A LONG WALK / TRAVERSING THE WESTERN HIMALAYA

The team members; from left – Pranav, Bharat and Shekhar (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

Over end-August to mid-October 2018, a team of three completed a long traverse of the Indian Himalaya from Ladakh to the border of Nepal. The trio covered 950 kilometers and crossed 27 passes. One of the participants, Bharat Bhushan – he is a seasoned mountaineer and hiker and an instructor with NOLS – mailed in a report on the expedition. Presented below, as an article by invitation, is an edited version of the report:     

The summit is for the ego while the journey is for the soulthis oft heard adage from the mountains, in a way, encapsulated the driving force behind the Western Himalayan Traverse. The idea was to travel in the most self-sufficient manner possible, have least ecological impact on the places walked through and keep Leave No Trace (LNT) principles in mind. Ultra-light backpacking forces you to be more efficient in the use of resources while enabling you to cover distance faster.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

India lacked a long hiking trail. The US has the Pacific Crest Trail among others and Nepal has the Great Himalaya Trail. We wanted to correct the anomaly. In recent years, the idea of the Western Himalayan Traverse seemed to have finally come of age. Establishing such routes enables and encourages the culture of self-sufficient, low-impact environment friendly backpacking.

The planning process took over a year. Three members for this traverse seemed an ideal number. Each member picked was physically well trained and equipped with sound technical mountain skills and knowledge. This would help minimize risk in case something went wrong during the traverse. Having the ability for one teammate to go down and call for help and bring aid to the others in case of an emergency, increased safety margins during those patches of the route where communication devices would be of limited use and mountain hazards faced would be the highest. Team members make or break an expedition. Pranav Rawat, Shekhar Singh and I, Bharat Bhushan, complemented each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We made for a strong cohesive team.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

The planning process was divided equally between the three of us to get things done faster. I poured over contour maps at the library of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF). The initial plan of starting out from Siachen Glacier had to be dropped due to the additional number of days it would have added to the expedition. In the end, Markha Valley in Ladakh was zeroed in on as the ideal place to start from. The trek was flagged off from Chilling Bridge. Dharchula at the Nepal border was our end point. With the start and end points fixed, now it was time to fine tune the middle portion of the traverse. We had two considerations – keeping it a simple, direct and straight route which would take less time. And avoiding as much of challenging and technical terrain en route, as that would require greater effort, technical gear and resources. Eventually, the Kalindi Khal pass was the only technical terrain we had no option of bypassing due to the nature of the route. We kept it in.

We got down to collecting as much information as possible from the internet and having conversations and meeting up with people who had done sections of the traverse before or had ground level knowledge. Ravi Kumar, Director of NOLS India, gave us maps and shared what he knew of the areas we would pass through. In Delhi, Punit Mehta, who is an independent explorer and NOLS instructor, filled us in about the Ladakh and Garhwal areas in detail. Chetan Pandey, my climbing partner from Almora, gave me details of the Garhwal Himalaya and helped me plot the way points on Google Earth map. Over conversations in the IMF dormitory, my friend Kaushal Desai along with Bhagwan Singh from Manali helped fill in the remaining gaps. Dhruv Joshi and Vijay Singh Rautela my climbing partners connected us to a lot of people who could help us when tackling officialdom – paperwork to be filled and permits to be issued.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

Following this process, Pranav and I, sitting in Manali, were able to compile the information by plotting all the way points and making a rough Google Earth map of the traverse. It felt like the second concrete step towards our expedition. Step three entailed selection of lightweight technical gear and apparel. Keeping in mind the time of the year, possible weather faced and climate zones we’d be crossing we finally got down to making our required list. We also devised contingency plans. We only had cell phones as devices of communication. That made us vulnerable because connectivity is not available everywhere. Our plan was, should anything happen to any one of us, we would send one member as a runner to reach out and contact the team from 4Play, who were waiting with ration parcels at each predetermined ration re-stocking point. We also made sure to note the closest road head in every valley that we crossed.

It took us 47 days to do the entire Western Himalayan Traverse route. We started on August 27, 2018 and completed the expedition on October 12. During this entire journey we put in four rest days. We took full day stops at Kaza, Chitkul, Auli and Himni. Else, we walked every day. Some days we did up to 44 km. It was only by such a disciplined and relentless push that we managed to cover the traverse within our scheduled time frame.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

While covering the entire route we had to cross varying terrain, and different ecosystems and climate zones. We had four passes to cross that constituted glaciated terrain – Bhabha Pass, Parangla Pass and Lamkhaga Pass were comparatively small. Kalindi Khal proved to be the most formidable, being a huge glacier with open and hidden crevasses. We needed proper glacier travel equipment here. A major obstacle we faced was unexpected bad weather while crossing Kalindi Khal. We had limited fuel and were running out of rations. We had to adapt to the situation by cutting down to having just one meal a day and trying to collect water through ingenious unconventional means. We collected water by wiping the top of our tents with bandannas and squeezing it into containers to collect it.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

River crossings during the traverse too turned out to be technical challenges. There were many big raging rivers that we had to cross. The biggest of them was the river in Norboo Sumdo on the way to Parangla Pass from Tsomoriri Lake. Scouting these rivers, choosing from where to cross them and the time of the day chosen for it were important factors we had to keep in mind. Steep trails on the way to Kumaon and Garhwal were a challenge. This year the monsoon was still on in full swing while we were negotiating our way through the trails. Many times we had to forgo the main trail and search for safer alternative route.

Of the 27 passes that were crossed, 10 of them were above 5000 mts in height. We covered a total distance of 950 km with cumulative ascent of 123,432 feet. The following passes were crossed during the traverse:

  1. South east pass parallel to Dhat La (5610 mts)
  2. Kyamar La (5100 mts)
  3. Mandalchan La (5210 mts)
  4. Shibuk La (5270 mts)
  5. Kolakongma La (4940 mts)
  6. Kai Yeru La (5420 mts)
  7. Koste La (5380 mts)
  8. Yalung Nyau La (5470 mts)
  9. Parangla Pass (5560 mts)
  10. Thaltak ( 4710 mts)
  11. Bhaba Pass (4910 mts)
  12. Lamkhaga Pass (5270 mts)
  13. Kalindi Khal (5950 mts)
  14. Kuwari Pass (3670 mts)
  15. Vinayak (3170 mts)
  16. Kukin Khal (3120 mts)
  17. Ali Khal (3470 mts)
  18. Pass between Garwal and Kumaon (3350 mts)
  19. Above Garkuti (2770 mts)
  20. Khati Khal ( 2920 mts)
  21. Bainsa Kharak (3040 mts)
  22. Dhara Pani ( 3150 mts)
  23. Rur Khan (3440 mts)
  24. Unnamed pass, East of Puniya Peak (2860 mts)
  25. Dharti khal (3430 mts)
  26. Chongmo (3810 mts)
  27. Balsi Khal (3900 mts)

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

Among rewards, we spotted the elusive snow leopard near Tsokar Lake. It is a memory that will be etched in my mind forever. There was also blue sheep, monal, marmots, wild pheasants and many more; enough to fill an entire journal. All through the hike we came across bridges built by shepherds. We always examined its strength first, to see if it would bear our weight or not. There were occasions when we found the bridge weak or collapsing. We always had to keep a Plan B in mind in case we had to find a way other than using those bridges. We were a group with mixed levels of experience in this terrain. Shekhar was new to most of the passes we faced. Pranav had seen a good bit of the trail before. I too was fortunate to have covered most parts of this trail in bits and pieces on previous forays. In spite of that, route finding remained a major challenge. Not having a good reliable map and the tricky terrain of the Kumaon and Garhwal Himalaya always kept us on our toes. Now that we have mapped the correct position anyone will be able to follow our trail by downloading the file (editor’s note: at the time of writing, such a file with updated map was in the process of being made, Bharat said) and using it.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

Since this was a new route, planning accurately in terms of rations and logistics was based on approximation. We set up seven predetermined re-ration stations at various places of the traverse. These were places where we had previously sent boxes of ration well ahead of time, in order to be able to collect them as we passed those places during our journey. We also ate at village homes and food shacks along the way. This helped us not to carry extra ration and instead, move faster with light backpacks.

4Play – it is an Indian outdoor adventure content and media company; Pranav Rawat is their sponsored athlete – tried securing sponsorship for the Western Himalayan Traverse. They pitched our idea to several companies here and abroad and upon not finding much of a response to it advised us to try and see if crowdfunding would help. Pranav and Shekhar campaigned for the Western Himalayan Traverse project and raised funds individually. In spite of that we still had to invest our own funds to buy the required gear. Raising the funds for this expedition was almost as challenging as completing the traverse itself.

(The author, Bharat Bhushan, is a seasoned mountaineer. He works as an instructor with NOLS.)

REDISCOVERING SIMPLICITY

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

When a company that was once the world’s biggest automobile manufacturer decides to add electric bicycles to its product range, you sit up and take notice.

Early November 2018. As Delhi faced yet another smoggy winter and traffic elsewhere in India continued to worsen with people buying more and more vehicles, news appeared overseas of General Motors (GM) planning to sell electric bicycles.

The business of electric bicycles is nothing new. Established bicycle manufacturers already produce electric bicycles. Within the world of bicycles, electric bicycles form one of the fastest growing segments of the market with large volumes sold in countries like China. Automobile companies have romanced electric bikes for a while now. The Internet says, BMW (which is a known brand in two-wheelers as well) has been making them since 2013.

What made this latest news item interesting is that the company in question was GM. In the twentieth century, the automobile industry was the biggest industrial sector around. The concluding decade of the twentieth century and the beginning years of the twenty first saw much restructuring in the automobile industry. It was driven by sluggish market conditions, business economics (including cost of manufacturing) and larger questions looming over continued use of fossil fuels. Detroit, once the capital of America’s automobile industry, faded. As consequences of climate change, air pollution and traffic congestion gained in various parts of the world, the industry couldn’t anymore ignore the reality it had partly contributed to. The biggest of the automobile companies of the twentieth century – indeed the biggest company in any field for a long time – was GM.  That pecking order has since altered with Toyota, Volkswagen and Hyundai overtaking GM in auto sales (data from Wikipedia). Meanwhile the world’s biggest company by revenue is retail major, Walmart; the world’s most valued company is Apple (the next four also being in the IT / digital space, in Amazon’s case, combined with retail). It is a measure of how things changed in sales, human habits and overall industrial reality. In GM’s case, the interest in electric bicycles is a consequence of thrust commenced earlier to explore electric cars. But as anyone can see, there is a lot of industrial history behind this latest vehicle, likely GM’s smallest.

Billionaire businessman Elon Musk announced recently that electric vehicle manufacturer-Tesla may look at making an electric bike. The Internet also directed readers’ attention to companies like Uber being bullish on rides offered on electric scooters and electric bicycles; in April this year Uber even bought bike-sharing start up Jump for an amount, the media pegged at around $ 200 million. Among factors inspiring these trends are environment friendly last mile connectivity and potential for digitally networked transport ecosystem, the latter in instances of bike sharing. Although they engage as relevant for today’s polluted, congested traffic environment, electric bikes have their set of problems too.  The Internet has much in-depth discussion on technical aspects and mechanical issues customers face; something engineers will enjoy wrapping their heads around. For the rest of us, I found a couple of points worth mulling over.

A bicycle is a combination of mathematical parameters (its dimensions from frame to crank, cogs and wheel size), married to propulsion and covering distance by that. When motor aids human propulsion on standard bicycle dimension (or human propulsion aids drive by motor), the resultant speed may amaze.  For humans, speed has always fascinated. There is in fact, a lot of celebration of e-bike speed one comes across on the Net. Two questions matter therein especially in the context of bicycle being simple structure at heart and capacity to tinker being hardwired into humans. How much speed can regular bicycle components shoulder without mechanical or structural failure? Second, how safe is it for all, if speed is accompanied by silence, something typical of electric motors? Clearly, just being alternative means of transport does not directly translate into a healthier, safer traffic environment. A bad driver is a bad driver, no matter how many wheels under him or what engine he uses. Further in as much as regular vehicles have messed up urban environments through congestion, the bicycle too can be guilty of it when accumulated in big numbers. But on one aspect it scores indisputably.

Pedaling – whatever be the degree of pedaling involved, pedaling in part as with electric bikes or pedaling in full as with normal bicycles – is healthy on human being. To my mind, in a reverse migration of sorts, electric bikes can be a bridge between giving up mechanized, fuel guzzling means of transport and rediscovering pure cycling. Industry though may see it just the opposite way; that’s what capital does to every equation. There’s more money in getting those on plain bicycles to graduate to motorized two wheels; electric bike is convenient bridge for that. Shortly after news of GM’s electric bike appeared, I asked a Pune based-designer of bicycles what he thought. “ I may look at electric bikes as a matter of market interest. But if I do, I would want to make it look very bicycle-like because my heart is in pure cycling; non-motorized,” he said.

According to published reports, technical details of GM’s electric bicycle are not fully available yet. The company has announced a naming contest. This blog spoke to a senior official in the Indian bicycle retail business, who had seen media reports of the GM product. There was doubt on whether the model is a pedal assisted electric bicycle or one that has a throttle-assist, in which case the bike / bicycle may move even if you don’t cycle. Websites reporting on the product have so far conjectured on their own. At least one pointed to the modest size of battery visible in product photograph and speculated that it seemed a pedal-assist.

Meanwhile for those on plain bicycle – non-motorized two wheels – life remains simple, as always; till world around decides to make it otherwise.

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

VICE ADMIRAL MANOHAR AWATI (RETD) / 1927-2018

Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Sailing in India lost one of its strongest supporters with the demise of Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (Retd) on November 4, 2018. He was 91. Sagar Parikrama, the Indian Navy’s project to execute solo circumnavigation of the planet in a sail boat, owes much to him.

Circumnavigation had fascinated Vice Admiral Manohar Awati throughout his career in the navy.

But he had been unable to realize it while in service.

As he told this blog in 2013, it all started in west London soon after World War II. He was in his early twenties, freshly commissioned in the Royal Indian Navy and attending a course at the Royal Naval College. While out on a walk, he bought a book from a person selling books on the footpath near Charing Cross; it was Joshua Slocum’s account of his solo circumnavigation in a sail boat, the first such voyage done. It impressed him deeply.

“ From 1946 to 1983 I was busy being a good officer,’’ he said. In that while he would be awarded the Vir Chakra for leadership and gallantry during operations in the Bay of Bengal (1972 India-Pakistan war), serve as Commandant of the National Defence Academy (NDA) and eventually be Commander-in-Chief, Western Naval Command, sword arm of the Indian Navy. All through his career the idea of circumnavigation in a sail boat survived in his mind. Upon retiring, he persisted with his pet project. It was an uphill task. The project needed funds. The navy wasn’t quite enthusiastic; corporate India – he approached them for funds – by and large cold shouldered him.

In 2005-2006, a former cadet of his, Admiral Arun Prakash, became navy chief. He warmed up to the idea of circumnavigation. Vice Admiral Awati proposed a revised budget and added a condition that would distinguish Sagar Parikrama – he wanted the boat being used for circumnavigation to be built in India. The navy allotted funds. From this was born the INSV Mhadei, perhaps the toughest little boat the Indian Navy has known yet. Based on a Dutch design, she was built at Aquarius Shipyard, Goa. In 2009-2010 Sagar Parikrama bore fruit when Captain Dilip Donde (Retd) became the first Indian to do solo circumnavigation in a sail boat. Two years later, over 2012-2013, Commander Abhilash Tomy executed the first solo nonstop circumnavigation by an Indian in a sail boat.

Vice Admiral Awati wasn’t done. He had a few more voyages he wished to see happen. Over 2017-2018, the first of these – Indian women completing circumnavigation in a sail boat was realized when six Indian women naval officers sailed around the planet in INSV Tarini, the Mhadei’s sister vessel. In August 2018, soon after an article on the circumnavigation by all woman-crew appeared on this blog, Vice Admiral Awati wrote in: At near 92, I still have ambitions. (a) to be around to see the first Indian woman solo circumnavigator, and (b) to see an Indian sailing boat (go) through the Arctic, and finally (c) to witness an Indian sail boat circumnavigate Antarctica. All this and more shouldn’t take long to be realized if the momentum of Sagar Parikrama is maintained.

Vice Admiral Awati was among the few readers of this blog who periodically wrote in with feedback and suggestions. He wished to include the public in his enthusiasm for sailing (Sagar Parikrama and the fan following it had is excellent example of this). Compared to 2500 kilometers of Himalaya and considerable fuss around mountaineering, India has 7500 kilometers of coastline and no matching push for sailing, kayaking, canoeing, surfing or any such water-based sport. Vice Admiral Awati felt India was inadequate in its appreciation of the sea and wanted to see the trend corrected. He also knew that if it was to happen in a convincing way, then sailing as activity had to grow. When Maharashtra evolved a policy for outdoor / adventure sports, he was concerned that sailing should be both properly represented and backed by supportive policies. He sought the contact details of those in charge.

This write-up must necessarily end on a personal note.

File photo / INSV Mhadei; at berth in Goa (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Journalists are typically awful communicators in the normal sense of the word. Newspaper offices receive so many mails and press releases daily that if you honed your skills in such an environment, you take it for granted that you needn’t respond to each personally. When world reduces to information and data, an element of the impersonal creeps in. The first time I met Vice Admiral Awati was at the Indian Navy Watermanship Training Center (INWTC) in Mumbai, when I was doing my first article on Sagar Parikrama. Captain Dilp Donde (Retd) and Commander Abhilash Tomy were also there. We were on the second floor and the lift had been kept on standby for the retired admiral, then in his late eighties, to take. He took the stairs instead and reached the interview table, a bit tired by the effort but happy for it. He spoke to the point and was very articulate; his choice of sentences leaned towards classical harking of bygone era.

Conversation around sailing over, I requested him for a copy of his bio-data, which he agreed to mail across as soon as he got back to Vinchurni in Satara, where he lived. I received the mail – if I recall correctly – the very next day. I was busy writing the article and while I perused the bio-data for material to include in the piece, didn’t reply to the mail. Two days later I got a mail from the admiral in which, he pointed out that while he had promptly dispatched his bio-data to me, I had failed to extend him the courtesy of acknowledging it. I learnt something that day. I have since tried my best to reply not only to his mails but most other’s as well. He never belittled freelance journalist for not belonging to any big media organization or writing for a blog. He recognized individual character and interest in subject. He appreciated good work and always sent in a line when he noticed instances of it. A naval officer once said this of him to me, “ he is the best chief the navy never had.’’

Vice Admiral Awati passed away on November 4, 2018. “ A giant of a man, one of our tallest heroes and greatest icons. Its truly the end of an era. May his soul rest in peace,” Admiral Sunil Lanba, Chief of Naval Staff, said in his statement available on the official Twitter handle of the Indian Navy spokesperson.

Thank you for everything sir; this blog and this writer will always remember you.

To read an interview with Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (it was done in 2013), please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2013/10/27/sagar-parikrama-part-four/)

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For all articles related to sailing and Sagar Parikrama, please select from story list / archives or click on Sagar Parikrama in the categories section.)

TO TATTOO OR NOT TO TATTOO

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Ruminations on blank skin.

Tattoos are beautiful.

Some people wear it well.

I have friends who are into tattooing; not just getting it but also giving it. More than once the blank skin on my body has been their target. Why don’t you get one?

I spent a few years wondering what tattoo I should get.

Since you can get a tattoo but not easily erase it, the image would have to be something you deeply identify with. My dilemma starts there. You see there is nothing I deeply identify with; nothing I cannot really live without. I used to hike, climb rock and go mountaineering. When my resources dried up after I turned freelance journalist, I found myself lacking the money to indulge in these pursuits. It hurt for a while. But when you live life like a voyage you wonder – should I go back to where I came from or should I see what lay beyond the bend? What’s the point in tattooing an ice axe or a coil of rope, if you are not anymore that frequent in the mountains?

Perhaps then I should be a collector of experiences. I could collect tattoos representing each. I may then run the risk of looking like one of those pirates from Hollywood’s popular franchise. But frankly I don’t think I am so adventurous in life or so prolific at gathering experiences that I may run out of skin. But do I wish to be known by any of my experiences? Yet again I don’t think I am defined by anything except the fact that I am sailing through, which raises a question – would you be traveler reaching town branded as something or traveler reaching town attracting no attention? Worse – as is typical in debate by degrees of belonging – what if you walked into some place sporting wrong tattoo or walked into a place full of tattoos with none on you?

Tattoos are invitation to dwell on identity. But who do you pick for pack? Religion, divinity, community, cult et al – I find them delusional comfort. Even music – I listen to what I feel like at given point in time and that means, curiosity for many genres, preference for some and not loving one to the expense of all else. The Earth is five billion years old. It will be there – in varying forms though – for another five billion years. I am 50 years old. What do I know of universe yet, to soak in and claim for identity? Now artists are creative and I am sure they have a design that captures above mentioned state of mind. But what if you thought yourself so and then proceeded to be something else? Like I said, nobody knows what lay beyond the bend and if you did, the question arises: is that universe or your imagination?

It’s better to stay seeker than pretend to have found or been found. And if you haven’t found or been found, what do you tattoo into your skin?

But that’s not how identity works.

Identity is not as insistent on timeless truth as it is of something you can identify with. It seeks to merely answer concerns that matter to the human hive. So you don’t work back from eternity, the age of the universe or planet. You work back from a human lifetime. Within that, tattoos are many to choose from. And as some critical of my escapist, ever-blank argument may say, the problem is perhaps mine; I am not adventurous enough to court powerful experience in the hive, the sort that impacts.

Still I keep asking myself: what about people whose minds exceed hive; people for whom the hive smacks of entrapment?

The universe as it is seems infinite.

I wonder what the universe sports for tattoo.

Who tattoos it?

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