What’s a ‘moment’ to you? I am sure you have been asked many times: what was your moment, what was or is the most memorable moment of your life? Etc. etc. Someone had once remarked, and which is now widely quoted: Measure not life by the number of breaths you take but by the number of moments that take your breath away. But this description is only suggestive; while it could mean a really long life for an unfit individual who lives on the fifth floor of a building that doesn’t have a lift; and to another it could mean the life-lifting or elated moments of one’s life. Such moments are supposedly rare and are thrust upon us when we expect them least. But then if we are so oft advised to live every moment then shouldn’t each moment of our lives be that ‘moment’! But then what is a ‘moment’? Should we define it by a temporal tape of perhaps a minute, seconds or a millisecond perhaps! If you are inordinately excitable then to you may be the moment can last beyond a minute. But the peak or the apex of the moment in a momentary duration I guess only lasts few blinks or perhaps lasts the duration of your breath holding capacity. So if you are a normal person with normal lungs then for you a moment can possibly last all of 90 seconds while for a super-athlete high altitude junkie like me it could go up to several minutes and to a world champion free-diver it could go on for close to 10 minutes.
What does ‘moment’ comprise of, should be the next query. What is the significance of a ‘moment’? It is highly subjective and time bound. The same experience for the same individual at one time and place might be a ‘moment’ and at another time and place it may not be, while to two individuals the same ‘moment’ at the same place and location may not take breaths away to equal degrees. A moment can be a life stopping instance or a life beginning, it can make you see everything or make you oblivious to everything, it can connect you to the cosmos or it can isolate you from everyone. In short it is indescribable. As you can see by now that this whole concept of ‘moment’ and its related epiphanies is a subterfuge to cloak one of our least experienced and understood experiences.
So let’s get away from trying to understand what a ‘moment’ is to the moment of a ‘moment’. How does it happen and when? No one apparently knows, or if one knows, one is not able to communicate it unambiguously within the purviews of language and humanistic communication channels. But if I ask you to cook up or concoct a ‘moment’ for yourself then I am sure most of us would be able to respond. A ‘moment’ most often is subject to a location and to an activity. And you will see that by this very simple hypothesis how I have killed any kind of debate. While all mountaineers and adventurous spirits roaming the world seeking beyond the obvious, do turn into a philosopher sooner or later, it isn’t my intent here to get into a philosophical discourse. Rather I would share with you all one of my ‘moments’ which did not happen naturally but had to be created or intervened in a manner of speaking. The point I am trying to draw your attention to is that instead of waiting for the ‘moment’ to hit you, you can actually intervene, affect and create your own ‘moments’ and thus make your life a much more exciting and unforgettable journey. I created my moment up above on a mountain while you can create yours in the heart of urban life, it is your moment and it is your way.
I am sure that all my readers here have undertaken an aerial journey at some point of time in their lives and would agree that the view of the world is really better from the top. Many of you must have lingered longingly literally stuck to the window while you cruise at 30,000 ft and the sun begins to set in the horizon and the twilight simply stretches endlessly. You must have gazed fondly at the cloud carpets beneath your wings and wished to walk upon the white and you have perhaps looked down upon snow covered conical summits and wanted to scoop into the snow. Mountains offer us abundant shades of white and blue and every hue in between. Dawn and dusk are moments to rejoice and celebrate life. A drop of orange, a hint of mauve, a shade of violet and a glint of gold… mountains have it all and this play of colors is perhaps the single most reason for me to remain a climber till I die. Let me now take you all back few years to an expedition in the Himalaya where we aimed for the summit of a 7000 meter plus peak through a new route. We are a mix of climbers from three nations with age range between 30 – 45 and with different experiences of different terrains and ethics.
As an expedition it runs smoothly being led by a veteran (thankfully I was only a member hence free to do whatever I felt like and was not being judged by my crazy antics) and we gradually progress across the mighty flanks of the majestic mountain. By a process that is far too complex to understand or to explain, on the evening before our summit attempt I find myself paired up with a climber, 5 years my senior and from a nation not known for patience and finesse. As a pair we are as opposite to each other like fire and ice not only in our techniques but about life itself fundamentally. This would be interesting I muse silently. Being the topmost Himalayan and high altitude expert in the team, I know that I have an advantage since this is my home turf.
At 23000 ft when mind and body starts to act strangely it is the saner of the pair who normally prevails. Only niggling fact in my head is if ‘I’ could be termed ‘sane’ even at sea-level! Our summit bid plan is simple and obvious. From our last camp we have a face of 800 m right ahead, sloping at an average of 60 degree, which we could comfortably cover in 7 – 8 hrs and then return in less than half the time. The face is relatively solid and safe; few powder avalanches but nothing really serious. We plan to start climbing around 2 in the morning and hopefully be back to the lower camp in 12 hrs for a late lunch. Obviously we plan to climb light with only little readymade food, one bottle of water and one extra heavy down jacket. Even in broad daylight I never part with my headlamp, hence it goes in my summit pack. A short rope of 50 m and few ice screws are pitched in as well. My partner is raring to go like a prized derby.
Around 1 we leave the comforts of our warm sleeping bags and get ready. The dark silent night fills up with metallic sounds and abominable curses from my friend. Mercury hovers close to 20 C below zero. The air is crisp enough to slice your skin. We radio the base camp and our leader gives us strict instructions, emphasizing enough on the safety factors. Precisely at quarter past two we step out into the unknown. In less than half an hour we both understand that our plans have got seriously waylaid. Not only the face seems steeper, the snow cover is soft and fragile. Our crampons do not bite but sink in the snow. We had misjudged the slope. We would need double the effort and time perhaps to get through such conditions. Moreover the chances of avalanche seemed more probable. We stop and reconsider our options; my friend also fidgets and curses. I suggest that we abandon the face and head for the ridge and then take it all the way to the summit. It would entail covering around 200 m of vertical and a km of horizontal distance in excess to what had been planned. We radio down and get the leader’s affirmation. We plod on in a new direction.
Changing leads every 100 m we gain ground at a moderate pace. We surmount the ridge and realize it is narrower than the span of my waist. Yet it is a safer option than the face. Soon we fall into the monotone of climbing in complete darkness. Only the yellow glow from our halogen lamps lit up few meters ahead; beyond that and all around a solid impenetratable darkness locks us in a tight cocoon. The black sky above though redolent with twinkling stars remains black. Gradually the sun rise and we welcome the dawn from the ridge. It streaks across the countless mountain tops and clouds and warms our faces with gentle caress. We carry on. We stop intermittently for a bite or a sip of water. We keep on replenishing our bottles with soft snow. The snow gets softer and deeper and our progress slower. Noon passes and we cross TAT (turn around time). A good point to ponder here is that why didn’t we turn back! I don’t know, we did not think about it. We just kept going on.
Then the clouds come rushing and blizzards start. The snow spindrift pushes and blasts us remorselessly, yet we continue. We are not rational, thinking animals any more. We do not exchange words we never discuss anything. We do not contact the base camp or switch on the radio. I know by now the ones below cannot see us anymore and they have no idea what’s happening to us. They are worried, they should be. We should be worried too, but we are not… at least I am not and if my friend is, he is not telling.
There is something called ‘summit fever’, though I have seldom been afflicted by it. My reason to go on is to only see how far I can go before I feel that I have gone far enough. My friend is in ‘summit fever’. It is his first 7000 meter peak and well the route hasn’t been easy either. There had been life-threatening moments, there still were. A hard fought summit is difficult to give up, though we both realize in our heart of hearts that perhaps it would be better to go down. But then rarefied atmosphere and difficult places do strange things to one’s rationales and we go on. We finally decide that we can’t stand against the brutal blinding snow anymore and we must stop.
So we halt and bury ourselves into the snow. The same soft snow, our bane so far, now gives us refuge. The fury of the storm lashes us from above. It lasts forever. Gradually the storm recedes and the sky clears up. We are still on the ridge with the summit deceptively close but we are well into the afternoon as well. I realize with a strangely calming stoic feeling that if we headed for the summit in so late an hour no way would we be able to reach our last camp before darkness. There is anyways no possibility of reaching the lower camps now (as planned) even if we turn back at this moment. If we go down at this instant then we can at least reach the last camp before darkness fell. Even without a single word being passed between us, we both know that we must carry on towards the summit. The horizon is rapidly clearing up. We extricate ourselves from the deep snow debris and brush our clothes to the extent possible. We both appear as if we had just dived into a cauldron of white flour. We laugh at and with each other. Life is good, we agree. Then I give an upward nod and we recommence our journey.
While we gain altitude sun sinks to our west. Shadows lengthen as do our breathing. It is hard going by any standards. Nearer the top, mercifully the ridge widens enough for us to stand side by side. We short rope and resort to dynamic belay system. The snow beneath begins to harden. Our legs feel like cast in iron. We breathe hard and breathe long. Our water bottles freeze. We have to rub it under our armpits to melt few drops of water. Food comes down to few bars of chocolates. Unbeknownst to us, our radio sets had died down a long while ago. We summit just when the top orb of the sun dips below our horizon and I feel immensely sad. It seems ironical that when I reach the top from where I had envisaged looking down upon the world, all I can see is complete darkness. The top has a flattish rectangular shape. While my friend fills up the air with joyful screams I get the first brainwave of the day. I tell my friend and he is incredulous. He stops shouting. I stick to my point. He realizes I am serious and do not suffer any delirium. We discuss possibilities and options. We have none or just one, which is actually none. Which is good.
We get down to work. Luckily for us, a little below the summit cone, the snow is deep and stable. We dig out snow and it takes us an hour to carve a cave large enough for us to squeeze into. I know, sleep will not come tonight neither can we afford the luxury of rest. Our position is extremely precarious and hinging on luck among many other unpredictable. We will need to keep moving our extremities all through the night else frost bite is a certain possibility. We have no sleeping bag or any other warm clothes besides the extra down jackets. Our legs are wet and cold from inside. We have no spare socks. We don’t have gas to melt snow. We have no food. We are in serious situation if survival is our concern otherwise we couldn’t be in a better place. In such moments when moments stretch into eternity words and expressions are pointless. We look at each other and silently accept our destiny. We will either come out of this or stay here forever, either ways we would be winners. My friend takes out a picture from his pocket and stares at it for a long time under his headlamp. I conserve mine, keep it off and repose in my dark corner, though I am barely a foot away from him. I know he is looking at his wife and daughter. I have no idea what he is thinking though. I am not looking or thinking of anyone at all. Everything that I wish to look at and be with is already around me. I am where I need to be, I am with whom I wish to be, I am where I truly belong.
The clock ticks on and the night lingers. We decide to keep watch on each other. We take turns at dozing off. Every hour we wake up the other, massage our limbs and extremities and then the other dozes off. No way can we afford to doze off together. That would be fatal, none would wake up ever. The thin air rakes our lungs, the cold throttles us. The cave has barely any room for movement. Our blood freezes and so does our mind. I can feel my fingers and toes curling involuntarily, my feet swells up as well inside the wet boots. We don’t have the option of taking out our feet. Around 4 I decide to poke my head out of the cave.
Though the sky above is black as before, the eastern horizon seems to usher in the slightest hint of silver. I am elated. I have waited for this, the only reason I had opted to stay inside a snow cave the entire night at the risk of death or amputation—to look down upon the world from my summit as sun would begin to rise. I shake my friend and bid him to get out. We wriggle out and limber up. We retrace our footsteps to the summit and right there at that point in time and space we perch ourselves like expectant birds looking at the eastern sky with all our senses alert. The dawn begins to unfold like a Japanese fan.
The sun rises magically, enfolding a new ridge or a mountain top with every step. Orange and red hues run wild checkering the sky with a mad painter’s flourish. Dali and Gogh comes to my mind. Did these two geniuses ever climb a mountain to watch a dawn! I wonder. And then my ‘moment’ happens and it lasts only a second though I remain submerged in its aftermath for a long time. The sun clears the ridge in front of us and the first streak reaches my face like the giant strobe of a circus. Time stops for me at that moment and in that moment I find eternity and the reason and purpose to life. I live for that moment since I created that moment. Being a participant as well an observer I had frozen that moment forever.
I still live in and for such moments. Though it is another matter altogether that I create such moments almost every day of my life… do you!