Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Kenya Calling – Going Wild with Born Free

I fully agree the above title is rather on the face, as I am already in a wild place, looking for wild things and going even wilder than I was intended to become, but even then this is the best I could come up with. I am deliberately skipping the first day at Kenya since it was spent at Swara Plains Ranch, where I shall return soon and would get to experience it in a more leisurely manner. For now, let’s dive right into the wild wagon and swing free like a chimpanzee straight into Born Free office Nairobi.

Even before I had arrived I had done some amount of digging into Born Free, a UK based NGO that is proactively working towards wildlife conservation. They have a huge presence in Kenya and are doing commendable work across all fields of conservation and related community outreach programs. Born Free Kenya had graciously offered me a field trip with their country manager, Iregi Mwenja, into the far flung reaches of Samburu Region in the Northern Highlands.

Sandy drove me to Born Free office in the outskirts of Nairobi. It resembled an office less and a verdant amusement park more. After a brief tete-a-tete with Victor, the Programs manager, who is one of most soft spoken persons I have ever come across, I hopped into a Born Free Land Rover and sped across the beautiful country side heading due North.

Crossing several townships, including Nanyuki, Timau and Isiolo, and the looming dark hulk of Mt Kenya to my right, we left the main tarmac road at a junction and took to real dirt roads. No sooner had we turned into the dirt road my eyes were immediately drawn to a majestic table-land reposing to the right under the setting sun. The thick jungle at its feet around 1/3rd way up succumbs to the granite walls above that falls steeply from the table top. Another cliff to my left vies attention. Then more and more as we drive deeper into the jungles. The place is virtually littered with boulders and rock walls that can keep a rock climber happy and climbing endlessly.

It is said that in nature, magic happen at certain places, only most often there are no one around to witness. But then someone comes along at exactly the precise spot where all the tangents of time, space and continuum meet and he becomes the forbearer of the magic. For me it happened likewise on this dirt road to nowhere. The land rover at its breakneck speed careened over a sharp bend and if I hadn’t kept my eyes open I would have completely missed the tree harboring several bird nests. It’s a common sight all over this jungle, but what made this tree unique was the way it stood out in sharp relief to the blue sky dotted with cottony clouds. It seemed to be my tree, waiting for me for centuries. I went up to it, caressed its trunk and took few pictures. Soon enough we chanced upon the extremely shy dik-dik, a tiny fragile mammal of deer species. They are very difficult to photograph, but a pair suddenly after having run a few paces away, turned around and the younger one still chewing a leave at its mouth gaped at me with equal amazement. My Nikon did the rest.

After another hour of back breaking journey we reached Wamba, a small town perched at the foothills of the Mathew Range of mountains in Samburu Region. Amazingly my mobile phone came alive and so did the USB data card for internet. Mwenja greeted me at the guest house with a huge smile and so did his field assistant Natalie, along with the driver. A quick shower and shave and we drove off to witness what exactly Born Free was doing in this remote region.

As Mwenja explained, in conservation it is about educating people, human beings who are doing the damage to wildlife. The wildlife, being wild and natural, needs no education or conservation per se. In a unique initiative Born Free had produced several films to spread awareness and sensitize the local inhabitants about the need for wild life conservation and why should they stop killing bush meat for food, etc. For tonight, Mwenja is going to screen two films, one showing the harmful effects of consuming bush meat and why bush life must be preserved to safeguard the humans and the other film showing various initiatives to prevent lions and other predators attacking cattle, which leads to direct man-beast conflict. For lions, leopards, etc goats and cows found within human habitation is easy prey and those that grow old often stray into the settlements and kill livestock. Obviously this infuriates the villagers who then go out in large numbers with spears and knives and kills any lion they find on the way. This is purely an act of vengeance. This is the biggest cause for reduction in lion population.

A screen along with audio visuals had been set up in a clearing and a substantial number of crowds had gathered. The movies was first shown in Swahili and then in Masai. Spectators seemed to be in good humor since they would break into laughter intermittently and seemed to grasp the underlying message well. As Mwenja explained the idea through such movies was to stigmatize bush meat eating to a level where no one would do it, or would be ostracized by their people if anyone did so. His aim was to leave the right message with the people. Born Free had also recruited and cultivated local volunteers who were sympathetic to the cause and could take the message and idea deeper into their own people.

The next day, we stuffed the Land Rover to the bursting point and left for lands that were the purview of only the very intrepid, which suited me just fine. We were heading into the very end of some of these dirt roads, deep into Samburu Region. As we penetrated deeper into the region my eyes feasted on the rock faces, boulders and the seemingly endless chain of green mountains, undulating wave after wave like an ocean. The road (if it could still be called one) dipped and curved, disappeared and broke and over all such terrains growled and gripped the Land Rover. Soon it had earned my respects. We came to a major river crossing, where we had to deplane and then the empty vehicle drove across but couldn’t climb up the sandy bank on the other side. Several attempts later, belching black smoke and burning tyres, it finally groaned its way up. Conservation had its own adventures as I could see. Soon we came to a small manyata (family settlement) and stopped to pick up our lunch. Which in our case consisted of one live chicken and a bag of potato.

We got out of the vehicle to stretch our legs. I looked for birds to shoot (with my camera) and anything else that came my way. While others spread around. Typically, soon we had a group of people around us. The chicken lady offered us a ripe papaya on the house. Even before I could reach for my Swiss knife, out swung a machete the size of my right arm from one of the onlookers and suddenly the innocent papaya looked distinctly vulnerable. Few well aimed swings and I had one piece of succulent papaya in hand. It tasted divine. The chicken now nicely trussed, we took leave.

If the road was bad till now, what lay ahead suddenly made our earlier journey seem like the smoothest highway in the world. The angles at which the land rover descended and climbed defied gravity and all sense of logic. Soon I was sweating not only for reasons of tropical heat. The vehicle was moving and the occupants along with our belongings moved like being inside a mixie. Somehow amidst all such bedlam, our lunch snored its way through. Perhaps it knew that this would be its last sleep of this life so enjoyed it fully. Not only hats off but full standing ovation to our driver Martin who got us finally atop a hill beneath an Acacia tree next to a dilapidated brick house where the cinema would be screened. Out came tents and our paraphernalia.

Being blown away while trying to grapple with the massive tent that could easily house a Samburu family, we were soon surrounded by kids and adult Samburu’s alike, all laughing at our futile efforts. We smiled back and sweated under the cheering crowd’s adulations. Finally lunch came around. The chicken when inside felt nothing like the bird I knew back in India, but food out here in this remote and hostile land was solely a means to survive so I forced the morsel down my throat. Lest I was offered the local delicacy of cow’s blood, freshly drawn and warm too.

Post lunch, Mwenja, our local guide Linda (a man, how I wish it wasn’t), Natalie and I went off for an adventure that involved nocturnal forays into such places where very few outsiders had ever gone before. What transpired thereafter would be covered in a separate post as it was a once in a life time experience for me under the watchful eyes of Mwenja. As for this post, I would recommence from the time we reunited with our driver Martin and local boy James, who had by the next morning had packed off all the movie gear back into the land rover and were ready to go.

Martin told us that they had started the screening right under the tree with the screen tied up to the vehicle and with only one spectator. But slowly others gathered around and finally it was a group of around 30, which going by the remoteness of the area and the reluctance of the Samburu people to come out in the open, wasn’t bad at all. So all said and done our trip seemed to have been fairly successful, more so since it was Born Free’s first trip here.

We drove out from the dirt road back on to the tarmac and headed once again up North. The road was under construction at many places and full of potholes, etc. We again left the tarmac (kind of) road at a point and making a curve headed for the distant hills. Under Martin’s sorcery at the wheel, ground disappeared beneath us like magic and we arrived at the very remote village of Ndoinya Wasin just as the sun was preparing to set behind the distant clouds. It seemed like a market day and many people were gathered around a house and some were carrying huge bags of grain and other household stuff away. Even before I could jump out of the cramped vehicle a little tiny kid simply wriggled through on to my lap and would refuse to budge thereafter. He sat on my lap sucking his thumb and openly laughing at me. His father (or whoever) carrying a nasty looking spear and machete stared at me with a look that I would prefer to forget as of now.

I had absolutely no idea what to do with the situation and even if it was one in reality. I tried to pet and cuddle the kid caked with mud and black as the belly of a hippo. He laughed and cuddled back but the father’s stare did not change its intensity. Eventually someone took the kid away and the village chief (dressed in military fatigue and carrying a very crooked looking Chinese Army gun) welcomed us with beer. Mwenja and gang swung into action while I swung out with my camera. Post the movie show, we were stacked inside a school room that had like a billion buffalo sized insects all over. We ate and slept under serious aerial threats. At night the moon came out in full glory and the sky looked brilliant and serene as ever. I counted about a dozen constellations and then went back inside the dark room to the accompaniment of Martin and James’ snoring and sought refuge under the sleeping bag.

Next day we did a bit of detour and pursued further north reaching the dirty little township of Merili (named after a dry river that runs by), which is predominantly Islamic in culture and belief. It was a typical shanty town that one would find all over Ethiopia, Somalia, Egypt etc. We hadn’t much to do there and we just hung around like discarded packets of empty matchboxes. I observed the people around going around their daily chores, which wasn’t much in reality. No one seemed to be doing anything at all.

At a certain time, we turned South and headed for the township of Serio-Lipi where Born Free would be screening its final films for this trip. We put up in a ramshackle lodge that in the name of lodging offered us a small tiny room with one window, full of flies and vermin of all sorts. Surprisingly the fun-loving owner (what else he could be!) had named each room by the name of a city / nation without any logic whatsoever. So a room named Cairo was neighbored to Australia. While my destined room was named Chile (which was fine with me) sandwiched between New York and Beijing. I was astonished to be living in a boundary less world so deep inside the heart of Kenya’s Northern Wilderness.

Evening came and out came our juke boxes, screen, generator, etc and the village turned up in large numbers to justify this sojourn totally. There was absolutely nothing to eat there so we all slept off empty stomach, with perhaps bits and bites of a biscuit or dry bread. I was quickly learning that conservation community outreach efforts of Born Free had its ups and very low downs as well. It wasn’t an easy task they had embarked upon. And I was glad to be a part of this very special core group having the opportunity to see their work and ethos and drive from the inside.

The following morning, Mwenja and the entire team, I included were smiling our biggest smile for now we were headed home. While for me that wasn’t Nairobi yet completely true. That’s another adventure that would come as a separate post. For now I would like to conclude by saying that on our way back, we saw some spectacular sun rise across the Havana plains of Kenya, and when Mwenja dropped me at a pre-determined location for something specific I had in mind, nearly 250 km short of Nairobi, I just felt that in the last few days I had gained a dear friend and an experience to last a lifetime.

I could conclude with Hakuna Matata, but that wouldn’t mean a thing. So let’s say Jumbo Habari and Seinti.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Kenya Calling – Crocodile Candy

For once the rapidity of the incidents unfolding around me has by far out maneuvered and outwitted my mental agility (many of you my staunch supporters would perhaps say, that is always the case) and consequently I am bit incoherent, confused and short on verbosity in this fine evening as I sit under a dark canopy of twinkling stars in the remote town of Wamba in Samboro Region. Very soon the moon would be up and would bereft of my soliloquy with the stars.

Therefore, let me begin with a quiz that is an answer in itself; so no prizes if you get it right. Prize might come your way if you don’t get the answer actually. And don’t even ask me why should my first story from Kenya come with the above title. I hope you would understand it by the time you reach the end. So here goes!

Q. Where on earth can you accomplish and successfully achieve all of the following within the span of the first 24 hrs of arrival: -

Cross the Equator twice
Gaze at the two highest peaks of a single continent
Shake hands with a lion before breakfast
Do a sit down lunch with a pack of zebras
Giraffe comes to sip your evening tea
At supper impalas share your meal
Lion’s growl lull you to sleep
And a cheetah rubbing its back on your tent flap is your wakeup call
Witness a gorgeous sun sink behind the clouds while wildebeests graze nearby
Welcome a full moon lit up the entire sky with hornbills flying across its glowing face

Well I must hastily add that I personally achieved all of these and a little more since I landed in Kenya. I could have done more, as any of you can, but for my jetlag and fatigue. Since the plains and the jungles, the animals and my very well meaning friends they all were totally up to it, to give me the most amazing 24 hrs of my life. I failed, they didn’t. Even if now some of you haven’t guessed yet, well I am talking about Kenya and the area around Nairobi specifically.

My proper reporting, series of stories and chapters like I had promised would commence soon, in a day or two or may be little later, as I am literally reeling under the myriads of experience and sensations that I am going through every minute. It’s too diverse and massive to be grasped by someone who doesn’t have a mind or brain (as you all know well about me), moreover ever since I landed I have been moving constantly, literally on the road so didn’t get much chance to assimilate my thoughts yet to be put down in a sensible manner. So I would begin with an extremely humorous story that Sandy told me during lunch and which is true. Despite being so humorous it has a strong message for all of us so to begin our Kenyan Safari (I am absolutely certain, that all of us are with me, every step of this incredible journey) let’s meet the Crocodile Candy.

Poaching is rampant all over Africa and Kenya in particular though game hunting is banned. Few months back, a man in all his tribal wisdom thought of a totally out of the box idea to get his animal out of the country. So he decided to put a crocodile in his hand baggage and simply got himself a ticket in a tiny 15 seater plane flying out. The crocodile did not protest or it might have been tranquilized before being boxed in. So the man keeps his delicate hand bag at his feet and snoozes off. Sometime during the flight the croc comes out of its snooze and realizes that he is totally out of his elements and doesn’t like it even one tiny bit. Perhaps he doesn’t like the airline meal either. Whatever might be the reason, for who can tell what’s going on inside a croc’s head, our friend decides to go for a stroll to stretch its limbs. Pops out croc and along the aisle he swaggers majestically flipping its horny tail and looking at his fellow passengers with utter disdain which they certainly deserve. And let me assure you my good readers, as Sandy assured me, that the croc did not mean any harm. All he desired as his birthright was a bit of fresh air and may be a little snack to go along. And if only no one had panicked, as we human are wont to do when faced with something unknown or never experienced before, this story wouldn’t be worthy of telling.

It could be the dainty airhostess (usually they are) or someone else who might have stepped on it, suddenly the morning torpor inside the aircraft erupted into an eruption capable of drowning Vesuvius. The entire occupants of the aircraft barring the croc and his sleeping master; ran forward and dived into the cockpit. One man even on the captain’s lap. The plane suddenly with so much additional head weight nose-dived and spun completely out of control. It crashed into the ground killing everyone except the croc and his still sleeping but perhaps now unconscious master.

How do we know that the story is true! Well the only human survivor of the cargo told us so! Ha! Most of you who are still awake would jump at me, ‘gotcha, how could he know what was going on, he was asleep all through the journey.’ And here I must agree. Unless he could experience reality while in his dreams. Somehow I didn’t ask this question to Sandy, but if Sandy says it is true and I totally believe him (don’t confuse him with my other friend Sandy, who is a woman), then so it is.

So let’s not argue about the veracity of the story but since now all of you are laughing with me, fact or fiction, that’s a damn good way to begin our Kenyan Safari. Until I find a net connection, some sleep, time to write up, time to dream and meet up with some inspiration, etc. etc. (for there are no dearth of excuses for a lazy crazy bum like me) and until we meet again. God bless and cheers!

Entirely for the purpose of making most of you go totally all shades of green I have posted few random pictures I took during the above 24 hrs. This might give you an indication what’s there in store over the next two months. And let me tell you that this is not even the tiniest tip of the iceberg that I am yet to see.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Kenya Calling – Prologue

I am Kenya bound in less than a week. The obvious conclusion most of you would draw is that I am going there to climb Mt Kenya, Kilimanjaro and jump into Lake Victoria and Turkana and perhaps try to put my head inside the jaws of a hungry lion, if only to see what happens! I have already done all of these before, well may be not the last one, yet.

While not intentionally, but providentially some or all of the above may happen, but this trip to Kenya is vastly different than my previous ones. I would be there for more than two months, spending most of my time with the wild animals and with the people who-often selflessly-are trying their best to keep the animals wild. It’s an exciting project I would be working on and gaining immense on ground experience in wild life behavior, habitability, man-nature conflict issues, and myriads of other. While there I would be writing regular posts and filing my stories as and when possible to access the net. You would be able to follow my journey through my stories and pictures till I eventually get eaten up by a lion or trampled beneath the foot of an elephant (good riddance most of you would happily sigh). Each of my subsequent posts would come with a title as if chapters of a book. So to begin this book, let me first give you a brief introduction to the main perpetrators of this endeavor (which is paramount in understanding the whole thing) and also introduce you to the main theme.

My present Kenya trip materialized because Providence decided to place a man at around 26,000 ft (within the death zone) on the great North Face of Mt Everest in the year 2004 literally at the spot where I had collapsed with my last breath and had thought I would never get up again. To cut an extremely long, complex and horrific story really short, when I lay there grasping the air for few molecules of oxygen, while slowly but surely being buried under the snow that fell from heaven like the Niagra, I had absolutely no doubts in my mind that it was my last few moments of this life. Visibility was less than the length of my outstretched arms and every feature of this magnificent landscape was blurred and blotted out by the white curtain. I was sunk to my waist, sprawled upon the snow like a sacrificial offering to the gods; which in a way I was.

Suddenly I hear a human voice, echoing and reaching my ears through the cacophony. Soon a human figure, looking more grotesque like an alien, materialize out of the white shroud and drags me inside the comforts of a warm tent filled with the aroma of good food and fluid. That was Ian, the British climber who was there sitting out the weather before making a summit attempt.

Ian in those days made living as a golf-pro in Switzerland. In my next trip to Switzerland I stayed with him and there he introduced me to his friend Sandy Gascoigne, to whom I was drawn instantly. During my travels within the country I stayed at Sandy’s place as well for few days and my stay with her was one of the best memories of that trip. Apparently we couldn’t be more different. She is beautiful, while I am distinctly ugly, she is a champion international level swimmer and I can barely stay on the surface. But we had a common thread of being passionate about what we believed in. After few more adventures, Sandy disappeared from my horizon and then several years later I got a mail telling that she now lived in Kenya working in a ranch along with someone, who too responded to the name Sandy.

Meanwhile, after quitting the Navy earlier this year, I started working on some grand plans of mine, which were ridiculous and improbable as always. Drawn out of my work on global warming, climate change, wildlife and sustainable initiatives, I conjured up a project where I wanted to travel and study 12 countries in the world about these issues and perhaps write a coffee table book on each of the nations. The grand vision being that through these extremely diverse and ecologically fragile countries I could show that the entire planet was being affected by the actions of each one of us, irrespective of who we were or where we lived. So it is time now to think of the planet as one and create a world without boundaries (a theme I have often professed) where we try to save humanity rather than an American or Indian or British. Great calamities of natural order unite human species and the issues I wished to cover and explore were the greatest natural calamities that man can expect to witness.

My project would be a peaceful battle against evil. Even if half the world is full of greedy people out to destroy our planet, there was no reason why the other half should give up and accept it as destiny.

To begin this ambitious project I made a pilot plan for New Zealand, Iceland and Peru. These countries topped the list since they are small, I know them well, have amazingly diverse flora and fauna and vast tracts of mountains and glaciated regions.

Suddenly literally out of the blue I got a mail from Sandy some time thereafter that she was visiting Delhi for a seminar. Despite my attempts to not be in civilization for more than 10 days at a stretch, I happened to be in Delhi when Sandy arrived. She visited me along with her friend Sandy and I realized she hadn’t lost any of her previous radiance and exuberance. We went out for an evening walk in Lodhi Garden following it up with sumptuous supper.

It was amazing to connect with her after all these years and we quickly discovered that we had much more in common than we had previously realized. As she recounted what she had been doing all these years and listened to mine, eventually I confided her with my grand project. Sandy immediately saw the potential and promise in what I had thought of and without a second thought invited me to come over to Kenya and begin my project with her resident country instead. After she left, we kept our correspondence and ideas bouncing back and forth across the oceans and the idea gained momentum and solidity with every passing day. In between I disappeared literally from the face of civilization on two expeditions. While I was gallivanting in the Himalayan echelons, Sandy kept up her part of the deal relentlessly, making contacts, talking to people and giving realistic shape to our common idea.

With her taking care of things in Kenya, it soon started raining lions and elephants and one day I found myself visiting the Kenyan Embassy and obtaining the visa. Now my bags are still unpacked and in complete disarray as always but I am more than ready to go. I am excited, tingling with anticipation since I know so little of what is going to happen and also that I know so little of the things in which I am going to be involved. I have no idea of my destinations, neither what I am supposed to do once I reach there, if I reach at all.

All I know is that Sandy will be there at the airport to receive me with her signature smile. And that it will be a grand adventure so keep checking back for more updates and stories as the days unfold. And hope like hell that the protagonist will continue to stay alive. Adios Amigos! Or may be now I should say it in Swahili: kwaherini

P.S. the accompanying picture is courtesy open source information ethics through internet

Monday, November 15, 2010

How Far is far enough!

How far will you go before you know you have gone far enough!

Well this is a question that cannot be answered hypothetically or theoretically. You need to get out there and into a situation where you would be stretched out both physically and mentally to know the answer. Even then you may never learn the real answer to the above quest. I haven’t, though I often go far, sometimes really far; and after going the distance when I turn around to return (for reasons of practicality) I know it deep inside my heart that I hadn’t yet gone far enough.

I don’t know if indeed there’s a horizon that would be my furthest where my heart would finally succumb and declare that I had gone far enough and it was now time to return. I don’t know if there would be a day when I would find this horizon even if it existed. People say I am living on and off the edge anyway. But how far is really far for me personally is something I have no clue about. Even then today I will relate to you of an incident that was near enough to my being ‘far’ but as you would see at the end, still wasn’t far enough.

It was a relatively large, well sponsored expedition in the Himalaya and our goal was to reach the apex of a massive peak that had never been climbed or explored before. Such peaks are exciting and challenging since so little is known about them and much of our plans made earlier fall apart on ground. This sense of the unknown allows the climber to use his survival skills more than his technical skills in order to stay alive and return from the top. So the mountain suited us and me perfectly.

Into the second week of the expedition, one afternoon, I found myself dangling from a sheer rock face around 2000 ft above ground, hammering protections into tiny fissures for my other team members to follow. On a near vertical ground being the lead is not so dangerous, since we are often protected by a sound belay from below. If I fall I would bruise, may be bleed, but death is a rare possibility. After a grueling hour I reach the end of my lead and settle on a tiny ledge and beckon my second to ascend. The ledge barely allows me to stand flat with my back squashed against the smooth rock. My toes are protruding out into emptiness. I look down and see my partner jumaring up in perfect synchronization of his upper and lower limb. Beyond him and far below lay the yawning crevasses of the glacier we had left few days earlier. If I dropped a stone from my stance it would hit nothing till it reached the glacier below. I am happy and almost feel airborne caught into the setting sun and the halcyon breeze. Suddenly my friend from below, who had been looking up, cried in alarm. I barely had time to look up and jump aside reflexively even as a thunderous cloud of rocks came crashing down from above.

Miraculously my helmet is battered only by medium sized rocks and all my anchors hold but two big stones, each weighing at least fifty kilos crash into my legs. One pinning my right ankle and toe in a gory angle while the other shattering my right knee and the ACL, before they both fall away into nothingness. It is over even before it started. In seconds the mountain side regaines its solitude and forlorn composure. There had been no warning, no signs of this disaster. My friend, who had pressed himself like a rag piece into a fissure down below, to escape the onslaught, now extracts himself and stares at me with sheer fright writ all over his face. The rope joining us hadn’t parted and hadn’t had any direct hits either. For the present I stay where I am securely fastened to my anchors and my friend dangles below. Apparently we are in no immediate danger. Even then we both know that we had just escaped an inglorious death by the narrowest margin possible.

Through my fogged brain, bruised by the rocks hitting my helmet, I slowly begin to feel pain all over my body. I look at my leg without comprehension as if in a movie I am watching a third person. And then out of the blue, an excruciating pain like a bolt of thunder leaps out of my right leg and shoots through my entire body. I scream as loud as I can. It is pure reflex. The pain makes me giddy. My head spins and my head rolls from side to side. As another jolt hit me, I scream even louder. My right leg feels like a lump of jelly. Surprisingly my pale colored trouser does not feel wet or show any shades of red. Both my friend and I are veterans in such arenas and have lived through countless such situations. Accidents and deaths are not alien to either; but the absence of blood worries me. I realize, when I had swung out, my left leg had escaped any major impact while my right leg had been fraction of a second late in leaving the ledge. I now carefully got my left leg back on the ledge and take the weight off the right, which eases the pain marginally but immediately it starts to dangle in an impossible angle, which confirms that I had certainly broken something very severely.

I try to move around a bit but the pain only increases. Just below my waist on the right side, my entire leg seems to be on fire or on a bed of nettles. After few moments when the adrenalin had dissipated a little in my blood, I calm my screaming head and convince myself that there is no pain. Willingly I dismember my right leg from my consciousness and from my sensory nerves that carry signals to the brain. It stops hurting for the time being. Despite the reduction in pain, my right leg didn’t have the physical capacity to bear any load and it remains dangling grotesquely. Eyeing my anchors absolutely safe, I signal my friend to climb up. Soon he is next to me and secures himself to the anchors so that now he can swing out and take a look at my leg. I can do nothing except sit in my harness and let my friend do the rest.

My friend takes hold of my right climbing shoe and with infinite care gets it off my foot. It takes a while to get it out fully and when it finally comes out, we see what the obstruction was and an involuntary gasp escapes us. My right big toe has totally uprooted from its socket and has traveled back towards my ankle and now it stood up at right angles to the ground like a flag pole. I stare disbelievingly at this appendage that is my big toe and couldn’t fathom how it reached this exalted position. I didn’t know that such a thing is possible in human anatomy. What do we do, my friend asks. Put it back to where it belongs, I suggest. Without it going back I would never be able to put my shoe back on. It wasn’t a fracture, only a dislocation and I thought we just had to put it back in its true location. I also know when my friend would pull it up and beyond, I would be subject to the greatest pain I have ever endured. Are you sure, my friend asks again. I nod and ask him to be quick and once he had the toe in his grip not to hesitate or stop in between.

It seemed a simple maneuver. Grip the toe firmly then pull it up in one jerk and then pull it forward till it fell back into its socket.

My friend grips my toe and I scream till I choke on my own saliva. The pain is beyond words. I can only scream like an animal being slaughtered. He pulls it up and I bite into my lips till I draw blood. He pulls it forward and suddenly we hear a resounding click as the ball joint falls back into its socket. I am bathing in my sweat in the air hovering at 16 deg C below zero. Then he rolls up my climbing trousers to feel my knee. It is swollen up like balloon and below my knee the leg is twisted to a degree that is impossible with all ligaments intact. Instinctively I know that my ACL is torn, and my right leg is therefore incapable of bearing any further weight. In place of my right leg I only have a useless stump, attached and dangling to my knees held by muscles and torn ligaments. It is a miracle that my knee cap hadn’t shattered or that there isn’t any bleeding at all.

We prepare to abseil, now the distant summit looming out of my reach. Pitch after pitch my friend supports me like a baby often down climbing and preparing rest points for me, and self anchoring at perilous places where a mere slip could kill us both. Words are unnecessary; any concern to my pain is totally irrelevant; only action can save us. We utter nothing and I fill my soul up with silent screams with every jolt and jerk that hound me by hundreds every minute.

Hand over hand, pitch by pitch, slowly and steadily the glacier gains proportion and finally I crash down on the hard ice along with my friend who is completely wasted. We shake hands and smile in complete glee. Our moment is now and in ‘now’ we both are alive and hence it is a moment to cherish, to celebrate, and to reseal our friendship and camaraderie. We could be dead in the next but that’s not our concern for the time being. We are still a day’s walk away from the advance base where our friends waited for our news and if I limped or dragged myself across the crevasse ridden glacier I would take forever to return. While alone my friend can get back with help much sooner.

We pitch our tent and my friend places me inside like a baby and takes his leave. As the impending gloom swallows his receding form, I know that he is indeed walking on the edge. Though now we are physically separated he still carries the seed of my life in his hand. I know he had to be dead to fail in his efforts to save me. Such trust and dependency comes easily in the mountains.

The night passes with me passing in and out of the delirious pain. I convince myself it will be over soon. The dawn is sweet and enchanting as always, only my pain fails to excite me as before. Even then I drag myself out of the tent and savor the warmth on my face and frozen limbs. I know my injuries are serious and I have no idea of the future but I wonder if I had gone far enough. My friends appear a little before noon and carry me down on a makeshift stretcher.

One look at my sprawled form and our doctor wants a helicopter evacuation. Financially we can do it, but do I want to go. I ask him to set my legs in any kind of fixture (he carried no plaster) that would at least prevent the right leg to dangle like a dismembered stump. My left leg is fine and so is my head. The big toe behaves itself. The pain is acute but then that is my friend. I also ask him to pump me with pain killers and anti-inflammatory drugs. Otherwise I am fit. I haven’t lost any blood, no major bones broken. Is there any justification for me to leave and give up on the climb! I ponder, had I gone far enough, or should I keep going.

In my present state I am a complete burden to my friends if I decide to climb on. I can’t belay and I am a dead weight. I can crawl on ground but can I climb through vertical pitches? Being back to the Base, I am now back where we had started; in short a vertical distance of nearly 10,000 ft and a horizontal distance of six kilometers to the summit along with unheralded perils of a first ascent. Even a crazy lunatic would know that I am completely outnumbered and outweighed by the obstacles that lay ahead. For the sake of the expedition’s success I cannot ask my friends to support me. They must go for the summit. Mountains teach us practicality.

We can think of our dearest friends in the most impartial and detached manner without any emotions or guilt involved. The equation is simple, anyone who is a burden to the overall goal, is to be left behind and down below. Decision is unanimous and I am the first to declare. I am not climbing with you guys; the doctor begins to smile; but I am climbing on my own. I end with a certainty that no one else oppose. It’s my life and I have a right to do whatever I wish with it and as long as I do not hamper others or seek any kind of exemption or favor, they are fine.

The plan is simple in itself. My friends would lead and climb as a team, in two pairs while I will follow them from a safe distance by whatever means I could. They are not to stop for me or offer me any assistance, or climb down in case I come to any harm. If I fall and die or break further bones, the risk will entirely be mine. The only assistance they would however provide would be to set up my tent and cook for me since I would be well behind them. To this arrangement everyone agrees, though the doctor tries to change my mind, and fails miserably in his efforts. We rest for two more days and then we are ready to depart.

That night I lie alone beneath the stars and ponder my motivation, my need, my restlessness, my all consuming desire to go back up from where I had escaped death so narrowly.

The prize at the end of the road, if I reached, was immense to my mind at least. A much coveted summit of a first ascent, of seeing never before seen mountains, of the battle between life and death, of staying on the edge, of pushing myself till I redefined my limits or fell in the attempt. Somehow my normal logic of safe climbing, that the peak will always be there, etc didn’t sound convincing. I just wished to go. Life seldom gives a second chance, I may never return to these mountains and even if I do I may never again have the same companions, who were among the world’s finest climbers. All I wanted was to go and see how far I was willing to go before I knew I had gone far enough.

The climb to the summit lasted two weeks and it’s way beyond the purview of this post for me to chronicle how I made it to the top, limping and crashing every step of the way, but following the steps of my friends when I crawled the last few meters to the icy summit from where my friends cheered me on, and stood up on my good leg, I knew that my decision was the right one. And also that I had not yet gone far enough.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Fool’s Promise

This is not a tale of courage, or intrepidity. This is a story about a promise made by a fool, influenced by foolish chemicals rushing through his non-existent brain; a promise he fulfilled and in the process almost did not make it back to the one he had made the promise; much to the predicament of the latter. But overall it’s a story of how minds react and body overreacts at high altitudes where air is thin and summits even thinner. Enjoy this harebrained tale of a foolhardy cavalier, who has since then learnt his lessons; or has he!

It has often happened in my life that when I disappear for long extreme adventures, I had an amorous interest; but not after I return. The person either presuming that I wasn’t going to return, would herself disappear or would opt for someone else more earth and civilization bound. This has been and is an oft repeated reality of my life – no complaints though. The fault, if any, lay clearly on my court since I simply refused to promise that I would return; it wasn’t for me to make that promise since it was out of my powers to keep me alive in the days to come and I never make a promise that I can’t fulfill. But for once a particular woman with beautiful eyes and an enchanting trill to her laughter got a promise out of me just before I left for the mountains.

For the sake of this post, I would call this particular woman A. To keep her anonymous in other senses I wouldn’t mention the year as well, neither the name of the peak on which this little episode was enacted. Such details are not essential to the moral of the story.

When A came to bid me goodbye the evening before I left for the Himalaya, she handed me over a thin gold chain that she always wore around her neck. I had never seen her parting it off from her person. She takes it off and puts it in my hand and says, ‘Satya, I want you to promise me that you would bury this chain at the highest point on the mountain.’ Perhaps the moment was delicate, perhaps there were tears brimming in her eyes, or perhaps my mind wanted to believe that such promises can be made, even when you can’t predict the future. I promise that I will. We embrace and we part.

It was a long and arduous expedition, we were making first ascent of a peak that had been rarely seen before. It was massive, grand and the ice pyramid we were upon defined everything that I hold dear in my life. Despite all the severities of weather, perils of ice, cold and rock falls, clubbed with near vertical pitches of extreme nature, I finally find myself along with my companion on the summit ridge of the peak that till then had no name.

As I top the face, which had kept me and my team busy and sweating over the last ten days, I realize that the true summit could well be out of our reach. I also realize that over the last forty days I haven’t forgotten the promise made to A and neither have I lost the chain she had given me. The chain lies snuggly inside the breast pocket of my climbing jacket, urging me perhaps that I had promises to keep. Only two of us of the first summit team, my companion and I have managed to reach the summit ridge and a knife-edge ridge lay before us like a shark’s fin. It’s not really long, perhaps few hundred meters till it rises to its crest, which is more like gossamer of an icy wave, as if carved and sculpted by some truant waft of Himalayan breeze. It defies belief that this crest or summit hadn’t yet crashed due to gravity or hadn’t been blown away by the wind. The summit ridge is corniced on the other side and I have to lean out really well, held by a rope around my waist by my companion, to see the sheer ice wall zooming down to the glacier below like void into nothingness. The empty air howls up at me and I shiver in my duvet.

Vertically, we are less than ten meters below the summit crest-which is actually a huge cornice-while horizontally we are around 250 meters away. Technically if the actual summit is not a part of the summit rock feature (like it is right now) and it is objectively too hazardous to step on it (like it is right now) then any point reached within 10 meters vertical separation from it is considered a summit and one need not approach this summit feature any closer than 50 meters horizontally to claim the ascent. In other words, we have absolutely no need to climb any higher, though we must close the gap to the summit crest by about another 200 meters.

I take the lead and we walk on the ridge, keeping our two foot steadily on either side of it. Thankfully the day is sunny and the cross wind is moderate enough for us to stay upright. The sheer drop on either side of me keeps me on my guard, as there’s little room for any mistake. The rope between us stays taught and I walk with my sight fixed on the summit crest at the distance, which is gradually reducing as we approach on a literal tip-toe.

Mostly on such climbs and at such places, even if there is more than one person, words are superfluous and each prefers to submerge in his own world of thoughts and dreams. I always think of my next horizon, where would I see my next sun set and rise, and if I would see the next one at all. I think of the promises I never made but should have, I think of the paths that could have been my way but never would and I think of all the lives I could have lived but I didn’t. And I am always happy. After all, living each moment as my last, I normally am doing what I exactly wish to do, so I have every reason to be happy and content with life, wherever I may be.

Gradually the ridge keeps getting thinner and narrower as we walk on lose piles of snow and spindrift frozen in the morning chill. We literally walk on extremely thin ice. My companion urges me to stop and turn back; I too echo his thoughts. Our estimated horizontal distance from the summit crest is no more than 20 meters and we definitely have the summit in the bag (if such a thing can ever be done) and there’s absolutely no reason to go any further. We both are tired and famished and tethering at the brink of physical collapse.

I stop, digging my crampons and ice axes deep into the ice and allow my companion to catch up with me. I look back at the corniced ridge behind him and catch my breath at the vast chasm we have to walk back through. It’s dangerous enough to walk once on thin and broken ice, but to repeat the feat is almost suicidal, though we have no other option. As it is the stakes are extremely high stacked against us. I feel the chain with my gloved fingers and wonder. My partner sits next to me and looks around at the amazing world we are encompassed within. This is his first big summit and he is euphoric, but not enough to want to go any longer. He hadn’t made any promises, he longs for home and his family. I long for nothing but can’t let go off my promise. I am still not on the highest point on the mountain.

I show him the chain, tell him of my promise and he knows what I want to do. He says I am mad, I smile, he says I had lost it, and I agree, he says no ways, I say just one more time hold my life in your hand; if I fall you are free to cut the rope and descend. He prepares a snow bollard and digs into the ice. I shake his hand and stand up. A promise made out of free will must be fulfilled, or one should fall in the attempt.

As my distance from the belay open up I feel like a trapeze artist, swinging free thousands of meters above ground with no safety net below. The cornice is so pronounced now that I might as well be walking on thin air. I can go down to more solid ground on the face but that will take me away from the summit crest and my objective. I stick to the knife edge cornice ridge and with every step kick the snow hard before I rest my weight. Unbeknownst I am sweating profusely with the effort, a tight knot coiled like an anaconda about to spring lies at the bottom of my stomach. If I am still breathing I do not do so consciously. My entire world is focused on my next step. I clutch the chain in my hand and reach out at the wave that forms where the summit is buried somewhere deep down. If I extend my ice axe standing on my toes I can nearly reach the top of the wave, but I wish to climb it, stand there and then bury the chain. I plunge my ice axes and they hold long enough for me to pull myself up. My crampons find purchase and I scramble the last few feet to the top and then I am standing at the highest point on the mountain.

I let out a long breathe of relief. But before I can take the next breath, the ground beneath my feet collapse and I hurtle out into empty space like a skydiver without the benefit of a parachute. And as I fall, I wonder if I would uproot my belay or break the rope, and how far would I fall before I crashed and smashed into smithereens and should I scream or just go silently from this world.

While tons of ice breaks beneath and above me, huge ice blocks hitting my body mercilessly, I watch in slow motion both my ice axes tearing away from my hands and hurtling and disappearing into the void that would be my world soon. Death is my constant companion and I live in her shadow so she is an ally but what horrifies me instead is the gold chain that follows the ice axes, shining and shimmering in the forenoon sun, now out of my reach forever. Though I console my mind; I did fulfill my promise, it did reach the highest point on the mountain, even though it stayed there for less than a minute.

The jolt around my waist that brings me to an undignified halt nearly breaks my spine. I can literally hear the rope fibers willing to part and release the weight. I am dangling like a free pendulum nearly 6000 ft from nearest ground and I am smiling into the radiating sun; would I, could I once again shake hands with eternity and return to tell the tale.

Like I said at the beginning this is not a tale of courage or intrepidity so I must not divulge any more of this story but go back to the one in which a promise had been made and had been fulfilled as well.

When I return and tell A that I had left the chain where she wanted though it isn’t there any more, she gives me a queer look, which doesn’t make her look very happy. I am surprised, since I am elated, while she didn’t appear to be so. I am happy as well to see that she was still there. But to conclude this story I must confide that soon thereafter A left my world for another which she hoped would be better than mine.

I hope it was and still is.