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 rudder 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 good 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.)