DRAWN TO THE 24 HOUR-TT AND HOPING IT HAPPENS IN INDIA

Kabir Rachure; at the 2022 Borrego Springs WTTC (Photo: courtesy Kabir)

“ I got interested in the event mainly because of its name,’’ Kabir Rachure said.

He was talking of the annual Borrego Springs WTTC (World Time Trial Championships) held in the settlement of Borrego Springs in San Diego County, California. Both “ world’’ in the name and the fact that the event is a time trial, attracted. ` World’ had a ring of quality and things to learn from. As for time trial – it is all about speed, an attribute associated more with the shorter sprint disciplines in cycling and not, ultra-cycling.

A two-time finisher in Race Across America (RAAM) and a regular podium finisher at ultra-cycling events in India, Kabir’s forte is endurance. Ultra-cyclists are not usually associated with speed. But speed does play a role in ultra-cycling for both finishing races within stipulated cut-off time and the higher ground of emerging a podium finisher, demand speed from ultra-cyclist. It isn’t the same speed as showcased by sprint cyclist in a velodrome; it is the stuff of higher average speed maintained for long, which is still the stuff of speed. “ It is like comparing Usain Bolt and Eliud Kipchoge. Bolt may be the fastest. But Kipchoge is not only running fast; he is also doing that for 42 kilometres,’’ Kabir said, outlining the paradigm, which drew him to Borrego Springs in early November 2022 for the annual WTTC. Or to cite an example from within the world of ultra-cycling, think of the Austrian great, Christoph Strasser, winner of RAAM multiple times and current record holder for the fastest completion of the 4800 kilometre-race – seven days, 15 hours, and 56 minutes, set in 2014. That’s speed; sustained.

Kabir with his support team – his sister Sapana and Rutvik – at the 2022 Borrego Springs WTTC (Photo: courtesy Kabir)

Closer to ultra-cyclist’s interests, the WTTC at Borrego Springs tests endurance because its categories span six, 12 and 24 hours of cycling in the time trial format. Such long hours of pedalling fast represent a sweet spot, showcasing both speed and endurance. Not surprisingly, the WTTC Borrego Springs also serves as a RAAM-qualifier. “ If you cover 400 miles in 24 hours, you get a certificate that lets you participate in RAAM,’’ Kabir said. The Navi Mumbai-based cyclist reached Borrego Springs registered for the 24 hour-time trial competition and nursing a goal of covering 720-750 kilometres in the assigned time. Kabir knew what he would be up against. “ I didn’t want to fight anyone leading the race. Some of the racers had done more than 800 kilometres at such competitions before,’’ he said. His intention was more in line with discovering his capabilities and finding out where he stood in a competitive field.

The event was held on a loop of 29 kilometres. It had one stop sign and no traffic signals. Notwithstanding the lone stop sign, cyclists participating in the WTTC were given priority by the authorities so that they could go about accumulating loops. In fact, the whole town appeared supportive of the event. Kabir recalled traffic making room for the cyclists and accommodating them on the road. The weather was helpful; prevailing temperatures were not high. And unlike in RAAM, where the scale of the course is huge and cyclists are often separated from each other by considerable distance, in Borrego Springs, the loop of 29 kilometres kept the sense of community compact and permitted social interaction among the participating cyclists.

Kabir reached California a week in advance to ensure he recovered well from the jet lag of a long trip. He had a small support team, his sister Sapana and Rutvik; and two bicycles to tackle the time trial – a proper TT bike (the Spiegel Diablo) and a road bike (the Spiegel San Marino). Once in Borrego Springs, he cycled on the 29 kilometre-loop multiple times to get used to the surface, get an idea of the gradients, and understand which segments demanded effort and where it would be possible to save energy. Knowing the course was critical because the road’s texture included sand and scree. There was the need to try out both bikes, different pieces of equipment and figure out the optimum configurations. Given the race was scheduled to start at 5PM and continue for 24 hours, cyclist would be required to manage his passage through changing weather conditions. The right attire and how layering should be managed – these had to be worked out. He essayed five rides on the course to find out the combinations that would work well for him. From a few days prior to the race, he started to consume only safe and familiar foods to minimize the chances of any health disorders.

On race day, the TT went off largely alright for Kabir. He used the TT bike for the first 12 hours and the road bike for the remaining period. It made sense because although the TT bike is designed for speed, the riding posture on it is aggressive and therefore tough to sustain for extended durations. To the credit of both bicycles and their maintenance, Kabir faced no mechanical problems during the TT. “ There was not even a flat tyre,’’ he said. Towards the later stages of the TT, Kabir developed some knee pain. But he felt that 700 kilometres was within reach. Past 22 hours, the riders were shifted to a shorter loop built for speed with no gradients. Given the knee pain, Kabir decided not to push aggressively and play conservatively instead. Eventually, Kabir covered 428.4 miles (689.44 kilometres) at an average speed of 18 miles per hour (28.9 kilometres per hour). in the 24-hour category, Kabir finished twelfth out of 90 participants overall. Within the solo male category, he placed eighth in a field of 52. In his age group of 30-39 years, he placed fourth. “ I wasn’t happy with the mileage achieved because I felt that more than 700 kilometres was possible,’’ he said. The overall winner of the competition was Philipp Kaider of Austria; he covered 531.6 miles (855.53 kilometres) at an average speed of 22.5 miles per hour (36.21 kilometres per hour). Kabir is currently weighing the options of repeating RAAM in 2023. While there is always the challenge of improving his performance at RAAM, his body has been craving for rest. “ I may elect to take a break,’’ he said about his plans for RAAM. But he confirmed that a return to Borrego Springs attracts.

Kabir Rachure; in Borrego Springs (Photo: courtesy Kabir)

Kabir was not aware of a time trial similar to that of Borrego Springs – one that combines long hours, speed and endurance on a loop – in India. Asked if such an event would be helpful for the growing community of endurance cyclists in the country, Kabir said it would be. The big challenge according to him, is the Indian environment. There is heavy traffic and rising pollution. Borrego Springs appeared a community that appreciated the cycling in its midst. For the WTTC, the road used was a normal one (which authorities repaired and spruced up ahead of the annual race) and traffic was not suspended. What was noteworthy was how traffic accommodated the cyclists and gave them the space to cycle as part of the WTTC. In other words, these are vignettes from lands where the active lifestyle is not an exception to the rule but is part of everyday life or the very stuff of life. It is how people define existence. It is paradigms of this sort and imagination therein, which then dream up races and contests including RAAM and the Borrego Springs WTTC.

Ultrarunning in India has its share of races held in stadiums. Encouraged so, Indian ultrarunners and teams of ultrarunners have since done well in continental championships in the 24 hour-category. For a six-hour, 12-hour or 24 hour-TT of the Borrego Springs sort to be held in India, cycling needs a loop at the intersection of acceptable surface quality and supportive weather. “ In July 2021, when Christoph Strasser became the first person to ride more than 1000 kilometres in 24 hours, he did that on a course at an air force base in Austria,’’ Kabir said. In India, there are racetracks used for motoring that aren’t optimally used. They could be freed up for a few days for an annual TT event provided the loop is not so small that it enables drafting (tucking in behind a competitor to escape wind resistance) by cyclists. At events like Borrego Springs, drafting is not allowed. Those are however finer details. The fundamental question is – do we want such races?

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The results quoted from the Borrego Springs WTTC are as published on the event’s website.)

FROM SECOND TO FIRST WITH A PB TO BOOT

Nihal Ahamad Baig; at the finish line of the 2022 Ironman 70.3 Goa (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

Nihal Ahamad Baig was overall winner of the 2022 edition of the Ironman 70.3 held in Goa. He completed the triathlon in a personal best (PB) of four hours, 29 minutes and 45 seconds to place first.

In terms of break-up in performance across the triathlon’s three disciplines, Nihal finished eighteenth in swimming, ninth in cycling and first in running.

Second place overall went to Bishworjit Saikhom (4:37:21). Pankaj Dhiman (4:40:41) finished third.

The Ironman in Goa falls in the category of a Half Ironman aka Ironman 70.3 (70.3 miles or 113 km overall consisting of 1.9 km-swim, 90 km-bike ride and 21.1 km-run). In the previous edition of the race in 2019, Bishworjit (4:42:44) had placed first and Nihal (4:47:47), second.

Nihal who has been featured before on this blog, spoke to Latha Venkatraman, a few days after the competition in Goa in mid-November. The following is a description of Nihal’s passage to the event in 2022 and his experience on race day, narrated from the athlete’s point of view:

2022 Ironman 70.3 Goa / Back on land after the swim segment in the sea (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

Towards the latter part of 2021, my focus was on running with a little bit of cycling as well in the mix. Swimming was completely off as due to the pandemic swimming pools were shut.

Around the end of 2021, I started swimming in a lake as I was set to participate in the 70.3 Bergman Triathlon at Kolhapur in January 2022. That race went well (Nihal won this race). Thereafter, I was focused on the Berlin Marathon. I had registered for the race in Germany. Until early September my focus was on running. I cycled mainly for cross-training and I still wasn’t doing much swimming.

At the end of August 2022, I felt burnt-out from the training. I stopped training. I decided not to go for the Berlin Marathon, which was slated for end of September 2022. I was not enjoying my workouts. I thought it was prudent to stop training. But the burn-out did not disappear fast. For a week I stopped training completely. Yet I did not feel better. Then, I started swimming and began feeling okay. I was able to focus on my swimming. From the middle of September till the end of the month I swam regularly. After that I went home to Guntur in Andhra Pradesh for three weeks. I took my bicycle with me. I could not swim there because there is no pool. I did some strength training and cycling. I was there till October 25.

2022 Ironman 70.3 Goa / From the cycling segment (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

When I returned, I had just 20 days left for the Ironman 70.3 in Goa. There wasn’t much time. I started running, cycling and swimming. I also did a few key workouts. I was not specifically training for Ironman. I had been training throughout the pandemic doing one or the other of the disciplines constituting the triathlon. I was fit. I decided to attempt the triathlon in Goa on the strength of my fitness, which I had developed over the earlier months.

In terms of weather, it was hotter this time and humid. Last time in Goa, because of the continuous showers in the run-up to the race it was much cooler. But sea conditions were rough last time compared to this time when the sea was much calmer. In 2022, there were no currents. The conditions for swimming were better. I did the swim segment in much better timing compared to the last time.

However, weather conditions for cycling and running were harsher. The overall temperature was higher. This time there was significant change in the cycling route. There was a lot of rolling hills and some elevation to tackle. Most of the route was through highways, which made progress faster. That was offset by the elevation, which made things tough. Because of lack of adequate training, I could not push much in the cycling segment. At the same time, I did not lose much ground here. Pablo Erat from Switzerland was strong in the bike segment. He had a 15-minute lead on the bike. He was there in the 2019 edition of the race and had done well in the swim and the bike segments.

2022 Ironman 70.3 Goa / From the run (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

By the time I started running it was quite hot. The race started at 7:40 AM. I got to the running portion at 10:45 AM. The sun was out. Last time, it was overcast and slightly windy and that had helped. I knew that if I pushed too hard while running, I may hit a wall. I started at a conservative pace. When I started running, I was in seventh position overall. I was sure I would cover this gap. Pablo was ahead of me but with time he started to slow down. After the first loop, Bishworjit Saikhom, the previous edition’s winner, was ahead of me. During the second loop I was able to overtake Bishworjit at the eighth kilometre-mark. After overtaking Bishworjit, I was still second. Pablo was about 8-10 minutes ahead of me. I pushed slightly to see how well I would be able to cover the gap. When I was at around 10 kilometres, I saw Pablo slowing down considerably. At that point I knew that I would be able to take the lead soon. It happened at around 12.5 kilometres. At this point I knew that if I could hold my pace, I would win the race. I slowed down in the third lap due to a sensation of cramps around my inner thighs but by then I knew my pace was considerably better than others and so I won’t get passed.

Ironman 70.3 Goa is a tough event. I have done Bahrain Ironman, which boasts the fastest course in the world. In 2019 I did Colombo Ironman, which was as challenging as Goa though the bike route was pretty much flat. I am mentally in a good space now. I think I should start my training again. I want to focus on marathons and triathlons. I plan to train for both simultaneously. I haven’t done a full Ironman yet. I might do one soon but I haven’t decided when and which race to attempt.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)

2022 GGR / FINNISH SAILOR RESCUED FOLLOWING MISHAP IN THE INDIAN OCEAN

Finnish sailor, Tapio Lehtinen (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Tapio Lehtinen Sailing and is being used here for representation purpose, No copyright infringement intended)

The 2022 Golden Globe Race (GGR) saw a rescue operation at sea get underway over November 18-19.

Finnish sailor Tapio Lehtinen was the participant rescued; the location was in the southern Indian Ocean. Tapio’s vessel – the Asteria – flooded suddenly and sank. He had to shift to his life raft.

According to the first report of November 18 (available on GGR’s website), Tapio communicated distress at 0645 UTC that morning following which, the race organizers started coordinating with French and South African authorities. “ At 0852 UTC, Tapio also activated his life raft’s PLB indicating that he may have abandoned ship. The life raft also has a VHF radio and GPS packed inside. MRCC Cape Town contacted nearby commercial vessels to divert to his position, with the closest ship 250 miles away,’’ the report said. PLB stands for Personal Locator Beacon.

The GGR entrants nearest to Tapio were India’s Abhilash Tomy (sailing in the Bayanat) and South Africa’s Kirsten Neuschafer (sailing in the Minnehaha). They were 170 miles and 105 miles south-southwest of Tapio, respectively. Both sailors were informed of Tapio’s location. Abhilash, who was the first to receive the message diverted his course accordingly. Tapio’s communication indicated that he was “ able” and had the emergency grab bag containing food, water, and critical equipment with him. The report said, Tapio informed GGR officials that his yacht had flooded from the stern with water up to deck level in five minutes. He was in his survival suit and had boarded the life raft but with no glasses was struggling to write or read text messages.

Same day, with Kirsten successfully contacted and she being the participant closest to Tapio’s position, Abhilash was released from the rescue effort. However, he continued to sail close by and asked to be updated on the progress of the rescue operation. Meanwhile, South African authorities established communication with Captain Naveen Kumar Mehrotra of the Hong Kong-flagged bulk carrier MV Darya Gayatri, to divert and render help. The ship was 250 nautical miles northwest of Tapio’s location.

As per the second report of November 19, Kirsten reached Tapio’s location at 0510 UTC that morning and picked up the Finnish sailor from his life raft. “ Tapio had an early visual on Kirsten’s yacht, but she could not see the life raft in the swell. Kirsten would hear him on the VHF but Tapio could not hear her voice. The GGR Crisis Management Team homed her onto Tapio’s position until they were close enough to see and hear each other to plan for recovery. Kirsten called the GGR Management team at 0805 UTC to confirm that she had retrieved Tapio from the life raft onto Minnehaha with a retrieving line,’’ the report said.

According to it, Tapio has since been shifted to the bulk carrier MV Darya Gayatri. As explained in the report of November 19: “ Kirsten called the GGR Management team at 0805 UTC to confirm that she had retrieved Tapio from the life raft onto Minnehaha with a retrieving line. After sharing a good glass of rum, they then proceeded to put Tapio back in the raft, pulled it towards the carrier, which he then successfully boarded via a rescue ladder.’’

GGR involves a circumnavigation of the planet. The 2022 edition of the race started from France on September 4.

Back in 2018, during the last edition of GGR, Tapio had been among the finishers. This time however, his race has ended in the southern Indian Ocean. As of November 20, GGR’s website said on Tapio’s page (every skipper has a write-up introducing him / her), of the incident causing his exit from the 2022 race, “ Asteria sank in 5 minutes with a strong unidentified water intake from astern. ‘’ A Facebook post by Tapio’s team (its English translation has been made available on the GGR Facebook page) said that the Finnish sailor woke up at around 8.30 AM on Friday (November 18) to a loud bang. At that point, the water was knee-deep in the boat’s saloon. More water flooded the engine compartment at the rear. The situation was dire. “ The most critical moment was when the pull knot of the life raft came loose. Fortunately, the weather was almost calm. I took a long leap into the water, grabbed the board and jumped in,’’ the post quoted Tapio as saying. He watched his yacht slowly sink, “ At the last moment, I stood up shakily in the life raft and put my hand in the cap as a last salute to my friend,’’ he said.

In the 2018 GGR, Abhilash Tomy had suffered accident and injury in the southern Indian Ocean following which, he was rescued in an operation involving Indian, Australian, and French authorities.

As of November 20, 2022, GGR’s live tracker showed Simon Curwen of the UK in the lead. He was followed by Abhilash in second place and Kirsten in third.

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

AT A GLANCE / NOVEMBER 2022

Abhilash Tomy (this photo, taken early November near Cape Town, South Africa, was downloaded from the Facebook page of GGR and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

2022 GGR / Unusual conditions in the Southern Indian Ocean; Abhilash fixes a windvane problem on the Bayanat

By the end of November, updates from the website of the 2022 Golden Globe Race (GGR) included mention of unusual weather conditions in the southern latitudes popularly known as the Roaring Forties.

The portion of our planet between latitudes 40 and 50 degrees south feature strong westerly winds. In the Age of Sail spanning the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries when merchant ships executed the passage from Europe to the spice markets of South East Asia, they courted these winds. The Westerlies were also critical for crossings of the vast Pacific Ocean. The website of the US-based National Ocean Service explains the Roaring Forties so: “ The Roaring Forties take shape as warm air near the equator rises and moves toward the poles. Warm air moving poleward (on both sides of the equator) is the result of nature trying to reduce the temperature difference between the equator and at the poles created by uneven heating from the sun. This process sets up global circulation cells which are mainly responsible for global-scale wind patterns. The air descends back to Earth’s surface at about 30 degrees’ latitude north and south of the equator. This is known as the high-pressure subtropical ridge, also known as the horse latitudes. Here, as the temperature gradient decreases, air is deflected toward the poles by the Earth’s rotation, causing strong westerly and prevailing winds at approximately 40 degrees. These winds are the Roaring Forties.’’ 

The above phenomenon of air warming near the Equator, rising up and then descending at 30 degrees latitude is experienced in both the southern and northern hemispheres. However, the presence of major landmasses in the north prevents the wind from building up strongly. The southern hemisphere has comparatively less landmass in the said latitudes save portions of Australia, New Zealand and South America. As the latitudes converge in the southern hemisphere towards Antarctica and the South Pole, the Roaring Forties are followed by the Furious Fifties and the Screaming Sixties; the adjectives at play conveying the nature of conditions felt. Over the past several years, there have been reports of the Roaring Forties shifting further south owing to global warming.

In its update of November 28, GGR said that while of late, the race leaders have improved their daily mileage with Kirsten Neuschafer of South Africa (currently in second place) even touching 219 miles in a day, such fast passages took a while to happen. Conditions in the Atlantic were not what the participants expected to get and the same appears the case as regards the Southern Indian Ocean. “ This year, an unusual Atlantic polar vortex is contributing to a weather anomaly which is pushing the usual strong westerly winds of the Roaring Forties further south than usual. Some high-pressure systems are also lower than normal, pushing the roaring forties toward the furious fifties,’’ the GGR update said. This may slow progress toward Hobart as the fleet experiences more of a mixed bag of wind directions and strengths. “ The good news is that some of the intense low-pressure storms may also stay below their route to Hobart and later Cape Horn. Only time will tell, but sailing along the 40th parallel of latitude looks like a different ride this year,’’ the update added.

As of the evening of November 30, India’s Abhilash Tomy was placed third in the race; in first place was Simon Curwen of the UK. The leading three boats were all in the Southern Indian Ocean, way down south from the Indian peninsula, their line of sailing pointing straight towards Tasmania and Hobart. In his weekly satellite conversation with the race organizers on November 29, Abhilash said that he had faced a problem with the Bayanat‘s windvane. The servo pendulum shaft holding the ruder sheared off. He managed to repair it. He also admitted to a case of painful ribs following a slip and a fall onboard but said it was manageable. “ At least, its not getting worse, that is a god thing,” he said. the next major objective, Abhilash said, is to get past Amsterdam Island. “ I just want to cross that point. That is a big hurdle mentally for me,” he said. Back in 2018, following mishap and injury at sea, Abhilash had been rescued by a French fisheries patrol boat and brought to Amsterdam Island. The island, which is almost equidistant from Madagascar, Australia and Antarctica, is part of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands.

Abhilash Tomy (This photo taken by Aida Valceanu was downloaded from the Facebook page of GGR and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

2022 GGR / Abhilash Tomy in fourth place as race enters Indian Ocean

Abhilash Tomy, the lone Indian participant in the 2022 Golden Globe Race (GGR), was placed fourth as the fleet of competing boats entered the sea off Cape Town, South Africa. On November 13, the race’s live tracker showed Abhilash’s Rustler 36 sailboat located straight below the southern tip of Africa, in fourth position overall. From here, competitors move into the southern Indian Ocean. British sailor Simon Curwen continues to be in the lead; he crossed the Cape Town photo gate on November 6. A report dated November 9 on the GGR website, said of Abhilash, “ His latest tweet suggests he is battling with the mind games of watching the leaders sail away and the others catching up.’’ When reported on this blog in October, Abhilash was in third position. The November 9 GGR report placed him fifth. A subsequent video of him and his sailboat, Bayanat, from near Cape Town (posted by GGR), mentioned that their progress had been delayed through getting stuck in a region of calm. The live tracker of November 13 showed that Abhilash had improved his standing to fourth. The race spanning several months is still in its early phase. While for some of the participants, the first stint of sailing through the Atlantic Ocean is now behind them, they have the southern Indian Ocean, the vast Pacific and a second sailing through the Atlantic ahead.

In the earlier-mentioned video from the Cape Town photo gate, available on GGR’s Facebook page, Abhilash has expressed unhappiness at how the race has unfolded. His main complaint appeared to be inadequate information regarding the weather and the location of other participants. According to him, participants had a different experience in 2018 (in which edition of the race, he did well till an unfortunate accident terminated his voyage in the southern Indian Ocean) and the 2022 edition, the way it was playing out, appeared more a “ rally’’ than a race. “ The key element is that there is no racing, it is just luck. If you are lucky, you get ahead,’’ he could be heard saying. Asked if the boat was in good shape, Abhilash replied, “ no problem.’’ He said that he intended to continue with the circumnavigation but may go silent. GGR entails a solo non-stop circumnavigation of the planet in a sailboat. The current edition of the race commenced on September 4. Technology levels permitted for participant sailors and their boats, have been largely pegged to what prevailed in 1968-69, when the first GGR was held. The first GGR was won by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, who completed the solo non-stop circumnavigation in 313 days. Abhilash is the first Indian to do a solo, nonstop circumnavigation in a sailboat. He achieved that distinction in a voyage that started from Mumbai on November 1, 2012 and ended on March 31, 2013.

The top three finishers in the short trail race for men, at the first World Mountain & Trail Running Championships held in Chiang Mai (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of the event and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended).

World Mountain & Trail Running Championships / Indian runners finish 64th and 77th

Indian runners placed 64th and 77th at the first World Mountain & Trail Running Championships held over 3-6 November, 2022, at Chiang Mai in Thailand. As per results available on the race website, in the short trail race, Sampathkumar Subramanian finished in 64th position covering the course in 4:23:40.  Kieren D’Souza placed 77th with timing of 4:43:24. With six runners not starting the race and one courting DNF (did not finish), 84 runners completed the race in the men’s category. The short trail race was won by Stian Hovind Angermund of Norway (3:08:29), followed by Francesco Puppi of Italy (3:11:47) and Jonathan Albon of Great Britain (3:13:05). Besides the short trail race, there was the long trail race, uphill mountain race and up and downhill mountain race plus a junior category in the last-mentioned discipline. This was the inaugural edition of the championships which combine mountain and trail events into a single weekend of off-road races. It was originally scheduled for November 2021 but got postponed owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was organized by World Mountain Running Association (WMRA), International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) and International Trail Running Association (ITRA), along with World Athletics and Tourism Authority of Thailand. According to a January 2022 report in trailrunner.com, the new biennial event replaces the World Mountain Running Championship, World Long Distance Mountain Running Championship and Trail World Championship.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)

IN KOCHI, A CHANT FROM THE MOUNTAINS

Varghese Varghese M

A dormitory. A pair of trekking boots. A chant. An unfinished business. Together, a story.

It was in January 2022 that Everest Base Camp (EBC) entered the life of Varghese Varghese M.

A lawyer by training and based in Kochi, he had no previous background in outdoor activity. But the idea of trekking to EBC, which his friend Shelly Joseph broached, attracted. To get himself physically fit for the trek, Varghese launched into a regimen of diet and exercises. Two months later, he weighed 75 kilos (lighter by 10) and was capable of jogging five kilometres in half an hour. “ On April 14, I set out for EBC,’’ Varghese said.

Part of a group of ten clients headed to EBC, upon reaching Nepal, he stayed in Kathmandu for two days. While the rest of the group proceeded from Kathmandu by road to Saleri, Varghese flew to Lukla and hiked to Ghat. The team joined him in Ghat. From Ghat, Varghese and his group, trekked to Namche Bazaar, where they halted for two days to acclimatize and rest. The whole trek was to be via Gokyo Lake and Cho La Pass. Following rest at Namche Bazaar and a visit to the Everest View Hotel in that while, the group headed to Dole. Here, something Varghese was well aware may happen but hadn’t quite anticipated, commenced.

He developed a headache. He also began feeling quite cold. By the time, the team reached Machermo, Varghese was very ill. His oxygen saturation level was down to 54 per cent. Ignored or left unattended, sickness brought on by high altitude can become a serious condition. The best medicine is to shed elevation. Pasang Gyalsin Sherpa, who hailed from Lukla and was the team’s guide, said that Varghese shouldn’t trek any higher. He arranged for a helicopter evacuation and Varghese was flown back to Lukla while the rest of the team continued to Gokyo Lake and EBC (5364 metres / 17,598 feet). “ Within 15-20 minutes of being in Lukla, my oxygen saturation recovered to 86 per cent,’’ Varghese said. The next day, in the same chopper that brought him to Lukla, Varghese managed a flight to see Gokyo Lake, Lobuche and Mount Everest. Having seen the world’s highest peak and the region he should have been in, from a helicopter, Varghese returned to Kathmandu and all the way south to Kochi. It was a sad end to his first outing in the Himalaya.

The Metro Pod in Ernakulam. (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

That was the story, narrated with a distinct tinge of disappointment, which I heard at The Metro Pod, the backpackers’ dormitory (near Maharaja’s College metro station) at KPCC Junction in Ernakulam, the central business district of Kochi. It was May 2022. A regular customer at the dormitory by then, I was intrigued by the sight of Varghese walking around in trekking boots. It smacked of a mind still elsewhere. We got talking and the story of the aborted trek to EBC tumbled out. Varghese owns The Metro Pod. Besides the boots, there were other signs on the premises of his first trek in the Himalaya. Atop the table at the dormitory’s reception, was a newly acquired medium sized Bluetooth speaker. It played the chant Om Mani Padme Hum in a loop. I haven’t visited Nepal. I distinctly remember settling into the sofa in the reception, listening to the chant and recalling happy days spent in Ladakh. Tucked away in India’s abject north, Ladakh’s ambiance had that chant for call sign. Cold mountain days and a glass of warm ginger-lemon-honey tea. Nothing like it! That was before Ladakh became a union territory, before COVID and before inflation and steep travel cost. For freelance journalist on shoestring budget, it made the chant cause for nostalgia. The whole experience – Varghese’s story, the chant and even some Buddhist prayer flags hung in the reception – lent The Metro Pod a backpacker-touch, something I hadn’t sensed in my earlier visits. Its clientele, as I had experienced it till then, was mostly working people (those in Kochi on business or simply passing through) and youngsters in town for exams.

Varghese and Pasang (Photo: courtesy Varghese)

The building that houses The Metro Pod was constructed in 1952 by Mani Varghese, Varghese’s grandfather. From 1957 to 2014-15, one of its tenants was the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC). They used it as the party’s state headquarters and later, the office of the district committee. Mani Varghese died in 1985. The ownership of the building shifted to Varghese’s father. Following his demise in 2011, Varghese assumed charge. A few years later, when the Congress party vacated the premises (the party’s state headquarters is now in Thiruvananthapuram), Varghese decided that apart from the shops on the ground floor, he wouldn’t give the main building on lease to anyone, anymore. Instead, he would do something himself. He also knew he didn’t wish to change the building’s external appearance or its interiors, radically. Any new enterprise would have to be within the existing old-world charm. That’s how Varghese dispensed with the idea of a full-fledged hotel and opted for an air-conditioned dormitory.

In retrospect, his timing was probably spot on. By the first and second decade of the 21st century, there was a new generation on the move in India that didn’t measure itself by social status and opulent displays of wealth, like the generations before it did. Clean, functional and affordable premises were good enough for this new lot to stay in. Kerala’s urban sprawl, its consumerism and the projects underway in the state (not to mention – its large diaspora) fetched visitors to the state who sought functional accommodation. Further, the recessed economic conditions triggered by COVID-19 and subsequent global developments, have only enhanced the relevance of no-nonsense, affordable accommodation everywhere. In Ernakulam, Varghese wasn’t exactly a pioneer in the air-conditioned dormitory segment. That tag should go to Peter’s Inn, located at the MG Road metro station (the two dormitories share a cordial relationship).

From the ABC trek (Photo: courtesy Varghese)

It took Varghese a year to renovate the innards of the old Thamarappilly Madaparambil Buildings into an air-conditioned dormitory. In February 2019, The Metro Pod opened its doors to the public. It has 132 beds. The first floor is a mixed dormitory; the second floor is exclusively for women. Four rooms for those wishing to stay in their own rooms, were planned for addition later. “ The new rooms should be ready in November,’’ Varghese said. It was October 2022. Weeks earlier, during a stay at The Metro Pod, I had asked Mani, the manager, where Varghese was. “ Sir is not here. He is back in the Himalaya,’’ Mani said. He whipped out his phone and enthusiastically showed me some photos he had received. Clearly, Varghese hadn’t been idle since our conversation in May.

His first attempt to reach EBC, which ended in retreat due to the potential onset of acute mountain sickness (AMS) had left Varghese very disappointed. Following that trip, he was supposed to visit Scandinavia but abandoned the plan for want of motivation. “ I was mentally low,’’ Varghese said. At the same time, EBC nagged like unfinished business. After reflecting on the experience, he decided to visit Nepal again in September 2022. Having witnessed what happened at Machermo in April, Shelly advised that Varghese get some medical tests done before launching into his second attempt to reach EBC. Dr Parveen Sultana, who had once been a guest at The Metro Pod, helped with the process. Another visitor to The Metro Pod who chipped in around this time was Srijana Dhar; she worked with the online travel company, Make My Trip. Familiar with high altitude trekking, she gave Varghese useful advice.

Taking a cue from conversations he had with Pasang, who had been his guide in April, Varghese decided that a prospective second attempt at EBC wouldn’t be with any group. Instead, it would be him, perhaps a friend, a porter-guide and enough time and flexibility in schedule to proceed at a comfortable pace. “ With a group you don’t have that freedom. If you are slow, you may end up inconveniencing others. It’s better to be on your own,’’ Varghese explained. His trekking partner for the second shot at EBC, was M. P. Ramnath. Currently a leading civil lawyer at the High Court in Kochi, years ago, Ramnath had won two national awards for best child actor (the films were Oppol and My Dear Kuttichattan). Back then, he was known as Master Arvind. The duo’s departure from Kochi was preponed to August-end to suit Ramnath’s convenience. They reached Kathmandu on August 30. Pasang was slated to anchor the Nepal leg.

Varghese and Ramnath at Annapurna Base Camp (Photo: courtesy Varghese)

The next day, the weather turned bad. It was projected to stay so for several days. It wasn’t possible to proceed by road or fly to Lukla. So, Varghese and Ramnath changed their plan. At Pasang’s suggestion (he had come to Kathmandu to arrange a porter-guide), they traded the trip to EBC for a shot at the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC / 13,550 feet) trek. The weather was better that side and the trek was open. Following a taxi ride to Pokhra, the duo and their guide started the trek from Tikhe Dunga. Thanks to the rainy season, there was plenty of leeches. But overall, ABC was an enjoyable trek. High points included beholding the Annapurna range and the beautiful Machhapuchhare peak from Tadapani, meeting a Nepali man who spoke Malayalam (the language spoken in Kerala) in Chhomrong and trekking to Machhapuchhare Base Camp (12,135 feet) from Dovan. There was also this instance of a youngster from Chennai struck by AMS. The youngster was heading to ABC and Varghese and Ramnath met him at Deurali on their way back from ABC. Given his previous rendezvous with high altitude sickness, Varghese had carried two oxygen bottles with him, as precaution. He loaned one of the bottles to the youngster to help him recover. The youngster was later evacuated by chopper, Varghese said.

From the EBC trek (Photo: courtesy Varghese)

The ABC trek went off well for Varghese. He didn’t feel any major discomfort. Best of all, at its end, he was feeling perfectly alright. For Ramnath, it was time to return to Kochi. Varghese hung on in Nepal to attempt EBC again. Before leaving Kochi, he had told his wife, Ramya (she and their children take care of The Metro Pod when Varghese is away) that he would do the EBC trek and come back. An opportunity to fly to Lukla on September 12 was lost after the flight got cancelled. On September 13, he teamed up with an Australian couple – Chris and Raechel – and flew to Lukla in a hired helicopter. After breakfast at the Yak Hotel owned by Pasang, Varghese hired Milan as porter-guide for the trek to EBC. The two started hiking that day itself to Monjo.

From the EBC trek (Photo: courtesy Varghese)

On this second attempt, the EBC trek played out better for Varghese. As on his first attempt, he was taking Diamox (acetazolamide – medication used to treat altitude sickness) but the major difference was – the ABC trek done earlier had helped him acclimatize and become comfortable with high altitude. He was attempting EBC after an ample number of days already spent at altitude. However, there were still moments of concern. On September 17, following their early arrival at Thukla, Milan recommended crossing the Thukla Pass and getting to Lobuche. That night at Lobuche, Varghese couldn’t sleep well. Next day at Gorakshep, the tiredness from lack of proper sleep was compounded by a mild headache. He had soup and managed to reach EBC and get back to Gorakshep but found himself thoroughly exhausted. The memory of his April-tussle with altitude sickness still fresh in his mind and desiring to ensure that things don’t get out of hand, the following day, he skipped the ritual visit to Kala Patthar (18,517 feet). Instead, he headed back to Lobuche at lower altitude and the next morning took a chopper all the way to Lukla and then another chopper to Kathmandu. He spent two days in the city and then boarded the flight to Delhi and onward to Kochi.       

When I met him in October, Varghese wasn’t wearing his trekking boots. He seemed relaxed and wholly – body and soul – at The Metro Pod. “ The mountains are addictive,’’ Varghese said, looking back at his unexpected dive into trekking and his three treks so far in 2022. Outside The Metro Pod, a motorcycle stood parked. It had brought an IT professional out on a break from work in Andhra Pradesh, all the way to Kochi. I had heard him speak of his journey in the dormitory room. In March 2020, Varghese had purchased a Royal Enfield Himalayan. That day in October when I took leave of him, Varghese wasn’t yet clear on what adventure to embark on next. But there was something around motorcycle and mountains, brewing. In mid-November, Varghese texted that his friend Shelly had bought a Royal Enfield Meteor for the duo’s planned trip to Khardung La in May 2023.      

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. All the photos used herein, except the one of The Metro Pod, were provided by Varghese.)