the following day. I planned otherwise.

We placed C5 at 7100 m on the Meade’s Col at a place that was equidistant from the Kamet and Abi Gamin face. To our south the massive northeast face of Kamet rose like a gigantic column of ice and snaked away and beyond our vision into the azure. While to our north, the south face of Abi Gamin looked a nice and easy proposal. The severe blizzard continued unabated. It was one of the windiest and coldest places I had ever been to in the Himalaya. To step out of the tents was an ordeal and even the thought of stepping out was horrendous. We had planned to start off right after midnight for the summit of Kamet.

When my watch said just two minutes short of midnight between 10th and 11th June, I opened the zip of my tent to discover what I had known even earlier. The night was fully overcast and the raging blizzard made visibility zero. It was around 26 degrees below zero and no way could we go out in this weather. The sharp ice chips cut across my face and filled up my tent even before I could quickly withdraw inside. I shouted across at the top of my voice to inform others that the attempt was out for the night and they could relax and try to get some sleep if possible. I huddled my limbs together and sought some warmth inside the sleeping bag. The storm abated around half past four in the morning of 11th and as it was too late for Kamet, I sent two members and one Sherpa for Abi Gamin. They left an hour later and I watched their progress over the ice field as they gained height steadily towards the flat summit of Abi Gamin.

What’s happening! I said to myself. I could see three tiny dots moving up towards Abi Gamin summit. Had they abandoned their plan to visit my crown! However, I was glad to notice that the red jacket leader was not among the pack. Perhaps he was conserving for an attempt on my summit. Soon the trio reached Abi top and retraced their steps towards the Meade’s Col. Poor guys, no sooner had they reached the two orange tents, they were packed off by the leader to go down further to the lower camp. Presuming that there would not be any more activity for the day, I contemplated taking a siesta. But even before I could shut my eyes, I saw the red jacket tottering out of the tent and take off towards Abi Gamin summit, following exactly the footsteps of the earlier three.

After the three had gone down I felt a tug to go for Abi Gamin. The day was still young, bright and offered an enjoyable outing. Only the young Ang Tashi Sherpa was with me at C5. He was on his first expedition and was highly charged up to climb Kamet. Asking Tashi to keep an eye I left off alone. It took a little under three hours to reach the top of Abi Gamin. Soon I returned to C5 and dipped my parched lips into a hot cup of tea.

Tashi woke me up at half past midnight on 12th June. After donning our paraphernalia and shouldering our sacks we finally left a little before 2, into the freezing night. The sky was clear but the howling wind cut through my bones. The mercury showed 36 degrees below zero. My hands were totally frozen and I had to force my fingers around the ice axe. Though draped in 4 layers of clothing, I felt naked. Soon the slope became steep and we climbed slowly. I studied the map and felt that it was time for us to veer further to our right and get on to the northwest ridge so as to attempt Kamet over a new route. Except the map in hand I had no knowledge about the northwest ridge at all. No one had ever attempted it before and no photographs existed of it either. On the map it seemed decidedly steep, much steeper than the usual northeast route, where we now rested. It also showed distinct rock bands, which would give us mixed climbing condition. My companion, Tashi was a novice at high altitude climbing; he had never climbed any peak in his life. We were poised at around 7300 m, higher than anything in sight, except Abi Gamin that seemed at level. When I inquired, Tashi assured me that he was willing and confident to follow me wherever I went. We clipped on to the rope and surged up and ahead without putting any protection. I decided that we would belay each other from ice axe if the situation demanded; else we would just keep climbing as fast as we could with only a rope connecting the two of us.

The moment we stepped around the northwest ridge and I looked up at the sheer wall of rock and ice, poised at a tottering angle, I knew that we had some tough time ahead of us. We had only two ice screws and no rock pitons and just that one climbing rope and each of us carried an emergency bivouac bag. Food we had little, few chocolates, biscuits and dry fruits and a bottle of water that had almost frozen by now. We carried no gas. It was around 7 am and we had been on the move for almost 5 hrs. We climbed steadily and rhythmically, almost copybook style. But I knew that we were slow and I was the one to be blamed for it. My right leg (which has a torn anterior cruciating ligament) felt stiff and throbbed painfully and I rested often, digging my heels and the ice axe into the steep slope. Around 2 pm I cut a ledge in the ice and slumped down to review the situation. The altimeter read around 7600 m and we had another 150 m to go. We were certainly beyond the point of no return. The wind was far too fierce for my liking, it threatened to uproot us from the slope and the temperature was around 30 deg below zero with wind chill factor much lower than that. I could not feel my hands or face. Uttering anything was an ordeal in itself. Clouds had marred the sky and soon we would be in dark. I was not very certain where exactly we were on the ridge since it was rather wide. We were close to the top but not close enough.

About an hour later, suddenly the slope eased and we found ourselves on the summit ridge with the two distinct humps ahead. From the top of one of them, the nearer one, a series of prayer flags fluttered in the wind. It was close but we still had to overcome the huge crevasse that girdled the hump like a castle’s moat. We had to make several detours, switchback trails to go through the crevasse, and at 3.54 pm we stepped on the summit of Kamet. After 14 hrs, the climb was finally over.

What goes up must come down, they say. So they all went down while I remained where it is my destiny to be. Why do they come, why do they climb. May be it is true as someone said, that great things happen when men and mountains meet or perhaps because we are here so they will come, or even metaphorically because though you can take a man out of the mountain you cannot take the mountain out of him. Perhaps the red jacketed leader was correct when I heard him say, ”we come to the mountains because they teach us humility, where we learn to prevail over our pride. They show us how weak, how insignificant we really are as well as how strong we can be when we wish.” That being so, I could only add, Amen!

I Believe

That Mountains have all the answers no matter what the question is

That Mountains teach us how insignificant, how miniscule, how powerless we are

That Mountains also teach us how strong and powerful we are when we want to be

Every mountain is climbed one step at a time

Reaching the summit of a mountain is optional, getting down is mandatory

There is always a mountain higher and further than the one you wish to climb

There are many Everest in a person's life and we all climb them in our own style

There is a wide chasm between 'I can' and 'I will'

Life is short no matter how long you live, so live

Death is neither a tragedy nor a comedy; it is simply the inevitable that happened finally

Journey of a million miles begin with the first step that you extend out of your door, and before that you have to open that door

There is no point in pondering if you can or can't do something, just do it (Nike should pay me endorsement money)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Nestled deep within the comfortable and often cold confines of Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, and India, Sikkim remains one of the tiniest and one of the most enchanting Himalayan kingdoms that has lured adventurers, and mountaineers into its midst from time immemorial. The third highest summit in the world, Kanchendzonga (8534 m) stands proud amidst other giants along the Singa Lila range to the west, and a little further to the east the most beautiful mountain in the world, Siniolchu (6887 m) rears its breathtaking crown into the dazzling azure with unabashed aplomb. Blessed with innumerable mountain massifs, lush verdant valleys, fast churning rivers, terraced hills, and exotic flora and fauna Sikkim has literally everything in its armoury to entice the wayfarer. To feel the urge to visit this mystic land is natural and to get entrapped into its convivial ambience—once you reach there—is inevitable. Being controlled largely by the military, north Sikkim is not readily accessible beyond Yumthang and Lachen. Whereas west Sikkim has some well-defined trails for an intrepid trekker, not necessarily a mountaineer, to limber about—replete with all the magnificence Sikkim is synonymous with.

For treks in west Sikkim, Yuksam (1765 m) provides the perfect ensemble of a road head from where one bids farewell to civilization and immerses eventually into the natural splendours. The serpentine, and often undulating path to the Rathong valley leading further to the eponymous glacier snout—if one decided to press on, is abundant with breathtaking bounties of nature that silences the traveller with sheer wonderment.

Less than a day’s journey from Gangtok brings you to the dreamy village of Yuksam, which has an ancient monastery and several old architecture along with some modern habitations to provide the perfect blend of both the worlds. It would certainly trouble a true nature lover’s heart though to witness the ravage of modernisation making its way—gradually but steadily—into this beatific arena. No sooner had you alighted from your vehicle the majestic waterfall to the south west would draw your attention like a magical spell. And as you amble hesitantly towards the foamy pool you might just turn around and behold the apex of an icy peak, far and forlorn beyond the intermediate horizons to the north. And wouldn’t it gladden your spirit to learn later perhaps that that is where, at the foothills of the icy summit, your trail would eventually lead you to. After a pragmatic pause of several days at Yuksam—primarily for acclimatisation—you are ready now with your backpack, guide, porters and even yaks to venture out beyond the obvious.
For the historically inclined it would be of interest to learn that in 1890 Claude White was the first European to embark on this trail and his journey was the first official chronicle of the same, though yak herders of the area has been using it for centuries.

The first day’s trail from Yuksam to Bakhim can be hair raising for more reasons than one. Not only would you be venturing into deep and dark oak forests, slither down muddy trails, cross foaming rivulets, enter narrow gorges, you would also be battling with the infinite number of leeches that are looming from every corner, even from innocent looking flowers, to find an access into your clothing and follow it up with a succulent feast. Be very careful and wary, and do carry a bag of salt and a lighter to burn the plump parasites. The heady sights and the ethereal redolence of orchids and purple irises would of course vie for attention but your senses should be attuned to the bloodsuckers as well. There’s one more hazard that one should be aware of, and to avoid any pitfalls in this regard all one has to have is an extremely sharp audio system and sharper reflexes. When a battery of yak, or even a solitary one, comes bounding, either up or down the hill, the best and the only recourse available is to leave the entire field to the black beast. Just flatten yourself against the nearest rock or mountain face, or better still get off the track completely by scrambling up or down a slope, and remaining absolutely still till the brute has disappeared from sight. And the only advance warning you would ever get of their arrival is the faint tinkle of the bell around their neck. God forbid if one’s owner forgot to tie one around the neck or the clapper inside the bell decided to fall out at some opportune moment.

Just prior to reaching Bakhim, in a morbid jest towards the weary trekker, the trail suddenly descends steeply to a wooden bridge across the Rathong gorge. Across the bridge lies a steeper ascent of 650 m littered with sprouting undergrowths that forces one to hop, step and often jump over the thick roots. Anyone less than completely cautious would find terra firma rather close to the face very soon. At 2750 m Bakhim is a green refuge and offers a lovely campsite with a gurgling brook nearby. The dusk gathers mysteriously and descends into the pine forest like a gossamer veil clinging to the branches ever so lovingly that the night breeze caresses with infinite care and unbridled mirth. It is wiser to turn in early and await the dawn for the next day would be of much toil.

Making your way amidst the exordial riot of rhododendron and magnolia trees you reach soon the lacustrine confines of Tsoka at 3050 m. The tiny hamlet stands like a brilliant Turner canvas with the red roofed monastery gazing pensively into the limpid lake. The mild flutter of halcyon breeze, galloping down the mountainsides arrive like the emissary of the loftier planes, for soon would you be entering the high altitude arena, leaving behind the green vegetation to its own design. A short rest later you must shoulder your burden and continue further towards the night-refuge site of Pethang, which has a well-defined campsite and a small-dilapidated wooden hut. Provided the sky is clear, the golden dawn at Pethang could be of extreme beauty. Since you are already above much of the vegetation, the clear horizons all around offer unheralded vistas, punctuated intermittently by snowy summits of sheer magnificence. Primarily among them the awesome south face of Pandim (6691 m), a virgin peak considered sacred by the locals.

A comparatively short and comfortable ascent of three hours leads into the grazing meadows of Dzongri. At 4030 m, Dzongri is a vast windswept grazing ground with superb views of Kanchendzonga, Kokthang, and the Kabru massif. Right beside a freezing stream several forest rest houses offer a comfortable home away from home. Though the rancid odour of fire smoke permeating into the air could be trying for some. At Dzongri one must decide if one really wishes to press further towards Rathong glacier or return the way he had arrive, since the going would soon become tough if one elects the former.

After a day’s rest, which should include an ascent to a small hillock (Dzongri peak) only for the view of Kanchendzonga, if nothing else, let us again take to the road. What is life after all if not a never ending journey in search of the unknown. Head for the tiny notch at the horizon right at the foothills of Black Kabur peak, where Dzongri la (4550 m) would lead you into the Rathong valley. Around two hours of brisk walk should see you there and when you stand there at the verge of a tottering descent on the other side, what you witness is nothing less than superlative. The huge valley sweeps down like a gigantic bowl and rises to meet the majestic peaks of Rathong, Kabru massif, and Kokthang. Those with a keen sight might also detect the Rathong glacier snout far away. It would take another two hours perhaps to descend into the valley across another log bridge over the foaming Rathong stream. As you journey along the true right bank of the stream, you cross ice-filled and semi-frozen verglas coated waterfalls—gingerly I daresay and eventually at the end of an extremely exhausting day arrive near the snout of the Rathong glacier (4600 m).

The night is truly freezing and the place is windy beyond comfort. Being so close to the glacier—almost at a touching distance could fill you up with amazement even if you are a seasoned initiate into the Himalaya. As the mirthful moon chequers its path across the black sky, shimmering with countless stars, you must step out of your tent, at least once, and experience the nocturnal beauty. The scintillating crowd of snow peaks as they bore down upon you from all sides and the glistening sliver of Rathong stream would certainly ensconce you in its inebriated symphony.

For those more adventurous and well trained and equipped for the ordeal, a trip to the glacier could prove rather exhilarating. A competent team could attempt even a trip into Nepal across the Rathong La.
The return trip to Yuksam can be done through various diversions, each equally enchanting and rewarding. To enjoy the trip, all you need beside your basic clothing and a good pair of trekking shoes, is a penchant for the unknown and a zest for life, and certainly a more than ordinary resolve to succeed. Not to forget a camera and loads of films.

Now all it remains for you is to stir your spirit and step out of the door. Bon voyage!

Scrambles on China Peak.

The lodge manager assured us that we could see China from China Peak. I wondered how did China look like, in case we saw it and how would we know that we were seeing China and not something else. And what was so fascinating about China that my father was willing to sacrifice morning sleep, siesta and two sumptuous meals and climb several hours in early dawn to the top of the eponymous peak! There is never an easy answer to an obvious question was what I learnt that fateful April day. Unbeknownst to me, my father had already hired a pony for the climb. We got up around 3 am and found the pony chewing fodder without a concern. We walked along with the pony man around the lake and father mounted when the trail started climbing. Thus our caravan progressed upwards-- father straddling the pony, the pony man holding the leash and I bringing up the rear in a trot. Though the path was steep I managed to keep pace. We roused birds en route. Ever so slowly the eastern sky turned crimson. After three hours, we finally made it to the top to discover the morning sun punctuating the horizon with myriad hues of orange. While the pony man ambled away, the duo of father and son stood transfixed at the dazzling array of ice clad peaks, row after row, being bathed by the rising sun rays. As the sun rose, the tip of the summit would blush, and as the sun rose further, the golden glow traveled down as if the heavens poured molten gold from above. Something unimaginable, enormously beautiful and entirely incomprehensible was happening right in front of my eyes. Father pointed at the distant peaks and said, ‘this is the Himalaya, the mightiest mountain range in the world. It safeguards us from the North and it gives us our rivers. Without the Himalaya, we wouldn’t exist’.
Even at that early age, I realized that what I witnessed was far beyond the realm of man or reality as we understand. It could only be the handiwork and design of someone far superior and exalted. It was my first brush with divinity. I do not know what gripped my imagination at that moment or why I blurted, ‘one day I will climb them.’
Towering high above me, father patted me indulgently on my head and we retraced our path to our lodge in complete silence. Both of us submerged into what we had just witnessed. It only occurred to me when we returned back home that we had not seen China, or if we had, father never bothered to point it out. Thus initiated to the high Himalayan vista, I started serious climbing from the age of ten and over the last three decades have climbed mountains of all shapes and sizes across the globe.

Cloud Nine in Nainital.

The same year he got me the globe, also happened to be the one when father took us to Nainital. As far as my memory goes, this was my first official travel outside the city of my birth. We lodged in a guesthouse by the lake. It was mid April, well before the holiday season and the mornings were misty and mellifluous and the malls deserted. We galloped on richly dressed ponies and pedaled boats in the lake, with swans and ducks grabbing fishes at stone’s throw. The pines and deodar-riddled slopes rose into the blue sky where sun often played hide and seek amidst the truant clouds. To my eyes there couldn’t be a prettier place in the entire universe and the lake-view stand ice cream vendor the finest specimen of his trade. We soaked in the sun, walloped in the gallant breeze and generally watched life go by in the sun-drenched splendor. My brother (the thinker) brooded and wrote his melancholy poems, while mother sang soulful songs, I got lost all the time and my father enjoyed his siestas. One morning the clouds suddenly gravitated downwards and soon our lodge got totally draped by the grey-white clouds. Through the skylight smoke of cloud poured unabated, inundating our rooms completely in an opaque drape. While my brother dived beneath the bed to escape the onslaught, I ran out with a bag to grab as much cloud as I could for posterity. It was a riveting sight. Absolutely nothing was visible and ghostly forms appeared and disappeared every now and then shimmering like mirage. The clouds themselves danced and twirled into million shapes and sizes and how I wished that I had the magic carpet and could fly off into the oblivion. Much later I learnt that we indeed had a magic carpet and it was called the ‘Air India’, but then that’s a different tale and needs to be told some other time.