Sunday, May 10, 2009
My short hiatus from the cyber world this time was not due to the mountains. My life has been a crazy mix of the heights and the depths, the mountains and the oceans. The former - my passion, and the latter - my profession. Obviously, given a choice, I chose passion over profession every time.
A professional matter recently found me in the vicinity to the sea and the marine wild life. Armed only with my camera and a sturdy floater sandal, off I went to explore the famed Narara Marine National Park in the Gulf of Kutch. It took around an hour’s drive from Jamnagar to reach the Marine Park entry point. Hussain, the resident keeper of the park met me. This was one of the places in our country, where being in the Navy helps. I needed no forest permit, no tickets. Hussain handed me over to his guide, who was a sprightly and spindly thin boy of 18. Full of stories and beans he led the way while I struggled to keep pace. It was early morning, the sun mellow and the breeze bellowing pleasantly. The tide was low, as it is a prerequisite to go deep into the coral reefs. After crossing the mangroves, my guide led me to the right into a shallow channel of clear water. Soon we stumbled across a huge Neptune Crab with its claws splayed for an attack. Its blue shell contrasted amazingly with its white underbelly. I toyed with snails and corals, bright and pulsating with life. Suddenly my guide hailed a fisherman at the horizon, bent under a heavy basket. On close scrutiny I discovered a massive cache of Neptune and Ghost Crabs. The crabs held each other with their claws. The fisherman revealed that his catch would fetch about a dollar for a kilo. He taught me two local recipes for crabs. He also told me a tale that I need to authenticate. Extracts of Neptune Crabs were used in cold and cough tablets!!! Leaving him to his design we waded forward.
My guide suddenly scooped into the muddy water with a cry of joy and came up with a moon coral. While a pair of flamingo spied us carefully from a distance, we explored further. A sea cucumber appeared next from nowhere, while crabs scooted all around us. My guide showed me how the crab’s claw bites into an object and then it sheds, simply detaches and falls off. The highlight of the day was definitely my mortal combat with an octopus that thoroughly drenched me black with its ink. When I let it go, it disappeared like a torpedo into the muddy water. We soon caught another one, embedded into the ground with only its eyes at the ground level. My guide revealed that octopus digs and lives in deep underground tunnels and no matter how much we try we would never be able to catch one that is already buried in the ground.
We traveled through exotic corals of blue, turquoise and orange, carefully stepping across so as not to damage any and to save our feet from any cuts. While I took pictures, my guide had scrambled forward. His loud triumphant cry made me look up. He was nearly 100 ft ahead of me towards the sea, standing on top of a sizeable rock and jumping up and down like a monkey. His smile could have split his face into two. I needed no more bidding. Shouldering my camera I raced too. What I saw made me stop on my track. Right at his feet, a strange looking fish with white belly and green top reposed like a beached whale. It was swollen like a balloon and remained completely immobile. Out of the water, I thought it would die. My guide confided this is a puffer fish, very poisonous. Only Japanese people eat them, after applying some 62 methods of cleaning and purging the poison. Having many Japanese friends, I did not doubt it. He lifted it in his palm and shook it like a bottle and right on, I heard the distinct shake of water inside its belly. Then he placed it on my palm. The fish felt exactly like a water balloon, ready to burst any minute. The fish looked at me with orange eyes. Soon it started belching water through the gills. The moment I dipped it in water, it swelled up again. Finally I left it in water and it zoomed away between the corals. After some more time, when the tides turned and begin to rise, we retraced our path and returned home.
This brief encounter with the marine world brought back memories of many islands, coral reefs and dives that I have visited and done around the world. Be it high up above the clouds or deep within the oceans, our world is beautiful as it is plentiful. All we need is to care and share. I forgot to tell you, as my car left the Narara beach, my car’s back seat was full of plastic and bottles that I had fished out from the corals. They were the only objects I carried back from my seaside sojourn on that day.
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Monday, May 4, 2009
I am 45 and have a short term memory, which means that I often forget things that has happened recently... say within the last few days or hours or minutes. This is not a bad thing actually. Makes up for a great excuse and it is true. My doctors, who have been experimenting with my body and brain to study the effect of extreme high altitude, rarefied atmosphere along with oxygen deprivation and prolonged exposure to low atmospheric pressure, has finally ruled that my brain cells have been permanently damaged or altered in a way that they find hard to explain. But my short term memory is an outcome of my vertical life. While my long term memory often remains intact, though now, as I could probably 5 years ago, I would find it rather difficult to rattle out names and heights of several thousand peaks and passes scattered across the Himalaya. Nevertheless, this evening, a short while ago, suddenly a vision from the past came to me. I was back to being tiny thirteen and an uncle asks me; So what do you wish to become when you grow up!
Grow Up!!! I must have looked horrified. Here I was at the prime of my teen world having a blast of a time. Who wanted to grow up! Not me. And if I remember correctly then I told him that I don't wish to grow up and if I do then all I would wish would be to continue growing up. I am still the child, growing up since I have no choice in the matter, but refusing to grow up, since there I do have a choice. Why don't we all exercise this choice, at any stage of our life, even for a moment, try it, it's whole lot of fun.
On the subject of childhood and growing up, while I was trying to think of something more illuminating, I suddenly remembered a poem that a friend had written when she was only 14 and which she shared with me only a few days ago. It sums up beautifully the way my world used to be and the way it still is, since I exercise my choice and simply refuse to grow up. By the way, this friend of mine, would never grow up either, but she is trying very hard to. Now enjoy the poem: Incidentally, the picture above is of my 12 year old niece, Ishita, who wants to climb Everest one day and while I am teaching her ice climbing I am also teaching her the art of never growing up.
I think the world is going wrong
When everything is perfectly right
I think that there should be more trees
For the birds and the bees
But other people don’t see things in that light
And when I wake up, and the sky is grey
I wonder why it’s so, in the month of May
So stupid me,
I guess I’m just another freak.
I ask people why they change
When it’s so easy to stay the same
Just don’t let things like money
And a broken heart affect you
And you’ll never have to suffer any pain
‘Easy for you’, they say
‘You’ve never seen life that way’
So stupid me
I guess I’m just another freak.
I think of life before the engines were born
And people lived the way they should
With just enough food for a day or two
And not too many diamonds on
The heels of their shoes
All the women-they cooked and cleaned
And the men-Can’t think of what they did without T.V.
So silly me
I guess I’m just another freak.
Thinking that dreams were easy to follow
When other people just can’t swallow
That. Now that includes my mom and dad
And I know that’s pretty sad
But that’s what happens when your dreams
Just can’t come true
Now I don’t know why I said that
‘Cos I know my mom won’t like that
So stupid me
I guess I’m just another freak.
There was a Gnu
In a zoo
Who had flue
And he was so sick
He could no more pick
The nuts people threw
I went to a shop
To buy some crop
But there was none
So I came back
With a brown sack
Full of bun
My pet bear
Was such a dear
That he would not
Without a cot
Go to sleep
Like a perfect creep
If in the sky
The birds do fly
Then they must have flew
In the skew
And will be flying
In the skying
Mr Moo of Mozambik
Was a bit eccentric
He would have
One dozen crab
For his lunch
Which he would munch
And then complain
They taste like toothpick
Sunday, May 3, 2009
We were on our way to the North Pole, but the weather was bad and we were holed up in the northernmost habitation in the world – Longyearbyen, the main city of the Svalbard Archipelago of Norway. This was one of the few places on Earth, where a Polar Bear had the right of the way on a road. The gun laws were ludicrous at the best. With Polar Bears often straying close to civilization, it is mandatory to carry a gun when venturing out anywhere, even slightly out of the town lights. To hire a gun from a shop, all one needs is a photo id and demonstrate that one knows the general direction the gun barrel must be pointing when one is pulling the trigger. But that doesn’t mean that one can rampantly kill a Polar Bear. Surprisingly, but obviously, if a shooting accident happens and a Polar bear does get seriously damaged or dead, then the benefit of the doubt is awarded to the bear. So after you kill a bear, you have to conclusively prove in the court that the bear had every intent to kill you and you acted in pure self defense. Which normally means that you must wait till the bear has bitten into you or better still if he has bitten off a sizeable part of your earthly body, and then go for the trigger. In one of my trips there, I once found a man serving three years of confinement because he did not wait that long to use his gun.
The North Pole odyssey can take up an entire book by itself and several blogs even to start scratching the surface, hence I would only relate here a miniscule part of the journey. Ice caving in Longyearbyen Glacier. I had friends at the UNIS, the northernmost university in the world and gathered a small team of two men (including me) and two girls. It was a two nation team (India and Germany). Ulli is a renowned glaciologist and a name to reckon in the polar adventure world and his friends Elke, the pretty lass with glasses was doing her masters in Permafrost fauna from UNIS while Megan pursued skiing in between ripping her yacht across the globe, winning ocean races every now and then. All three of them were veteran polar skiers and knew the area inside out. We were headed for the Longyearbyen Glacier where the ice cave was located. We took Skidoos till the end of the town, where the snow became too soft and steep. We dropped the skidoos and strapped our skis. Svalbard has some of the most fickle and dreaded weather patterns in the world. People have died within sight of the little town.
Ulli carried his map, but soon, as a massive weather front hit us, it became useless. We simply skied uphill through a blank, white thick curtain of hurricane blizzard. I had complete trust on my companions. Though new to me, this was their backyard. Purely by instinct we climbed. Eventually the gradient and the sinking snow forced us out of the skis. The moment I took the skis off, I sank till my upper thigh. So we silently flopped towards the glacier basin like clumsy seals, hoping against hope that no Polar Bear would stray out in such atrocious weather. The gun barrel jutting out of Elke’s sack was a reassuring sight though. We had to stop intermittently to clear our ski goggles and take bearing. Though they didn’t tell me, but I sensed that my companions were totally lost and they had no idea where exactly the entrance to the ice cave lay. So I gently prodded Megan to let me in the search party. She gave me a fairly accurate description of the marker flag and the wooden board plank that covered the gaping hole on the ground that lead into the cavernous interior. She also told me a bulge of the high ridge that often one could see from far and the entrance lay almost in line with that bulge. But it was a hopeless situation since we could barely see each other even when our bodies touched. The blinding blizzard stung our exposed eyeballs like specks of fire whenever we took off our goggles, to clear them of frost.
And then, I saw it, as clearly as day, though I simply don’t know how, or was it purely my instinct, since no one else could see anything except impenetrable whiteness in the direction that my finger pointed. I lead them, through sinking snow, with a horrid feeling that I could be walking atop hungry crevasses. Shortly we arrived at the fluttering flag, and we all gave a whoop of joy. With combined effort, we managed to clear the snow hill atop the wooden plank and a crack barely wide enough for all of us to wriggle through. Though Ulli, at 188 cm, was the giant in the team, he squeezed in even before I could take off my sack. I have no idea how he managed it, but then a driving blizzard and intense cold is a good motivator for doing impossible things.
The moment we dropped in, everything became calm and quiet. I stood on a tiny ledge of rock solid ice with a deep dark tunnel leading into the bowels of the glacier. A rope anchored to a screw snaked away into the dark hole. My companions had already disappeared from sight, and I could only hear their laughter and expressions of amazement, that came up to me like a whirlpool churning up cold air. Switching on my headlamp, I discarded the rope and simply glissaded on my back, keeping the ice carefully away with my shoulders. As I sank deeper into the bowels of the glacier, the world outside seized to exit. After a drop of around 50 ft, I found space enough to stand up. Illuminated by four headlamps the ice chamber sparkled like million diamonds. The ice floor was so slippery that we could barely stand straight and had to keep our knees flexed for balance. Absence of wind made the place comfortably cool and we explored further. Ulli had once done a project inside this cave and now he showed me the probes and measuring benchmarks left by some of his students. At places we had to squeeze with our faces tilted to a side, else we could get stuck and also at places we had to expel all our breath. We kept on dropping from one level to another and then climb at places where the ice was thick enough and there was room to swing our axes. Ice climbing inside an ice cave, located several hundred ft underground inside a glacier must rank among the oddest and least practiced of adventure sports. Being such a dynamic medium, ice caves change their shape and size even within the span of months and ice-pools and melt water streams were not a welcoming sight. On our return, Megan slipped and fell into one, sinking to her waist by the time we extracted her. We had no spare shoes or socks or trouser. Once we exited the cave, and hit the blizzard, she started losing heat fast and was not in a condition to ski. She could soon go into a shock. It was becoming a dreadful situation fast and I was once again in my elements. With god knows how many years of climbing, skiing, survival in such places experience between Ulli and I, we knew that the situation was well under control.
Using her skis and poles and our only rope length, we improvised a sled. She was strapped and anchored to it like a turkey headed for Christmas supper. And then, off we went like the space shuttle. Ulli short-roping her from the front while Elke and I pushing from behind with all our might. By the time we reached the UNIS hostel, and Elke started frying some crackers and bacon we were rolling in mirth including Megan. It had been an exhilarating outing and breathtaking in every sense of the word.
THIN WHITE LINE. By Andy Cave. Pp 230, 45 photos, four maps, 2009. (Arrow Books, London, £8.99)
Andy writes the way he climbs his mountains. Pure and simple, direct, and above all beautifully. Having known him personally, it defies belief that such an unassuming man could be one of the finest contemporary climbers in the world who wields his pen with finesse equaling the swing of his ice axe. Starting off where he had paused in his bestselling debut Learning to Breathe, Andy now takes us on a whirlwind tour to some of the severest alpine challenges across the globe from the high echelons of the Patagonia to the cliffs of Norway and the remotest corners of Alaska.
Following his tragic loss and personal journey through purgatory in the high Himalaya in 1997, Andy question’s his life’s purpose and his relationship with the mountains, which gave him everything as well as took away what he held among his dearest. The initial part of the book describes his inner struggle and his efforts to come to terms with the price that mountains often demand from those who venture into their icy heights. While he is looking for answers to his inner turmoil he comes across a book on the Patagonia Mountains and decides to go for the dreaded Fitzroy, perhaps in a kind of therapeutic-climb. Post Fitzroy he still finds his mind unsettled as to his mountaineering future and follows it up with no-holds-barred all fun and games kind of expeditions to Norway. No high mountains or vertical towers of ice but simple big walls of solid rock overlooking some of the pristine fjords in the world. Initially beaten by the fickle Norwegian weather, Andy completes some superlative climbs with his partner Leo Houlding and lives to tell the tale. Though satiated to an extent he again pines for the heights and solitude of remote mountains and then heads for Alaska, where he chalks up a series of intrepid ascents.
Thin White Line on one hand is a fantastic collection of climbing tales from across the globe peppered with amazing people and human impersonations and on the other it is a mountaineer’s inner journey to find himself in the remote vastness of his soul. Most of us who climb for the sheer pleasure of climbing in remote mountains and are still struggling to find the answers as to ‘why do we climb’, would find a familiar soul in Andy and perhaps find words to their own thoughts. While the others who do know, would discover their own thoughts resonating through the book. Andy climbs and writes from the heart, the only way he knows and the only way a true mountaineer should be. Another masterpiece from a superb alpinist, Thin White Line is a must for any mountaineering aficionado’s collection.
Saturday, May 2, 2009
Life offers us unlimited options and choices, most of which are manmade. I don’t accept most and consciously and willingly reduce my options to the barest minimum. Grasping only what is essential and natural. There is an almost non-existent line separating our dreams from our realities, for we think therefore we are! And in our dreams we can cover galactic voids in a wink or create universes out of nothing. There is a constant yearning for what we are not and what we want to be, there is a perennial struggle to grasp what lies beyond our vision while discarding those that are within. My life is essentially devoid of these struggles or turmoil, since I live only for my dreams and I foolishly believe that all my dreams are viable, achievable and definitely within the span of this lifetime. Choices are extremely limited, banal to the best, so I go for it, most often than not, I rush in where angels would fear to tread. Life on and off the edge is all about believing in my dreams, holding my life in my hand and swinging out my ice axe into the fuzzy unknown, with complete faith in myself and the elements, and finally emerging out alive at the top, only to stand on an insignificant piece of rock or a forlorn patch of ice. Risking my life and limbs incessantly, time and again, putting everything at risk on one single move, on one tiny ant sized piece of ledge or rock, one insane leap, one single frozen second, one gravity and definitely logic defying upward push… nothing to hold on to, or to hold me back. If I fall, I go and there are no worries at all, but if I don’t then I am euphoric and tired and afraid, shaking like a dry leave in tempest, cursing my stupidity and vowing that never again would I depart from the horizontal plain. Why do it! Why do I do it! Because I am not happy living one life, but dying a million times and living million lives in this one I fulfill my infinite dreams, flying on their wings. Living every moment while dying in the next, I live a thousand fantasy. In this series of my ramblings I will constantly take you to the edge and throw you off into empty air and when you fall free, without gravity or sense of space, will you experience true freedom, true unwinding of your soul, with absolutely nothing to fear and nothing to hold you back. For as they say: if you are not living on the edge, you are taking too much space, so let’s give it to the world, let them enjoy their space while we will live OFF the edge. The FUN has only begun.
Climbing in the Cordillera Carabaya Range in the Peruvian Andes:
This unnamed peak (the black rocky pyramid) had fascinated me from the first time I saw it from the air, while returning from another climb in the Peruvian Andes. It took me nearly two years to gather a small team and enough fund to go looking for it from ground. To find this unknown peak, in one of the remotest and least explored mountain regions in the world was not an easy task. But we finally did find a local alpaca herder, who would carry our loads to the base glacier, who recognized it from my picture. Though unnamed by the mountaineering fraternity, he told us that the mountain was the abode of the ‘Huaca’ spirits and we should not climb it. As we approached the general area, huge clouds from Pacific rolled in and blotted out our horizon. We had to climb another peak to get this view, and as if in a dream it emerged out of the clouds. I felt its fatal charm, like sirens calling and trapping the mariners. Despite our guide’s warning, we managed to climb this peak in a duration of 11 insane days. When it was all over, we were totally spent, exhausted, without thoughts or action and one member less. One of my finest climbing buddies, Sarah, uprooted a piton while descending and plunged to her death, never to be found again. There she still lives, I would like to believe, giving company to the ‘Huacas’, regaling them with her charm and smile. For all I know, by now she could be the ruling queen of the holy spirits.
Shows our ascent route in blue and the pink circles are the campsites. We failed on our first attempt to the right when the danger of rock fall became too obvious even to a harebrain like me. Hanging from our teeth, we had some gritty climbs. We were bombarded by snow, avalanches, fierce winds and terrible temperatures. Due to the sheer technicalities, we did aid climbing in our normal hiking boots. Till date I have no idea how we escaped without any frost bites. Sarah fell when her abseil anchor uprooted at the notch of ‘Y’ on the route, where our first and second route joined. I was right beside her, and in less than a fraction of a second she was whisked away by the wind and gravity while I stood mute and frozen, with absolutely nothing in my capacity to do or prevent her death. But I know as much for her as much for me, that we climbers like to live right here right now, so every moment our last and also the first where one dream ends and another, equally or more outrageously fantastic, begin.
Here I am leading one of the crux pitches, with classical aid climbing stance, beyond the penultimate campsite, smack right on the middle of the sheer sweeping face.