Saturday, April 16, 2011

When does a Climb really begin?

After a series of Kenya posts, I decided to give Kenya a break, though there’s lot more to be written about that wonderful country with all its contrary incomprehensible comprehensiveness.

So let’s go back to our favorite arena of the big mountains and look at the question posed above. Actually this is a trick question since it doesn’t really have a definite answer, even I don’t have one that can be universally applied. Though I can certainly tell you when does a climb really ends; and that happens when you return home to your family and friends and regale them with your stories while showing them your pictures over cups of coffee / tea / juice / alcoholic beverages to the accompaniment of delightful savories; I don’t mind a full 14 course dinner either. Many of my vertical community citizens too prescribe to this view. It has often been debated that if a climber dies while on the summit or on his way down and doesn’t return alive then should he be credited with the summit! This is purely an academic situation though since by then the climber has scaled such heights that no mortal would ever reach. By now I am certain some of you have already caught my drift that I am once again trying to befuddle you all with my rhetoric without hitting the nail on its head. Ok, so here goes.

For some the climb begins on ground just before they step into their gear and take the first step up, for some the climb begins within the deep confines of their mind with the first image of the mountain they wish to summit, while for some the climb begins and ends on ground. Once my friend Ed Viesturs, the first American to climb all the fourteen 8000 m peaks in the world, said ‘summit is optional, getting down is mandatory.’ I absolutely subscribe to his view and have always followed it as god’s gospel truth. No mountain however beautiful, tempting and high isn’t worth enough to sacrifice one’s life. Mountains and extreme mountaineering teaches us to value and cherish life, not to extinguish it with some foolhardy acts of bravado. Reaching the summit is only half the story, the easier half and then begins the real adventure, the struggle to stay alive and return from where it all had begun.

Though on different climbs, my real climb could begin from different stages, there’s one point where it always does, no matter what and recently a non-climbing friend of mine from a distant land brought this point home when she mentioned; the real climb begins when you reach the top. I couldn’t agree with her more. The return journey from the top is more dangerous and most accidents and deaths on a mountain occur while descending. But then you would point out that coming down isn’t climbing and I am only speaking in metaphors and spiritual sense. Only non-climbing readers would say so, since when we descend on very steep and dangerous grounds we use a technique called: down-climbing or climbing-down. This sounds like oxymoron for sure, but then that’s what we do. So coming down is climbing too and that is the real climb which begins at the summit, right at the top of the peak.

By the time we reach the top, we are physically exhausted and have already used a large part of our rack / gear and the adrenalin that has been pumping in our blood, once we summit, dissipates immediately. Topping it all we are in a mad rush to descend and reach back within the warmth of our tents below and hot fluid. Body also starts freezing as we start to descend. Imagine the scenario, while going up our body is warm, mind is focused, we have more protections, and we have more energy. While descending we are physically weaker and more exhausted, our mind is listless, we have less gear and we are in a hurry – sure concoction for disaster. As our mind and body weakens and freezes our ability to make sound judgments also wane, which gets compounded, directly proportional to the altitude. And precisely for that reason the real climb must begin at the summit. We need to be more careful, more focused, more technically competent and more determined and above all we must climb down slowly and steadily with deliberation.

Mountains are my first love and I am married to them, even then I can’t stay on top forever. Such places are not meant for mortal humans beyond a very limited period of time. Despite having spent the better part of my life within the white arena I always wish to come down, to descend back to the green and lush earth though not into the city precincts.

My real climb always begins at the summit or at the point from where I decide to descend; where does your real climb begin? Happy climbing friends and I will always see you on TOP!


  1. Very different, interesting & thought provoking perspective. Cheers Satya!

  2. Hi Sat, Came across your blog out of the blue. Hope you remember me, Sophia here, from Greece. We had done some awesome stuff in Mongolia. I remember you had told the same thing to me there too and you had saved my life while we came down. I don't climb any more. I guess you are still up to your crazy adventures. Take care xx

  3. pondering and wondering... where does my real climbing start??? oh well... what matters is that you'll always c me on top too. LOL and LOL.