Sunday, May 30, 2010

My Hero

This is a simple tale of a human being who is totally unknown to me but who had touched my life briefly very recently. He is not a climber, nothing extraordinary and we cross people like him by the hundreds each day. Here's the story: -

Recently I was in Mumbai and had to go to a friend's place, which is rather close to the Bandra local train station. I got out of the station in the impossibly sweltering heat looking for respite from the sun. There were many autorickshaw fellows, but all of them refused my fair since I was traveling only a little distance or they asked for a much higher fair. But for the sun and my parched throat I would have perhaps taken a bus. Finally I waved down an autorickshaw with a puny little old fellow in white dress. Hearing my destination he smiled and asked me to hop in. He quietly lowered the meter and off we went. He put on a music and offered me a sip from his water bottle. We reached my destination and the meter read a paltry sum of Rs 13.00 only. I had only a Rs 20 note or Rs 12 in change. I asked him to keep the Rs 20 but he refused and took Rs 12.00 from me and left with a smile. As he disappeared down the road I had to shake my head twice in sheer disbelief. Is such honesty and display of human kindness possible in today's world, that too in the sunny roads of Mumbai!

I am a die-hard positive person and despite everything hadn't lost my faith in the goodness of humanity, kindness and compassion. I always presumed that we saw glimpses of these rare qualities only up in the mountains where life is simple, where every stranger is a long lost friend. Little did I know that I would meet an angle on a burning afternoon outside the crowded Bandra station. I do not know his name, I do not know his autorickshaw number, I do not remember his face or his voice. I would not know him if I ever pass him again in my life. He would die one day faceless and nameless like millions, but to me he would always be my hero. Another glimpse of humanity and a glint of hope that everything is not yet lost. May we have more like him; I will certainly try to be like him.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

What Happens to you

Things happen to each one of us all the time. As long as you are alive on this planet (and may be thereafter too!) not a day could possibly pass without something happening to you, around you, with people whom you know, at places you have been or wish to be. Incidents and happenings, like our thoughts are an integral part of our lives. Some of these things happen due to our own actions or inactions, and some times they are dictated, executed by others, and even then affect us and change our lives in ways we may or may not wish to. Now the point that I am trying to drive here is; what happens after something happens? How do you take it, how does it affect you?

Broadly speaking any incident or happening that influences us can be in only two ways: bad or good / encouraging or discouraging / positive or negative. That should make you realize that in reality how simple life really is. Just two options to choose from and at the end it really is upon us to choose the one that we would take away from an incident or happening. It's your choice at the end. The act, the incident may not have been your choice or doing, but the outcome of it, the way you tackle it and look at is certainly your choice. So the worst possible situations in your life can actually serve to be motivating and a cause to cheer while even the best possible things can give you sorrow and negativity. There are many ways of looking at it why would we mostly choose to be unhappy and miserable and sad and negative?

The one surmounting reason, according to me, is that most often we don't live in the moment that is in reality with us, which is 'now'. All our sadness and miseries arise out of the fact that we mostly regret about our past and our inadequacy to know or deal or to prepare for the future. Missing out the entire present. For most of us, the present 'now' this very moment is only a transition between the past and the future so we are always rushing through our present, regretting about the past and planning for the future. Seldom do we realize that the future too would become present one day and that day we won't be doing what we thought we would in the future, but on that day too we would be planning and pining for the future. We can never win this race, since future is always in the future and we can never be there, neither can we ever be in the past. Sadly, we don't have the time machine and time is unidirectional.

Out of anything in our life, there's always two fallout, a gain and a loss (in a manner of speaking), and I am not really certain if we can quantify one over the other. Can you compare the joy of the warm sun on a cold morning, to the joy of a mother's cooking wafting from the kitchen, as to what gives you more joy - intrinsically we can't, think about it, we may attach more or less joy according to our biases or mental conditions but in the fundamental level, a joy is a joy and a sorrow is a sorrow. Our sense of happiness and degrees of bereavement that varies from one incident to another is due to our own perceptions that often doesn't see the entire picture. Despite man's perpetual search for happiness (isn't that what we all want and look out for eventually; all the rest like money, fame, etc are only steps to attain eternal happiness), why do we constantly choose to be sad and miserable! This is an enigma that needs to be resolved and taken care of.

This is just my random thoughts on this vital choice making that we do almost every moment of our lives and hence I won't write an elaborate discourse on it, and it's suffice to say here that the choice and the power either to be sad or happy lies with you. It's totally your decision if you wish to be sad or to be happy, to take something as positive or as negative. To bereave for what you have lost or to rejoice at what you have gained (even when it may not be materialistically perceptible). If you start living in the present, in the 'now' that is with you and you are in it and see what a particular thing has got you and taken away from you, then you would see that out of everything, what you gain is always more than what you lost for a very simple reason. We never had anything to begin with, so whatever you ever lost was not really yours and whatever you gained is completely your gain.

So friends please smile more and live in the 'now' more. It's like willing and planning to fly yet keeping your feet on ground since that's where you really are. Perhaps my life is simpler and that's the reason why I am perpetually happy and positive and charged up, as many of my friends tell me. But your life too might be simple only you may not realize it. If you face a situation and can't figure out what's positive in it or why would it make you happy then do write to me and I would help you realize how lucky you indeed are.

Feeling of sadness and misery is also an addiction, you know it is bad but you can't come out of it, if once you get into the habit of accepting it and gloating in it. In this life and in this world, we actually lose nothing while we gain everything, we always move forward and never backward, we always move up and never down (why do you think heaven is always above and not below?). Everything around us tells us to be positive and happy, so listen to nature, listen to them and learn from this very earth that nurtures us. Just by being born we are already winners even if you do lose the race of life.

There are million moments of happiness that passes us by every day, just dip your hand into the heady concoction and fill up your bag with it and pass it on to those who need it. Happiness and positive energy increase when shared and given away.

Goodbye my friends, next time when you feel sad or miserable do think of this friend of yours and remember that it is ultimately your choice. No one else controls your mind, you do. And all you got to do is to see life from the right perspective and that will make all the difference.

And then will you see - What happens to you?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Are You Real


Your face on canvas I drew
Are you real, are you true

Have we met before!
Why do I want you more?

In the rising sun I see you
Like rainbow in morning dew

Upon the grass as I stride
You smile and walk by my side

I watch the birds, with them I sing
Ruffling my hair, in my arms you swing

Through the day I think of you
You stay within me like a heady brew

When I return to my empty house
You hold my hand you hold me close

Walking alone beneath the starry sky
I often seek and I wonder why?

When I know you are nowhere
Why do I see you everywhere?

Are you real or only in my mind!
Your touch I feel; is it your hand!

On your eyes I long to kiss
Feel heaven and the sheer bliss

But where do I find you
Are you real, are you true!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Which Way to Go


In the mountains we have a thumb rule that we apply when we are hopelessly lost and come to a cross road from where one trail is going down and one that is going up. Obviously the one that is going down is more tempting to take as it is an easier one, but in the mountains we always take the trail going up for three simple reasons: if this is indeed the right trail then you are ok, if this is the wrong trail then all you go to do is descend which is easier on the face of tiredness and a wrong route, and as you gain altitude you are also able to see further since your horizon widens and you can see more landmark etc that you may be able to recognize to reorient yourself. None of these would have happened if you took the trail going down that was apparently easier.

Same thumb rule can be applied in our normal lives too. Always take the trail going up, even if it is the wrong one. At least on it, you would have the satisfaction of knowing that now all you have ahead of you is the easier path to descend and while on a wrong path, the one going up will always show you a wider view of life and the earth and broaden your perspectives that wouldn't have happened on the other path going down. So even if it was a wrong path, it still benefits you more and teaches you far richer experience than the other. So remember friends, always take the path going up, go against gravity, go against what people advice, follow your gut feelings, go and see where the path going up would lead to. And if you always take the path going up, like I do, one of these days you would surely reach where I want all of you to reach, so friends 'See you all on top'

Mixed Climbing

This is perhaps my first post that is essentially aimed at seasoned and experienced climbers. If you are not then you may like to skip this post. I will be using techniques and terminologies that a non-initiate may find hard to grasp or visualize. But read on nevertheless, since in this post I am going to give a brief beta on almost everything that you need to know to experience the toughest form of climbing possible. In the world of natural climbing grounds we can divide it into three prime categories: rock climb, ice climb and mixed climb. I specialize in the latter two, though my best trad rock lead has been a modest 5.12 b. It’s on ice and then on mixed ground that I find myself most comfortable and intense. While rock and ice climbing is easy to grasp and understand, it is the mixed climb (MC) that is often misunderstood and hard to master. But before you begin mixed climbing one must be a seasoned ice climber and a modest rock climber. So let’s get our racks and boots and ice tools ready and go for some of the most challenging climbs possible in the world of climbing.

What is Mixed Climb (MC) or a Mixed Route (MR)?

Simply put it is a route where on at least one or two pitches you would encounter rock or normal ground besides ice. It is often debatable if the ratio of ice to the ratio of rock or natural features should be more or less for it to be classified as MC. My personal choice for a route to qualify as MC would mean that at least one third of the route should be on a ground other than ice, more vertical the better, and the ice patches would be only thin veneer of brittle or rotten or extremely poorly protected ice on underlying ground of rock or earth or turf or even vegetation. When we go on a serious MC, it almost looks as if we are on a death wish since we are burdened with our ice tools on grounds that have barely any use of them. So mostly we would be dry tooling using highly specialized techniques and innovative manoeuvres that come after years of practice. Seen by a non-initiate a MC alpinist would look more of an acrobat rather than the typically elegant and smooth flowing ice or rock climber. MC is all about thinking on your feet, innovating and improvising and maximising your resources within the shortest possible time. We almost never have any idea if the route or the ice is in the nick or where the pros would go since much of the cracks and fissures would be iced up, which needs to be patiently cleared up first. A near absence of ice screw adds to the woe. My most technical, difficult, damaging and perilous climbs has all been MC. What I like most about a MC is its unpredictability; you don’t know what you would encounter till it’s too late to retreat and it requires hundred percent commitment from the word go. Before starting any MC attempt you must practice dry tooling in a safe place first and also get used to sticking your crampon front points in tiny rock cracks and fissures, and the ability to stand on them for long durations. Most often a MC is done at a much slower rate of ascent since lot of snow and ice clearing needs to be done to place pros. No self respecting MC climber will ever bolt a MR or rely on pros placed by others before him. I like the ones I do on-sight, just by the look of a face, which looks nice, complicated and fun.

Where to find MC?

A very valid and logical question with highly confusing outcomes! In tropical climates and in the Himalaya the perfect Mixed Routes are not found in the summers or anywhere in the lower altitudes. They are found at altitudes where they cease to be a typical MC and become a proper high altitude ice climb with pitches of rock in between. In the winters though there are few places in the lesser Himalaya as well where one can find good quality MC, these are often difficult to approach and logistically severe. Ideally speaking, it is in the Alps, Canadian Rockies, and Scottish winters, lesser Andes, Patagonia, etc where we find ideal MC routes. These are ideally at lower altitudes, easy to approach, multi-pitch routes, where one need not be burdened by long and tiring approach marches therefore the techniques applied can be much more advanced, intense and challenging. My best MC have been all in Scotland, Alps, Caucuses, Canadian Rockies and the Patagonia. When I look up at face and have to decide if it is a MC or not then I look at the number of pitches and how they combine to make a mix of rock and ice pitches with at least half of each and it needs to be near vertical or overhanging even, with the ice only with thin white coating and nothing too deep or voluminous for most of the route. This is where many of my contemporary climbers differ in their opinion. Being a serious ice climber I make a distinct difference between an ice route and MR, in the former you may have brittle or rotten or hollow ice that is equally dangerous but it has lots of it, while in the latter, the amount of ice is more of a mere cover and is not really the main constituent of the route. It’s tricky where to draw the line and for most of the ratings, will depend from one climber to another depending on one’s expertise and experience. The route should look whitish with thin lines of ice here and there but not so much where you can apply proper ice climbing tools and techniques.

Style

As I mentioned before, MC if done ethically and ideally is the best (worst?) possible climbing style. It gives you the finest training for pitching yourself against your own weaknesses and fears. I like doing MC in worst possible weather conditions, virtually in hurricane blizzards, in absolute zero visibility, with ice chips biting and tearing my exposed skin like shrapnel. They are short routes, not more than few hundred meters and can be done in hours and needs total commitment. Being totally out of your mind helps though! The racks are heavy and full of metal, a pair of hooking axes, mixed crampons and good ice gloves with reinforced knuckle guards help. The lead climber receives the most brutal punishment so it is necessary to take turns at leading. Every pitch can be long and tiring and very cold and frustrating for all. If you are lucky you may find few resting ledges to rest your aching heels and calves that for most of the route would only be scrapping and desperately biting into tiniest of rock cracks. Forearms and shoulders may cease to exist soon as you would need to clear the placement cracks off ice and snow or even turf. I would strongly recommend double rope for MC unless you are too sure of yourself. Your entire body, face, clothing (no matter if it is best Gore Tex or down) would be caked with ice and snow and frozen, making you totally white from head to toe. But you must smile through all since only a sense of masochistic humour will save the day. Some of my funniest moments on MC have also been the one nearest to eternity. MC is addictive and you can never rest or stop after you have done one and since on a typical MC ground there are plenty of routes right next to each other, so mostly we top up on one and immediately head for another, no matter how much we might have cursed the gods and our own stupidity only moments ago. I remember my last serious MC in Cairngorms, in Feb 2009, on an atrocious day of 90 mph blizzards; I had just topped a vertical MC of 200 m having promised myself somewhere half way up while hanging from the tip of my axe that if I survived this climb I will never again do another MC in my life, and in less than five minutes I and my equally insane partner were heading off towards a frightening rock wall plastered with raging ice.

In an ideal MC we encounter every possible sort of highly technical mediums like rock, turf, snow and ice. There’s no other possible medium to climb through in the world. This has prompted climbers to develop and perfect several out of box climbing techniques and moves that look more like acrobatics and at times break the rule books of a typical ice climb. Once while teaching a neophyte the fine art of MC, as he struggled and gnawed and gasped and sweated but couldn’t find a way, I finally told him that there were no techniques really in MC. Just use your head, hold whatever you can with whatever you have in whatever manner you can and that can be a MC technique. Throw the books and the ice / rock climbing techniques and jargons that had been taught at the climbing schools. Keep the thought paramount in your head that: failing and falling is not an option open to you, and you will do fine. Believe you me, that neophyte, once he saw the point, was climbing like a monkey. On MC think out of the box, do things that you have never done before or never thought of doing before. Improvise, experiment, and go for it. Two techniques that you should know really well are hooking and torqueing using the picks of your technical axes. Don’t forget that you also have fingers and an arm to use for jamming just like on rocks; so use them. Use your knee, body, head, elbow, hips, whatever you have and is needed to hold you there; I use everything that I can get a grip on. Since you would have your crampons on, use them for kicking just like in ice so on turf or thin ice lines, also use them sideways or flat in cracks to jam. Twist them around, try every possible position and see where you get a purchase. On MC thinking on your feet is most essential and you have to think totally unconventionally. The best mixed climbers in the world are those who never went to a climbing school. Pure human instincts for self preservation and survival are what is needed besides your other skills to tackle a MC.

Equipment

You will need all the basic stuff that you need for any ice climbing like clothing, shell, base layer, harness, gloves, helmet, etc and a heavily loaded rack of rock pros. In most MC there’s not much use of ice pros or ice screws or dead man, etc as the ice depth is not significant. Your rock pros should be an ideal mix of hexes and rockcentrics, pegs, friends, nuts. Few warthogs may be useful where there’s more likelihood of turfs. You can either carry your rack on your harness or as a bandolier slung around your chest. It depends on your preference really. I prefer a mix of both. All my slings and crabs go around my neck and chest while most of my cams and hooks go on my waist. A straighter shaft axe is preferable on MC then those extra curvy ones. Charlet Moser is my favourite model. Always remember to use axe with adze. As for crampons select the ones with short points for placing in tiny cracks. Mono points were developed for extremely thin cracks and they are a boon for MC, so go for them if you can afford them. Though some use leash-less axes, I always go for a leash, since no way can I afford to drop my ice tool if I am using my free hand to jam or climb. Another way to do it (if you are without leash) is to hook the axe around the neck, and this looks super cool, so many young climbers master this technique.

Techniques

A MC is a climb like any other in appearance, so you need to get your rope and climbing gear sorted out properly, caution the belay and up you go, preferably with double rope. Tapping and testing the ground every inch of the way. There are only two aspects that need to be highlighted since in this MC is different to another typical rock or ice route. Cleaning and clearing the pro placement is paramount. For almost the entire route, all the placement cracks and places would be covered with snow and ice, which are not deep or consolidated enough for pro, and they need to be cleared by the lead to find the underlying turf or rock to place pros. This is tiring and time consuming but essential. Look for the fault lines and how they grow or form and cut the ice and clear it accordingly. Always make sure that you can see the placement properly and feel it to be sure what it is and there’s nothing underlying that may uproot in case of a fall. Always remember that pros placed in icy cracks are not totally reliable, especially cams that may slide on ice and refuse to bite. If the cracks are too iced up then a peg may be hammered first and into it further pro. Placement can’t be done in a rush in MC, first be very sure where you are hammering your pros.

Conclusion

To be a decent mixed climber you need peak physical fitness, flexibility and endurance along with madness and an ability to think on your feet and out of the box. Club it up with lots of practice and the right equipment and tool and techniques. Now go out and enjoy and at least for once I can be sure that none of you who apply my suggestions for MC would ever be able to come back and tell me that it didn’t work or you didn’t tell us everything since I am telling you right now that it may not work and of course I can’t tell you everything since I myself don’t know everything about MC, no one does, it is like every individual, evolving, growing and totally out of the box.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Cold Injuries

It’s summer time now, the spring is all but gone, many of my friends are right now struggling to stay alive in the higher echelons of Everest and some of the other highest peaks in the world as many of you are now gearing up for the summer treks, and planning your holiday in the hills. Any trip to the mountains, high or low, alpine or Himalayan proportions certainly calls for some experience and expertise to deal with personal injuries and health conditions that may arise on ground. The entire field of mountain medicine is too vast and yet uncharted for me to discuss here, so maybe I would break it down in smaller segments. The majority of the casualties and deaths that do take place in high altitudes are due to just that, the altitude, which plays havoc with the human body and mind. But even in the lower hills, a sudden chilly downpour, an accidental fall in a river or storm can catch you unawares and lead to cold injuries. While not fatal (like high altitude ailments) by themselves, cold injuries are not a pleasant thing to happen and may lead to death if not anticipated and dealt with in the early stage. In this post I will briefly touch upon the three most frequently encountered cold injuries at cold places.


Hypothermia

Everyone, who climbs or goes into the hills, especially in the winters, has certainly experienced hypothermia, including yours truly. It’s a common phenomenon that occurs when the core temperature of our body drops below the normal of 37 deg C. As the body temperature falls to 36 deg C, the body starts to shiver uncontrollably, in order to generate core heat through muscular actions. At this stage more than the cold, it is the reduction in our capacity to judge and act, which is more dangerous and lethal. A drop to 35 deg C leads to confusion and disregard to one’s safety.

These physiological alterations clubbed with slow and delayed mental reactions can quickly lead to potent disasters. We make navigational errors, we may not realize that our skins, gloves, or clothes are cold and need to be changed, and we may forget to eat some high calorie food. This personal neglect can then spiral the degeneration effect. If you allow the core temperature of your body to fall around 30 deg C then the shivering will stop and the body and mind would start to lapse into unconsciousness. And by this stage your mind will be so numb and disjointed that you will not realize that you are slowly but surely dying. Sadly many people, mostly inexperienced hikers and hill walkers sustain grave and irreparable damage due to hypothermia and sometimes death, while the preventive measures are easy to follow. While you are moving and climbing up, your body must feel warm from inside, but the moment you feel cold setting inside, around the area of your lungs and heart, even when your outer body is sweating, and you feel the beginning of a shiver, it is time to act. Here’s what needs to be done.

Prevent further loss of body heat: Cover your head with a cap / hat / scarf / balaclava etc covering the ears as well. Roll down your sleeves and cover any exposed part of your hand. Remember, you must always keep your head covered. We lose more than 30% of our body heat and moisture solely through the head and ears. Change into dry inner clothes / base layers if you have spare. Get a windproof jacket on like Gore Tex / Wind cheater etc. While resting stay out of the sun and shelter under a tree or rock etc.

Hydrate: As I have said time and again, plain and simple water is the ultimate elixir in the mountains and if you keep on hydrating regularly you will avoid nearly all medical conditions. Standard measure is to drink 1 liter of water every hour. Keep refilling your bottle wherever and whenever you can. We dehydrate in the cold, even when we do not visibly sweat and with that we lose a lot of body heat as well. Drinking is the best habit in the mountains.
Eat: The only way to truly generate body heat from the core is to feed it with fuel and oxygen to burn it deep inside, like burning a furnace. For instant generation of energy and heat one must take more of carbohydrates and less of protein. Believe it or not, potato chips are excellent for such purpose and so are mars chocolate bars. Glucose too helps.

If none of the above help, then you must stop and get some hot fluid inside you, change into dry clothing and put on extra down jackets and ask your team mates to literally beat you up.

Frostnip

This happens mostly when there’s a sudden cooling of the body’s exposed parts due to a sudden snow, blizzard or a strong gust of cold wind. Most susceptible body parts to frostnip are the exposed parts of your face like nose, lips, cheek, ear and fingers. The easiest way to prevent frostnip is to wear ski mask or balaclava and gloves. We often can’t feel the tip of our nose, and that’s frostnip. It is easy to detect by the numbness and the white or waxy appearance of the affected part. If it happens cover the affected part, rub it gently to get blood circulation going and warm compress may also be given if the condition does not improve. Frostnip is the pre-frostbite stage and hence it must be detected and prevented at the earliest possible stage.

Frostbite

Frostbite is the worse of the cold injuries and is rarely encountered in lower altitudes or cool places. It is mostly seen in high altitudes, above snow line, serious ice climbing, etc where the body is exposed to cold for prolonged duration. Third degree frostbite would need amputation and may even lead to death due to blood and tissue poisoning if not treated in time. Mostly the fingers, and toes, nose and the ears are affected by frostbite. The initial stage is similar to frostnip as the parts would become numb, lose sensation and would appear hard to touch and the skin will turn white and waxy. Thereafter the skin will begin to turn grey, charcoal and black and very hard to touch. The extreme stages of frostbite is gangrene when the dead tissues would start rotting the neighboring body tissues and the putrid smell of rotting flesh is the obvious tell-tale sign that now the limb needs amputation to prevent further loss of other body parts. Frostbite happens due to prolonged exposure to cold and wet conditions like when one keeps wearing a wet boot for long or fingers are immersed in ice or cold water for extended durations. The prevention is obvious and simple, do change your socks and gloves and allow your extremities to be exposed to healthy air and dry them out thoroughly after any climb. If frostbite sets in then very slow and gradual warming of the tissues by dipping the injured parts in lukewarm water are recommended though make sure, if you can, that the water temperature is not above 40 deg C max. There are medicines and injections that can be taken but that’s only if you have a doctor in the team. If you don’t have enough experience in such matters then the best thing to do is to dry out the part and keep it warm and prevent from further freezing and return to the nearest medical center at the earliest.

To summarize, all cold injuries are caused by a combination of any of these factors: low temperatures, wind-chill, wet conditions, inadequate intake of food, your morale, exhaustion or tiredness and lack of experience. Steps to prevent cold injuries are obvious and simple: prevent loss of body heat, keep yourself dry, eat and hydrate, rest and recuperate, go with someone experienced and keep your morale high. Never ever touch metal with bare fingers or skin.

I hope when out in the mountains next time you would be cold but not cold enough and enjoy your adventure with a warm heart. Happy climbing!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Deserts are not deserted


Only yesterday I was telling a friend about my adventures into the great Namibia Desert along the Skeleton Coast of Atlantic, emphasizing in particular how I am not too fond of the deserts during the day since cold places are essentially my home. I thought she was an ocean and mountain person like me, but she surprised me by confessing that she is equally enchanted with the deserts of the world since they too are boundless and immensely beautiful and redolent with life – not that she had visited any, besides Thar in India. That set me thinking and I soon realized that though not among my favorite places on Earth, I have walked through parts of several of the world’s largest (area wise) deserts and have had a firsthand encounter with their diversity, flora and fauna, spectacular beauty, with the burning sun of day and the frozen moon at night. While my mind thus wandered retracing those forgotten voyages across the arid lands, I recognized that I too was fascinated with deserts as much as I am with the mountains. Deserts are among nature’s most spectacular spectacles and often neglected or held in fear due to ignorance. Despite the sand a desert landscape is far from monotonous and it is full of life. My outdoor survival skills and experience encompass deserts too and hence I thought of telling you all about the deserts that I have been to and also to highlight how each one of them are unique and different from each other even when they are similar and identical in several ways. For the sake of brevity, I would only touch upon the deserts that I have been to and are within the 25 largest deserts in the world.

Essentially a desert is a place that is unusually arid and moisture free and does not see precipitation (rain) beyond the barest minimum and in some cases none at all. Broadly all deserts have been classified as Polar, Cold winter, subtropical and cool coastal. As the names suggest, the Polar deserts are those found only in Antarctica or in the Arctic Region, Cold winter ones are those found in high latitudes, subtropical are those bound by the tropical latitudes while cool coastal are those that are along the coast and hence largely affected by sea breeze and ocean currents. Due to the different regional influences, these deserts vastly differ in terms of flora and fauna and landscape. Now let’s put on our hats and sun-creams and pack in our bottles of cold water and aka Dr Livingstone (who first walked through the Kalahari) get going.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Horizons


Horizon is a place where the earth and the sky appear to meet. In terrestrial sense it is also a place that is furthest from the eye of the beholder. We can’t see what lies beyond our horizon and we don’t know how the world really is beyond our horizon. Horizon is always mysterious, haunting, exciting and intensely bewitching – at least to me. Is it any wonder then that horizons have always attracted me and have incited me to look beyond where my eyes couldn’t travel.

My life as I have lived has always had its ample share of horizons. Despite being a submariner cramped within a tiny steel tube thousands of feet below the inky ocean depths my world has always been redolent with the most remarkable and abundant horizons and I have never missed a chance of looking at them, staring at them intensely till my eyes could not stare into the darkness any more. The most symmetric, clearly demarcated horizons are seen either over the oceans or great bodies of water, over deserts and from the top of very high mountains. You don’t see horizon from a city or from the windows of your room. You need to go out into these vast expanses of spaces and merge with infinity to really understand and experience what horizon is all about. As is evinced almost all my life I have been in such places since this boundless universe has always been my home. Today I will tell you the story of two horizons.

When dawn breaks across the ocean, as we see it in the early morning surrounded by endless body of water all around, the horizon begins to emerge out of the darkness. A faint thin line of darkness that breaks away from the water and lifts up towards the now brightening azure. The sea could be stormy and ferocious around you but as you let your gaze travel across the white horses and the waves and continue towards the horizon, you will find that the water seems to calm down further your eyes travel from where you stand. Around half way to the horizon, the water seems as calm as a level ground of blue-green and from there on it simply reaches out and meets the sky. During a bright day with haze and hot sun it is often difficult to decipher the horizon but if you look carefully you will see that the sky is slightly paler and of silver streak from the water. Though it needs an experienced eye to see where the blue water ends and the paler sky begins. Through the day as the sun travels across your meridian and then towards the western horizon the horizon too alters and shimmers as if it is alive and redolent with life force. With the setting of the sun and onset of the dusk, as the sky turns pink and orange, so does the water and suddenly the horizon seems more discerning as the ocean water still retains its emerald hue. As the sun sets further and dips below and into the horizon, suddenly a deep ochre streak zips across the horizon almost as if it had been drawn right then and there by an invisible hand. I have no explanation for this phenomenon but I have seen it often through the crosswire of my periscope or from across the deck of a ship and it is a constant no matter which ocean I am traversing.

From there, the night descends real quick as stars start sprouting as if with the wave of a magic wand someone pulled the bright curtain aside and the dark sky came rushing down with its infinite stars. It’s a celebration of comets and meteors, of planets and stars of galaxies and supernovas and of the moon that finally joins the mirthful merry makers in the night sky. While the heavenly bodies sparkle like diamonds the horizon by then is totally immersed into the black sea. But with the appearance of the moon, the horizon again comes alive as bio-phosphorous activities cut across the ship’s wake. The horizon thereafter remains a silvery line where the moon sparkles while on the other side it is completely black and invisible.

As a mariner and navigator we must know where and how far our horizon is, and why there is a horizon at all. Horizon happens due to the earth’s curvature and the fact that light travels only in a straight line (not true when it is influenced by strong magnetic forces around massive bodies). So as the light that is reflected from an object travels outwards it follows a straight path and as soon as the curvature of the earth is encountered this path of light doesn’t curve along with it, instead goes out straight into the outer space. Therefore to see this object the observer has to be within the curvature horizon and the distance of this horizon depends on the height of eye of the observer. Higher you go wider and further your horizon would be. The first inkling our ancient mariners got of the earth’s curvature was when at sea they would sight the mast of a ship first and the body later. If earth were flat, the entire ship would be seen at the same time. Therefore to have a fair estimate of a ship’s distance when it is first sighted (just the top tip of the highest mast) on the horizon, if we know the distance to the horizon from the observer’s height of eye, then that is exactly the distance of that ship from the observer. Even modern navigator’s use this estimate to know with a fair amount of accuracy the distance of a ship (contact) when sighted first on the horizon. Using a simple formula we can calculate every observer’s (depending on the individual’s height of eye) distance to horizon. You will perhaps be surprised to know that though the ocean horizon looks so distant and unreachable, for an observer’s height of eye of 40 ft (average bridge height of a ship, from where all navigational observations are usually made) the distance to the furthest horizon is only in the range of 12 – 15 km.

Now let’s look at the other horizon, which is equally enchanting and mysterious and closer to my heart since it is also very cold and at places that are much above terra firma. You have guessed it right; I am now going to talk about mountain horizons.

At the bottom of a mountain, the horizon is extremely small and almost right above your head rather than all around you, like in the oceans. But as you begin to climb the magic seems to unfold. Higher you go, bigger and wider the horizon opens up. It seems like coming out of a deep well towards widening sky. As we climb higher smaller peaks and summits fall below while higher ones emerge from our horizon, dwarfing us often with their magnitude and scale. This is an amusing experience. Your horizon keeps pulsating like a pendulum, now wider, now smaller, now further, now closer, now more, now less. This happens as long as we remain within normal altitudes but the real drama starts after crossing the 20 K ft threshold. This is my real world, anything below is much too cramped with features. Once you cross 20,000 ft (6000 m) suddenly the world seems to be falling away and down all around. Above 6500 m this world becomes even less populated as now almost the entire world around would be beneath your feet and the horizon would have grown to a mammoth scale. And if you remember, with higher height of eye we can see further and thus our horizons are suddenly immense. But above 7000 m suddenly we are transported into a whole new world. And this is the horizon that I am going to tell you about today through the leaf of a single day from one of my numerous expeditions to this altitude and beyond.

Dawn and dusk are two moments in a day when I seldom move since these are the periods of transformation, when the world alters itself like a beautiful woman with a single stroke of her hand or a flick of her hair. In this expedition, I am perched at a tiny ledge overlooking a 6000 ft sheer drop at an altitude of slightly above 7000 m. At this altitude every action is difficult including that of thought and emotions. Sleep doesn’t come easy since the brain screams out for oxygen and for relief from the sheer agony of fighting to stay alive every minute of your existence. It’s four in the morning that is so cold that I can almost hear my breath freezing the moment it leaves my nostrils. With infinite care I put on my down jacket and shoes and crampons and emerge out of the tent to start my vigil of the horizon. Back to the mountain that I am here to climb, I dig into the ice and aligning myself to the east begin my agonizing wait. The terrifyingly cold wind carrying snow dust and fragrance of no man’s lands lashes into my eyes and eats into my exposed skin. I rub my nose with my gloves but can feel no sensation at all. The tip of my nose had already started whitening and freezing as the clock ticked towards the intense drama that had already begin its entrée beyond my horizon.

The sky turns grey as the black sheet is lifted ever so slowly by the rising sun. Countless peaks of lesser dimensions flicker out and start populating my horizon. Each ice encrusted summit is my friend, many of whom have seen my footsteps while others I have waved from a distance. The horizon crackles and sparkles like a flash of thunder as the deep pink-orange hue emerges. Stars flee from the sky and the darkness surrenders to the mighty Sun. I stare fixated. Nothing on earth can make me move right now. I am transfixed by the vision, by this spectacular show of grandeur and color on my horizon. The top orb of the sun finally reaches my horizon and the first streak of its tawny ray slaps me on the face. It feels like heaven though I am alive. The pale sun is not strong enough to deter the chilling cold but it is strong enough to dispel all darkness from the horizon. I stare deep into the distance, trying to count and recognize each of the summits, now each painted gold and yellow by the rising sun. It seems as if a celestial hand is pouring molten gold from above on the conical summits that now dance and pulsate with a life of their own.

The air is unbelievably clear and crystalline and crackling with cold. My legs and bottom are frozen stiff. I inhale and fill up my lungs with the oxygen deprived air and feel emptiness fill up my insides with nothingness. I remove my hood and let the sun caress my tousled hair. The cold stings my eyes, my face and my exposed head. I grit my teeth and don’t let the horizon out of my sight. Soon it would be far too bright for me to look there and I wish to linger as long as possible. The endless sky is Shiva’s canvas and He fills it up with every shades of the rainbow and then some. Red, orange, purple, ochre, yellow, blue, turquoise, amethyst, copper, and ruby burst in and out from every corner, merging and disappearing like myriads of Diwali sparklers. My senses are numb but my eyes register this epic grandeur. The sun rises further and I put on my UV sunglasses and get down to digging out snow and get the burner going. Not a moment to lose, we have long way to go.

Around dusk, we pitch our camp at another ledge looking down at our footsteps across the virgin snow. The day is gone and I sit once again, now with a steaming cup of tea and wait for my friend dusk to make its appearance. Dusk occur almost in reverse. The summits around and below begin to melt into the darkness. They lose their identity and individuality and start becoming one with the horizon. I too don’t seem to exist anymore. The sun dips now and drops out of sight like a stone thrown in a pond with deep orange ripples across the sky. Stars rush in to fill the void and finally, like in the ocean, here too the horizon ceases to be. When there is nothing else to see, I still stare across and look for my horizon, knowing that it is still there somewhere within that vast emptiness waiting for me to arrive.

Can we ever touch our horizon? It’s a physical impossibility and there lies my enchantment with it. Horizon is forever receding, the closer I get to it, the further it goes away; I could make it bigger or smaller but never nearer. It stays exactly where it has always been no matter how many times I go around the world or touch the sky from the top of Everest. Horizon can never be reached it is unreachable but the effort must be made to reach it. That’s where the importance of action is, even when our destination is unachievable, we must strive and continue to be fascinated with the effort and the phenomenon. We may never reach it but we will certainly reach somewhere that will be much further and more enthralling than the place where we were stuck till then since before we didn’t have the courage to reach out to the horizon.

Horizons are good places to aspire for and destinations worth striving for. No one lives there, no one can live in their horizon, but they can be there in their dreams in the power of their vision and in the triumph of their efforts.

I am never going to give up on my horizons and I sincerely hope that you won’t give up on yours too. Your and my horizons could well be different since we see them from different locations and different altitudes but they are still identical since in their quest we both would traverse through a wonderful journey called life in search of the potion for happiness.

Even after you and I cease to be, our horizons would continue to enchant others in their path and their stories would merge with ours and thus the chain of humanity and civilization continue for all the times to come. How can you not then be on the road to your horizon! You must, you should for that’s all that you can really do – reach out for your horizon.

Impossible

Today is the 30th day of April 2010 and you all know it but many of you wouldn't know that today I finally leave the Indian Navy after 22 yrs of service to the nation. What has that got to do with the title of this post – plenty. The title pretty much sums up my own life in one word.

There are always at least two ways of looking at anything and everything. Entire nature and universe and we are formed out of duality, of opposites, of things seemingly different, so we have the day and the night, we have men and women, we have water and fire and then we have the possible or the impossible. But the key literally is in the world impossible.

When as a child I looked at an impossible task for the first time, I viewed it not as impossible but broke it down to: I M Possible, and within this simple coinage and play of letters I found the fundamental mantra of my life. Everything became possible for me. Much like my idea of becoming a submariner one day aka Captain Nemo of the Twenty Thousand Leagues under the sea fame and that is what finally led me to the Indian Navy. Frozen heights and ocean depths became my home. Uncharted terrains, unexplored vistas became my horizons and all since for me impossible has always been I M Possible.

Forget about doing the possible. Possible is not exciting or challenging enough.

Look for the impossible and be I M Possible.