Thursday, January 28, 2010

Global Warming – Understanding Greenhouse Gases and their Effects


In my previous GW posts I have briefly explained the greenhouse gases and how they affect our atmosphere. In this post we will take a wider look at these gases, sources, their effects and what can we do to reduce their generation.

Greenhouse Gases are primarily those gases in our atmosphere that does not allow some of the sun’s heat reflected back from earth’s surfaces to go out into the outer space. They trap the heat and in turn heat up the earth’s surface. However greenhouse effect is otherwise a natural process and we will not have life on Earth but for these gases. What makes them alarming now is the rate of increase of these gases in our atmosphere that is solely due to man-made actions. Therefore overall the earth is heating up at an accelerated rate that will outpace the natural cooling processes. There are many visible and latent effects of GW on our planet and the point to be noted is that it is more like a chain reaction where one thing leads to another so each factor of GW in turn affects another and it is continuously accelerating at a rate that is already beyond our control. There are many gases that have greenhouse effect but only few matters to us. Let’s compare them first and then we will look at them in details. There are five major greenhouse gases in our atmosphere; water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Some experts erroneously claim ozone too as a greenhouse gas, and though the ozone hole above Antarctica has been much in news ozone has a different affect on our atmosphere and its subsequent implications to GW that I will explain later.

To compare the five major greenhouse gases we will compare them first in terms of potency and longevity. The first scale is often termed as ‘GW Potential’ (GWP). GWP is a comparison efficiency of a gas in terms of greenhouse potentiality as compared to CO2 over a time span of 100 years. A gas with 10 GWP is 10 times more efficient at retaining heat than CO2 over a 100 year of time period. The other way to measure a greenhouse gas potential threat to our atmosphere is the average time (longevity) they would remain in the atmosphere once they are emitted. No matter what we do now, the gases that have already been emitted and are already in the atmosphere, will take hundreds of years to dissipate adequately. Now let’s take a closer look at the gases themselves.

Carbon Dioxide (CO2): This is naturally present in the atmosphere and though overall only constitutes about .036% of the entire atmosphere it has the highest concentration in our atmosphere of all the greenhouse gases and creates the greatest GW effect. As per estimates, CO2 alone is responsible for around 55 – 60% of the total greenhouse effect. Natural CO2 is due to the exchange between the atmosphere and life through the processes of photosynthesis and respiration. The increase in CO2 concentration in our atmosphere is solely due to man-induced reasons primarily burning of fossil fuels, coal, etc for energy production, and modern modes of transportation like car, aircraft, ships, etc. Therefore we generally talk in terms of carbon footprints of a nation or of an individual for measuring its effect on GW. Massive deforestation is also a reason as we are cutting down trees that otherwise would have reduced CO2 percentage by photosynthesis. GWP of CO2 is obviously 1 and its average life is around 100 years. Current estimate of world’s annual CO2 production due all reasons (including respiration & volcanic activities) is around 8 billion tons. Currently in the world 40% of all CO2 emissions are caused by power plants. These are burning coal, natural gas and diesel fuel. 33% of all the CO2 is produced from cars and trucks, etc. Internal combustion engines burning fossil fuel. Gasoline and diesel generate obscene amounts of CO2. Though only 3.5% of all CO2 emissions are released from aircraft ironically they leave their pollutants directly into the troposphere, which have a far more effective and immediate effect on GW. Arguably around 12% of all CO2 released into the atmosphere is related to buildings. This figure though slightly debatable is still an under-estimate. In newly constructed buildings, production of materials used in building and energy used during construction are the causes of CO2 emissions. In existing buildings the CO2 created by the energy upkeep of the building is the root of the emissions volume.

As of now the CO2 concentration in our atmosphere is close to 380 parts per million (ppm: for every one million air molecules there are 380 CO2 molecules) whereas the safe human limit is considered to be 350 ppm. At current rate of CO2 emission it is estimated that by 2030 we would reach a killing proportion of 500 ppm. The only way we can contain this ppm and perhaps in a long time bring it down is to minimize burning of fossil fuel and deforestation. Since CO2 is the largest contributor to GW we refer to it as carbon footprint. A country or a society and even individuals can be measured by their carbon footprints and there are ways, mostly in the way we live, what we eat and how we commute, etc by which we can bring it down to minimum. Most of these large scale changes can only be brought about by political will and green policies that have further ramifications on our existing industries. Most governments are under heavy pressure from the scientists and citizens to bring about radical policy changes whereas the industry and big money making corporate lobby the other way. Hence most governments are unable to take any measures that will have large impacts on the nation’s carbon footprint. The Copenhagen fiasco, Kyoto Protocol are the most recent examples. We have reached a stage where every human on earth has to do his or her bit and collectively reject energy guzzling projects and products. I will cover this aspect in details in a separate post as to what actions we each and the government can take to reduce carbon and other greenhouse gas footprints. What’s important to remember is that 98% of all CO2 emissions are related to energy production and 80% of these emissions become greenhouse gases.

Methane (CH4): By volume Methane comprises only 0.00017% of the entire atmosphere but in terms of GWP it is nearly 25 times stronger than CO2. It contributes to around 10% of the total greenhouse effect as per present concentrations. The primary anthropogenic sources are fossil fuel combustion, decomposition of organic materials from wetlands, rice paddy fields and livestock manure. We are releasing around half a billion tons of methane annually. Thankfully it doesn’t last longer than a decade after emission. Methane is also released from landfills, coal mines, and gas and oil drilling. Landfills produce methane as organic wastes decompose over time. Coal, oil, and natural gas deposits release methane to the atmosphere when these deposits are excavated or drilled. Over the last two centuries the methane concentration has increased by more than 150%. Recent studies show (a project where I am personally involved in the field) that due to GW the permafrost in the Polar Regions are thawing at an alarming rate releasing enormous amount of methane from the underlying organic materials that had remained frozen until now. This is an area requiring major field work in the years to come. Since most of the world’s paddy and rice fields are in India and China and cater to around half of world’s population, the increase in methane can also be directly attributed to our growing population that is estimated to reach a whopping nine and half billion by 2040.

Nitrous Oxide (N2O): Though .00003% of atmospheric volume, N2O has a GWP of 300 which makes it a significant greenhouse gas. It contributes to around 6% of the total greenhouse effect. The primary sources of N2O are fossil fuel combustion, soil fertilization, biomass burning, etc. Most of the nitrous oxide added to the atmosphere each year comes from deforestation and the conversion of forest, savanna and grassland ecosystems into agricultural fields and rangeland. Both these processes reduce the amount of nitrogen stored in living vegetation and soil through the decomposition of organic matter. The use of nitrate and ammonium fertilizers to enhance plant growth is another source of nitrous oxide. N2O doesn’t last longer than weeks but it is being continuously replenished by humans.

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs): CFCs are the only major greenhouse gases that do not occur naturally in our atmosphere. They come solely from human sources like production and use of foams, aerosols, refrigerants and chemical solvents. Though they are present in almost incalculable (miniscule) volume they are nearly 15K times more potent as a greenhouse gas relative to CO2. Due to this they contributed to around 24% of the total greenhouse effect during the last decade. CFCs typically take anywhere between 75 – 100 years to dissipate from the atmosphere.

Water Vapor (H2O): Water vapor happens to be the third most abundant gas in our atmosphere (after nitrogen and oxygen) and though in terms of man-induced greenhouse gas effects it does not have any significance since entirely all of its presence is caused by natural process of evaporation, etc it is a significant greenhouse gas (about which we actually can’t do much and we shouldn’t really). Water vapor varies in concentration in the atmosphere both spatially and temporally. The highest concentrations of water vapor are found near the equator over the oceans and tropical rain forests. Cold polar areas and subtropical continental deserts are locations where the volume of water vapor can approach zero percent. Water vapor redistributes heat energy on the Earth through latent heat energy exchange, it also creates rain and provides much of the fresh water for animals and it also helps to warm up Earth’s atmosphere.

Ozone (O3): It accounts for only 0.000004% of our atmospheric volume and it primarily provides a screen against the penetration of harmful ultraviolet radiation from Sun. Ozone layer extends into the stratosphere, typically from 10 to 50 km above the surface and it absorbs nearly 95% of the Sun’s UV radiation. Though it is still not understood clearly as how depletion of Ozone can give rise to GW since by itself it isn’t a greenhouse gas, it is speculated that it could have some effect after all. Ozone depletion is mainly caused by release of man-induced CFCs and the largest Ozone hole is found above Antarctica. It is theorized that since Ozone depletion would actually increase Sun’s UV radiation penetration and this can in some way heat up the earth’s surface and atmosphere. There is no scientific data based evidence yet to prove or disprove this theory.

As is evident from the above that all the harmful greenhouse gases are either being produced by man or their production rate has been increased due to direct and indirect action of human. I don’t think any climate scientist has so far made a connection but I have and I do connect this to our rising and bulging population. In most probability the population rise will never be curbed or reduced and we will keep growing year after year and to feed and survive for this ever increasing volume our actions will also keep generating more and more volumes of greenhouse gases. Perhaps there is no solution and perhaps there is… but what really defies my intelligence is that how we, human beings can be so absurdly illogical. We have the solution right in our hands but we won’t open our fists and look inside. For the first time in Earth’s history, a specie has become its own greatest enemy and for whom natural survival has become a problem that he needs to solve. Where will it all end, is a question we all can answer, what we really don’t know is WHEN?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Wild Encounters – Courting Crocodylus Niloticus – the Day my Heart Stood Still



Am I scared, I ask myself. The answer is a silent ‘no’ followed by ‘perhaps’ followed by ‘certainly’. I and fear doesn’t seem sound somehow when spoken in the same sentence, even if it is my mind that is doing all the rambling. I am unnerved for sure, without an iota of doubt. My limbs, especially the lower ones are trembling under their own accord propelled by some mysterious forces that is way out of my conscious control. So are my teeth, only figuratively though, and thank god for that. Since according to my guide our survival depends on our silence and moreover the sunbathing beauties eyeing us through slit red eyes within handshaking distance don’t mean any harm unless they are hungry (which they certainly look) or we disturb their siesta with some wild gestures. That was a day when I cussed and cussed my inborn guts and curiosity, both of which were on that day trying their best to detach from my body. Was I or am I completely irrevocably insanely insidiously masochistically figuratively and bluntly mad. Perhaps both, since I was, at least on that tepid afternoon and perhaps, I still am.

The jungle is spookily silent and sonorous. It’s my pole-vaulting heart that is deafening my ears. No primates or insects, no mammals or reptiles make any sound. ‘Windy’ my Zambian guide and friend for last two weeks and I are deep inside the rainforest swamps of Luangwa National Park, where I had absolutely no intention to be. But then in Africa your intent and actions are often at the extreme ends of a very long road. My original intention, if I can still recall cohesively, was to explore the Muchinga Mountain Range. Why on Earth would I harbor that intent, if you were to ask then I really don’t know the answer. Muchinga Mountain sounded like cool mountains and I like cool mountains, even if phonetically.

During my teen safari when we walked and got nearly killed god only knows how many times we had endeavored to climb or at least walk through every conceivable mountain region in Africa. We survived the odyssey but could not nick Muchinga for a very simple reason. Within the collective knowledge pool about Africa between the four half-brained teenagers (including one blonde for Pete’s sake) and the fake guide the word Muchinga did not exist. But neither did so many other facts and figures as well since our combined Africa-knowledge-pool, even if I were to write it down in ant like scrawl (mind you in those days we didn’t have computers) would perhaps be able to fill up one side of a playing card, if I hadn’t missed out on commas, full stops and other punctuation marks, that is! Our African odyssey till today remains the biggest personal mystery to me of all times. And on a subsequent trip to the Dark Continent with my sagacious swagger induced by knowledge I had to go looking for Muchinga. What I hadn’t bargained or hoped for was another guide who would once again lead me with his sweet tongue into a journey that I had not even hoped or dreamt of undertaking ever.

I would like to believe that I did caress Muchinga even if briefly, for it was a tribute I had to pay for my other three friends of yesteryears – my fellow African voyagers (as they must remain for eternity). Soon we were trampling through thick and untowardly jungles spaced with small tiny hamlets of human sufferings. Most of them were poacher-hunters hired by big buck making foreign companies for illegal animal trades. ‘Windy’ knew all of them and I suspected that he was actually passing me on as a prospective client in their native tongue to the villagers for them to welcome me with such alacrity. The trip goes on fine with my vegetarian-preferred gullets being bombarded by offerings of flesh, both cooked and uncooked (burnt, raw, bloodied). It’s good to have a constitution that can accept anything (like me) and a life-ethos that does not include ‘expectations’ (like me) of any kind. I really can’t complain about what was happening I was enjoying it thoroughly. After all, this is experiential living and learning at its fullest. Given few more weeks and I am certain I will be able to run barefoot on the thorny ground and be able to bring down gazelles with stone spear. ‘Windy’ is also a master storyteller and as we hop skip and jump through the jungles, hills and tribal habitations he keeps me engaged with unbelievable tales of the wild. Of valor and virility, of courage and conviction, of food and fun, and not surprisingly in all of them the male protagonist is suspiciously similar to ‘Windy’. That is the hallmark of a master storyteller.

The jungles have plenty to offer in terms of food and diversions and bipeds and quadrupeds as well. Every night we camp near or right in the midst of some merrymaking tribes or extended families. I begin to appreciate and even roll my tongue around Bemba, Tonga, Nyanja and Lunda much to the amusement of my intrepid companion, the slayer of lions and grappler of hippos. ‘Windy’ is muscular in a sinew way and black in a glinting coalfish way. He is so intensely black that I start having a complex. Whenever he parts his lips to utter something, anything, even to spit (that he does often) his sparkling dentures literally light up the atmosphere. Hence whenever ‘Windy’ opens his mouth he is smiling and is invisible when he is not. I realize few days into the adventure that although we are not where I wish to be, and ‘Windy’ has only a vague notion of where we could be, we are not really lost. We are somewhere, hopefully within the international borders of Zambia, and that is something. African philosophy and Indian faith make the ideal bed-partners. Drop an African and an Indian even in the bleak oxygen starved outer space and they will still be rejoicing that the view indeed is splendid from the top, not to mention that they both would be celebrated as venerated heroes back home. ‘Windy’ is ecstatic and I am ruminative to the degree of being murderous. I mean even my fondness for getting lost and being in lost places has its limits.

My map and compass points to East as our direction to salvation while ‘Windy’ points exactly on the opposite way. And we both are ready to part ways to prove our respective points, to whom I am not sure; for if we parted we would never see each other again of that we both are dead sure. My understanding of the local lingo and customs or rather the absence of it decided the day. I followed ‘Windy’. Over the next few days we had adventures of all kinds, including strange ghoulish rituals but they are commonplace at such places and for my blog visitors as well who are now so charged up with adrenalin that if I write a post where I am not about to die or do not break something resembling a bone then they don’t want to listen. So I will keep this post short and take you back to where I was completely and undoubtedly unnerved and ready to wet my pants in that order.

Don’t get me wrong. ‘Windy’ wanted us to wade through a muddy swampy marshy rivulet of considerable girth with unknown depth and bottom profile that had nearly a score of the largest and decisively disgusting looking crocs I had ever seen in my real life scattered at varying distance from almost hugging to almost spitting in various degrees of repose. What was common though to all the beasts were their red slit eyes, all half shut or half open (if you are an optimist like me) and all of those drunken and dreary eyes fixed unflinchingly onto us. ‘Windy’ being invisible and also blessed by the local voodoo perhaps those eyes preyed only on me. Though I don’t remember when, but that could well be the precise millisecond during which my brain registered what ‘Windy’ intended, that I turned into a believer from a staunch agnostic. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention and my god did I invent god pronto, or what! Though every atom of my body strained to scream even as my real body turned into jelly that had yet to see the inside of a refrigerator freezer, ‘Windy’ pantomimed silence and the overacted gesture of being chewed alive by the audience even if I dared so much as a breath above whisper.

I am a die-hard animal lover, wilder the better and more lovable is the way I figure it. With my varied close encounters with all things wild and wonderful including anacondas, pythons, cobras, tarantulas and black widows, polar and black bears, hyenas, lions and tigers, wolves, wild boars, wild dogs, sharks, sting rays and what have you – did I also mention that some of them were hungry as well – even with such a marvelous body of experience if there was one animal (wild and lovable) that I had not still reconciled to and sincerely avoided was a crocodile in its habitat. We all at some point of inopportune time of our lives sleep or dream through a nightmare. Some of us live through one, some of us live and thrive through one, while some live and die in the process. There must be very few who create one first, the most dreadful possible and then walk into it while awake and then try to live through it. This was my moment. Death is my pal, dearest among the dear ones. I don’t repel or deny death. I accept it with fervor and warmth, fondness and fecundity often reserved for the nearest and dearest. What could be nearer and dearer than death for a mortal? The crocs did not stir any despair of death in my troubled bosom. They only stirred pure, unadulterated, all consuming, total sum of all fears. I was scared therefore I am – seemed like the quote for the moment. There was no logic, no reason, no fore or afterthought no melodrama, no prejudice or perversion, no thoughts, no regrets, no nothing. I had transformed into fear itself. I am fear. On previous occasions whenever my mind froze it was solely due to plunging temperatures at very high places. Today deep in the jungles of Zambia my mind froze since it lost all its heat. For some bizarre reason the title of my childhood favorite author Alistair MacLean’s book ‘Fear is the Key’ keeps buzzing around. If I could find Mr. MacLean I would like to ask him, ‘Key to what?’

Rotating my eyeballs as far as humanly possible without popping them out of the sockets I take stock of the situation. As far as I could discern through my fast-depleting brain of an already non-existent one there were around 15 monsters lying still on the bog filled ground. Two serrated blocks of logwood floated in the water, alarmingly close to our proposed crossing point. They could actually be logwoods I tell my heart though it would be a bad place to confirm it either way once in the water. If they were crocs then I wasn’t far from hell, which surprisingly I find deeply consoling. Could there be more, inside the muddy water, away from human eye? I wonder but then I remember one of those useless trivia that have the habit of popping up at all the wrong moments – crocodiles are found either on land sunbathing, or floating with only the eyes, nose and back exposed. Rarely do they remain submerged under normal conditions, unless threatened, and they never ever sit on the bottom. ‘Windy’ and I could not be anything even remotely threatening to these giants, of which even the smallest could easily swallow the two of us lengthwise and still have room for more. Barely moving, almost gliding and levitating above ground, ‘Windy’ has managed to reach the water. He gestures for me to move. I am transfixed; my limbs are immobile as my eyes are locked with the nearest Crocodylus Niloticus. He seems to be sleeping with eyes half-open (even at this moment my mind doesn’t accept that the eyes could as well be half-shut; I am a die-hard optimist). I order my legs to levitate. Not a muscle quiver. The fear that holds me down is solid like a block of osmium. My fearless mind, that has brought me back alive on countless situations far worse than the present one, tells me that I can’t hold my ground forever. I will move, I have to move, either I do it before or after the croc wakes up hungry is entirely my choice. Just one step, one toe at a time… slowly I feel blood rush down to my extremities and my fear frozen body begins to thaw. I walk towards ‘Windy’ keeping half of my body turned towards the closest predator.

I reach my guide and gesticulating through the eyeballs draw his attention to the floating logwoods. He sees them for the first time and if it were possible for ‘Windy’ then he actually ashens or loses color. He now sweats profusely. I am not certain if that is a good sign or a bad omen. ‘Windy’ is a proud Chewa male who can easily keep pace with a running deer and spear a lion before lunch. He normally doesn’t sweat even under most abnormal situations. On the other hand I have been sweating ever since landing at Lusaka International Airport. Right on cue, as so many times earlier, when my death and doom is certain, my mind begins to shed all fear and rationality returns so that I may view and experience my death with utmost clarity of senses and soul. Ironical I suppose, since at those moments a momentary loss of mind or a bout of delusion or even an absence of consciousness would actually lessen the agony of transition from this world to the nether one. Nevertheless, I begin to get my bearings back and check out the worst case scenario. ‘Windy’ and I are too close to the water, our toes (shoes) are actually wet, the 15 or so brutes seem to have edged closer, tightening the loose circle around us like a noose and the two floating logwoods are actually that and nothing else. We can’t retreat since that is not the way and now two crocs are lying exactly on our retreat trail. They are also twitching their tails to a slow beat of silent Muganda (a Zambian dance form). A croc getting excited is the worst sign of all. God only knows when they had had their last meal. The water patch is barely five meters across and we can be on the other side in a flash. Crocs can out-swim a torpedo in water but on land they are rather sluggish. I also hope that the trivia about crocs never lying at the bottom of a river is true. To hell with caution! I grab ‘Windy’ by his immobile and cold hand and jump into the river like a waltzing hippo in heat.

Thus suddenly jerked out of his senses ‘Windy’ leaps up akin to a monkey and in two gigantic strides is across the river outpacing me by a clear two meter and half. I run through the thigh-deep water, with feet clawing through the bottom mud, like a hovercraft on fire. We don’t stop or look back till we have placed at least another 10 meters between us and the river and have climbed over a natural embankment. What I see immediately sets my blood and mind freezing, though now we are beyond any crocodile danger. Majority of the brutes are now at the edge of the water on the other side, jaws salivating over our footprints, and the two floating logwoods are nowhere to be seen. They were not logwoods after all – the thought strikes both of us at the same instant and we collapse on the ground. Now that the threat is over, the fear returns and hammers us like sledgehammer. The fact that a 15 ft Crocodylus Niloticus’ jaw perhaps missed my ankles by less than an inch seemed to grip me in a feverish pitch refusing to let go of my innards. We reach the road after three more days and from there I use the shortest route, both in terms of distance and time, to exit Zambia. The Crocodylus Niloticus would continue to haunt my dreams for long.
P.S. The memory of the above incident was triggered few days ago while chatting with a friend in US who was going to watch American crocs or gators in the swamps of Florida. I mentioned in the passing that I had once the idiotic audacity to wade through a croc infested river with sunbathing crocs all around. She asked me to pen it down. So here’s the story. But this post is meant for my friend Karthik who only wants to hear my wild tales of wild animals, me included. I am beginning to now believe his uncle and my close buddy Raj who claims that the lad has some unexplained wild streak indeed somewhere within his vastly smiling countenance. Why else such wild wishes… nevertheless if Karthik and wild lads and lasses like him like this story then it has been worth it, notwithstanding my terror-stricken heart which had to undergo the nearly-forgotten agony again as I reminiscenced and re-lived the most petrifying moments of my life. I could have actually gone into a cardiac seizure while I wrote this post. Karthik, you owe me a big one now, bro!

The accompanying picture is courtesy my friend, the well known wildlife ecologist, Bruce G Marcot, USA

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Global Warming – Understanding the Four Ws


What?

Simply put it is the phenomenon that proves through observations (satellites, weather balloons, meteorological stations, etc) that earth as a whole is warming up. Over the last 100 or so years, the average temperature of Earth’s surface has gone up by around 1 deg C. Though this doesn’t seem much and most certainly will not cause the Himalayan glaciers to disappear over the next 25 – 30 years as it had been erroneously mentioned by certain authorities, neither will this rise in temperature cause such massive ice cap melts so as to inundate the oceans and low lying lands, yet it is an indication of our future, our near future and the catastrophes that it has in store for us.

Though humanity as a species will continue to flourish; large chunks of us would perish due to calamities that arise out of direct action of GW. Very briefly (and I will cover the effects of GW in a separate post), this slight increase in earth’s surface temperature has caused increased storms and flash floods and forest fires as well, all of which have accelerated in terms of frequency and magnitude of occurrence over the past decade or so. These are natural phenomenon for sure but they are being affected by GW, which in turn is being affected by us. Out of the 20 warmest years on record over the last millennium, it is worrying to note that 19 have occurred since 1980 and the three hottest years (average) have all occurred in the last decade. So let no one fool you into believing that GW is all hogwash and Al Gore’s money and PR generating campaigns. It is interesting to note that following the climate prediction models based on historical data Earth should presently be in its cooling stage (due to solar cycles and volcanic activities) and not in a warming up stage at all. We should ideally be heading for a mini ice age. Earth is not only warming up but is also warming up at an accelerated rate. A study says that the climate change (from cool to warm) might actually happen abruptly and far too suddenly, rather than being a slow and steady transition process, due to certain specific hotspots around the world.

Why?

Warming of earth’s surface and associated climate change and life habitat is a natural process that has been happening ever since our terra firma cooled down enough to generate oxygen rich atmosphere and gave birth to life. Warm periods have followed ice-ages and vice-versa through epochs ideally spaced out between 50,000 to 100,000 of earth years. More than anything else, what is important to our generation is the fact that why on earth is Earth warming up at such an accelerated rate that is beyond what nature would cause, more so over the last three decades than ever before. What are the reasons? Before we go any further, we must understand ‘Greenhouse Effect’ briefly.

Earth is surrounded by a thin layer of gases that makes up our atmosphere. This layer of gases actually causes the greenhouse effect, without which there would be no life on earth. Sun is our primary source of energy, and about one third of this solar energy is reflected back into the outer space by such reflective surfaces as glaciers, ice caps, water bodies, etc. The balance two third is absorbed by the Earth that warms up our oceans, lands and atmosphere. The process by which the heat is trapped and distributed in Earth’s atmosphere is called the ‘greenhouse effect’. They are caused by the presence of such greenhouse gases as carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, etc in our atmosphere. They trap the heat that Earth reflects back to the outer space. This heat is further distributed and circulated like a giant fan evenly around the world therefore giving us a comfortable average temperature of 14 deg C. But for these gases Earth’s average temperature would plunge to 18 deg C below zero that would not breed life. Greenhouse gases and greenhouse effect is not bad, in fact we exist because of them. What is bad is its excess presence in our atmosphere and the rapidly increasing effects of greenhouse. To give the analogy of a glass greenhouse which has glass roofs through which sunrays and heat can penetrate. This in turn heats up the trapped air inside the greenhouse. Since this heated air cannot escape, the internal temperature of the greenhouse keeps rising. That’s exactly what Earth is facing right now. Earth, in place of glass walls, has atmosphere that acts nearly like the glass walls but in a manner far more complex. Nearly half of Sun’s energy reaches us in the form of infrared radiation while the balance when hits the surface and is reflected back changes into infrared radiation therefore the reflected energy that goes back into the atmosphere carry more infrared radiation than what originally came in. Though the atmosphere allows the shorter wavelength radiations to pass through it traps most of the longer wavelength infrared and further disburses across the globe.

The primary causes that have increased the rate of greenhouse effect to a scale where our atmosphere is trapping more heat than that is necessary are all created by us human beings. It is interesting to note that in the beginning; nearly 2.7 billion years ago there was so much carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere that Earth’s average surface temperature was 70 deg C. Then over millions of years through bacterial and other organisms and plant’s photosynthesis actions the carbon dioxide was broken down into oxygen to finally reach a concentration level below 300 parts per million (ppm). Since the advent of the 18th century the CO2 concentration has been rising steadily. Climate scientists across the globe universally believe that the human upper safety limit of CO2 in atmosphere is 350 ppm. We crossed this limit somewhere in the decade preceding 1980. This is directly attributable to increase in certain human activities both in volume and frequency that gives rise to increase CO2 ppm along with other greenhouse gases like methane and water vapor. The activities are: Agriculture, which is a major source of methane and nitrous oxide and accounts for 15% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Industrialization, which accounts for more than 50% of CO2 emissions especially in energy producing and energy intensive industries. Transportation: Nearly 25% of all man induced CO2 emissions are directly related to our modes of transportation, be it car, planes, ships. Deforestation: to make room for urbanization, infra structure developments, population, agriculture, etc we cut trees at a pace that is impossible to regenerate and this causes around 25% of all CO2 emissions.

Where?

GW is an universally observed phenomenon and it is happening everywhere. It would be a fallacy to claim that GW is happening only at the already hot places on Earth like around the Equator, through the deserts or in the tropics. GW is happening at the poles and in the high Himalayan glaciers, as much as in cold Nordic countries as in tropical nations. Though it has been observed and naturally so that the rise in temperature is more obvious and higher in the vicinity of human habitation more so where it is heavily industrialized. This only proves that it is due to us that GW is growing at a rapid rate. So even if you find that this year’s winter is unsettlingly cold, remember that the earth as a body in whole is heating up notwithstanding your cold corner of the world. I might cover such local anomalies and the world’s hot regions (climatically) in depth in a post later.

When?

GW is happening right now. It has been happening all the while for more than a billion year for certain though it has gained alarming proportions only in the last century. Most developed countries are contributing more to it than the poor cousins. The western and cold nations generate more greenhouse gases than the others. But all these controversial facts and hypothesis at a later post.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Global Warming – Understanding Glaciers

I get innumerable requests to feature global warming (GW) issues in my blog. While it is heartening to know that so many of my readers and friends are aware of GW it is also a difficult task to write about this complex phenomenon along with its vast and highly debatable data for normal readers. Any GW expert is more likely to use jargons and scientific formulas, historical data, pie-charts, etc to drive his point home, to the complete befuddlement of his audience at large notwithstanding. My idea here is to break it down into digestible and delectable morsels for all of you, any of you in a manner that even a child who is not a prodigy can grasp and understand and act upon in any manner possible. GW issues are vast and involve each of us, including the mute animals, insects, fishes, all our geological features, landscapes… anything and everything that resides within the geo-magnetic influence of the Earth and in the cryosphere in particular. Which could tantamount to say that even you have a gravitational pull on a galaxy 10 million light-years away – which is true but does it matter! Therefore while we try to dissect and disburse GW we would consider the factors that have a significant bearing on it. Before we embark upon GW, we got to understand several of its constituents, several of the players in this game of GW. I would write a series of posts, each covering one such player and its relation, effect and causality on and by GW. Each post will be prefixed by, as for this one, ‘Global Warming – XXXXX’. In this post we will take a look at the world’s glaciers and how they are related to GW. Point to be noted at the outset though would be that glaciers do not cause GW and they have no direct bearing whatsoever, yet we can’t understand GW without understanding glaciers. For the sake of this post, I will sum up the entire glaciated Polar Regions and all other glaciers across the world as ‘glaciers’.

This takes me back to one of my earliest trips to Oslo on a day when for the want of doing anything better I was hanging around near a public skating rink watching kids and adults pirouetting in the still cold air. An animated conversation from a young couple occupying a bench close by drew my attention. I don’t speak more than three words in Nordic tongue but the word ‘glacier’ came right through. Having spent most of my adult life scouring the world’s glaciers from different altitudes I am a self-proclaimed and autodidactic glaciologist (though I understood mass balancing in its totality only recently), so any words relating to ‘glaciers’ attract me like bee to ‘you know what’. I approached the couple and asked if they were discussing anything about glaciers. From them I learned that the next day Oslo University was hosting an international seminar on Glaciers and they were undergrad students of geology. At the appointed hour I tagged my new-found friends to the auditorium. Of all the things that happened that day what is most relevant to this post is that I met one of the world’s top authorities on glaciers and all things frozen from the NSIDC (National Snow and Ice Data Center). I asked him point blank (since I really wanted to know) exactly how many glaciers did our planet have and what really qualified as a glacier, before we begin counting them. To my surprise and his discomfort, the great man actually did not know, it seemed no one knew, though NSIDC has perhaps one of the most exhaustive data banks on such matters. He vaguely said around 100,000; and I have reasons to believe that including the Polar Regions, we have around 150,000 of those flowing bodies of ice that qualify as glaciers. From him I learned another shocking fact, that within the vast data of NSIDC covering around 20 countries that contain glaciers, there’s no mention of India, though Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan are included as is China. At that time it seemed highly prejudicial and I had asked him if he knew that Indian Himalaya had around 10000 glaciers the last time I counted. Well, I really don’t remember what his answer was but what I am trying to drive home here is if an authority like NSIDC can have flaws like this then the entire subject do deserve a much deeper look, understanding and research. By the way, since no one, and I mean absolutely no one and no authority, no organization, no research paper or book has ever quantified exactly what qualifies as a glacier except the two very obvious facts: it is a mass of ice and it flows (either due to gravity or under its own weight), I am giving it my own definition, which I have discussed with some of the world’s leading glaciologists who were unable to punch any convincing holes in my hypothesis though they all said that it won’t stand to scientific scrutiny. According to me a body or mass of ice can only be labeled as a glacier if it meets the following criteria:

a) By shape: it must have a longitudinal dimension (rectangular or square even) and can’t be round or oval. Its length must exceed its breadth to give it a definite direction to its flow.

b) By feature: it must contain ice and whole lot of it and moraines and whole lot of it and at least a dozen crevasses. It must have a gradient, however gentle.

c) By dimension: it must be at least half a km long in its length and 250 m in width at its narrowest and 50 m in thickness at its thinnest. This is the most debatable and dubious criteria in my glacier definition for which I don’t have any real argument except that I do like my glaciers to have some mass after all. Just a little tongue of an ice patch around somewhere cannot become a glacier.

d) By dynamics: it must be moving in some direction, of course down. I am yet to see a glacier flowing upstream against gravity.

e) By longevity: it must stay where it is for at least a half a century of time.

Now that we have a tad better understanding of glaciers, you might now begin to wonder where on earth are these glaciers located? Good question… let’s find out. Needless to say, I have been to all the collective glaciated regions on our planet and majority of the major ones as well. A cursory glance at Google earth or any atlas would show two major patches of white (depicting ice) on our globe, predictably around the two poles. By definition the Polar Regions comprise of the area north of the Arctic Circle and south of the Antarctic Circle though a significant portion of Greenland lies south of the Arctic Circle. The two Polar Regions account for 95% of the glacier mass (if not in numbers) in the world and a whopping 97% of world’s fresh water reserve. Outside of the Polar Regions, the significant glaciated regions are found in North America (Alaska, Canada), South America (Peru, Chile, Argentina), Europe (Iceland, Norway, Russia, European Alps – France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria), Asia (Russia, China, India, Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan, Bhutan, Pamirs and Hindu Kush Range, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan), New Zealand (Southern Alps). Continent wise, Africa and Australia doesn’t count on terms of glaciers since they have none. As is evident in most of the cases barring the glaciers that are relics from the last mini ice-age and at the Poles, glaciers have a direct relation to altitude. They necessarily form at high altitudes where it is cold and the earth’s reflective heat is minimal. Majority of the glaciers are away from human habitation and outside any direct influence of human activities, except the ones bordering between India, China and Pakistan where the world’s highest battlefield is located.

To find a solution we must first find the problem and in a scientific community that is far easier said than done. When we talk about global warming we must first be sure that it is happening and it is a problem and then go on to the finer aspects like why is it happening, should it be happening at all, is it natural, how are we affecting it, is it a cause for alarm, can we do anything about it, etc, etc. Finding or defining the phenomenon of GW in a scientifically proven way is where glaciers come into the lime light. On a global scale GW is so minute and seemingly insignificant that to find any tangible values we got to look at places where its effects are most apparent and measurable. Our glaciers provide that test bench mark. Glaciers and Polar Regions in particular hold many keys to our past and have a vast reservoir of data that helps us understand where we are headed in the future. Of course they also pave the way for mountaineers like me to the summits they guard. A detailed in-depth study of glaciers is beyond the scope of this post. Here we will only focus its relevance to GW.

Glaciers are basically cold reservoirs that affect our climate, weather patterns, precipitations, rainfalls, stratosphere, etc in a major way and in turn are affected by the changes in those that they affect. They are extremely sensitive to temperature changes, more so when the temperature rise. Heat melts and thaws the ice and water is released from the glaciers that run off into lakes, rivers, underground and into oceans. But for the steady melt of these ice masses humanity would have become extinct long ago, and I am not sure if we would have been created to begin with. Keeping in tune with nature, the steady natural melting of glaciers is not a bad thing at all since they keep us and all animals alive. In turn the water again turns into vapor and rises in the air and after condensation fall down replenishing the melt water. So if left to nature, the cycle is a closed one and maintains the balance quite efficiently. The problem arises when the rates of melt exceed the rates of replenishment. And GW is causing this imbalance by an exceedingly accelerated rate, much of which is due direct human activities. How many we are what we do, how we live, how and where we apply our technologies, etc are fast changing this natural cycle of conservation.

Science demands observable data from which models can be deduced with predictions. Before anything else we need to collect data and study the glaciers and that’s what glaciology is all about and that’s where I contribute most actively. Though we still don’t know the exact volume and mass of fresh water locked within the glaciers or how much of these we are losing to GW we do know it with fair amount of accuracy. Depletion of polar ice caps and glaciers will increase the rate of GW and so will it cause the oceans to rise and therefore much of this fresh water will become unusable and will need huge amount of treatment efforts to make them potable and fit for human consumption. With our current scientific advancements there is no way we can prevent this loss of fresh water neither can we store them in any artificial reservoir. Our only recourse is to reduce the rate of this loss to a level where nature’s recycling process will eventually balance out the losses.

While studying glaciers we study several aspects of the ice masses. In pure layman’s lingo they are: mass of water loss over seasons (winter / summer), mass accumulation, velocity, thickness, density, biological and meteorological debris, and weather and air constituents in the past, epoch models, etc. While there are a plethora of diverse glacier study fields, the one that is most relevant to GW is how much and how rapidly are the glaciers losing their mass. With this data, which ideally takes at least 10 years of hard and extensive field work along with remote sensing devices, models are projected to predict how the glaciers would recede and act and be in the future. Based on all the reliable models across the world, the view of the glaciated regions in 2050 is indeed a bleak one. If not us, our children would see those days. There is not a single glacier in the entire world, out of the estimated 150,000 that shows growth or steady mass. Few scientists give example of surge glaciers as the ones growing in mass but that’s an erroneous example. More than 70% of the glaciers outside of Polar Regions have receded by more than 25% in the last half a century. Nearly 10% of such glaciers do not exist anymore. Huge amount of human habitation, arable lands and properties worth trillions of dollars have been devastated by flash floods and glacier dam bursts. And mind you this is only a part of the entire GW phenomenon. Sad to admit at this point that despite such obvious and copious data and insights that our glaciers hold in terms of saving the mankind, very little have been done so far in studying them in their entirety. Indian Himalaya (including the Karakoram in Pakistan) is the least studied glaciated region in the world. Sporadic and individual studies have been done and non-conclusive papers wrapped in jargons have been written and archived in our ministries and universities. Only now, in the past few years have we started some systematic and logical efforts at studying the Indian Himalayan Glaciers.

With detailed mapping and models of glaciers will we be able to understand the problem of GW and find solutions thereafter. That’s where and how glaciers are connected to GW. They show us the most evident, obvious, measurable effects caused by GW. How receding of glaciers and loss of fresh water would deteriorate our lives further would be discussed in a subsequent post connected to GW.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Second Seven Summits


Those of you who do not climb mountains or even those who do only sparsely might wonder what is ‘Second Seven Summits’ or ‘Seven Second Summits’ or simply SSS as it is known in my world! And if there are second seven summits then there must be a first or original Seven Summits, and yes it is there. The Seven Summits are the highest peaks of all the seven continents and one who has climbed all of them is called as a Seven summiteer, which till this year numbers around 200. Compare this to the number of Everest summiteers till date at around 3000. So the Seven-Summits club is quite exclusive and only two Indians have done it so far. The SSS on the other hand signifies the second highest summits of all the seven continents. The SSS club is perhaps the most exclusive adventure club in the world today since till date (and to my knowledge) it doesn’t have a member yet. No one has completed the SSS so far. Astonishing isn’t it! Unbelievable I would say, imagine when we are achieving absolutely death and mind defying feats all over the globe, how come such a simple task as SSS is left unaccomplished? Are there any dearth of good and daring climbers or lack of sponsorship; I don’t think so. The reasons are quite different and varied as I will explain subsequently.

When we look for the ultimate challenges in the vertical world, the Seven Summits, Mt Everest, Climbing all the 14 eight-thousand meter plus peaks on Earth, doing a new route or first ascent, etc take priority. Not many have done these. Completing the Seven Summit, or climbing Everest or the 14 eight-thousand meter peaks get you more fame, sponsorship and credibility at large. The concept of SSS is rather new and novel, another means of looking for greater challenges. So in priority it always comes after the aforementioned few. By the time one starts thinking of the SSS, the climber has either exhausted all his sponsors, or his will and capacity to climb, or has got diverted into more sensible pursuits of life. The SSS are more difficult and demanding than their higher (many cases only marginally) and more famous kin. There are no regular commercially guided trips to the SSS unlike the SS or on Everest, etc. hence the infrastructure support is not available. Most of us simply do not wish to go the extra length or the effort to climb the SSS once we have completed the SS and for people like me as you will see, the SSS must always remain a dream in a pipe, unless of course I migrate to another country. I am not sure and no one knows accurately as to how many people have actually climbed how many of the SSS, though I can safely presume that with 5 of the SSS below my belt I could as well be the one with the highest score till date.

First a look at the SS and SSS to give you an aspect of the scale we are talking about (for the sake of clarity, I am a believer in the Australia-New Guinea continent concept)

SEVEN SUMMITS
Continent Summit Altitude

Africa Kilimanjaro 5895

Antarctica Vinson 4892

Australia Carstensz Pyramid 4884
(Puncak Jaya)

Asia Everest 8848

Europe Elbrus 5642

N America Denali 6194

S America Aconcagua 6962

SECOND SEVEN SUMMITS

Continent Summit Altitude

Africa Mt Kenya 5199

Antarctica Mt Tyree 4852

Australia Puncak Trikora 4730

Asia K2 (Chogori) 8611

Europe Dykh-Tau 5205

N America Mt Logan 5959

S America Ojos del Salado 6893

Mt Kenya is obviously in Kenya and I climbed it several years ago through its normal route to the top of Batian peak, which is the highest summit of this massive mountain. It’s a mid-grade rock climb covering 2 days for a good team. It is not so difficult to approach though much more than its higher cousin of Kili.

Mt Tyree, being in Antarctica might remain one of the two reasons why I would never accomplish SSS. I wish I had climbed it when I was going for its neighbor and the highest Antarctica summit of Vinson. Tyree is much harder to climb than Vinson and my guess is that only a dozen or so people must have climbed it till date. Reaching Antarctica by itself is so expensive, difficult, fortuitous and rare that once we get there our first priority is to either climb Vinson (it being the highest) or skiing to the South Pole or both (like my case). For topping it up with Tyree you needed plenty of luck too besides the others. The foul Antarctica weather has the ugly habit of rearing its head once every week. Even if I now wish to return and get to the top of Tyree, who would give me the money to do so!

Puncak Trikora happened to me by mistake. Our guide for the trip, goofed up our maps and our minds and we climbed it thinking that we were aiming for Puncak Jaya (the highest summit). Though while we climbed this difficult rock peak we did wonder about the complete absence of any ropes or signs of a previous ascent, which at that time had seemed impossible and highly improbable. But then in such places one doesn’t argue with ones machete brandishing guide. When we stood at the top and took bearings we realized that Puncak Jaya was leering at us from a distance. Where the hell were we, we had wondered, though the altimeter pointed out that we were barely lower than our original objective. With hard evidence we finally got our guide to admit his faux-pas and he took us to Puncak Jaya without any extra pay or bonus. We had returned home then with the mystery intact as to what had we really climbed on that day. It took us several years of painstaking data collection and superlative survey skills to finally conclude that we had actually ascended the second highest summit of Australia-New Guinea continent. At that time this fact had not stirred any excitement into any of us. But today whenever the two remaining survivors of that expedition (one being me) ruminate, we do thank our guide for his misguidance.

Well, being an Indian has its downside as well. One of them being that I would never get a permit to climb or even attempt K2. Unless a miracle happens before I die. This is the second reason why SSS would always remain out of my grasp. But then a US passport could get me there. I think sneaking into the other side across the Saltoro Ridge under the cover of darkness and climbing K2 is an easier proposition than getting an American citizenship. Needless to say, K2 is way far too difficult than Everest by any route.

Dykh-Tau is a cute (no other expression comes to my mind) little Caucasian peak in Russia that is easily a more challenging climb than Elbrus. It has few steep technical ice pitches and only experienced climbers can make a go for its summit ridge. Being rather close to Elbrus, it is climbed rarely. I climbed it during my Elbrus trip since I saw it from the top of Elbrus and simply wished to get it in my bag as well. The joy of discovering more unclimbed and unheralded summits from the top of the one I am standing upon has been one of my major motivators to climb.

Mt Logan shares the name of a friend. Incidentally both are stunningly beautiful and tall and charming at close quarters. Located in the Yukon Territory of Canada, Logan is perhaps equally challenging as Denali, but by far less climbed. It has a massive hulk (my friend in comparison is svelte) and has a more steady weather than its more famous taller kin. Climbing Logan never did really pose any problems. It is a steady high altitude climb. Clubbed with good weather we had some brilliant moments on the second highest peak of North America.

Mention of Ojos del Salado always brings a smile to my face. Its moniker reminds me of salad and Mexico, for reasons that I know not of. I had climbed it with a balmy pal of mine in the most ridiculous fashion possible. You could read the details in my post by the same name (in August 2009). Despite an easy peak I don’t think it is climbed often due to its remoteness. It is like walking in the park. You can climb it either from Argentina or Chile.

So what was the purpose of this post except to tell you that I have climbed five of the seven second summits? The purpose is also to tell you that don’t lose heart, even today there are challenges in the adventure world that is left to be accomplished. I am not sure though if completing the SSS will give you anything else besides the sheer pleasure of having done it, but then for an adventurer that’s all that perhaps matters in the end. I am often asked if there are still places and spots on Earth about which we know nothing of, where no human steps have fallen yet. While there are plenty such places beneath the great oceans, there aren’t so many on land, yet there are plenty. Do I know of them; of course I do, will I tell about them, not until I have been there first myself and lived to tell the tale. But then, exploration is not my sole domain. All you need is a back pack, an impossible dream, a vagueness of purpose and absolutely no plan. Let me know when and if you get back. Back where, you ask, anywhere, wherever you wish to be back… I will still see you on top!

Friday, January 8, 2010

In Search of Happiness – My Travel to Utopian Lands


If there is even one amongst you who is not looking for ‘happiness’ then straightaway head for the Himalaya and ascend the stairway to heaven; for you deserve it. I know where the stairway starts and sooner than later I would be heading that way. We all look for happiness, we all want to be happy, we all want to be where happiness is and remains. Point is; how, where and most importantly can we reach there! Ask any Godmen or men of Gods then the obvious answer to this would be that happiness resides deep within the very heart of your soul, just dig deep enough and you will find. Once a South African miner who had worked in the Savuka Mines (at around 3700 m depth, currently the second deepest mine in the world), upon whom I had tumbled by the bays of Cape Town, had told me that despite reaching the deepest human dig in the world he could not fathom happiness and presently preferred to dive into bottles of excellent Western Cape wines. If he found happiness there I did not dare to elucidate. He might have found a genie though… those wines are absolutely heavenly. So while there is much happiness to be sought at the bottom of a bottle or at the apex of the world, or in the halcyon waves of Santorino or perhaps in the burning storms of Sahara; the subject of ‘happiness’ seems distinctly subjective. It depends upon the perceiver’s perception (what else) and state of mind. But then do we really have Utopian Lands on Earth! Places where everyone is happy and content and merry; did Sir Thomas More take us all for a jolly good ride when he wrote his eponymous book in 1516, or was he merely conjecturing and hoping like hell that one day we would create such a republic if it wasn’t already there.

As you all know by now that I travel simply to travel and to discover how much more there is to travel. On my travels while my eyes are always fixed at the highest spots my mind is constantly seeking the obvious and latent. I tarry wherever I feel like and I talk to everyone and smile and learn. Without specifically making it my objective, I look for and I search for… whatever; wherever I go and travel through. This is the primary reason why I experience things that perhaps others miss out on. I do not expect to experience anything but hope that I will experience everything. Therefore, along with vertical heights I also do glean into the happiness index of places through its people, geography and natural splendors. It helps perhaps since I am an acutely addicted happy person. It is nearly impossible to make me unhappy. No amount of physical pain, misery or discomfort makes me unhappy neither does the parting of any near and dear ones. Loss of any material object is actually welcome. Missing out on a summit is only a promise of a journey to be continued. Having no possession is actually like having everything. So perhaps when I look at ‘happiness’ index at places I am not looking to be happy myself, since I already am, but I can view it with total objectivity. So come with me and discover the Utopian Lands on Earth rated against perception (how these places are generally viewed in terms of happiness of the people) and reality (my personal views).

I believe our world as on date has between 180 – 190 countries. I have only been to 130 or so, and hence I will restrict myself to these that I have personally experienced. The real Utopia could exist amongst the other 60 odd, so if you know then do let me know. For the sake of a post, and neutrality to my friends from across the globe, and I have friends from almost every country, I am going to evaluate only those countries that are generally perceived to be high on happiness index or in characteristics as a nation that construe happiness. Else I would rank Kenya and Congo among the happiest nations. Now before we shoulder our backpack and roll off, first let’s refer to the dictionary to understand what is happiness all about? As always I turn to the top two English lexicon resources: The Oxford which describes happiness: feeling or showing pleasure or contentment; the Webster: state of well-being characterized by emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy. In both the word ‘contentment’ scores high and now if we look up ‘contentment’ then: Oxford: a state of happiness or satisfaction; Webster: happiness with one's situation in life. In both these the word ‘happiness’ scores high, now this is really convenient. Happiness and contentment as it appears are synonymous so you can use one to describe the other without really explaining any one.

This reminds me of a befuddled man asking for road direction from a village bumpkin; the man: can you tell me where the red house is, the bumpkin: in front of the big banyan tree, the man: and my friend can you tell me where the banyan tree is, the bumpkin: in front of the red house, the man (now fuming): where are they both, the bumpkin: why of course in front of each other. I have no idea what happened thereafter, either to the man or the bumpkin or to the red house and to the banyan tree. But our quest for happiness, even if it proves futile and subjective at the end of this narrative, would at least take you to some distant and diverse worlds. So read on. What I did not reveal earlier is that in the Oxford they insert an interesting fallout for ‘contentment’ which I really like: acceptance (of life, of anything) as adequate despite wanting something more or better. Now this is close to oriental philosophy. We may not find or want everything in life but whatever we have can be adequate and it does lead to happiness. Keep this theme uppermost in your mind; I will get back to it. Please hop on to Satya Airlines now as we take off. We don’t have seatbelts, no pretty airhostesses, no video and no food, but we promise plenty of thrills. Bon Voyage and May God Save you and the King in that order.

Denmark: This has to be our first destination though we nearly crash land on the concrete tarmac of Københavns Lufthavn (Copenhagen Airport). In almost every survey and research papers on happiness, Denmark emerges as the undisputed winner. Don’t ask me why, since I really don’t know and don’t ask a Danish either, even they don’t know. I have asked each and every Danish friends of mine (and I have quite a few) and most of them have reacted like: you can’t be serious; really, I didn’t know that; oh it’s a tourism gimmick; don’t believe what they say; hmm may be they did the research in the US, etc. etc. Geographically it’s a neat and small country with incredibly clear air and a level of tolerance comparable only to heavenly angels. Being washed by the waves of Baltic and Northern Sea could also be a reason. People are amazingly healthy and sprightly. Danish are out to save the world for sure, if only we will let them. The tiny mermaid beckons from the shores of the capital city enticing all into its charms. Then there’s the ‘free city’ for society derelicts. Where every street is paved as it were centuries ago and where people still have right over mechanized vehicles happiness can’t really be far. If not the country the capital can certainly be viewed as under a spell of perpetual festivity. I doubt if there is a day in the year when Danish people do not celebrate something. If you are a bicycle aficionado then you have to visit Denmark before you die. Did you mention the word ‘crime’, well it must be the least looked up word in Danish dictionaries. Then for the voyeuristic pleasures (I won’t specify further since my blog is for all age groups) Copenhagen is second to none. Now won’t everyone love to be there, but surprisingly there is an increasing number of Danes opting to migrate to other more chaotic countries. If happiness were indeed looking for a residence, Denmark definitely has the elements. In my personal happiness score card I would give Denmark a healthy 8 out of 10. If you google ‘highest peak or point or spot in Denmark’ then you will realize where I cut those two points.

Japan: Narita International welcomes us profusely, bending from the waist till the forehead almost touches ground. Well that’s Japanese hospitality for you. Not an overtly happy nation why I decided to fly you all to Japan after Denmark is not only to give you a different flavor but also if ‘contentment’ is to be considered then Japs are content, or so they seem, I mean their inscrutable expression through slit eyes and body bending techniques and calisthenics could construe anything but seems contented. Watch carefully a very agitated Japanese and you won’t find anything more than few twitches under his eyes now if that is not contentment then what is! Compare this to a raging American or German or heaven forbid, Russian. Japanese are painfully hospitable, courteous, punctual, meticulous, stickler for everything, planning and gifting. People live long and they grow healthier with age. On any trip to Japan must carry two things, one empty trolley-bag (to fill up with all the gifts you get) and 1000 name cards (business/visiting/ whatever card you have). And do practice your yogic postures as well. If you are grumpy sorts then do practice your smile as well, since most often you will only be smiling and bending. The land of rising sun, sushi and Toyota and everything in between, Nippon is an unbelievable country with unbelievable people in a society that is as autocratic as plutocratic. Bursting at all its seams and literally spilling off into the surrounding seas, the greatest high for a Tokyo commuter could be the entry into the tube rail without losing a button of his coat. People are honest, workaholic and perfect. They worship tree, wind, sky, nature and give everyone else on earth a reason to stay on the edge. I love Japan and Japanese, Kanji and Sumo notwithstanding. If you wish to be pampered like royalty then simply make a Jap friend and visit him in Japan when the cherry blossoms are in bloom and you will realize why Japan is a happy nation of contented people. My score 7 out of 10.

Switzerland: I prefer the cow at the arrival lounge so let’s land at Geneva International and get swept not only by the sprout but by the chocolates, cheese, watches and the hyper-precised population. Come to think this has to be the happiest nation on Earth. I mean all the UN headquarters are here, it doesn’t have any organized armed forces (the Swiss Guards protect the Pope, for heaven’s sake) so to speak, it wages no war—within or without, everything works and better than the intended parameters, everyone seems to be enjoying life (who the hell is working here), you won’t find poverty even if you tore the nation apart and looked under the microscope. Blue water lakes, swans and yachts zipping across the waves, high Alpine meadows covered with snow dust, air reeking of unheralded bloom, and the tourist-friendly locals. In the eventuality of the next world war and complete annihilation I believe many of the world leader’s will be granted refuge in Switzerland from where they can direct their missiles of destruction since no nation is permitted to wage war on Switzerland. Funny, isn’t it, imagine US and Chinese President breakfasting together and joking about the weather, while authorizing nuclear strikes into each other’s territories. What more can you ask? They actually tell you all sorts of methods on saving money and it is the only country that voted in favor to increase taxes. While in Switzerland you cannot miss out the public transport and Swiss rail neither the Fondue nor sunbathing by the lake of Lausanne and you must absolutely ride the red colored Jungfraubahn train to Jungfraujoch. Gorge on Swiss chocolates without caring about your middle, it’s not every day that we land in heaven and live to tell the tale. By the way Switzerland also has the most beautiful township (outside of mountains) on Earth (according to me), which I had discovered accidentally during one of my trips. With one of the world’s highest per capita incomes are the Swiss happy? You will be surprised that most Swiss people can’t really explain the word. A common verdict, to enjoy life in Switzerland you must be rich and by that standard most Swiss are not. That is the long and short of it, to find happiness in Switzerland you got to be rich, though the land is full of discounts galore for the tourist. It also has the only system of moving dolls in the world. Though I am blatantly poor, Switzerland has everything to keep me happy for eternity and beyond. On my happiness scale, 8 out of 10 goes to the home of Red Cross.

Iceland: Even before we land at Keflavík International airport, you must have gleaned from your windows, especially those on the right side of the aisle, the reason why Iceland must figure among my list. It is the land of ultimate ice. I love its isolation, ice caps, geysers, neat little streets, townships, laid back people, midnight suns and white winters and I have fallen in love with at least one Icelandic girl on my each visit, though none of them fell in love with me is another story altogether. Why does it feel like home away from home! Well it is; I have an incredibly number of warm hearted friends in this land of perpetual cold. If happiness is measured by the fishing and power industry of a nation then Iceland is the winner, it’s a winner in terms of near-zero crime rate and war free zone. Hard to imagine that present day Iceland was founded by the bloody Vikings. Icelandic Sagas are full of genocide and butchering of innocents. It is a land of fairytales, goblins and elves. They have pagan gods and rituals dating back several centuries. Icelanders also love to swim in their geothermal pools and they love to work. They love to ride horses and love to love life. Iceland has every shade of nature in the tiny island nation. It has excellent public education and healthcare system. More than 70% of its land is pristine nature without permanent human habitation. It could very well be renamed Niceland. Icelanders are unusually intelligent (must be all the fish) and hospitable when you know them. They are proud of their tiny land and take good care of it. Iceland top soil is among the most fragile on earth and almost all its vegetable and ground grown crops have to be imported. People are happy, mostly, and despite it being among the top three most expensive European countries, they seem to get by. Even during the recent great depression and economic meltdown I did not see any palpable signs of bereavement from any Icelander. Did I tell you that they love their drinks too! Easily 8 out of 10 on my score card.

New Zealand: Let’s now head down under and set sail for Christchurch International Airport where we glimpse the Pegasus Bay before dipping down. If I ever exercise my wish to migrate out of India, NZ will be my first destination. It is an amazingly diverse and beautiful land with an equally diverse populace. What it lacks in terms of history and art and culture that the medieval Europe boasts of, it more than covers up in natural splendor. It is the outdoor enthusiast’s ultimate paradise. I can’t think of any outdoor sports or adventures that NZ doesn’t offer (barring a camel ride). Personally I have always preferred the southern isles over the northern part of NZ. I can spend a life time simply wandering and clambering through the Southern Alps. People are extremely cherubic and friendly. It is by far cheaper than any European destination. The country is caught up in a perpetual atmosphere of adrenalin pumping activities. Everyone is outdoors doing something to keep themselves young at heart and in body. The locals enjoy their daily lives as much as an outsider. They are not bored of daily dose of fun. The only down side being that it is so far from anywhere, except if you are an Aussie. So NZ, which is not the originator of kiwifruits, scores 8 out of 10 in my happiness scale.

Italy & Greece: Athens or Roma, take your pick, we are equally equipped to land at either. Though a present day Greek and an Italian may severely disagree to be grouped together I have done so solely on the basis of their grand and opulent past. The other commonality between them being the coasts of Mediterranean, Ionian and the Adriatic (only mildly) Seas. There’s an ancient Greek saying that claims that there’s no mortal ailment, which doesn’t have a cure in the sparkling waters of the Ionian Sea. If the ancient Greek said it then it must be true. And only a cursory trip to the Greek Ionian islands of Corfu, Zante, Kephalonia, et al would convert anyone to Greek wisdom. These two civilizations symbolized plentitude and over indulgence in all matters of materialistic and monastic pursuits. Ideally speaking perhaps these are what really constitute happiness. As an ancient world they were immensely powerful, feudal, brilliant in science and philosophy, medicine and literature. Even today when Italy has all but fallen from Grace and Greek has dwindled into a parody they do retain their proud heritage and misguided or disproportioned views about their own wellbeing and happiness. As nations they are magnificent and grand and incomprehensible. It’s little wonder that Italy continues to remain at the top of the world’s favorite tourist destinations and almost every tycoon worth his billions cavorts through the Greek isles looking for happiness. Italians squabble and fret for everything, and I mean everything, not a moment in awakening when an Italian does not shrug, mutter, gives the middle finger, guts out expletives but ask them if they are happy; of course they are, how dare you ask such a naïve question and the muttering would renew afresh. While a Greek though not so vociferous in his ire, knows that he must be happy since that’s what Greek tourism wants him to be. And if you ask him where to find it, then he might, in a moment of introspection admit; I am still looking for it you nitwit, will let you know when I find it. To know the Greeks you must understand and behave like a Greek. Legacy of grandeur is an extremely heavy burden to shoulder and being the two top corrupt western nations in the world doesn’t help the case either. Do visit Rome if you must and if ‘on-the-face’ faith doesn’t kill you then the sheer boredom of megalithic architecture surely will. For the Dan Brown Fans, don’t look for the symbols since they are not there and even if you find one it will be nowhere near your expectations. Though I must say that Italian ice creams and pizzas are really worth dying for. On my scale a modest 6 out of 10 would suffice and more for the past than for the present if I may say so.

Hawaii: I know, I know, it is not a nation per se but honestly tell me, how many times do you think of US when you think of Hawaii? The 50th state of USA is ‘as the crow flies’ a little over 2500 miles from the mainland nation. How many Hawaiians think themselves as Americans I wonder! It is said that Hawaiians are the only people on Earth who doesn’t wish to be anywhere else since they already are where they wish to be. This definitely counts heavily in our happiness scale. My only trip to this island state happened as nothing short of a miracle and while I ascended its highest spot, the snow covered (yes, right in the tropical heart) peak of Mauna Kea I knew that I had indeed landed at a tropical paradise where beautiful nymphets danced all day long enticing the weary sailor with smiles and other endearments of mind and body. Don’t get me wrong, Hawaii is as happy as happiness can possibly be and no one can escape its vibrant charm even if one wished to but then it is like a gigantic larger than life tourism billboard that works all year round. There is misery and sadness here too where people shed tears from laughing eyes but the sun kisses the cheeks in a way as to take them away into glistens of joy and laughter. Out here everyone is laughing, smiling, talking, drinking, dancing, snorkeling, sailing, beach-loafing, in short having the time of their lives. Man loves diversity and that’s where Hawaii scores really low. Boredom sets in soon if you manage to remain sober and sensible. There is no escape from this paradise. Everything and every place is far from here in any direction. I would give it 7 out of 10 in my scale.

Bhutan: Don’t double-take, Bhutan it is. Many believe and certainly any Bhutanese would affirm that this tiny Himalayan nation is not only the happiest nation on Earth but it is also the place where happiness is mass produced and distributed by the King. Till recently a monarchy, Bhutan adopted sovereignty under the king as recently as 2008. It is a kind of democracy that is based on the foundation of faith as with anything else that Bhutan symbolizes. Even the constitution acknowledges the divine presence of the guardian deities with the ultimate aim to ensure and enhance happiness and well being of the people for eternity. Tell me how many nations’ constitution preambles have the word ‘happiness’ included? And as we all know, faith can and do move mountains. Nowhere on earth is this more amply evident than here. As we fly at caressing distance to the Himalayan summits and land at Paro, the cool air and the high altitude literally takes our breath away. Bhutanese King doesn’t like road signals and he gives more importance to gross national happiness than GDP. No one is sad here; even the sorriest and the foggiest individual accepts his situation as a preordained fate decided by acts (karma) of previous life and hence doubles his effort at being happy and good in this one for a better life in the next. Abundant and resplendent in natural glory it is among the poorest nations in the world though you wouldn’t think so. Tourism is the primary source of income and they have strict codes of conduct for everyone. Bhutanese people are gentle, loving and smiling but make no mistake they are also strict, calculating and intelligent. They believe in gods and demons and also acknowledge the wonders of science. Their temples, pagodas and monasteries are exotic as they are regimental. Beneath the soft exterior there resides a soul hardened by centuries of hardships and courting vagaries of nature. It is their faith and trust in the king that glues them into one happy bundle of joy. I cannot help but grant Bhutan 9 out of 10 in my scale.

Brazil: If I did not include even a single country from my most favorite continent I would do a great personal injustice. This is a prejudice I fully agree since in any happiness survey I am yet to come across the inclusion of a Latin American nation. In my list it must; so I have taken the path of popular notion. When we think of Latin America, nearly 90% of us first think of Rio Carnival, samba and scantily clad girls on Brazilian beaches and only after that may be the Andes and Amazon. Some of the old timers would actually dream of ‘Blame it on Rio’ and salivate. So where does happiness reside in Brazil? Going by the public opinion, GDP, etc the whole of Latin America does not reek of happiness from any angle. Despite that people have fun all the time. And nowhere else than Brazil is it so overtly displayed or worn out on one’s shirt sleeves. Fun does not necessarily mean happiness since contentment is missing here and so is the acceptance of the limited being adequate, but fun is going on full throttle and this is what attracts people from all over the world into the magical by-lanes of Brazil and its merry making beaches. Rio Carnival is unforgettable for sure. The people are among the most laid back and fun-loving and friendly as well. Tourism is huge and you don’t necessarily need to know Portuguese to survive. If you google ‘Brazil’ the first link it throws up is for ‘Brazilian Girls’. The same did not happen with any of the other 100 countries I googled, just to find out. For India, it gave Indian Railways and for Argentina it gave Argentina Football. I have many Brazilian friends, including girls, so no further comment on that. As a complete portal for happiness out to have fun Brazil gets 8 out of 10. This might actually offend a Danish but what the hell, this is my scale and I love both the countries equally in different ways.

Now that we have already covered five of the humanly inhabited continents should we go ahead and pick up one nation from the sixth one as well; I mean Africa of course. Hmm, most of you would go I guess; happiness in the Dark Continent! But then let’s view this continent from the other inhabitant’s point of view. Despite being the unopposed rulers of this planet we are not the only inhabitants here. Animals by far outnumber us and outweigh as well only if they realized it. For animal’s happiness is synonymous with freedom, period. They are born free and live free and die free, unless otherwise interfered by us the human animals. Left to their own designs and destiny as concocted by nature animals in general are the happiest inhabitants on Earth and where else but in Africa is it most evident. Despite human intervention and to a large extent due to human interaction at preservation efforts, a massive chunk of Africa remains the happiest piece of land on Earth. Leaping deers and galloping giraffes, grazing buffalos and loitering hippos, raunchy elephants and hungry lions, laughing hyenas and hissing reptiles, gliding eagles and sweeping cranes are to be seen in their own world to realize what happiness is all about. Happiness doesn’t come by burning forests and building megapolices or by killing senselessly. Obviously Africa scores a perfect 10 out of 10.

With all six continents and the pre-determined ten places covered now I would not name any more nations though I know there are many vying for a memorable mention. My one billion plus countrymen can vilify me for keeping India out of the list, though I must confess that if acceptance of the scarce being adequate to construe happiness is to be taken seriously then India is second to none and if our lackadaisical national attitude to accept everything as ‘all is well, don’t worry, it will be ok, will happen when God’s will wish, etc’ is to be considered then definitely India is where paradise not only resides but is woven into its very fabric of time and space. No wonder that so many of you from the west come to us looking for your soul, happiness, nirvana, cheap drugs, yoga, holy cows and guru not necessarily in that order.

Going back to what I had said in the beginning, the above is not my personal list of Utopian Lands; it is rather a mix of common belief and my experience. I might write a book someday on my personal merry-lands of happiness. Honorable mention must be made of Polynesian Isles, Mongolia, Mali, Luxembourg, Turkey and Azerbaijan. Though many of my American friends are among the happiest people on Earth, America finds no mention at all proving merrily that big cars, big houses, ranches and big buildings and big burgers do not necessarily provide happiness.

Then what does happiness really constitute of? If we are to find the answer in materialism then we in India and other oriental nations would say, that your purpose is self-defeating since materialism in any form, either in abundance or scarcity cannot give you happiness that is long lasting and should ideally become a way of life. What it can provide you though would be momentary elations and joyful exuberance lasting from all of a minute to few years at the most. Temporary contentment even and it would be extremely difficult to accept materialism as adequate even when you desire something more or something better.

One of our sages said that you find what you do not look for, so should we stop looking for happiness to find it, or for it to find us since it is also said that the teacher comes along when you are ready to learn. When will we be ready to learn, ready to be happy for it to find us? Must we all discard our worldly possessions and head for the jungles or Himalayan wilderness? Contentment without containment will never lead to happiness. We already have enough for our needs but our grief arises since we will never have enough for our greed. Materialistic search for happiness is already a lost battle. Fancy gourmet at fancy places or a ride in a fancy car, neither dating a fancy person nor sporting a fancy watch can make you intrinsically and perennially happy. Materialism has expiry date. It doesn’t last forever, not even the span of one human life. Nothing wrong in seeking material well-being but when we start attaching our happiness scale to our growing or diminishing belongings it is then that we begin to get mislaid. No matter what we eat or where we live or what we earn or who we become if we can always remember that we can’t fill up our stomachs with gold and diamond or money or fall in love with our mansion nor can we quench our thirst with beautiful bodies then it would be alright… I hope.

If not materialistically (where more is better) then let’s see happiness from the portals of social well being. A happy society would be one where the government is fair, better if it need not be governed by anyone (but then this might be asking for too much), where everyone is equal (and not more equal than others), where there is no fear, no crime, where everybody has the dignity and freedom to do what they wish to (this could lead to severe anarchy), where no one falls sick, no one is bereaved and none dies and everyone stays eternally youthful (how boring that would be). Would such a society ever work and can humans exist without some amount of effort? I wonder and you must ponder.

Our sages were indeed right. Happiness is right there inside you, just dig deep enough and you will find it. You will find it anywhere, any time that you find yourself. The journey is one of within and not without. No wonder our world is a sphere, everything goes around and returns to the same place, notwithstanding astronomical aberrations. I love my country and these days we market ourselves as ‘Incredible India’, which it indeed is so if you do wish to embark on your journey in order to boldly go where no man has ever gone before (aka Startrek) then India is indeed a fine place to begin from.

I belong to the Boney M generation and their song ‘somewhere in the world’ has always been one of my favorites. The second line is the actual reason though:

“Time, changer of seasons, time will see another flower growing.
Climb over the mountains, there you'll find warm winds blowing.

Somewhere in the world there is peace of mind.
Somewhere in the world that's what I must find.
Somewhere in the world there's a place for me in this world.”

It is said that today we live in a Google world so let me conclude with some Google wisdoms with you on happiness. When I googled ‘happiness poems’ and followed the first link this is what emerged; a poem by someone called Sam Byron, (the bracketed comments are mine):

happiness is bliss (he can’t be serious)

happiness, is when you get a new puppy (may be his mother has to look after it)
happiness, is when you get married (is he married?)
happiness, is when you go on you first date (was he dating a woman?)
happiness, is making your own decisions (dictated by his mother / wife of course)
happiness, is graduating (from which college)
happiness, is getting you first job (thank god he did not live to see the depression)
happiness, is falling in love (falling, yeah I like it)
happiness is being proud of who you are (who are you?)

happiness is bliss (we know that by now)

happiness, is glowing (glowworms are the happiest creatures on earth)
happiness, is fun (stamping on a roach is also fun)
happiness, is an amazing feeling (define amazing)
happiness, is when you smile all day (if you did that my friend they would lock you up in a mental home)
happiness, is giving someone a hug just because you can (try it with my neighbor’s wife)
happiness, is that light in your eyes (yeah right, go ahead shine the torch)
happiness, is what makes the world go around (gravity makes the world go around you fool)

happiness, is bliss (what can I say, you are the guru)

When I googled ‘happiness’ the first link that came out was ‘happiness quotes’ and again following it I reached a page that had many definitions of happiness, amongst them all, let me quote one from one of my top favorite authors, Albert Camus: But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads? And one from Anne Frank (on the same page): The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature.

When I googled ‘happiness’ for images the one accompanying this post emerged.

When I googled ‘world’s happiest places’ (I did it after writing this post) the first link gave me the top ten in descending order from Forbes survey: Denmark, Finland , Netherlands , Sweden, Ireland, Canada, Switzerland, New Zealand, Norway, Belgium. Predictably all the Scandinavian countries find mention and USA doesn’t. Out of these ten three are in my list too. Interestingly, among many factors on which people from around 140 countries were quizzed upon during the Forbes survey the top two factors that were considered for the ranking were GDP per capita income and unemployment rate. Is it any wonder that the list is what it is!

So the conclusion and the verdict is what it is and happiness is where it is. Go find it.

Major Travels of 2009 in a Nutshell

January: Andaman Islands, India

February: UK (Scotland and Lakes), Ireland

March: Major Himalayan Winter Expedition to Kamen Galmo, Spiti

April: Few short climbs in outer Himalaya

May – June: Iceland, Norway, Greenland, Germany

July: Few short climbs in outer Himalaya

August: Kashmir, India

September: Major Himalayan Expedition to Zanskar

Oct – December: Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad in pursuit of education and such other nonsense

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Create Your Moment

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!