Friday, December 21, 2012

At the Shaolin Temple

We live as we dream…alone.

-Joseph Conrad

The downpour seemed never ending, to my annoyance. Cold shivers ran down my spine. I wished that I should have left the rucksack on, to retain warmth. The rain drops trickled from the leaves of the old banyan tree. A mangy dog rubbed his back and edged close to me. The rain rode on the gust, aimlessly, drenching me to the bone. There was no escape.

I recalled the early morning train to Lonavala.

I had walked to the bus station to put on my shorts. The load on my back was around 25kg. I had put on my windcheater and walked out, well prepared to get soaked.

I had chosen to be alone on this journey; a 25 km trek to and from Rajmachi fort. It was to prepare myself for a bigger ordeal, Solo expedition in Himalayas after the Advance course at Manali. The hike along the dam backwaters into the valley was eventless. I enjoyed the waterfalls that played hide and seek through the mist.

The lush green forestry dripped with morning dew. The drizzle in the morning had helped to ease the burden of the sack and I had felt fresh. I had reached the Rajmachi fort, and started back after an hour’s rest crossing the streams on the way. After a brief chat with villagers at Rajmachi village, I had started on my return trek to Lonavala.

As the rainfall re-started, I sought shelter under the tree.

I glanced at the rivulets that formed beneath me in a pool of water. Each drop created a disturbance of itself. Was it same with the human mind?

The calmness of the mind disrupted by thoughts or the feeling of discomfort.

The tree had sheltered me from the down pour. The tiny drops were now a nuisance.

What if the tree did not exist?

My body was only getting colder and the better way was to continue. I crouched to pick up my sack. “It is all in the mind. No level of comfort can please a human mind forever.”

With a heave, I slung the sack and walked out into the torrent, planning for the expedition. It would be just like this in the Himalayas.

“Comfort is all in the mind. Comparisons with a worse situation help to build a cocoon. For this, I should face tough situations through my training.”

I walked thoroughly drenched into the bus station and changed into passable clothes, disregarding the glances of people around. Laymen would never understand.

Perhaps, Buhl had been through this too. Hermann Buhl and Reinhold Messener, were my role models.

My thoughts raced at the pace of the train, my hair blew down the face with the draft. My eyes searched the compartment for imaginary holds and crevices. I hardly realised my empty stomach ; and my mind raced ahead with future plans.

I would buy equipment and food after the course and attempt Mt Manali. A week’s climb seemed viable for a solo expedition. The fear of being alone was not the bother.

But would I be able to erect his triangular tent?

Another worry was Size 11 Climbing boots.

I remembered the ordeal at Sinhagad a week before. I had climbed a 45 feet rock with a laden sack. The descent was tough and I had to choose an easier route. In Himalayas there would be no escape routes. Perhaps I could hurl my sack down the slope and retrieve it later after climbing down.

As the train entered Pune, announcements echoed in the station and I was back to reality. The super thoughts vanished and I was now just another face in the mob.

Back at home, I switched on the cassette player. Ghulam Ali reminded me of my unfinished Oil painting. I used to play it repeatedly as this only cassette on the stereo, when copying masterpieces. My latest one was Sir Reynold’s Mrs Siddons as Lady Macbeth, that I intended to submit for an art exhibition.

The painting had engrossed me and it was too late to go for the regular run. I lay on my bed and stared at the ceiling. The empty hook, provided for the chandelier, caught my eye. It would make a good purchase for training pull-ups, if the burrs were covered by rags. In few more minutes, my pull-up gadget was ready.

I tried hanging on the left arm then with the right. The arms soon got heavy, the forearms taut like wires and I dropped down exhausted on the bed. I wished; I could put few small holds on the wall to train better.

The quarry behind the Fergusson college ground was a good place for practice. The rock was not very high and I tried the moves from a Patrick Edlinger film on free climbing. The challenge was to swing and hook the heel to same level as the handhold and I could now do it reasonably well. After the climbing practice I cycled to the polytechnic for late night school. The brand of the cycle, ‘Robinhood’, was at least 30 years old and had large heavy duty frame. I had fixed a 3 speed internal gear hub and cycling was a lot of fun. I missed my friend circle and our cycling trips.

I made frequent visits to the quarry. Someone had opened a few good routes that were protected with expansion bolts.

The part time course left me with very less time for exercise. The weekend treks were a respite. The advance course at Manali was a relief from my studies. I had applied for vacation from my work. My form for the advance course was accepted and I went ahead with the travel plans. This time I was to travel alone.

Byrdes of on kynde and color flok and flye allwayes together.

- William Turner

The Jhelum express had conveyed me to Pathankot. I had the impression that Manali was closer to Pathankot which proved to be incorrect. I reached the bus station and there were 4 hours to kill till the night bus left for Kullu. I had plenty of time to kill and lot of folks to watch.

A couple of twin German girls waited for a bus to Dalhousie got lot of attention from everyone (and me). An “Ayurvedic” swindler was trying to sell some ointment that would remove the plaque and decay from the teeth. He was very good at marketing the stuff and sold 6 bottles in a single bus.

“No. I do not have bad teeth. I do not want to try it. Thanks!”

He waited patiently for my bus and his would be customers. Meanwhile, the eye candy German twins had vanished.

The solitude forced me to think, why I was alone. It was a conflict of multiple priorities that Milind, Girish and I were facing. Milind was making moves to secure a higher post in another department. Girish was busy with exams. We just could not find any time to get together for a climb. I refused to believe that this was the end of climbing for us.

I had to get the advance certificate so that I could lead expeditions. Further, I was still weak at rock climbing and had absolutely no awareness of Advance techniques and gear. My investment would pay off for the three of us.

The solitude was actually making me stronger. The rebel was more rebellious without a team. If our band had disbanded, I should get stronger to pursue my passion, alone. With luck, this would draw my friends back into climbing!

I was carrying plenty of cash and I was alone. Credit cards were unheard of. Traveller checks had to be cashed in state banks. National holidays and weekends put me at more risk if I ran into an emergency. At every bus stop I had to climb out of my bus Window to check my Haversack. I did not get a wink of sleep that night, till I dismounted next morning at Kullu.

Early morning, I travelled from Kullu to Manali. The Orchards on the side of the road were laden with Rosy Apples. Manali had not yet developed into a commercial tourist hub. It was due to the simplicity of the village, I had developed an immediate liking for the place. I stayed in a hotel close to the Bus station. The floor was varnished wood with wooden furniture and closets. The room had a unique taste of “Luxury.” I caught up with my exercise with few rounds of pushups. Later, I enjoyed a nice meal of Roti and Malai Kofta.

In the evening, I walked the turbulent Beas river. I saw a plaque that showed the institute was a few miles further down the road.

I felt like the monk at the Shaolin temple.

The road side was flooded with rotten apples dropped from the orchards. The trees loaded with apple crop, ripe and ready to be plucked. After a short walk, avoiding temptations, I reached the Mountaineering institute. It was a wooden palace erected for the Dalai Lama when he travelled from Tibet to India. ‘No Smoking’ signs were displayed at many places. Fire hazard was a serious threat to the Heritage building.

I was greeted by two guys from Himachal. They had directly lodged at the Institute and saved the hotel charges. I walked into the room that was secured for the advance course. It had few bunk beds. I claimed my place and put on the shoes. I struck my first friendship in my group.

The Tibetan looking lad was barely 19 years old. He beamed at me and introduced. “Dorje. Dorjey Tundup.” Dorje wore a T shirt that Protested..FREE LADAKH FROM KASHMIR.

Dorje was from Ladakh, a man born to climb.

I had a vague idea of Ladakh though I was better aware of the Kashmir situation, I was aware that most of the Ladakhis were peaceful people. The Banner told me that all was not rosy at Ladakh.

I asked Dorje if he was willing to join me for bouldering. He happily agreed. We walked to the boulder field behind the Institute. I observed that Dorje was quick on his feet and exceptionally well balanced. He had weaker arms but he used his strengths well.

I asked, “ Did you climb any major peaks? I am going to attempt Mt Manali after the course.”

Dorje: "I climbed only two peaks. The big one is Mamotsong Kangri which is 23,000’.

I was impressed at the utter disregard that he treated a major climb. It was like a day in his life task.

I asked, “Would you like to join me for climbing Mt Manali?”

He answered, “ We should think about big things in life. Why spend time in approaching small peaks if you can do the same in a week in Ladakh.”

Dorje was younger than me by 6 years. But he had opened my eyes to think big and dream bigger. We struck an instant friendship. I opened another topic of discussion. Even if I did not go ahead with my climb, I still needed to purchase gear for future expeditions.

I had my eyes on a pair of Goretex approach-march shoes in the Tibetan market. The Old Tibetan Lady had not budged to my offer of Rs 750/- Perhaps Dorje would negotiate better?

We walked to the Tibetan market and Dorje opened the talk in Tibetan. The Old woman was watching me all the time. I gathered from the tone of the conversation that she knew that I was using my new friends to bargain and she stuck to the price of Rs 1000/-.

Dorje finally managed to close the deal at Rs 800/-. The Shop owner still cribbed about the quality of the boots and maintained that she had cut her profit to benefit a Mountain climber.

Dorje then took me to a Tibetan hotel where we had a dish of Thupka and Momos.
I was completely new to this food but I liked the taste.

The first few days flew and we never had time to take a bath. The training sessions were so hectic that many of us complained of no bowels. The instructors said, “Its good. You are consuming every bit that you eat. Perhaps it’s just too many apples.”

I had always thought that the apples had a good cleansing effect or was I wrong to think so.

The Daily schedule was packed to the brim with morning workout, Equipment handling, Weather forecasting and rock climbing sessions. By Bedtime we still had to complete create a write-up for plan of expedition for any nearby peak by studying map. I chose to write on Deo Tibba. After Dorji’s chat, I felt that Mt Manali was not suitable enough for advance course candidate. My “project submission” was done and I joined the line to collect my equipment. During the equipment distribution I was shocked to find 10 point crampons in my kit.

How would I climb steeper walls if I had no front points?

The basic course left for the Solang Valley in a bus. The advance course team had to carry their heavy sacks from the institute to the valley. We had lunch tiffin to keep us full. It was a very long walk and we were dreary as we walked into the Ski hut. The good part? No one hitch hiked to Solang. The walk was a part of acclimatization training and everyone agreed with this.

During the next day, someone mentioned that the log bridge was washed away and we may have to stay at Bakhartaj. This was the highest spot that shepherds grazed the cattle. Higher above, the vegetation was thinner. As soon as we erected the tents, a heavy rain started. We had luckily dug gutters around the tent and were saved of the water seepage.

At the dinner call I walked out to the mess tent in midst of a heavy rain. Chapati and Vegetable was served was immediately disintegrated into a soupy unpalatable mouldy mess.

My training in the rains was useful, but there was no return on investment to relish a nice warm dinner after a days trek.

Next morning, we crossed the log bridge and climbed the grassy slopes that converged into a glacial moraine. We scrambled on and found a flat space to erect the advance course camp site. This was closer to the glacier, where we would be training for ice and snow craft. Negi the quarter master was my tent mate. During the talk he mentioned that he was studying for the IAS where the Advance certificate carried lot of value for the overall score. I was amused as I only lost my vacation and money to get a certificate that would only provide more fuel to my crazy climbing pursuits, eventually to lose more money and perhaps a slower progress in the corporate ladder for the “abnormal behavior”; whereas, these guys were getting true return on their “investment”. A large part of their fees was waived off being Himachal citizens.

Yet, it was good to have the Quarter master as a mate as he would get in some of the food stuff from the Kitchen tent.

When talking with few other instructors I met a good personality, who had attempted the Southwest face of Everest. I had Chris Bonnington’s books on his success on the face and anyone who had touched it seemed like a god. Our instructor was a local Skiing champion. I wish he had the funds to travel abroad and show his skills.

The next day we climbed up the glacier towards Mt Hanuman Tibba. The lesson was on Self arrest. Self arrest techniques are important for climbers:

1) During a fall the climber has to decelerate the fall and stop

2) During a fast descent the climbers can glissade down a slope and put on the brakes using the ice axe.

I hope that climbers take this training very seriously. Any control lost can be disastrous to the entire climbing rope. The slope was around 45 degrees. My First glissade was in sitting position I sled down the slope and braked when the instructor shouted to stop. This was easy.

But Life is not easy! So I climbed up again.

The next step: I slept on my chest head facing down the slope and ice axe held above the head.

As my friend let go I rushed down the slope accelerating.. my heart pounding to hear that “STOP” signal. And it happened. I dug the pick on the side and the body swung.. I then forced the shaft deep into the snow. “Wow! This was something. And it works too.”

As I was thinking of what could be worse than head down position, I was asked to climb up the mound again.

This time, I was asked to sleep on my back, my friend held me by my shoes.

“Oh God!” I saw the blue sky and the rock walls tower above me.” I was scared. I knew that this was going to be really tough. “GO.”

I slid down on my back gathering speed my ears yearned to hear the “STOP”..This was exactly the position, if I ever fell on my back.

“STOP!!” I rolled to chest down position. This time, the speed was too much. I dug the pick of the axe as soon as I rolled and swung. Crack..The axe came off. I hit harder as I slid and again and again. The slide stopped. As I stood up and I did not have to put my hand on my chest to hear the heart beat. I could feel the throb above my ears.

I shook off the snow from inside the jacket. Now, I could do the same to my mate!

A few days of Ice craft followed where we were asked to climb a steep ice wall with only two Ice screw pitons. The process was simple. Screw in the first screw at around the position of the head. As I turned it, I had the same feeling as a hole threading exercise in a fabrication Workshop. I hauled myself to the screw and then started drilling in the next screw. Now, I had to anchor myself higher up, reach for the bottom screw, unscrew it and nail it again above my head. The process was simple, but the progress was very slow. I gained the confidence that with artificial climbing almost anything is possible.

Climbing using two ice hammers was the next step. This was very awkward with the ten point crampons. I ended up doing a long series of scratches on the ice The Axes dig well but the feet don’t listen.. Soon I found that the left arm was not used to hammering the pick at all. The pick came off and I slid down.

“Shame on you! This is not expected from an Advance course cadet.”

I held my head low. Dorjee tried to cajole me. I was sure to make a better effort only if I had 12 point crampons.

My Instructor danced on the vertical wall on the front points, without his Ice axe. It seemed so easy for him. Was he reading my thoughts when he loaned his crampons to me. I found that looks could be deceiving.

It’s easy to covet others prosperity, but it is difficult to live in their shoes.

Ice craft needs practice. Every kick into the rock hard Ice caused a pain in my toes. Less forceful the kick, lesser the purchase, more the slippage. The kick should be well angled and impactful.

The lessons in icecraft were done. The day was clear as I packed my sack. We were now to make a summit attempt. The peak chosen was Mt Ladakhi that offers average rock and snow climbing. The important aspect was height gain and to gauge the team performance at High altitude. Dorjee had teamed with me and Raj. The team climbed along a long ridge to Mt Shitidhar. After a The camp was established. The cook brewed some hot Maggi Noodles in the pressure cooker. The “2 minute noodles” needed 30 minutes to cook, in a cooker.

As the sun sank behind the ridge the summit of Mt Hanuman Tibba shone with a strange light. The peaks far were perhaps the Deo Tibba and Indrasan massif . The cold came with the night and a ran a shiver down my spine. I was the only climber with a sweater and a thin windcheater and the sleeping bag was comfort.

The night slept as the dawn tookover. It was 4AM when Bed Tea was served. I was fumbling with the icy crampons and they would not fit. Dorjee was a big help as he tied the laces on to my shoes.We formed two ropes each was tailed by the instructor. As we climbed the Shitidhar slopes I was breathing heavily. The nose was choked up and I was slowing down my rope. I cleared the phlegm and it was an instant relief. The sun was now up and the rays caressed and warmed the body. With my vitality upgraded I swapped to the lead position. Soon we were at the top of Mount Shitidhar. The weather was getting cloudy and the Ladakhi summit was hidden. I had a glimpse of Mt Manali which looked very easy from our location. We got to the top of Shitidhar and clicked some photographs. Our instructors decided to call off the climb as the weather was turning bad. I retreated with my instructor and Dorjee. They removed their crampons and started a standing glissade and I could see the skier in him, as he swept down the slopes effortlessly. I forgot all the glissade lessons and was safely following the bucket steps that we had carved during our ascent.

We wound up the tent and started the descent to base camp. It was a pleasure to switch from my heavy mountain boots to the lightweight Goretex shoes. My investment was paying off well.

Dorjee and I paid a short visit to Beas Kund. Was it true that the Mahabharata epic was conceived at this peaceful place? Dorjeee said, “It is believed that if you ask for a wish, it shall come true.”

I thought of things that I would wish for. My carrier was in my hands and I knew that I would be able to struggle to achieve what I wanted. But there was something that I was unsure about. I rarely interacted with any females. I always fearful, that a woman would pull me away from mountain climbing. I knew what to pray for. I asked for a good wife, who would understand my passion for adventure. I opened my eyes and looked at the pond. There was no wind and the water seemed like a mirror. The rock wall in front of the pond merged into its reflection in the water so well that I could not locate the partition.

I had been without a bath for a fortnight. Since all was done, Dorjee had a thorough bath in a stream. We wandered and brought some shrubs for camp fire. Someone sang “I believe in Angels” and I joined in to ruin the song further. The effort of the climb was paid off with a sumptuous dinner.

It is a fine morning. The clouds had retreated, plenty of sunshine to bask in and no more labor is expected. I join my colleagues for our last lecture. The topic: Rescue operation.

Negi has offered to be the injured. We fumble with ways to use the rope, ice axe and carry mat to make a stretcher on to which, Negi is helplessly tied on a carrymat. We carried him all over the boulder field and slopes. It was fun. We were paid with a hot halwa made of pure ghee, which is saved for the last day. The Instructors called us out for a final session and we are to bring our empty haversacks. This time, Negi did not a volunteer.

The initial thought is to get more firewood for a late night campfire but as it turns out, its only partly true. The instructors have something else on their mind and it is almost evening.

The Session is benightment. We are asked to go to Bias Kund and pick up some wood on the way. We are to stay there for one night without food. The sweet desert was catered just to add few calories that would eventually be burned out in the cold night. I had not eaten much for detest of sweets.

Solemnly, we gathered few shrubs for the night fire. The day was clear and we expect the night to be subzero. Beas Kund is a flat place and there is no shelter. We grouped together in a wall of rocks made that had served as a kitchen for an old expedition.

All of my mates wore their feather jackets and I cursed myself for not having carried one. I felt colder. No one suggested to light the camp fire, as we wanted to postpone it to a late hour.

If the fire died and we ran out of fuel, we would feel colder. There being no firewood at Beas kund our only hope was to kindle it only at the right time. I remembered my Bivoac on Matri and the crevasse. This was a much better place devoid of snow field, icicles or avalanche hazard. I narrated the story to the folks. Soon each of us started reciting some anecdotes. In later rounds the topic turned to adult jokes, which is subsequent talk converged into sex stories. Dorjee narrated a ghost story about a climbing team that had died on an expedition to Ladakh. He mentioned that he was a porter and he swore that he had seen this in real life. To add fuel to the fire, someone started an argument about ghosts being nothing more than illusions of cobwebs in the minds. I cajoled Dorjee to ask for few more details and he went on and on.

I had lost the sensation in the bottom and I snuggled my feet inside the rucksack. Soon others followed the same. We had started working on the training to put it to practice.

We all realized that this was not a night to sleep. We had to keep awake and keep moving to retain the heat. We had agreed that the fire could be started at around 1AM.

Our faces glowed as the fire crackled. We tried to keep it low. Everyone thawed their frozen hands. I drew my feet out of the sack and pushed them close to the fire. It brought life to my toes till someone told me, my socks were on fire. There was a roar of laughter, as I gaped at the hole. I drew back into my sack.

Fortunately the fire went on till 5AM and we had a massive fire with the remaining wood before retreating to the base camp. Back at base we had hot food waiting for us and the instructors listened to our stories. There was so much to learn from a forced bivouac.

We packed our gear and the tents were loaded onto the mules. We climbed down to Solang valley. A renowned Bollywood hero was shooting for a film and the basic course crowded around him to get an autograph. Someone told that the actor was he was suffering from High altitude sickness. We felt that we were the real life heroes and the Bollywood actor was a softie. No one in the group went to meet this guy.

At noon we had the final interview. The chief instructor asked a few technical questions during the oral examination. Then he asked a pointed question.

“What do you think about the decision about retreating from the mountain?”

“ I felt sad at not being able to climb the Mt Ladakhi. The instructors said that the weather was turning bad. Probably they thought it was the right thing to do.”

“What would you have done if you were the instructor?”

I pondered and I realized that I had always thought about my goal and not the situation of the team as a whole. If I led a team, my wish would not matter, but I would think about the weakest member in the team. My instructors were capable of judging the team and thus would have favored the decision to retreat.

I answered, “ I would have asked to retreat, as safety of my group was worth a lot more than my personal ambitions.”

It was the last day at Solang. The Basic course climbed onto the trucks to travel back to the Institute at Manali. The Advance course walked by road to Manali. The trek was easy as we were well acclimatized “Advance” climbers.

On the following day, I was awarded “A” grade for completing my course. However, along with the joy, I also grieved as my favorite singer Hemant Kumar had passed away. I said goodbye to Dorjee and hoped that we remain in touch for Mamotsong Kangri plan.

I travelled back to Delhi with a group from Mumbai via, Macleodganj. I touched the prayer wheels at the Dalai Lama’s palace and someone told me that he had travelled abroad.

I knew the reason a few days later. Dalai Lama received his Nobel Pize for Peace.

As I rejoined my duties, it was a sad period for my company. We were facing a crisis. The Union had called for a factory closure and many of my close friends were influenced and involved. There was not much that I could do apart from catching up with my share of a months work.