Monday, September 28, 2009

Dogging the Dolgans


The bone cracking cold that whiplashed my face relentlessly as the sled over which I gingerly perched raced through one of the wildest and remotest tundra in the world I realized that this could well be the final journey of my life and with that self-effacing thought my face grimaced into a smile of supreme contentment.

I love latitudes; not that longitudes are any less desirable or necessary but it is the former that always takes me to the two extremes possible on a sphere. And I love cold places; colder and icier the better while coldest and iciest the best. A cursory glance at a globe will divulge five lines of latitude that evenly cut across our earth for reasons beyond my comprehension. These are (from North to South): Arctic Circle, Tropic of Cancer, Equator, Tropic of Capricorn and Antarctic Circle. Of course they are not there on ground, though on my first crossing of the Equator on a ship I did maintain a sleepless vigil on the quarterdeck staring deep and hard at the green ocean over which my ship sped with a white wake etched behind. While I have crossed the southernmost of these lines on two occasions I have no idea how many times I have crossed or rather crisscrossed the other four. On one of my crossings of the Arctic Circle I visited the coldest inhabited place on earth and befriended one of the least known, understood and studied clans of people and even stayed in their reindeer-pulled homes. Here’s the story of the people who survive and thrive at the literal edge of the known world; an edge which is largely unknown to the civilized world where only a handful of outsiders have ever managed to reach.

Taymyr Peninsula in northern Siberia girdled by the Laptev Sea of the Arctic Ocean is far, really far from anywhere. Not much of any landmass lie north of this peninsula and I was headed for one of the northernmost and unknown human habitations on Earth. A chance discussion with one of my Russian counterparts, while in Russia brought up the subject of Siberia, through which I had earlier taken the trans-Siberian rail and had climbed some. Boris (name changed) invited to take me over to Taymyr where he had a reindeer herder friend. The only obstacle in my way was a leave of absence of around a fortnight from my place of work. Well, for reasons unknown, at least to me, my bosses have always tolerated and even encouraged my abrupt and illogical pangs of desire to go into uncharted territories. Either I was too good an asset for them to lose hence they let me follow my whims or else I was so useless that they were always looking for an excuse (of which I gave them plenty) to get rid of me (with a forlorn hope perhaps that I would not return to torment them any further). No wonder they always looked so disappointed every time I reported back on duty. Whatever might be the case the fact is that on a misty morning in the month of March in a year I would not like to mention Boris and I stepped on the tarmac of Yakutsk airfield. If it can be called an airfield (which the signboard in Russian proudly proclaimed) and if it was indeed a tarmac (as Boris patriotically challenged) then I was certainly Rudolph the reindeer.

The overnight flight inside the flying coffin, lovingly called a Tuplov, had rattled every bone of my body and frozen the balance of my brain in that order. Yakutsk is the capital of the Republic of Sakha or Yakutia, the largest Siberian Republic with a high degree of autonomy permitted within the Russian Federation. Sakha is largely populated by Russians and indigenous Yakut people who speak the eponymous language. As I touched the permafrost and breathed a sigh of relief Boris mumbled, ‘Welcome to Siberia my friend, the real journey will begin now.’ Despite at the end of one of the most life-threatening flights of my life I was feeling jubilant and ebullient since cold does that to me. ‘Let’s make a quick detour to Oymyakon,’ I suggested. ‘You do love your cold, don’t you?’ Boris sniggered. We hired a battered jeep and slam-dashed to Oymyakon, which holds the record of being the coldest permanently inhabited place on Earth where the mercury once plummeted to an unbelievable – 71.20C. On the day of our visit, it was rather warm and comfortable at – 440C. Though an uninteresting and drab industrial township by the banks of river Lena, I found a curious fact about Oymyakon. The primary schools closed only if the temperature fell below – 560C; the reason: a mildly chilly day that might cause cold and cough to the toddlers.

When I saw the vehicle (was it an aircraft!) that was going to take us further north of Yakutsk I quickly redefined my threshold levels of what we normally termed dangerous and crazy. Topping it all the native flying ace spoke a dialect that escaped even Boris. The next six hours of my life was one that I would not like to repeat ever again. I finally realized how a sack of potato feels when handled by some unruly farmers. With my knees knocking and mind screaming out of sheer terror I simply fell out of the window-cum-door of the vehicle (I still couldn’t believe it had actually flown) on to a patch of snowfield that must double up as a private barn as well. We were now in Saskylakh. The Frozen Anabar River viewed from the air as a white ribbon muscling its way north like an inverted question mark now lay close at hand. The air crackled at – 580C. So, while the kids in Oymyakon stayed home by their warm hearth, the two idiots, driven by another manic Serb sped north along the frozen river into what might as well be the last outpost for mankind. After what seemed an eternity, our driver dumped us at the tiny village of Uryung-Khaya, where the road literally ended since nothing on wheels would go any further north. Now we were deep into Dolgan territory. Before proceeding further a short note about the Dolgans is necessary.

As a race, Dolgans can be traced back to the north Asiatic group of the Mongolians. Today they number less than 10,000 and are a potentially endangered race. They don’t have any written script and use the Russian Cyrillic. Dolgans are nomadic people relying on hunting and fishing for sustenance. They breed domesticated reindeers and hunt the wild ones for food and fur. But for reindeers Dolgans would not have survived hence reindeer is highly regarded. Their habitations, which constantly move along with the changing weather and seasons, are widely spread across the Khatanga River basins of Taymyr Peninsula and around River Anabar in Yakutia. They are a patriarchal society with perhaps the highest adaptability to the Arctic Cold in the world. Dolgans live in complete harmony to nature using simple instincts and acceptance of their harsh and unforgiving world to survive.

Our Dolgan host and Boris’ friend Mev greeted us with a wide grin on his deeply etched face. His age was impossible to guess and Mev seemed timeless as the wasted land all around. He tied a wooden sled to his mechanized one and off we went towards an indeterminate horizon where the ice and sky all melted away into a white oblivion. I had no idea how Mev navigated since he did not carry even a rudimentary compass and there was absolutely nothing conspicuous around. Flat ice covered tundra and far off forests concealed under a thick sheet of snow. Even with the snow goggles strapped tightly to my face I find it hard to keep my eyes open. The wind howls into my ears. The spectacularly boundless space and the sun’s pulsating colors keep my mind riveted. Shortly my extremities begin to freeze and go numb with a certainty that by then I had begun to accept must befall my fate sooner or later. I start beating myself on the body while moving my toes for all I was worth and intermittently box my rapidly whitening nose. Boris does likewise but Mev remains as he was, seemingly intent at the horizon and encapsulated within the flurry of snow into which we race relentlessly. Another five long and tormenting hours we start sighting a group of humps on the horizon. Well into the pinkish glow of an Arctic twilight we reach Mev’s campsite. His group comprises of twenty-three baloks – tiny wooden houses supported by wooden runners that can be pulled by reindeers. There are eight Dolgan families here with 30 members. Mev welcomes us into his guesthouse—a 10 X 8 ft balok with reindeer skin lined floor. It is strangely comfortable and after the outside cold and wind, the internal temperature of – 190C decidedly feels warmer and cozier. Huge blocks of ice, gathered from lakes that could be 5 – 6 hours away, lines up each balok. These are the only source of fresh water for the Dolgans.

Mev, being the group head, possesses the largest balok and he holds a feast in our honor. The meal comprises of two different kinds of reindeer meat, liver and kidney and a kind of frozen fish dipped in salt. In the coming days I learn to eat all such delicacies in order to survive. Next morning we accompany one of Mev’s friends for collecting ice blocks from a frozen lake and the day after Mev takes us to show his skills as the master reindeer hunter. I play with children and their pets and watch the woman do their homely chores. We spent few more days around and visit another campsite a day’s journey across to meet a legendary polar fox hunter. He regales us with his epic tales of survival and tricks of laying traps under snow. We return with our heads full of stories and wonderment. Each night when everyone is asleep I step out of my balok to marvel at the pulsating northern lights. This extra-terrestrial performance is literally electrifying. I gaze up at the endless sky and don’t wish the night to conclude. The cold penetrates my deepest thoughts and rattles me from within. Amidst all the wonder I cannot stop marveling at my host and his people and their tenacity. Where every breath is a struggle and each mundane chore an ordeal they live happily and have absolutely no desire to be anywhere else but here that they call home.

When the hour comes to bid goodbye I realize that my heart has long lost the desire to return. I feel I belong here to these simple nomadic people who know no boundaries and understand no evil. As I hug and lift Mev’s youngest child, a two year old girl, to my chest I know that I would never see her or her people again and it is a terrible struggle for me to let go of her. But the girl simply smiles into my eyes and hugs me in return. She knows too that she would never see me again but that does not matter to her or to her people much. They have learnt to live in ‘now’ and to enjoy whatever life offered in any proportion. It is only us, living in our make believe world who measure happiness in scales of big and small. To Dolgans it was simply to enjoy what they had and not to ponder about what they didn’t.

Back at the village of Uryung-Khaya when I wave from the jeep at Mev’s smiling form I know that at that moment I separated from a friend I am never going to find again. But the thought doesn’t make me sad. Dolgans will continue to live in my dreams and I would like to believe that I would once again be able to return in their midst and ride once again into the fading dusk to shepherd the reindeers back home.

P.S. Despite several valiant and dogged attempts this remains till date my only brush with the Dolgans who according to me are among the most amazing race of people on Earth.

The photo accompanying this post is from the collection of my friend and fellow polar explorer Borge Ousland.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Tryst with My Saligram




Any visitor to my home, who is allowed to step into the drawing room, gets drawn to the mantelpiece that holds besides two climbing trophies an assortment of rocks and crystals of all shapes, sizes and color. The 20 odd rock pieces find representation from all the seven continents and from some of the remotest and most hostile spots on our planet. There’s one from the summit of Everest and another from the crater of the highest volcano on Earth. There are crystals from Antarctica and a limestone from the deepest cave in the world. One of the rocks show the perfect silhouette of a temple while another enclose within a deep pulsating glow of surreal turquoise. They all are natural and have not been modified by any way by any man. There’s even two small glass phials containing ice (now water) from the two geographic poles; predictably one is sweet and the other salty. Now amidst the collection there’s one that superficially is the ugliest with dark contours across its broken and undulating surface. It is neither a complete sphere nor a triangle, in fact it defies any shape that has a name and if one noticed carefully then it is even broken by a thin hairline crack around its middle. Most of my friends express their wonder as to what this particularly ugly stone is doing among its more beautiful and proportionate siblings. And to each I say that this is my single most precious possession since within its bosom it holds one of the supreme symmetries of nature and more importantly because I did not find it; IT FOUND ME. This is my Saligram and I belong to it.

Even if you do a perfunctory search for ‘Saligram’ on the net you would discover few facts about it; according to some thoughts of Hinduism a Saligram represent a form of Lord Vishnu and many worship the stone for divine blessings. There are many websites where you can e-order Saligram. In scientific reality it is often a piece of marine fossil with the shape of some marine life or plants embedded within. A Saligram comes in many different shapes and colors, all of them claiming divinity, if you are a believer. It is also claimed that a Saligram is only found—for reasons no one cares to explain—in the Gandaki or Kali River beds of Nepal and along its tributaries. If you dig deeper in your quest then you would find mention of Saligram in Tibetan myths for being a stone with extra-terrestrial origins and supposedly possessed with life. It is highly revered by the Buddhists all over the world and it can be found in almost all the monasteries. Now another part of the Buddhist myth claim, the part which I like the most that every Saligram is unique and is meant for a particular individual and for no one else. That person could be in future too and the Saligram would wait for him or her to take birth and then find the person out. Now this might seem weird but it also says that one doesn’t look for or find one’s Saligram. If one is destined for then the Saligram will find the person and not vice versa. This does add some divinity and animation to the stone, which according to me is fine.

Now most often (all those vended over the net) a Saligram only comes in a half. The rarest of rare Saligram is actually a complete stone with a thin hairline crack perhaps, within which the fossil is embedded, and the complete fossil of a concentric spiral is among the most priced of the Saligrams. I am sure you all must have guessed by now that the Saligram that possesses me is of this specie. It is a complete Saligram with two halves joined perfectly with barely the hint of a crack around its central periphery. When you lift up the top half the perfect spiral is viewed within and only then do you appreciate its beauty and supernal symmetry. Though I had been seeing Saligrams all my life I did not feel tempted to buy one or simply borrow one from anywhere, waiting for the one destined to find me instead. And it finally did (twice actually) but far from the alluvial shores of Kali Gandaki River. Here is the story.

It would really surprise me if any of you have ever heard of the River Nu Jiang and the lofty Geuzong Massif in Yu Qu Valley of Eastern Tibet. Knock me dead if any one of you have actually traveled there (I am serious). At the prime of my crazy life around a decade and half ago, I once entered into a competition with my two equally asinine friends. Tasha had thought of it. We had to come up with three of the least known mountain regions on earth and we would travel to the one that would outbid the rest. Tasha was a Russian born and Swiss settled school teacher who doubled up as a rock climbing instructor in her spare time and could out run many veterans in the sport on her worst days. Damien, her partner and fellow school teacher was a Spaniard with a mouth as big as his head though it contained nothing much besides some of the finest ice routes ever climbed on both sides of the Suez. I had bumped into them once in the Amazonian wilderness and had been instantly drawn by this crazy and handsome couple. We met thereafter occasionally at various parts of the world enacting our stunts purely to impress one another since most often there won’t be anyone else besides the three friends in those unearthly places. Both Tasha and Damien were intrepid travelers and thrill seekers and had been everywhere. So when Tasha threw in the challenge, we had to think out of the box and think fast. We had only a day to respond.

I really don’t remember now what the nine places were that the three of us came up with, except the fact that though all of them were extremely inaccessible and dangerous to reach, the one place that emerged as the winner was the one that I dropped: you guessed it right; Yu Qu Valley, Geunzong Mountains, Eastern Tibet. I had read about the place in a mythically obscure travelogue from the previous century and wasn’t even sure if the place existed. Tasha and Damien opined that it was worth exploring. As we prepared for the journey and dug deeper into geography and world maps we realized that it would be an adventure worth remembering since it did exist but no one knew how one could reach there.

We were in a pre-internet era and the Chinese were still not very open about letting visitors go into Tibet specially the far flung corners of Eastern Tibet, which lay in a permanent shroud of mystery. Very few westerners had been there before. But as they say; will and hope and perseverance can move mountains so we did manage to move the powers that be and found ourselves facing a diminutive fellow by the name of ‘smiling Buddha’ waiting for us at Kunming. He was our interpreter. He held our permits and apparently everything was in order. If he was indeed speaking English or any other language for that matter, I had no idea. Somehow my companions were nodding their heads vigorously and laughing their guts off each time the squinty eyed Buddha opened his mouth. Till of course when we stopped at a check-post displaying a pair of gun totting Chinese soldiers who looked ready to collapse under the burden.

Smiling Buddha went up to them and returned post haste, while waving his hands like a plummeting skydiver whose chute had just collapsed and screamed in pidgin English, ‘No laugh, no funny, no permit, no go,’ while shoving back the toilet paper permits back at us. Those were the golden days of illicit travel when a shining green American Dollar bill could take you anywhere. So we continued uninterrupted. Several wads of American Dollar bills and stomach churning meals of dried yak meat later we sighted the Salween Canyon and from there our team increased in bulk as we hired horses for our journey ahead.

Over the next two weeks or so we had an out of the world adventure, often awestruck at the soaring glaciers and peaks of unheralded beauty. None of the peaks rose above 6000 m and there were no significant glaciers yet one could spend half of one’s life time climbing the jagged ridges and the sweeping faces. Most of the peaks were highly technical and though we had not come prepared for a full scale expedition we did have our basics. We had no permits to climb any peak and even wondered if we would be facing a firing squad if we climbed one. Nevertheless our biggest problem at that point of time was to get rid of the Smiling Buddha, who by now we were convinced was a lowly spy whose only aim in life was to part us from our money and goods. So we gave the fellow an offer he could not refuse. It was all Damien’s idea. I could never be that devilish.

We picked up the most horrific ridge line within sight leading to another valley deeper into the range and declared that that’s where we wished to go and camp for the next few days. When we showed it to our interpreter, the only sound that ensued from his mouth was a groan of indeterminate origin. By decree we could go anywhere in the valley and he had to be with us physically while by his common sense he must have sensed that it could as well be the last interpretation job of his life. So we offered him an outlet.

He could go down and wait for us along the river where there was a small nomadic settlement and we would meet him there about a week later; Damien palmed him the princely sum of a 10 US $ bill as well just to drive the point home. Smiling Buddha displayed his dentures that would have scared any brave-heart to despair and galloped away to enjoy the pleasures that American dollar would entail. Our smiles splitting our faces into half we turned around and headed for the actual peak we wished to climb. The peak had no name and the hand-copied Russian map we possessed claimed it to be around 5700 m high. Though a medium altitude mountain by any standards its conical peak and sharp ridges cut the blue sky like a Samurai sword. The sun glinted from its flanks and it lured us towards the summit that looked utterly unassailable. We approached from the east and I didn’t think it would be possible for us to free climb it to the top without any ice gear. With only Damien perhaps we could have done it, but with Tasha’s limited ice experience I didn’t think it was possible. But then we had to make a go for it, even if it meant at the end proving what we knew right from the beginning.

A long day’s march brought us on the ice covered ground right beneath the ridge and we camped for the night. We were at around 4200 m and we did not have any suitable tents or bivy for the steep ridge up ahead. Either we had to climb up and down more than 3000 m in one single push or we would only climb half way and then return. We woke up early around 3 into the freezing morning and in an hour had started going up the ridge. I wished to get to the ice line before sun woke up. Tasha climbed briskly over the rocks; we had all our ice gears still stacked in the sack on our back. Hand over feet we climbed silently in a line. Often we had to straddle the ridge between our knees as it narrowed down to mere inches. We hit ice around 4800 m. The sun rose little later and sank our hopes of reaching the summit. What lay ahead was seemingly impossible to free climb. Though we knew, but no one spoke and we kept climbing while hammering our ice axes and crampons with all might into the rock solid ice. We had to go real slow. Damien and Tasha clipped on to a rope while I remained free a little behind. At every stop on the sheer face I would plunge my ice axe and clip on to a sling through the shaft eye. Near 5300 m Tasha baulked. She was leading an 80 degree ice chute. She looked back, ‘I don’t think this will go, I am tired.’ Damien looked at me. I simply nodded and pointed my thumb down. There didn’t seem any point in killing ourselves at such a lovely spot. Moreover the two people above me were planning a family soon. Short of ice anchors and slings we had to down climb most of the icy face, abseiling only those pitches where anything else would be suicidal. Much to my relief we eventually returned to the rocky ridge with one ice piton still in my rack.

Though not the real summit, all three of us had reached our personal summit and it was a glorious day anyways. We soaked in the sun and marveled at the panorama at our feet. I was sure that no man had ever been here before at the spot where we were. I thought that the day could not get any better, but little did I know that it could and would… very soon. After an extended rest we three continued down, now slow and careful as the rocky ridge took our weight. Somewhere in between a pair of humps where the ridge broadened enough for few people to walk side by side, I happened to look down on the ground to see where exactly my two companions had stepped before me. I can’t explain why I did what I did. I saw Damien’s footsteps and half smeared upon was Tasha’s. I positioned my steps too right into theirs. Just after two more steps as my right feet sank into the gravel on the incline I almost stepped over it. Exactly a mm away from my toe the Saligram nestled into the earth. Incredibly it was a complete one and I had somehow managed to discern the hair line crack along its equatorial periphery. I picked it up and felt its warmth on my palm. I took off the upper half and caught my breath at the spiral cornucopia within. It was mine, I thought and then felt, I was his… or whatever. Shortly I joined my companions at the meadow below. Over the next week as we sauntered from one ridge to another I could barely contain my excitement. Though I showed it and told them the myth of a Saligram Damien and Tasha were somehow untouched by its significance.

We finally relocated Smiling Buddha and had to rescue him even from the nomads with appeasing gestures since he had stolen one of their pipes and then we headed back home. On our flight out I gazed lovingly at the mountains passing below me while Damien looking lovingly into Tasha’s eyes on the seat beside me. To each his own I smiled.

P.S. It is pertinent to mention that I lost this Saligram several years later to someone who at that point of time perhaps needed it more than I. The two halves had separated by then and I had absolutely no hope of seeing them return as a whole ever again. But then life offers us surprises and wonderments when we had lost all; and I found my Saligram earlier this year while on an expedition into an ice capped valley where we happened to be the first people to enter ever in the history of mankind. This time around I found it sitting patiently just outside my tent on a wide ridge. I know for sure that it can’t be the same one, but I would like to believe that it is and add a bit of myth and mystery to the Saligram that now rests in my house.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Smiling Horizons - Club Mahindra Resort Mashobra

Shimla! I wrinkled my nose even as Arun invited me for the travel blogger’s meet at the Club Mahindra Resort in Mashobra near Shimla. Being a hardcore mountaineer I considered all hill stations a necessary evil to be transited through only when unavoidable in my quest for the lofty Himalayan heights. Topping it up I have severe dread of the oh-so-comfortable-and-cozy honeymooning getaways that these so called hill stations abound. So I pondered over the invite and finally agreed since I would get to meet some dear friends and also have an excuse to escape the blistering Delhi heats. When I boarded the bus to Shimla from Delhi along with a bunch of hooligans I prefer to call friends, I had no hopes of any fun at all except few days of good and cheerful company. All the eight of us essentially had a common ground that we all loved to travel, though in decidedly different manner and barring self, all the other were really looking forward to the enchantments of the erstwhile British summer capital. I had no idea then that all it would take to change my views of the place and the people was a simple smile from a complete stranger, who seemed my lifelong friend when I bid him goodbye few days later. This is how it happened.

The uniformed chauffer greeted us with a wide grin into the cool widening morning sun just outside the Shimla bus stand. As he zipped around the hill road towards Mashobra I liked his demeanor, candor and driving skills. Shortly we reached Whispering Pines, the Club Mahindra Resort. We drove over a drawbridge resembling that of a castle with a moat. This is different, I mused. No sooner we had entered the resort door to the reception, again held open by a beaming lad of twenty, glasses of sweet and chilled juice appeared out of nowhere. Hoping to be magnanimously critical, I sipped the juice cautiously only to discover that it was fresh and really soothing. The interiors of the resort were all in wood with wall hangings from a different era. As I climbed the stairs towards my second floor room I observed century old black-white daguerreotypes adorning the wall. Were we in a modern day resort or in some nineteenth century British bungalow! Compared to the outside, the room was utterly modern with plush carpet and a mega-size LCD TV hooked to the wall. The bay windows, facing northeast took my breath away. Perched at the hazy horizon I had a clear cut view of my family and friends. Some of them I had climbed, few I wished to.

The breakfast happened to be a sumptuous affair with me overeating (despite trying my best to keep away from the temptations) and I overate in every subsequent meal that I had there. The sprightly brightly smiling stewards and the sous-chefs kept my stomach happy and my mind sad… how would I ever lose the weight that I was putting on! The mealtimes at Whispering Pines became among the rarest of rare moments in my life when my palate and stomach totally disobeyed my mind. Among the stewards I noticed in particular Balwinder. He is an amazing bundle of energy. The genuine smile never deserted him even when eight hungry people literally pounced upon his slight frame. He was always ready with suggestions and offerings. And he was always there, either in the bar, in the lawn outside, at the barbeque, or in the restaurant. When did he sleep, I wondered. From my point of view our meet at Whispering Pine could well be a gastronomic adventure amidst the happiest people on earth. In between our meals, if we found a breather, then some of us would try to sweat it out in the well appointed recreation room with few batterings of TT, Pool or badminton.

The resort manager, Mohnish would pop out of all sorts of places and times without being overbearing, enquiring about our welfare and suggesting what we could or should do. He seemed to be there 24X7 and I even inquired surreptitiously if he was married and if his family was around. I was really surprised when he nodded in affirmative on both counts. His smile was of course the brightest of all, but then it could also be because he could any day become the world’s leading dental model. Leading from the front, he was, no wonder the staff never stopped smiling and neither did the guests. He threw a party for us (as if we needed a special one after all that was going on in his restaurant) and boy did I hog.

Our last night held another surprise. A special barbeque around an open fire under the starry sky. All wrapped up and served on a hot platter by the chief Chef Vikas. He and his team was another bundle of joy and finally I got the chance to meet and thank the real culprits for my tightening trousers. The barbeque went on till late and we ate till we dropped, at least I did. I have no idea how I reached my room that night. The next day morning when we bid goodbye to the staff at the reception I had another heartbreaking moment when Neha, the pretty receptionist wished us bon voyage and hoped to see us again. All during our stay, Neha and her team had ensured that not one of our requests went unserved. I wanted to come up with an appropriate remark to express my appreciation for all of them, but finally decided to serve them in their own coin, hence I grinned and beamed from all the places possible on humanly scale and took my leave with a heart brimming with joy.

At the bus stand the same chauffer now handed over my bag and wished me a happy journey back home. Not a single strand on his head had strayed out of place nor the smile had lessened neither the crisply starched uniformed creased unceremoniously. I shook his hand firmly and thanked him profusely. After all his smile had begun my stay and his smile is concluding it as well. As they say; well begun is half done and all’s well that ends well! Well, in that way I have just had a perfect holiday.

P.S. Just in case any of you are wondering; I did go to the Shimla Mall and to all the other touristy places around, also camped for one night where we must have roused all the 100 villages across the neighboring hills with our raucous ensembles (which we preferred to label as music) and last but not the least did a small hike too where we picked up at least a ton of garbage along the way. My sincere advise to you honeymooners and mooners alike, don’t go to Shimla, but if you do then just head for Whispering Pines and stay put. It’s a far better place than the location and you will actually come back with a feeling that you have been somewhere close to heaven. Follow this link to find the stairway to heaven http://www.clubmahindra.com/res_shimla_home.asp and if you want to know a little more about what we did and other touristy stuff then check out Arun's post at http://www.indianeye.org/2009/09/21/an-evening-at-the-shimla-mall/

Monday, September 7, 2009

I Should Not be Alive Part 2 – Deathtrap




I make a distinct distinction between fate and destiny. We do not shape our fate but we can and do design our destiny. When we do nothing at all and just go with the flow of life, then whatever happens to us is fate but when we act, to the best of our abilities and judgment or sense and sensibilities; and then whatever happens is our destiny. This post is a feeble attempt to sum up my thoughts on one of my closest calls to eternity, which I fail to explain even today that how I lived and my friend did not, though we both had shaped our destiny due to our stubbornness to do one more crazy act just to prove that it could be done. This post might also lead you to appreciate that what is more agonizing and terrifying than death itself is its approach, its proximity and the slow and steady certitude that you are going to die.

Period: Circa 2001, December. Location: somewhere in the Patagonian Mountains within the fuzzy borderland between Chile and Argentina. Actors: Four strapping and carefree rascals from four nations who were completely lost in the glaciated wilderness and with nothing more to do were keen to lose even more. The two protagonists of this post were however a little more reckless and insane than the other two. One being a naval submariner from India and the other being a French extreme ski-alpinist.



Among Max (Chile), Jean (France), Paulo (Brazil) and I we pretty much had the entire world of mountains and all kinds of style summed up. Max was an elite rock and crag specialist, zooming up sheer faces like lizards often without any protection while Jean skied down such dizzy slopes which we would seldom dare to climb. He had already been the body double in two Bond Movies. Paulo and I had climbed on every possible and known mountain range across the globe that rose above 10,000 ft. When we patched up the Patagonian trip and all four of us rendezvoused at Calafate in Argentina, we had a very simple agenda. To climb the 10 highest peaks in the entire Patagonian Range of mountains that rose like jagged teeth along the non-linear boundary between Argentina and Chile.

We raced across North and South Patagonia like devils on fire since it is a huge uncharted range of mountains and wilderness and we needed to cover massive ground in a relatively short time. We climbed San Valentin, San Lorenzo, Mariano Moreno, Cerro Bertrand, etc and almost summitted Cerro Torre in a single push (which if we had succeeded, would have made our ascent one of the finest of the decade), skirting Fitz Roy from a safe distance since it had already been climbed by us save Jean. After a mad rushing period of four exciting weeks, when we found ourselves in the watering holes of Puerto Natales in Chile we had every reason to celebrate and feel cheerful. Which we were, except for Jean, who gulped his beer in short swigs and gurgled it like mouthwash. I knew Jean well; when he did this it meant only one thing: his mind was racing and he wasn’t happy. He was a modern day hippy with long golden hair, which he rarely washed pleating them instead in multiple beaded strands. He shook his head vigorously making the beads strike with each other sounding almost like a drummer in a hurry. He was certainly the fittest among us. ‘What are you guys happy about?’ Jean chided. ‘All we do for the last month is up and down, up and down,’ he raised his hands in mimicry, spilling a considerable amount of beer on the neighboring table occupied by a pair of scantily clad senoritas. ‘Pardon, senora,’ Jean said sheepishly. The girls only smiled sweetly at him, eyeing his bare torso with some amount of interest.

Paulo had masterminded our expedition, and this accusation from Jean stirred his pride. ‘What do you want? That’s what we had planned and you agreed.’ Max was the coolest one, ‘What are you thinking, mon ami?’ ‘Ski the length of Brüggen Glacier.’ Jean drained his glass finally. ‘Brüggen Glacier?’ I asked, ‘Are you mad? No one skis there, it is a veritable deathtrap, there are millions of crevasses and it is bloody long, moreover there’s no downhill skiing there, you will have to do Nordic cross-country!’ I suggested. Jean was three times European ski champion and I was certain that he was a master in every style of skiing. ‘I will ski on Brüggen, only then I celebrate.’ Jean thumped the glass down on the table with a finality none of us dared to challenge. Paulo flatly refused to ski on Brüggen, he offered to follow us on foot instead and declared in no uncertain terms that those who skied would soon find that it was impossible to do so anyways. Max could barely strap himself into a ski so he too opted out, which left Jean and I. I doubted even with a snow mobile I would be able to keep pace with Jean on ski. But perhaps what made me agree is that there was no one else to pair up with Jean and I simply couldn’t let him go alone, he was too dear a friend. And I also followed my simple philosophy that no matter how crazy, impossible or undoable an enterprise looked, I was willing to try or attempt it at least once. Within the span of four beer bottles and two plates of tossed tuna we had decided our destiny. Two would come to no harm, one would escape death by the skin of his teeth and one would undertake the last adventure of his life.

South Patagonian ice shelf, with an area of roughly 16,000 Km2 is the largest continuous ice shelf in the world outside the Polar Regions. It still has large tracts of uncharted and unknown land. Its first crossing happened as recently as 1998. It is the least explored and known mountain region in the world. At a length of 64 km, Brüggen is the longest glacier in the Southern Hemisphere outside the Polar Region. From the air it resembled the upper torso of a gigantic dragon with horns with its fire-spewing mouth rearing to the west into an estuary and smaller glaciers. There were no recorded or known traverses of this glacier for the simple reason that it was riddled with open and hidden crevasses and most of those crevasses were several hundred meters deep. To walk or ski across such a glacier did not amount to adventure by any definition; as it was sheer stupidity and suicidal. Till today I can’t explain save for the explanation I offered afore that why did Jean insist on skiing across the glacier and why or how did I agree to go with him.

Compared to Jean, my cross country skiing skills were perhaps non-existent, yet by normal standards I was a decent skier and Jean promised to go slow. At the beginning of our journey we decided to stick close to the eastern edge of the glacier where the curvatures were less severe therefore with shorter and shallower crevasses. We carried sacks full of food for the next three days. Max and Paulo followed us on foot from a safe distance. The glacier ran down towards the snout in a moderate gradient that gave us an advantage though not of an alpine slope. To describe the next two days in totality is beyond the scope of this post and it is not central to the story anyways. What is important to note is that soon we lost sight of our two friends on foot, since they had to be extra careful with the crevasses while we could zip across most of the narrow ones on our skis following a straighter line than them.

As the glacier shortened ahead of us and we neared the end, my spirit soared. We were skiing through some of the most magnificent and unseen vistas of nature and mountain wilderness. But for my crazy companion racing ahead I would have been deprived of these. There was some meaning to this madness after all I had to agree. Brüggen was a surging glacier and we often felt it move right underneath with crevasses suddenly appearing out of nowhere, which made our journey not only harrowing and hair-raising but also dynamic and there were never a moment of respite or boredom. We hopped, skipped and slid around and past death, cheating her icy cold fingers at every turn and every slope. Jean laughed like possessed and I smiled like a man drugged. We both were happy and euphoric beyond measure. On the third day when we had a mere mile to the end of the glacier, the ice shelf became so broken that we were forced to take off our skis and strap them on our backpack. Though beyond visual and audible range, Max and Paulo confirmed on radio that they were only few hours behind. They must have walked at a fiery pace, almost running after us. Was it for our safety or scare of being left behind that prompted them to speed up so; Jean joked.

Despite the long daylight hours, the sun was now sinking and our shadows lengthened behind. The air turned chilly and a shiver ran down my spine. Jean walked around 30 ft ahead while I followed him at a steady pace. On foot I could walk as fast as him. The ice penitents and the broken glacier floor made our progress slow and laborious. Route finding was essential. We had to tap the ice with our ice axe to gauge its quality and depth. There must be thousands of hungry crevasses right beneath waiting to devour us in one single moment of carelessness. Without our skis we were more vulnerable. I willed the sun to stay up a little longer. It wasn’t a place where one could place one’s life entirely at the mercy of the yellow beam of the headlamp.

As the sun sank lower, so did my spirit. It might have been a good idea to pitch our tent for the night, only if we could find a flat patch of ice, of which there was none. Though my body was warm my exterior had started freezing up. On a normal day by this hour we would be inside our tents, cooking pasta and soup. ‘Jean,’ I hailed, ‘should we stop and let them catch up?’ ‘No ways,’ Jean said without turning back, ‘they must have got a tent up by now. They are too far from the end and they can’t make it in the dark. But we are very close and let’s just get the hell out of here and camp on the moraine.’ Jean concluded. I had to agree with his logic. Moreover, we simply had no place to pitch a tent.

Miraculously a little later we turned into a half-tunnel, semi circular patch of flat ice with open roof. It seemed to lead us out of the glacier onto the lateral moraine. Jean literally raced and I followed him. In our haste we both abandoned caution for a brief fraction of a second. I could barely see the outline of my friend in the semi-darkness. Suddenly the earth parted and I fell through empty air.

Einstein had revealed time dilation concept in his theory of relativity, which merely stated that when we approached the speed of light, time actually slowed down. Though I have never approached the speed of light, even in my thoughts, I have been in situations that changed way too rapidly for the mind to follow and on all these occasions I have found that time indeed slowed down.

On that fateful evening in late December of 2001, trapped within one of the most hostile and wildest spots on the face of Earth as I watched helplessly my friend plunge to his death into the icy dungeons of a bottomless crevasse, everything stretched out as if I watched it in slow motion. I saw but my mind did not register.

With our combined weight landing on a thin veneer of ice covering a huge crevasse, it simply collapsed and we tumbled into the darkness. As I fell, I watched the arc of Jean’s headlamp bounce around the glistening blue ice-wall and kept hearing his piercing scream reverberating through the channel well after his body had disappeared from sight. My eyes followed his falling form mechanically. It dropped like stone, as a body should under such circumstances accelerating at 9.8 m/sec2 due to gravity. We both fell at the same instance but shortly he surpassed me and I looked down at him with my thoughts completely frozen. Only a jarring bone crushing grip that shot up from the middle of my battered torso, which I barely registered, told me that I was still alive and capable of registering pain. I tried to find footing to my crampons but after few seconds of failed attempt realized that I dangled in empty air like a fly caught in a spider’s web. Empty and cold air lay under me and complete darkness beyond as it was above.

Few frozen minutes later things started making sense. I swung my headlamp down and found no bottom only bottomless void of total darkness that seemed to mock and lure me into its core where moments ago my friend had disappeared. I looked up and imagined the sliver of dark sky around 40 ft above. As my body started freezing and growing numb from shock and hypothermia my mind started clearing up. Jean and I had fallen into a deep and long crevasse. He was barely 25 – 30 ft ahead of me and where he had fallen the crevasse was opening out like an inverted V, while where I had fallen, by some one-in-a-billion chance, a narrow convex bulge)( had formed. I had got jammed right in the center of it, with my limbs dangling free above and below. Had I fallen a millisecond earlier or later I would have missed the bulge completely.

My midriff, chest and lungs were getting crushed slowly as my body weight pulled me down and squeezed me into the bulge with every agonizing minute. I was completely helpless. My legs were far from the ice wall as were my hands and I had no use of my crampons or the ice axe. I could barely breathe and my heart had nearly stopped. My body heat was further melting the ice around my waist and I was slowly and surely sliding down. It was only a matter of time that the bulge would open out wide enough for me to slide through and join my friend down below somewhere; broken, smashed and surely dead. I could barely breathe or speak or make any gesture at all.

Death now hovered right around me. I knew for certain that there was no one up above looking for me and no rescue would come my way. Max and Paulo must be in their tents asleep. Even if they decided to look for us after a while when they did not raise us on the radio it would be impossible for them to find us in this icy maze. By now night had fallen and I could hear the blizzard roaring on top as it swept ice particles down all over me like fine shower.

I don’t think that I have ever been caught in a more helpless and hopeless situation in my entire life. I started losing my mind and my senses. My eyes refused to focus or stay open. My lower limbs were totally frozen as blood was cut off. I had slid down by several inches. In fact death seemed more logical and welcome. I always knew that my time would come like this only and wanted no other end for self, but I wished that I would die sooner than later. The throttling agony racked my brain like chainsaw hacking away my limbs one piece at a time. There was no escape from the pain or the realization that I was certainly going to die. There was no fear or longing except the unbearable pain and the desire for it to end soonest. I did not think of anyone or anything at all other than the overpowering urge to die. I am sure that if I had the strength and could locate my Swiss knife, then on that night I would have either slit my throat or plunged it deep into my heart. I hovered in suspended animation with the supreme realization that though it was my destiny (due to my actions) that brought me here it would be my fate (due to my inaction) that would finally kill me.

Though my body and soul and if I still had any mind left then all of them had given up the struggle to stay alive only praying and wishing for death, there was this another disembodied part of my being that was telling me to stay awake and be ready to act when help arrived. Through the faint pallor of the headlamp as it struck the shining ice wall opposite I saw myself glued to the ice and looking at me with curiosity as if I was an insect under microscope. I even smiled at me, much to my vexation. My apparition remained silent though I asked him questions, only nodding its head languidly. I was so riveted with the sight that my eyes stayed open despite their inability to focus or to discern forms at all. I have no idea that neurologically how many parts can the mind and brain be split into, but on that day there seemed to be a lot of them. One of them told me that I was hallucinating, another confirmed that I was dying, while the other reaffirmed that my situation was completely, thoroughly irreversible. I was hearing sounds, whispers, noises, someone calling my name, someone brushing my face, and I ignored all. I refused to lose my sanity till the end and die with the knowledge that I was dead. And then I heard it.

Above all the ramblings and fumbling of my feeble mind a sharp pitch of a whistle came hurtling down from above and pierced my numbing rationale like arrow. Perhaps for such situations training was necessary. When our mind and body reacts without the need to think, it acts in reflex without even realizing what it was to which it reacted. It was the unmistakable sound of a St John rescue whistle and I knew who carried it. I looked up into the beam of a headlamp. Few more whistle blows followed and then few gibberish of human tongue of which I made nothing at all. I opened my mouth but to no avail. My lungs had by now completely crushed and I was sure my ribs had cracked due to the constriction. I slid another inch down and wondered how soon my friends above would watch me disappear. Abruptly something whipped past my helmet. Though my eyes did not see and my brain did not think, I knew a rope had just been dropped and at the end of it would be Paulo.

Someone came down and hooked the rope to my harness and then chopped the ice that had saved me and imprisoned me till then. As soon as the ice chunks fell off, I spun uncontrollably in empty air, hanging like a ragged doll and a puppet without a puppeteer. My friends took nearly half an hour to pull me up. Even without my uttering a word they knew that they would not see Jean ever again. They took off my sack and carried me through the night finally reaching the tent. The moment I felt the warmth I passed out. I have no recollection of what happened thereafter.

Though I learned later that Max and Paulo nursed me back to life all through the night and literally carried me on their backs the next day to the nearest rescue post from where a helicopter ferried us to the nearest hospital. With me finally safe and secure, Paulo and Max took leave. My return flight was from Santiago and Max lived in Valparaiso so I promised to call him up once I reached Santiago whereas I may never meet Paulo again. I hugged both of them for being my angels.

When I boarded the flight a week later for Santiago and we rose into the dying sun, I looked out of the window at the receding glaciers below, where my friend and guide Jean lay in complete obscurity. No one will ever know what he went through or how he died. No one would find his body and he would never get a Catholic burial. He would not become a legend or a story; his grave would forever remain unknown and uncharted. Once again I had no explanation for being alive while a dear friend had to be left behind. I felt lost, I felt sad and I felt sorry… I have no idea why. But my throat closed up and I kept my eyes glued to the window till we broke through the clouds and the glaciers receded out of sight forever.

I did not ask and they did not tell that how come Paulo and Max on that night had not pitched their tent and came looking for us and even more amazingly how did they find that one crevasse among thousands into which Jean and I had fallen. Such an occurrence was not even a one-in-a-billion probability; it was impossible. Had God or destiny guided them that night, I will never know, but what I would always know is that if my time wasn’t up then there was nothing on earth that could kill me and if it was then nothing on earth could save me. Hence I had nothing to fear except the fear of being scared.