OUR REFLECTION IN PETER

Peter Van Geit at the talk in Navi Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

It was a small gathering, just outside the shop floor of a major sports goods retailer in Navi Mumbai. Maybe 15-20 people at best; a couple of them were the retail chain’s staff. But that didn’t stop Peter Van Geit from speaking passionately about what he had been doing the past several months.

A Belgian national and former employee of tech giant, Cisco, Chennai-based Peter is well known in the Indian outdoors. He was among prime movers at the Chennai Trekking Club (CTC), contributed much to promoting the active lifestyle, helped clean up the city’s beaches, did excellent relief work during the Chennai floods and then got villainized when an unexpected forest fire killed several trekkers in Theni. That last incident from March 2018 was a tense chapter.

At CTC, one of the activities Peter and others embraced was ultrarunning. They would run for a few days covering a couple of hundred kilometers. In 2018, Peter commenced a personal project. Over 75 days, he ran (the right term would be fast-hiked) 1500 kilometers along trails and across some 40 high mountain passes in Himachal Pradesh and the then state of Jammu & Kashmir. This venture followed an earlier one in Vietnam, wherein he ran close to 2000 kilometers over hilly terrain. Then in 2019, running from the Uttarakhand-Nepal border towards Himachal Pradesh and Zanskar, he crossed 120 passes. The number includes little known routes taken by shepherds, who incidentally are his frequent refuge for food and shelter on these trips. Later that year, in a foray to the Maharashtra Sahyadri and the Konkan coast, he ran or cycled linking some 200 forts. Active on social media with his travel posts, Peter has a fan base. In January 2020, when Peter was in Mumbai to speak at the Himalayan Club, this writer shared a suburban train journey with him. He was quickly recognized by co-passengers and selfies taken.

At two presentations I attended this year, there was a slide that always drew laughs. It showed a small child sitting naked on a beach. “ That’s me. I was minimalist even then,’’ Peter would quip. He says traveling light makes him fast. On the trail, that means less stuff hauled around as he manages to either reach known shelter or camp light at lower elevation having already got past the high crux. That’s utter contrast with the regular. Consider this: a typical photograph of Peter from the Himalaya shows him in running shorts, a small backpack, a thin T-shirt and a pair of running shoes. The backdrop is high altitude; steep, snow clad, at times glacier, clearly cold. Other speakers at the same venue may have just presented slides of them and others in similar environment clad in multiple layers, armed with gear and heavy backpack. That would be the Himalayan experience of most in the audience too.

In the mutual admiration society we are, people flock to similar others. Peter gets applause but you wonder – was he accepted into the tribe? Much of the establishment sitting in judgement came up in a more structured fashion with outdoor courses done and rigid views of what defines a particular sport. They seem organization-builders; lovers of hive and the politics of the hive if we were all bees. Corporate – you could say, for imagery. Peter seems an activity-lover, happiest outdoors, happy to be afloat afterwards in a people’s durbar. In his heart warming short film, Peter stumbles, slips, gets his face liberally licked by a buffalo, does some sketchy river-crossings. Those formally trained in outdoor techniques will question some of his actions. Yet there he was, up in the mountains, doing a hybrid of running and high altitude hiking, most of the time solo. Solo is something few Indians like. Indians are all about groups. Further, where most of us make a whole annual trek out of one pass, he was polishing off a pass a day. For now in India’s world of hiking-mountaineering and running, the Peter-way is an outlier.

Here’s another vignette – Peter is a runner but now nurses little appetite for the organized marathons, ultramarathons and stadium runs that the majority of runners favor. He likes to be away from cities and crowds. When out in the Himalaya, he lives and eats with shepherds and at houses along the trail; he likes that simpler life. He navigates with digital map and GPS co-ordinates on his smartphone used offline and set to battery saving-mode. On the Konkan coast, confronted with the fort of Suvarnadurg located on an island a kilometer out in the sea, he just swam across to access it. The central values of his excursions appear freedom, solitude and living the life he wants. Accessible and easy to talk to, Peter may impress as anything from celebration of the outdoor spirit to bull in a china shop unintentionally smashing our gear laden surrogate commando self-image, with his minimalist approach.

Peter, in a Mumbai suburban train, en route to a lecture (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

To be fair, Peter’s journeys in India fell in a list of projects headed to the body of work he achieved. Long before digital became commonplace in India, in 1997, a team of Indian women completed a trans-Himalayan trek from Bomdila in Arunachal Pradesh to the Karakorum Pass. They crossed 39 passes above 3000m, 15 passes above 2000m and covered 4500 kilometers in 198 days. In the years that followed, at least one seasoned outdoorsman anchored a project seeking to thread a hiking route from Ladakh to the Uttarakhand-Nepal border, replete with GPS co-ordinates for independent hikers to use. More than five years ago, when the Himalaya was yet to be run as Peter did, this writer spoke of the project in waiting to an Indian ultrarunner. Nothing happened. Over August-October 2018, a team of three young Indian mountaineers hiked from Ladakh to the Uttarakhand-Nepal border crossing 27 passes (please try this link for their story:  https://shyamgopan.com/2018/11/13/a-long-walk-traversing-the-western-himalaya/). Then over 2018 and 2019, in two tranches, Peter crossed around 160 passes in the western part of the Indian Himalaya, visited 200 forts in Maharashtra and made the journeys available as digital resource. His own project, Peter has said, was initially spurred by data from a blog by Bengaluru-based trekker Satyanarayana; in the blog Satya used to document with GPS logs, the passes he visited.

It was two years ago that Peter resigned his job, did an Airbnb with his house and embarked on a new life of running around. At the February 2020 talk in Navi Mumbai, he spoke of young Indians he met during his long stay in the country, who were stronger athletes than him but whose promise faded with marriage and corporate life. The young people in the audience laughed. Peter’s face remained expressionless. “ It is not a laughing matter. Life is short and you live only once,’’ he said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For more on Peter please try these links: https://shyamgopan.com/2017/02/28/i-dont-have-time-isnt-a-valid-excuse/; https://shyamgopan.com/2019/03/22/running-in-the-himalaya-75-days-1500-km-40-mountain-passes-talking-to-peter-van-geit/)             

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