Friday, October 29, 2010

One More Step

I am often asked what exactly my mind churns when I am doing a dangerous and reckless climb, where the outcome is unknown and I had already crossed the point of no return. Never have I been able to give a satisfactory answer, mostly I would nod and say I don’t remember, since once out of the perilous situation (self orchestrated) my numb and dumb brain would quickly forget all that my mind must have gone through. But in a recent trip of mine, the moment I returned to safer grounds, I jotted down some of my thoughts immediately on a piece of paper and later on reading it, thought it may still not be the right answer to the question of my mind, but it is a convincing one nevertheless, so here it is.

While I was going through the miniscule notebook that I had managed to keep and return with during this trip, through the smudged up pencil marks and torn and soaked pages, I discovered that at the end of the day when I climbed the peak and then came down through atrocious conditions, thankful that the soft snow sucked my body like quicksand lest I would have fallen off the edge, I scribbled few lines and here
they are as they were written : -

‘Always focus on your next step, one more step; the one you are about to take. Sooner or later it will be all that would matter; can you, will you take one more step or not. And remember that in almost all cases that’s all that you can do – take the next step, take one more step.’

I guess I wrote these thoughts since that’s what I had been doing through the night and that brutal blizzard since I had nothing else to do, just keep taking my next step, one more step and that’s the only thing that kept me alive and got me back to the world of living. If I had stopped even for few minutes I would have frozen and gone.

Is the above heroic, or in any way beneficial; either to you or to me? It is completely stupid and I am sure for those few days I had utterly lost my mind. Sitting right now in my room it doesn’t seem that it was I who had undergone that experience; it all seems so distant now as if it had happened to someone else.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Virtual Satya

Satya’s own website! The idea seemed far-fetched and preposterous and Satya said so to his friend who insists that Satya must immediately grab the domain name www.satyabratadam.com Satya’s logic is simple, why a personal website and who would be interested? A (Satya’s ever faithful computer geek friend) further insists that many around the globe would be keen to follow him and his stupid insane exploits and would want to know what in general is happening with him once he is out of the Navy. But I am not a celebrity, people only follow celebrities and their bovine tantrums, Satya persists. Well my friend, you are, A chips in, and if you are not we would make you one and getting a website is the first step towards it. That jolts Satya’s self esteem a bit; and he retorts, but I am a kind of non-conformist (he didn’t want to mention the word ‘celebrity’) in my own field, after all people pay for my airfare, boarding and lodging and something on the sides from many countries just to hear me talk, something that my Indian friends ask me not to do. They argue and eventually when A realizes that Satya is slowly gaining on him he barks with the finality of Nostradamus: just do it and it costs less than 500 rupees annually. That nailed the coffin for Satya. For a miser like him, money is a big thing when it is mentioned in small quantities. So Satya logs into A’s preferred domain purchasing site Godaddy the next day and buys www.satyabratadam.com paying by a credit card that was a gift from someone. He is pleased and so is A that Satya managed a .com domain name and no less, which in reality only proved that there was only one gullible loser in the world called Satyabrata Dam. But when Satya receives the confirmatory email from Daddy saying that now he is the rightful owner of the domain name www.satyabratadam.com at least for the next 365 days he feels some amount of pride pushing his chest from inside making his shirt buttons pop silently. Less than a day later he promptly forgets all about it and that’s where the website remains immobile till one day someone literally sashayed into Satya’s life.

Weeks and months passed, sun went around or rather we went around the sun, and Satya’s domain name remained only that, a name, a figment of virtual reality, a domain that could have been his but would never be. A, the good and persistent friend that he is, once in a while did try to flog the dormant idea with Satya but Satya always avoided the main topic by asking about A’s ongoing sci-fi novel or his latest photography ventures. But as they say every idea has its time and every dreamer does wake up one day. To cut a very long novel into few lines, time and destiny brought Satya to the Gujarat capital of Ahmadabad in late 2009 and just days before he would depart from there, never to return again (early 2010) he stumbles upon a brilliant graphic designer M at a Holi (Hindu festival of color) gathering and become friends. He saw her work and liked the way she dealt with colors, ideas and pictures. As his impending departure from the Navy loomed nearer and nearer Satya toyed with the idea of how to do nothing and still keep the appearance of doing something. A resumed his www.satyabratadam.com campaign with Satya with renewed vigor as if God had appointed him to get the task done. Satya discussed the idea with M since she also designs websites and told her that whatever he did in life has to be unique, whacky and deceptive like him. She surprised him by taking up the challenge and got down to work. Ideas and pictures and texts as well as despairs and desperations followed. She put her best staff on the job. She got hold of the techie guy who would bundle the entire thing in codes and mysterious binary form.

Satya is a born escapist and never does a thing that cannot be done by short cut, which means with minimum efforts on his part. So right at the moment when everything seemed ready to go up in utter pandemonium he ran away for a long expedition while connecting M with his computer consultant A (who works for Satya free since it adds to his elitist status). Satya’s logic again was simple; since these were his friends who claimed that they knew him well (even Satya can’t make that claim) and actually knew what they were talking about (again Satya can’t claim this) and he had nothing further to contribute or distribute towards www.satyabratadam.com so to reduce at least one chef from the kitchen it was time for him to depart. And boy did he disappear! In all this chaos he had completely forgotten that his domain name was nearing expiry. The rest of the story he learnt when he returned to civilization. So I am giving only a gist of it as it happened through conversation between M (designer), A (computer consultant) and B (programmer).

M: Who the hell does he think he is? Disappearing like this, leaving me to do all the dirty work. I am not going to call up any of his friends for testimonials, neither am I going to look at his pictures. He is just a pompous ass, who thinks he can make anyone do anything he wants too. Totally irresponsible, good for nothing useless bum!

A: I agree with you, but he is nice chap too. Can always make you laugh with his jokes. Let’s do it this one time for him. But I really can’t help you much, I am busy with my sci-fi novel and the spaceship has just crashed on Alpha Centauri where you know the gravity is fifty times that on sun so I am trying to figure how to get the spaceship out… maybe I shouldn’t have allowed it to crash land there in the first place. After all I am the writer, but hang on I think it was Satya’s idea, he only told me to crash, but why did I listen to him. I am the author, I am in control… you are right. Let’s forget about www.satyabratadam.com serves him right for crashing me.

M bangs the phone down muttering to herself…. ‘all his friends are loony like him’. She combs her totally unruly hair and looks at the setting sun in despair and then her artistic and philanthropic instincts take the upper hand. She had really liked the challenge of designing a different kind of website for someone as distinct and non-definable as Satya and for the sake of her own creativity she couldn’t just let it go. And she ponders that now that Satya had no visible source of income he would be really poorly off if the website didn’t materialize. She opens her Mac book, goes to Godaddy, buys server space, renews domain name, arranges the pictures, proof reads all the text, sends mails to Satya’s friends for testimonials, in short looses sleep, etc. etc.

Eventually, while the hero of this entire episode is cooling his heels on some Himalayan peak far from the maddening crowds, the trio of M, B and A finally unfurl www.satyabratadam.com to the unsuspecting world. As suspected; absolutely nothing happened, the stock markets remained bullish, no flights got delayed, moon remained in its orbit, in short the world before and after www.satyabratadam.com appeared to be totally identical expect few satisfactory smiles and self-assured pats on the back of MBA.

Soon when Satya returned from his adventure burnt black like charcoal, M calls him up excitedly to tell him about www.satyabratadam.com Satya calls her back in five minutes, ‘It could have been better.’ M fumes and frets and utters with all her restraints, ‘for better or for worse www.satyabratadam.com is here to stay, so you better get used to the idea you stupid oaf.’

With this optimistic note I must now conclude my story. I really can’t claim that the above is true though in my blog I claim that whatever I post is always true, well who knows may be some part of this story is and some of it isn’t – I would let you my worldly-wise readers to be the judge and while judging do keep a large bucket of salt next to you. A had told me once that in the virtual world one percent is belief and ninety nine percent is make belief like his never ending sci-fi novel. But as I am a good friend of Satya, I am now going to sit down and check www.satyabratadam.com and then give you my verdict. Meanwhile you all must go through it and give me yours. In this hour of need we all must stand by with our full support for Satya, even though he may never need it but then he never actually knows what he needs and what he doesn’t. Here’s to MBA and to www.satyabratadam.com

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

When I discovered a new style of climbing


In the beginning of the great Himalayan climbs there was the ‘siege ‘ style that was more like a jamboree headed by a sahib of British or European origin, followed by a staggering number of porters, orderlies, factotums, carrying even more staggering number and volume of scientific and exploratory equipment. They were mostly unsure of what they intended or what the specific objective of it all was; if there was one. The idea of actually standing astride a lofty summit was primarily secondary since exploration and opening up the area and filling up the blank spaces in the maps were more in the order of the day. Few intrepid climbs were done nevertheless by such swashbuckling leaders like Shipton, Smyth et al. With the end of the European exploration and British dominance of the Himalaya post Indian independence, the next few decade unfurled the siege style to its utmost glory and evolutionary developments till one day two fine men from the Alps came and introduced ‘Alpine’ style into the grand arena of Himalayan and trans-Himalayan Ranges. Suddenly, light and lightning-fast ascents became the fad as more people poured in from all over the world. Carrying all that one can in one’s backpack without any external support from the Sherpa or porters beyond the Base Camp gained prominence.

Much before the Himalayan onslaught by the western conquistadors the art of climbing was being evolved and perfected in the European Alps of France, Austria, Germany, Italy and Switzerland and to an extent in UK as well where people were taking the art of ‘hill walking’ to all new heights and connotation. Alpine climbs did not involve the magnitude, complexity or physical rigors of Himalaya but they required entirely different set of climbing styles and being near civilization did not need the dependence on any support team, who would not eventually climb the mountain. The minimalistic style came into being. The big walls of rock or ice encouraged climbers to climb in pairs or solo, with or without top ropes, free, or using only a bivouac device. Then someone thought of ‘on-sight’ style; which primarily means that you climb a mountain or a face or a route just by looking at it on first sight, without any previous plan, knowledge or beta about it. For example you are walking towards your intended face and en route you suddenly come across something that looks interesting but of which you had no previous knowledge and on the spot you decide to attempt it, then that’s on-sight.

Along with the different styles and development of equipment and techniques, climbers too added to their bulk, endurance, strength, gymnastic abilities, suicidal predilections, etc and eventually to lighten themselves begin to shed their clothes – first the upper torso coverings and then the lower ones too. This obviously meant that these climbers were never going to go up in altitude only in attitude on massive rock and artificial walls. Women followed men in this arena soon and we now have superbly crafted women climbers wearing less than a ‘Sports Illustrated’ model climbing such high standards that even the male spectator has absolutely no time or inclination to check out the gender of the climber. At the extreme end of this spectrum we now do have nude climbers too. So this is an established style as well. Imagine a climber wearing only a harness and rope, climbing boots along with crampons and a pair of ice axes and nothing else, going up a sheer face of ice in what they now call 5 point climbing. All these styles have many proponents and none of them are a big deal anymore, but among all of these defined and delineated styles, the one which I find most mindboggling and one that I am yet to try on a big rock wall is the one where you simply go up on a near vertical face solo without any belay or safety device. You don’t use self-belay or arrest and in fact you don’t even carry a rack, nothing at all; only your limbs, your strength and your wit. Quite a few of my friends are master of this style, which comes nearest to being suicidal perhaps since there’s absolutely no room for failure or mistake. Once you leave the ground, you better top out.

After spending 79.12% of my lifespan in the vertical arena around the globe I had pretty much lead myself to believe that I had seen it all and there wasn’t any new climbing style left for me to view or experience till I self-devised (necessity being the mother of invention) one during my recent outing into the Himalaya where all I had hoped to do was a simple silly solo traverse through some of the little known valleys and green meadows. For the want of imagination, vocabulary and thawing of my perpetually frozen brain I would like to label this style as ‘mad style’ of climbing. Here’s the story in a big nutshell.

Never before have I been so utterly and inappropriately prepared for a climb of a Himalayan peak since in this trip I had absolutely no intention to climb anything besides some passes above 17,000 ft. Besides the usual assortments in my backpack, the only equipment and clothing I carried with me that could be used to ice climb were: pair of Grivel G12 crampons, pair of OR gaiters, pair of Lekir ski poles, pair of DMM 12” runners, pair of open gate BD karabiners, one MH goretex shell jacket, Julbo micro pore glasses and my ever faithful companion the 12 function Swiss knife. As you can see I had two very vital objects missing: ice axes and ice climbing boots, besides of course a climbing partner (but that’s something I have often done without). The peak in question is a modest Himalayan giant rearing at around 6600 m by the name of Manirang standing precisely between the district boundaries between Kinnaur and Spiti in Himachal Pradesh. I didn’t know much about the peak since it never was my intention except that it would fall close to my intended trekking trail as I would cross over from Kinnaur to Spiti. All I knew that it had been climbed several times in the past and it posed only moderate technicalities in terms of ice and rock but it had bad weather reputation since it divided two major climatologically different zones of Himalaya. Other than this all I had to rely upon was a Survey of India map that showed me the exact contours, gradients of the climb.

To begin with after I took off on my own into the Ropa Valley towards the high and difficult Manirang Pass (which lay at the base of the peak), very soon characteristically and typically I lost my way into the thick jungle; normally I would have loved to get and be lost and just patter on but this time I had a severe deadline to return to and even more severe urge to accomplish what I had set my heart upon. For some reason this time I really wished to succeed and on the second day of my being ‘lost’ I had made up my mind to attempt Manirang peak itself, or at least find out in the process if it can be done in such a way (mad style). So I retrace my path back into the last village I had come across and inquire if there’s anyone who would or could show me the way.

World is full of gullible people and if you try hard enough you would find one who would believe (even if not in entirety) in your dream and would even be willing to aid you in realizing it. So I finally find a man who very reluctantly agrees to come a part of the way, I of course do not tell him that I intend to climb the peak. He offers to take me till the base of the pass and then return. As I readily agree to an astronomical sum as his wage I had no idea what we two would soon find ourselves into.

The journey starts innocuously enough – two fools (one willing and knowing, the other willing and not knowing) bent double under heavy packs – we walk along the gorge and rushing frothing waters and head off into the same jungle where I had earlier lost my way. Every apple orchard we passed through, we cleaned some of the trees for sure and soon I hate the sight of any redder, delicious juicy apples. At our camp site we meet a shepherd and his sheep sniff around and poke inside our sacks and tent. He strongly advocates that we do not proceed further on our route as it had been completely devastated by recent rain and landslides. He cautions that even the shepherds had not ventured any further in the current year. But then listening to someone other than my own mind is totally alien to me, so next morning, after some hearty persuasion, I start off into the unknown with my guide taking up the rear. The trail takes us straight atop a steep ridge, which we finally surmount after an hour of brisk climb and we make tea at a derelict hut of some shepherd from the past. The scenery ahead looks simply magical. Column after column of green hills lay towards our intended horizon. They were steep for sure but nowhere frightening as the shepherd had cautioned. And topping out at the horizon were the lower reaches and the tumbling glaciers of the peak I intended to attempt. Such magnificent views of nature in its starkest facet is sure to gladden any grieving heart and soon my companion and I break into a rustic song even as we sip tea and frolic in the halcyon breeze. Soon we come to a point that looks virtually impossible to cross.

The faint trail simply disappears into a massive landslide that had virtually scooped up half of the mountain face. The landslide stretched right from the top till the bottom that fell away vertically all the way down to the frothing gorge around a thousand meter below. The mud was dry and solid, caked smooth and there was no purchase of any kind anywhere. It spanned around 20 meters of horizontal ground, beyond which the faint trail could be seen again. Without an ice axe or anything sharp, we had no means to cut steps on the dry mud. None of us knew the ancient art of levitation and it seems that my expedition would come to a premature halt barely 48 hrs from when it started. We both scratch our heads and xxxxx for want of anything better and look up and down and at the bright sun and the blue skies and the opposite distant hill dotted with white sheep and an emerald lake. We could go back and try to find another way but my companion assured me that the only other way in would be for us to go down and wade the gorge, which would certainly drown us both. Like I always say, there are moments in life when the best option is not to have one; and this is one such occasion. I explain my plan to my guide, who almost swoons, but the poor guy finally resigns to his fate (or to his fee perhaps).

My plan is simple for which I have Newton to thank – for it relied on gravitational pull. Being perpetually in nature I have realized that it is pointless to defy or to deny the forces of nature or going against them, like the wind, gravity, weather, etc. Rather than trying to oppose them we must go with them and harness their strength to our advantage (which in my case is to stay alive). May be the mind thinks differently above 14,000 ft, but to me it appeared perfectly logical and sane that all I needed to do to cross the landslide patch was to climb up considerably on this side and then run down diagonally across so that even as gravity is pulling me down towards the gorge below I would be able to leave the slide area around the place where the trail starts on the other side. I worked out some trigonometry and decided that to run diagonally down across a horizontal distance of 20 mtr and to emerge at the same level, provided my speed is around 15 km/h, I needed to climb up around 30 mtr on this side. Later, on returning home when I worked out the actual calculation I realized that I was way off the mark, but thank god that no such uncertainty came into my mind when I was up there. The only certainty I had at that moment was that if my calculation was wrong or my speed any less than within few seconds of my taking off I would be reduced to a ball of dust that gravity would pull down with increasing speed and soon I would be flying off into oblivion. Surprisingly, at that point of time, the option of giving up on the trek and going back did not even appear to me as an option. What egged me on was the fact that my guide kind of believed in me. Like they say, if one proposes and another agrees then it’s a sound deal; no matter what.

I strap my sack tightly to my body and climb up, from there aim for the trail on the other side, look up and send a prayer to someone who might be free at the moment and take off. My shoes slip and slide, vertically there’s nothing to support my weight, I am virtually running on emptiness with a huge void beneath. I run, I skid, I begin to fall, but I keep running keeping my sight fixed to the exit point. I dig the edge of my shoes as much as I can into the solid hard unyielding mud and keep going. The breeze catches me and I stop breathing. I am responsible for whatever I do, for whatever happens to me so I cannot blame anyone for the inglorious end that beckons me, hovers around me. My ear buzzes and my heart leaps in fright.

Suddenly I am on the other side, still sliding, falling, totally out of balance and I roll on the green grass grabbing on to anything that my fingers can clutch and I come to a stop. I have made it, I am across, I am laughing like crazy, I can’t believe it. With that I also knew I had crossed the point of no return. After much coaxing I could get my companion up on the other side. Then I took out my crampons and went back up without the load of my pack and made some cursory steps on the mud for my guide to follow. Soon we were on our way and we feel that all our troubles are over – and predictably how utterly wrong we were. The same day we cross three more such landslide zones, and applying my earlier theory to the perfection I waltzed across each succeeding one with more confidence than the previous one. My guide had by now got convinced that he was with a complete maniac who had Devil’s luck and as long as he stuck behind him, he would be all right. Though often he mentioned his wife and children with a longing as if he won’t be seeing them again.

What made the journey worse was the rain that soon caught up with us. Often mists prevented us from seeing vital features needed to cross over dangerous sections; which was a good thing in retrospective. That night we sheltered beneath a boulder outcrop, beneath which my tent barely fitted. We managed to keep the rain off us somehow but I wondered as I closed my eyes that night, what our fate would be if the boulder above us-currently a roof-would collapse and unearth due to the wet mud and crush us to smithereens beneath its towering weight.

Next day we continue further, climbing, descending, running, escaping, enjoying, laughing and lot of worrying across the majestic and pristine landscape. Just before we reach the one major river crossing on the trail, we had to negotiate a very steep, slippery descent over which my right knee came into real trouble. I couldn’t simply let go like my guide, since if I did I doubted if I would be able to brake with my wobbling, ACL torn knee, which would mean broken bones. So I down climbed sideways painfully keeping my weight on the pair of ski poles and keeping my eyes towards the horizon where the peak of my intent loomed larger and larger each passing hour.

Finally we reached the river, which was by then a swollen, frothing and raging body of furious water. We walked up and down considerable length of it but found no possible point to cross. We were only two people and we were exhausted after a long day and the water could easily wash us away. Though we tried at one point, going barely few meters inside when I pulled back. It was far too dangerous. If death came suddenly in the mountains then I was and am ok with it but I seriously decry the practice of stepping into the jaws of certain death. We decide to spend the night on this side and cross very early next morning when the levels would be lower; though the water would be near freezing. Soon my yellow tent came up on the sandy bank over boulders and we had a fire going of dry woods. Dinner followed and we slept soundly lulled and rocked by the roar of the river flowing by barely few feet away. I hoped like hell that it did not flood at night.

Next morning I wake up well before the first light and go out into the darkness to check the water level. It is considerably down, but as fast and ferocious as the previous evening. We decide to forego the morning tea and quickly break camp. By the time we are packed, it is lit up enough for us to decide on a crossing point. We sling our shoes around our neck, throw whatever else we can across the river and strip down to our underwear. I have mentally blocked the freezing cold out of my body and my guide shivered uncontrollably. We hold hand and step into the torrent. Soon we are across after some real struggle with the water. We quickly build a fire with dry twigs and get some warmth in our limbs. I make tea on my gas burner, shielded from the breeze by some rocks.

From there we climb into an ancient land with massive rocks and boulders hanging and jutting out of the steep slopes ready to crash down at any instant. We go forward and eventually get across the gorge on ice sheets formed atop the rushing water. At one point the ice sheet had completely collapsed and we again had to wade through the water much to our peril. From there we climb and rush across collapsing mud and rubbles where one minor slip would hurtle us back into the water and to certain grave. Then rain started afresh and once again we take shelter beneath a tiny rock roof huddling and holding on to the wet rocky face lest we slip and fall off the edge into the gorge far below. By now my guide has sworn at least a hundred times that he would never again venture on this trail no matter how much someone offered him. He muttered prayers and offerings to his local gods to deliver him out of his present troubles. We finally overcome all odds and step on some amount of broad bank along the stream. From there another hour of back breaking and foot-slipping scramble across some really steep and broken ground takes us to the so called bottom of the climb towards the base of Manirang Pass (which would be my base for the climb).

The night is hauntingly beautiful with thick mist swirling from all sides, obfuscating the full moon that barely reach us and I expect to see a ghoul materialize any minute from the darkness surrounding our tent. My guide kept on muttering evil-warding chants even as we cooked and made some wheat breads on a broken tin plate and wet slab rock. We could well be the last two human beings on some unknown planet. We sleep fitfully, the cold breeze rattling our tent all night.

Next morning we start off by climbing straight up into the rock ribs cascading steeply off the slopes before stepping on to hard ice beneath which a stream gurgled purposefully. We steadily gained height and as the valley below us fell away the snow covered summits rose majestically into the rising sun. I keep to the ice fall while my guide scrambles to the rock and scree after a while. He finds the ice too unnerving. Soon snow dust fill up the air and shortly thereafter it starts falling like a thick white blanket. We both put on our shell jacket and continue climbing silently. I still stick to the steepening ice slopes while my guide kept to the moraines. We both don’t talk, reserving our energies for the way ahead. Finally we converge on a steep ice face far above the glacier below. Ahead of us lay a considerable traverse across deepening snow. I gingerly step across, planting my feet strongly into the snow and finding some purchase. The snowfall is so deep and fast and infuriated that I can’t see the bottom of the yawning slope to my left. All I can make out is that the slope is very seriously steep and the fresh snow is making it very slippery over old hard ice and I simply could not afford to slip and fall and neither could my guide.

I proceed gingerly one step at a time, the void to my left side constantly pulling me to its depth. Suddenly, without warning, my companion skid and slip and fall. As I watch him slide away from my stance helplessly I know that if he can’t stop himself he would soon be history. The snow had by now become a pandemonium and a raging blizzard. Miraculously he brakes himself and came to a halt around 10 mtr vertically and little more horizontally from where I stood. His face had ashened and he knew that he could start sliding any moment again and then disappear forever. He shivered in cold and fear and he looks up at me pleadingly. He can’t move, I can’t ask him to come up. While I watch the drama I am acutely aware of my precarious position. With my heavy sack now heavier under the debris of falling snow constantly pulling me away from the slope. I quickly take off my sack without any delay and strap on my crampons on to the trekking shoes. The moment I heard the reassuring click of my crampons go in its place I know that no one will die and we had averted our present predicament. With crampons on I simply leap down to my friend and with a sling around his waist I pull him up to my level and then lead him out of the traverse.

The white out condition is complete by now. We can see absolutely nothing and the blizzard is now like a hurricane unleashed by some devilish force bent on uprooting or burying us completely. We know that there’s no other human being around for at least three days walk in any direction. My friend begins to panic while I collapse on the snow to get my breath back. We are already at 5400 m and should ideally see the pass but we see nothing. My companion declares that we were destined to die and lay buried under deep snow like an old man few years back who had died on a similar day. I assure him that the only thing that may die that day would be his fear. Through a brief lull in weather he suddenly spies the pass marking cairns straight ahead and up from where we rested and he cries out in joy though voices his concern of how on earth we would reach the pass. There’s a steep ice slope rising out like a serpent’s hood to the pass that I ruled out since my companion would certainly slip on it. The only other way is to climb high above the moraine and then when level with the pass, traverse to the ice slope. We do the same and soon enough we are on the pass.

The pass is a narrow dome of hard ice with numerous cairns strewn around haphazardly. We are now at the crossroad between two deep and narrow valleys like a tunnel and the wind nearly uproots me off my feet. I cling on desperately to a large rock while my friend collapse on ground and refuses to stand up into the onslaught. I look up into the white madness towards my intended track to the summit of a mountain I had never seen before and of which I could not even see the leading ridge. I was roughly 1000 m below the summit that now stood somewhere high up within the raging whiteness. Even to me it looked completely insane that I would actually go up and vanish into the storm without any gear and barely any food and for me to return alive I had to touch the summit or wherever I reached and be back to my friend within the next three days. I had no clue what lay above or ahead. Nothing was visible beyond a hundred meter of where I stood in any direction. With every meter gained above the cold, the ferocity of the blizzard and the snow conditions would only worsen and the blizzard did not show any signs of relenting in any conceivable future. My immediate dilemma though was how can I let go off the boulder that I clawed into and go up unsupported since I felt that the wind will simply carry me off into oblivion the moment I let go of my anchor.

I turned around and screamed my decision to my guide and he nearly had a heart seizure. He thought I was joking and started laughing like a demented. I took him behind a large rock where we huddled for warmth, out of the main force of the blizzard and took stock of our possessions and food. I pleaded with him to go down on the other side (Spiti side) and wait for me at the base of the pass for three days. If I didn’t return he should go down to the nearest village and seek help; which if he manages to get is good enough and if he doesn’t is good enough too. I hand him over most of the food and gas and also our solitary tent, which should see him through any kind of weather for four days. As an afterthought I also hand him my Nikon D90 camera and lenses. For me to have even an outside chance of making this climb and survive I had to be light. He refuses to leave me and begs me to go down with him. I tell him that my mind is made up and up is where I am going. I see him off till the steep slope on the other side and soon see him going down, slipping and sliding on the snowy ground. Shortly he is gulped up by the swirling storm and I return to the shelter of the rock all alone. I am finally on my own with my mountain with nothing and no one else in between.

I empty my sack and proceed to reduce my weight to the barest minimum. When I do this kind of exercise, I follow a very easy rule – I discard anything and everything that is not going to save my life, or whose absence wouldn’t kill me. So out goes my entire toilet kit, all my writing material, sleeping bag, all my extra clothing that were not on my person save two pairs of dry socks, the top lid of my sack, all the tags from all my clothes, the extra length of my hiking shoelaces, my whistle, one extra blade of my Swiss knife, one cooking pot, my reading glasses, etc all of which I bundle inside a cloth bag and deposit it under the rock. If I return I would retrieve them. Now I am left with a really light sack that contains one gas canister plus burner, three packets of instant noodle (one per day), two packet of glucose biscuits, one half of a TP roll, a water bottle, a small length of rope, the two pairs of dry socks carefully wrapped within two layers of plastic, one light weight Rab down jacket and my OR bivvy sack. Rest everything is on my person. I look around for reassurance that I am indeed doing the right thing – but there’s no one or nothing to offer me any advice or retribution. I am on my own. I decide finally that in this world and certainly in my vertical world there’s nothing intrinsically ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It’s the final outcome that would decide either way. I can never pre-empt if I am doing the right or wrong. If I lived it is right, if I don’t even then it may be right. I tighten my shell jacket and take off into the tearing blizzard.

But for the atrocious weather, at that altitude (5600 m) it is easy to maintain an ascent rate of 200 m per hour and with my well acclimatized body I should be able to reach almost within touching distance to the summit by night fall. It is just after two in the afternoon, though the sky remains dark and ominous. My only reference is my contour map since I have absolutely no previous knowledge of the mountain. My feet sinks in the snow and slides as I crunch my way up on a ridge that should take me to the right direction. The ridge eventually broadens and becomes mysterious and confusing. The narrow contour lines on map now translate into a vast arena of seracs and ice falls and ice formations that appear more of a maze.

My only aim is to keep walking in the right direction and gain altitude with every step. Sooner or later I have to reach the summit that way. The going is hard and I am nearly blind in both eyes. I keep taking off my Julbo glasses and have to blow on them to get the ice off; I wonder if a climbing glass can be designed with heater and wipers. My fingers are numb since my globes are soaking and stiff and totally covered beneath a thick layer of ice. My feet is cold and wet too though I don’t feel so. The gaiters are fighting a lost battle with the deepening snow. Snow has gone inside my jacket and into my back through my cap. My normal hiking trousers are stiff and blanketed with heavy snow as well. From afar I could well be mistaken for a small emaciated Yeti. I walk like Michelin Man. Step by step I gain altitude. Every cell of my body cries for relief and I shut the pain out mentally. It’s my mountain, my friend to whom I must pay a visit, so what if he is bit difficult and upset today. I always follow my instincts and they don’t tell me that I am not welcome. Despite my sorry state I feel fine, at home, at peace, at par with everything around and confident in my goal.

By six, night had fallen though the storm hadn’t abated even a bit and I had gained only half way to the summit and I had no idea if I was going in the right direction. I looked for some sort of shelter on the steep slope and realized there were none. I estimated my position on the map though I could be far from my estimate as I had nothing to refer to, and realized I had to dig in the snow for a hole and get my bivvy fit in somehow. The snow cave had to be dug with my hands as I didn’t have a shovel so it took close to two hours and by then I was certain that both my hands were well frost bitten and that I am going to lose few fingers if not all. Somehow I unfurl and spread the bivvy sack and just snuggle inside. I put on every layer of clothes I have and an additional pair of socks. I feel completely naked and frozen. The temperature dips to 24 deg C below zero. I beat my palms and toes with my ski poles to get them going and to thaw them into some action. My palms feel like solid bricks without any sensation.

I dig another hole close by and get my burner going, which only flickers alive after I have wasted nearly dozen matchsticks. Source of fire is precious so I need to be careful with my matchsticks. My frozen fingers are not the best way to hold the matchstick but I dare not take off my gloves in the cold. Thankfully I am now on the lee side hence the blizzard doesn’t seem so menacing any more. Slowly the snow melt and I watch the colour of the flame that is going to tell me if I am running out of gas. I fill in my first cup and simply upturn the boiling water down my throat. It must have scalded the inside of my mouth but I am beyond any physical pain or sensation. I brew tea and follow it up with a packet of biscuit. I am famished beyond words but I don’t feel hungry. I loathe noodles and I have nothing else to eat. I hold my bare hands over the flame but nothing happens, no warmth creeps in, soon I smell burning flesh and realize that my palm is on fire. I douse them in the falling snow and apply some cream and then put on my gloves. This is bad. My hands have lost all sensation as the nerve endings have frozen. I was totally not prepared for such a climb; I did not have the equipment or clothing for this. My mind urges me to hurry and descend and get the blood supply going into my extremities and digits soon else frost bite and amputation seems inevitable. I wonder and ponder and look for answers in the menacing darkness.

The night passes on with my stomach rumbling for food, my body crying for warmth and my heart pleading with the sun and weather God. Dawn dawned with no visible change either to the elements or to my predicaments. My bivvy sack is buried under tonnes of snow and I have to push hard and literally lift a small snow mountain from my chest to exit the sack. I don’t feel fear or worry; I am far too numb to react. Only my mind keeps repeating, ‘go down, go down, go down.’ I tell my mind to shut up and brew a cup of tea. My fingers are solid stumps of dead flesh. I bite into my fingers and then bent them so that they can pick up stuff and light the matches. I dare not bite too hard lest I tear off one of the fingers into my mouth.

Through the night my feet is swollen and now feel miserably painful within my shoes. I dare not check my toes and feet. I stand up and feel afloat since I can’t feel anything beneath my knees. I force one packet of noodles down my revolting throat and take up the pack. I had to summit today and then go down. I check the map and take bearing with my ever trustworthy life saving device – Suunto Vector climbing watch. I climb up the face digging deep with my ski poles for some purchase and placement. My crampons keep my feet from sliding. Without an ice axe I have no ways of pulling myself up steep faces or very hard ice. I keep my Swiss knife around my neck with its large blade ready to jam if needed.

Every step I know could be my last, one slip, one wave of wind, one tiny mistake could hurtle me instantly into the land of no return. Still I feel great, welcome and happy and contented. My entire life now focuses on my each step, the next step, the only step that matters. My mind swirls headily into the white whirlpool and I enjoy the nerve wrecking focus needed to stay alive. Soon I hit the summit ridge and it is thin enough for me to know that I wouldn’t lose my way after all. There is no other way to go on such a thin crest of ice. There’s only one way down from where I came and only one way to go that is up, any other way meant an abominable fall and disappearance like Houdini. The conical summit looks near but I know better. I keep climbing and getting closer step by step. My mind is in a tearing hurry but I walk like a tortoise. And then I am there, the summit cone. I am washed with relief rather than joy, with exhaustion rather than exuberance. There’s absolutely nothing for me to see anywhere, anything in any direction. It’s all white and maddening and as elusive as before.

I feel numb in mind, body, soul and spirit. I find no reason for me to be where I am and no logic why I felt that uncontrollable urge to reach where I now stood. At the moment we gain what we desire, we lose it. The desire is gone as it has no further reason to be exist. Fulfilment of one desire conceives the next one and that’s how our life remains dynamic. I immediately think of my next climb, another mountain, another trail. Suddenly I realize that I still have to go down. I say my prayers, leave few biscuits at the summit as reverence and retrace my path before the fresh snow wiped it away. I get down to the pass, retrieve my bag and go down to meet my friend. When I reach him it is well near midnight and I scare the ghost out of him. We laugh, we roll and we can’t stop jabbering. Finally I manage to eat something he cooks and wriggle into the sleeping bag for a blissful night of comfort interrupted with dreams of doom.

Where would I go next!

Malcolm Bass - The Enigma


I had never heard of Malcolm Bass till one day I got his mail that made me realize I would soon be heading for an exciting adventure into the Indian Himalaya with Malcolm as the leader. His CV looked impressive and he had exactly equal number of years as I in the mountains. After a bit of Googling and calling up some of my other British climbing friends, I realized much to my delight that Malcolm was nothing short of an enigmatic legend in the vertical world of UK climbing world. What surprised me though that despite my frequent trips to BMC meets and Scottish winter climbs and the Lakes, our paths had never crossed before. When I met him in the library of Indian Mountaineering Foundation, he won me over from the word go. It’s impossible not to like Malcolm. He has a boyish charm and a child like enthusiasm about everything within sight and then some that is outrageous and riveting in equal measure and draws even the most stoic onlooker into his exuberance like moth to flame. What instantly bonded me to Malcolm was the fact that he soon emerged as one of those rare individuals I had ever come across who could match my verbosity and wit measure for measure. I always laugh and smile at everything, and Malcolm never stopped laughing. He seemed to know something about everything.

A clinical psychologist (whatever that means) in his normal horizontal occupational avatar, Malcolm is a bundle of energy and his short frame never sits still. En route to our mountain as we walked through the crevasse riddled Gangotri Glacier I was amazed at this vast knowledge of the mountains across the globe and about Indian Himalaya in particular. In the ensuing days as we climbed, camped, and joked together and did what we did best, I grew to admire and respect him not only as a fellow climber but also as a fellow human who genuinely liked what he did and enjoyed life to the brim. Never a dull moment with Malcolm around and at the helm of our expedition, the Vasuki Parbat trip turned out to be one of my most enjoyable and memorable Himalayan excursions. The summit of this incredibly beautiful and frighteningly challenging peak was never for a moment the end of the road for us, instead it was the beginning of a new and endearing friendship among different people with different outlooks and dreams, all bonded like a tight knit family under Malcolm’s guardianship; for an endearing adventure that would perhaps sustain the lifetime of each one of us.

Malcolm created magic all the way up to the summit and down and choreographed one of the finest Alpine ascents in the Himalaya I had ever witnessed. I can easily claim the Vasuki West Face ascent as the finest climb done in the Indian Himalaya in the last five years, if not in the last decade.

Men like Malcolm rekindle my belief that life is all about living in the moment and making most of what we have, even when we have nothing. Malcolm had told me on our first meeting that he is not famous in the general world, and I hope this post will do something towards it; though I must assure you all my readers that Malcolm doesn’t seek fame but then men like him should be emulated. Rarely do we find men who are living inspirations for us to follow. Here’s the man, the machine and the maniac called Malcolm in a freewheeling interview where he takes us into his heady world and leaves us right where he belongs – at the top!

1. How, why and when did you start climbing?

I have always climbed things because I wanted to. My parents took me walking and scrambling in the hills from an early age. I did my first roped rock climbing when I was 12. I have no idea why, it just drew me in.

2. What or who has influenced your climbing style and objectives?

If we’re thinking about alpine climbing a myriad of people have influenced me in different ways. Mick Fowler and his various partners for their “just get on it and go” style, their superb choice of steep, buttress objectives that are hard; but safe, and their light hearted accounts of their climbs. At the other end of the spectrum Mark Twight and the North American Brotherhood (House, Backes, Blanchard etc) for taking it all so seriously, training hard, caring about partnerships, and super intense writing style. The “not so young British alpinists” (Rich Cross, Ian Parnell, Jon Bracey, Kenton Cool, Al Powell, and the late Jules Cartwright) for having so much fun and getting up so much. And Marko Prezelj and partners for being Slovenian (cool enough in itself) and brick hard.
Sport climbing wise I would like to emulate a climber from my local club called Richard Waterton. Precise, strong, long limbed, great move memory: a joy to watch and 6 grades above me!

3. Why do you mostly climb new routes / faces and first ascents?

The prosaic answer is that the UK and other grant giving bodies (MEF, BMC, Shipton Tilman) only give out grants for new routes and first ascents, and without grants Himalayan/Alaskan climbing would be too expensive for me. On a more emotional level I have always been excited by exploration and discovery from my caving and cave-diving years through to when I took up climbing. On new routes you can always cling to the hope that things will be easier than they look! Plus I like getting the bit of attention and publicity that comes from a successful first ascent.

4. Have you ever been scared during any of your climbs or in life in general? Is there anything that scares you?

Plenty. In general life I get scared when I feel I’m failing to represent the interests of people whom I lead. Back to the climbing, I am scared of heavy snowfall when we’re high on a route, and I hate rock fall. Before starting a big climb I am scared for days. I find the prospect of dangerous situations worse than the reality of being in them. Once I have calculated a risk and decided to go for it, I can usually put fear to one side.

5. Have you ever felt during any of your climbs that you were certainly going to perish? What were your thoughts during such times?

Near the top of our new route “The Prey” on the east face of Mount Hunter in Alaska (with Paul Figg), I found myself traversing around a snow mushroom on vertical snow ice (snice) with my sac on, when suddenly the band of ice at crampon level stopped supporting me. All my weight and the sac’s weight went onto my arms. I carried on traversing but I was swinging footless from tool to tool hoping to find something solid, and I’m not strong enough for much of that. The belay was non existent. I was sure I was going to fall and rip Paul from his stance. I felt a terrible sense of guilt towards Paul and his family, and sadness for my wife, Donna. I’d nearly given up. But then a line from a favourite song came into my head: “I’ve walked on water, run through fire, can’t seem to feel it anymore”, and it made me remember all the hard things I’d been through before, it made me proud and hard, and determined not to die. So I made one last desperate axe placement, swung across, and my front points found solid ice.

6. At a personal level which has been your most rewarding climb ever and why?

Thinking about the rewards after the climb, Vasuki Parbat (with Paul Figg) has been the most rewarding. I had never been to that area of the Garhwal before, so everything was new and exciting. The face looks pleasingly improbable and the traverse of the sharp, serpentine summit ridge made the whole thing into a satisfying long journey. But the cold meant our sacs were heavy so at the time some of the climbing felt a bit laborious. For rewards at the time, I would vote for an 1100m unclimbed couloir that I climbed on Kahiltna Queen in Alaska (with Simon Yearsley), which we called Distant Lights. Because of the near 24 hour daylight at that time of year in Alaska, we climbed without bivouac equipment in a 40-hour round trip. It was a south face, so it was nice and sunny. With light sacs, you get a lot more pleasure out of the climbing. And we saw the northern lights.

7. How do you select your mountains / lines / routes out of so many around the world? What do you look for in particular before picking up the one that you want to attempt?

The main driver is that it is unclimbed. Ideally, I like to have seen the line with my own eyes but the process, I am afraid to say, is more usually one of laborious research, a task made easier by the generosity of fellow mountaineers from all over the world. I look for strong lines that run up buttresses, spurs or couloirs following a natural weakness. Thinking I might be able to get up it, and the route being in a country I want to go to (i.e. that has good food!) are both important too. I avoid routes that look like they will need aid or big wall tactics because I don’t know how to do these things! Menacing seracs are a turn-off.

8. Have you ever had a premonition / gut feeling of some impending disaster and called off the climb?

No

9. Does being a clinical psychologist help you to understand your climbing partners and get the best of them?

I think being a clinical psychologist helps me understand myself a bit better, which is a good starting point for working and climbing with people. I am comfortable discussing emotion and motivation and I hope this makes it easier for my partners and I to understand one another.

10. You are into bouldering, big wall and trad climbing, ice and mixed climbing, and high altitude Himalayan peaks as well; each of these style need specific kind of training. How do you train yourself for such a varied range of styles and techniques?

I don’t do any big walling because I’m not a very technically minded person. I think I would get into a terrible tangle of porta-ledge, leading rope and haul lines (as per your next question!). As for the rest, I do enough to maintain my fitness for all of them all year round, and then do concentrated bursts of more specific training for a particular target. So in 2010 I did a lot of mixed climbing January to March; a lot of sport climbing, bouldering, and finger boarding April to July; and then lots of running, cycling and weights July to September. I was pleased that Vasuki Parbat tested all aspects of my training: finger strength for the rock pitches; calves and thighs on the moderate ice; technical skills on the mixed; and cardiovascular all the time.

11. This is tongue in cheek and comes out of my personal observation of you in the mountain and out of it; you have a habit of forgetting or dropping things. Are you normally forgetful or only the mountains bring out that side of you?

I don’t think that I am normally forgetful. A lot of forgetting is a sign that I am either over-stressed/distracted or extremely relaxed. Both of these applied at times on the Vasuki trip. I am trying to deal with stress distraction by practising mindfulness and when at base camp I did formal practice on most days. The dropping of stuff was caused by gravity (that’s a cheeky reply Malcolm).

12. Outwardly you climb a vertical arena, anything that rears up into the azure above away from ground, but inwardly at a spiritual and psychological level that is not apparent to us, what exactly are you doing / experiencing?

I am mostly experiencing a sense of struggle interspersed with periods of awe/amazement at the environment and my presence in it. I am constantly struck by the improbability of my being in this very strange and wonderful place. But the vast majority of my attention is focused on the job at hand: making good placements, watching snow conditions, getting good belays, route finding, looking for bivvy sites and all the rest.

13. On a climb what constitutes a failure to you personally - the inability to reach the geographical summit or the inability to push your boundaries and techniques to their utmost; irrespective of where and how high you reached?

I think of them both as failure. I used to think that being unable to climb due to bad weather was a failure but I have become much mellower about this aspect at least.

14. What’s your summit? Where is your summit?

Living every day the best that I can. I don’t like the idea of just one summit. I think it makes more sense to invest in a wider portfolio in our lives. So for me, there are lots of summits to journey towards to do with climbing, relationships, family, psychology, leadership, fly-fishing, national health, writing and so on.

15. As a mountaineer which has been your biggest failure / disappointment and why?

I am still smarting from not having climbed a first winter ascent of a route on a magnificent tombstone of a buttress called Mainreachan in Northwest Scotland. I tried the route three times over a decade. I did the crux of the route but we failed a pitch higher and another pair succeeded a year later. I was disappointed because the buttress is so evocative of the best of Scottish winter climbing, and to put a new winter route up it had been a dream of mine for a long time.

16. If not a climber, what would you be and why?

For a lot of my life, climbing was not my main sport – caving and cave diving were. We discovered passages and chambers that no human being had ever seen before nor knew existed. And that was close to home in Yorkshire. But if my main sport were not climbing at the moment, its replacement could be anything from more fly fishing, to cycle racing.

17. What are your future aspirations; any particular routes / mountains that you have your eyes on?

I’m not telling you on here! In the short term, there are several Scottish routes I have my eye on for this winter, and next spring I want to climb a sport route called ‘Frankie comes to Kilnsey’. Immediately post-expedition, I tend to have few aspirations and most of those are local.

18. When do you think you would stop climbing at such extreme levels, as you do now?

I don’t intend to be climbing long super-alpine routes in my 50s, but I would like to be rock climbing and mixed climbing better than I am now, which should be easy enough on the rock!

19. How do you prepare yourself for the mental stress of a hard climb and how do you cope with that while on the climb?

As I said above, I do formal mindfulness practice. I also do lots of visualising of myself on the climb in difficult situations and getting through them, to inoculate myself. Now I only go on climbs when I am absolutely sure that I want to do them. I don’t go that often because it takes me a couple of years to recover psychologically from, then wind myself up again for, a big super-alpine climb. On the climb itself, I don’t usually feel too stressed as long as I can get some sleep and downtime.

20. Your most embarrassing moment ever!

Maybe not my most embarrassing moment ever, but one I can tell you about. You may remember that I am quite partial to a roti (Indian flat bread made of wheat flour) or two. On one trip, we were happily eating in a dhaba (Indian roadside eating joints) in Gangotri and I was getting through a decent number of rotis. There was a pause in the supply from the kitchen. Then one of the staff walked out, and came back a few minutes later with a sack of flour slung over their shoulder. This was of course blamed on me.

21. One thing about Malcolm Bass that no one knows (now everyone will)!

I find glaciated mountains quite alienating. I don’t for a minute feel like I belong. And I don’t like to linger.

22. You are a veteran to the Indian Himalaya. Any suggestions how we can make the Indian Himalaya more popular to foreign climbers and trekkers?

Are we sure that popularity is the right goal? For climbers, the Uttarakhand permit situation needs to be sorted out before they turn away though (as we nearly did). An easier way of freighting climbing gear into the country would be really useful.

I think the Indian Himalaya (or what little I know of it) is a truly wonderful place. I have seen great improvements in the Gangotri region since I have been visiting; the conservation measures being undertaken are really paying off. I wonder if there are ways of getting more of the foreign expeditions’ spending into the hands of porters?

My Remarks: It has been wonderful knowing you Malcolm and very well said. I have taken note of all that you have said and discussed with me during the expedition. I am making my formal recommendations to the powers that decide things in the Indian climbing arena and hopefully you would see distinct improvements on your next visit to our mountains. Till then lots of good luck, wishes and route opening supports from me and all my blog readers for all your future endeavours, both in and out of the vertical world. I will always see you on top.