PSYNYDE BIKES: WEATHERING TOUGH CHEMISTRY

Psynyde Dioxide (Photo: Vinay Menon)

In 2016, when Psynyde Bikes launched the Furan MTB, it was for India, a rare instance of cycling enthusiasts designing bicycles, manufacturing overseas and selling in modest numbers in the domestic market. After a promising start, the company is now in a phase of struggle. If it persists, it may be able to look back and say of now: that was a learning experience.

Roughly three years after introducing their first factory built-models capable of selling in modest numbers, brand Psynyde continues to retain the cultish feel that accompanies performance. In that time, it also experienced reversals on the business front not for want of product acceptance but things gone wrong internally in the fledgling company. The core team is back to two – MTB enthusiast turned bicycle designer and builder, Praveen Prabhakaran, and Vinay Menon who still rides hard and oversees marketing for the brand.

On the bright side, the initial 100 units-strong consignment of the trail bike they designed – Psynyde Furan – sold out in a year; as did an initial lot of 100 of the hybrid – Oxygen. Feedback was encouraging. There have been no complaints except for small issues with a plastic cap, Praveen said. However, the Chinese factory, which manufactured the bike frames he designed, fell into hard times. Praveen said he has identified alternative factories, capable of similar quality.

Vinay Menon riding at Flow Show, Canada (Photo: Vinay Menon)

According to Vinay, Psynyde’s bikes as well as the bicycle components it made featured at domestic and international competitions. The Furan was chosen steed for Psynyde sponsored-riders and some of the company’s customers, who took part in these events. There have also been a couple of podium finishes. Brand Psynyde – as component or whole bicycle – was seen at events including the 2012 FLOW Show demos in Canada, the 2013 and 2014 Asia Pacific Downhill Championships, multiple editions of the Himalayan Downhill Mountain Bike Trophy, 2016 and 2017 Bangalore Mountain Festival Downhill Race, TDRY Gui’de International Downhill Cycling Race in China, 2018 Mechuka Downhill Championship, 2018 National BMX Flatland Championship and the 2019 Bangalore Bicycle Championship (downhill race). But there was tragedy too, one that was felt deeply at Psynyde.

In July 2017, Ajay Padval, a talented mountain biker from Pune, died in an accident while biking down from Khardung La near Leh. This downhill ride, done on the road connecting Leh to Nubra valley via Khardung La, is a popular supported trip availed by many visitors to Ladakh. Ajay was no different; he wanted to taste the experience. He was driven up to Khardung La along with others set to ride down from the high pass to Leh. That day, unfortunately for Ajay, something went wrong resulting in serious injury. Found fallen on the road, he was rushed to the local hospital but passed away the next day. “ Ajay was a very important member of the Psynyde team in the little time he spent with us. Right from being a dedicated team athlete – not just mountain biking, he was excellent at slacklining too – to giving important inputs in operations and matters related to product design. Ajay’s unfortunate demise affected us a lot,’’ Vinay said. Ajay had grown up watching older cycling enthusiasts; among them Praveen and Vinay. They were all part of the same MTB ecosystem in Pune. Not long after Psynyde got into bicycle manufacturing, he joined the company. His untimely passing was therefore personal loss for Praveen and Vinay.

Ajay Padval (Photo: Veloscope)

On the product front, both the Furan and Oxygen were perceived in the market as versatile bicycles. The Furan was designed to be a hard tail MTB capable of tackling a variety of terrain and riding styles; the Oxygen known to be light weight and having geometry partial to speed has been used by customers for purposes ranging from regular commute and weekend rides to bicycle touring. In 2018, Pune-based Abhishek Iyer toured across Norway on a Psynyde Oxygen. From a second lot of Oxygen, at the time of writing, about 90 units remained in stock in Pune. The company needed to invest afresh in components if it was to assemble and sell all of them. As of July, Praveen and Vinay were looking for investors who understood Psynyde’s line of business as well as the performance image, brand Psynyde had created for itself.

Psynyde’s capital requirements are of modest dimension. But the challenge is procuring financial support without the associated baggage of altered direction for the company. Having created its narrative to date by aligning with the performance segment, Psynyde does not want to trade that image for recovery plans advising dilution of its profile. “ One potential investor asked us to change the brand name and make it more mainstream. That was unacceptable,’’ Praveen said.  At the same time, he was aware of the fact that a bicycle business can’t be founded wholly on presence in niche, performance segments. “ There is so much I wanted to do. Instead I have all this to sort out now,’’ Praveen said at his house on the outskirts of Pune. It was July 2019; annual season of rain.

Abhishek Iyer with the Psynyde Oxygen (This photo of Abhishek was downloaded from the Facebook page of Psynyde Bikes)

Praveen is happiest discussing bicycle technology and design. He took out his cellphone to show photos of a beautiful road bike with carbon fiber-frame mated to steel joints and wireless, electronic shifters that he had built for a client. It was part of the original custom built-bicycles business that was Psynyde; the seed which eventually spawned a company selling modest volumes of cycles designed by it and factory-built in China. Psynyde’s logo sat prominently on the road bike’s head tube.

Before us in the room, was the prototype of a new Furan. In a major departure from previous models of the Furan and Oxygen, the prototype sported only one chain ring at the front. There was a nine speed-cassette at the rear. The combination changed the traditional MTB gear ratios seen in India but made the bike simpler. It also had front suspension capable of greater travel and a hydraulic seat post that adjusted remotely allowing rider to sit low on downhills and revert to regular height once such sections were tackled. Should this model proceed beyond prototype and witness production, Praveen hoped to have a more aggressive angle for the front suspension. He was also considering steel as metal to build with; potential fallout of that being frame composed of absolutely straight lines unlike the prototype with down tube slightly curved towards its junction with the head tube.

Psynyde Psymptom prototype (Photo: Vinay Menon)

Also available to see as photographs were prototypes of two downhill bikes from Psynyde – the Psymptom and Dioxide. Both sported four bar design for rear suspension set up. The Psymptom had this set up essayed in CNC machine cut-aluminum (rest of the frame was chromoly steel) while the Dioxide was wholly 4130 chromoly steel. As with the Psymptom and Dioxide, a Furan 2 made of steel was not concept, suddenly conceived. Praveen had been toying with the idea of getting back to steel tubing for a while. In the story of bicycles, steel disliked for its weight had given way to aluminum, titanium and carbon fiber.  All these materials have their merits and demerits.  For instance, even as aluminum is lighter, points of welding are usually invitation to lose strength. As lighter materials gained currency in cycling, steel alloys evolved further. Today, very thin steel tubing that does not weigh a lot, is available. The return of steel is particularly visible in the MTB segment overseas, Praveen and Vinay said.

The tubes used are butted steel tubes, which have varying wall thickness. Such fabrication isn’t yet a strong point with Indian manufacturing, particularly at the dimensions (wall thickness) needed for contemporary performance bicycles. Further when it comes to modest volumes of raw materials, like that needed by Psynyde, any Indian supplier capable of making butted tubes in steel finds it unviable scale. Result – the tubes have to be imported from British, Italian, American and Japanese suppliers; often at high import duty for no better reason than that its eventual application is in cycling. The Dioxide was featured on VitalMTB, a major online portal for MTB news. “ There will be downhill riders in India appreciative of the Psymptom and the Dioxide,’’ Vinay said. Problem is – downhill is a smaller world within India’s small world of MTB. That relapse to niche category brings us back to a familiar predicament.

Psynyde Dioxide, rider: Hrishi Mandke (Photo: Vinay Menon)

If its products are meant for niche within niche, where will Psynyde’s main revenues come from to sustain its avatar of company designing own bicycles, manufacturing overseas and selling in modest volumes in India? For sustenance, versatile products like the Furan and Oxygen matter. That’s why the current capital crunch has to be somehow overcome, stocks reached to a market, which anyway liked Psynyde’s products and the momentum carried on. An additional option is to create a set of affordable products closer to mainstream interests in cycling. If so, that would probably have to be done at arm’s length making sure brand Psynyde is not diluted in the process. But there is a deeper question lurking in the backdrop.

The talent required to manage a company is very different from the creativity that goes into bicycle designing or the kick one gets from riding and testing bicycles. Praveen’s house used to be Psynyde’s old factory floor; that was when all Psynyde did was design and custom build bicycles and machine specific components. At that size, the business was easier to manage. Praveen could stay creative and Vinay could continue riding. If they can’t get Psynyde’s current avatar moving at least partly on autopilot mode with good managers in place, then at some point, after cleaning up their liabilities, there will be a question awaiting the duo’s attention: is volume manufacturing their cup of tea? Or are they more comfortable with a boutique operation similar to old, designing and custom-building bicycles?

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Praveen Prabhakaran and Vinay Menon. For more on Psynyde Bikes, please try the following two links: https://shyamgopan.com/2014/02/06/the-story-of-psynyde/ and https://shyamgopan.com/2016/11/09/psynyde-alert-the-hour-of-the-furan/)

COFFEE, CONVERSATION AND RUNNING

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Few things represent post liberalization India, as the coffee shop culture which sprang up in urban areas.

Coffee shops became places to meet.

People converged to socialize, discuss business and later as wireless internet spread, at least some started using these spaces as surrogate offices.

It isn’t that places to socialize were not available before. Every region had its unique flag bearer in this regard. Mumbai had its Irani cafes and Udupi restaurants, although neither encouraged conversation over commerce. A sense of allotted time hung like Damocles Sword at these outfits. In South India, besides the ubiquitous tea shop, there were the branches of the Indian Coffee House (ICH), an enterprise founded in the 1950s and firmly identified with the working class. They were affordable coffee houses, feet planted on the ground and having no pretense to being café or coffee shop, the latter concept associated in India with upmarket appearance and menu. ICH had branches elsewhere too but its mainstay was the south.

Following the initial flush of entrants in the coffee shop business, some of the players scaled back. It was Café Coffee Day (CCD) that eventually went nationwide in a prominent way, in the segment. V. G. Siddhartha’s business group had a major presence in coffee estates and coffee trading; CCD was in some ways its most visible retail face. The first CCD outlet opened in Bengaluru in July 1996. Notwithstanding costly fare (compared to the cafes and coffee houses of previous decades), CCD’s branch network spread to India’s cities and towns. This new space for coffee and conversation touched many of us, whose careers / adult years coincided with the India brewed afresh by liberalization. As of July 2019, CCD was India’s biggest chain of coffee shops by a significant margin.

On July 30, 2019, twenty three years after the first CCD appeared on Bengaluru’s Brigade Road, the media reported that Siddhartha had gone missing from the bridge over the Netravati River near Mangaluru. The next day his body was recovered from the river. News reports in the wake of the tragedy, pointed to a business under stress. The episode was tracked by many of us. We paused to reflect on Siddhartha’s demise because the number of us who visited a CCD outlet or passed by one in our daily lives, was not small. Quite a few of the conversations with runners and cyclists featured on this blog, happened at one CCD outlet or another for they represented space to sit and talk. Wikipedia’s page on the company says that in 2010 when CCD’s current logo was designed, it was to “ showcase the chain as a place to talk.’’

The coffee estates Siddhartha’s company owns have been location for the annual Malnad Ultra. It is a trail run involving ultramarathon distances. There is a September 2016 report in the Economic Times (available on the Internet) on the subject. The report precedes the event’s first edition. According to it, “ the coffee baron has offered a 10-year access to his plantations, which stretch across 13,000 acres of the Western Ghats.’’  The Malnad Ultra has since become an event with distinct fan following.

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

AFTER BADWATER, FLASHBACK: JAPAN

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The 2019 edition of Badwater 135 was won by Yushihiko Ishikawa of Japan. Two years earlier, in 2017, the race was won by Wataru Iino, a Japanese engineer and runner, posted on work to Chennai, India. Across men and women, as of 2019, Japanese runners had triumphed on four occasions at Badwater with Sumie Inagaki winning in the women’s category twice, back to back. Scan the results of another famous ultramarathon – Spartathlon; there are several Japanese runners among podium finishers over the years. Plus, who can forget Yuki Kawauchi’s gritty run at the Boston Marathon in 2018? Japan is a powerhouse in distance running, not that well known outside. Here’s a peek into an ecosystem for running in Asia’s Far East.

Most runners and fans of running study Africa.

The highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia are famous for the runners they create. Over the past few decades, podium positions at major races worldwide have gone to athletes from these countries. This dominance wasn’t always the case. Following his much appreciated book from 2013: Running with the Kenyans, author Adharanand Finn, turned his attention to the Japanese. The result was 2015’s The Way of the Runner. It dwelled on the running culture in Japan, a country that was churning out performances in long distance running next only to the Kenyans and Ethiopians. “ Before the running boom in the west; before the Africans, the Japanese completely dominated marathon running in the world,’’ Finn explains in an interview posted on YouTube by publishers, Faber and Faber in May 2015. According to that video, in 1965, around 11 of the top 12 runners in the world were Japanese.  Next year, it was 15 of the top 17.

“ They were dominating like the Kenyans dominate now, partly because they were one of the only countries running marathons on a large scale. It’s not very well known that Japan has got this obsession with running. Part of the reason for that is that the biggest races are all internal races. They have these huge long distance relay races which are called ekidens. They traverse quite large distances; from 200 kilometers, 300 kilometers….the longest one is around 1000 kilometers,’’ Finn says. Ekidens are very popular in Japan. The biggest ekiden – the Hakone Ekiden –spans two days and is a much watched telecast. “ Everybody watches it, even people who have no interest in running the rest of the year. This is real passion for running,’’ Finn says in the video, about the Hakone Ekiden. But because it is all happening within the country, ekidens are not that well known outside Japan.

According to Wikipedia:  The first ekiden was held in Japan in 1917 as a 3-day, 23-stage run from Kyoto to Tokyo for more than 507 kilometers, in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Tokyo’s establishment as the nation’s capital (from its previous status as the shogunate Edo while Kyoto was capital city). Eki means “station” and den translates as “to convey”. It was the name given to the old Japanese transportation system for government documents and officials by relay of horses or men. At the heart of the modern relay race is a sash carried by each runner (it is slung from the shoulder and worn across the body) and passed on to the next. This sash is everything. You run to ensure that it is passed on. Should a runner fail to pass it on, then a whole team risks being disqualified. In turn the devotion to sash and runners trying their level best to not fail, are seen to directly complement team building and obliquely, evoke imagery of the warrior spirit. To put things in perspective, the Japanese take sports seriously. It assumes importance at high school level and by university the importance given to training and coaching is quite high. There are ekidens featuring high school and university teams.

Yuta Shitara, who placed second at the 2018 Tokyo Marathon in a remarkable late stage surge. In July 2019, the Japanese runner – he is a former national record holder – set a new course record at the Gold Coast Marathon in Australia (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Gold Coast Marathon)

Sample this observation in Wikipedia about the 2010 (86th edition) of the Hakone Ekiden: Of the 380 athletes representing the 19 universities, 328 have run under 14:40 for 5000 meters; 150 at 14:20 and 33 under 14:00. Stepping up to the 10,000 meter distance, the same sources show that these 19 Tokyo universities list over 190 runners with personal bests under 30:00. For comparison: as of 2019, the Indian national record for men in 5000 meters is 13:29:70 and for women, 15:15:89; in the case of 10,000 meters, it is 28:02:89 and 31:50:47. The Hakone Ekiden’s course starts in central Tokyo, goes out of the city and up the mountains to the base of Mount Fuji. The next day, the event reverses direction and runners race back. Wikipedia pegs the first day distance at 108 kilometers and the second day at 109.9 kilometers. Each day’s run has five sections. In a write-up on the Hakone Ekiden in January 2014 in The Guardian, Finn himself noted that the event’s 10 stages are close to half marathon distance with over the two days, 30 students running a “ half marathon-equivalent time of under 63 minutes’’ excluding timings on the race’s fastest sixth segment, which is mostly downhill. In the whole of 2013, only one runner in UK – Mo Farah – ran a half marathon in under 63 minutes, Finn wrote highlighting the quality of runners at the ekiden. It doesn’t stop there.

Suguru Osako; as of July 2019, he held the Japanese national record in the marathon – 2:05:50 – set at the 2018 Chicago Marathon (This photo was downloaded from the athlete’s Facebook page. It is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended.)

Large Japanese companies maintain ekiden teams. A February 2018 article by Martin Fritz Huber on Japanese runners, available on the website of Outside magazine, mentioned that some five dozen corporate teams existed, each having at least 20 full time, paid runners. That is a pool of 1200 elite long distance runners. There are leagues for these teams; there are corporate championships. The interest of corporates in ekidens has also opened another angle. Professional athletes survive on the strength of sponsorship, appearance fee and prize money. As Finn points out in the video, typically, if a professional athlete is injured or is past his / her prime, the challenges are many.  You have to make a new beginning, find new means to survive. At companies having ekiden teams, a good athlete gets backed by regular salary. When such an athlete retires from the sport, he / she settles down to a job in the office. Finally, going by what multiple sources on the Internet speak of the ekiden, the human drama associated with the event ranging from team spirit to ensuring the sash is passed on at all cost, make races interesting for telecast. Videos of ekidens show spectators lining up to cheer. In the case of ekidens featuring corporate teams, spectators include company employees and their families.

Wataru Iino,winner of the 2017 Badwater Ultramarathon, at the production facility of Daimler India Commercial Vehicles in Chennai, India (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

So how does this ecosystem translate into performance at elite levels? The earlier quoted observation from Wikipedia provides overview of performance parameters at university level. The Outside magazine article – the expert consulted therein was again Adharanand Finn – offered similar perspective with a major marathon for backdrop.  In 2018, Yuta Shitara secured second place at the annual Tokyo Marathon; he finished the race in 2:06:11. What impressed was that Japan had six runners in the top ten in the men’s category and altogether nine, including those outside the top ten, who ran quicker than 2:10 – all this from one race (the data is still there among archived race results, on the event’s website). When the author of said article looked up the fastest times in marathon history, he found that in contrast, only 17 American runners had managed sub-2:10. Restricted to record eligible-courses, the number shrank to 11. At several major races, Japanese runners finish in the top ten but amid highly competitive sport with narrative seeking African runners, they get overlooked. The world’s best timings reported by the Association of Marathons and Distance Races (AIMS), is usually a list awash in names from Africa. Among a spattering of names from other regions, the Japanese also feature. In 2018, the fastest Japanese marathon runner was Suguru Osako; his third place finish at the Chicago Marathon with a time of 2:05:50 (at the time of writing it was Japan’s national record in the discipline) placed him 27th on the list. The current world record, set by Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge in September 2018 in Berlin, is 2:01:39.

Yoshihiko Ishikawa, winner of the 2019 Badwater Ultramarathon (This photo, downloaded from the Facebook page of Northern Ireland Running, is from the 2017 Belfast 24 Hour World Championships. No copyright infringement intended)

As with any ecosystem, there are stories around the ekiden too. One such is about a man often described to have taken the longest duration yet to complete a marathon – 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds. In that time, Shizo Kanakuri got married, had six children and ten grandchildren. His story started in the early years of the 20th century. According to Wikipedia:  During the November 1911 domestic qualifying trials for the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, although the length of the course was probably only 40 km (25 miles), Kanakuri was reported to have set a marathon world record at 2 hours, 32 minutes and 45 seconds. He was thus selected as one of only two athletes that Japan could afford to send to the event. Kanakuri had to travel 18 days to reach Stockholm from Japan; first by ship and then by the Trans-Siberian Railway. He took five days to recover from the journey.

That year, the Olympic marathon was plagued by unexpected warm weather conditions. More than half the field suffered from hyperthermia. Kanakuri, already weak from his long journey and having issues with the local food; lost consciousness midway through the race. He was looked after by a farming family. Embarrassed by his failure he returned quietly to Japan without informing race officials. Swedish authorities recorded him as “ missing.’’ Although he competed at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp (where he completed the marathon in 2 hours, 48 minutes, 45.4 seconds to place 16th), it seems to have missed Sweden’s eye. Decades went by before Swedish authorities found out that he was alive in Japan. In 1967, Swedish Television invited him back to complete the race he had begun in 1912. According to Wikipedia, Kanakuri who is celebrated as “ the father of marathon’’ in Japan, played an important role in establishing the biggest of the ekidens – the Hakone Ekiden.

Yuki Kawauchi aka Citizen Runner and Civil Services Runner, at the 2018 Boston Marathon (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Boston Marathon and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.)

Given its reputation for discipline and industry, conformation would seem prized in Japanese culture including the culture around running. Ekidens are an important aspect of Japanese running culture; as are corporate teams. You would think they are unquestioningly followed as ideal progression for runner. That isn’t always the case. There are those who navigate differently. In the video, Finn mentions one such athlete – Yuki Kawauchi, among Japan’s best runners in recent years. Kawauchi worked at Kuki High School in Saitama Prefecture. He was not on any corporate team. In fact, Wikipedia mentions that after graduating, Kawauchi did not receive much interest from corporate running teams. “ He is one of the top runners and yet he has completely shunned the entire Japanese system. So he is very rebellious in that way and people love him for that,’’ Finn says in the 2015 video. Kawauchi – he is often called “ Citizen Runner’’ and “ Civil Services Runner’’ – is best remembered for winning the Boston Marathon in 2018, a year when the race had its coldest start in three decades and was run amid tough weather conditions. That said, news reports after the 2018 edition of the Boston Marathon said that Kawauchi was planning to quit his government job and shift to being a professional runner. Apparently he had been thinking of doing so since a ten day visit to London in 2017, for the IAAF World Championships. The move was seen as helping him improve his existing timing in the marathon and compete with the world’s best. He wished to use the prize money he got in Boston to effect the transition. In April 2019, a report in Japan Times said that Kawauchi had become a professional marathon runner.

Ekidens are now held outside Japan too. According to Wikipedia, they are held in Hawaii, Guam, Belgium, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Singapore.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He hasn’t seen an ekiden except on video; he hasn’t been to Japan. The above article is based on information available on the Internet. For an article on Wataru Iino, winner of the 2017 Badwater Ultramarathon, please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2017/10/26/in-oragadam-a-badwater-winner/)     

STRAY DOTS CONNECTED BY NELSON’S EYE

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

From high mountains to vehicle sales and jobs with fat salaries, the industrial paradigm is blinding us to the obvious.

2019 was not the first climbing season on Everest hosting queue of climbers.

One recalls photos shown by those who climbed Everest in the past decade. Lines have happened before; maybe not this bad on the final stretch of the ascent. A line is a potential queue; a queue is potential congestion. In other words, 2019 was in the works.

All that was needed was favorable circumstances converging. A slightly higher number of permits doled out, fickle weather of climate-change, a cyclone big enough to have distant impact in the Himalaya and climbers rushing to take advantage of a narrow window – that appears to have tipped what was potential into reality. In the days following the tragic deaths of May 2019 official explanation puzzled. A memorable line of reasoning was that people had died of altitude sickness, poor fitness and lack of experience, not traffic congestion on the peak. That is probably true.

Traffic jam at altitude

Consider the following. Altitude sickness is checked through acclimatization. But there is no certainty that it won’t strike. When it hits, the best remedy is losing elevation. Poor fitness can spell trouble when climbing a mountain entailing physical strain and the challenges of altitude. Experience counts. The more you have been to the high mountains and endured different scenarios, the better your understanding of self (and its limits) and greater your bandwidth to cope with nature.

In the event of altitude sickness, how easy will it be to turn around and lose elevation if the climbing route has too many people, at least some of them slowed by strain of altitude? If your fitness is poor and experience limited, how well will you cope with extended exposure to harsh nature, which is what happens when caught in a queue? Point is – long lines on any high mountain is unsafe. That raises the question: why do we ignore signs of potential accident? Why do we defend after tragedy?

One reason (certainly not the only one) would be the difference between mountaineering as activity and the same as industry. Across sectors, industry has typically showed reluctance to acknowledge its faults. There are investments, businesses and livelihood at stake. Viewed through such prism, old lines from old photos may not have seemed early indicator of what could potentially be. The other thing you notice in activity cast as industry is how notion of dynamic nature recedes and predictability becomes prized. Approached as industry, a high mountain becomes branded objective bought off a shop shelf. As with any other product, expectations rule the transaction and those expectations have to be met. The tragedy and defence from Everest spanned May-June 2019.

Traffic jam at sea level

On June 19, a leading daily reported that Mumbai had some of the worst traffic jams in the world. The report was notable for pinning blame almost wholly on civic authorities responsible for roads and the traffic police, responsible for issues like parking. There are two actors overlooked in the story of traffic jams – vehicle manufacturers and consumers.

Vehicles are manufactured, marketed with high voltage campaigns, sold at attractive prices and backed with consumer finance – all by the automobile industry. The ones willfully spending, congesting the roads with their purchase and often prone to driving rashly are the customers. Yet no solid blame reaches these two segments. Vehicle manufacturers have traditionally kept big advertisement budgets; something media seeks. About two decades ago, officials at Indian auto companies used to argue that they are above spoiling the market with aggressive pricing, low interest loans and product discounts. Growing competition among auto companies, the pressures of surviving market cycles, the technological challenges facing the global auto industry, the rising relevance of public transport and ethical preference for less polluting means of mobility – all these changed industry. There is desperation to sell before product relevance dries up. Now the Indian market also hosts freebies, discounts and cheap loans. Sellers are targeting pockets where the consumerist dream still attracts and tales of urban congestion are distant.

Questioning the habits of readers / viewers (who are also vehicle customers) to the point of irritating them is not affordable to media. Editors have limits decided by business model. As people spend on vehicles in age of high salary and more disposable income, both customer and industry are spared acute scrutiny by media. Civic authorities and traffic police take the blame instead. Like the mountaineering industry’s inability to visualize potential danger in a long line at altitude, vehicle manufacturers and customers reserve a Nelson’s Eye for their role in traffic congestion. They see their combined activity as feeding GDP (even if time wasted in traffic jam is productivity lost). GDP is currently unquestionable; it is a nice place for big fish to hide.

There is a cost for our collective existence – growing and burgeoning – that nobody wants to acknowledge. Like Mumbai’s traffic jams and May 2019 on Everest, all costs eventually come home. Yet the architecture of potential mess appears lost on even the educated.

Traffic jam in the head

The new rain; rain of vehicles (Illustration: Shyam G Menon)

And so in June 2019, it was Nelson’s Eye again, as a former senior official of the Indian IT industry argued that what stifled employment in the country was not lack of jobs but lack of well paid jobs. It harked of an older fantasy sold (much successful like vehicle sales measured in numbers) – that of celebrating exploded population as demographic dividend. Doesn’t demographic dividend / workforce have the propensity to be consumerist with consequences thereof? If you are not blinded by GDP, you will notice that more money does not reduce the carrying cost of our bloated existence and its equally bloated aftermath ranging from stress to congestion to trash. Instead, allowing ourselves to see without tainted spectacles would be a good starting point.

One example for how money solves nothing is government finances creaking under the load of rising wage and pension bill. Transplant the habit to private sector, you will simply spread the disease. In the urge to appease constituencies monetarily, inequality grows and the economy is stalked by inflation. What we need is reasonable hours of work, reasonable salary and most importantly – affordable cost of living that stretches currency’s mileage. This demands a very fundamental reinterpretation of life away from mono-cropped imagination. After all, the best way to enjoy Everest without damaging it, is not to have everyone aiming for the top but respect even those content to watch it from far. In other words, spread earnings and opportunities around. Unfortunately, our educational system (that’s where we gain perspective of life) has been surrendered to GDP. It is the stuff of rat race; it even advocates it. We have few original characters born from it. There is no contrarian thought. To the extent it is all driven by money, alternative incentives like social acceptance and support, relevant to sustain non-mainstream imagination, have shriveled up. Your intuition warns that the overall accounts of existence are not balanced. Money tells you: don’t listen to that internal auditor, just keep minting money. What would you call such book keeping if it was a company, bank, airline or housing finance outfit, you were auditing?

In June again, there was a news report which said, some youngsters were living frugally and saving as much as they could to retire earlier than usual. It smacked of industrial superstructure tapped solely for income with an acknowledged lack of soul-connect to it. Unlike before, meaning it seemed, lay in retirement. There were others stepping out to see the world on small budgets; hope in their hearts to compensate for lack of cash. Now, that’s a different approach. At least, it’s no Nelson’s Eye.

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

THE MAHAJAN BROTHERS AND MAY 22 ON EVEREST

Everest (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Mahajan Brothers and is being used here for representation purpose.)

The Sea to Sky Expedition by the Nashik based-Mahajan brothers concluded as planned with a successful ascent of Everest. But it came at a cost. This is their story:

Early morning May 22, 2019, Dr Mahendra Mahajan reached the summit of Everest.

“ I was among those arriving there early in the day. So I was spared much of what unfolded on the peak this season,’’ he said. But he committed a mistake; a small one in anyone’s eyes, except that at high altitude, consequences – especially handling them – can be challenging. When taking photos at the planet’s highest point, he briefly pushed his glacier goggles on to his forehead. It wasn’t for long as in the extreme cold of the summit, his cell phone as well as a small digital camera he carried, clicked only a few pictures before their battery died. When he returned the goggles to his eyes he found that the glass surface was coated in ice, too tough to remove by rubbing. Goggles on, he couldn’t see a thing. So he switched to a pair of ski glasses that he had carried as spare. They were not the ideal replacement. They were not designed for the glare of punishing altitudes; their bulky construction was also such that climbers who value being able to see their feet were denied that by intervening frame. He had to be careful. By the time he set out for Camp 4 from the summit, Mahendra could see the first signs of what had been generally apprehended – a traffic jam of climbers close to the summit of Everest.

When Nashik-based Dr Hitendra Mahajan and Dr Mahendra Mahajan – aka Mahajan brothers – announced their Sea to Sky expedition, it was regular adventure engagingly packaged. They were accomplished cyclists; they were the first Indians to complete Race Across America (RAAM), they had cycled the full length of India’s highway system called Golden Quadrilateral. More recently, Mahendra had set a record for the fastest passage by a cyclist on the Kashmir to Kanyakumari route. Sea to Sky had shades of Goran Kropp to it. In 1996, the Swedish adventurer and mountaineer had cycled alone from Sweden to Nepal, climbed Everest without oxygen and cycled back part of the way. The Mahajan brothers (among the two, Hitendra is a trained mountaineer) planned a bicycle trip from Mumbai to Kathmandu and then, a guided ascent of Everest.

Dr Hitendra Mahajan on the summit of Everest (Photo: courtesy Dr Mahendra Mahajan)

They commenced their bicycle ride from Mumbai on March 31, 2019. They cycled in relay pattern, taking turns to be on the road. A reason for this was that their expedition also included work towards spreading awareness about cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). The brothers covered the distance from Mumbai to Kathmandu in about a week. They reached the Nepali capital on April 7. A day after reaching Kathmandu, the brothers took the flight to Lukla.  The Everest attempt was as part of a team managed by Kathmandu-based Pioneer Adventure. The team included Everest aspirants from India, Pakistan, USA and Singapore. They commenced their walk-in to Everest Base Camp (EBC) from Lukla. Along the way, they climbed Island Peak (20,305 feet). After the walk-in and the trips up Everest (highest point reached doing so being Camp 3) they descended to Debouche set amid green surroundings at lower altitude to rest and recover.

According to Mahendra, the brothers stayed in Debouche for 4-5 nights following which, they trekked back slowly to EBC. Another 4-5 days were spent at EBC. A concern during this entire period was when the summit window would be. You need clear days with manageable wind speed. In 2018, there had been a week or so of such weather. This time, the weather seemed fickle. To complicate matters, from April 26 to May 5, Cyclone Fani, the first severe cyclonic storm of the year was detected and tracked en route to India. It had its landfall in Odisha and after visiting Bangladesh, saw its remnants dissipate over Bhutan. All this was away from Nepal but in the world of weather, enough to call neighborhood. For the 2019 climbing season, Nepal had issued around 381 permits. A few hundred climbers, guides and support staff were due to ascend Everest. At EBC, people tuned in to multiple weather forecasts. Eventually, Mahendra said, the period around May 22-23 was decided as summit window. He recalled May 24 being cited as not good. Everyone jumped on to the May 22 / 23 bandwagon. That, he said, is how the bunching of climbers witnessed in 2019 commenced. The climbs by various teams couldn’t be spread out. The team the Mahajan brothers were on commenced its trip from EBC to higher camps around 2 AM on May 18. “ Our first taste of what could potentially happen came at the Khumbu Icefall, where the glacier is heavily crevassed. At sections where ladders were few, queues occurred. If it was a single file it would have been alright. Problem was – it was managed a bit badly. So at times, there was more than one line and resultant delay. At one big ladder there was a line of 50-100 climbers,’’ Mahendra said.

Dr Mahendra Mahajan on the summit of Everest (Photo: courtesy Dr Mahendra Mahajan)

The night of May 18 and 19, they spent at Camp 2. From there it was six to eight hours to Camp 3. “ Half of this section is a gradual climb, the rest is fairly steep,’’ Mahendra said. At Camp 3, oxygen bottles were used while sleeping at night. The regulator was set to a gentle flow. From Camp 3 it was an eight hour-climb to Camp 4 at around 8000 meters. “ We reached it on the afternoon of May 21. Same night at around 7 PM we set off for the summit,’’ Mahendra said. The brothers started out together but on a mountain, everyone drifts to their respective pace. Mahendra, who is the younger of the Mahajan brothers, went ahead with his guide. Hitendra and his guide followed, the gap between the two brothers slowly growing. After about four to five hours of ascending the peak, Mahendra reached the area called Balcony. There was slow moving traffic here. “ It was just slow, that’s all; people were beginning to tire. Else there was nothing complicated. Most people were glad to continue so. A handful of climbers, who still had much energy in them, would overtake and go ahead,’’ Mahendra said.

Everything was fine till South Summit. Past this point, the nature of the route changed. It became significantly narrow. Up to South Summit, although climbers were many, a sense of bunching wasn’t felt except at occasional bottlenecks. From South Summit onward, through Hilary Step and on to the actual summit of Everest, the narrow ridge was invitation for bunching. The horizon was just warming up to light as Mahendra approached the summit. “ I had to pause due to clustering of climbers only at Hillary Step. Otherwise everything was under control,’’ Mahendra said of his passage to the summit. But photos taken, as he began his descent to Camp 4, a line of climbers was clearly manifesting.

Tired and coping with altitude, the climbers moved slowly. Complicated tasks are challenging in this state. So, few tried to get past others. Doing so requires clipping in and out from fixed ropes. The queue moved slowly. Then it ground to a halt. “ At this stage there was no co-ordination. The whole line came to a standstill,’’ Mahendra said. A climber who was behind him in the queue asked if he could move past Mahendra and go ahead. Doing so, he negotiated his way across a patch of terrain Mahendra evaluated as unsafe. Seeing this, others started pressuring Mahendra too to proceed and cross the risky patch; it would be a move executed without proper anchors and safety. “ I too tackled that portion and became free of the bottleneck,’’ Mahendra said. But fresh trouble was setting in. Exposed to the environment on the summit when he removed his goggles and inadequately protected from the glare later because he was wearing ski glasses, his eyes were becoming painful. At about 1.30 PM in the afternoon, Mahendra reached Camp 4. His guide wanted him to carry on further down but he was tired. More important he wanted to wait for Hitendra, who he had last seen going up, while Mahendra was already descending. Hitendra had asked him if he was faring alright with his glasses. About an hour into his stay at Camp 4, Mahendra developed severe burning sensation in his eyes. “ My eyes were very painful and watery. I almost cried from the discomfort. It was the most painful night of my life. Adding to the stress was – I had no idea what happened to Hitendra,’’ he said.

Dr Hitendra Mahajan (left) and Dr Mahendra Mahajan. This photo is from days prior to the summit push (Photo: courtesy Dr Mahendra Mahajan)

Hitendra was in the thick of the traffic jam and the impact it wrought. His case too was a series of cascading events commencing in a minor detail. When he started out for the summit, he gave his spare goggles to a Sherpa having none. Moving at a gentler pace than Mahendra, by the time Hitendra got to the upper parts of the summit push, traffic jam had set in. It meant slow progress and that much more time spent in conditions hostile to the human body. While he was otherwise alright, the longer time spent so meant his goggles started to ice up. He must have removed them and tried to rub off the ice. “ By the time he reached the summit, Hitendra was totally snow-blind. He couldn’t see a thing,’’ Mahendra said. Then their colleague on the same team, Don Cash, a client from the US, collapsed and died. (On May 24, Time magazine reported: While Sherpa guides with the company tried to keep him alive through CPR and by raising his oxygen pressure, Cash was unable to stand up or walk. As they tried to drag Cash down to a camp near Hillary Step, he fainted again and could not be revived; Pioneer Adventures said in a statement.) Hitendra’s guide asked him if he would be able to descend with assistance. He said yes. “ That was how he began coming down from the summit. He couldn’t see anything but the Sherpa told him where to keep his feet and helped him climb down. Noticing the situation, Don Cash’s guide also pitched in to assist. Despite all this, there were instances when Hitendra, unable to see, slipped and fell. His down-suit got torn. Mahendra took approximately seven hours to reach Camp 4 from the summit. Hitendra took 19 hours. From Camp 4 to Camp 4, Hitendra’s summit day spanned roughly 29 hours, Mahendra said.

View from the summit. The glowing white ridge in front is that of Nuptse; the dark triangular shadow to its right is the shadow of Everest (Photo: courtesy Dr Mahendra Mahajan)

At Camp 4, the tired climbers were lucky in one aspect – they had adequate bottled oxygen. In situations like this that is a life saver. Next morning by around 6-7 AM, they started the descent to lower camps. “ By now I was a bit rested and my eye pain was 50 per cent gone. But Hitendra, having arrived late, hadn’t had much rest. He was still blind seeing people as only blurred spots,’’ Mahendra said. Twelve hours later, the brothers reached Camp 2. They stayed the night there. By next morning, more damage was becoming visible – all ten fingers on Hitendra’s hands were shades of blue from frostbite. On the bright side, his vision was beginning to improve slowly. The brothers took a chopper from Camp 2 to EBC and another from there to Lukla, where they visited the local primary health center. Then they flew to Kathmandu and onward to Delhi. May 26, late night, they reached Nashik. At the time of writing, Hitendra was recuperating in hospital. In varying degrees both brothers have suffered minor injuries on their retina. “ We are hopeful everything will heal,’’ Mahendra said.

Did they anticipate any of this when Sea to Sky kicked off from Mumbai?  “ We knew the climb wouldn’t be easy. But I wish I was warned about smaller details – like not removing one’s goggles. There were guides around who weren’t wearing goggles or kept taking them off. You see that and think you also can do it. In retrospect, if there is one advice I will give anyone venturing to climb Everest, it will be: don’t take off your glasses. I would also add that people should be flexible and not be insistent or egoistic about gaining the summit. Beyond South Summit – that is where I found the problems to be. If the situation is bad and it seems wise to turn back from there, you should,’’ Mahendra said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Dr Mahendra Mahajan.)           

THE WORLD’S HIGHEST MIRROR

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

According to media reports, as of May 28, eleven people had died in the 2019 climbing season on Everest. It is time to rethink Everest in the head. For one’s own head – that’s where it all begins.

Long before the ultra-fast fuel refills of today, gas stations were a much slower affair.

Where digits flash by at present, technology then was a lazy roll of printed numbers on the counter. Every liter which typically took several seconds to be reached was marked by the sound of a metallic chime. The chime wasn’t the only sound characterizing gas station. The pump was sometimes noisy; it’s whirring sound harking of cogs and wheels within. A few chimes later, you knew the quantity of fuel you had sought for daily commute was close to being met. If it was full tank you sought, the concert lasted longer. Everest in May 2019 reminded of that old fuel dispenser. As several hundred people converged to climb the peak amid inconsistent weather conditions, every other day a chime sounded marking somebody’s demise.

The deaths were mainly on the Nepal side, along the normal climbing route on Everest. Photos from the mountain showed a long queue of climbers waiting at high altitude to access the summit and get back. The situation has been compared to a traffic jam. On May 28, it was reported that officialdom saw the traffic jam as a product of other factors. To be blamed, according to them, was adverse weather, insufficient oxygen supplies and equipment. The number of climbing permits issued, they said, was only slightly more than in the previous years. The photos made an impression stronger than the officials. They aren’t the first such pictures. There have been similar ones before. You know something is deeply wrong in those images.

Left to market forces and state revenue from permits doled out, I doubt if anything will change. They may choose to refine the scenario by hiking permit fee to limit traffic or for the heck of seeming just, along with hiked fee include a portion decided by lottery. Either way, unless an element of common sense (essentially questions like: what are you on Everest’s slopes for; is the summit worth dying for, that too, death for all the wrong reasons?) and plain and simple aesthetics (questions like: what is an enjoyable climb?) prevail, meaningful correction is unlikely. What is happening on Everest has nothing to do with mountaineering. It has everything to do with the industry mountaineering spawned and is therefore, a mirror to what became of our lives.

Among discerning mountaineers, Everest by normal route is no longer a prized ascent. If you climb it by other routes, the fraternity takes note. It would therefore appear, an ascent of Everest by normal route is not meant for accolades from this fraternity. For the trained and untrained, Everest by normal route is to either satisfy one’s personal urge or harvest applause from the larger, less discerning arena. One of the causes highlighted for the deaths of 2019, was that of inexperienced climbers attempting Everest. There are those who say only trained mountaineers must be on such peaks. It has also been reported that Nepal, which has so far not sought proof of climbing experience from those arriving to attempt Everest, may now alter the rules. The emphasis on training is partly correct as required approach but it is not entirely convincing as panacea for Everest’s problems.

As is evident from the published news reports of May 2019, there are trained people too in the Everest queue, both as clients and guides. One thing I keep asking myself all the time is – which trained mountaineer in the best sense of the term would support, leave alone endure a mile long queue in the Death Zone to reach a summit? Everything about that predicament points to delay and extended stay in environment hostile to human physiology. Not to mention, even at low altitude, such spectacle filled with people challenges the very aesthetic behind courting wilderness. The saddest part of above said queue and its consequences at elevation like exhaustion, frostbite and high altitude illness is that you endanger yourself and others. Inefficient progress by one person has cascading impact down the order. It is difficult to imagine that these dangers escape the attention of the trained lot, who too are there on the peak. Why then, does the traffic jam repeat? Where is the voice of the trained lot in this regard? The media reports of May 28 said that authorities have presented double rope in the area below the summit for improved management of the flow of climbers, as solution. Like many contemporary solutions, it is a specific, technical quick-fix that spares the market larger questions.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Hence the submission, Everest is a mirror to what became of us. It reflects a host of human compulsions – from the pure mountain lover wishing to be on the world’s highest peak, to the naturally curious, to the deliberately ambitious, to those that availed loans to fund climbs and can’t turn back for fear of losing face, to those racing against their biological clock for a piece of immortality to remember life by, to those ticking off goals from a bucket list, to those seeking glory by all 8000m peaks climbed, to those chasing Seven Summits, to those seeking multiple Everest ascents, to those seeking promotion in employment through Everest summit gained, to those fearing disappearance if their CV in life does not have Everest stamped on it, to those whose livelihoods are dependent on everyone seeking Everest turning up on the mountain, to an entire industry surviving on Everest’s magnetic attraction; the list of compulsions converging on the peak every climbing season, is long.

In times by money, media and marketing each of these urges attracts exploitation. Catalyzing the process is the pressure population exerts on human activity. For sure the number of people on Everest can be capped. That is doable. What can’t be capped is the number of people dreaming Everest, which on planet hosting exploded human numbers and rat race alongside, is high. If it wasn’t for this rat race and pursuit of distinction by any means, would climbing Everest as client via normal route, be construed as extraordinary? Distinction has become highly prized and standing on a high point is among the oldest distinctions in humanity’s guide book for life.

Perhaps, journeys must become more important than goals. If you did a life time of climbing at lower altitude does that make you less than a couple of million rupees spent and foot placed on Everest’s head? The repeated tragedies on Everest are reminders in that direction. It is built into the paradigm that the quest to access a tiny piece of inhospitable real estate at 29,029 feet should reveal what is wrong with us. Wrong in this case of crowding, has come with a price: several dead.

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

50 MILES: JIM WALMSLEY SETS A NEW MARK

Jim Walmsley (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Hoka One One and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

In a race in northern California on May 4 2019, the longstanding world record for running 50 miles was improved albeit unofficially.

The new timing – 4:50:08 – credited to Jim Walmsley of USA compares to the 4:50:21 set by South Africa’s Bruce Fordyce at the London to Brighton ultramarathon in 1983. The improved timing was reported from the Hoka One One Project Carbon X 100km race, organized by running shoe manufacturer Hoka. The attempt entailed challenging the existing records over 100km and 50 miles; the latter tackled in the course of running 100km. According to a report ahead of race on letsrun.com, eight athletes were scheduled to participate: Jim Walmsley; Hideaki Yamauchi, Patrick Reagan, Tyler Andrews, Sabrina Little, Mike Wardian, Yoshiki Takada and Aiko Kanematsu. Walmsley is one of the most accomplished ultra-runners today with seven course records at ultramarathons worldwide to his name, Yamauchi is two-time defending world champion in 100km and Little is the former American record holder for the 24 hour-run. The world record over 100km (6:09:14) is held by Japan’s Nao Kazami.

In its pre-race report, letsrun.com said that Fordyce sent the runners texts of encouragement. The South African great is best known for winning the Comrades Marathon nine times, eight of that in a row.

Hideaki Yamauchi (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Hoka One One and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

Race day in California was quite warm. The course started in Folsom and went down to Sacramento where the runners then ran five loops. While Walmsley shaved off several seconds from Fordyce’s 36 year-old 50 mile-record, Yamauchi covered the 100km distance in 6:19:54, tad outside his personal best (PB) from 2016. Patrick Raegan was second across the whole 100km distance and Yoshiki Takada third; Walmsley having crossed the 50 mile-mark ahead of the rest, finished fourth overall. The video of the race, available on Hoka’s website, qualified the final timings as ` unofficial.’

Readers may notice the similarity this event has with Nike’s Breaking 2, the 2016-2017 project that sought to break the two hour-barrier in the marathon. It was held at a Formula One race track in Italy and featured three elite athletes and pacers to keep them on track for targeted timing. Although Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge won the race with a timing of 2:00:25, a significant improvement on the then prevailing world record, it did not count as a new world record under the standards of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). The current official world record held by Kipchoge is a slower 2:01:39 set at the Berlin Marathon of September 2018.

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