In late June 2019, Seema Pai from Bengaluru reached the summit of Denali, North America’s highest mountain. She returned with many questions in her head and the desire to rethink the projects she was working on.
It all started unexpectedly with a hike in the Sikkim Himalaya in March 2015. That was when Seema Pai and her partner, Dinesh Kaigonahalli, met Sergei Chulkov, a Russian mountain guide. They agreed to meet again; hopefully in the Caucusus Mountains, the mountain system at the intersection of Europe and Asia. A few months after the hike in Sikkim, Seema and Dinesh had an enjoyable outing in Ladakh, trying out a hiking route they hadn’t been on before, in the eastern Nubra Valley. The trek involved three passes all above 17,500 feet in elevation. At its end, the duo decided to extend their outdoor experience to the Caucusus. It seemed appropriate in another way – they were well acclimatized from their stay and hike in Ladakh. Why waste that fitness with a return to the plains?
They flew to Moscow and from there, traveled to the resort town of Mineralnye Vody in Stavropol Krai where they met up with Sergei. Given their recent acclimatization to high altitude and the fact that its benefits stay on for a brief while, Sergie recommended that they attempt Mount Elbrus (18,510ft), the highest peak in the Caucusus. A mountain guide, he kitted them out for the trip. That was how Elbrus happened. With it, rather unexpectedly, Seema found herself looking at the possibility of attempting Seven Summits. It wasn’t something she sought. Elbrus happens to be among mountains constituting the Seven Summits challenge in mountaineering. She had just traveled to Russia and climbed it. So, how about trying the rest? First accomplished by American businessman Richard Bass in 1985, Seven Summits entails climbing the highest peak on each continent. The seven peaks are: Everest (Asia), Aconcagua (South America), Denali (North America), Elbrus (Europe), Vinson Massif (Antarctica) and Kosciuszko (Australia) or Puncak Jaya aka Carstensz Pyramid (Indonesia). That last choice depends on whether you view Australia as continent or tectonic plate; if latter then Puncak Jaya in Papua, Indonesia qualifies to be highest.
Belonging to Bengaluru’s early crop of woman rock climbers, Seema has been climbing, hiking and going on expeditions to the Himalaya for many years. A self-made person with multiple rebounds from testing predicaments to her credit she owned of a couple of shops selling outdoor gear in the city. In mid-August 2017, after another acclimatization trek in Ladakh, Seema and Dinesh flew to Tanzania. In less than a week they were atop Kilimanjaro (19,340ft), the highest freestanding peak in the world and the highest mountain in Africa. In early 2018, the two of them traveled to Argentina in South America, where Seema successfully climbed Aconcagua (22,841ft). All these ascents – Elbrus, Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua – were guided trips that were also supported (meaning – use of support staff) to varying degrees. It made the next expedition, Denali, stand out. Trips to Denali are mostly self-supported. It is only in the Himalaya and the mountains of Africa that clients are indulged with support services. In the world of hiking and mountaineering, respect is highest for people who do things by themselves. Seema was certain she did not want to be a tourist on Denali. She wanted an expedition in which, she did her share of hard work. There was also another angle at play here.
If you go through Wikipedia’s page on Bill Watterson, a sentence to remember is his observation that he works for personal fulfilment. Watterson is the creator of the popular comic strip: Calvin and Hobbes; first published November 18, 1985. Despite its success, Calvin and Hobbes had a syndicated run of only ten years, from 1985 to 1995. According to Wikipedia, Watterson stopped drawing the strip with a short statement to newspaper editors and readers saying that he felt he had achieved all he could in the medium. He is also known for his battle with publishers against merchandising his characters; something he felt would render his characters cheap. Amid the comic strip’s immense popularity even today, Watterson’s take on commercialization is, arguably, not as well-known. Seema is a huge fan of Calvin and Hobbes. In her childhood, she had been the strong-willed, independent sort with penchant for courting trouble. The story of the six year-old adventurous boy and his stuffed tiger had instant appeal. Among concepts that she latched on to was the idea of the transmogrifier, the cardboard box Calvin uses many times to transform himself and Hobbes into a variety of characters. She had long wanted her own cardboard box.
Alaska has been an emblem for the world’s wilderness spaces. There are other places similar to it or near similar, but when it comes to imagining vast snowbound landscapes, polar weather and animal and human existence evolved in such circumstance, Alaska easily invades the brain. It is also true unfortunately that some of the results of human intervention – like oil spills; they too enter the frame. Alaska is home to North America’s best known mountain – Denali. For many years, the mountain was also known as McKinley, called so after William McKinley, 25th president of the United States who was assassinated in September 1901. Although its height is only 20,310 feet – significantly less than many of the peaks in the Himalaya – Denali is both a big mountain, among the world’s most northerly big mountains, quite cold and capable of attracting feisty weather conditions. There is also plenty of raw ascending involved given the walk-in starts at around 7000 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier. According to Wikipedia, the first verifiable ascent of Denali was in 1913, by Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens, Walter Harper and Robert Tallum. Within the Seven Summits world, Denali is among the most demanding climbs because in addition to whatever it offers, the challenges are tackled with few of the luxuries of guided ascents. After Elbrus, Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua, as Seema knocked on Denali’s doors she knew a different experience waited. This would be her personal transmogrifier to become the sort of outdoorsperson she wanted to be.
In Bengaluru, along with her regular training, Seema commenced a special 24 week-program designed for the Denali ascent. The focus was cardio-vascular, core and strength training. Additionally she also pulled heavy tyres and periodically did stair workouts at an apartment block having 15 floors; her backpack loaded to almost 30 kilos. Then just before heading to the US, she and Dinesh spent two weeks in Ladakh. They hiked to two passes – Stok La and Ganda La – without much load; they carried just about five to six kilos of stuff in their backpack. The idea was to take it easy, provide a tapering, relaxed phase to all the hard work that had gone in. It was also a case of repeating the pattern they had resorted to before the previous peak ascents as part pf Seven Summits – Ladakh was ideal place to acclimatize ahead of expedition. Early June, they flew from Delhi to Seattle via Frankfurt. There they met Madhu Chikkaraju and Pranesh Manchaiah, climbers from Bengaluru who had previously been on Denali as part of faculty for a premier outdoor school. Seema had tied up with them for the Denali attempt. At Anchorage in Alaska, which they reached on June 16, they were also joined by Brian, who had come from Oregon. Seema’s birthday – her fiftieth – was celebrated at Anchorage in the company of her expedition team and friends from Sacramento, who showed up for the occasion. There was some final shopping also done at REI, Anchorage.
A few days later, the team proceeded to Talkeetna. “ It is a rugged place,’’ Seema said. Here, the expedition’s gear and supplies were reviewed and repacked. Given an expedition proceeds setting up camps on the mountain and a load ferry precedes each camp, the supplies had to be repacked in plastic and dry bags so that they could be buried six to seven feet deep in the snow; each such cachet is identified with markers bearing the expedition’s name. “ Since there is nobody to help you haul what you take, every unwanted gram is left behind. You orient yourself for life based on essentials and what is relevant,’’ Seema said.
Talkeetna was where the final paperwork and briefing related to the expedition got done. The rangers who interviewed the team had already seen the climbers’ biodata. They had much respect for the altitudes of the Himalaya. But that didn’t stop them from checking whether the predominantly Indian team was aware of what it took to attempt Denali. They made sure the team members knew glacier mountaineering, that they knew the basics of climbing; they even asked how many trips Seema had made to the Himalaya given Bengaluru is in South India. Their focus was more on Madhu and Pranesh, who were the more experienced members and assuming responsibility for the rest. The region around Denali is a national park. The rangers gave a Power Point presentation on dos and don’ts; they also provided an overview of the route available for the season, prevailing conditions and how many attempts had happened as yet. The park service, responsible for maintaining the environment and ensuring visitors’ safety, provided sledges (to pull gear) and poop buckets (to collect and ship out human waste). You have to pay for these. “ The park officials were professional and articulate,’’ Seema said. The private expedition was given the name: Team Bengaluru. They would attempt Denali via the popular route – the West Buttress Route.
Indicative of the ice, wilderness and far flung settlements ahead, there were plenty of planes around in Talkeetna. They do the work of ferrying people and supplies to remoteness. Alaska is among regions that birthed bush flying, wherein the tough terrain that planes take off and land on offered few prepared landing strips and runways. It called for tough pilots, tough planes and much innovation. Bush planes are characterized by their ability to operate from short landing strips, large tyres to tackle bumpy terrain, undercarriage designed to host floats and skis and high wings that permit easy loading and unimpeded gaze downward for pilot and passengers. Alaska’s first bush pilot was Carl Ben Eilson, hailing from North Dakota in the US. Bush planes, pilots – they are as much part of Alaskan stories as nature and people are, in the region. Team Bengaluru flew from Talkeetna to Kahiltna East Fork Glacier. The Kahiltna Glacier is Alaska’s longest; it is 71 kilometers long. “ You are supposed to be dressed for life on glacier and ready for it from the moment you step on to the plane,’’ Seema said.
The plane dropped off the team and their gear, took on those waiting to go back and left. It was now down to four people, their supplies and a vast landscape. Backpacks weighed over 20 kilos; there was roughly 55-60 kilos of gear per head in total. The distance from East Fork at roughly 7000 feet elevation to Denali’s summit – 20,310 feet – is 29 kilometers. Sense of work to be done, sank in for reduced to the minimalism of so much stuff, a few humans and nothing else around, one thing was clear – none of that gear is going to move unless human being hauls it. “ I am thankful that I put my butt on fire in Bengaluru, preparing for this expedition. You have to be fit if you want to attempt Denali as part of a self-supported team,’’ Seema said. It was the evening of June 19, 2019. Aside from two metal shelters, there was no other permanent installation at Kahiltna East Fork. It was just miles of glacier. You saw the lower portions of Denali; its middle and higher reaches remained unseen. The months of May, June and July form the traditional window to attempt Denali. Thanks to global warming, Seema said, late July is not recommended while late April-expeditions have begun happening. Although flying with Seema to Talkeetna, Dinesh wasn’t part of the climbing team. He was scheduled to return to India. Dinesh is among Bengaluru’s pioneers in rock climbing, a former NOLS instructor in mountaineering and one of the original founders of India’s popular backpack brand: Wildcraft. Before leaving Talkeetna, he went for a cruise on the river. The settlement is at the confluence of three rivers – Susitna, Chulitna and Talkeetna. From the boat, he saw Denali in the distance. He recalls thinking how massive it seemed. Mt Foraker: Mt Hunter, Denali – they are all in the same area. But Denali towered above the rest.
Life on a giant glacier comes with its own protocols. There were assigned camping spots on Kahiltna East Fork and limits on how far you venture off the designated zone for there are crevasses. You respect the safety markers that have been put up; you also watch out for each other. Climbers heading to Denali stick to the assigned path, identifiable thanks to periodic markers and the footprints of those who went earlier. On vast, barren glacier with nowhere to hide, a pee-break or poop-break finds you going about your business while others look away to provide an illusion of privacy. Tents, easily set up on other types of terrain, can be installed on a glacier exposed to the wind only after sufficient snow has been shoveled off and a flat trough excavated for the pitching. With so much ice around, snow goggles are a must. Sleep is quite different from mountaineering in the Himalaya. The Alaskan year is divided into two halves of summer and winter. June is summer and in summer, daylight never goes off fully. “ You put a scarf on your eyes and try to sleep. I went to Denali like a student. You have to have humility. What I liked about Denali is that you can’t be competitive in this landscape. If you are still competitive, then you are spiritually zero. Nothing works here without team work,’’ Seema said. The first few days of load ferry is done wearing snow shoes, designed to prevent feet from sinking into snow. Back in Bengaluru, Seema had trained to pull sledges (that’s what the earlier mentioned tyres were for). Still doing it for real was a challenge. She hadn’t factored in how traction would be with snow shoes. On the approach to Denali, she elected to do her hauling in the backpack instead. The team used snow shoes and sledges till the fifth day. Then they were cached (buried) in the snow at Windy Corner to be retrieved on the way back. Past this point, Seem also stopped using both her trekking poles. It became a pole and an ice axe. Among the camps en route, the one at 14,200 feet was sizable. “ It resembles a colony and is just ahead of the actual climb up Denali. This camp has a medical facility with Gammo Bag to tackle altitude induced sickness,’’ Seema said.
Fixed ropes installed every season for the climb, commenced from this camp. Here the team also faced their first set of serious problems. To begin with a storm was forecast. Bad weather typically entails lasting it out for a fresh window to open up. That puts pressure on the team’s supplies. Then, one of the team members became unwell, apparently caused by altitude. The medical personnel advised that the individual descend for safety. He was relocated to camp at 11,000 feet. Simple as it sounds, in reality this wasn’t easy. In the thick of an expedition with work to do and summit to gain, altitude sickness is rarely acknowledged by patients. When it is established through external intervention, there is the issue of patient buying into it adequately and descending to safety. Finally in small alpine teams, when one person is taken out of the frame, the others have to pull that much more for there are only so many to get the job done. The diagnosis of altitude sickness and descent to safe camp to park the individual – all this happened alongside responsibilities parceled out and load ferry continued to set up higher camps. By now the body clock had gone haywire; in Denali’s blurred divide between day and night sleep was happening at hours distinctly odd by the habits of lower latitudes. And so one of the timelines read like this – team members after transferring their colleague to lower camp (where his condition started to improve) got back to the camp at 14,200 feet by 3AM. They rested till 3PM and then left for high camp at 17,200 feet – below Denali Pass – which they reached by 10.30PM. The weather was starting to go bad. They rested till 8AM, then, left for the summit at 10AM. The narrative may as well have been of one long solar day; sleep – a case of badly required shut eye and not world blanketed by darkness.
The summit push is divided into three parts – there is the Denali Pass, the summit slope and a large slushy snowfield, replete with the associated risks of glacier travel. The team moved efficiently, tackling Denali Pass in under-two hours. “ Summit day was 12 hours long for us. We reached the top of Denali at 5.50PM on June 28. Luckily for us, the weather didn’t worsen that day and the next. Having gained the summit, we got back to the camp at 11,000 feet and our friend recuperating there, by around 10PM,’’ Seema said. Reunited and briefly rested, they wound up the camp at 11,000 feet and descended to East Fork at approximately 7000 feet. Having returned to Bengaluru, Dinesh had been monitoring the weather in Alaska online. He saw the storm forecast. He also saw that around the team’s previously calculated summit window, conditions were holding and not deteriorating further. “ Up and down Denali in eleven days is admirable,’’ he said.
For Seema however, there were other thoughts taking root. The whole Seven Summits journey had been triggered unexpectedly. Once she launched into it, there had been the related big expedition-rigmarole of impressing sponsors, articulating purpose and marketing it. All of that to try and raise funds. A century ago, in times vastly different from now, George Mallory could say he wanted to climb Everest “ because it’s there.’’ Now, adventure finds support because it promises relevance for sale in human collective. Empowerment; no-limits, team work – such descriptions help market adventure, when it is actually a case of nothing but because-its-there and you wanting to try it. Bucket lists by fifty are perhaps no different. Or to be more precise – there is nothing wrong in wishing for something but if you want it to be a soul-cleansing experience alongside, then it has to be just that and not what impresses sponsors and human collective. Seema had Elbrus, Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua and Denali in the bag. Everest, Vinson Massif and Puncak Jaya remained. Denali in particular had come after much preparation. She had worked for it. It had been mission mode. And just when it delivered results, it also posed questions. What are you on a mountain for? “ I don’t want anything in mission mode anymore on a mountain. I want it to be a fuller experience of what it is like to be out there. On a normal expedition, one is happier. You have time. Mission mode, chasing an objective or ambition, does not offer opportunity to connect deeply to the experience, ’’ she said.
Denali done, Seema has been questioning her pursuit of Seven Summits. “ I don’t wish to go after the remaining peaks in Seven Summits. On the other hand, Denali has given me the confidence to attempt bigger peaks. Not tick them as some objective achieved. Woh race mein nahin lagne ka….’’ she said. Not to mention – Seven Summits is an expensive proposition and the peaks remaining to be climbed – Everest, Vinson Massif (in Antarctica) and Puncak Jaya (in Indonesia) – are costly affairs owing to challenges in logistics or the commercial enterprise they come wrapped in. Is mountaineering all about measurement by capacity to afford costly expeditions and logistics? In days of commercial expeditions like today, it would seem so. “ The problem in life is that sense of accomplishment easily transforms to self-obsession. I don’t want that,’’ Seema said. Back in Bengaluru, she has been reassessing her life. Alongside her business, Seema has maintained a presence in farming. The latter’s appeal has been growing. Denali was indeed transmogrifier.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For more on Seema Pai please try this link: https://whynotat50.com/)