CHANGE OF MIND ON DENALI

Seema Pai (Photo: courtesy Seema)

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.

On Elbrus (Photo: courtesy Seema)

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.

From the expedition to Denali (Photo: courtesy Seema)

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.

On Denali (Photo: courtesy Seema)

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.

From the Denali expedition (Photo: courtesy Seema)

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.

On Denali (Photo: courtesy Seema)

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.

From the Denali expedition (Photo: courtesy Seema)

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/)                

LIMITLESS

Limitless; film poster

Every morning you see people running. Seen as movement, it is near similar. As story, each runner is different. Limitless, a film about women and running, chronicles a few of these stories. We spoke to some of the amateur runners featured in it and the team behind the film.

In February 2019, Seema Verma participated in the 50 kilometer-race at Tata Ultra Marathon in Lonavala, near Mumbai. She finished third in her age category of 18-44 years.

Currently a resident of Nallasopara, Seema, 37, was left to fend for herself by her husband. He deserted her. She worked as a domestic help for several years eking out a living for herself and her son. In the early days, she had to lock her toddler son at home and go to work. In the documentary film Limitless, she breaks down as she reminisces about those traumatic days.

The film (currently available on Netflix) features the stories of eight women and their foray into running. Seema is one of them. She started running in 2012; around the same time, she also started learning karate. Her employer introduced her to the concept of marathon.

She took to running seriously and over the years has managed to get podium positions in some of the races that she participated in. She has now stopped working as a home worker and focuses on training for middle-distance and long-distance running. She is currently sponsored by EbixCash World Money. The prize money that she earns from running races helps supplement her income.

Seema Verma (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Going ahead, she was slated to run the 2019 edition of Vasai Virar Mayor’s Marathon and the 2020 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon. She is on the constant lookout for running events where the possibilities of podium finish are high.

Kolkata-based Anuradha Dutt started running in 2011. “ Running is the best thing which happened to me after our son came into our lives. It keeps me positive, sane and most importantly it has made me fearless,’’ she said. Encouraged by her husband, she was one of the early women in town to take to wearing sports bra and shorts for running. Women would often come up to her and compliment her for her fit body and attire. “ A couple of years ago at a race in Mumbai an unknown lady came up to me at the finishing line and praised me for carrying my stretch marks so gracefully,’’ she said.

Anuradha wants to train harder and ensure that she stays injury free in the process. She is the Project Co-ordinator of Interlink Calcutta, an institution for the differently abled. “ Running is a form of therapy for differently abled students and more students taking to running keeps them positive and strengthens their self-belief,’’ she said.

Viji Swaminathan, a Chennai resident, was worried about her weight, which led to confidence issues. “ I weighed over 100 kilograms. I decided to start walking. While walking I would run from one lamppost to the next and slowly got into running,’’ she said. Running was the best thing that happened to Viji, a classical dancer. She was never into sports. Her first running event was Bengaluru 10K, held in May 2012. Two months later, she participated in Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM).

Viji Swaminathan (Photo: courtesy Viji)

“ My best running years were during 2012-2014. After 2015, I have been plagued by injuries,’’ she said. Nevertheless, running is an integral part of her life now. She also has a fitness group, UNIS (Unleash your Inner Strength) Running, aimed at a lifestyle focussed on being fit.

Anuradha and Viji are among the other women featured in the documentary film, Limitless, which showcases stories of women from varying backgrounds; the challenges and triumphs they faced during their foray into running. The other woman runners featured in the documentary are Karishma Babbar, Mandira Singh, Monica Becerril Mehta, Sharada Venkataraman and Saloni Arora.

Limitless was conceptualised and funded by IART (Indian Amateur Runners Trust). The finance for the film was arranged through an informal crowd-funding approach. IART put out a call across India to women to write in their stories about running. Women from across the country wrote in to share their experiences and these were curated in a manner that showcased a diverse mix of stories from different cities and socio-economic backgrounds, said Vaishali Kasture, amateur runner, corporate executive and trustee of IART.

Vrinda Samartha (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

“ Women face a lot of constraints and challenges in everything, especially in running. Every time a woman gets out on a training run, she has to manage many things on the home front – plan food, manage school-going children or adolescents and sometimes elderly parents, not to mention – manage their own employment,’’ said M.S. Dileepan, amateur runner and trustee of IART. Shooting the film was a logistics challenge as the team had to work on a shoe-string budget with hired equipment. “ Each of the shooting schedules had to be completed in a limited time,’’ Vaishali said.

IART did most of the work for the production and exhibition of the film, said Ashok Nath, Bengaluru-based running coach and trustee of IART. The trust arranged for all approvals, organised fall film premiers and media meets. The production work was assigned to Believe Films, a film production house. The film has found fresh momentum after its debut on Netflix in October this year, its director Vrinda Samartha said.

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

OLYMPIC GAMES IS NOT A BUSINESS MODEL: THOMAS BACH, PRESIDENT, IOC

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

At the recent general assembly of the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) held in Doha, Qatar, Thomas Bach, president, International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said that the Olympic Games is not about making money.

In a speech, the text of which is available on IOC’s website, Mr Bach while emphasizing solidarity and political neutrality as vital to the universality of the Games has spoken against those associating the Olympics with business model.

He outlined the IOC’s mission so, “ our mission is to bring the entire world together in a peaceful competition; this is it. And what is the most important thing there, and what makes us so unique, is the entire world, is this universality and to achieve this universality, to show with the Olympic Games, the unity of humankind in all our differences. This is what makes the Olympic Games so unique, so important and so valuable.’’

Having explained the importance of political neutrality as ingredient for the mission, he said, “ another  means  to  achieve  this  universality,  besides  this  unity  and  this  political  neutrality,  is  solidarity. Without  solidarity,  without  caring  for  each  other  among  all  the  NOCs,  among  all  the  sports, there is no universality. And there, and some people, they want to explain to us that the Olympic  Games  have  to  be  considered  as  a  business  model.  It  must  be  about  how  can  we  maximise  profit  and  how  can  we  then  distribute  these  profits  according  to  the  economic contribution of the different stakeholders to this Olympic Games and to the economic success of this Olympic Games? And there to be extremely clear, the Olympic Games are not about making money. The Olympic Games are not about maximising revenues. The Olympic Games are there to  accomplish  our  mission  to  unite  the  world  through  sport  and  to  promote  and  to  defend  our  values− this is our mission.

“ So for the IOC, there I’m sure I can speak on behalf of all of you because you are the guardians of this solidarity. For us, as I said, in this G20 speech, money for us is just a means to achieve our mission because if we consider the Olympic Games to be a business model, we would not have  206  National  Olympic  Committees  and  the  athletes  from  the  entire  world  in the  Olympic  Games. We would not have athletes from 33 or 28 sports in the Olympic Games. It would only be a very select group, a very select group of athletes, not even of National Olympic Committees, but a select group of athletes in a select group of some of the Olympic sports; and the Olympic Games, as we know them, and the Olympic Games as we want them, and the Olympic Games as they were conceived by Pierre de Coubertin 125 years ago, would cease to exist. We would just  have  another  entertainment  product  in  this  world,  competing  with  other  entertainment  products,  but  not  related  to  any  kind  of  values  anymore;  it  would  just  be  show,  entertainment,  without any values, without any contribution to a better society. And  therefore,  we  will  not  consider  the  Olympic Games to be a business model.’’

The speech was available for reference along with related news report (dated October 17, 2019) about the Doha meeting, on the IOC website. The G20 meeting referred to in there happened in June 2019 at Osaka in Japan. At that June meeting in Osaka, Mr Bach had said, “ in a year from now, more than half of the world’s population will follow the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. The Olympic Games are the only event that brings the entire world together in peaceful competition. At the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, the world will see athletes from all 206 National Olympic Committees and the IOC Refugee Olympic Team united.’’

Apprising the gathered G20 leaders of IOC’s need for solidarity, he had said, “ this is the reason why we reinvest 90 per cent of all our revenues in the athletes and in developing sport around the world. In hard figures, this means five billion US dollars in the four years of an Olympiad. But please do not worry: not a single cent of taxpayers’ money goes to the IOC budget. We generate our revenues exclusively through sponsorship and media rights. But to be clear, for the IOC, money is not an end in itself. Money is just a means to achieve our mission.”

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

OCTOBER 2, 1955

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The voice at the other end of the phone line sounded alert and articulate. We decided on Friday, 4PM to meet. Friday’s conversation happened in the kitchen of the apartment; there was a youngster next door preparing for his exams. At the small dining table, pantry nearby for making coffee, the 86 year-old gave me an overview of his life and the early days of climbing in Mumbai.  

On October 2, 1955, two young men stood on top of the Karnala pinnacle, roughly 13 kilometers from Panvel in Navi Mumbai.

Rock climbing was very much in its infancy those days in the Mumbai region. Almost sixty four years later, one of the two climbers, a student of Topiwala National Medical College (TNMC) back then, remembered an instance – possibly an afternoon – from two years prior to the Karnala episode. It was June 1953, and after a circuitous process whereby a coded message was carried by runner from Everest Base Camp to Namche Bazaar, then dispatched as telegram from there to the British embassy in Kathmandu and relayed onward from there to London, news of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary achieving the first ascent of Everest on May 29, 1953 was at last broken to the world on June 2. The day the news appeared in India, the young man in question – 86 years old when I met him at his house near Bhatia Hospital in Mumbai in October 2019 – was standing in queue at the city’s Metro Cinema to catch a movie, likely an afternoon show. The day’s newspaper was being sold and the ascent of Everest was prominently featured. The news was also broadcast on the radio. He remembers rushing to the British Council Library, a favorite haunt to read, for more information on the development.

“ The first ascent of Everest created quite a buzz,’’ he said, recalling the early days of climbing in Mumbai. By all accounts, the instinct in him those years was less a specific activity called climbing and more, the desire to explore; taste adventure. In 1949, as a sixteen year-old, he had made his first push in that direction, buying a return ticket to Kalyan at what was then the Victoria Terminus (VT) station – now called Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Station (CSMT) –  and then boarding the train to see parts of Mumbai he hadn’t been to yet. “ It was beautiful after Thane. At Mumbra, the Parsik range and its rock faces appeared. Then there was the Ulhas River further on,’’ he said. The rock faces reminded of landscapes featured in foreign magazines, some of which, he had gotten to see; there was Life magazine and the books on the shelves at British Council Library and American Center. More importantly, the hills reminded of memories from childhood.

The young man atop Karnala was born in 1933 at Tedim, administrative headquarters of the Chin Hills in north-west Myanmar. It was a remote place, especially in that era. His father was a doctor.  Tedim had no electricity, no telephone; there was one telegraph line. It took several days from the nearest road to reach Tedim, a journey – he said – his mother with her orderly had made on two ponies all by themselves. Yangon (Rangoon then) was a long way off to the south. When he was seven years old, the future climber was packed off to boarding school in Yangon. By then his father was working in Shwedaung. In 1942 the Japanese attacked Yangon; their planes bombed the city. In its wake, orders for evacuation were issued. Thanks to his position as doctor, his father was assured passage aboard a ship to India. But that was for only him. He turned down the offer and elected to stay with his family, now facing the prospect of walking all the way to India. This exodus of Indians, Europeans and troops of the British Indian army is well documented. They followed two routes both fairly treacherous. The first was the shorter route running through the Arakan Peninsula into what is now Bangladesh. The second was the longer route leading to Imphal, Manipur in North East India. The climber’s family opted for the second route. “ On the way, the long convoy was periodically attacked by Japanese aircraft. You could see the pilot in the cockpit looking for a suitable target as he approached. They spared the Indians but not the British, who got strafed. So when we heard the aircraft’s sound we would bundle the British onto the trucks accompanying the convoy and cover them with tarpaulin,’’ he recalled.

Upon reaching Manipur and assistance from volunteers of the Indian National Congress, the family made its way to Mumbai where their relatives stayed. “ We had nothing with us except the clothes on our back and some belongings. We started life afresh. We stayed initially at a chawl on Lamington Road. Now I am here,’’ the 86 year-old said. Tardeo nearby was a busy crossroad as was the road in front of Bhatia Hospital. But Talmakiwadi where the apartment stood was peaceful. The long walk from Myanmar assumed significance because to his mind, that childhood spent in remote parts of Myanmar and later steeled by trek of five weeks over the hills of Myanmar and North East India amid World War II, may have sown in him the ability to endure discomfort. That’s useful for a life in the outdoors.

Among Maharashtra’s pinnacles, Karnala is small. It has been climbed many times. By the 1980s and 1990s, it was among the first pinnacles anyone into climbing attempted.  You finished a rock climbing training camp and headed to Karnala for graduation. By then rock climbing shoes, ropes and gear had started trickling in; at the very least people had stuff sourced through friends and relatives abroad. Today, there are plenty of options in Mumbai for youngster curious about the outdoors. There are clubs to train with, supported hikes in the nearby hills and seasonal camps and expeditions parents are happy to dispatch their children on.  Things were different in the 1940s and 50s. “ Unlike today’s dilemma of which role model to select from the many available, back in time we had none to follow,’’ he said. In Mumbai of the 1940s, there was nobody to train budding hiker-climber. So books became teachers. On trips to the hills and rock, they experimented with some of the things they had read about – a climbing move or two. Slowly, they picked up techniques. They read about climbing knots and practised making them but having no equipment, restricted their climbing to safe limits partial to learning technique. Improvisation played a role.  Buzz around Everest notwithstanding, outdoor pursuits like hiking and its infant of a relative – climbing, were utterly niche hobbies in Mumbai. In fact, the first time the young man met others interested in the outdoors, was when he joined TNMC.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

That was why the 1955 Karnala climb felt like a marvel. It smacked of personal break-through. The hike to the pinnacle had been long; much longer than the comparatively short walk of today. “ The vultures on the pinnacle flew away seeing us climb up. We also made sure not to disturb the honeybees and their hives, known to be around. We climbed the pinnacle with no equipment or rope and on bare feet,’’ he said. At the top of the pinnacle, the enormity of what they did and the descent that waited, hit them. “ We wondered if anyone else had climbed it before,’’ he said. Around 1955, the young man walked into a meeting of the Bombay University’s hiking club. “ There I ran into Professor Manjrekar. He was a year senior to me and well established in trekking. I was also introduced to Professor D. B. Wagh, who was then president of the hiking club,’’ he said. Same time, the young man set about securing more information on Karnala pinnacle; he wanted to find out if it had been climbed before. At a public library in south Mumbai, they checked the Bombay Gazetteer published in 1882. It had a section on Karnala; detailed maps and all. It informed that the British had climbed it with ropes and ladders. Still one question remained – had anyone climbed it without equipment? Politician and Member of Parliament, Homi Talyarkhan was author of a couple of books on the surroundings of Mumbai. The young man wrote to him informing of the climb. Talyarkhan invited the two climbers over and gifted copies of his book. What excitement remained was however short-lived. Sometime later, at an exhibition in Mumbai, the two friends came across material on the Parsi Pioneers and a photograph of the well-known mountaineer Keki Bunshah (in 1958, he would be leader of an Indian expedition to Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world). In the photo, Bunshah could be seen climbing Karnala pinnacle clad in white shirt, white pants and white canvas shoes. There was no rope, no gear visible. So no, they were definitely not the first atop Karnala, not the first climbing it without equipment either. “ I belong to the early days of climbing in Mumbai. But the real pioneers were the Parsis. If I am not mistaken, there was also climbing around Mount Abu in western India in that early phase,’’ he said. Some years later, the Parsi Pioneers would become a more tangible link because their publication with regular update of activities used to reach Climbers Club, when the latter started functioning in Mumbai. It was common for the two outfits to exchange notes.

Having completed his MBBS, the young man entered government service as a doctor. He served in a rural area away from Mumbai and his parents. Committed as he was to his work, he didn’t last long in that job. He wasn’t successful as a private practitioner too. That approach didn’t seem to gel for him. Luckily, an opening emerged to teach at Nair Hospital. “ From that point onward, there was no looking back,’’ he said. He would work there for many years, eventually retiring in 1991 as Head of the Department of Pharmacology and Radio Isotopy. Being an outdoorsman he took students – those interested – on outings. “ I used to tell them – you will seek wealth, I seek health and fitness. When I retire I will be living on my pension,’’ he said. Back in the 1950s, the period from 1955 to 1960 was spent on private trips to the outdoors; he hiked and put whatever climbing moves he saw in books into practice. In 1954, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) came up in Darjeeling. In 1959, the Mountaineering Committee was born in Mumbai and a year later – in 1960 – it transformed to Climbers Club. The young man had joined the Mountaineering Committee.

The Committee sought to conduct an annual rock climbing camp in Mumbra. The self-taught young man wasn’t particularly impressed by the climbing skills of those on the Committee. It was a peculiar situation. On the one hand, everyone around knew that he moved well on rock, sometimes better than them. On the other hand, when Climbers Club took shape they wanted every member to have done a basic mountaineering course and every life member to have done an advanced mountaineering course.  He never did any formal course in climbing. But in 1960, he did join Climbers Club. Every December, Climbers Club organized four to five training camps at Mumbra taught by HMI instructors. Prominent mountaineers like Nawang Gombu (first man to climb Everest twice) and Ang Kami Sherpa came to teach. In later years, instructors from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) came. By around 1975, Climbers Club started losing steam. It doesn’t exist anymore. But other clubs like Girivihar (which emerged from the Bombay University’s hiking club), Explorers and Adventurers (E&A) and several more have kept the flame of climbing alive in the city.

In those early days, there was no rock climbing shoes. It was typically Hunter shoes. “ I found that they improved in friction and perch once they aged, lost tread and the sole became flat,’’ he said. Ropes used were made of hemp. The 86 year-old even recalled a harness fashioned from hemp, fabricated locally. During the 1960s, when Climbers Club was active, all the metal gear used in climbing came from the Indian Army. “ There were heavy iron and steel pitons and carabiners of different types. If I remember correct, they cost seven to ten rupees a piece. The amount seems small but so was income those days. We accumulated gear slowly. Hemp rope was priced at one rupee per yard or so. One rope served for both climbing and rappelling. There was no testing. Nylon ropes came much later. Carabiners too started coming from abroad – brands like Pierre Allen and Stubai. Another source of gear for us was people who had worked on Himalayan expeditions,’’ he said.

Among the things he acquired – in the 1960s – was a classic wooden handled glacier ice axe. The wood requires periodic treatment with linseed oil. Obtained from Climbers Club, it served him well on Himalayan trips. The last time he took it out was in 2003, on a trek to Pindari Glacier. He was 70 years old then. “ I still have the axe. My grand-nephew has given it a good cleaning. The only problem is that unlike the small light ice axes of today, this one is big. You can’t conceal it. On the train, policemen came and asked me – what are you up to?’’ he said laughing. At the crags, climbers from the early clubs – Climbers Club and Girivihar – would run into each other. They got along; helped each other. “ Clubs should work together. They shouldn’t let competition get in the way,’’ he said. Foreign climbers used to drop by in the early years of climbing in Mumbai. One of them – he recalled – was the Swiss mountaineer Raymond Lambert, who had been on early Swiss expeditions to Everest from the southern side. In May 1952, he along with Tenzing had reached 8611m on Everest, at that point the highest altitude anyone had climbed to. In Mumbai, Lambert accompanied local climbers to Mumbra.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The last Himalayan expedition the 86 year-old was on, was a solo trip from Mumbai with pretty big load to Manali and the nearby Manalsu Nallah. “ It wasn’t exactly expedition; I don’t call it so – more a personal jaunt. I was unable to join my friends when they went a few months earlier to the same place. So I went alone afterwards. There’s a peak there called Khanpari Tibba. I climbed it but the descent happened at night. There was snow. I had my trusted ice axe in one hand, a torch strapped to the other so that if I fell, I  could use both hands on the axe to arrest my fall,’’ he said. He had hired three local persons to assist but they weren’t with him when the descent occurred. The solitary light coming down the dark slope was noticed by people from far who asked him of it later. That was in 1966. Today Khanpari Tibba is a much advertised hike. Times change; perceptions change. For instance, nowadays climbers don’t settle for one mountaineering course; they do a handful and perch unassailable on top of a mountain of certificates. The 86 year-old, who never did a course, sees it differently. “ Did Eric Shipton do a course? Did John Hunt do a course? Take a person who did a course ten years ago. He is all flab now. Outdoor activity is something that springs from within you. The rules and regulations of a club may not suit everyone,’’ he said.

Many of Mumbai’s early climbers are no more. A comprehensive multidimensional account of the early days will be difficult to piece together. “ Sir, it is tradition to have a photo of the person I spoke to alongside the article. Failing which, I illustrate. Is it alright if I took a photo?’’ I asked. He thought for a second or two. “ No, spare me that. The account of that period matters more than the person,’’ Dr Srikar R. Amladi, 86, said. At the time of writing, he still enjoyed his periodic excursions with family to Matheran. The friend who was along with him on the Karnala climb was the late Sharat Chandra Sarang, popularly known as Baban Sarang. “ He was a couple of years junior to me. Baban passed away several years ago,’’ Dr Amladi said.

Tedim in the Chin Hills is now accessible by road. Besides its road connection to other parts of Myanmar, there has been since World War II, a Tedim Road linking Imphal to Tedim. The Tedim Road was built by the British to aid the war effort. As per accounts on the Internet, it was made operational in 1943 after the first wave of Japanese attacks on Yangon. The subsequent occupation of Myanmar (Burma) by the Japanese brought the war close to India’s borders. The Japanese advance would continue till their defeat and push back at Imphal and Kohima by the Allied forces. Like the Stilwell Road running from Ledo in Assam to Myanmar and onward to Kunming in China, awareness of the Tedim Road, post 1947, was most with regard to the functional portions of the road within India. There was little talk of ill maintained sections beyond the border leading to places in Myanmar. Things have been slowly changing. A February 2016 report in The Assam tribune said that the Rih-Tedim Road Project will provide all-weather connectivity between eastern Mizoram and western Myanmar. In January 2018, The Hindu Business Line reported, “ A detailed project report (DPR) is underway to build the Rih-Tedim road that will help connect the Trilateral Highway through Zokhawthar-Rih border in Mizoram, where India has already committed huge sums for widening the highway. Currently, Myanmar is connected by road only through Moreh in Manipur.’’ The Trilateral Highway will connect India, Myanmar and Thailand.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Dr Amladi. Thanks to Ravi Kamath of AVI Industries for an afternoon spent talking about climbing in years gone by, wherein he mentioned of Dr Amladi and suggested that I meet him to know more. Please note: while this blog writes about climbing, including free climbing, it recommends that climbing be done with safety gear and protocols in place.)  

SLOW AND SOLO

Vijay Beladkar; location: Cafe Colony (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Few avenues show you world as well as touring on a bicycle does. Nothing teaches as you as much about existence as traveling solo does. Combine the two – you get the solo cyclist, moving unhurriedly, noticing the spaces he / she is passing through. Vijay Beladkar, passionate about cycling from childhood found himself doing something with it after he joined an outdoor club specializing in hiking and climbing that had also in its fold, individuals interested in bicycle touring. Equally helpful in the process, was a group of cyclists he met outside the club, who came together to execute one project after another, setting Vijay up eventually, for his first major solo tour. This is Vijay’s story:

At the foot of Tilak Bridge in Mumbai’s Dadar East, is a popular Irani café.

It is a combination of restaurant and general store.

Most evenings, Café Colony – it has been there since the 1930s as per published media reports – is a busy eatery. Every Wednesday, the central table here is taken by a group of hikers and climbers; their club called Girivihar is Mumbai’s oldest mountaineering club. Couple of years ago, when the club celebrated its sixtieth anniversary, it brought out a souvenir; two pages therein were devoted to an article on bicycle touring by Vijay Beladkar.

NIM days (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

The fascination for cycling has been there at Girivihar for a long time. It revolved around select individuals. Abhijeet Burman (Bong), at one point among the club’s most active members in hiking and mountaineering, had toured solo on his bicycle quite a bit. Among others at Girivihar, Rajneesh Gore pedaled with his friend Rishi, from Mumbai to Goa in 2002, and published a neat little book about it. Barring perhaps Bong’s later trips, a lot of this touring was before cycling culture as we know it today – foreign bicycle brands, snazzy bike showrooms, weekend cycling groups, BRMs and organized outings – became familiar sight in Mumbai. In fact, for his 1999 tour Bong had a bicycle assembled around an Indian frame; he kept improving it along the way using better bicycle components he came across in Nepal and Thailand.

Late evening; September 10, 2019, for some reason Café Colony was shut. I walked around the neighborhood scouting for an alternative to sit and chat with Vijay. Having found a place, I went back to Café Colony and waited in front of it. Mumbai is divided into east and west by its railway lines. Traffic on Tilak Bridge and the road connecting Dadar East to suburbs in the west, was heavy. When Vijay appeared he was on his cycle. That’s how he commuted to office and back. He worked at Lagu Bandhu, a major retailer of gold jewelry in Maharashtra. The trusted steed – a Trek 4300 bearing signs of long use and loving care – was parked and locked in front of the café. It seemed premises that Vijay, from years of having attended club meetings at the cafe, treated like home turf. We left the bike there and shifted to another café close by.

Vijay (foreground, left), Sanjay, Minhaz (centre, white shirt), Paresh and Anoop (foreground, right) at Cafe Gulshan, in times when Girivihar met there (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

People join Girivihar to pursue hiking and climbing. For Vijay though, his interest in cycling predates his affection for hiking built through the club. Born the middle child of three siblings, regular cycling for Vijay was his father’s recipe to keep son active and exercising.  Vijay’s father had initially served in the army; he later worked with the public sector oil company – Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd (HPCL). When Vijay was in class nine, his father got him enrolled with a newspaper agent to distribute the morning paper. The job came with a bicycle.  That was how the tryst with cycling started. The bicycle provided by the agent was a roadster, the heavy steel bike once common throughout India and used for everything from commuting to ferrying load. Vijay took the roadster everywhere. Later, having outgrown this phase, he acquired a Flying Pigeon, a Chinese road bike, bought from retailers in Kalbadevi, the old hub for bike shops in Mumbai. After school, Vijay joined Patkar College where he actively participated in hikes to Maharashtra’s Sahyadri ranges besides a trek to Pindari Glacier in the Himalaya. His chemistry professor – Manohar Moghe – upon noticing his interest in hiking, introduced him to Girivihar. He joined the club in 1997-1998.

At the time of writing, Anoop Menon worked in Dubai. A journalist, he shifted that side from Mumbai in 2008. He was already a member of Girivihar when Vijay joined. Good friends to date, they met at one of the club’s rock climbing sessions in CBD Belapur. “ Vijay had done a rock climbing course in Mount Abu and had been on the Pindari Glacier trek. I had done neither, so that kept the conversation going at least from my end. Thereafter, we always managed to catch each other at Cafe Gulshan where Girivihar used to meet every Wednesday before we were forced to move to the current location at Cafe Colony. What I remember is that even those days Vijay would always be with a cycle – for the club meetings, for the climbing sessions,’’ Anoop said. At the club, Anoop, Vijay and Minhaz Kerawala became close friends. They went on adventure trips – like climbing rock pinnacles, a popular pursuit with Mumbai’s climbers then – together. In 2001, Vijay did his Basic Mountaineering Course from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM). Over time, as the club’s climbing aficionados burrowed deeper and deeper into their specialized ecosystem (by now sport climbing was on the rise), Vijay was seen less and less at climbing sessions. The reason for this was his father’s ill health and the family’s subsequent decision to relocate (for some time) to their hometown, Akola. Vijay however stayed quite active in hiking and went on to become an office bearer of the club on repeated occasions. Every club has its internal politics. Girivihar had its share. Acceptance of Vijay straddled these divides; he had that quality.

From the December 2011, Mumbai-Goa bicycle trip with YHAI (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

Around this time, Bong’s bicycle tours had become known in Girivihar. When Vijay asked him for suggestions on how to commence touring, Bong pointed him to Youth Hostels Association of India (YHAI), which was scheduled to host a supported ride from Mumbai to Goa in December 2011. With the tour filled up, Vijay had to lobby to get his candidature accepted. The trip cost him Rs 4000; bike rent included. There was also a pre-ride workshop where participants were taught the basics of geared bicycles, still new to the Indian market. The session was anchored by Bong and his frequent partner in cycling, Kedari. “ I thought Mumbai-Goa would be easy,’’ Vijay said. He had factored in the scenic beauty of the coastal route overlooking the gradients. Out on the trip, it took him 4-5 days to get into the groove. Periodic interventions and suggestions from trip leaders, Ashish Agashe and Swapnil Gharigaokar, helped. “ When you cycle, you are one with nature. The connection is strong. You also sense solitude. I like that,’’ Vijay said. Among those on the Mumbai-Goa trip was Satish Sathe. Satish wished to cycle to Khardung La, the high mountain pass in Ladakh. The momentum of the journey in cycling Vijay had embarked on, started picking up with his next outing.

Ficycles (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

Ficycles was the adopted name of a group of five cyclists – Satish Sathe, Girish Mahajan, Milind Yerzarkar, Rutesh Panditrao and Vijay. From December 2011 to mid-2012, they did stints of hill cycling at Khandala, Matheran and Mahabaleshwar. They also cycled most weekends in Mumbai, from Mahim to Marine Drive and back. During this time, Vijay also acquired the Trek 4300. Then, in July 2012, Ficycles set off to pedal from Manali to Leh and on to Khardung La and thereafter, to Srinagar. Given this was cast as a project with social media for linking back to well-wishers at home, Prasanna Joshi – another longstanding member of Girivihar – stepped in as web administrator. The ride was a supported one; a member’s wife and the sister of another, traveled in support vehicle. The entire ride took nine days.  “ It was tiring but given the support and company I had, it was enjoyable,’’ Vijay said. Reaching Khardung La had been a personal wish for Vijay too. That done and returned to Leh, he took the flight back to Mumbai and work, while the others proceeded to Srinagar. After graduation, Vijay had done his catering studies and was at this point, working at a banquet hall. In his mind, one particular episode from the Manali-Leh-Khardung La ride stayed very alive. Two foreign cyclists the group met en route had chided them for using support vehicle. Real bicycle touring is self-supported, they said. Back in Mumbai, Vijay chanced to mention this in a mail to Minhaz, since shifted to Canada. On his next visit to Mumbai, Minhaz brought Vijay panniers, speedometer and some other cycling accessories.

The next Ficycles project was Goa-Kanyakumari. Resolved to keep it self-supported, the group trained harder. “ We were now getting bit more serious about the whole thing,’’ Vijay said. The reason was simple – none of the performance parameters from supported rides hold true in self-supported circumstances wherein your bike is laden with the weight of essentials. To get used to riding with panniers, Vijay and his friends did rides in Mahabaleshwar, around Bhandardara, up Malshej Ghat and Khandala Ghat. Besides getting used to cycling with load they had to also get acquainted with the new gear ratios. “ You figure out the correct ratios as you keep cycling. At first I went with what I was instructed. Then I slowly discovered the ratios that worked best for me,’’ Vijay said. Done in December 2012, the Goa-Kanyakumari trip took 12 days. Once that trip was completed, the outline of a larger project started to take shape. Vijay had done Mumbai-Goa, Manali-Khardung La and now, Goa-Kanyakumari. How about filling in the remaining stretch on India’s west coast?

Vijay (right) with Abhijit Burman aka Bong ahead of his 2019 Shimla-Spiti-Manali solo trip (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

By now there was also a pattern emerging in Vijay’s life. He does not normally take leave from work. Every Wednesday evening he drops by at Café Colony for the weekly Girivihar meeting.  Weekends he reserves for his bike rides or outings with the club. Every winter he digs into his annual leave to do a long bicycle trip. In December 2013, Vijay and his friends did a self-supported ride from Koteshwar in Bhuj, Gujarat to Verawal. “ The route was interesting, with good food,’’ Vijay said. The trip took them 10 days. Next winter – December 2014 – they cycled from Verawal to Mumbai. Now, a whole coastal stretch from Koteshwar to Kanyakumari had been visited and seen on the bicycle. In December 2015, Vijay and company cycled from Jammu to Jaisalmer touching four states – Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, a bit of Haryana and Rajasthan. It took them 14 days. “ People ask: why are you cycling? But nobody bothers you,’’ Vijay said. The cyclists relied on Google for navigation including potential spots to rest or break journey along the way. On this trip, the route brought them occasionally close to the India-Pakistan border.

From Ficycles, Vijay said, Girish Mahajan has done BRMs (randonneuring) of 100km, 200km, 300km and 1200km besides attempting the Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) ride in France. Vijay did BRMs of 200km and 300km out of curiosity. “ I did it on my MTB. I couldn’t complete the 300. I prefer touring to riding fast or racing. I like to see the country,’’ Vijay said.  He never went back to BRMs. Meanwhile that fascination for cycling along India’s periphery continued. In December 2017, Vijay and his friends pedaled from Kolkata to Visakhapatnam on the Indian east coast. In December 2018, they rode from Visakhapatnam to Pondicherry.  Now that segment from Pondicherry to Kanyakumari remains. As does a whole amount of potential cycling in North East India and hopefully, linking that up to Manali via Sikkim, Nepal and Uttarakhand. How that will be done is a question mark. Ficycles isn’t anymore the old group it was – Satish has cut down on his cycling and Girish is more into BRMs. Vijay too was getting pulled in another direction. The first time this writer met Vijay was at a Girivihar weekend outing in 1999-2000. It was a rock climbing session in Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park. The thing you quickly noticed about Vijay was this – he got along with people. His was a personality, at peace with the world, what you would call laid back or chilled. Coupled with a weakness for napping, it became inspiration for a moniker – Sotya – encapsulating that nature, at the club.  Of Vijay’s call sign, Anoop said, “ what clinched it, is his knack then and now, for making himself comfortable with bare minimum accessories in the most trying situations.’’ It’s a useful trait to have if you are traveler, especially one on the verge of upping the ante in his travels.

One of the most famous landmarks from the Shimla-Spiti route; the road passes through a hole cut into the rock (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

Rutesh Panditrao had given Vijay a book to read. Called Rarang Dhang the book by Prabhakar Pendharkar told the story of building a road at altitude. “ I liked it very much. It described the lives of personnel from the Border Roads Organisation, how they live and work at altitude,’’ Vijay said. It left him with the desire to visit Spiti in Himachal Pradesh. Looking around for company, he found that most people he knew had already cycled there. The few, who hadn’t, didn’t have time to spare for a trip. Slowly the reality loomed – if Vijay wanted to go, he had to cycle solo. Riding alone wasn’t entirely new for Vijay. There had been several day trips done alone, a few lasting 2-3 days and in 2016, even a solo trip all the way from Mumbai to Goa.  That last one had been interesting. It was done in the heat of March availing a short break from work that was available. Given few days, Vijay had cycled along the national highway – NH17 – instead of taking the quieter coastal road. He covered the distance in three and a half days. “ I was taking a chance. I made it to Polatpur in time; the first day was Panvel to Polatpur. That gave me confidence,’’ Vijay said. Further on NH17, after Khed, traffic hadn’t been too heavy or bothersome. “ Traffic is high around settlements and industrial clusters. It picks up by morning and evening but is manageable for the rest of the day,’’ he said. Besides gradients are less on NH17 and in March 2016, the highway was in decent condition. Still that is Mumbai-Goa. Spiti and its landscape would be a different cup of tea.

From the Shimla-Spiti-Manali solo trip (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

The 2019 solo trip to Spiti was Vijay’s first major solo project. Besides acceptance of the fact that he would be cycling alone in a place far off from Mumbai, it was also project entailing funds as unlike before when he cycled with group, solo endeavor rested completely on his shoulders. Girivihar stepped in to help. The mountaineering club officially backed the expedition, attaching its name to it; such association helps when raising funds. Credit for this should go to a hard fought precedent set in place years ago. In 1999, Girivihar had supported one of Bong’s trips. Supporting the trip was not easy as it required the club’s office bearers to think outside the box. As a hiking and climbing club, Girivihar imagined its mandate narrowly. Is it right to back cycling? – That was the dilemma. Approval was hard to secure. According to Bong, Girivihar’s support was eventually had on paper and it was mostly due to efforts by Minhaz, who pushed the hiking and climbing club to leverage its mandate for supporting its core adventure activity “ and allied sports,’’ to include cycling. Any financial assistance that eventually manifested, happened through his own personal connections, Bong said. In 1999, he cycled solo from Mumbai to Kathmandu and from there through Bihar and Bengal to Bangladesh. Having visited Dhaka and Cox Bazaar, Bong planned to pedal through Myanmar to Thailand. But Myanmar’s ruling junta was averse to touring cyclist just then and forced by the police, Bong had to discontinue his Myanmar leg after a couple of days. Shifted to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, he continued his tour from there to Bangkok, Cambodia and parts of Malaysia before flying back to Mumbai from Bangkok. Some years later, he commenced a chapter of cycling in the Himalaya. He covered Srinagar-Leh-Manali; Manali-Spiti-Shimla, Rampur to places on the Char Dham circuit, and later, a brief foray into Bhutan. With precedent available, things appear to have been clearer in 2019. By this time, the component of cycling had also grown at Girivihar. When it came to Vijay’s project, the club stepped in to back it. That in turn inspired a crowd funding campaign to assist him. “ The club’s members and well-wishers helped me a lot,’’ Vijay said. On a rain-swept day in Mumbai, amid the monsoon season of 2019, he also made sure to drop by at Bong’s house and apprise him of the project.

With one of the cyclists he met along the way during the 2019 Shimla-Spiti-Manali solo trip (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

Spiti is a cold desert mountain valley in north east Himachal Pradesh. It borders western Tibet. Its average elevation of 12,500 feet is higher than the average elevation of neighboring Ladakh. The road journey to Spiti is a bit wilder than the access to Ladakh, which is now characterized by well laid out road. Over July 7-28, Vijay cycled solo from Shimla to Kaza (in Spiti) and onward to Manali. He met other cyclists on the way. Of the lot, two were riding solo – himself and a British cyclist. Additionally, there were two, two-person teams; one from the US, the other from Spain. The whole trip – he visited Rekong Peo, Tabo, Kaza, Hikkim, Komik, Key, Kibber, Losar, Kunzum La and Rohtang Pass before touching Manali – took him 17 days. Every long ride throws up some problem – a puncture or a brake pad issue. On long self-supported trips, Vijay typically carries spare tube, brake cable, brake shoes, hand pump, puncture repair kit, bike repair kit, lubricating oil and chain cleaner. He maintains the bicycle himself, cleaning and repairing it as needed. “ On this trip, I had no problems,’’ Vijay said. He had serviced the Trek 4300 in advance and also changed some of its parts.

At Solang (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

Parked in front of Café Colony the bike shone every bit like a well-loved mode of transport. It was faded; tad scarred here and there and yet, sounded smooth to the ears as it moved. That’s the mark of a bike, well taken care of. People who have logged as much mileage as Vijay did are usually prone to owning multiple cycles. In technically specialized verticals like racing and triathlon, ownership of multiple bikes is common. A traveler loving the significantly slower act of ambling along, Vijay has stuck to the one bike he bought at the start of his long trips. It is a different approach to wheels, valuing a different set of attributes; you and bicycle gather memories, grow into each other. The Trek had aged; even become tad outmoded – it is a MTB on 26 inch-wheels in India now given to 27.5, 29 and 700c. Vijay has never felt that his cycle is old or may give him trouble. He speaks the same way lovers of the 26 do, of how the bike suits them. “ I am attached to this cycle. I am used to it and it handles well,’’ he said. For now (as of mid-September 2019) he wasn’t toying with any new projects. He admitted though to having a personal wish, reserved for the future – a shot at Tour de Bhutan. Back in front of Café Colony, the Trek 4300 was unlocked, final pleasantries exchanged and freelance journalist departed to catch a bus to where he stayed. Vijay and bike disappeared into Mumbai’s traffic.

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

MAKING A DIFFERENCE WITH SPORTS

Corina Van Dam (Photo: courtesy Corina)

Trained to be a football coach, Corina Van Dam, opted to use sport as means to heal and empower. Currently living in Mumbai, she has been running for several years and is now figuring out which distance suits her best.

During a recent six-hour night run in Thane near Mumbai, many runners ran determinedly through the heavy, sometimes lashing rain.

One among them was Corina (aka Cocky) Van Dam, a Dutch runner, living and working in Mumbai for the past three years. She surprised herself by covering a distance of 50.7 kilometers during those six hours.

Two weeks later, she ran a 50k race at the Igatpuri Mountain Challenge. She finished the race in six hours, 26 minutes and 23 seconds securing top position among women aged 46 and above. A week must have gone by. Then she wound up on the podium yet again in her age category, at the BNP Endurathon in Mumbai. She covered the 25k distance in 2:28:14 hours.

Corina grew up in Alkmaar, a town 40 kilometers north of Amsterdam in Netherlands. The local topography was largely flat; there was much water around and as is characteristic of Netherlands, a lot of wind. It is a town well known in the cheese business and home to a velodrome hosting the annual Dutch national track cycling championships (the European Cycling Championships is scheduled to take place in Alkmaar from August 7 to 11, 2019). Not to mention, it is the birthplace of Harm Ottenbros, unexpected winner of the 1969 world cycling championship; he came in from nowhere to win that title but earned the ire of fellow cyclists and fans for just that – being the nobody who snatched the title from under the nose of more fancied heavyweights. Alkmaar also has a private museum dedicated to the British band, Beatles.

Photo: courtesy Corina Van Dam

Growing up, sport was an integral part of Corina’s education. At the age of 12, she began playing football at a local club. She commenced playing at a still younger age but there were no girls’ teams around. The Dutch are passionate about football. Alkmaar and Corina’s family therein were no different. The town is home to the football club Alkmaar Zaanstreek (AZ), winners of the Dutch football league (Eredivisie), in 1980-81 and 2008-09. Corina was good at football. The game gave her the nickname she goes by – Cocky. She trained to be a sports coach. But she soon discovered that it was “ boring to teach people sports.’’ It was rather limited in scope. She sought something more engaging; something that would touch people’s lives in a more fundamental way.

So she opted for an internship with a mental health institute. The institute used sports as medium to help mentally ill people. For 20 years, she worked at the clinic employing sports as a means to assist patients in their treatment and recovery. “ People are depressed, sometimes so depressed that they don’t want to move. As part of psychomotor therapy, I used football to treat patients suffering from depression. There is evidence that running works well to treat patients,’’ Corina said. Psychomotor therapy uses physical activity and body awareness to help in the healing process.

After two decades spent working in the Netherlands, in 2005, Corina decided to move to Kenya to work with a community-based organisation called Moving the Goalposts (MTG) in Kilifi. She was placed as a volunteer through Voluntary Service Overseas, an international NGO.  A sport for development outfit, MTG harnesses the power of football to overcome social obstacles girls and young women face in coastal Kenya. Teenage pregnancy was (and still is) a very big issue in the country. That was among topics Corina required working with. Central to MTG’s strategy was football. Located on the east coast of Africa, Kenya has varied topography that includes an Indian Ocean seaboard, the Great Rift Valley and the Kenyan Highlands famous for tea and running. Corina worked at Kilifi near Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city situated on the coast. Roughly 4400 kilometers north east from Mombasa, across the sea, lay Mumbai, India’s financial capital. After working in Kenya for 11 years, Corina moved to Mumbai to work with Naz Foundation (India) Trust.

Corina Van Dam at the Mumbai office of Naz Foundation (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

Naz India is an NGO working in the field of HIV / AIDS and sexual health. Corina works as Impact Manager at Naz Foundation. She is focussed on Young People’s Initiative (YPI), a program to empower girls by using sports and life skills education. It seeks to provide opportunities for adolescent girls. “ Many NGOs now leverage sport as tool to empower girls with reference to their body and emotions,’’ she said.

Naz India’s YPI project uses netball as sport for team building and empowering activities. “ Group sport or team sports helps tackle peer pressure, instil team work and develop leadership skills as opposed to individual sport,’’ Corina said. The choice of netball was because it is less of a contact sport compared to football and such a game appeared to suit the girls joining the program. Some other NGOs use sports such as football, basketball and kabaddi for similar work. For Naz India, the choice of sport is based on the needs and issues at hand in each of the projects that the foundation takes up. Naz India primarily works in schools, mostly trust-run schools. “ We are constantly negotiating with schools and designing our projects based on the feedback,’’ Corina said.

As an Impact Manager, Corina’s role is to make constant assessment of the teams working in schools; whether they are achieving their objectives or not. Outside of work, she continues to play football, mostly in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra. She plays for Wolfpack FC. She got to participate in local league matches.

Photo: courtesy Corina Van Dam

Many football players, according to her, do not like running as a specific sport. It’s one thing to run playing football; it’s another running a marathon focused solely on movement with no paradigm of game, team or score enveloping it. However, she took to running during her teens and continued to do so through her years in the Netherlands. In Kenya, living in Kilifi a rural area near Mombasa, Corina resorted to running in the nearby farmlands. She ran three times a week covering a distance of 7-10 kilometers on each of those practice sessions. She also recalled making a brief visit to Iten in the highlands of Kenya, home to the country’s best runners. “ I visited Lornah Kiplagat and her husband Pieter Langerhorsts’ high altitude training center. That was a fleeting visit,’’ Corina said. Olympian Lornah Kiplagat, a Dutch cross country and long-distance runner, is of Kenyan origin. She is a four time-world champion and has held world records over 5 km, 10 miles, 20 km and the half marathon. The training center in Iten was founded in 1999.

Arriving in Mumbai in 2016, Corina decided to look for a house at Tilak Nagar primarily because of its proximity to her place of work at Vidyavihar, just a kilometer away. At Tilak Nagar, the well-known Sahyadri Ground became venue for her daily practice runs. She runs several rounds of the ground in 500 meter-loops. “ Many women came and asked me how I got into running. They also expressed a desire to take up running,” Corina said. Hailing from Netherlands, she beheld the scene with curiosity. “ At the Tilak Nagar ground, a lot of people were involved in various activities. But you rarely found women at the centre of the ground. It is now slowly changing,’’ she said at the small Mumbai office of Naz Foundation tucked away on the ground floor of an apartment complex. It was July 2019. Just days earlier the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup had concluded with USA defeating Netherlands 2-0 in the final. It was the first time the Dutch national women’s team played in the final – a point Corina recalled with pride and a feeling of much changed since she started playing football when the sport was considered a game for men.

Photo: courtesy Corina Van Dam

Corina’s first stint at a running event in India was the Dream Run segment of the 2017 Mumbai Marathon, something that happened because Naz India was a recipient of free slots to the run. For someone used to regular running like Corina, the Dream Run and its wall of people ambling along was a disappointment. In 2018, at the same event, she chose to run the newly introduced 10k segment and finished on the podium in her age group of 50-54 years.

In the 2019 edition, she ran the full marathon finishing the distance in 5:15:06 hours securing eighth position among women in her age group. This was her background prior to that rain soaked six hour-run in Thane, the 50k and the 25k, which followed. She was recently appointed Pinkathon Ambassador. Through this, her responsibilities now include empowering women through running. “ I am still figuring out which distance is best suited for me. I also plan to participate in the Goa Ironman later this year,’’ she said.

Goa Ironman 70.3 or Half Ironman is slated to be held on October 20, 2019. Corina, now 54, has invested in a road bike. She cycles regularly and for swimming she visits the pool at Dharavi. She hasn’t yet done any open water swimming in India but given she grew up in Alkmaar with its share of open water and winter temperatures, hopes she should be able to tackle it.

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

MUSCULAR AND READY TO BOYCOTT

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Over the past few days, the media has reported on the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) recommending boycott of the 2022 Commonwealth Games (CWG) because the event in Birmingham won’t feature shooting, a sport in which India has known strength.

The bullet points are three. First, India is strong in shooting. Second, India has been gradually improving its medals tally at major sports events; at the Gold Coast edition of CWG in 2018, India secured 66 medals of which 16 came from shooting including seven gold medals. Third, if shooting is absent at Birmingham, then, Indian prospects for rich medal harvest become proportionately dim.

The anger at shooting’s exclusion is understandable.

Question is – is boycott the answer?

A threat to boycott may work as means to apply pressure on the organizers.  But beyond that what merit does it have? Especially because the battle is not over any universally prized principle breached as was the case for example, when the sporting world boycotted South Africa in its apartheid years. Here it is clearly one country’s grievance over chances to win medals limited by the absence of a particular sport it is good at. Shooting is one of several sports at large events like CWG, Asian Games or Olympics. Boycott on the other hand, applies to all Indian athletes preparing to participate. In other words, everyone from runners to cyclists to swimmers, gymnasts and badminton players – all will be benched. Why should a whole national squad suffer just because Indian shooters may or may not be going to Birmingham?

The PTI report on the proposed boycott (it is available on the Internet) quoted from the letter Narinder Batra, president, IOA, wrote to the union sports minister, Kiren Rijiju, seeking early discussion on the matter. “ We want to express our protest by not taking part in 2022 CWG in the UK to make the CWG understand that India is not prepared to take India bashing anymore and the people with a particular mindset in CWG need to understand that India got its Independence in 1947 and India is not a colony of anyone anymore and is now the fifth largest economy in the world and by far the fastest growing economy in the world,” the IOA chief said in the letter – so PTI reported. It didn’t end there. “ We have been noticing over a period of time that wherever India seems to be getting grip of the game and performing well, then somehow we find that either the goal posts are shifted or rules are changed. We feel it is time for us in IOA / India to start asking tough questions and start taking tough positions,’’ Batra wrote, adding that given the political sensitivities involved in the matter the IOA does not see itself as the expert to decide. Hence, the request to meet the minister. In June 2019, Batra was elected a member of the International Olympic Council (IOC). Earlier in 2016, he became chief of the International Hockey Federation (FIH).

Batra’s letter to Rijiju presents a contrived argument for boycott. It is hard to comprehend how the reasons (emotions would be a better description) posed – everything from India’s emaciation through colonization to its independence movement to subsequent body building by GDP – are relevant to shooting’s inclusion or exclusion at an international sports event. The letter also contrasts what the sports minister himself stated recently – that he wishes athletes heading to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to focus on their preparation, free of distractions. Shouldn’t the same logic apply to 2022 CWG as well? As regards the more legitimate concern around goal posts shifted, mentioned in Batra’s letter, they are in the domain of sports administration, not sports. Isn’t it the job of sport administrators to sort it out sparing sportspersons inconvenience? If boycott is tool towards the same end, then it must be pointed out alongside that its real effect is one of casting sportspersons into an environment of uncertainty. In other words – it is inconvenience.

According to reports, the IOA’s call for boycott found support from a variety of domestic sports federations. They valued solidarity with IOA over what happens to their athletes. Some athletes too supported. To his credit Abhinav Bindra, India’s best known shooter and the first Indian to win an individual gold medal at the Olympics, spoke up against the call to boycott.

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