Friday, July 31, 2009

Life Off the Edge Part 2 – Topping of Thor

I am often asked the steepest mountain or face I have ever climbed. This post is the answer. I doubt if I would ever climb anything steeper. No, it has nothing to do with my age or fitness level or my desire to stay alive… the reason is much simpler, more rudimentary. There simply is no steeper mountain face in the world than the West face of Mt Thor. It also ranks among my most technical and intrepid climbs, though at the time it did not appear so. More than half of the ascent had to be aided and I was paired with one of the masters of aid climbing. My buddy and partner in several such crimes, the Ukrainian gymnast, Natalia, or Nat as I called her. Watching her zoom up those mindboggling rocks and thin fissures of ice with the grace of a ballerina and strength of a wild beast, while she accomplished smooth gear placements in invisible cracks without missing a breath I have often wondered if she was the cousin of Spider Man. Now read on.

Trying to clip the quickdraw through a red colored friend I watched my inert fingers as they struggled to curl around the ‘D’ carabiner. It was too damn cold. A second later I knew I was going to drop the protection. It slipped through my hand and spiraled out of sight into the white flurry of snow that the wind drove up the rock face on which Nat and I literally hung from our nails. I watched it fall, willing it to stop and bounce back into my outstretched palm, and waited for it to hit ground. It must have but I did not hear a thing. We were too far up to hear and I was too far exhausted and exhilarated to care.

I looked to my left and below. Nat swung gently from her etriers; the green-blue kernmental rope that she belayed me with rose like Indian rope trick reaching my harness in a series of short waves as the rising wind whipped it intermittently. It was the second day of our climb on the sweeping 1255 m west face of Thor; the worlds steepest and possibly the longest uninterrupted cliff wall. With an average gradient of 105 degrees the face overhung right from the bottom. On my insistence, as I did not prefer aiding, we had free climbed the first half of the face, though till date it baffles me how. Since I pendulumed well away from the face with the overhang around 115 deg, I saw all the way to the bottom and then at my partner and mouthed, silently, ‘Sorry.’ Nat gave me one of her heartbreakingly beautiful smiles and winked. ‘It’s ok, Sat,’ She mouthed, ‘I am here.’ Standing at 155 cm, Nat weighed 42 kg and at this moment her slight frame jingled with more than 20 kg of hardware piled up from shoulder to waist. Our haul bag dangled further below. For an observer on ground it must look comical. Two human beings and one shiny red vinyl coated haul bag swinging freely like the arms of a grandfather clock. Though what would be the most difficult to ascertain was how did they reach where they were.

Thor and its surrounding peaks are one of the most amazing spectacles of nature I have ever seen in my life. Located in the south eastern peninsula of Canada’s Baffin Island, well inside the Arctic Circle in Auyuittuq (let me see who all can pronounce this. If you can’t let me know and I will add the phonetic pronunciation as a P.S. later) National Park, it juts out abruptly from the ground like a walrus’ teeth. If you stand at the bottom of the west face and look up right above, you can see the summit forming an umbrella and falling behind you since it overhangs at a gravity defying angel. It is unbelievably smooth, steep and haunting. The local Innuits call it Qaisualuk and yes, it is named after the Norse God of Thunder. There is absolutely no easy way up to the top of Thor, and west face is often the test ground of the world’s finest rock and aid climbers.

With my penchant for ice and frozen places I was way out of my league but the sheer beauty of the area had lured me up to where I now found myself. I wouldn’t be here with anyone else but Nat. Thor is infamous for rock falls, it is not uncommon to witness boulders the size of a small car crashing down its flanks at regular intervals. Preferring ‘frozen to death’ over ‘crushed to death’ we reached the base of Thor towards the end of March in that charming year of 1996. Reaching Thor is an understatement. You don’t reach Thor, you go through an entire expedition and logistical nightmare rather close to reaching the base camp of Kangchenjunga, only ten times more difficult.

Auyuittuq National Park is really remote and it is far, really far from anywhere. The closest habitation is actually in Greenland across the Davin Strait of the Baffin Bay. We managed to reach Manitoba Churchill from Winnipeg and from there, Nat’s crazy cousin flew us into Pangnirtung in one of the scariest flights I have ever taken. Consider this under the light that every time I fly (which is very often) I sincerely wish that my flight should either get hijacked or crash or fall from air, and you will begin to understand how Anatoly, Nat’s crazy cousin flew.
Gripping my seat, which was simply strapped to the floor with a frayed hemp rope, till my knuckles turned white, I was very sure if the single engine WWII vintage spider moth did not crash into the Hudson Bay or threw me out of the window as it cart-wheeled intermittently to the accompaniment of Anatoly’s perverse laughter then my heart was surely going to stop soon since it kept leaping into my mouth like a frog looking to exit its well. I have definitely had my share of mad people but Anatoly pretty much is the craziest of them all.

During the six hour long flight with a brief refueling halt at Coral Harbor in the Southampton Island, I must have died at least a dozen times if not more out of sheer fright. When my wobbly feet touched ground I felt I had reached Mecca. I crashed to the soil and kissed mother earth as if I had just returned after a decade of flying in outer space. Crushing me in a bear hug, Anatoly kissed me on both the cheeks (punched by the vodka fumes, I nearly fainted again) and promised to return on the appointed hour to ferry us back home. Yeah, right, I grumbled, only if he lived that long. And I would sell off my grandmother before I stepped into that bloody plane of his ever. It is another story that I had to eat my words after a fun-filled fortnight. As a parting shot, while he revved up the wreck he lovingly called his flying angel, Anatoly screamed, ‘Now Sat, look after my sis, ok, and don’t mess around with her.’ He winked and lifted off and soon disappeared into the clear blue sky.

From Pangnirtung we skied across the frozen fjord straight up north, covering the distance in a day. We ascended the Akshayuk Pass and camped across the Windy Lake. The next day we followed the marker cairns up the valley, crossing Mt Odin to our north and then sighted Thor as it rose majestically spearing the sky with its pointed summit. As we set up our tent near its foot and I craned my neck up I wondered what had I got myself into! I was soon to find out.

Dangling at 1040 m I pondered my options. My fingers were really frozen and my upper limbs screamed for relief. Constant aiding and hammering rock protections had had its effect on me. Moreover I was burdened with a huge cache of metal. It is often opined that aid climbing is the most complex and tedious way to climb as one had to manage so many things simultaneously. And on Thor I was doing an A5. I couldn’t believe it, my previous best was A3 and at a place much closer to ground. I liked the simpler approach of just my ice axes and crampons. Ice climbing was so much simpler. Few hard and well placed tools and up you go like a bird. Ice screw or a peg goes in so much more easily and one could always hang from the leash of the axe and relax and take pictures.

I was on a lead pitch and the short daylight commanded to get the porta-ledge out and fixed. I couldn’t possibly ask Nat to come up and do it. It would not only be a loss of my face (which I was sure she wouldn’t mention to anyone ever) but also it was impossible to reverse our positions. The kilometer deep void under me did nothing to improve the situation or my spirits. Nat waited patiently to make my move. She remained silent and encouraging. I looked back at the wall, just out of my reach and considered my next step. Though it stared at my face it took several minutes to sink in; I had only one choice left. I had to combine two of the most difficult moves of trad and aid climbing, a deadpoint and roof respectively. Asking for a tension traverse I lunged at the hair line crack above my head, standing full out and then some on the topmost step of the etrier. My taped first two fingers found the fissure and went in and then twisted in a painful two-finger lock on its own. I got a fifi in and clipped a sling to my chest. Once the weight shifted from my legs and arms, I relaxed and signaled Nat to get the haul sack and herself up.

While she climbed I got another daisy chain into a higher crack hammering a pair of malleable copperheads. Now we had four anchors jutting off the wall, each countering the other and we could safely spend the night. As Nat reached me and patted me on the back patronizingly, I allowed her to go ahead and do the rest.

The next day we breezed to the top and witnessed an incredibly breathtaking sun rising from the east. Seldom have I been so euphoric. We hugged each other and brewed tea on the summit. I even asked Nat to hang on to my ankles and protruded nearly till the waist over the edge to gaze at the wonderful west face all the way down. As the dizzying angle nearly made my head go on a spin, I found it impossible to believe that I had just climbed the entire face. We came down the relatively easy east face and continued our journey up the valley for few more days of bliss.

P.S. For the serious rock and aid climbers, I know this post lacks technical details. Of course so much more happened on that climb, but for this post meant for general readers I felt the above would suffice. To read about this in details wait for my climbing book to get published. By the way, if any of you are a publisher or a literally agent then do get in touch with me. I am seriously looking for a publisher who would offer me that dream advance and I can enjoy my impending retirement from the Navy doing what I do best. One more thing, none of the pictures accompanying this post are mine, they have been borrowed from friends who do such stuff more regularly. The sole peak picture is indeed of Thor. On Thor I did not even carry my 2.5 kg heavy Nikon FM2. If I did, I would have had to sacrifice that much of hardware and I won’t be here today to tell you this tale then.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Wild Encounter

Drop the name ‘Sorang Valley’ amidst a gathering of even the most seasoned Himalayan climbers and chances are they would find it hard to place. Such are the places that attract me most. Located north of the Sutluj River in the Kinnaur Valley of Himachal, Sorang valley does not have any high peaks but there are many untrodden trails criss-crossing the thick forests. I had just reached the Parvati Valley from Spiti and now planned to exit through the rarely visited Kamba Khango Pass that would lead me into the heart of the Sorang Valley. I had contour maps of the area, few days ration and confident that I would find my way on to the other side to the small shepherd settlement of Sorang Dogri in two days. From there I would ascend to the tiny hamlet of Nyugalsari and find a bus to take me to Shimla.

From Kamba Khango Pass the trail disappeared and all I had to do was to lose height through the thick forest of pine. It was a full moon night in early April with the ground sheathed in heavy snow. My gaiter-laced boots sank till my calf. Ideally I should have moved only in the morning, lost as I was, but the night sparkled brilliantly with the stars and the moon gliding effortlessly across the sky. It was simply too beautiful for me to stay inside a tent. I could camp anywhere I wanted, whenever I got tired, if at all. I was alone and could pretty much walk through the night if I so wished.

The silvery moon and its light, whatever managed to filter through the foliage overhead painted the snow covered ground in amazing mosaic of baroque. A soft breeze played through the leaves as they rustled like snakes gliding across dry grass. I simply had to maintain a SW bearing and sooner or later I would clear the forest and sight the settlement. I walked unconcerned. Even whistled with the breeze and looked up whenever a clearing allowed the moon to bless me with its full mirth. At that moment I did not have a single care in the world and I did not wish to be anywhere else but exactly where I was. Content is a man who gets exactly what he wants and that night I was supremely content.

With countless hours spent in the wildest of places; I have naturally developed an acute sense of sensing things without engaging any of my normal senses. I think it is called, ‘sixth sense’. It warns me well in time and may be this is what has kept me alive through all perils. Without any foreboding, suddenly my hair stood up on their own. I felt a current pass through my body, and then my nose felt it too. A wild smell of savage animals permeated the air. My ears picked up the noise next. Several feet, soft and barely audible followed me from behind. I was not scared, have never been of any wild animals.

Normally a wild animal does not attack or kill without provocation or without being attacked first for self-preservation. They do not kill if not hungry and they only attack if they smell fear. A wild animal knows if the human is scared then he might attack to ward him off. But if you are not scared and you are friendly, genuinely from deep within, then chances are they won’t attack even if hungry. I am also a firm believer in my destiny and I know that if I am destined to die at a moment then I would, no matter what, and if my time was not yet up then I wouldn’t, even if I entered the den of a dozen hungry lions. I stopped walking and whistling and looked back slowly, so as not to startle whatever was behind.

Around ten meters from where I was a pack of wolves cordoned off my rear. They stood now expectantly, tongues hanging out and eyes burning like embers in the dark. They remained silent though the air buzzed with their thoughts. They were hungry and I was a prey. Though I couldn’t see all of them I guessed from the eyes I could make out that they numbered around 20. A wolf can sprint easily at 60 kmph and had teeth sharp enough to tear me to pieces in minutes. I had nothing to defend myself except the tiny Swiss knife in my pocket. I felt unusually calm. They did not appear aggressive or unduly hostile. It was a situation that was completely beyond my control. There was absolutely nothing I could do to change the equation. I was at their complete mercy. If the wolves decided to pounce on me right then, then they can and there was nothing to prevent it. I did not pray to my friend Shiva. I just knew that nothing would happen to me. I must walk and that’s what I did. I turned away again towards where I was headed and started walking. Sure enough, the 40 pair of feet followed.

I did not increase speed or break my steps even once. None of them closed the gap though they could have at any instant. We maintained our respective distance. The minutes and hours rolled on as did the moon keeping its vigil in the night sky. I remained acutely aware of my pursuers but totally unafraid and even unconcerned perhaps. Their silent feet pattering softly on the snow simply assumed another echo of the silent night. But my curiosity grew. When would they attack, why did they wait? They must know by now that I was alone and could not defend myself in any way. Wild animals know such things instinctively. Walking thus I suddenly sighted the end of the pine forest. Another fifty meters perhaps and I would exit the forest into a wide open field, flat pasture land where there were no shades and nothing at all to hide behind. And I realized to my delight that my camping ground lay on the other edge of this pasture land.

I came out of the forest and stepped onto the smooth unbroken sheet of white on the pasture ground. The moon burst free with utmost glee, dazzling my eyes now with its full brilliance. My entire body seemed to be glimmering in the silvery streak. It was beautiful beyond belief. I counted exactly a hundred pace and stopped, and turned around.

The wolf pack had stopped as before and now stood slightly closer forming a tight semi-circle, staring at me unblinkingly. The grey bodies now looked white and their eyes dimmed under the bright moon. They were beautiful. I had to solve the mystery. I lowered my back pack on the snow and dropped to my knees and looked back at them with open eyes, bidding them silently to come close. I figured that if they indeed would kill me now then it would certainly make a more interesting story: ‘Satya killed and eaten by a pack of wolves’ looked a more worthy epitaph than, ‘Satya went climbing and fell and died from some silly mountain.’ How many mountaineers can boast of being killed by wolves, none that I could recall at the moment.

The alpha male and female and another pair detached from the pack and came forward. I eyed their lop-sided gait breathlessly. Such amazing grace such perfection, I dared not breathe lest the trance broke. The four came right in front of me. Their mouths open and jowls bared with the polished teeth exposed. I extended both my arms loosely and let the fingers dangle inches from their nose. Their rugged breaths filled up the air and the wild smell drove into my inner soul. The red tongues dropped saliva around me and even on my hand. They pushed glistening nose and muzzle against my palm and stomach and circled around me several times. I did not break eye contact with the dominant pair. Their cold eyes bore into mine as I tried reading their minds. What are you thinking, tell me, I whispered. I spoke to them, remained still and offered whatever I had. They made unintelligible noises, whined and growled and after a while seemed to have satisfied their curiosity. The pack leader finally flicked its bristling tongue across the back of my right hand and turned back, followed by the other three. I stayed on my knees. They rejoined the pack. One by one they all turned back, towards the forest from where they had emerged.

Just before the forest ate them up, the leader turned around one last time and bore me with its burning eyes and then with a flick of its thick furry tale, he was gone. I remained immobile for how long I have no idea. Then I stood up and dusted the snow from my clothes. I shouldered my back pack and turned my back to the forest and to my friends and went down further in search of the new ones.

Post Script: The above episode happened in 1993 and I had all but forgotten about it, but only three days ago while I dined at a friend’s place it came back to me in a rush, triggered by something his nephew asked me that evening. I related the above story to his family. He insisted that I wrote a post about it. This is for you Raj… but for you and Ashwin’s question it would still be buried deep within the vaults of my forgotten memories. The picture is borrowed from a friend who breeds them in the Arctic

I Should Not Be Alive - Part 1

My life is replete with ‘I Should not be alive’ situations. Still, I am alive and none the worse for the ordeal. As you can observe this post is part 1 and if my memory does not fail me in my next ‘fall’ then you would have more such stories of epic survivals. You would notice a deliberate suppression of names including that of the mountain since this expedition went on to become a highly controversial one with the blame game being thrown all around terminating the careers of some brilliant mountaineers and good human beings. If any of the participants of that expedition reads this then let me make it clear that I have absolutely nothing against anyone. I risked my life on my own and whatever happened then or since are the outcome of my own actions. For those, who have been climbing long enough and would be able to identify the expedition and the climbers involved, may I request you to hold your peace and tongue. Mountains teach us not to hate or to hold on to grudges, it teaches us to accept, to let go and to move on. Now read and enjoy.

By that summer of my twentieth year, I had already experienced being buried alive under tons of snow and ice, plunging head first into deep dark crevasses, broken bones at high and improbable places, falling free under gravity, and unimaginable rescue efforts of few who risked everything they held dear in their life to save mine. I had seen life and death from uncomfortably close quarters. Though less than a decade old in the world of mountaineering, I figured that I had pretty much seen them all and then I changed my views.

We were a group of high strung and experienced climbers led by a legendary veteran. I was the youngest and least experienced in the team. After several punishing weeks, two of my partners and I finally topped a 1000 m steep wall of rock and ice and pitched our tiny tent on the shoulder of the summit ridge. All our hurdles, technical difficulties and dangers now lay below. The glistening summit stared down at us benignly over a smooth, steep ridge that did not offer any complications. From here, it was a simple scramble of 500 m ice the gradient at the most touching a measly 50 deg; shouldn’t be more than a walk in the park, my seniors observed. We carried only two days of food and fuel. It was a prized summit and we were poised to make the first ascent. It had darkened by the time we had camped and it was decided that early next morning we would strike for the top and could easily have lunch with our team placed below the rock wall. Naturally we were buoyant and happy. One of my partners thumped me on the back, ‘Satya, young man, you did well. You will become famous when we return. World’s top climbers would give anything to be where you are right now.’ I did become famous on return but in a way beyond my imagination then.

By midnight, the air stilled and the sky darkened. All the surrounding peaks, piercing the sky, fell silent. The breeze-less air felt rather warm. I spied some fireworks to the north, but it seemed too far to cause any harm. The mercury fell alarmingly through the night and though we hadn’t moved at all, we had gained altitude of more than 100 m by two in the morning. I was about to get my first serious practical lesson in weather prediction. My partners looked mildly worried. The silent night started becoming foreboding. Around three, just an hour before we wanted to start, the tent flaps started stirring like a flag. The guy ropes started beating on the ground making eerie sounds. Soon the tent shook violently and a sudden blast of snow caught us squarely. By now our altimeter had gone completely berserk. The needle spun as if under some spell. I was far too inexperienced to understand what was going on. My companions now looked really worried. I unzipped the tent door about two inches and immediately snow poured in through the perforation covering all of us and everything in an inch deep slush. The tent by now shook uncontrollably as if a giant was trying to uproot us and play Frisbee. We were perched at 6300 m, not really high but high enough if situations turned worse. I realized it then that to be with seniors is highly comforting since one feels that they would know what to do, that they always had a solution, no matter how bad things were. I was not deeply worried, just concerned that perhaps we won’t be able to summit that day.

Unknowing to us, we had been hit by one of the worst weather fronts ever recorded anywhere in the Himalaya.

Perched on the shoulder our tent lay exposed to the full fury of the cross-blizzard. Our only comfort being that we were not in the path of any major avalanche. The ground shook violently and our tent bellowed uncontrollably. I have no idea how it did not tear into shreds. It was not large enough for all three of us to lie down; we could simply squeeze in sitting positions and had some room to move our limbs. We occupied three corners of the tent, with our backs pushing against the wind, with all our equipment etc piled up on to the fourth corner, hoping that our combined weight would keep the tent grounded. The storm raged through the day and the night. We ate little and melted snow often. If there was one thing topmost on all our minds then it was a fervent hope that the tentmaker knew his job and had indeed used the best materials known to man in its fabrication. But for that thin layer of fabric we would be dead in under an hour.
The storm did not abate the next day and night. It raged through the third as well. Now my partners appeared as frightened as I. Our comm. sets died one by one and so did our hope for survival. We cut down on our food, of which barely anything was left. We rationed to a symbolic intake of two biscuits and two cups of water a day. Our fuel and the final biscuit ran out on the fifth day and with that all our hopes. We were hypothermic, delirious, weak to the bones, totally silent and barely alive. Huddled inside our sleeping bags we simply stared blankly at each other and the tent interior with no thoughts at all. In a bid for self-preservation, our bodies had started switching off the major organs one by one. First to go was the digestive system. I did not feel hunger or the urge to answer nature’s call. Only a deep hollow pit in my stomach raged from within. The storm continued without. The tent held up in defiance its tiny dome even as the snow piled up to its crown, burying us literally in a snow chamber. If one of us could muster enough strength and felt inclined then he would simply brush the tent roof or give a feeble foot-lash to dislodge the snow piling up from outside. I froze all over in slow motion. Amazingly my mind could feel and see as my extremities and then my innards froze one after another. As soon as the nerve endings died, it stopped hurting. I dozed in and out of consciousness.

On the sixth day, I looked around for some moisture. My throat was set in fire; I could not even swallow as there was no saliva at all. My tongue swelled up and must have turned black. Both my companion sat inert in their sleeping bags, eyes shut and dead in all appearance, though I was certain they were not, rather as close to being dead as I was. My wind pipe felt brittle and almost about to fall into shreds, I couldn’t breathe. I needed moisture, even a drop would do. Desperately I put a small snow flake in my mouth and immediately regretted as it choked and dehydrated me further. Then I saw my climbing boots. It were the days of leather climbing boots, unlike the plastic double layered ones of today. I knew the leather would have soaked in some moisture and it would still be pliable. Without any thoughts at all, I brought the shoe to my lips and started chewing and sucking at the leather. After hours I felt a slow trickle run down my parched throat. I continued chewing. That night my shoe kept me alive.

The windward corner of the tent finally gave way on the seventh evening. Snow filled up the tent like thick smoke, entering every tiny pore it found. Only my nose was exposed, rest all buried within my down jackets and fleece, most of which were by now useless. I had reached the state of zero thought process. I no longer had an identity, did not know who I was, or where I was or what I was up to. I did not even know if I was alive or had already died. I certainly felt dead since I felt nothing at all. The roaring blizzard outside and the swirling snow inside had silenced everything else, had driven away my last iota of strength and rationality.

My eyes saw but did not observe, my ears heard but did not listen; my heart still worked but did not beat. I detached from my physical body, hovering a little above and looked down at myself in a disjointed fashion. I was wasted completely and I was dead and so were my companions. And with that blissful realization I passed away into oblivion.

Post Script: For those who are wondering what happened thereafter; the storm raged for five more days, finally clearing up on the 12th morning. My back up team climbed up and found me still ticking but my companions frozen stiff. They brought me down in what must have been a herculean task. I don’t recall any of it. I was told that they found me completely caked in five inches of snow from head to toe. Only a pair of hole where my nose lay buried told them that I still breathed. They tried to feed me some water but I had coughed out everything. They bundled me like a stuffed turkey in my sleeping bag and simply lowered me hand over hand through twenty vertical pitches. My body banged and dashed on the rock and ice, swinging wildly on several occasions and I was told that I could have died on the way down too. It was not a time for kid-glove treatment. Haste was paramount. They literally dragged my body down like a sack of potato, rolling, pushing, pulling, and throwing, whatever it needed to get me down. While doing so, this superb team of men selflessly laid their own lives at unimaginable risk to save mine. They did it mechanically, since it needed to be done, or at least attempted. We mountaineers are foolishly stubborn and refuse to give up even when failure is assured.

From the lower camp, three Sherpas took turns to ferry me across the mountain and the glacier, getting me finally to the nearest hospital. I remember none of this either. The first thing I saw when I gained consciousness was a gentle looking fellow in white, with kind eyes. I was sure that I had opened my eyes in heaven. It was the doctor. When I was discharged and returned home, I found that I had lost 12 kg and most of my top layer of skin. I was emaciated beyond recognition. I took nearly two months to regain enough strength to stand unsupported on my feet. What remained the mystery of this ordeal was how I survived when my companions did not and medically it was virtually impossible that I still lived. A renowned cardiologist, neuroscientist and a clinical psychologist ran endless tests on me as I became a case study for them. Meanwhile a proper investigation was carried out and the expedition was analyzed in depth. The cardiologist and the neuroscientist finally accepted defeat. They could find absolutely no reason for me to be alive. The psychologist surmised that it was my will to live and my refusal to give up that had kept me alive. He said that my mind ticked while my body died. The other two died when they gave up and accepted the inevitable. I learned later that my case was often a matter of study for PG students under the psychologist.

Many people ask me even now as they did then, what I went through and what did I make of it. To them I have no answer, not then, not now. I just don’t know except that every time I go into these icy summits, I know it from the bottom of my heart that I am visiting my family and that I am among friends. I surrender myself completely to them, seeking nothing in return except their acceptance. Perhaps that’s what saved my life. After all, who would kill their own!

Happy climbing.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


An old saying goes that you can take the man out of the mountain but not the mountain out of the man. Mountains or for that matter any spectacle of nature, alters and transforms man indelibly. For those of us who go to the mountains repeatedly there is an inescapable charm and allure to those lofty summits that is hard to explain but easy to grasp. They transform us from what we are, from what we do to what we aspire to be. Trust me, it does, you do change and touched by the majestic peaks once you would never be the same again. Something deep within, far from prying eyes, would alter forever. Though this transformation is purely a personal experience unseen and unheard by anyone else, it is easy to see how the mountains transform you from the outside. It is visually appealing and repulsive too at times. Posted are few pictures of mine that show exactly this. The outward transformation of self when one has just touched heaven and returned to earth. They speak for themselves and I will not dwell any more, save one rejoinder that I am aware that these pictures may actually result in lowering my women readership; which I am willing to risk for truth needs to be told. Everything has its prize. And of course, if they propel any skin care multi-billion dollar company to approach me to test their products and be their brand ambassador then I am open to the deal as well. After all, I live risking my life every moment, what more harm can come if I have to splash some lotions on myself and go for that invisible summit I had been eyeing for a while. Happy gazing, climbing and transformations of within and without!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Guardian Angel

As I stepped off the road my feet sank perceptibly into the soft snow. It was the December of 83, I was about to turn nineteen and on my one of the earliest forays into the greater Himalaya. I wanted to seek solitude, a decent climb and my inner self; not necessarily in that order. It had been an unusually heavy winter with snow line starting well below Manali and coating everything within sight in a sweeping uninterrupted sheet of pure white. My quest lay above Manali, deep into the Beas Valley. All the villages and road side joints, bustling in the summer with tourist and odd-stuff sellers were now deserted. The road just ahead of Manali, that wound up towards the Rohtang Pass was submerged under heavy snow. No vehicular movement was possible neither deemed necessary.

Buried deep within the snow, lurked empty gaps and dangers of which I had no clue and I wished to go alone. I wound up slowly along the road and then at a point left the curbs and plunged deep into the forest. On my back I carried my tent, sleeping bag, food, fuel, clothing, etc that would sustain me over the next 12 days. I was young, inexperienced, reckless and definitely insane as my enterprise was bound to fail. Not even a bird stirred anywhere and the tall pine trees decked in white stood mute observers to my slow and haphazard progress. Suddenly, I paused and picked my ears.

In that deep silence of the forest another sound accompanied mine. It was hushed, muffled, but distinct… someone was following me. It stopped the moment I did and picked up as I resumed walking. Almost matching step for step, my unknown pursuer and I progressed. By now I was far from any civilization or help. Then I heard something that ruffled the back skin of my neck. Someone was panting right behind me. I spun around on my heel and stared back straight into a pair of deep, black pool of glistening eyes.

The dog stood barely a foot away. I had no idea how he could have crept up so close without my knowledge. We surveyed each other silently. He was a typical mountain shepherd dog, sinew muscles, long limbed, big muzzle and keen eyes. His teeth were bared and his tongue hung outside with saliva dripping on the snow. His jet black coat shone like silk and a solitary pure white diamond stood right in between his eyes on the forehead. Save that white spot, he was black through and through. His shoulders almost reached my waist. He was a huge brute, but friendly from my point of view. I extended my right hand, which he sniffed several times and rolled his head against my trousers showing acceptance. I was used to mountain dogs and paying no further heed continued on my journey. The dog followed me a step behind. I was glad to have him around though I did not wish for any human company. We gained ground slowly as the soft snow made progress laborious. I was approaching a narrow wooden footbridge (that I knew about) that would take me across the Beas gorge and from the other side I would climb further towards the glacier. The ground beneath lay at least 4 – 5 feet below snow and I doubted if in these conditions I would be able to locate the wooden bridge. Following my instincts and the noise of the rushing Beas, I went on.

Abruptly the dog overtook me with few easy bounds and raced ahead. I followed his barks as he disappeared within the woods. I rounded off a wide tree and found my friend standing in between two wooden hand rails, barking loudly and wagging his tail. He had found the bridge. Though I could not see the bottom of the bridge, the hand rails being nearly 5 feet above ground protruded marginally out of the snow. As I approached the dog barked fiercely and stood his ground with menace in his eyes. I have literally grown up with wild animals and insects and always believed in them. I felt as if he wished me to stop. I stopped and waited.

The dog ran ahead and suddenly pounced on the snow covered bridge. To my utmost horror, the bridge collapsed and the entire middle section tumbled off into the empty air below. I watched in slow motion as the rotten woods and pile of snow spiraled down towards the bottom of the gorge till it crashed into the water and rocks below without a sound. But for the dog I would have stepped on to the bridge and would be lying dead by now. He barked happily and wagged his tail as he returned to me in two long bounds. I patted his head and rubbed his belly. He led me further up the trail and we crossed the gorge from a higher bridge, of whose existence I had no knowledge.

When I pitched my tent in the evening, he parked himself right by the door. He shared my food and then snuggled inside for a comfortable night. We did not exchange a single word but we communicated rather well. In the morning he was nowhere to be seen. I presumed that he had returned home. I continued my journey towards the mesmerizing mountains now piercing the azure on my northern horizon.

Soon enough, the silent patter joined me at the back and I knew that my companion had returned. ‘Where did you go, young fellow!’ I patted his head as he rubbed his nose against my knee and made guttural sounds. After two days we reached the base camp. The dog remained by my side all through. In the last four days that we had been together I noticed something strange. Every time I pointed my camera at him, the dog would bound out of sight and would only return after I had kept the camera back in its case. Could he recognize a camera, I wondered, and did not wish to be photographed! The thought seemed crazy even to me; how could a dog not wish to be photographed. But after four days of hide and seek I knew that my surmise was correct and I promised him that I would not photograph him. Since then he remained by my side even when I had the camera unsheathed in my hand. We had learnt to trust each other.

On the fifth day, I started off for the summit. It was a straightforward climb of 1200 meters over 40 – 50 deg gradient of snow slope. It was not difficult or untowardly dangerous. I only had to be careful of the fresh snow accumulation at the summit ridge that could crash down unannounced. I hoped to reach the summit in about 5 hours and get down in two. A short simple day and then head back home. As I started up the dog stayed behind by the tent. Since it was a non-complicated face without much undulation I could see the dog and my tent all the way up as I gained height steadily. The silent air was crisp and the atmosphere seemed to be hanging breathlessly for some impending disaster. And then it happened. I heard a deafening crack above like thunder, but the sky was blue and cloudless.

I looked up and found my worst fears materializing like a conjurer’s trick. While I watched the entire summit ridge, heavily corniced and laboring under huge accumulation of snow, cracked and separated from the rest of the mountain and started crashing down in a gigantic avalanche of thundering snow. I was directly in its path and had absolutely nowhere to hide or avoid the onrushing snowy deluge. Strangely the only thought, as I watched the spectacle transfixed, that coursed through me was that I would not outlive my teen-ship. Confronting the unexpected and acceptance of the inevitable happened with such alacrity that I felt no fear but only a silent submission to the justice of God. The avalanche gained momentum as it raced down in full fury. I calculated that it would take around a minute to hit and blow me to smithereens.

The bark broke my reverie.

The dog had raced up to me and now wagged his tail vigorously. He looked into my eyes and suddenly took off downhill galloping like a prized derby. To this day I have no idea why I did what I did, but it saved me from certain death. Without a second thought, I dropped my knapsack and raced after the dog as fast as my feet could carry me. But even as I hurtled like a satellite out of orbit I gazed at the unbroken white of the slope in front, with the black dog streaking across like an arrow, and wondered how would this save me anyways.

There was absolutely nowhere to run, nowhere to hide and the colossal column of ice and snow now gaining in mass and potency in leaps and bounds would eventually overtake and obliterate us both from the face of earth. Our mad cap run could only delay the inevitable by only few seconds at the most. The avalanche front hit me with an upswing draft of chilling wind. Zillions of ice particles filled up the air like confetti, I felt being lifted by the breeze, and the main barrage could not be more than 50 meters behind. My eyes were fixed on to the black shape ahead. Suddenly in front of my incredulous eyes, the dog disappeared as if eaten up by the snow itself. My amazement was such that if it were possible for me to stop then I would but my momentum simply carried me forward and downward with my limbs completely out of control. Falling and tumbling when I reached the precise spot where my friend had disappeared a moment ago I found a tiny gap in the snow, a small black perforation in the uninterrupted white. I dived in like a rugby champion and even before my legs had followed my body within, the huge avalanche overtook me and rushed on in its path of destruction.

It was a tiny cave, barely able to take in the two of us. It narrowed towards the inner wall and as I hugged my friend the thunderous noise and debris above shook the entire mountain like dry grass. Snow blocks poured in through the gap and soon we plunged into complete darkness as our exit was completely choked. After what seemed eternity the mountain stopped rumbling and a deathly calm descended over the place. Breathing was difficult as we consumed the precious air slowly but surely. I tried to dig out through the ice but it was hard and impenetrable like tempered steel. Then I noticed my ice axe protruding out of the snow. I had no recollection of having it with me. I started hacking with the axe as the dog started digging with its paws.

After about an hour we emerged out of our chamber and surveyed the devastation below. There was no trace of my tent or any of my belongings. After three long and desperate days I reached civilization barely able to walk due to starvation induced exhaustion. The dog remained by my side every step of the way, but as I turned around, near the road, he was nowhere to be seen. I called out, beckoned him, but the woods had swallowed him as silently as he had emerged from them at the beginning. Only when I sat at a tea stall that night, gorging on rice and curry, did I wonder how the dog knew where the cave lay buried under the snow.

Our second meeting occurred four years later when I walked alone on a forlorn trail in North Sikkim. As soon as I had rounded a bend that took me away from the last human post, I found the dog sitting astride a boulder, wagging his tail and looking straight at me. He seemed to be waiting for me. I was surprised since he looked so similar to my friend in Beas Valley. Within five minutes of patting his back I knew it was him. He hadn’t changed even a bit. That expedition took me across some remote passes and glaciers and forgotten trails. The dog stayed by my side all through and as promised I never took his photograph. Once again as I sighted civilization the dog disappeared from my side. I found it strangely comforting. It was beyond explanation as to how he could travel from one corner of the Himalaya to another. But I felt that as long as he was with me, I would stay safe.

The third meeting confirmed that he would only come when I walked alone and away from other human eyes and when the terrain was full of danger. I was en route to Tso Moriri Lake from Spiti across the difficult Rubarung La and intended to climb a peak in between. Within an hour of leaving the last village, the now familiar patter of feet reached my ears. He stayed with me, once again and helped me ford the deep gorges countless times. Despite the intervening nine years he looked as fit and sprightly as ever. He seemed ageless and his coat shone brilliantly as ever.

Cut to the year 1997. I had just climbed a superlative peak in Zanskar and had exited the valley alone across the high Kang La pass that was still largely unknown. Even today this pass is not widely known among the climbers and Indian trekkers. As I crossed the pass on a bright afternoon and glissaded on to the other side, entering the Miyar Valley of Himachal, I suddenly knew that I would meet my friend. And there he was, atop a large glacier table, wagging his tail as before with an expression as close to a smile as a dog is capable of.

I was suddenly filled up with immense joy and realized how much I missed being with him. I hugged him long and told him stories over food. He nodded his head and whined at opportune moments just like another human being who could follow my stories. When I told him about my disastrous fall in one of the mountains he even gave me a chiding look as if to say, I know you are an idiot but do you have to prove it still! Over the next four days we passed through the glaciers and moraines and the flower decked grassy meadows like two long lost friends. We chattered unceasingly, both in silence and in words. I chased him across the glades and he located fresh water sources. As soon as I sited the first shepherds and his flock on the horizon I knew that it was time for my friend to depart. I kept a vigil to see when and how would he go. It had always remained a mystery. We walked the final miles across a flat and barren land with no trees or bushes anywhere. I kept staring at him, literally walking backwards as we crept nearer to the shepherd’s hut. He stared back mockingly as if he understood my intention and knew that his secret would not be divulged. Suddenly I tumbled and as I spun around to break my fall, my eyes left him for less than half a minute. When I looked back, he had gone. Simply vanished into thin air. I was not hallucinating I am sure.

I had to wait for another seven years before I met my friend again in 2004 on Everest. The base camp area buzzed with hundreds of people and tents of all colors and size. I least expected to see him in that civilized bedlam. I was leading a large team of 14 members and 10 support staff. One day, I climbed up on the eastern ridge above our tents where no one went, to get a different angle of Everest. As I ascended the slippery slope with my camera, Everest too rose like an apparition. Right on top of the ridge I placed my camera on a boulder to take a slow shot. Just as I was about to press the shutter, I was startled by the low growl, which by now I could distinguish even in my sleep. My friend lay curled behind the boulder. He stood up and came up to me rubbing his nose as always against my knee. He appeared none the worse for his age. Our association itself ranged over 21 years now. Why are you here, I asked him. By then it had ceased to amaze me that he could travel across the Himalaya at will and the valleys from one end to another. Where did he come from, who was he, how did he know where to find me.

He stared back blankly as if trying to convey something but unable to decide. He circled me couple of times and scratched the ground repeatedly. I looked at him with full concentration and tried to understand his gestures and then it hit me as he scratched more lines and circles on the ground. It seemed uncannily similar to an ancient method of Tibetan of divination where the oracle drew lines and circles on the ground and predicted the future. I am a man of science and I do not believe what my eyes might witness, but so high up into the thin air, mind does strange things. I felt as if he was trying to warn me of something. After few more minutes of incomprehensibility, he finally gave up. He came up to me, sniffed my face and licked my hands and with one parting shot of melancholy jumped off onto the other side.

In the days to come we climbed Everest in a spectacular manner and on my way down I nearly died several times. The concluding part of my Everest expedition was littered with bodies of friends and it is only a miracle that I did not join them on Everest.

I never saw my dog again. Earlier this month when I had gone up for a short but dangerous climb on my own, I half expected to see him again; but he did not make appearance. I have no idea where he had come from or where did he go. I don’t know if he is alive. I am not even sure if he was merely a dog or something else. He did not even have a name; I never got down to it. Our world is full of strange and unsolved mysteries and there is much more to it than can be explained by rational thoughts. Though I know nothing about him, I know for sure that he had saved my life on many occasions and had been my companion every time I strode alone on dangerous path.

Today I would prefer to call him my Guardian Angel.

My Brother – Sherpa Ang Tashi

I first set my eyes on the spindly thin boy of nineteen way back in 1998. He was an oddity in that august gathering of mountaineers. Our international team had assembled at Leh, en route to a high and dangerous peak in one of the remotest corners of the East Karakoram that we intended to climb via a new route. We were a bunch of highly seasoned climbers drawn from four countries, including two super-stars from the European Alps. Our Sherpas were from Darjeeling, each one a veteran with at least a dozen peaks of 7000 m plus under his belt. Even our cook had climbed four peaks of notoriety. It was a dangerous expedition and we had assembled one of the best teams of that year in the Himalaya. As we, the climbers and the bosses, were introduced to our staff, I noticed this shy, diminutive (barely reaching 150 cm) boy with bright eyes crouched behind the senior Sherpas. The head Sherpa did not even bother to introduce him to us, merely waving at his direction, ‘he is a helper, from my village,’ was all that we learned about him on the first meeting. The next morning as our caravan of vehicles spiraled up towards Khardung La, I wondered about the boy with the bright eyes and one of the most radiant smiles I had ever seen in my life.

From the road head, we had a grueling march of more than 10 days across snow bound passes and torrential rivers before we reached our glacier. During these days, I noticed that Ang Tashi was always at the forefront of activities and somehow, his performance improved with altitude. Being the youngest in the team and apparently on his first expedition, he was everyone’s odd job man. I doubted if he slept at all during the night. He served tea first thing in the morning and would be seen cleaning and washing late into the night, well after everyone else had snored away to glory.

On any expedition, I preferred to spend more time with the staff, learning their details, antecedents, sharing their lives, jokes, food, etc since they were the foundation on which we would climb. I enjoyed helping in the kitchen, much to the astonishment of my fellow climbers and the cook. So I bumped often into Ang Tashi and would always wonder about his perpetual happiness and his bright smile. He opened up slowly to me. One evening, post dinner, while my friends were busy writing diaries or playing bridge, I wound up on a rock a little away from the tents to gaze up at the sky. Galaxies, stars and planets sparkled above. I was nearly lost in the planetary maze when I heard a voice, ‘Sir, why do you always look up at the sky after dinner?’ Ang Tashi had brought me the night tea. ‘Have you finished your work?’ I asked. ‘I can always do it later, when everyone is sleeping.’ He sat down at a distance from me. I called him nearer and over the next two hours we traveled in outer space, leaping across galaxies and supernovae. In my enthusiasm, I told him the origin of universe, forming of the heavenly bodies, gravitational pulls, etc little realizing that this illiterate Sherpa boy would not understand any of these, leave aside remembering them later. The next evening, he amazed me with his memory and understanding. That night he learnt about astro-navigation and finding directions using stars and sun and moon.

With his inhibitions now lowered considerably, at least with me, he visited my tent in the days too, inquiring about anything and everything in sight. By the time we pitched our Base Camp on the glacier, Ang Tashi knew every single piece of climbing equipment and all the knots that I could teach. His ability to understand, grasp and remember everything down to the minutest details impressed everyone, including his fellow Sherpas, and suddenly Ang Tashi was called more often for work outside the kitchen then inside, much to the chagrin of our cook.

As a community, Sherpas are among the happiest, simplest and hardiest bunch of people on Earth. Born and bred 10,000 ft above sea level they are naturally adept for high altitude, with flared nose, slit eyes, higher RBC count and short stature with lower CG. Essentially Hindus, they are god fearing, worship nature in any form, loyal to death, impeccably honest and strong as a yak. Sherpas are invaluable for any high altitude big size Himalayan expedition due to their ability to carry impossibly heavy loads with relative ease. Their naturally cheerful disposition and resourcefulness is an asset for such extreme expeditions. I have known Sherpas all my life, both famous and unknown and they stood among some of my best friends. But never before had I seen one who was inquisitive and intelligent as Ang Tashi. Normally a Sherpa does his job and at the end of the day retires to his corner to gossip with his fellow Sherpas. He doesn’t mix up with the climbers much and does not ask questions either.

Ang Tashi literally became my shadow, following me all over the glacier, helping me ferry loads across crevasses and glacial streams with ease borne out of genes rather than training. This was his first mountain and glacier. Though I wanted to take him higher, it was decided that the mountain was far too dangerous and difficult for Ang Tashi’s inexperience and he would not climb above Camp 1. Seeing his downcast face, I promised him that he would be a part of all my expeditions from now on and we would climb his first peak together.

On a particularly difficult and bad weather day, as I staggered under a heavy pack, I found Ang Tashi resting by a big boulder, with his sack atop the rock. Ang Tashi and resting was a highly unusual sight, so I inquired if he was alright and he nodded smilingly. Later when he reached a little behind me at Camp 1 and returned, I tried to shift his sack to a different location and found that I could barely move it, leave aside actually lifting it to my back. We were at 21,500 ft and even a kg of weight seemed crushing. I got the weighing scale and discovered to my horror that Ang Tashi had pulled an unbelievable weight of 46 kg that day from the Base to Camp 1; a distance of 18 km, an ascent of 6000 ft with the route dotted with innumerable crevasses and glacial streams.

I met him several years later on another expedition and saw that none of his enthusiasm, super human strength, smiles or climbing abilities had diminished even an inch. This time too he missed the summit since he was still the youngest and least experienced in the team and I was not the leader. For a Sherpa, summit is very important as his wage rates increase proportionally to the number of peaks he has climbed. Later that year I sponsored him to undergo the Basic and Advance mountaineering course, both of which he topped. In the next expedition, he came within touching distance of the summit but sacrificed it for a member who had to be brought down. It was a glittering and prized summit and all the other Sherpas were reluctant to go down, but Ang Tashi volunteered without hesitation. I felt sad for him.

As he started down, literally carrying the injured member on his back, he smiled at me, ‘I am happy, I am going down as I would have climbed to the top without you if I continued. I want my first summit to be with you.’ As I watched him abseil off into the falling snow, I felt a knot around my throat.

Then came the year 2003 and Kamet. Punctuating the azure at 7756 meters, Kamet is the third highest peak in India and is really high by any standards. It has seen several ascents by its normal Meade’s Col SE route. This route, though not overtly difficult technically, was still a serious challenge, merely due to the altitude. The summit camp was placed at around 7100 meters and the climber had to spend at least a night at that height. I occupied the summit camp one noon along with two members and two Sherpas including Ang Tashi. It was a bad weather day, with hurricane winds lashing us brutally. We struggled to pitch our tents even as the snowflakes tore at our skin like cat-o-nine-tails.

The worsening weather persisted through the night and we had a brief period of calm in the morning. The reddening sky to the east did not look hospitable and I dispatched the two members and one Sherpa to the nearer and lower peak of Abi Gamin. They reached the summit in less than three hours and then descended further to the lower camps. This left Ang Tashi and I at the summit camp. The second night at that altitude seemed bitterer. The bad weather lulled to a still sky towards midnight. The temperature had plunged to a mortifying 30 deg below zero. We dressed in silence, only the metal from our hardware, clanging like bells into the silent night. Ang Tashi brought me tea and biscuit. Around two am when we stepped out of the tent, a gossamer moon danced across the black sky. The hard ice crunched beneath our boot. I could not feel my hand and fingers, they were stiff with cold. Few hours into the climb my body warmed up considerably, and with that an idea germinated.

No one had ever attempted Kamet by its unknown and unseen North West ridge route. We were laterally few hundred meters from this ridge and all we needed to do was to traverse to our right and step off on the other side. I knew it was a highly impulsive decision, something that I had not planned, not studied, and had no knowledge about and something that I would certainly forbid someone else to undertake. Simply put, it was insane.

Having planned for the normal route, we barely had any technical tool or protection. From my memory, I recalled that the NW ridge was rather steep and offered mixed pitches of bulging rock and ice rather than the straightforward ice pitches on our intended route. I checked our bags and discovered one 40 m 8 mm rope and two ice screws along with five carabiners. No extra slings, or quickdraws, no pitons, no snow stakes, no static rope. While I upturned our bags, rummaging and muttering through the meager contents, Ang Tashi observed me silently. I looked up, ‘I plan to go to that side,’ I pointed into the darkness, ‘I don’t know anything about that route, and I don’t think we have sufficient equipment to tackle it, but I want to go for it. Will you come with me?’ I said. Ang Tashi smiled, and nodded. ‘You are sure?’ I stressed. ‘It could get dangerous, could kill us.’ I emphasized. I was hesitant to endanger this young boy’s life. His smile only broadened, if anything. Re-shouldering our packs, we traversed gingerly over the hard ice face and stepped off into the unknown.

It was still dark and our headlamps did not illuminate much of the way up or down and we plodded up on our front points steadily with the rope shimmering like a live snake between the two. It was pre-decided that I would lead all the way to the top. Little later when the twilight broke the horizon to our east across Tibet and the first rays hit us, I looked up and gasped at my first sight of the NW ridge that swept up and fell away from us forever. It was less of a ridge and more of a face. The angle ranged anywhere between 60 – 75 degrees with massive ice chutes and flutings rushing down giddily over us, interspaced with bulging rocks all the way to the top and then some. The face fell far off far below us, into the west side in one giant wave of smooth ice. Any tumble or slip will see us hurtling endlessly into the void and disappear from the face of earth forever. My altimeter declared that we were only at about 7300 m with almost the entire climb and hardest pitches still above. We were perhaps at that moment on the only relatively gentle slope of the face. I dug in my crampons harder and carved a platform out of the hard ice and hunched down to recuperate and reconsider. Ang Tashi climbed up to my level and followed suit. He must have sensed something wrong seeing my face, but he seemed unconcerned and whistled his tunes as before.

I looked up and down and left and right. Our earlier SE route, the gentler slope laughed openly at us from the right. It was still reachable if I wanted to. We had not yet crossed that proverbial point of no return. There was no reason to be foolhardy or adventurous. We did not have adequate equipment to tackle the NW route and Tashi was not really the ideal companion for the same. With another climber of similar skill I would have taken the chance even with the lack of equipment. I knew about his family, his sister studying, his ill parents, his young wife, etc. I did not have any right to endanger him any more than necessary. Yet, I found myself reluctant to leave the NW route. It pulled me back to its glistening slopes, daring me to step up. Could I do it alone, I wondered, perhaps or perhaps not! I did not know; I will never know if I did not attempt and succeeded or fell in the attempt. It is impossible to describe the fatal charm of such situations. I have lived my life doing dangerous and reckless things and I lived by the probability theory of halves. On such occasions I had exactly 50 % chance of getting killed and 50 % chance of coming out of the ordeal alive. Being the perennially stubborn optimist, I always sidestepped the first half and grabbed onto the latter convincing myself that all will be well at the end. Though I had another fallback; I knew little palmistry and always marveled at the healthy and considerably long line in my right hand palm that I had been taught depicted ‘life’.

The sun was rolling up and the day was shortening. We had absolutely no time to waste. I looked at my companion, ‘Tashi, we are in a difficult situation, as you can see, the climb is dangerous and difficult above and we cannot fall. Are you willing to continue?’ ‘Sir,’ Tashi spoke, ‘I will follow you wherever you go, this will be my first summit, I know and you have to keep your promise. I know you will not fail.’ I wish I felt as confident. I stretched my cramped limbs and faced the icy slope. In the next hour we crossed the point of no return. With the rope dangling from my waist, I could not climb fast, the altitude further making progress laborious. The ice was in good condition but was highly unpredictable and the steepening gradient needed utmost caution. We climbed using dynamic belay. Two hours into the climb, the face became a maddening maze of ice flutings and crashing rock slabs. I willed my mind to freeze lest it panicked. We were on highly dangerous grounds and a mistake was not an option any more. Little later, as I stood clipped on to the ice screw and belayed Tashi up to me, I reached one of the most insane decisions of my life. I was almost sure that sooner or later one of us would peel off and fall to his death. That person being me seemed more probable simply because I was tiring out fast and my injured right leg was not working well. If one fell he would certainly take the other along with him and both would plunge to a horrible end. Unroped, at least Tashi had a fair chance of making it to the top or getting away alive. I asked him to unclip and stash the rope away into his sack. Tashi obeyed me unquestioningly. In retrospect I wonder if I had another companion that day, what would have happened!

Now we climbed almost like a pair, with Tashi barely a meter away and lower to my left side but we were independent of each other and if one fell the other would be untouched. Though my limbs shook with the strain and I had to call upon my entire life’s experience and last iota of strength to stay alive, Tashi looked unconcerned and simply aped my moves mechanically. Every time I stopped to catch a breath or to lower one arm to regenerate some circulation I would find Tashi, like magic, right by my side, gently handing over his water bottle or a biscuit to my hungry mouth. He would clip me to his ice axe and let me relax my legs while levitating miraculously on empty air. He never left my side, never preceded me or said a single word. Words were unnecessary; he understood my each move, my every need. In my selfish desire to do the face and to stay alive I did not notice then that all through that punishing day, Tashi had not partaken a single sip of water or any of the biscuits or chocolates or energy drinks, saving everything for me. Outnumbering him by a decade and half in experience, skills and survival instincts, I never realized when he had assumed the role of the protector and I the protected. But for him that would have remained my last climb or the last of anything that I did in this life.

The climb lasted for 14 hours and when we finally stepped on the summit dome, into the fading light of the moribund sun, I collapsed on the snow and thanked my lucky stars. The weather had again deteriorated and the blizzard lashed us from all sides. The roaring wind tore the words away from my mouth as I hugged Tashi to my chest and we did a jig to celebrate his first and my umpteenth summit. The sharp shooting pain, like million needles piercing my skin, that coursed through my hands brought me back to my senses. Both my hands were frozen stiff and it was the tell-tale sign of first degree frost bite. I beat my hands maddeningly on the ground, against my legs, against anything, to get back circulation. Tashi instantly took off his gloves and opened my gloves as well. His skin was still warm and he rubbed and kneaded my blanched palms into his. Intermittently he would insert my bare hands inside his jacket and again rub vigorously. He was simply using his instincts. After several minutes blood started rushing into the peripheral capillaries and I realized, as my hands started throbbing painfully that once again I had cheated frost bite. He put fresh down mittens on my hand and grinned from ear to ear. We paid our final obeisance to the mountain god and headed down into the pandemonium that now threatened to blow us apart. As our heads dropped below the summit crown, Tashi screamed at the top of his voice, ‘Sir, it is bit cold,’ and led the way down with his signature smile intact. It was the understatement of the decade; was all my frozen brain could think of at the moment.

We descended through the normal route and it took us six hours to reach the summit camp. By the time I collapsed outside the tent, our other members and Sherpas had already reached. I was so exhausted and wasted that someone had to take off my crampons and boots. Tashi brought my tea and then prepared dinner. That day I found superman in a new avatar.

Post Kamet, Tashi and I went on to climb many peaks together including our historic ascent of Mt Everest in the May of 2004. I have already described this ordeal in my Everest book. Tashi was euphoric on top of the world, as I was along with my friend and brother. His joy knew no bounds. Now he had catapulted into that elite band of Everest Sherpas. He could now command higher fees, send his child to school, look after his parents better and could get his sister married. On Everest I saved his life, yet what I owed to him can never be repaid and perhaps need not be repaid at all.

Ang Tashi’s friendship, loyalty, camaraderie, strength and generosity are beyond compare. I was and am fortunate to be his friend and he calls me his elder brother. I visit his home and family in Darjeeling often and we chat over the phone whenever possible. Despite becoming a well known Sherpa Sirdar all through the mountaineering fraternity, with chock-o-block expedition schedules, Ang Tashi remains humble and grounded. Speaks only when spoken to and his ever radiant smile has not faded even a bit.

We climbed together last in the pre-monsoon season of 2006. He came very close to death when he fell ill at high altitude on an expedition in 2007. I learnt of it much later as I was out on an expedition as well. I called him and asked about his health. His laughter sailed through the phone, ‘I will not die so soon, dada (elder brother), and if anyone has to bring my body down from the mountains it has to be you.’

Such is my friend and brother Ang Tashi. A simpler and humbler man I have not come across. People like Ang Tashi make the Himalaya and the mountains what they are and rekindle my belief that what I do has some purpose after all. As long as Ang Tashi’s of this world live, people will come to the mountains and legends would continue to be born.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Thank You Mr. President – A forenoon with Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson

My friend Dagfinnur called me, ‘Hey, Satya, you will be meeting the President tomorrow morning at 11.30 am. I will pick you up at 11.’
‘President’, I said, ‘the Alpine Club President?’
‘No, Satya, the President of the country.’
‘How much time do I have with him?’ I asked the most stupid question possible at the moment. Similar to asking an organizer who had invited me for a talk to know how much time I had on the dais.
‘Twenty minutes, may be, tops thirty, if you are lucky. He is an extremely busy man.’ Dagfinnur cut the line.

I ended up spending almost an hour with Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson while pocketing (come on, what do you think about me!), eating a plate of really nice sandwich and biscuits washed with the aroma of the finest Oolong (Upper Fagu, if I am not mistaken) tea. This is the story.

It was one of my very rare speechless moments. I took nearly a minute to recover my vocal and mental chords. Well, Satya, I said to no one in particular, you are moving in to high places finally. And then, it hit me, I did not even know how Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson looked; forget about knowing anything else about him.

I have of course met the Presidents of several countries earlier, including of my own. But they have all been approved and scheduled by pre-arrangements following the strict protocol for such matters and they have always been in an official capacity and manner. Never had I met the Head of a State on a personal front and in such a short notice, which was totally against all protocol. By the virtue of my occupation as an Indian Naval Officer, there was no way I could meet the President without informing my Office and getting a security clearance for the same. But then, I had been invited by the President of the country where I was temporarily residing, did I have the right, will or the courage to refuse! It was and is a cold country, one of the most scenic on Earth and at such places mind acts differently, so I waved the thought that I could actually be court-martialed back home, and plunged into the World Wide Web to find some nuggets about Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the President of Iceland.

In Google Image search, I found myself staring squarely (in most pictures) at a jolly good looking fellow, tall and lean by any standards, smiling at me through gold rimmed spectacles. What struck me first (or it should to anyone) was his smile. It was not broad enough to split his face but genuine enough to curl his lips and touch his eyes. He seemed to be enjoying himself, no matter where he was, what the situation he was in or whoever stood by him. I also noticed in the backdrop of most of the pictures taken in the President’s house, the golden gilt-edged painting of a volcano with Viking saga sail ships in the foreground with the Icelandic flag on to the right hand corner. Hmmm… I wondered perhaps I too would get myself framed there. I also learned that Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson is one of the longest serving Presidents in the world, with the country choosing him for the fourth consecutive term to the office and in all possibilities he would continue to be chosen for quite some time. He was definitely a charmer and his people loved him as did people of many other countries, since very high on his global agenda was a genuine concern for social and geo-political issues affecting the mankind. He wanted to do good and tried his best to make others do the same. A most unlikely politician, I mused. He seemed to be on close terms with India and had been and still is very close to the Gandhi family. He knew our PM and Mrs. Sonia Gandhi on first name basis. But, well, I did take everything with a pinch of salt as Google has been known to err in the past.

With a fuzzy mind (which is my natural state for most of the times) I looked for something to make myself remotely presentable. Of course I carried no business suit or tie or Gucci shoes to go with. My only climbing trouser, with several rip offs, which by that time had already climbed several peaks in Iceland, without a divider seemed my best bet. To go along with it, I had a somewhat clean Millet climbing shirt, which had only about 100 odd crease marks and not too much dirt. Footwear was my biggest worry. I certainly could not wear my 3 kg heavy climbing boots, though they are the finest in the world, a new innovative Millet climbing boot that I was doing trials for and was assisting them with the usability-designs. I could not wear my Scarpa GTX hiking shoes, since they had crampon cuts in the front and were dirty beyond redemption. They would leave such dark, deep and indelible marks on the Presidential carpets that his housekeeper might actually send me the laundry bills later. Once Sherlock Holmes said (I don’t remember in which episode) that when you have weighed all other options then the only one remaining, no matter how absurd, how improbable it was, is the one you must adopt. This thought, on that muddy morning was excited within me by the sight of the complete collection of Sherlock Holmes in Icelandic in my friend’s house where I was residing. So I looked at my dog-eaten floaters, with open toe, and buckles hanging from all sides and sighed, ‘Well, even for Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson I guess this would be a first.’ Having no option is also an option; I learn this every day of my life, hanging with my fingers from impossibly high places.

As for the rest of my appearance, I did not care much. Though my face was horribly sun-burnt and I was literally invisible after sunset (the Arctic Summer in Iceland at the time, thankfully, offered only two hours of twilight and no dark hours at all), I hadn’t lost any of my outward charm or inward brilliance and I was confident that if the subject of discussion did not veer away from my area of core competence, then I could handle even a Gestapo interrogator with finesse and aplomb. So I was ready, as I would or could ever be, when I heard the familiar honk outside. I snatched a copy of my Everest book (my intended gift for the President) and ran outside.

Dagfinnur looked at me with an indeterminate smile, which could mean anything under the sun. But then he is a polite man and a friend. We further picked up Dr. Thorsteinn, another friend and one of the top Icelandic glaciologists, with whom I was collaborating on several projects. Bordered by two such charming friends my spirits buoyed but observing their neat attires (especially Dagfinnur, alumni of Harvard and Cambridge, who wore a crisp business suit) I wondered if I should have hired a suit for an hour after all.

The long, black and neat road took us out of the Reykjavík city main and we drove into a kind of estuary with seagulls and Barrow’s Golden eyed ducks ululating the air with their wings and shrill cries. The President’s refuge at Bessastaðir was a sprawling villa (though in India’s Presidential palace scale, it might only look like a spec) done up in neo-Edwardian style with white walls and red tiled roof. Lapping water, crystal blue and windswept, surrounded the villa on three sides; a most Feng Shui’scally favorable house as I could judge. Neat maze of dark bricks made up the driveway. Square latticed windows punctured the walls at regular intervals. It was a simple but winning design. The occupant had taste and elegance but did not wish to make it obvious.

A burly fellow (could be the valet, concierge, security service, cook… who knows!) let us in with a happy smile. Icelander’s always have a happy smile; else they don’t smile at all. We signed in the visitor’s book (I noticed the names preceding mine and counted no less than 50 head of States – what else do you expect!). The fireplace pedestal of the waiting chamber prominently displayed a shot of Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson with Dr Manmohan Singh and fly and Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, all smiling happily into the camera. After a brief lull, the burly fellow opened the inner door and bid us to enter. As I stepped in, the President of Iceland, Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson stepped forward and gripped my right hand in a warm and firm shake.

‘I am glad you could come, it’s nice to see you.’ He said. As I fumbled for an apt answer, I looked straight into his eyes and wondered how someone of his stature could be so polite with someone in my position! Either he did not notice my attire or approved of what he saw. He eyed the Nikon wrapped around my neck, ‘We will have the official pictures later, let’s first go in and get to know each other.’ He ushered us in as if we were his dearest and personal friends, holding the door open to the study and following us in last. I was getting a crash course in diplomacy. We sat at a long rectangular wooden table that seemed to have been a part of the first Viking boat that landed on these shores 1200 years ago. Thousands of books, including the entire Icelandic Saga bore down upon us from all sides. The President took place at the head of the table and bid me to the chair next to him.

Over the next hour or so we discussed about the Himalayan Glaciers, global warming, forming a Himalayan Council, my climbing and explorations and several of his humanitarian projects across the globe. I was batting on firm ground and I guess I gave all the right answers, since he seemed pleased. Then he asked me to submit a paper on one of the Himalayan Glaciers. Towards the end of our discussion he posed me several politically sensitive questions (I did not doubt his genuineness about them; for such questions he could have placed a direct call to the Indian PM or the CIA but he wanted an honest and candid answer from a common citizen of the country that was extremely dear to him). Playing numb or dumb would not work, I guessed, and no ways was I going to give him my genuine thoughts on such controversial subjects. I am governed by the Official Secrets Act and was not at liberty to discuss military or political issues with anyone on earth. Diplomacy was way out of my league. In fact according to most of my friends, I am blunt beyond salvation. So I told him what our nation as a whole and our politicians in particular thought about such matters. He understood and smiled back and suggested that he might call up the Indian PM in the evening. In my most roundabout and concocted fashion I conveyed that he may discretely avoid mentioning my name to anyone at all.

It was an illuminating discussion and the hour spent with Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson seemed to be over in a blink. What really brightened my day was that he literally asked me to continue my work in the Himalaya concerning global warming, glacial melts and climate change. He emphasized that I had a major role to play in the joint Indo-Icelandic efforts in the area. He was happy to know that I would be retiring from the Navy soon. I was happy too for all sorts of reasons.

Thereafter I had my place in front of the golden gilt-edged picture where I presented him my Everest book. He promised to read it and display it prominently in the study. I could have hugged him just for that, but refrained for the sake of dignity. He came right till the door and bid us goodbye with another warm and hearty handshake and a big bright happy smile which showed his sparkling teeth to advantage.

‘Wow that was something.’ I muttered as I got into the car and had a final look at the diving tarns and croaking ducks. The house door had shut behind us and now it looked impregnable and uninhabited like a fortress. Only the Icelandic flag fluttering high up on a pole showed that the President was in assembly. ‘He is like that,’ Dagfinnur commented as the car purred into action, ‘I think he liked you.’ He added. Yeah, sure, I liked him too. I said silently.

While the breathtaking landscape flashed past my window, I leaned back in my seat and heaved a contented sigh. I have no idea if all the Presidents in this world were like Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson but they ought to. Grounded, concerned, genuine and really passionate about what he believed in. He did not merely believe in animated speeches but also got down and got dirty, worked with the people and his heart beat for all the under-privileged people of the world. His nation exceeded the boundaries of Iceland and it encompassed the entire world, the poor and suffering world in particular.

He traveled incessantly to raise awareness and funds for social issues and channeled necessary resources into the right direction. He is a rare phenomenon and charisma in today’s world of dirty politics and self-centered egoistic agendas. We definitely need more like Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson and he needs more people like him. He alone has made huge difference to alleviate many nations’ sufferings and humanity at large, but he needs now torchbearers to take his flame forward. I don’t think that Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson will ever tire or retire from what he feels so passionately about. I saluted him from the deepest recess of my heart and thanked him for teaching me a fundamental dictum of life: if you are passionate about something and genuinely feel for it, then just do it and keep doing it no matter what the rest of the world thinks or says; success will be yours and your heart will be full of happiness and the faces around you will be full of smiles.

Thank you Mr. President.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

How Cold is C-o-l-d!

As an extreme mountaineer cum skier cum adventurer with almost my entire lifetime spent in cold places, the two questions that I most often face are:

1. Why do you climb?
2. How cold is it up there (Everest, South or North Pole, Greenland, Alaska, etc)

I am still rather fuzzy about the first question since I do not understand this perennial urge deep within to go climbing with or without reason so I would like to answer the second one. What is cold all about! I won't go into the science of 'COLD' or 'ICE' but just my own understanding.

The feeling of cold simply put is the act of your body losing heat to the surrounding atmosphere. The effect of losing body heat is also linked with the wind speed at the moment. So to understand cold, we also have to understand, 'Wind Chill Factor'. For the same absolute temperature, the rate of losing heat (in effect the feeling of being cold) would increase with the increase in wind speed. For practical purposes, when we climb or ski and are being exposed to the elements it is important to cater for the wind chill factor, since it is this temperature that will affect our body, specially the exposed parts like nose, eyes, extremities, etc.

Despite having undergone fatal temperatures innumerable times I find it hard to explain how cold is really cold in words since it is something that is to be experienced and seen. It cannot be enshrouded in words or metaphors. And since for most of you cold is only a theoretical phenomenon, you won't be able to imagine no matter how hard I try to explain. Therefore I would adopt the cause-and-effect method of explanation. What happens visually and perceptibly when it gets cold! For the sake of simplicity, the temperatures I have quoted are all in deg Celsius and are absolute ones without wind chill factor. The observable phenomenon of one temperature would be automatically included for the next lower temperature so I won't repeat it, but add the new ones that would crop up at that temperature level. So the lowest temperature that I have observed, as related under, would include all the phenomenon of all the previous temperature ratings plus the ones I have specifically written against it. A disclaimer though, all these perceptions and observables are my personal experiences and they may differ for another individual pursuing similar activities. So sit by a nice warm fire and enjoy the cold.

Zero C: I will start with 0 C since anything warmer is not really a part of my world. This is comfortably cold. You enjoy the feeling. A tingling sensation like an ant crawling spreads on all the exposed parts of the body. Intermittent shiver courses from head to toe and the body jerks involuntarily at times, just to generate some warmth from within. You need to put on at least two layers of fleece, down or wool to stay warm. Nose tip feels mildly numb though you don't lose sensation entirely. The fingers of hand tend to curl by themselves. Touching any metal with bare hand can be unpleasant. Extended exposure of any body part will lead to chill blain and cold nip, but not necessarily frost bite.

Minus 10 C: This is generally cold. You need at least three protective layers of medium down, wool or fleece. All body parts should ideally be covered. This is the stage when the cold would start seeping into your bones. You will feel cold from inside as well. Your breathe will cloud instantly and breathing might be difficult. The cold air will cut into your lungs. Speech will start to slur as vocal chords and tongue will begin to lose synchronization and your jaw would tend to be out of control. Touching any metal with bare hand is forbidden as it will instantly stick and you might need a surgery to peel the metal off from your skin. Extended exposure will certainly lead to first degree frost bite and might lead to more advanced stages.

Minus 20 C: This is the first stage of serious cold. You need at least one layer of heavy down coupled with medium or heavy wool and fleece. Hydration is very important. Faculty of speech is greatly degenerated. Touching of any metal will lead to instant frost bite. Prolonged exposure will lead to third degree frost bite leading to gangrene and amputation. Mind starts to freeze as well and thought process will become sluggish. Vision may blur. Thin crust of ice will start forming on everything, either living or inanimate. Exposed skin begins to crackle like paper and nose will be numb and seemingly non-existent. Any body movement requires twice the effort and all major organs will slow down and work very laboriously.

Minus 30 C: This is seriously fatal cold. This cold actually kills. At this stage nothing is to be taken for granted and extreme caution is needed to do even the smallest of things. Touching any metal, ice or cold water is absolutely forbidden. Every effort needs to be made to conserve body heat and to minimize heat loss. You need at least three layers of heavy down, wool and fleece with as much area of the body covered as possible. Speech is now nearly impossible to control and mostly garbled words will come out, so one need to speak really slowly and deliberately. Mind freezes almost entirely and faculty of thought becomes nearly that of a primordial form of life. Icicles form all over the face, wherever the expelled breath touches skin, and everything is encrusted in ice. This ice does not melt and is broken off in chunks. Eyeballs too start to freeze. Every breath of air slices through the internal organs like a surgeon's knife. It is impossibly difficult to breathe. Any sweat on the body will freeze instantly. Any exposed part will instantly darken due frost bite and will lead to amputation in no time. Skin will suffer deep cold burns and will peel off instantly. In such temperature the skin does not follow the usual stages of skin tissue degeneration, it rather jumps straight from healthy tissue to dead and rotten tissues since blood circulation is so poor and lethargic, specially to the body peripherals.

Minus 40 C: This is absolutely fatal cold. Boiling water if thrown up in air, turns to ice by the time hits ground. Eyeballs can freeze and crack and pop out of the sockets. No amount of clothing will keep or make you feel warm. You will be perpetually cold and frozen. Your body will shiver incessantly. Mind has completely frozen and you will behave more like an automaton or a zombie, working on pre-programmed routine. Body will go into seizures and will revolt even a moment's exposure to such temperatures. Body will lose water at an insane rate and skin will turn pale and moisture less. Body will reject food as your palate will freeze. Body will go numb.

Minus 50 C: By now you are so dead that you will not feel anything at all. And if you are not, then you are very close to it, and you will be in a kind of suspended animation looking at your own body in a disjointed manner and wondering what you are looking at. The body tissues and mind is now beyond any feelings or sensations. All your sensory organs are frozen stiff and your major organs as well. If you live to see and experience this temperature then you would be a medical wonder (I certainly am). Only the heart might continue to beat faintly and intermittently.

Minus 60 C: By now you are in hell literally and figuratively. What clothes! Even if cocooned under 10 layers of the best down in the world, you will feel naked and exposed. Your entire body is in fire, burning in cold. Your body parts will break and fall off. You will be frozen for eternity. Death will occur in less than a minute. Body will lose all moisture and shrivel up like a mummy.

Don't ask me what happens beyond this since the lowest I have experienced is precisely an absolute of minus 60 C and a wind chill factor of minus 103.33 C with a wind speed of 100 knot. But then, with all my curiosity intact, I really don't wish to find out what happens further below. So if anyone of you ever reach there and find out and do return to tell the tale then do update me as well. I can only wish you the very best and send you my warmest regards.

I would conclude with an anecdote though, which I was told at the US South Pole Station. This is true. During winters the average temperatures at the South Pole falls to between minus 60 C – 70 C and during those times it is more difficult to rescue someone from there than rescuing someone from the moon. Ponder over it.
Like I always say, that cold and ice combine two antithetically opposite characteristics: that of annihilator and preservator. We have bodies still up on Everest that are more than half a century old, but looks fresh as new. These people died of the cold and have been preserved by the same cold for generations to come. During my Everest expedition, one of my members actually thought that the body was that of an exhausted climber who had dozed off, and he tried to shake him awake; it looked that fresh and untarnished.

My idea here is not to scare any of you, since I firmly believe that ice is very nice and at least once in your lifetime you must experience the phenomenon of frozen thoughts. With that happy thought I will take leave now and go looking for colder places while you guys go and stock up your woolies… you never know when would you need them and I might not be available for consultation then.

Though there are cold and colder places on Earth but if I may end with a cliche, then there's no colder place than a cold heart and i am yet to reach there. And for all my female readers, I really don't know if this is true, but it was said by that greatest of all bards; that two women placed together makes cold weather.