Once in their lifetime, every person should journey to a place where legends are born, where everything is bigger than life, where nothing is planned or predictable, where it is pristine and white, and where Gods live. For me, the mountains have always represented nature at its most powerful, most awe-inspiring, most unconquerable.
Mountain climbing... a lot of it has to do with attitude and preparation and being able to accept when things don't go as planned. Not making a strict timetable is essential. If you can't get somewhere, don’t worry about what you might have missed. Just enjoy what you ARE experiencing. It's more than most of your friends and family can even dream about.
The above two quotes might seem to indicate that the game of mountain climbing does not have any rules… alas, it has! Overriding all else, the one rule that rules supreme, is the inevitability, or if you would prefer, the possibility of ‘death’. All of us who climb mountains regularly, year after year, big and dangerous ones in particular, will sooner or later die in the mountains. If we are not willing to accept this rule, then we must not climb. While many of us, self included, actually wish only that kind of exit from this world, most are not ready or willing to accept this very basic rule of this very basic game.
The Everest season for the current year has just concluded and if on-ground reports are to be believed then this has been a great year on top of the world. Nearly 150 people reached where birds fear to fly while the death toll stood at a single digit. Remarkable to say the least! Honestly speaking, I am a great champion for ‘death’. To me it is neither morbid, nor horrid or unacceptable. Every time I walk away from home into the mountain wilderness, with another unclimbed route or unknown ice line in my eyes, I know fully well that I may never come back. Each year, in the winters it is a ritual for me to contact a group of close knit friends and take stock of all those who did not survive the year; my friends who did not return. Each one of them, had a family, had someone waiting their return, and for those left behind, not knowing, not understanding perhaps what exactly their loved ones were engaged in, is perhaps the hardest fact to come to terms with. Yet, they had enough love and faith in this person to let him go, time and again, for by only being close to death could he stay alive.
Seldom do I mourn the death of my climbing friends in the mountains. The number of such friends only grows, since the ones gone are quickly replaced by new ones still alive. We joke and jest about death, how closely we cheated it and how it plucked one of us right in front of our eyes. If we did not take it thus, we would give up this pursuit long ago.
If I could not laugh on the face of death then believe me, I would be frightened to death. It is even rarer for me to justify such deaths. Most often I brush aside such news with, ‘I am sure he had his fun and continues to do so.’ Even then, it has never been easy for me to face the families when I am the bearer of the dreadful news. What does one say to them, what could I say? Nothing is going to get them back what they had lost forever. No amount of kind words or gestures can fill up the mother’s empty heart or dry up the wife’s tear-laden eyes. I have no idea how can I pick up the trusting child in my arms (as he comes running to me) and tell him that his father is not coming home, that I failed, that the mountains won, once again.
With all my so called cold-heartedness in such matters, I still try to reason and see if it could be justified. Should it have happened? I firmly believe that whatever god does, does for good. So, who benefitted from this? Of course death cannot be avoided indefinitely. One day we all have to go. What bothers me at times is the question of time and place. The worst cases are those where due to the inaccessibility and dangers involved, the body could not be recovered and had to be left in the mountains. For these families, it is hardest to accept. I knew of a child—a young lad now—who still believes that his father is going to come back.
I just returned today after having touched one such family.
My friend climbed one of the highest mountains in the world this year and during his euphoric descent, collapsed and died. He was laughing and ebullient one moment… in the next he was dead. None of his team members could explain what happened. They were dumbstruck as those of us back home, who heard the news few days later.
My friend lived in a small village of Himachal Pradesh. A beautiful and lush green valley with gurgling brooks and misty mountain peaks. His village overlooks a deep gorge through which a foaming river rushes by. In the spring and summer the mountains are replete with rainbow of flowers and honey bees. Berries and apples adorn the trees with little children chasing squirrels and butterflies through the foliage. Untouched by the outside world, his village stands still in time. It is as pretty as a picture. He loved the mountains and the mountains loved him. As a young boy he once accompanied me to a mountain as one of the support staff. In between his menial tasks, he would quiz me endlessly on the nuances of mountain climbing. I was amazed at his dexterity and aptitude for serious technical climbing. On my return I sponsored him for the mountaineering courses and he went on to become one of the finest climbing instructors of his state. Only son to his parents, he married a beautiful lass from a neighboring village and soon fathered two children.
I met the team in Delhi and collected the belongings and photos of my friend. Through the weekend I drove up as far as the roads went. Then hiked up steeply for 5 hrs and reached his home. The entire village of 20 homes, were gathered around and awaiting my arrival since the previous evening. As every step brought me closer to his home, my fear and dread heightened. I had absolutely no idea what to say, what should be my first words to his old parents, the young widow and the children! I lingered under the trees, looked up at sparkling sky, seeking answers. I was death’s messenger and all I had for the family was few shredded clothes that my friend had last worn and few pictures to show where he now lay. Was I getting old, or unaccustomed, I asked myself… why did I squirm so? The task ahead was not really difficult. I simply had to walk in, hand over the clothes and the pictures, mutter few words of sympathy and take my leave. In their grief, perhaps no one would even notice me. But I was worried sick, I was scared, I felt helpless. If at that point of time there was anything I could have done, including exchanging my own life, to ensure that it was my friend and not I who were walking on this mountain path, then I would have gladly done so without a moment’s hesitation.
This was one of such deaths that were totally unnecessary, absolutely avoidable and completely incomprehensible. Why him? Why not someone else? I was sure, if I was leading his expedition, he would still be here and perhaps walking beside me, right now, telling me what feast his wife and mother might be preparing for us. He had fallen and had suffered internal head injuries near the summit. Since there were no external signs, neither him nor anyone else thought it could be dangerous. He went on for the next three days without any medication, carrying heavy weights with his characteristic cheerful smile till he succumbed and fell.
I could see the snow covered mountain top from far away, in whose shadow, my friend’s family lived. A group of mud-covered children with a pair of black dogs saw me first. They waved and picked up the news, carrying it back with the breeze to the village that was still few minutes away. I had never been more scared in my life. I walked into the village with the rucksack on my back digging deep like an unbearable burden. The people had lined up the narrow path that divided the village into two halves. My friend’s family had gathered on the mud verandah. His two little sons held on to their mother who cowered in the shadows along with her mother-in-law. My friend’s father stepped down and embraced me in warm hug. I looked up and to my surprise found that the old man’s wrinkled eyes were dry while mine flowed incessantly.
‘Bhagwan ki marzi ke aage kiski chalti hai beta.’ (What can one do, my son, it is God’s wish), where his first words. He spoke calmly with complete conviction and acceptance nurtured through his rustic upbringings. Not doubting or questioning even once what he believed to be true, what his faith told him to believe. Why couldn’t I think like him? Why couldn’t I accept like him? Why did I need to justify this or anything for that matter? Where was my believe; my faith? I was supposed to be above all this. I thought I was above such failings. I realized that I was not. I realized that this old man, who had just lost his only son, the only support for his old age, was far stronger than I. He might have never climbed a mountain but he knew all about life and his faith was unshakable.
The village had organized his last rites by the river side and the father requested me to stay back. For some unknown reason, all of them believed that I had been by the side of my friend during his last moments and I suddenly found myself at the centre of all the activities. Much to my relief, no one actually asked me anything about the incident… they were just content to have me around as if I carried my friend’s spirit and a part of his being from the mountains. The rites concluded by evening, when the sun set with dazzling colors. It was late for me to return. After dinner, I laid my sleeping bag on the verandah (much against the wishes of the father) and tossed through the night. The night sky lit up brilliantly by the countless stars. The dark mountain tops stood like tireless sentries guarding this piece of heaven from the outside world. The entire valley was hushed in complete silence, everyone slept, even the dogs. It was difficult to imagine that the village had just cremated its favored son. Life here seemed normal and peaceful as can be possible and it will go on. I felt at peace finally and looked up at the sky once more as a comet streaked across.
I got up around four, and gathering my things, walked back to the road head. I did not wake up the family of my friend or anyone else. I did not bid goodbye. I knew they would understand. The eastern horizon gradually turned crimson and the lilting breeze stirred the pines. Birds started leaving their nests in search of food.
Everything was as beautiful and unaltered as ever. I felt my friend’s presence by my side, just like before, as he would shoulder my sack effortlessly and skip along telling me tales of his village and the mountains.
When I reached back to my car, and my mobile sprang alive once again, I found a sms from a dear friend waiting for me. It was a quote from Khalil Gibran: Faith is a knowledge within the heart beyond the reach of proof.
I just nodded my head and smiled. I had learned one more rule of the game. It was imperative to have faith, and for that one need not necessarily need proof.