On Dhakoba (Photo by Siddhanath Sathe)

On Dhakoba (Photo: courtesy Siddhanath Sathe)

The moment the chairman said Everest and pointed to a man now standing few rows behind me, the dreary annual general meeting came alive in my mind.

Over time, a company AGM in Mumbai had come to mean a very boring experience. It was usually a parade of compliant shareholders. The eagerness to see their long held stocks multiplying in value somehow, rendered their arguments tame and awash in sycophancy. Beneath the praise they showered on management and the poetry they recited to indulge the board’s ego, you could sense that living, breathing love for wealth. Occasionally a shareholder or two, carried away by the luxury of microphone and audience, would transform into a two-minute business consultant and fling angry advice at the CEO and his team. That was fun for the media. I don’t know what the board thought of it.

With real news happening only when the company chairman spoke and that restricted typically to five minute-slots separated by a dozen shareholders speaking, it was the entertainment that kept journalists awake. We lay sunk in the auditorium seats like bodies in cryogenic preservation. Indeed some AGMs resembled inter-galactic flight. From their commencement to end through three dozen speeches, poetry and business advice, it took a couple of light years. Doodle dominated reporters’ notepads. Everest however brought me alive. The sycophants, the poets, the eulogists – all of them blurred out of focus in that massive hall. The only person in focus was Surendra Chavan, a company employee, who had reached the summit of the world’s highest peak in 1998.

Days later I interviewed him at his workplace – an automobile showroom full of spanking new vehicles in Worli.

That was the first time I heard of Dhakoba.

Chavan had climbed its high rock face in the years before his Everest ascent.

I left Chavan and the showroom to report on a successful expedition to Everest but what stuck in mind was that name with a ring to it – Dhakoba. Some hill names are quite personal; some get personal. If Ajoba in the Maharashtra Sahyadri meant `grandfather’ and seemed to convey something as approachable, Dhakoba sounded as though it would kick me out – dhak! I found it in the local guide book for trekking, impressively tall for a Sahyadri hill, a difficult hike along the regular trail with everybody cautioned to carry water as that was hard to come by. Some months later I got to see it. We – Satinder and I – were returning from an easy hike to a pinnacle-shaped hill called Gorakhgad. The road in front of the hill caught my attention. Probably it was courtesy the sheer relief of being in the outdoors and away from Mumbai’s teeming population – but I couldn’t help gazing in awe at this empty road which ran flat out on the plains and had one side totally walled up end-to-end by impressive hills. That’s how I first saw it in the distance, a sheer rock face lurking in the shadow – Dhakoba.

For some reason, none of my outings took me to Dhakoba although I was many times in the neighborhood, even seeing the hill again from far. Then one day, my club – Girivihar – announced a three day-trek to the 4148 ft high-Dhakoba and its neighbor, Durga Killa, I told my friends to count me in. A minor detail worried – I hadn’t trekked for some time. These people trek hard. They had already commenced the trekking season and wanted to go up by a demanding route, come down by an even more demanding route. Descents particularly are difficult. Pushed beyond a point would I succumb to its not-so-elegant versions? It would be hugely embarrassing if I slid down on my butt unable to handle the exposed heights or the granular scree that visits Sahyadri trails in the dry season. At the pre-hike meeting in Dadar’s Café Colony, they had a potential solution for it – something akin to the Karjat-Pune railway line where trains have engines at both ends. It was the club joke and the club solution for people panicking and crumpling on a trail. At that point in time, given my hiatus from trekking which had lasted some months, I was worried that I may end up a candidate for Karjat-Pune treatment.

A late October eight of us with heavy loads on our back, trekked up the Darya Ghat trail from Ishtyechiwadi to the shoulder of Dhakoba, next to the rock face Chavan had climbed. Somewhere on that huge expanse of rock plastered vertical to the ground, was the route he took. I was reminded of my cousin telling me of his visit to Yosemite in the US. The huge rock faces there are the stuff of legend in the history of rock climbing. Climbing comes in different styles and packages. Several nationalities have left their stamp on the sport, spinning their own unique obsessions. The first major US stamp on climbing, until then a largely European domain, came in the middle of the twentieth century with big wall climbing. The cradle for taking this climbing format to the heights it touched along with accompanying techniques was the Yosemite Valley.

The top prize in this vertical challenge was a towering rock face weathered by glacial action.

It was called El Capitan and stood 3000 ft high.

In the thick of the competition to be the first up new routes on the imposing cliff Warren Harding, a pioneer of American big wall climbing, proceeded to bolt a route that has since come to be called as The Nose. Drilled and fitted into the rock these metal aids and the equipment you could attach to them, helped you secure climbs otherwise denied on difficult, featureless surface.

While pitons were already in use in climbing, the expansion bolt went beyond mere placement on rock to adding a touch of technology. At the tip of every expansion bolt is a chip of alloy that expands to fill the space inside a hole that has been drilled in rock to accept the device. It positions itself in firmly. You can attach a rope ladder to a bolt, stand on it to fix the next bolt further up and keep proceeding thus or as more aesthetically inclined climbers do, use the bolt only for a patch that is too tough for other means of climbing. You can also rappel down a selected line of climb – in which case you are descending from the top of the cliff, having accessed the apex otherwise – examine the rock with climbing movements in mind and place bolts accordingly at the right places. Bolts have since come to stay in climbing. Alongside the debate on whether they erode the purity of a climb has refused to die.

Those days however, the debate was boiling hot.

Warren Harding was an iconoclast. He used bolts. Royal Robbins, Harding’s main competitor, was a purist who did not even like a removable piton being driven into rock. Books on the history of climbing describe how Harding and his team, climbing in an “expedition style’’ reminiscent of laying siege to the rock face, bolted their way up El Capitan’s Nose route to record its first ascent on November 12, 1958. They used 675 pitons and 125 expansion bolts to complete the task. Seven days later, Robbins and his friends repeated the climb using the same bolts.

The two climbers sharply etched the divide guarding their respective approaches in 1970, when Harding in a much publicized climb of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall resorted to heavy bolting again. This time around, Robbins while repeating the climb chopped off the bolts rendering them useless for climbing by others. He was that opposed to diluting the purity of a challenge. Some versions of the story say that he allowed the bolts higher up to remain in place for the grade of aid climbing was quite tough. Either way, bolted or otherwise, those Yosemite walls are formidable to the eyes of a novice like me looking it up in a book or on the Internet. El Capitan; El Cap as it is often called by climbers, has since become the benchmark for big wall climbing. A lot of practices that evolved in the valley found their way into mountaineering to tackle the challenge of climbing huge rock faces at altitude.

After that first ascent of the Nose, subsequent climbs up El Capitan and other similar faces in the Yosemite region have been measured in terms of style adopted, purity of climb and even the speed of ascent. What once took people several days to complete and even now takes two to three days to do, is polished off by super athletes within hours. They plan and rehearse their efficiency to perfection and then zip up the route. For most of us, used to inheriting the ground, all that fine tuning of erstwhile records set in vertical wilderness is meaningless. The climb itself is stunning. What my cousin saw was just that – high up on the rock wall, a couple of people patiently picking their way up in a vertical world of granite. Photos of El Capitan usually show granite that sports a pale cream color. It reminds you of the coat of a lion in its prime.

Dhakoba in contrast was a brooding black in color. Its rock was most likely volcanic in origin. The hill faintly peaked at the centre into a mild triangle. That was probably enough to qualify it for one of those popular names evoking a cobra’s hood – nagphani. Yet it was called Dhakoba and, its rock face was huge. In the local dialect, the word ` dhak’ meant cliff or hill and Dhakoba was the name of the presiding deity. Chavan said that his team had climbed the face alpine style in six days. Their route along the main rock wall made sure it exited at the peak’s highest point. Some bolting was resorted to. But the face was mostly free climbed in the traditional style using equipment that you removed as you climbed past each stage.

Our trail was a steady, stiff ascent especially with load on the back. From the shoulder Of Dhakoba you tackled an exposed rock patch to gain access to the hill’s upper plateau. Thus far so good, I thought. It hadn’t been as bad as I feared it may be. Night halts on these local treks were usually in a cave, fort or temple. There was a small temple waiting for us on this hike. But failing to locate it, we proceeded straight to Durga Killa. That ten hour-trek, brought us earlier than scheduled to our site of descent, the Khuntidar Ghat. Direct and simple, like the outstretched tongue of an angry Hindu goddess it slipped off Durga Killa’s edge into the void; a short cut. My friends were excited seeing it. I was reminded of Shelby Tucker’s book on his walk across Burma with the Kachin Independence Army. A short cut, he had noted in that fashion so characteristic of the English language, was what the Kachins called a difficult deviation from an easy gradient. In these hills, my friends from the club were like guerilla fighters on home turf they knew like the back of their palm. The more they knew it, the more was the perception that nothing could go wrong and so wilder became their choice of trail.

I wasn’t a senior citizen like Tucker but an affinity for melancholic reflection and backdrop as a journalist, gave me a mind that worked overtime with imagination. I nervously gazed at the trail, rather what was supposed to be the trail for descent. All I could see at the edge of the hill I was on was a little patch of flattened grass, the sort that betrays a spot where somebody fell or slid off and you later installed a plaque remembering the late so and so, who was a good person, great family man, wonderful husband, friend, philosopher and guide till he slipped on a tiny round stone here and went skidding off to the blessed next life. Coming to think of it, I haven’t seen such plaques in the Sahyadri but there are a few I know of in the Himalaya. Beyond where I stood was an airy amphitheatre of rock and space. It seemed more a place to base-jump with parachute or use as ski ramp to take off and kiss the sky goodbye, than walk down on two legs. I mean – where does the next step go? I walked up and down the edge of the precipice hoping to see a better spot for descent; there was none.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

“ Tomorrow,’’ the trail hissed, studying me with anticipation.

An eagle soared blissfully in the void.

Lucky bird, it was at peace and enjoying the scary locale.

If only I had wings.

Hill trails are varying blends of the same constituents. The easy ones meander at leisure over gentle gradients; take a pinch of the occasional gully for a quick height gain, relapse to a thoughtful ridge and on the whole exhaust you within scope of revival. For a decent trekker, that’s a nice way to stretch one’s legs. The tougher trails dispense with gentle gradients and thoughtful ridges and head straight for a steep ridge or gully. They betray impatience and are naturally, unkind to novices. There are plenty of these stiff routes – stiff, is the right word – in the Sahyadri, Darya Ghat being one of them. No room for thought on these paths; you just sink into a rhythmic ascent in a world shrunk gully-size. God knows what urgency drives man to refine this paradigm, but the Khuntidar model was a shorter version of the gully-short cut. The trail, like a serpent slithering down from the top, made for a ridge below, bridging the gap between the top of the ridge and the top of the hill with zigzag lines on the rock wall. The relevant ridge from the Rampur side of Durga Killa rose to perhaps half the height of the rock wall. That serpent of a trail ruled the balance portion. How nice.

All hills on this Siddhagad-Nane Ghat stretch offer a panoramic view as they mark the plunge of the Desh plateau to the Konkan plain. Harish Kapadia’s guidebook had noted – Dhakoba’s wall dropped 1100 meters and that of nearby Jivdhan, 1000 meters. Durga Killa’s elevation was in between. I gazed at the void and imagined a perch on the rock wall. No, it wouldn’t be so tenuous, for most rock walls betray gentler gradients up close and no pathway would really court the vertical. This was a walk; a descent that bordered the realm of climbing. It was probably a similar, albeit graver, situation on UK’s Scafell that earned Samuel Taylor Coleridge the distinction of doing what the West considers, the first rock climb in August 1802. As with Asian amusement over the claim that the Himalaya was explored first by the Europeans, I suppose this claim around Coleridge raises eyebrows in the UK. But keep that aside for Robert Macfarlane’s book, ` Mountains of the Mind,’ which mentions this is a brilliant piece of writing. According to him, Coleridge’s ethic entailed picking a mountain; reaching its top and then instead of descending by the easy way down he would choose the first possible candidate for a route and follow it blindly. It was a gamble. Descents are hard and on Scafell, Coleridge ran into trouble. Eventually, he was forced to literally climb down. What a crazy character this man was, I thought, suddenly visualizing his predicament given where I stood. A tingle of vertigo ran down my spine. I drew back from the edge of the precipice and returned to the derelict building on Durga Killa that we had made our camp.

Early next morning we eased ourselves into the short cut. The trail was extremely narrow at start with the rock wall on one side and the airiness of the void on the other. As it descended, the narrowness remained but it avoided the absolute edge, hugging slightly better slopes hidden from above and equally unseen from afar. My hunch had been correct; they wouldn’t pass off a vertical climb as a trail. Probably that was the secret attraction in doing these delicate, tip toe hikes – they are like life itself, making you choke and suffer one minute, then greeting you with relief the next. In between, the trail was lost to a landslide, still unsettled. It was one of the trickiest slides I had seen, not so much for the slide per se but the little real estate around to arrest a slip. The hungry void was a mere fifty feet away. It reminded me of my careless finances with no investment done for comfortable retirement. No safety net. We moved Karjat-Pune style, out-of-form hikers in the middle, seasoned folks ahead and behind. Nothing lived, except the next step. Risk distraction and you rode scree off the hill. Compared to scree, the rock faces were safer to tread. They had man-made cuts and wooden pegs to hold while descending; hence the name Khuntidar Ghat, which indicates the use of those pegs.

A couple of youngsters appeared, they were villagers on their way up to Durga Killa and the settlement there. Barefoot and lightly loaded, they were on an enjoyable walk up the express way to their homes. I am sure at some other times they would as nonchalantly balance a load on their heads and patiently pick their way up the same path. I have seen that scene before – I would be holding my breath, hiking down heart in mouth over some precipitous scree slope selected by my wonderful friends when at this turn on the path would be a thin villager. Spindly legs, load on the head and chewing a blade of grass; he would stand to the trail’s edge and gaze at us curiously. Occasionally he would make an anxious sigh or two as I slipped on some rolling ball bearing of a stone; then he would chuckle in appreciation as I succeeded in temporarily arresting the slide. Next he would focus with a sort of what next-expression as I slowly, delicately unwound myself from that extremely awkward frozen position of balance to the next step on the hike. Tackling such trails was an art, in my case each move was a masterpiece in sculpture.

By the time the final ridge of Khuntidar Ghat ended my knees were jelly. For hours together, they had served as hinges for piston-legs. My friends looked very satisfied. The hike had been a smashing success. It bore every sign of that – the heart had been eaten alive in the mouth; the stomach was aflutter, the body had sweated buckets of sweat, the muscles were aching and them bones, it seemed amazing that there was something holding up the body after all. Around me, people smiled, exchanged grins. I was relieved to reach the village. At Rampur, all of us, villagers included, strained to read the route.  High on the rock face, like a suspended tear drop was the landslide we had crossed. But none could trace the full line of descent. A line drawn this way seemed as good as that way and there was plenty of rock face laughing at us to scribble as many lines as we wished.

The serpent had simply vanished.

(This trek was done some years ago. An abridged version of this article was published in The Hindu Business Line newspaper in December 2007. )

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