Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Risk or Not to

Earlier this week a friend died in a climbing accident. He wasn’t just another regular bloke hanging off vertical walls. He was a master of his game, as badass as they come, yet he died. His safety system had perhaps failed or perhaps the rock upon which he rested came off. We would never know; he was climbing free-solo, risking his life to a level unacceptable to most. It’s the level where there is absolutely no room for error, subjective or objective. It doesn’t matter whether you failed or the mountain failed; ultimately it’s the climber who is lying dead at the bottom. And this incident jolted me out of a falsified dream I have been living through most of my adult life. It wasn’t his death that did this but the possibility that if he hadn’t died; then what?

I am a firm believer of destiny in matter of death. It is already destined by some divine power or yet unexplained scientific phenomenon that our time and date of death is fixed and nothing can change it. What isn’t determined though is the methodology and location; which we can influence by our actions through life. I don’t mind dying at all, either today, tomorrow or in the next twenty years. And if I die upon a mountain then that would be my absolute achievement in a self-fulfilling prophecy. What I do mind though that I am involved in a major accident and I don’t die. What if that day is not my destiny to die, yet I am involved in such a major accident that paralyzes me for the rest of my life or bereft me of any body part, vision, or any major functional organ; or leaves me brain dead. A sorry pitiable vegetable of human form dependent upon others for even a tiny bit of sustenance. Now that’s the kind of life I am absolutely not ready to accept.

Death is destined, accidents are not.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Birthday Message

Recently a young boy turned 21, and like any young boy or girl he holds the potential to his own dreams. I know of him but I have never met him. I know his parents very well. His mother had the idea of asking all her friends, who know him and have met him, to write a message for him, telling him something about life in general and sharing with him one place that they would like him to visit one day. His mother asked me too, to write to him a birthday message. This is what I wrote...

Dear Henry,

We haven’t met yet though knowing the rest of your family and having heard so much about you from your parents, I do feel I know you well enough to send you this birthday message. You are turning 21, an entire world of possibilities is opening up for you and you can be anyone you choose to be, but above all I suggest you become the best of ‘you’, because there is no one like you, never before, never again. Dream big, dream impossible and believe in them, take risks, explore your horizons and then go beyond them. If you are ever scared, face your fears and overcome them. If life ever throws you challenges, accept them as stepping stones to your summit and just step on them; therefore bigger the challenge bigger the step and faster you climb. And you are tall so this should be easy for you. Don’t ever aspire for an easy life since it is only through difficulties and adversities that we can become stronger and better.

I started climbing big mountains at 10 and wanted to climb all over the world and that quest has now taken me to 168 countries so far, to the top of the world many times and to all the highest peaks in all the continents. There is beauty and happiness everywhere since you got to discover them first within yourself and then you would find them wherever you go. If you explore the world through eyes full of curiosity and courage then the world is truly spectacular and amazing. It’s impossible for me to come up with one place that I would want you to visit one day since there are so many. Among countries my top favourites are New Zealand, Iceland and Peru. And Latin America is my most coveted continent on Earth, yet my heart and home are in the Himalaya, my climbing ground, my pilgrimage and my life.

One day I would wish you to step on the literal top of the world, summit of Mt Everest. At 8850m it is a small summit no larger than half a tennis court, yet it holds the mystery and secret to what you can achieve if you set your mind to it. Nothing is truly impossible. And perhaps I would be your companion on that day and we would do a jive there. So here’s wishing you a very Happy Birthday and 21 years of exciting existence on Earth with many, many more to come. Go boldly my young friend where no one dares to go.


Friday, March 11, 2016

My Frozen Love Affair

I love frozen water; soft or hard, not too soft though. I have been in love with frozen water almost all my life. The love affair started when I was ten and stepped on my first Himalayan glacier; love at first sight. As my tiny foot crunched ice beneath my boots, a thunderbolt passed through my body and brain, defining the path that I would follow for the rest of my life; which has now taken me around the world in search of ice and snow in its myriad forms. From the highest summits to the deepest oceans, to the poles and to the tropics, from volcano craters to ice caps I have pursued frozen water in all its shapes, sizes, forms, dimensions, colours wherever they may be.

Charting my life through hundreds of far flung freezing glaciers, skipping across lofty summits piercing the azure, ice fields and Polar Regions I have realized that ice and snow is something that I just cannot have enough of, just like love.

I have a restless explorer’s heart and a curious mind and the dynamics of frozen water is most suitable to keep my heart and mind tempted forever. It changes shape and form, density and structure, depending upon the temperature and time of the day or by my action upon it like an instant chemical reaction. When we love someone we are willing to try out almost anything with our loved one and my love affair with ice has been no different. Walking upon ice I have pondered the meaning of life, scaling vertical faces and frozen waterfalls I have tottered at the brink of oblivion, descending into deep ice caves of Greenland and Polar ice caps I have been amazed at the beauty and complexity of ice, bleeding inside crevasses I have contemplated death and buried under avalanches I have often succumbed to my mortality, yet always and forever with wonder and gratitude that I have embraced my lover. Even when it is freezing my entrails or biting off my limbs, for it is a demanding lover and demands the best out of me. To love back I had not only to overcome my weaknesses but stand back up each time I fell, fight my fears and commandeer all my will to never give up.

I first learnt how to walk upon horizontal ice and then slowly but surely on inclined surfaces, gradually increasing in angle, eventually a vertical glistening mirror like bullet proof cold sheet ice; and then a little more, an overhang. Chandelier ice has been most nerve wracking as it sways and swings like pendulum as I am climbing (hooking) my ice tools almost unwillingly as if not to let them know of my presence. At extreme altitudes we often can’t breathe properly due to the lack of oxygen and the rarefied atmosphere but on a swinging body of water-ice I have often stopped breathing both out of sheer concentration of my mind and body and also in awe of my own audacity. What was I doing? Am I completely out of my bloody mind? I often asked myself once I topped into safety.

Love is blind and without logic. So is my icy love affair. If I ever tested it logically I guess I wouldn’t have done most of the things I eventually did.

I have nearly lost my fingers and other body parts to frost bites many times, I have had to cut off my own rotting flesh and apply suturing without any local anaesthesia many times, I have seen many of my friends dying in the ice, falling, crashing, hypothermia, swallowed up into crevasses, hit by avalanches and crushing ice seracs yet I cannot let go of my ice. Few times I have questioned my sanity or the logic and if I should return to ice yet once I am back into the so called ‘normality’ my heart longs to return. Sometimes I ask if this love is an addiction, something upon which I am dependent some kind of primordial need that cannot be replaced nor compensated by anything else and that if I deprive me of, I will surely wilt and perish.

When tempests blow upon the great mountains into death zone or across the vast frozen tundra, it blinds me and bleeds my exposed skin, freezes me right into my soul. Real cold is when thoughts freeze and I have had many thought-freezing moments. In those moments I have no clue what I am doing or what I wish to do since I am not thinking any more. My body just goes through the motion in a desperate bid to stay alive. Nothing else matters then, only the will to survive and the instinct of survival that dictates the body into action without thought.

And that perhaps is the greatest gift of love I have received in my life. The will to live, the instinct to survive and to rejoice in the moment of being alive. Because in the end nothing else really matters.

Love, Life, Longevity (eternity within a moment).

Thursday, March 10, 2016


I stare down at the tottering praecipe, and at the blue limpid lake far below, and inch closer to the edge, even an inch more and I would tumble and hurtle through empty space towards ground. I am precisely 323 m up in the air, I know for sure, since I just climbed up the sheer granite crag leading my friend from the ground barely two hours ago. It is a breathtaking clear morning, sparkling in the sun like a samurai sword; I am standing above a Norwegian fjord of unparallel beauty. I am supposed to jump; there’s a tiny parachute strapped to my back. It is my first (and last) BASE jump. I have lived my entire life on the edge, risking death countless times, I am an extreme alpinist and a proficient sky diver, and I don’t fear death. My friend, an extreme BASE jumper, prods on my back, urging me to jump. I look up and around, allowing the morning breeze to ruffle my short hair and temples, a cold chill runs down my spine. I am afraid, there’s fear within my palpitating heartbeat. I have been in scarier situations before, yet flying through empty space few meters from a blurring rock wall accelerating at the speed of gravity seems scary as hell. If I jump I would have less than 2 seconds in which to unfurl my parachute and describe a parabolic curve that would prevent me from crashing into the wall. A Himalayan giant takes over 6 weeks to ascend; I am used to that, 2 seconds is too miniscule for my comfort. I have fear. And this is not the first time that I am afraid.

What is fear? Why are we scared? Can we be fearless?

Fear to me is an irrational reaction of mind and body to some unfamiliar situation, which prompts us to believe that we won’t be able to succeed or even attempt wholeheartedly what we are about to. It grips our mind and lets our hearts beat faster, body to sweat, limbs to shake, brains to freeze leading to a mind that just gives up the attempt. We return from the brink of discovering our core strengths without realizing that we could have achieved what we were or are scared of. Logically if any human can do a feat then another can certainly do it too (albeit with adequate training and experience of course), if anyone isn’t afraid of a situation (like walking through a forest at night, or encountering ghosts etc) then another human being can also overcome such fears. What one human can, anyone else too should be able to. Fear perhaps at subliminal levels is a defence mechanism of the body and mind to prevent us from doing things that we don’t know or are too risky anyway, thereby keeping us alive and safe and healthy. A certain amount of fear is therefore necessary for our survival I agree.

Fear is good, since it keeps us safe, but too much of it isn’t good since then it would prevent us from experiencing new things and discovering our true worth. I don’t think being fearless in absolute sense is possible. We all fear something or the other. Someone may not be afraid of ghosts or wild animals or high-lining without safety or jumping out of planes or free soloing El Cap nose yet the same person could be scared of cockroaches, or rejection of a lover, or crossing the crowded streets of NYC, or taking a flight or of being alone. Some fears need not be overcome; because it is good to be afraid of certain situations; in my case fear of driving through city roads or crossing a road in India. Being afraid not only I minimize such pursuits but I also take extra precautions while doing such activities and therefore I remain safe. It also helps the world since I walk most of the times or take public transport thereby reducing my carbon footprint and leading a healthier life.

When I analyze my fears, I realize I am not afraid of death. Death is in fact my close ally and friend; it is always with me, just like with any of you. I am not afraid to die, but what I am afraid is the way I might die and in case I don’t die and lie in a coma or bed ridden or bereft of any parts of my human body and mind (which is worse than death actually). I don’t wish to die in a city or being run over by a car, therefore I minimize my exposure to cities and roads and cars. I wish to die in nature and mountains therefore I maximize my exposure to such surroundings. I do extreme things since I wish to die in case I fail and not hang in between life and death. When I engage in new pursuits I am extremely careful and cautious since I wish to live through the experience.

I have known many of the world’s most extreme dare-devils all my life, those who constantly defy death and fear, who seem to be fearless and from each of them I have learnt that there is always a fear deep within them and therefore the need to confront and overcome that fear. It’s like living in a dark room while the morning sun is shining outside. We must open the window and doors and let the light come in no matter how difficult or dangerous the process might be. Otherwise we would never experience the warmth of the sun or the light giving force.

We must acknowledge our fears and then confront them and then overcome them. Once we overcome them by doing what we are scared of (hopefully coming out alive at the end of the process); we realize that we are capable of doing even what we are scared of; it doesn’t necessarily mean that we won’t be scared of it anymore. Or that we have to do it again and again. Doing what we are scared of even once is enough to heighten our self-belief and confidence. But what would happen that the irrational fear of something would be gone once we do it, since by doing it we understand exactly why and how it is dangerous and therefore needs caution to indulge. And also that with care and precaution we can do it. This knowledge and realization is necessary. Once we gain this knowledge and confidence there’s no real reason to do it any further unless of course you fall in love with it and get addicted.

Then what should we be afraid of most? We should be most afraid of fear itself that paralyzes us into inaction, which robs us of our belief and self-confidence, which stops us from exploring our inner selves and that prevents us from discovering our true worth. Don’t be afraid to be afraid; fear is good. Once fear grips you, breathe deep and slow and then proceed with caution. Train, equip, learn, rationalize, seek support (physical and emotional) and then continue.

But don’t ever be scared to die. That is not acceptable. Death is the only inevitability that life offers; once we are born we must and will die. Fear of inevitability is absurd. Fear of death is unacceptable. Real freedom is achieved when we are free of the fear of mortality. To deal this in details another post on another day.

For now remember: fear of fear is the only fear we should fear