Friday, November 25, 2011

Parody of a Climb

Nearly a week ago I returned from a climb, which under normal conditions should have been no more than a walk in the park; yet I returned with first degree frost bite in my digits, the last two fingers of my right palm numb and black in particular. How did that happen is the gist of this story. With daily dousing of digits in warm water, constant rubbing and sunning them, the worst is over and I can type now albeit phlegmatically, so today I will take you all back up into my world; a world from where I had been absent for quite some time.

The area and the trail that I am about to reveal here are places I don’t want people to go, at least not those who litter mountain wilderness with plastic and rubbish and who play loud music or go in herds; so no names will be given, or fictitiously when given. Those who know me well and have read my earlier stories would perhaps be able to guess anyway. Now to begin with how the seed of this trip came along…



Over the entire October followed by the first half of November, I was in Europe, gallivanting through some of the most populated and touristy cities in the world aka Rome, Zurich, Amsterdam, Firenze, etc. I was splendidly bored, mortifyingly shocked and hopelessly homesick for the mountains by the end of it. After returning to India I realized that the Himalaya was already ushering in the winters and I had a very tiny window to visit the high mountains before they closed their doors for winter. This called for a lightning-fast molecule-light trip into the enchanted land. And I wanted to do something I hadn’t done before, to go to a place where very few go where I haven’t yet been. Options were plenty but choices were limited and within an hour I knew where I had to go. There’s a long ridge of high mountain passes, valleys full of thick jungles, snow capped peaks not so distant from Delhi which over the years have become one of my most frequented and favored climbing arenas. For some unknown reason upon and along that high ridge (at its lowest it towers above 4000 m) there was one trail and only one pass that I hadn’t yet climbed. To do it in one push I would need five days Delhi to Delhi. It was a perfect solution to purge Europe out of my system.

To make it lightning-quick and molecule-light I made the following decision: I would go alone; won’t take tent, camera, sleeping bag, map, rope, any climbing gear or ice tool, no shell gore tex, no ice climbing or rock shoes; take only light jacket, wear only hiking shoes, find caves or natural shelters to sleep, one gas canister, few pouches of instant oats, my tiny cooker, enough food for three days and no rain proof at all. It was well into November and I didn’t expect any foul weather, only sparkling blue azure above and good solid foot placements below. Due to my limited knowledge or lack of knowledge of the particular trail and climb, I estimated that my major height gain of the trip, which would happen on day two would involve no more than 1000 – 1200 m of straight climb through mix band of rock, waterfall and perhaps few frozen patches of black ice. Nothing that I could conceive at the time I left Delhi told me that soon enough I would be battling to stay alive and would be on the verge of losing my fingers to frost bite. Almost nothing happened as per plan or expectations but then life seldom does.

Day one I got out of the bus and took to the familiar trail along a rushing frothing rapidly flowing yet dwindling mountain river. Several hydro-electric projects were being built upon this beautiful crystal blue river and soon it would become a tiny trickle. I went over it across a rope bridge built by villagers, swaying and penduluming wildly with each step. There were gaping holes scattered along the span, making me focus intently on each step. If I slipped and fell through any of them I would be very wet and very cold. A tiny girl of no more than five came bounding from the other end, sprinting and shaking the bridge deliberately in sheer delight and she laughed openly at my clumsy steps and the way I clutched the railings for my sorry dear life. She literally flew past me in the opposite direction. If only I could have got one of my arms free, I would have loved to pull her tiny ears.

Across the river I climbed up to a village of 23 families, several of them my old friends and just outside of it sat on a boulder sunning himself ruefully an old shepherd friend who is old and sagacious and a storehouse of local knowledge. I have met him several times before and he knew my hobbling gait well. He exclaimed where I was heading in this time of the year when everyone was or had already headed back to lower altitudes. I tarried a bit and told him of my idea, to which he clucked his tongue and revealed that just few days back, exactly into the jungles where I was headed, a bear had mauled and killed a woodcutter. With winter and snow higher up, the bears are coming down for food and since no one goes up now, they often come on human trails, and they are hungry so they would kill you if you meet them; my old friend suggested mildly. A rather auspicious beginning to my hike I could see right away. Ending up inside the tummy of some wild animal is a long known prospect of my life and I have been nearly there many times so that didn’t bother me and I continued climbing. The forest came and so did the clouds as it was late afternoon now. Wind built up but didn’t bother me, it was an easy day and I knew the area well.

After four hours I reached a flat patch very near the bottom of the main climb and scouted an abandoned shepherd hut that would be perfect for my night abode. The sky was overcast, breeze chilly but no rain. The hut was perfect, very clean, had a good stock of dry firewood, a space to spread my stuff but the roof was so low that I thought for a while I might have stumbled across the cottage of the 7 dwarfs. Even while humped on my knees, my head brushed the roof and I am a short fellow. A natural spring gushed out of ground not far from the hut and I soon got my food going. Darkness fell fast and I pondered of the snake that I had seen en route; I had never seen a snake before in this area. It was lying supine on my path and I had almost stepped on it when it reared its head, looked at me with big bright eyes and then lazily slithered away as if it knew I meant no harm and allowed me progress.

There’s another thing that bothered me. Before the daylight failed, I had, had a good look at the towering ridge up and ahead of me, which I would need to top the next day. It didn’t look all that high or remote or difficult though I couldn’t see any trail or tell-tale signs of a passage across the sheer walls of black rock and cascading waterfalls. According to my absent brain, my resting place should be at 3260 m and the pass I would eventually cross upon the ridge would be around 4470 m, therefore making it an ascent of 1200 m, which I could do in four hours or so if everything happened as hoped. Yet my altimeter read only 2260 m, a thousand meter less than what it should. I tapped it, catered for any spell of high pressure, peered through my glasses, shone my headlamp upon the dial, but to no avail, it still read 2260 m. This meant an additional climb of 1000 m. I was feeling fine and with my permanent acclimatization I was certain I could handle a height gain of 2000 plus meters in a day and with a height loss of around 800 m on the other side my sleeping height would be under 4000 m so all seemed well, except that I needed to make an early start the next morning. The hut was comfortable, warm and I slept like a log after a hearty supper. I woke up late, I started late. It was half past eight when I stepped out, an offense literally in such places.

The sky was blue again, not a speck of cloud upon its vast emptiness. I crossed the cascading waterfall lower down and then started going up following a faint animal trail. I knew where I had to go; which simply was ‘up’ and ‘up’ and nothing could be simpler geometrically. I had to avoid all trails going in all other directions. Soon I found a series of slab stones perched like steps where I found some old presence of human in forms of plastic wrappers. The climb was steep, steps were large and my knees pained. The day started to get warm and I had to stop intermittently to take breath and to put my thirsty lips to trickles of ice melt water dripping here and there. As I climbed higher, the lower plains begin to spread out far below me through the blue haze like a mythical land of mirage. Those plains housed and fed millions of people and were full of human filth and paradoxes, yet from afar they looked mysterious, alluring and enchanting.

Distances and altitudes visually are deceptive in the mountains and even after several hours and height gain of more than 1000 m the ridge crest seemed as far as before. The rock bands proved precarious, especially those with moss covered shines and trickling streams making them slippery and treacherous. At several places I had to place my toe tips on thin fissures of rock while putting my weight on my fingers hooked on to miniscule cracks above and traverse several meters up diagonally with absolutely no protection and a gaping void of several hundred meters below, chilly wind caressing my bottoms and gravity pulling my shoulders merciless. These are surreal moments as all of you would know, and I climbed ahead regardless. Around 1 pm clouds rolled in, mists descended and within minutes my world condensed into a dark soup of swirling grey through which I floundered to find footholds and a path that would take me vertically up. The wind now stormed and it cut through my thin covering, shearing my bones and flesh. I willed my mind to forget the cold and focus on the task in hand.

I crossed 4000 m and continued up into the darkness with no idea where the top was or how far I had to climb yet. My shoulders felt heavy, my feet flagrant and my head frozen solid. And then to top it all, snow started to fall. Brilliant, is all I could mutter under the circumstances. The already slippery rocks became more so. There wasn’t a single shelter anywhere within sight where I could have waited the bad weather out. No place to light the stove to brew a hot cup, nothing to hold on to and no one to share my moments with. Great, I told myself, you have done it again! Even as my brains froze, my legs continued their upward journey by instinct and suddenly spearing through the darkness, I sighted a flapping red flag that marked the pass, the top of the ridge, my escape route from the storm. In the next second the flag disappeared amidst the gloom. Did I hallucinate or did I really see it! My watch told me that I had been climbing nearly non-stop for more than 6 and half hours. With an average of ascending 300 m per hour I should be very near to the top by now. I paused for couple of minutes to gather my thoughts and give few sharp taps to the chilled mind and then continued.

Suddenly I spied the marker flag ahead and not above. Yahoo I cried out loud, I had reached the top, no more climbing and had an easy descent on the other side away from the stormy clouds and snow. Abruptly like a hiatus in a scary dream, the path before me cleared up like a tunnel through the clouds and snow, and I could see the flag fluttering like the tail of a wild steed. I literally sprinted the last few steps and collapsed in a heap of relief and joy on a stone next to the flag. The slope on the other side lay beneath a white shroud of cloud and mist and not a thing was visible. Descent would be tackled in due course of time; I figured and rather enjoyed the blissful moment of total desolation, complete isolation and the sense of fulfillment. My hiking shoe was new and by now had bore a pair of ugly looking round shaped orange sized welts around my left ankle which were bleeding and glued to my socks. Going down was always more painful and dangerous for me with my battered knees, and with the climb already in my sack I decided to tend to my other injuries.

I did a quick check, my shoulders hurt, my toes and ankles are sore, my eyes were smarting, my fingers were freezing, my breathing was normal and heart was going on with its job in its usual lugubrious manner. Taking off my shoes I carefully peeled off my socks and immediately the raw wound gushed open and blood gurgled out copious. I cleaned it with saliva (the best antiseptic actually) and applied medicated strips double, packed it up back again inside the socks and the shoes. They were now paining and hurting like hell. By then precious minutes had skipped by and the storm was raging in full fury. A lightning struck the ridge not far from where I sat, blinding me temporarily, and the metal flag pole was a sure target for a quick human flesh fry so I decided my time to descent had finally arrived. The snow that fell from the heavens were now of massive proportions. And then once again the curtain from the other side where I had to go down lifted to give me a brief vision of what lay below and ahead; and once again I realized through a sinking heart that nothing on this trip was bound to happen as expected.

This side of the ridge I am familiar with, in fact the face I have climbed before and all the features lying far below like the smattering of lakes, the boulders, etc were known to me. What I expected to find and is normally found here is just a sweeping face of rock and very little snow glissading down for about 500 m before petering out on the banks of a holy lake, which people visit during the summers. Beyond the lake the trail goes down in gentle spirals of rock strewn path till a large grassy camping ground with several life giving streams and lakes in between. The only problem, if it could be called as that, which should lie immediately below me, was that tumbling face of 500 m, which under normal conditions would involve nothing more than few rock traverses, one long chimney scramble and then few hundred hops over boulders; and one is literally home. On a normal day, under normal conditions, this task would not involve more than 45 – 60 minutes by an average person with rudimentary experience on rock and snow. For me, under normal conditions, it would be a walk in the park. But that day, about a week back from now, the conditions were not normal; they were abominable, atrocious and appalling to say the least. And I stood gaping down, rooted to the ridge top right next to the flag pole, facing electrocution or being blown away into oblivion by the ferocious blizzard.

The entire face, as far as I could see, till the lakes and beyond, was covered under a deep patch of soft avalanche prone snow with large fields of hard blue mirror polish ice. Not a single rock feature was visible, the seventy degree slope looked unstable as a pack of cards as tons of un-stabilized snow and blue ice debris lay like a well groomed coiffeur upon some super model’s shoulder. I could see several avalanche chutes marring the face. The boulder field beyond too were completely covered under snow. How on earth would I go down this way I pondered? Dressed in my climbing shells, climbing boot, climbing gloves, gaiters, crampons and ice tools, it would have been child’s play; but I had none of these. I had nothing for purchase, nothing to probe the depth of the slope or arrest my fall if I start to slip, I had no idea how deep or unstable the snow was, and my shoes would find no purchase upon the ice or snow.

If Spiderman was my friend, I would have felt relieved, but he wasn’t, neither was Superman or Supergirl. To go down this way under my present situation seemed suicidal; as a tumble would surely kill me and if not then the hypothermia would since a fall would certainly break my legs or ankles and I would be cooped up beneath the snow for ages. No one would be coming here before June next year and no one on Earth knew that I was there. My left ankle wound was hurting like a hot knife gorged into my skin. I looked down the side I had just come up from and immediately ruled out a retreat that way. That side was now a raging boiling maddening world of mayhem and anarchy as dark thunder clouds and lightning played havoc, the blizzard ripped everything apart into shreds. The visibility was less than few meters. And safety was so far away on that side and the descent under these conditions was simply unthinkable and impossible even for me. I would have done it if I had no other option, but here I still had one option; actually I had only one option. So the choice became rather simple and easy.

I couldn’t wait out the weather on the ridge, I couldn’t go back down the way I had climbed and there was no shelter at all anywhere within sight. So I had to go down the ice covered face no matter what. I still had my four limbs and they would act as anchors and friction, my hiking shoe will have to do and my body must muster up all its experience and surviving skills to live through this day. I looked up and said a silent prayer to my deity Shiva, who is the god of the mountains and a close friend. I didn’t ask him to save my life, but asked him to watch over me and told him that to his faith I surrender now my life and everything. If he wanted he could have me right now. With that, and blotting out the rest of the world out of my horizon, I put forward and down one careful step into the snow field.

Immediately my feet sank in the soft wet snow till my knee. My shoes filled up with snow and my trousers soaked up cold moisture and I began to slide. It’s a basic of climbing, if you can’t stop or slow down your slide within the first three seconds, chances are you won’t be able to do it at all. It takes around 4 and half seconds for gravity to take complete charge of a falling body and thereafter you are accelerating at nearly 9.8 m per Second Square. Instinctively my hands and body claws upon the ground through the deep snow and encounters hard ice beneath. My bare fingers scratch, enacting that like the tip of an ice axe, upon the ice. I use my entire body surface to increase drag and stop my slide. My heart gallops, I continue to slide, and then slow down and then stop. I laugh in relief, I begin to breathe, and I look up to see my slide path of nearly 10 m above and behind.

I also realize that now I was below the ridge and was well sheltered from the blizzard on the other side. It was eerily calm, tentatively poised; the white world around me seemed on the lips of some long overdue disaster. Absolutely nothing stirred, including my limbs. I saw the world through a dream, no sound, no life, the landscape etched on some canvas perhaps, everything frozen and suspended. I knew this will shatter soon; and then I realized that despite the immense cold ambling through my body I couldn’t feel my hands. As if nothing existed below my wrists. I looked behind and found both my hands buried inside the snow till my elbows. I dared not dislodge them or extract them since they held the vital 50% of my body anchor.

I flexed my fingers and clenched my palms mentally but felt nothing physically. This was bad, real bad I wondered. I am a cold weather expert, an authority on cold injuries and ice and everything frozen. I have been to the world’s coldest places, have endured open bivys at 40 deg below zero without ever having lost any of my digits to frost bite so I know what my body is capable of, and I also know how soon limbs need to be amputated to prevent gangrene spread. These are mere thoughts, neither happy nor morbid, but merely to while away the time, and it all happens within seconds. I detected the ice core temperature to be around 10 below zero but it was wet. I had to inspect my hands. I jammed my legs as deep as I could within the snow, wriggled my soaking bottoms as far as I could to make a bucket seat, and then slowly extracted my left hand.

It was swollen, dark and beginning to resemble a black stump of dead flesh. I could wriggle the fingers that’s all, but felt nothing. I bit the fingers hard but felt nothing. Not so bad I said aloud and then extracted the right hand and the sight immediately told me that I should call out for a helicopter rescue right away. And then the ridiculousness of the notion hit me and I started to laugh out loud up into the sky. The right palm, wrist down was dark, dank, damp and swollen and stiff hard as a sheet of iron. My fingers were fixed in a crooked claw like manner and no matter how much I tried my ‘mind over matter’ mantra, I couldn’t move them even a tiny bit. I chewed them, I beat them on my knee, I struck them time again on a rock, rubbed them within my armpits but my right hand remained inert and dead like a million year old fossil. How could it happen I pondered. How could they become like this so soon, so quickly… for some reason my right hand blood circulation had failed much before the usual way it is supposed to under cold. It was now a useless stump and one that I needed to tend right away else I will lose them for sure. And I couldn’t believe it that on a place like this, this could happen.

I had barely come down ten meters and still had a long, very long way to descend with the day light failing fast. I still had no idea where I would find a cave for the night or fire wood but before all that I had to take care of my immediate situation. My life once again, had to be broken down into steps and I had to focus and stay intent only on the step that I was about to take; everything and everyone else had to be blotted out from my mind. I was now in a zone of my own, in a heightened state where only staying alive mattered and nothing else. Where my body and my mind had to summon everything that they had ever learned and experienced to continue living. My focus, my intent couldn’t waiver, couldn’t fail; failure was no more an option.

I realized that I had two distinct advantages in my present state. First that I was now out of the blizzard so my visibility was better and there was no wind buffeting me around, so if I remained alert and careful I may escape any blindness and avalanches; and secondly that with my inert right hand, I could now use it like an ice axe since it was frozen stiff and didn’t feel any pain. Only dilemma being how I would lower myself across the overhanging rocks that lay in between since the right hand fingers won’t curl around the sharp edges. But I decided to tackle it when I reached that overhang.
Plastering myself like a crab upon the seventy degree slope now I started slithering down the snow and ice forgoing any thoughts of warmth or comfort. Inch by careful inch I lost altitude and my clothing, my shoes, my sack and my head was completely soaked and immersed and full of wet snow. I was beyond feeling cold, I was slowly and surely turning one with the elements and I was freezing into the ice upon which I grazed.

Tumbling and tottering, slipping and sliding, I finally reached the ice gully and then looked down incredulous at the overhanging rock below, around 20 ft further down. The only way I could circumvent it was to slide down the ice chute and then catapult over the rock and grip its lip before I flew out into oblivion, and then swing myself back beneath the rock and lower myself to the full stretch of my arms and then jump through thin air and land upon the slope around 10 ft below. From then on the ground would become gentler and perhaps easier to handle.

What I described just now is a simple enough maneuver for a monkey with tail and rock climbers with rock shoes and intact fingers. I was neither and topping it I was being weighed down by my soaking clothes full of ice and snow, my sack now equally full of wet snow and my numbing limbs and my right hand that was solid and black like coal. I would lose the fingers tonight I pondered benevolently. They were any way useless for the next bit of descent. First I had to reduce my weight, so I took off my pack and lowering my left arm to the furthest dropped the sack on the slope. It fell, bounced, slipped and slid and then ground to a halt on the wet snow (like I hoped) around 50 ft below. If it had disappeared out of sight then I wouldn’t be here today writing this post. With the sack gone, my back lost its protection and the cold seeped into my spine with vengeance.

Perched on the edge of the void, seconds before I leapt out, I had to remind myself that I have been doing this for a really long time, and that I am good at surviving odds, and that I had nothing to lose even if I fell all the way to the bottom of the gully. A human life in today’s world scale is simply worthless, no one bothers or cares, million die each year due to human action and inaction, due to disease, due to war and natural disasters, due to starvation and malnutrition, due to apathy and antipathy; yet the world goes on as always, and rich people fly to Monaco to play poker and lose millions at a whim of glorified happiness. My life is completely worthless, worth only few tears and sheds of gloom to my loved ones. If I survived this day then nothing would change, and if I didn’t then nothing would change forever. Grief, and sense of loss is temporary, and all those to whom I am important would learn to cope up with my absence and my daily dose of nonsense. While I would be having fun over a hot cuppa with Shiva above. So I slid.

I don’t know how I did it or what happened since the next few seconds went in a blur and are now nothing more than vague images of obfuscated confusion. One second I was flying out like a wingless eagle stalling from sky, and in the next I was dangling like Stallone in ‘Cliffhanger’ with my left hand on the rock overhang. Towards the left was an endless drop while at my right extreme was the 10 ft one. I willed myself to swing and then let go. I dropped on ground, the soft wet snow cushioning my fall and I immediately rolled and spread out to cause friction. I stopped and breathed a huge sigh of relief… well I would continue to trouble my loved ones for some more time; were my first thoughts. I hobbled further down to retrieve my pack and then plunged further below. Now I could half crouch and use only one hand for balance and friction as the slope had eased out. Finally after an hour and half from the top of the ridge, I was out of the ice slope and faced the boulder field ahead.

The sun had dipped below horizon, night was appearing quick, mercury was falling at a rate faster than light and I had a veritable mine field of mega boulders and sharp rocks all angled at around 40 deg for another 200 m before I could reach the safety of the lake shore. Anyone who has ever hopped across boulders and rocks would understand what I faced. The boulders were all covered under sleet smooth ice and snow and I could only decipher them by the smooth bulges on the undulating even snow. Most of them were lose and wobbling and I had to leap from one top to another in a down angle of around 30 – 40 degree. And all this in near darkness, when my clothes were completely frozen, when my limbs were so cold that I didn’t feel them and with a pack now heavy with moisture and I hadn’t eaten or drank a sip of water for the last several hours and my right hand was about to be amputated.

If I had ever faced a more hopeless and forlorn situation then I couldn’t remember of it then. I had to cross the field and I couldn’t climb down and around the boulders since there were deep snow filled voids like honeycomb through them. I had to take the air route, the jumps and leaps like Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. And once again the moment I took my first leap I was beyond the point of no return. There won’t be any turning back. I was in relative safety at the present and if I could dig a snow hole I could survive the night where I was. But I badly needed a dry warm refuge for the night so once again within the span of few hours I was left with only one option or rather no option at all. I looked up and spoke to my friend, why do such things happen to me! To which the omniscient replied: since you ask for it. And that was irrefutable so I smiled deep within and put a lump of snow in my mouth. But before I started through the boulder field I had to take care of one more thing.

My right hand had frozen stiff more than two hours ago and I could well visualize the depth to which the frost bite might have penetrated by now. Ideally if a frozen finger stays frozen and is not thawed more than six hours at temperatures below minus 10 C then third degree frost bite occurs and it has to be amputated to prevent spread of gangrene to other parts. This only accentuates if the limb is wet and the body has undergone further exhaustion and toil that reduces blood circulation and also with altitude and rarified air.

I was at around 4000 m, not really high, but high enough, my body was intensely exhausted and cold and wet and my fingers had swollen and darkened further. I wasn’t sure if they would recover at all. I had no idea how long it would take me to reach a cave or build a fire or warm my digits back; they were unknown and imponderable but what I knew right at that moment under the failing light in that intensely cold and desolate place that if I didn’t do something right away to my fingers then there was a good chance that for the first time in my life I stood more than fair chance of losing them permanently. I had to heat them up somehow, even if for a small time, but they just needed some warmth. I didn’t have the luxury of time to take out my gas stove, melt snow and heat water; neither was there any part of my body warm or dry to offer. Under desperate situations come desperate measures and we do things that are otherwise unthinkable and probably unheard of. The only hot thing I was left with and had was my own urine inside my body. I was severely dehydrated by then and I hadn’t relieved myself for more than three hours. There was enough hot fluid in my bladder to warm up my frozen fingers albeit briefly.

I tore out the only dry part of my T shirt, cutting a round hole with my Swiss knife to use it to dry and wind it around my fingers. Visualization of this scene may be repulsive to many but remember at that moment I had no other option. I peed on my frozen right fingers but felt nothing. I rubbed them repeatedly, chewed them with my teeth but felt absolutely nothing. I dried it with the torn piece of cloth and then wrapped it around, tying a knot with my teeth but not too tight and hoped that blood circulation would resume. Then I looked at the boulder field ahead, my immediate friends and nemesis rolled into one. If they rolled and broke my legs they would be nemesis, otherwise friends. After all there isn’t much difference between the two. No one can hurt you like your best friend and no one can cure you like your worst enemy.

My watch read ten minutes to six pm and I estimated that I would take perhaps upwards of 40 minutes to clear the boulders and find myself back on the trail so would need the headlamp somewhere in between. I strapped my petzel light to my head and leapt out across a chasm to land softly on the first boulder. It was firm and I leapt out again. I slipped, gripped, jumped and leapt, shrieked in joy or cursed in stupidity, balancing myself like a ballerina on a constantly moving world of rocks and snow. Standing on knife edge rocks in my wet boots, or skidding across ice covered rocks that offered no purchase only a fleeting shadow of comfort, I pursued relentless my downward flight. A trip, a miss, a tumble, a jumble would certainly break my legs like matchstick or would hurtle me into icy depths of oblivion; from which there won’t be any reprieve, any recovery. It would be one final act of conspiracy.

Several times I misjudged distances and had to climb back up again to scout another rock to leap across. And then darkness fell like a black curtain wiping away every feature of the land into one jumble of dark lump. I flicked my headlamp on and realized that just like in a climb, here too my world suddenly reduced to the arch of the headlamp and now seemed more manageable in its smaller proportion. Soon I was out of the boulder field and on to soft snow that pulled me down like a bog. I plunged ahead and down regardless; my next step being to find the trail of the shepherds who come here in the summers. With the entire land now beneath a thick layer of snow, this was easier said than done. I aimed for the general direction of the lake, which I found when I almost stepped on its frozen surface. I shone the torch across the white surface and wondered how thick it would be and if there were fishes beneath. I looked for the tell-tale rock piles and soon found the faint trail and followed it down over the next two hours to reach the familiar camping ground.

By now the sky above had turned into a sparkling canvass of twinkling stars and one waning moon (it was few days after full moon). I paused to look up at this marvelous spectacle and one of the reasons why I and others climb high mountains. There’s simply nothing on earth that can prepare you for this sight. Due to the rarefied and clean atmosphere, everything is doubly brilliant and shiny and one can see many more stars and more distant from a high mountain top. Winter skies are better than the summer ones as we are further from the Sun. I was below on safer grounds yet far from safe; I had to find the cave, which was a near impossible mission in this darkness. It took me another hour to locate the entrance to the cave. My heart warmed as I sighted a dank bleak looking threadbare blanket discarded by some shepherd perhaps a century ago. Besides it were two burnt out pieces of log wood. This would have to do I mused. I had to walk down to the stream, break the ice and fill up two bottles with water and then back to the cave. Thankfully here, the ground didn’t have much snow. I used up nearly a whole box of match to build a small fire and then closed the cave entrance with a pile of stone. I stripped off my clothes, wrapped the blanket around and spread them beside the fire to dry. Got the gas going and warmed water and dipped my hands to thaw. Food was furthest from my mind.

As the wood caught fire, smoke spilled out filling up the tiny cave and I started coughing but it helped warm my body back. I took out everything that I could find to burn and one by one dipped them into the fire. My torn T shirt too went in there. Thankfully I had a dry pair of thick socks, which I wore now and then much to my amusement discovered a pair of fleece gloves lying at the bottom of my sack. They weren’t water proof but would have been useful to put on while sliding down that damned snow slope. I brewed a cup of tea, munched biscuits and figured was too tired to cook anything, even Maggie (which I actually detest), then I unrolled my mat, piled into any bit of dry clothes I could find and covering myself with the blanket tried to sleep. The fire crackled near my feet and I was warm finally. My fingers were still inert and frozen but well on way to recovery and the immediate prospect of losing them had lost its charm. I thought I would fall asleep quickly. And once again I was proved wrong. I tossed and turned all through the interminable night, groaning and aching from every pore of my body. The fire died out during the wee hours and eventually the world outside started to light up.

A porridge breakfast and few cups of hot water and tea later I stepped out, dressed back in my dry clothes to discover row and row of frozen waterfalls to my left. This was paradise I mused and I love frozen waterfall. I went to the nearest one and touched it, kicked it and felt so good and sad; how I wished I had my ice tools then. The mushrooms and chandeliers invited me and I eyed them like a famine struck delinquent. I started the day with two options. Before me lay an easy though long exit route where all I had to do was follow the well trodden shepherd trails down and down into and beyond the forest for about 6 hours and reach the village of Darkund from where the road head was barely another six km. I have done this trail many times and know it well. The other option lay in front of me across the frozen river, into the towering walls of granite and ice. This option involved climbing back around 700 m to the top of the ridge to a pass and from there descend 2500 m to one of my villages and meet my friends there. I had crossed this pass several times earlier from the other side, descending on to this side but I had never reversed it before and right now the trail was far from in shape. And it would take me two days for sure. But I wanted to meet my friends. The urge was strong.

I crossed and hopped across the frozen river and once again confronted a severe boulder field covered under a blanket of snow. This time though I was climbing so the going was safer even if more taxing physically. Across the boulder field, I could see the marking flags at the pass but couldn’t see the normal trail we always use to come down. Everything was buried beneath a continuous layer of snow. Knowing the trail well I could judge where it lay buried and also realized how avalanche prone it was and how dangerous. I had to do something bolder. And there was only one thing to do.

I had to climb straight up through the icy face and join the normal trail much further up where it was free of snow and ice; which I could see from below. It involved a straightforward climb of nearly 150 m through mixed ground of rock and snow covered slopes, angled between 60 – 70 degrees. With the right tools I could do it blindfolded, without anything I struggled to find foot purchase through the slippery ice and glazed rock. The struggle was desperate, the stance precarious, barely any room or place to stand and rest. My sack dangled behind like dead weight pulling me further away from the face. I focused above and continued climbing in long reaches.

My fingers were frozen back even though I used the gloves. My shoulders and arms ached and numbed, my knees shook involuntarily. My gravity shifted and my body willed me to let go and fall. About two thirds way up I decided to insert my left hand inside a crack and jam my knees below a rock to presume the classic rest pose. I looked down through my knees and realized that if I fell at this moment then I had a long way to go before I came to rest and by then I would broken like a rag doll. An invisible force pulled me from below, my hands and knees wanted me to fall and my mind screamed me to climb. I was truly caught between the devil and the deep sea.

I had no idea if I had strength left to finish the climb and top out so once again I focused on my most immediate step, the next one. I took weight off my knees and flattened on the face and then resumed climbing. It wasn’t a style, it wasn’t elegant or pure it was sheer desperate struggle to prevent a fall. If my mind wasn’t frozen, perhaps I would have felt a stab of fear of the unknown and hence I felt nothing beside the sense of purpose and it was to continue to inch up, one step at a time. As all fairy tales with happy endings, I too eventually collapsed on the top on the normal trail. I looked down at my vertical trail and saw the fangs of death clutching at emptiness, at places where I was nearly uprooted. ‘Bloody Hell’ (the only swear words in my dictionary) was all I could mutter and continued up towards the glorious sky.

What happened hereinafter is not worthy of telling. I reached my village and my friend and his family was delighted to have my company. His wife, to whom I am an elder brother, forced me to take a boiling hot water bath, while chiding that one day I would become kulfi (local ice cream) in the mountains. She cooked hot bread dipped in homemade butter that I devoured like an ogre. I felt sapped, devoid of any energy or sense of purpose and I looked emaciated, which is good since I had gained weight in Europe. As I bid them goodbye and ran down further to catch my return carriage to civilized chaos, I couldn’t help wondering that if I had indeed achieved what I had set out to and even if I had, then to what purpose if such pursuits could have any purpose at all.

Over the span of those days I could have killed myself several times yet I never thought of retreat or succor or company and even before I had left these mountain precincts I had already forgotten or beginning to forget all my woes and pains and dilemmas and planning my next trip soon. Where would that be and when, were the questions predominant on my mind as the bus rolled in and I found a seat next to a pretty village lass who smiled shyly at me.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Summing Up my European Odyssey

What is a story? Is it only a collection of memories, fact or fictional, emotive, evocative, startling or banal at times, or memorable or just plain recounting of events as they happened; an eyewitness account of incidents, places, people, atmosphere, smells, feelings, emotions… I have told you many stories both in my verbosity and in my silence through my blog, columns, features and this time too there’s so much to tell and to share, but however we may wish to share or want to hear, the stories would never end, because all stories even when they are worthy of telling, are never told.

Thus would be the fate of many such stories of my recent European trip, where within the span of nearly six weeks I flashed through eight countries, briefly touching a ninth; following much of the tourist trails where I have never walked before, and also to some spots where few ever walk upon. So the first story that I wish to put up here is a summary, a tiny nutshell that kind of encompasses and even dares to capture all that had happened in those fateful weeks. Being a really tight summary it is more statistical than sensational, more objective than adjective, more fun than pun, and obviously more forgettable than forgivable. So here it comes, straight and neat down the throat, just the way I love it and exactly the way it happened; and mind you very little of this was ever predicted. It all happened because one morning, just before embarking on an adventure from where I had little hope of returning, I decided to accept an invitation to give a talk in Zurich. From that humble beginning the rest just spiraled and made themselves happen. It’s not a bad thing these days to land in Europe with a long multiple entry visa and no idea of what you are going to do with either. Let’s find out…

Places touched – Country (city / region) in the chronological order

Switzerland (Zurich, Lugano, Bern, Geneva)
Lichtenstein (Schaan, Vaduz, Sargans)
France (L’isle Adam, Paris)
Latvia (Riga, Liepaja, Kuldiga, Sigulda, Cesis)
Luxembourg (Luxembourg City)
Belgium (Brussels, Dinant, Namur, Ghent, Antwerp, Oostende, Bruges, Eupen)
Netherlands (Amsterdam, Delft, Den Haag, Haarlem, Marken, Maastricht)
Germany (very brief brush at Aachen so it is not counted actually)
Italy (Verona, Trent, Bolzano, Collalbo, Ritten Ronen, Pisa, Firenze, Chianti, Naples, Sorrento, Rome)

Total distance covered (this would have errors of may be 5% plus or minus) by different means: I used trains, trams, boats, cable cars, cars, buses, airplane, funicular, afoot, cycle; in short nearly all means of transportation devised by human except a submarine or hot air balloon to get from one place to another. Some of them were tardy, some very quick, some challenging, some daunting, some different and some indifferent, but all enjoyable to degrees matching the occasion and my mood; so yes, I enjoyed each of them immensely.

9947 km (air: 5778; train: 2737; foot: 437; bus: 426; car: 235; cycle: 174; tram: 89; boat: 41; cable car: 24; funicular: 6)

Northernmost Point reached: Cesis in Latvia; 57 deg 18 min North latitude

Southernmost Point reached: Sorrento in Italy; 40 deg 37 min North latitude

Highest Point: Rittner Horn in Italian Dolomite; 2260 m

Lowest Point: Marken in Netherland, not sure of the altitude since it is below sea level

Rivers crossed: over bridges by foot, train, tram, bus, cycle or on boats; and no I didn’t swim across any.

Limmat, Rhine, Rhone (Switzerland)
Seine, Oise (France)
Gauja, Daugava, Lielupa (Latvia)
Meuse, Sambre (Belgium)
Moselle (Luxembourg)
Amstel (Netherlands)
Tiber, Arno (Italy)

Cheapest Public Loo – Public Library near Amsterdam Central station (0.20 Euro)

Dearest Public Loo – Firenze Central train station Italy (1.0 Euro)

Free Public Loo – Den Haag Town Hall (but you won’t find it if you aren’t as desperate as me, desperate to pee and desperate not to pay for offloading myself; I mean in India you can do it free on the walls of Parliament House for God’s sake). Btw this is the only good thing that Den Haag has in offer.

Cheapest Public Transport – tie between Latvia and Italy

Dearest Public Transport – Switzerland is hands down winner

Commonest object all over Europe – McDonald’s outlet; I am guessing they already have one or will be having one soon inside Vatican and we would soon see the Pope ordering his first ‘Happy Meal’ with mustards on the side and declaring nonchalantly ‘I am loving it!’

Cleanest – Latvia (actually Lichtenstein it should be, but then no one lives there, so obviously it is clean as a brand new slate)

Dirtiest – no prizes for guessing, Italy it is again and again. It can rival India any day in being dirty

One place I wish I hadn’t visited but I did – Luxembourg

One place I wish I had visited and I didn’t – Austria

Best thing I did (according to me) – cooking my mom’s recipe of eggplant at several friend’s

Worst thing I did – visit Luxembourg

Most number of photos taken in a country – Italy

Least number of photos taken in a country – Luxembourg

Languages I labored through – Swiss, German, French, Spanish, Dutch, Latvian, Russian, Italian, and several strange dialects of English

Number of old friends I met – 28

Number of new friends I made – must be close to or above a hundred

Number of people I met – impossible to predict or count

Friendliest country (I have friends everywhere so all nations are friendly to me, but here I measured the general public, whom I don’t know and never will, through brief encounters like seeking directions or guidance on the roads or in a shop, etc) – Latvia (people smiled and offered help even with language handicap, people offered me their mobile phones to make calls without asking anything in return, people gave me lifts in their cars at odd hours; all simply because I was a guest in their country and didn’t know the language)

Least friendly country – Luxembourg (even the bus driver, in whose bus I was a rightful ride, couldn’t be bothered to tell me where my stop was)

Best located and guided tourism service – Latvia (you have to experience it to believe it, they have outdone the Swiss for sure)

Best Public Transport System – Sticking to timely service it’s a tie between Swiss and Latvia but Latvia would be winner since they are way cheaper.

Worst Public Transport System – Italy for sure, even Italians claim that.

Best food eaten – something that my friend Claudia prepared in France

Worst food eaten – a smelly goat cheese that Claudia had offered one day

Best located place I stayed in – my room in Lichtenstein, Schaan, where I could see snow covered mountains from every window, door, room, even the toilet.

Worst located place I stayed in – in Rome, surrounded by the usual chaos of a city

A place I never wanted to leave – Latvia and Lichtenstein

A place I wanted to leave the moment I arrived – Den Haag, Netherlands

Most memorable experience – walking alone through the deep autumn woods of Lichtenstein and then plodding through knee deep snow up steep mountains of this picturesque country

Least memorable experience – I have forgotten for sure

Longest Day – starting from Amsterdam at 7 am, I climbed the highest points of Netherlands and Belgium and reaching my friend’s place at Brussels at around 9.30 pm the same day.

Shortest Day – pooped inside my friend’s house the entire day due to heavy rains and thundershower in Amsterdam. Even then I did go out for two hours and returned totally soaked and chilled.

Craziest thing I did – drive a friend’s left-handed Porche sports car in a subterranean garage with his wife next to me. I could have killed us both. And to make matters worse this friend was actually taking pictures of the whole episode.

Coolest thing I did – enter Louvre gallery without buying a ticket. It was heartening to find that French could be fooled at their own game.

Scariest thing I did – cycle through Zurich

Stupidest thing I did – try to rock climb a patch of moss covered wet rock face beneath a waterfall in Italy. I could have fallen a long way and got seriously injured. Luckily when I slipped and started to fall, my left wrist jammed in a crack stopping my fall further but majorly spraining my wrist, which is still swollen and painful.

Cleverest thing I did – I don’t do clever things, period!

If there’s one thing I could change about this trip – nothing really since bad is to be experienced to know the good, so everything is welcome but yes, I wish I had more days to spend in Latvia, Switzerland and Lichtenstein.

Something that happened for the first time in my life – I was picked up as a suspected terrorist bomber (this has happened with me before) and scanned for explosives in my body and in my netbook by a special group of anti-terrorism military at Rome airport while leaving the continent. Of course they found nothing and on revealing my past military background that proved I was way senior to the Italian Army officer in charge of the operation, I enjoyed exotic coffee and delicate cookies and cakes with them at their office prior to boarding my flight. And you all say that Italians are bad, come on, they are worst; but then there are nice Italians as well.

My shopping list: I was gifted several objects of desire by different people but this list is of the things that I actually bought with my own money in a manner of speaking, since it wasn’t my money, people had given them to me, so while spending them they did belong to me I guess in a manner of speaking…

Two bars of Belgian Chocolate, one bottle of Sorrento signature Lemon Liquor, a pair of woman ornaments, a tie and a box of Italian coffee – all for gifting to my friends in India

For myself – absolutely nothing

For my mom – a bunch of leaves for her botanical album collection, but then these were for free, picked up from the ground or plucked from the branches

What did I gain from the trip – nothing that I already didn’t have, which is friends, happiness, craziness, memories, smiles, laughter and lots of stories

Moral of the Story – Have fun, party tonight

Parting words – Take a vacation; go on a holiday, who knows how many days you have left in this life

One Word – Awesome

Two Words – Awesome, awesome

Three Words – (I am sure you can guess by now!)

Four Words – Never say never again

Five Words – I am out of here

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Epicurean Epic Ends – Thank you ALL

I have barely few hours left: not of this life (don’t panic!) but before my European saga comes to its predestined conclusion. I am in Rome right now, tapping these words out, and my flight to Delhi departs in few hours. Zipping all over through 8 different countries and perhaps 50 odd places, crossing language and culture zones and time zone once I met and befriended an incredible number of people, visited places I wouldn’t have dreamt of visiting before or hence. And today as I try to recall exactly what all had happened during the past 40 days or so, I find that my mind predominantly and primarily keeps going back to the people who made it possible; so I begin my tale by acknowledging the ones I still remember and the ones my mind can’t recall now, but if they ever come across this post, they would know that they are acknowledged in spirit if not by individual names.

My deepest gratitude to all my friends, both old and new ones I made this time, and for all the kindness, generosity and kinder spirit I found on my way across a rather haphazard and chaotic journey. I would cherish every moment (barring a few LOL) I lived, every smile I shared and each story I lived through those who became my companions on this random road. The following goes in the same chronological order as they happened:


SWITZERLAND

Lory and Guy Spier and their wonderful kids: It was Guy who played the lead motivator and facilitator for this trip, but for him I would have been climbing in some remote mountain during this time rather than gallivanting through tourist filled alleyways, so I am not sure if I should be grateful to him or hate him for the rest of my life. But avoiding all puns, I thank Guy and his wife Lory for their hospitality and Guy thank you so much for making me once behave like a normal person and not attempt anything crazy (cycling in Zurich was perhaps the only exception). But for you I wouldn’t have discovered the horizontal aspects of Europe, neither would I have met so many wonderful people who I wouldn’t ever encounter in my vertical world. Hence this trip has enriched my visions about life and people in general.

Oliver, Tim and the entire TEDX Zurich team who managed the entire show so beautifully with typical Swiss style of panache and panacea. Though I gave them a real hard time, they smiled and came up with nothing less than sheer brilliance. Thank you guys. My gratitude also to the entire audience who laughed and cheered and egged me on while I was counting seconds during my 18 min talk, and despite being an extremely boring, ridiculous and nonsensical talk they made me feel as if I was delivering God’s ten commandments minus the tablets even though it must have been the most non-productive 18 minutes of their entire exisence. A speaker is only as good as his audience and that day in Zurich I had the very best. Thank you all.

To all my fellow TEDX Zurich speakers, for showing me their world and also humbling me with their intensity, passion and inspiring me to aim for the impossible always. Even though some of the talks went completely over my head, I enjoyed each. In particular I would name Molly, Ellie and Arzu for showing me a world that I knew existed but knew nothing about. Thank you girls, you totally rock.

To Marc and his friends from EO's group. I shared an evening with them showing my pictures and telling them about my kind of leadership. Am not sure if they gained anything out of the evening, but I surely gained friends and a book that simply proves that size does matter. It is certainly the largest dimensions book (which Marc gifted) that I have ever had. Thank you Marc and Andrea and Frank and the rest.

To Savitha, who was a friend of a friend, but now a friend as well, for providing me with the only home cooked Indian meal in all of Switzerland, how cool is that!

LICHTENSTEIN

Hilde and Stefanie for offering me a home that felt like home. With snow covered mountain peaks peeking through my bedroom window, and ice columns vying for attention from the loo and endless green forests topped with white mountains forcing me to look away from the food in the kitchen with a deep contented sigh; I can’t imagine a home better located geographically or filled with people who could be warmer in their hospitality. While here, my country travel list also increased numerically. Thank you Hilde and Stefanie; I am surely coming back. And I must acknowledge Klaus whom I finally couldn’t meet but who made it all possible.

FRANCE

Claudia, Benjamin and their black bull dog Chooquet: Claudia is one of my dearest friends in the world even though for most of the time we have no idea what the other person is saying (we have serious language handicap between us). I met Benjamin and Chooquet for the first time when I stayed with them for two days in a lovely Parisian suburb. But for her I wouldn’t have gone to France at all. I was under life threat from Claudia that if I ever landed in Europe and didn’t visit her then that would lead to severe repercussions. So there I was one fine evening in Paris Orly airport. And from the moment we met it was their collective love and food and wine that completely took over my life.

Fabrice and friends: Fabrice offered me such an envious spot to stay right in the heart of Paris that I simply couldn’t refuse. I mean how many bathrooms do you know in Paris from where while you soak in a bathtub you see the most glorious view of Sacre Coeur Basilica? I had an independent flat, so modernly done up that at the beginning I had no idea what to do with most of the things thrown around. Thanks are due to our common friend Varial, who is bit weird and totally my kind of guy who slept for most of the time I was there as he was working in US time zone but just to see him again was a pleasure. Karine and her husband for hosting the lovely weekend dinner and for inviting me in to meet some really cool people, who totally made me forget the boringness of Paris. Audery for a lovely evening in a Parisian café, and showing me that in Paris a glass of delicate wine and a cup of normal cappuccino costs the same.

LATVIA

Dana: for hosting me and showing me around her town of Liepaja and giving me hope that there’s lot of hope in this world yet; if such young people like her have such compassion and kindness in their heart (she works for slum and less privilege kids) then the future cannot be all that bad. Dana also introduced me to Saldskaba and Karums (both are good enough to kill and die for).

Ieva and Andres: hosted me in Sigulda and we shared many climbing tales. Their home is filled with mountain memorabilia so it was wonderful for me. Their daughter Agatha is only 13 and I have never seen such a responsible 13 yr old in my life.

Zane and her family: they welcomed into their home as if I had never been away. Plenty of food and stories, a warm house as Zane’s in cold Latvia was so refreshing.

Vita: Well, she is outdoor crazy like me so of course we had lot to talk about but then she made me taste Latvian national drink of Rigas Melnais Balzam.

BELGIUM

Jane: of all my hosts through Europe, I or my belongings stayed with Jane the longest and she also saw me the leastest (I hope this word exists). Located in Brussels, Jane became the epicenter of my travels once I left France. I went out to different places and returned to her house each time. What can I sa; Jane fed me, took care of me, drove me around literally, even became my official travel guide through the city of Brussels. Through her I met few other interesting and charming people and even had the privilege of cooking for her and her mom one evening. I really wish we had more people like her in this world. ‘Thank you’ would be inadequate Jane, so I would simply say: hope to see you again.

NETHERLANDS

Himangi & Kamesh: They are old friends and don’t need to be acknowledged; it is their duty to host me and to feed me and to make my life comfortable… well that’s the way we see friendships in India. Yet I am mentioning them since it is due to them that I was able to verify why I had never visited Netherlands before and perhaps would never visit again. The country is really, I mean really, really, really flat and oh so boring. But that’s not due to Himangi who is a climber like me and Kamesh who is a badminton player like I used to be. I stayed in their uppermost room which made my elevation nearly 50 m above mean sea level and that says a lot in Netherlands. They fed me so much food and wine that I gained weight seriously. Also thanks to their friend Ravi where I was invited for Diwali dinner.

ITALY

Kristen, Eileen and Stef: Meet the three girl musketeers in Florence, or rather Charlie’s Angels and they are seriously ready to kick ass. I stayed at their completely chaotic apartment a stone’s throw away from Piazza Signoria and Angie’s pub. To be invited over for dinner by their friends the first night, cooking Indian dinner for them the next night and endless chattering on life, living, travel and travails of living, all thrown in together mix with abundance of laughter made my entire Florentine experience beyond memorable. Thank you girls so much.

Valeria and her friends: my hostess in Naples, whose opening line on opening the door to her flat: this is your home… made me feel at home right away. My first day in Naples simply went partying and eating at Valeria’s friend’s house where I met Getana (what food she made, wow), Serena and others. With the kind of food and company and the aerial views of the Naples Bay from the terrace I found it pointless even to venture out on my own on a day that was marked with thunder showers and water logged roads. Thank you Valeria and also for telling me about so many other places in Italy that I didn’t know about.

Acknowledging people by name is never enough, since it is not possible to say what one wants to say since it can never be reciprocated through words. Generosity, kindness, hospitality and friendships are things best cherished and preserved, nurtured and honored. None of the above would even want me to acknowledge them in public or in private but I did because I wanted to, and through them I wanted to show once again that this world is full of beautiful compassionate people; we just don’t know them yet. Once they and we all become friends, I hope gradually and eventually the entire world would be able to dissolve boundaries of heart and mind and we would be able to come together as one and nurture and care for our home, our only and common home, the beautiful planet Earth.

Thank you all.