Photo: Ravi Kumar

Photo: Ravi Kumar

It was winter, 2013.

Cycling with trolley attached, is tough in Uttarakhand’s hills.

You have long uphill sections.

They seem a breeze when tackled in a car, jeep or bus.

To know what those roads actually are, you have to either run or cycle.

We took turns cycling the Kona, which hauled the trolley.

Ahead of Lansdowne we were having a particularly long day. As evening settled in, everything about our condition indicated that we had best halt somewhere. Problem was – there wasn’t any good place to stay or a clearing, quiet and sufficiently out of the way, for us to camp. We felt we might turn lucky if we pushed on. This we did on a very long ascent, half way up which, day transitioned to night and we found ourselves cycling with our headlamps on. Now that – is a very unwise thing to do in the mountains where the road-edge plunges hundreds of feet down. We knew this well. Eventually, at a turning on the road, we found a temple. But we had either run out of food or were exhausted enough to wish that somebody would feed us. We could see lights on a hillside some distance away. Ravi waited at the temple while I went ahead to look for a house and hopefully, a hospitable family who will cook us dinner.

I found both.

The family we stayed with (photo: Shyam G Menon)

The family we stayed with (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Roughly a kilometre on from the temple, about fifty feet up from the road was a house with its light still on. I asked if there was anyone around. A dog barked. Then a man emerged from the house. He listened to my request. I knew it was unexpected and tabled too late. He initially offered dinner cautioning that there was nothing special available and we would have to eat what the family had. “ That’s very kind of you. It is more than what we wanted,’’ I said. After ten minutes of quizzing to make sure that we were genuine travelers, he offered us food and a room to stay in. He urged me not to stay at the temple and instead, stay in the spare room at his house. I fetched Ravi. We parked our cycles in the courtyard of the house. We had dinner, conversed with the family and slept soundly. After a hearty breakfast, we offered to pay. The man, a former soldier, accepted nothing. I remember what he told me when I first asked for food, “ you are travelers. I have also traveled on work. I know what it is like to be in an unfamiliar place. Get your friend, you can eat what we have.’’

God bless that family.

Photo: Shyam G Menon

Photo: Shyam G Menon

Sometimes a trip happens that is so enjoyable that you don’t remember to keep a diary and you can’t subsequently recall where you had been. This cycle trip was in that league. Not more than ten days. Approximately 350-400km covered in the hills; two mountain bikes, one trolley (attached to a cycle) with camping gear, stove, spare clothes, repair kit and food (essentially tea and coffee for the morning), two small backpacks on us. We didn’t have panniers. So this arrangement seemed best. Real cyclists may call us crazy. But we weren’t that real in cycling. We had no goals; we just wished for a nice, winding hill road with camping spot and tea shops en route. Besides, I suspect when one’s grounding is in hiking and mountaineering, some weight to haul, getting roasted by the effort, grinning through it and then laughing at the eccentric fool one is – it all adds to life. When the sun was unbearably hot, we stopped and slept in the shade. When a place seemed particularly beautiful, we stopped to marvel at it. When the road was well-made and there was no traffic, we relaxed into the ride. When a terribly rough side road assured to host great Himalayan views beckoned, we ventured forth thankful that our cycles had suspensions. We had destination but none so iron clad that we couldn’t let an instance lead to another – that seemed our trip.

The route was based on recommendations from Punit Mehta, a friend with abundant love for hiking. He had also travelled much on his motorcycle; the roads and side roads on our itinerary were his inputs. I am not a great navigator but I suspect we may have ended up adding a couple of sub-routes of our own. Anyways, the journey was from Ranikhet in Kumaon to Lansdowne in Garhwal and then through a forest road open to traffic, to Maidavan. If I remember correct, we went via Dwarahat, Thalisain and Peersain. The exit wasn’t quite near Ranikhet; it was a day’s drive away. Both cycles – a Kona and a Mongoose – old and well used, performed splendidly. They belonged to Ravi, whose collection in Ranikhet included recumbent bikes and unicycles as well.

Coffee and Ravi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Coffee and Ravi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Self supported travel has two advantages. First it keeps cost low, provided nobody minds you camping around. Second, it lets you know places and people. Independence lets you explore and the moments of dependence – because you know clearly you are dependent and why – makes you grateful for help received. Good behaviour is half the job done on any trip or expedition. We had a couple of wonderful camps and tea shops that served us food. At some places we slept on a veranda or in a shed. In remote areas, the local shop may also be tea shop and traveler’s lodge. We caught up on news chatting with shop owners. In their lodge rooms, we met traveling salesmen and got a sense of rural marketing. We met women out cutting grass; seeing us they halted, struck up a conversation, inquired about our journey and sought a group photograph. We passed a hillside featuring many people trudging up to a local temple; got invited to the festival, got our share of sweets. An interesting aspect for me was that the two major towns linked by our route were the homes of Uttarakhand’s army regiments – the Kumaon Regiment and the Garhwal Rifles. The former is headquartered in Ranikhet, the latter in Lansdowne.

Our disappointments on the trip were probably just two. One fine day, Ravi decided that we would ask for a large citrus fruit called malta and get one free from somebody’s tree. It was to be the memorable postcard experience of tourism – you ask, a smiling face generously gives. We found two men seated near a cluster of malta trees. They pointed us to the owner, an old lady. Unfortunately she was in a grumpy mood. “ NO,’’ she said firmly. We dropped the malta plan. The other, was the curious case of some young men who looked at a pair of cyclists as a threat to their importance. While it was common to have youngsters quip that they had done similar trips or more, I was nearly unseated once when a youngster thrust his leg into my way as I cruised downhill. The people we could confidently engage with were retired military personnel. They had moved around the country on work and were at ease with strangers. I have always believed that the true gift of travel is how it takes you away from family and familiarity and makes you vulnerable. That state, bereft of ego, is when you know life.

The women we met, out cutting grass (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The women we met, out cutting grass (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

There was one memorably amusing episode from the trip.

We were camped in a field just below a rough, unpaved road.

All around were hills.

There had been little traffic on the road the previous evening, when we arrived. So we had had dinner at a shop some distance off in town (a small junction to be precise) and cycled back to the relative isolation of the field. We put up our tent and fell asleep quickly; it had been a long tiring day.

Late in the night, an individual or two, walking along the road had shined a torch in our direction. It is not always that you see a tent in the adjacent field.

Early morning was tad different.

We heard approaching conversation and then an abrupt cessation of talk as the passersby discovered the tent. Both Ravi and I, were feeling too lazy to stir out so early and engage the visitors. So we stayed put in our sleeping bags, hoping that they would go by as the others before did.

But the sound of walking had stopped.

There was a brief silence.

Then voices were heard.

“ You see that – a tent!’’

“ Must be the cyclists who were having dinner at the shop last night.’’

Photo: Ravi Kumar

Photo: Ravi Kumar

The sound of soles on sand and gravel emanated as the visitors shuffled down the side of the road to the little clearing where the tent stood. There were mumbled comments and grunts, the usual accompaniment of checking things out.

I was now wide awake, half wondering whether I should step out and say hello, which is the best way to avert too nosey an inspection. The worry in such situations isn’t the inspection per se. It is the potential damage to camping gear, not to mention – our cycles kept outside. If someone can guide the curiosity it helps.

But I didn’t want to get out early on a winter morning. Besides it was that sweet spot when the cold of a night bidding goodbye met a hint of the sun. Both day and night were languorously mixed. I stayed put in the sleeping bag.

We could sense people close by, our worlds separated by mere tent fabric.

Then somebody said clearly, “ woh Keralawala thhand se mar gaya hoga (that person from Kerala must have died due to the cold weather)!’’

There was a round of laughter after it.

The sound of shoes started moving away.

Mongoose and the mountains (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Mongoose and the mountains (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

It crunched sand and gravel climbing back up to the road.

Then it slowly faded as rhythmic strides.

Within the tent both of us had stifled our laughter at the comment till the visitors left. Now we got out of our sleeping bags and the tent laughing our heads off. Pronounced dead, I felt like a ghost, a happy ghost. Ravi got the stove going for the morning coffee. I took a photo of him at work; then stood there savouring the morning chill. That comment about me, hailing as I do from tropical Kerala (Mumbai where I live is also hot and humid), was my take away from this trip.

It’s nice to be still alive.

Once in a while I pinch myself to make sure I didn’t die in that tent.

Or maybe – I am the ghost who writes?

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

“ How are conditions up the mountain?’’ I asked, lifting my head from the stoop caused by the heavy backpack.

“ Not bad, lot of snow,’’ the athletic foreigner returning from Stok Kangri said, “ it’s all about timing and acclimatization really.’’ He looked at me squinting from strain. “ Are you acclimatized?’’ “ Oh yes,’’ I replied vaguely, “ have been around in Ladakh for almost two weeks.’’ “ Well, good luck then.’’ He walked on. It took me a few seconds to straighten up, feel the backpack’s load transfer to my hips and proceed slowly up the trail. That pack had no business being so heavy. All it carried was personal gear – water, sleeping bag, plastic mountaineering boots, crampons and ice axe. Yet it felt dead heavy.

I was tired. The trail within ran back to Mumbai. Freelancing had changed my life. In times of inflation, my income reduced to a trickle. All I could do to keep the creeping sense of failure at bay was maintain another busy schedule around whatever I liked doing. Loneliness took hold. That was when Choszang Namgial, who I had worked with on a high altitude trek before, called up. He remembered my desire to visit Leh, attempt Stok Kangri. A Ladakhi, he was heading home in June to work the tourist season there. It appeared fine opportunity to find subjects for writing. Ladakh with few people in vast cold desert was engaging counterpoint to crowded Mumbai.

I met Choszang in Delhi. We traveled by road to Ladakh, via Manali. On reaching Leh, I walked around for several days, meeting people and learning about their life. I spent time with Choszang’s family at his village. In Leh, I sipped lemon-tea and gazed at Stok Kangri in the distance. There was nothing to my activity that qualified to be acclimatization of the sort mountaineers desire. I was a wanderer with pen and note pad. Then a chance emerged to visit Pangong Lake. It was a surreal place; an expanse of blue water surrounded by barren brown hills. Couple of tea stalls, a curio shop, tents to stay in; groups of motorcycle riders living that much published image of travel in emptiness. An early morning, I jogged along the lake side and scrambled up the nearby hill. It felt good. However, neither that exertion nor the days spent walking around Leh did anything to radically change my condition baked by sedentary journalist lifestyle. Having been on expeditions before, I knew I was going in ill prepared. I felt thankful that Choszang and his friend would be accompanying me to Stok Kangri.

The day before going to Stok village, we went with all relevant documents to the local mountaineering administrator, an elderly mountaineer of much repute called Sonam Wangyal. He had climbed Everest and also featured in those expeditions undertaken jointly by Indian intelligence agencies and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the US in the 1960s, to Nanda Devi and Nanda Kot. Those were the years following China’s nuclear test in Tibet. The Nanda Devi expedition subsequently gathered controversy after it became known that a listening device powered by a radioactive fuel source, had been lost on the mountain. The story spawned media articles, books. Wangyal went over my papers. He wore a disinterested look on his face. It made me fear that the dreaded bureaucratic axe was about to fall on my request for permission to climb Stok Kangri. Then he suddenly looked up at Choszang and asked, “ He is Indian, isn’t he? Go…go…this is your country. Enjoy your climb!’’ The response delighted me. Mountaineering in India has long been wrapped up in permit raj and bureaucracy.

Stok Kangri (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Stok Kangri (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Ever since I got to the top of an 18,500 ft-high un-named peak in the Zanskar Himalaya with my climbing club in 2004, I had wanted to clear 20,000ft. Eventually, I decided on the 6153m-high Stok Kangri, often dismissed by mountaineers for being a non-technical peak climbed by many. In the macho world of climbing, `non-technical’ is a major differentiator. It means that a given climb doesn’t engage the use of much gear. That is like being a boy in shorts amid muscled men with boots, ropes, helmets, machined metal components and all. As if this wasn’t enough, Stok Kangri had been climbed by many availing guided ascents. Mention its name to climbers; they look down their nose and sneer. I never told anyone of my choice but the likely criticism nagged in my head. At my club for instance, what a person liked to do had long been superseded by whether the mission was significant and challenging from climbing’s perspective.

Looking back, I think I chose Stok Kangri for two reasons. First, my technical skills are limited; my physical fitness is more stretchable. So trysts with altitude made greater sense than agonizing over undoable vertical. Second, hanging out with climbers had dented my self confidence; battered my self esteem. A lot of it was my overactive mind. But some of it was definitely due to the climbing environment I was in. It wasn’t helping me. In fact, I had had to take time out and repair my self esteem. My Stok Kangri climb therefore commenced in Mumbai itself, erecting a protective barrier around my personal wish. Slowly I developed my defense – a person’s dream is a person’s dream and should be impervious to the comments of others. If others could be adamant about superlatives on vertical terrain and see that as sole perspective worth having, I had every right to enjoy the less than vertical! What I did not know was that in the thick of my rebellion, I was indulging my desire for distinction. It was vanity versus vanity. And in my case, a progressively tattered vanity for I was on the trail to Stok Kangri Base Camp (BC), hauling a heavy backpack of exhaustion. The cumulative effect of sedentary life, poor food intake, depression and a mind overactive through freelance writing – all had hit me.

Late in the evening I called it quits just short of BC. I was too tired to cover the remaining three hundred meters or so. We camped there. It was trifle funny for above the adjacent ridge we could see people moving around at BC. They must have wondered why a tent had been set up so close, yet far and definitely not at the same address as everyone else was. We formally moved to BC the next morning for a good rest. I needed rest. That day in 2009 I knew how much my life had changed since the earlier Zanskar expeditions. I felt something had drastically gone wrong. I could neither forget the job security I had left nor could I whole heartedly embrace the insecurity I had traded it for. I was the classic in-between case and dwelling on it in remoteness depressed me further.

Exhaustion however has a bright side. It is a great leveler; demolishes barriers, extinguishes pride. That and the general love for wilderness got me talking to the group of foreigners sharing the trail. At BC, we all met in one of those parachute tents that dot Himalayan trails, serving tea and food. The names have since dimmed in my mind, but there were people from Germany, England, US, Mexico and Netherlands. There was the former member of the British sport climbing team on her first foray to a 6000m peak. There was the former British banker, who had served in the property end of the business and seen it tank in the recession. He had then become a banking consultant to the shipping trade. But in the aftermath of the economic crisis triggered by sub-prime lending, banks became risk averse. Shipping on the other hand was a cyclical business. Eventually, he looked at his accumulated savings and said – let’s go climbing. That’s how he ended up at BC. One of the climbers had a particularly touching story. She liked climbing. After her husband fell ill, she had given up climbing to take care of him. Probably realizing the irreversibility of his ailment, the man later told her: don’t waste your life, live it. That’s the story as I recall it from imperfect memory. Early dinner done, everybody retired for a few winks of sleep.

Stok Kangri; the view from Leh (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Stok Kangri; the view from Leh (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Past midnight we started for the summit, having dispensed with the idea of putting up an intermediate higher camp. It was snowing lightly and for me, rather cold. Within minutes of leaving BC, the water flow from my hydration pack froze. For the next four to five hours until the sun induced thaw, there was no water to drink. I could probably have drunk straight from the pack’s bladder but the one occasion I took my gloves off to adjust my trekking poles, my hands turned numb with cold. We kept a steady, slow pace. In a previous season, Choszang had climbed the peak nine times with clients. This season, he was already booked for another two. I wasn’t surprised when he told me that he wanted to do something else than just go up and down Stok Kangri and other trails in Ladakh.

Around day break, we found ourselves past the usual location of the intermediate higher camp and looking up the final slopes of the peak. To reduce my tiredness, Rigzin who was Choszang’s friend, had put my boots and crampons in his rucksack. We conferred for a while on the fate of that baggage. I was fairly adept at kicking and cutting steps on snow to ascend and on Stok Kangri I was anyway following Choszang’s lead. We had made decent progress. So we decided to forget the boots and crampons and left Rigzin’s sack on a rocky ridge to be picked up on the descent. By now the sun was up. With it came the reflected glare from snow and a new problem. I couldn’t find my sunglasses. Embarrassed I said, “ let’s call it off, no glasses.’’ Choszang and Rigzin looked at me astonished. I searched again; found the glasses. Momentarily, I must confess, I had wished that the lack of glasses would be viable excuse for great mountaineer to hide his exhaustion and be off this peak that many climbed. Now I was back in play.

Atop the last shoulder of the peak, before its summit pyramid, we decided to make tea. My small MSR stove went to work, melting snow for water. That tea was rejuvenating. The next half hour was careful going. Verglas – a glassy coating of ice on rocks – can be quite tricky. At around 8.45AM Choszang and Rigzin greeted the summit with loud Buddhist chants and an offering of a prayer flag. The duo couldn’t resist flair in the summit photo; in went the unused rope and our ice axes. The summit had a low wall of wind beaten snow and rock, beyond it the other side of the peak plummeted in a severe fashion. In the distance one could see Leh, its airport. I felt nothing of that 20,000ft obsession in my head. There was no elation, just thoughts of descent. Coming off the summit pyramid, we stood at the edge of the peak’s main face. Getting up that had been a series of traverses; now it lowered off in one swoop. It was an inviting glissade of few hundred feet save the first quarter, which ran steep. We shot off on our butts using ice axes for brakes; it saved much time. Back in Leh, I got myself an airline ticket to Delhi and stared down from the plane at the sea of snow covered peaks wondering where in that wilderness my first summit in Zanskar would be. Three days later, I was in Mumbai with resolution taken to eat at any cost. Without food there is no climbing.

Most people come to Stok Kangri to access 20,000ft. It is as simple as that. In 2011, I reached the top a second time. In the months after my first trip, I had regularly worked in the outdoors. I was in much better shape. This time, I could go along as an unpaid help, serving a team of clients. We stopped some distance away from the summit as we felt the freshly deposited snow wasn’t well settled. On return, I spoke briefly to Sonam Wangyal about a new lot of over one hundred peaks opened up for climbing in Ladakh. They were yet to catch the fancy of climbers. Stok Kangri on the other hand, had become probably India’s busiest peak, a money spinner for authorities. Its attraction was the combination of a not-so-difficult climb and breaching 20,000ft. Indeed in 2011, the mountain’s base camp resembled a small city of tents. There were so many people out for an easy shot at distinction. Wangyal seemed tad disappointed by this limited appreciation of mountaineering. Next door to Stok Kangri is Gholap Kangri, which is slightly technical at the top and overall, below 20,000ft in altitude. Very few people go there. Everyone, including me, wanted 20,000ft. I listened to Wangyal. He was right. Vanity-climbs distort the purity of climbing.

Choszang and Rigzin on the summit (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Choszang and Rigzin on the summit (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

I didn’t tell that a few months after the 2009 climb, I was whipped by a 19,500ft-high peak in Uttarakhand, which I confidently went for having tasted 20,000ft on Stok Kangri. It was the first expedition I planned to a considerable extent. We got lashed by heavy rain, heavy enough to wash off approach trails and dump a lot of snow higher up. That delayed progress. It robbed us of adequate working days on the mountain. We reached high camp amid snowing. To reduce equipment weight at higher altitudes, I had left our second tent at lower camp. I crammed four people into a 3-person-tent at high camp. Short of space to lie down, I sat up much of the night. Outside, the snowing continued. Early next morning, one of us woke up too disinterested to proceed anymore. His boot laces had also frozen wire-like in the cold; they resembled the antlers of a deer. The remaining three, who went for the summit, were dismissed through a combination of difficult access, avalanching slopes (due to fresh snow) and no more days left to wait for the terrain to settle down. We turned back. It was a humbling experience. After that whipping, I stopped caring how high or low a mountain is. Every mountain region, every mountain therein – is unique. I also provide for time on the mountain and leave it to the peak to decide whether I should summit or not.

In one of my later trips to Ladakh, I came across signs of Stok Kangri’s traditional image in climbing, potentially changing. There were young Indian climbers, who spoke not of merely ascending the peak but ascending it by particular routes. Just as your fine day on a peak with summit gained is not how that peak is year round, every mountain feels different along its different climbing routes (Polish climbers in the Himalaya added winter ascents too, to the equation. For more, please visit I am not a fan of speed climbing but I heard people talk of fast ascents up Stok Kangri. Months later on the Internet, I read about two young Indian women who climbed the peak alpine style with no porters or guides. These are all interesting departures from the norm. On my last visit to Leh, after a couple of days spent looking at Stok Kangri from town, I cycled to Stok village and had a cup of tea at one of the restaurants climbers frequented. I remembered Choszang and Rigzin, the trudge up the mountain and a cup of tea brewed high on its slopes. That was enough to make me happy. I then slowly cycled back.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. A slightly different and abridged version of this article was published in the anthology ` Aloft @ the Indian Himalaya’ anchored by Rana Chawla. Details about this book can be had at


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

An evening in Ranikhet, four of us went for a run.

It was past 5 PM.

We made for one of the quiet side roads.

We ran past the holiday huts of the army, down a few bends to the first of the `Old Grant Bungalows’ on that road, called so for their origin in British India times. It had just rained. There was a light chill in the air. The leafy vegetation around, the trees lining the quiet road and the road itself gave off that typical post-rain smell. Several turns away at the entrance to the Chevron Rosemount hotel, one of their dogs barked to announce the approaching runners. Used to seeing runners on that road every morning, it first resorted to barking and then settled down by the roadside.

Two turns away, we passed the house of a friend who was a naturalist. Wonderful address for someone so – I always thought. We ran past the small trail cutting up the hillside, which we take when the daily run has to be kept short. This evening was different. We had resolved to run a longer distance, run the full length of the road and then turn off to Mall Road and Meghdoot Hotel.

Another turn went by on the quiet road; then another. Finally we went past Adhikari Lodge, an old bungalow reportedly owned by a Mumbai business family who visit Ranikhet on and off. Although there were houses here, this area, compared to other portions of the road, was trifle more densely green. Four pairs of legs hit the ground rhythmically in slow run. Wind in the hair; nippy air on the face, a breathing that said `I am breath,’ in the chest.

At the next turn, the first runner stopped. The rest of us caught up in one to two seconds.

Walking diagonally across the sheltered road, with its back to us and seemingly no bother for its surroundings now invaded by humans – was a leopard. We watched it in absolute amazement. For all of us, it was the first sighting of a leopard so; free and unfettered. I suspect it was my shoe moving ever so slightly against the sand on the tarred road that created the faint noise – whatever, the leopard caught wind of something behind. It broke its leisurely walk to glance behind its left shoulder, sensed the four humans and in a couple of elegant bounds was up the other side of the road and lost to the dense vegetation between the road and the households beyond.

We stood there speechless.

It took a while for things to sink in.

Slowly, our awe struck faces broke into smiles. We shook hands.

Then we resumed our slow run.

Leopards are not unusual in Ranikhet. But here’s the key according to my friend Ravi – don’t go looking around for the animal. I know quite a few people, including me, who went looking for leopard and never saw one. It was as though the shy animal read your mind and stayed away or you were too deliberate that your search affected your prospects. You know, too desirous of what you want that you become this big solid mass disturbing the universe’s subtle arrangement. Expect nothing and lo and behold, the universe rewards you. Leopard was the last thing on our minds that evening we ran. We saw one!

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

I sometimes get outdoor work in Kumaon (the eastern half of Uttarakhand). That’s how I land up in Ranikhet, helping out at the India branch of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS I have a regular running route; the earlier mentioned road; voila, my name for it – Leopard’s Walk. Past where we saw the leopard, that quiet road continues on; it skirts one side of the local tourist rest house property and eventually joins the road to the Jhoola Devi temple, in front of the West View hotel. From here you can either turn towards Meghdoot Hotel or take another quiet, isolated road, often carpeted by dry leaves and run all the way to the temple avoiding the main road. Some colleagues from the school choose to run further. There is a military check post at the temple and a stiff ascent of several kilometres that takes you to Chaubatia on top of the hill. The place is home to one half of Ranikhet’s sprawling military base. To my knowledge Ranikhet is one of the very few towns, maybe the only one in India that is home to two army regiments – the Kumaon Regiment and the Naga Regiment. Being military cantonment and located away from the normal Nainital-Almora route, Ranikhet has a quietness that is disturbed only by tourists and visitors. That’s why I like my morning run here. It is also why I rarely speak of it – for these days to speak of the solitude in some place is to invite its violation. Reduced shelf life is contemporary media’s gift to existence.

For a relatively small town, Ranikhet has many people running. Most obvious and most regular are the soldiers. They fall into three categories – two, I profile below and a third general variety closer to jogging for fitness than running. On the road, the first group typically manifests as an approaching rustle ahead of me or behind me. Either way, they whiz past for they seem to be a dedicated team of endurance runners. They commence a run together; warm up exercises, stretches et al and then progressively spread out in accordance with individual pace. However they are never so spread out that the tail end doesn’t see the leader; their average pace is pretty good. Their youth and fitness crunches me like a tank running above the head of someone in a lowly trench. I have also occasionally met a slightly slower lot, who like to remain clustered as a distinct group. They run like a herd. My deduction is – they are the boxing team. It is nice to think of all these probabilities as one gets overtaken, lapped, left in the dust and forgotten, all the while happy for it as the morning air is much cleaner than the average Indian city’s, there is very little traffic and the early morning hours are enjoyably cold.

Ranikhet’s civilian runners appear to fall into two categories. There are some who run regularly. More important – every now and then the number of civilians running goes up. When the numbers go up, you know bharti or army-recruitment is due. You find such preparatory running all over Kumaon; daily run done, candidates from everywhere converge at Ranikhet for that is where bharti happens. No army for me. I am the wandering, peace-loving middle aged soul, timid enough to avoid gladiators of all sorts and embrace a refuge, a trench. Much before I started running, I ran away – that’s the truth. Put an urban gladiator in front of me, I will run away again. I usually run alone in Ranikhet and when I have had company, it has been from the outdoor school. For some time, till he got married, Harish Singh was regular company. Indeed he was there when we saw the leopard. Twice, a local taxi driver with affection for running came running by and said – let’s go together. Narayan Singh (I think that was his name) was fine company for those two days. Once in a while, you see another visitor like me savoring the different ambiance of running in the hills. But that’s rare and I don’t blame those who choose to rest in their hotel rooms or go for leisurely walks instead. Fact is – the urban life is tougher, including the running therein. Back from the hills and running in Mumbai, I am exhausted in just one day coping with the heat and humidity; my respect for everyone sweating it out in the city.

Whether I like it or not, the urban trend of organized running is catching on in the hills. From Leh to Mussoorie and places in between, there are staged events with calendar dates, gladiators and all. But I am partial to the unnoticed variety wherein running (I call my version of it – trotting) becomes a means to get around. The enjoyment I have had from this is immense and seductive enough to leave me with shin splints; that classic outcome of overdoing things. Plus, the terrain is undulating; there are long ascents and descents. That adds to the strain, which you don’t notice till injury settles in, well and truly in love with your shin. Still, unplanned running is fun.

Once Ravi and I were in a car headed to Tehri for a conference. Our accommodation was at Chamba, which is up a hill from Tehri. It was a long drive from Ranikhet to Tehri and by evening, as we reached Tehri, Ravi was bored. He asked Dinesh, our driver, to stop the car and pulled out his unicycle. I changed to running shoes. We reached Chamba in style, a small traveling circus of sorts, runner in front; unicyclist behind. In Ranikhet, Ravi is often called ` circus uncle.’ Mountaineer, cyclist and outdoor educator, he maintains a small collection of cycles – MTBs, recumbent bikes and unicycles.

Several days before Chamba, I had another impromptu, engaging run, rather trot – from Ranikhet to Katpudia (please try for a story on Katpudia), which is slightly less than half way to Almora. Near Majkhali, I met the army regulars. As always, they checked me out – who is this terribly slow, old chap trotting by? Fit as a fiddle, their pace was whiz-class; they crushed me, tank-like. New element was – at the tail end of the contingent was their coach, on a cycle, periodically shouting, “ bhaag!’’ Rush hour went by thus and my cocoon of quiet refuge in the hills (call it trench), returned. I trotted to Katpudia, had a cup of tea at the local tea shop and took the share-taxi back to Ranikhet.

The most satisfying run I have done in the hills so far was in Munsyari, from the town to Kalamuni Pass and back. The credit for getting me started on this goes to Love Raj Singh Dharmshaktu. As of 2014, he had climbed Everest five times besides ascending many other peaks in the Indian Himalaya (please visit

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In June 2014, I was in Munsyari to write about Love Raj and every morning we used to run together. That season, our turn-around point had been Betuli Dhar, which is little over the half way mark to Kalamuni. Four months later, the whole route to Kalamuni and back, happened. It being late October, this was a much colder run with ones shoes getting wet six times in all as you have that many instances of stream-crossing (basically streams flowing over and across the road) to do. My face was numb from the early morning chill and cold. But as the sun rose over the Himalaya, I was blessed by sweet warmth. Blessed is the word, for every time I experience such sunshine in the mountains, I fold my hands in namaste to the sun. The preceding cold seemed just the right setting in retrospect – without cold, would you value warmth? In such life by opposites, is the joy of the outdoors. To see the leopard, you shouldn’t seek it. To run well, you should enjoy, not be deliberate. The best advice I ever received in the outdoors is this: if you are not having fun, then something is wrong.

My idea was to have a cup of tea at the tea shop near the temple at Kalamuni Pass and then run back to Munsyari. But the tea shop was closed. I heard voices at the temple and approached. A Rasputin like-baba and three others, were making rotis. They beckoned me in. “ Sit; sit, would you like a smoke?’’ the baba asked cupping his hands to show the usual technique for smoking charas. I laughed comparing my state and need with the offer. “ No sir, I don’t smoke. But a cup of tea would be more than welcome,’’ I replied. “ Roti?’’ he asked. “No, thank you, just tea,’’ I said. Fortified by that excellent tea, I ran back to Munsyari and the beginning of yet another case of shin splints that would have me off running altogether by December.

So I sit, grounded, in Mumbai.

But there is one good thing about shin splints and no running.

I write.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The story of the leopard was published as a small piece in The Hindu Business Line newspaper and on the Facebook page of NOLS India. In terms of distances, it is roughly 15km uphill from the Tehri reservoir to Chamba; it is 15km uphill from Munsyari town [7000ft] to Kalamuni Pass [9000ft], up and down is 30km.)


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The forty something News Editor looked up from the articles he had been reading.

“ I liked the one on the biker. May be you could send that to our Deputy Editor who handles features,’’ he said.

It was now over a month since I had earned anything from writing.

A newspaper, which used to accept my articles, had shut down its opinion page. Everywhere else I sent my work, the feedback was – we run articles with quotes in it. Apparently, a quiet man passing through life and scribbling down his observations had no place in the media. Insistence on quotes was actually the more polite side of the media-treatment. Very often, the submitted article disappeared into a black hole of no response or elicited a much delayed sorry-I-forgot-was-busy kind of indifferent response. The News Editor seemed helpful and my fortunes may improve further if I got the Deputy Editor interested.

I pinned my hopes on Paul’s story.

Living alone in the outdoors is serious business. The year was 2008. I had been intrigued by the lone biker, camped out in the woods beside the Tons River in Uttarakhand. Probably that’s what put him in perspective for me – the biker as camper, as much alone and wrapped up in a world of his own as any hiker. Those days, it was quite common to open a typical automobile magazine and come across some account of high altitude travel that sought to equate the driver to a mountaineer or trekker. “ I pressed the accelerator and the engine strained to pull, in that rarified atmosphere,’’ rarely reminded the reader that the driver was inside a climate controlled cabin breathing normally, probably enjoying his favorite music and at best suffering a mild headache. Accompanied by glossy photographs of a car with high mountains for backdrop or the driver posing at Khardung La Pass, it sold the man behind the wheel as a fantastic example of adventure. The same individual would be a different case altogether, hiking up that pass with a loaded rucksack on his back. Then, the engine, chassis, torque, acceleration – everything is you. Who wants that? You can strain a lot less and sell it as high adventure when the industry in question is as powerful a marketer as the world of car manufacturers.

However, two wheels made the setting marginally different. True you still didn’t haul anything yourself, but at least you didn’t ride in climate-controlled comfort. The motorcycle is the modern day horse, the next best thing in movement to an adventure on a raft or bicycle. Adding to it was the talk in nearby Mori – Paul apparently camped at the same spot every year for a month or two. It was like an annual pilgrimage; same place, same spot. On a drive down the adjacent road, I waved to him. He didn’t respond reinforcing a leave-me-alone attitude. Alright baba, keep your peace, I said and moved on.

Peace? If you are a city journalist, that’s the toughest promise to keep to yourself and others. I told my friend Jeetu of my wish to meet this man. One day we mustered the courage to walk away from the road and into the woods where the biker was camped. The distinguishing feature around was a pair of large rocks, roughly twenty feet high, that sloped towards each other providing a crude shelter below. It was the most obvious place to camp but Paul Kramer was some distance away from there. A weathered Enfield Bullet, a hammock strung between trees and two to three clothe lines with faded, patched up garments hung out to dry – that was his home. Above the hammock an additional line had been tied ostensibly to support a plastic sheet as roof during rains. On the ground and near the bike, arranged neatly, were a steel mug or two, flask, plate, some spoons. The man was tall, broad shouldered and bald with big hands and weather beaten feet strapped into sandals. He wore layers of worn-out clothing and had a slow pace of talking in English. I sought permission to speak and for quite a while through my chatter, his demeanor betrayed the desire not to be intruded upon, to be left alone. It hung in the air, fading reluctantly as my monologue grew into a conversation and then a warm chat. That conversation hinted at the possibility of dropping by again. My friend Ravi had also seen Paul camped out in the forest and wanted to say hello. So another day, the two of us – Ravi and I – walked off the road and into the forest to spend some time with the traveler.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Paul was 62 years old then, from Cologne in Germany. A keen football fan and erstwhile club player, couple of decades back he had gone to South America to see a World Cup. From then on, he had been traveling. Save some years in between when he ran a restaurant in the Caribbean, which he later sold off. Eight years before I met him near Mori, he reached India and bought the Bullet in Delhi. He reckoned, he must have traveled right around the country at least thrice. His favorite states – Uttarakhand and Meghalaya. “ That’s my baby,’’ he said, pointing to the bike. Baby was a special reference. Reserved for a dog he once owned; the girlfriends he once had – when he called one by the name of the other, he quickly realized the value of calling them just `baby’ – and the bike he now rode.

It had taken him some time to access this spot at Sandra near Mori, for staying. Having done so, every year, he tied his hammock to the same two pine trees, put his feet up and amazingly, was able to happily spend his days watching the simplest of movements in the surrounding wilderness – a leaf falling, a bird flying, clouds drifting. “ I know it’s difficult for you to digest my life. You are from the city; have family and all. I don’t,’’ he said. Paul hadn’t married. He realized early that if he wanted to travel it was best to stay single. Neither did he yearn for crowds and cities. Having seen that plastic life abroad and knowing what was due here, he preferred to steer clear of Indian cities; except when football called.

The time I met him, Paul was hunting for a family with a television that may allow the biker to watch the 2008 European Cup. Germany was in good form (this was before they lost to Spain in the final) and he was willing to ride up to Shimla for a hotel room with a television if the situation so demanded. Eventually, he found a friendly family in Mori who allowed him to see the telecasts. Over the next few weeks, Ravi and I dropped by several times to spend time with Paul. Sitting on the ground while Paul talked from his hammock, you looked up and saw his daily perspective of the world. The pine trees rose like slender pillars into the sky, the branches at their apex swaying in the breeze. The rapids of the Tons, a river that hosts white water rafting, was a furious flow just beyond the lip of Paul’s camping ground. It was a calming mix – the sound of rushing water, swaying trees, passing clouds and verdant, often wet wilderness. “ There’s a strange energy here,’’ he said gazing at the pine trees and shrugging his shoulders. I revisited the question I had been asking myself ever since I met him – what would this man be, biker or hermit? He called himself a “ professional traveler,’’ a description loaded with the itch to move. In contrast, Paul seemed at the other end, at peace in a world he had slowed down to celebrate the details while everyone else rushed by without design. I could visualize my city self darting around like some sub atomic particle, hitting walls randomly while Paul sat unmoved in meditative peace. “ You smoke?’’ he asked, big hands extending a thin, carefully rolled cigarette. We politely declined for neither of us smoked. At night, the tiny camp changed texture. It was cloaked in pitch darkness. The faint glow of Paul’s kerosene lamp cut through the inky blackness, a slender flame in enveloping gloom.

Paul had little to offer – some Kashmiri tea, the cigarettes – but coupled with the place and his journey in life, the meet-ups became enjoyable moments for us. Slowly, Paul began waving back every time we passed by on the road. He dropped by at our camp for lunch. We brought him mangoes and the odd newspaper sporting football news. Sometimes the severity of survival bit too hard to permit sharing. Like the day, Paul got some fish from a local fisherman. Three small fishes, they whetted the big German’s appetite. He sliced them, lovingly poured olive oil and added green chilies to marinate. “ I want to offer them to you but they are just three you see,’’ he said apologetically.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

When the time came for us to leave Mori, we decided to trek across the Rupin Pass to Kinnaur (for this story, please see Bad weather and landslides had ensured low fuel stock at depots in the hills. We desperately needed petrol for our camp stove. Paul spared a liter from his bike’s tank. The last time I spoke of him to Ravi was several days later, in the upper Rupin Valley. We had gone through rain and, on that day, lighting a fire – we wanted to save our petrol – had become a challenge. As the wet wood stubbornly refused to ignite, we spent a near full day laying this way and that in the mud, blowing our lungs out into the crude choola we made. When I got up to stretch my stiff limbs, I realized that I was tired yet happy. My pants were mud stained, torn, my T-shirt hung loose on a thin frame and I had a sweaty scarf around my neck. My feet, trifle swollen from altitude and dusty from weeks in the outdoors, looked weather beaten in the sandals I wore at camp. Just like Paul’s – I thought!

The Deputy Editor was a fidgety, young new generation-type who kept himself and others on the edge of their seats. There was some commitment phobia, I thought, to settling into a chair. It was the in thing at offices. Always look busy. Even if you are doing nothing, you have to be busy doing nothing. “ I am pretty busy right now. Send me your stuff, I am certain we can do something,’’ he said poised in half flight from his chair to somewhere in the swanky, air conditioned office. The articles I sent him the very next day sank into the usual media quicksand. I waited, mailed a couple of reminders. Almost three weeks later, he replied rejecting the whole lot including Paul’s story. As for the delay in delaying another’s journalist’s already delayed food coupon – well, he is an employed media person, not a wandering freelancer. He owed me no explanation. Did he read what I wrote? – I still wonder.

I thought of Paul and the absolute unhurriedness to his life, his ability to give every moment his full attention. That piece of forest bordering the river, the hammock, the bike – all were at best a curio to the unlived in media offices. It could be something to show off, use as embellishment in the news flow. Probably an article for the weekend supplement when the media product has to taste like a lazy cup of nice, warm tea. Weekend is the assigned time for life in the slow lane, when everyday traffic hurtling at break-neck speed on the highway to wealth and survival, pauses to notice dumb, stupid outdoors. They have a term for it – offbeat stories. I had asked Paul if he ever wrote about his travels. “ No,’’ he said, waving his hand dismissively. It conveyed his conviction in what he said. I remember gently touching upon the subject a second time. But he seemed to have buried it in his head, planted two pine trees and strung a hammock right across for the life unexplained.

After that Deputy Editor and some more years of freelancing, I understood why.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

An early morning in Munsyari, while waiting for the morning taxi to the plains, an elderly gentleman from Kolkata and I got talking.

It was cold.

The hot tea was fantastic.

He worked at the Directorate General of Shipping. During my days as employed journalist, shipping had been one of my beats.

We had a nice conversation.

Against my protests, he paid for my tea. Pointing heavenward he quipped, “ why make a fuss about payment? We are all heading to the same place.’’ Dawn in Munsyari, as the rising sun graces the slopes of the Panchchuli peaks, ` heaven’ isn’t a misplaced reference. A cup of tea and that sight – it is very satisfying. Earlier on realizing that I was still bachelor and no more employed journalist, the man had said, “ the outdoor bug is such – neither can you leave it; nor will it let you go.’’ There is a whole universe in such simple conversations inspired by the outdoors. That’s what the outdoors is even if it makes no sense to settled society and its commerce. You know this well, unless you are businessman committed to sell or someone for who the outdoors is business. Without defined product to sell, there is no business model even in the outdoors. I too was in Munsyari having finished work on an outdoor course promising specifics. Such is the powerful drive all around towards manufacturing deliverables. Expectation has become habit; deliverable, the solution. I have often been asked: what is your goal? It makes me uncomfortable. Does the universe have a goal except to exist? I think there is only the direction set by the values people embrace in life. Goals are like milestones. I can’t recall a single long run I enjoyed focusing on passing milestones.

In the outdoors, the ones who refuse deliverables and yet want life by outdoors, become hermits / ascetics, seekers, wanderers. They may be failures in our eyes. But theirs is honest existence. We can’t comprehend that chemistry. Yet we easily promise specific deliverables from the outdoor experience. Point is – we all know in varying degrees that there is something, maybe a fragment of timeless truth, in the outdoors. To the extent it is thus core to human existence, the outdoors and adventure are like water. We pay for bottled water and municipal tap water. But we resent water’s growing monetization. And, we definitely don’t want somebody pricing the air we breathe. How happy will we be if the outdoors was lost as our shared heritage and instead monetized like bottled water?

In the last couple of years, a few Indian states began formulating guidelines for adventure tourism. That is a fine aspiration. Except, I found the effort lacking soul for the urge is to address the immediate and practical ignoring the profundity of the outdoors. Metaphorically, the focus seemed bottled water; not water. It runs the danger of blessing monetization and in the process, forgetting that the reason people hydrate is water’s presence in our very being. Below is some of what I missed in the conversations about guidelines, I was privy to.

Many of the minds drawing up regulations enjoyed a freer world to grow wise in, at least be wise enough to decide guidelines for future generations. The present world uses the word ` freedom’ more than before. But it isn’t as free. How can you explain freedom to someone trapped by the mobile phone screen and happy for it or blinded by religion and feeling secure for it? Our world is tangled in ego; vanity, competition, community, achievement, possession, insecurity and such. It can’t sense loss of freedom while securing itself. We have been birthing a strange dictatorship of convenience. At the meetings I was lucky to attend, the guideline-makers were introduced as accomplished mountaineers; hikers, river runners etc. I sat in the audience and listened to them hold forth on the pioneering activity they did in their prime, which grants them eminence to recommend now. The tenor I gleaned was how the theatre of these people’s accomplishments is now endangered by too many people going in (which, as function of population and emergent demographics is absolutely right) – some even losing their lives through reckless actions – and therefore, the wise have gathered to save and protect the rest. It is a nice, relevant, responsible story line. Except, if engaging in adventure was prerequisite for the wisdom behind guidelines, then the protection of such access and not its restriction should be the guiding thought guiding the guidelines. And if free access is to be enjoyed without damage to life and environment in times of high population, then the only solution is education. I didn’t find this emphasised adequately.

Personally I believe the above mentioned free access shouldn’t be restricted to landscape. It should include – in fact it is more about – free access to adventure and solitude for the ideas they are. I say this because the same as thought or idea will be progressively misunderstood going ahead. Increasingly, we are caricaturing adventure to make sense to a large population; its crowding, its sedentary ways, its huge need for jobs and we are forcing adventure to suck up to action crazed-media (everyone’s bio-data looks sexier with a dash of adventure, isn’t it?). As the trend plays out, we will have adventure enshrined as packaged lifestyle or spectacle. This regime is what makes guidelines like the ones being currently imagined, acceptable even as they fail to articulate and support real adventure. We will have guidelines and no proper appreciation for the instinct they seek to address. Any policy / set of guidelines that fails to acknowledge adventure as human instinct, has got it wrong.

We are a society that lauds life and the act of staying alive. Strangely, the daily drowning and devaluing of life by more numbers of people added is not a blotch on life’s aesthetics. With its casual approach to population control, India is all about adding people and no bother about how they live or what life is. One gentleman associated with framing guidelines told me, “ you can’t blame society for being interested in guidelines for adventure. After all, society has to save lives.’’ How this equation works or should work in the context of adventure – this, needs to be discussed by those loving adventure and engaged in it. The question is not one of being above law, pretending to be tough, rubbishing insurance or discounting the importance of search and rescue. It is one of properly appreciating what adventure is and why you are in that space. Personally, I accept all adventure entails risk. That’s why I choose what adventure I would like to be on. It is only rarely that people die instantly, painlessly. I don’t like pain. So, most of my adventures are tame affairs. The key to safe adventure is self awareness. I accept my timidity. If self awareness is key, then it also means that the best guidelines you can have for adventure activity would be education, good training, adequate access to practise what you learnt and sufficient self awareness through both to avoid being abjectly foolish. That said, despite best practices, you can still lose your life. Life and death are two sides of the adventure-coin. How can we learn to accept the coin and not a side? You have to ask the question – what is the purpose of a policy for adventure; is it to prevent deaths or is it to encourage responsible adventure? This debate should engage any group deliberating adventure related policy because it ensures that the policy is not partial to one side of the coin. Unfortunately, this debate doesn’t engage. I felt the guidelines / policies spare society the need to comprehend why adventure and the instinct for adventure, exists. A major lacuna is that aside from the cerebrally dull celebration of adventure as spectacle by the media (and the perpetuation of this trait by media crazed adventure enthusiasts), there is no other sensitization happening. Life’s hijack by a society becoming duller and duller by the day is not life’s fault. It is our fault; we are dull society.

All outdoor adventure has a setting – the environment. Damage to environment is inexcusable in the context of being outdoors. At least one instance of shameful environmental damage at altitude by a commercial operator with subsequent penalties imposed and thereafter a ban, reportedly happened in the recent past. Other unspoken instances exist. Controlling environmental degradation – this can be taught and learnt. But reality is – in India adventure is clad in machismo and competition. Amid set notions of how the adventurer looks and behaves and what training for adventure is, learning about the environment seems tame, effeminate. The winner stands on the summit; the loser cares for the environment – that is the imagery. Can we change this? Worse, all acts designed to change things have media built in. This reduces the effort to publicity stunt and sponsorship tactics. We need to do things because it is important to do it and not because it looks good on media. I sensed some concern for environment and practically nothing about the two sided adventure-coin in the background conversation around guidelines. At least one discussion on guidelines I witnessed was dominated by talk on resorts and home stays for tourists, pilgrimage facility for pilgrims and aircraft / helicopters for the clients of tourism. It was the deep end of the business hug.

(……to be continued)

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

There have been accidents – entailing loss of life – which led to the guidelines in question being sought and framed. Some of these mishaps happened in situations that people bought into; in other words – commercial contracts. In India (as elsewhere in the case of any industry), there is a need to monitor commercial adventure activity wherein clients pay money anticipating promised deliverables. This is the realm of adventure tour operators and those offering specific services (like thrill sports) on a commercial basis. Interestingly, in some cases, the title for guidelines being worked on, call the exercise as guidelines for adventure tourism and not adventure tour operators. This distinction is critical as it distinguishes between people (especially people trained in adventure activity) venturing out to do something on their own (accepting the risks that go alongside not to mention awareness of their own limits) and clients going with commercial operators. I recall asking a person well entrenched in the guideline process about this lack of clear distinction and he said, “ don’t worry, nothing will change for clubs and individuals.’’ If so, why aren’t they changing the title appropriately? Why aren’t references clear and explicit?

Let me explain why the distinction matters. As training outfit and context that people come back to repeatedly, clubs play a bigger role in familiarizing people with outdoor skills and ethics than one month-in-a-life at mountaineering institute does. Trained individuals also choose to go by themselves, assuming full onus themselves, because everyone can’t afford commercial operators and the growing overhead costs of adventure. Today commercial outdoor adventure is expensive or deliberately priced low to attract people. Low price sometimes raises cost in terms of rectifying the environmental damage caused as outdoor destinations can’t handle volume based-tourism. I won’t say that clubs and trained individuals are flawless. In a rather shameful development, some clubs have grown very close to commercial operators, quickly outsourcing outdoor competence when the idea of being club is to learn to do things oneself. However in principle, the flow of clubs and trained individuals is the bed rock of the whole edifice that the guidelines seek to protect / administer. That being so this segment should be least bureaucratic to avail and most affordable. It can be disciplined and managed through penalty (fines and de-recognition of clubs) for wrong doing, in this case mainly environmental damage for risk to one’s life is already accepted in the non commercial nature of the understanding. For all its flaws, these non commercial options are important. Without this flow, superstructures built upon the instinct to adventure – from amateur mountaineering expeditions to commercial trips – would be shaky. Even overseas, it has been observed that when it comes to training guides, while guiding brings prudence to the outdoors, the regime of restricted access ultimately affects the quality of manpower turning up to train. No set of guidelines should therefore end up with the legacy of having nudged everything into either a bureaucratically administered space or a commercial space. It defeats the purpose. Since being in the outdoors is a must for the committed what we have to then master is the art of reducing human impact. The strongest focus of any guidelines / policy for adventure / outdoors should be on managing this human impact and in this, the authors must acknowledge the merit of proper education. I couldn’t sense this among guiding principles for policy / guidelines. Indeed, one of the strangest aspects of the current interest in policy is that the rush for guidelines is without any prior statement of what the outdoors means to us. Without such statement, guidelines will meander for want of vision.

One of the reasons inspiring structure for outdoor / adventure pursuits, is the question – what happens should something go wrong in adventure activity? India lacks prompt emergency medical facilities and search and rescue infrastructure as found in developed countries. Although this is being addressed slowly, instead of seeing that as separate responsibility, instead of seeing it as a service expected of any modern society, we choose to build restrictions to adventure. After all, less people doing crazy things, means less people to rescue. However, you don’t find the same being done to pilgrimage. In 2013, more people died in one season of cramped pilgrimage in Uttarakhand, than probably everyone who died mountaineering in the Indian Himalaya. Yet when it comes to ease of accusing somebody of irresponsibility, the adventurer is quickly picked on. Our society is shallow in its understanding of how risk is managed in adventure activity. As they say at climbing clubs: more people die crossing the road than they do climbing mountains. Of course, this is because fewer people climb mountains. But it is also true that in any risk prone-adventure activity, the more you become conscious of risk, the more you are careful. That said, in India, we may teach the hard skills for adventure, well. But thanks to machismo, competition and the urge to prove, we don’t teach people to be comfortable accepting their limits, we don’t create social environments suited to accept limits. We are bad teachers. We are particularly bad at creating healthy learning environments because we don’t understand (or wish to understand) adventure except as proof of manhood. Knowing how uncontrollable things can get, we therefore choose the easier option in policy making for adventure – restrict. The resultant perspective of adventure as something exotic and domain of the special or something avoidable and hence to be restricted, coupled with legitimate concern for the environment is the main energy shaping current official approach. It is a sad predicament.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Lost in the process is a valuable angle – technical qualifications, permits, fees and such matter. But what matters more is ease of embarking on adventure as only practice makes perfect. We should not also trivialize the intellectual side of adventure; basically the attempt to comprehend, introspect and be self aware. It is media’s choice to rubbish the intellect and showcase the action. But even the most mindless adventurer, somebody who seems all action and no thought – processes his / her experience. We need an adventure policy that supports adventure and unashamedly says that since adventuring is human instinct society will stay prepared with commensurate emergency medical and search and rescue facilities. At this point, the inadequacy of these emergency services is thrown at the adventurer. But is that his or her responsibility? Isn’t growing that competence the onus of those concerned with it? Notwithstanding this shortfall, outdoors people / those liking adventure have begun taking expensive first aid courses designed to support patients ahead of formal medical attention. When they are doing their bit, isn’t it time, the other half – those specialized in emergency medical services and search and rescue – did their share? Can’t we look upon all this as normal service in modern society, and not something special?

Any person / persons drawing up guidelines, policy and such should be aware of the tendency to shape environment to their professional advantage. This is important in the Indian context because most of us, thanks to severe rat race brought on by high population, corporate life and persistent feudal attitudes (don’t forget our capacity for manufacturing caste hierarchy in everything) that value personal power over professionalism, hate not being on top of the heap. We have to matter, by hook or crook. If we don’t matter, we have failed. That’s the Indian credo. Fuelling this further, is compulsion for livelihood (including outdoor activity / industry as livelihood); the race grows stiffer and stiffer with every passing year. Evolving guidelines for adventure tourism or adventure tour operators (it is still unclear to me which one, the current effort is focused on) is a new development. The people engaged in it seem a younger lot. But unless they are conscious of the well entrenched Indian drift, there is no guarantee that the guidelines they author will be free of establishing the authors themselves as indispensable to the process. For example, adventure tour operators would be happy if everyone accessed the outdoors through them. But is that how it should be? Event organizers would love all adventure to be spectacle, competition in arena and embrace by media circus. Is that how it should be? Outdoor educators and first aid tutors would be happy if we all got wrapped up in a dozen mandatory certifications, ideally expensive to obtain. Is that how it should be? Uniquely – and it is a trademark of our times – everything is business model first and only after that, sensible to life.

The onus for responsible adventure eventually lay with the practitioner. Awareness (self and surroundings), education, concern for environment, technical training, practice – these, among other attributes are critical. Unfortunately our educational system (including outdoor / adventure institutes), which should be delivering these attributes, is busy spawning its own bureaucracy and certificates for apartness. Curriculum is taught in the same Indian rat race style. Achievement, not maturity, enjoys premium. The notion that techniques required for safe adventure can be learnt and sharpened through continued practise is sacrificed at the altar of creating reasons for grades and such. Poor quality of education is then balanced by bureaucratic controls over access to the field. Few things have been more puzzling to me than the Indian system of teaching mountaineering over a month long-course and then concluding for a lifetime, based on grades earned, how that person should adventure. If a month long-course can conclude for eternity what you are, why should you believe in practice makes perfect or experience as teacher? Such shortcomings should be set right before we imagine guidelines. But we consider ourselves too perfect for introspection. We are however perfect enough to recommend guidelines.


(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)