A CIRCLE AROUND BHIMASHANKAR

Reaching the small pass on the road from Pargaon to Junnar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A bicycle trip we had planned a couple of years ago, eventually got underway in March, 2022. Hoping against logic, we imagined temperate weather; the lingering grace of winter’s extended exit. Nature had other plans.

Heat waves are not often heard of in Mumbai.

There is always the relief gained through location on the sea coast. But then, these are times of unusual weather. On March 16, 2022, newspapers reported that the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) had issued a heat wave warning for Mumbai.

In its report, the Times of India explained, “ heat wave warnings are issued when the temperature of any coastal station reaches 37 degrees and the departure from normal is between 4.5 to 6.4 degrees. When both these conditions are met for a costal station like the city and when it persists for two days at more than one station, then a heat wave is declared for that region. If departures exceed 6.5 degrees, then severe heat wave conditions are issued by the weather bureau.’’ The report then quoted the IMD: Due to the advection of warm and dry winds from North West India, heat wave to severe heat wave conditions are very likely over parts of Konkan-Goa, including Mumbai, over the next three days. Due to the prevailing clear skies and low humidity values, the temperatures are expected to rise and similar conditions are likely to prevail for next two to three days over the region.

Savouring a patch of shade (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

“ Aha,’’ I thought with the satisfaction of having found the answer. My mind was dwelling on the afternoon of March 5. Early that morning, Prashant Venugopal and I had set out on a small, multi-day cycling trip from Navi Mumbai. We knew the timing was bad; ideally it should have been in December, January or February when the weather is relatively pleasant. But for much of January-February 2022, I wasn’t in Mumbai and given his work, Prashant has to schedule the required number of days, which takes time. Eventually, the trip was slotted to commence on March 5. The idea was older still. It took shape in 2019, not long after the two of us cycled from Mumbai to Goa (for more on that trip, please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/12/29/on-a-bicycle-mumbai-goa/). By now periodically studying the map for interesting routes, we had noticed this giant circle possible around the Bhimashankar massif. With Malshej Ghat added, one could do it like a circle linking the coastal plains with the higher Deccan Plateau. Then a few things happened.

First, in the first quarter of 2020, India slipped into COVID-19 and lockdown. The following year too was spent in and out of COVID. Our trip went into hibernation. Second, we heard that portions of the route had become part of a BRM. Brevets are a different world. As the casual touring sort, we would never cycle as fast or as consistently as those participating in brevets do. But news of the BRM reminded us to try the route, in our own way. Third, over 2020-2021, Prashant’s niece came to study at a university near Bhimashankar. We thought of our fifty plus-selves dropping by one day on cycles to say hello but the very same musings provoked the question: why don’t we do the full route? We took it up seriously in February 2022, dates were decided towards the end of the month and after a quick check of the chain, drive train and disc brakes of my bicycle by Inderjeet of Evolution Cycles, we left home at around 5.30 AM on March 5. We had this hope that although it was unmistakably summer, the weather would be tolerable.

On the Mhasa-Vaishakhare road; late afternoon, day 1, Gorakhgad and Machindra to the far left

Our goal was to proceed from Nerul to Panvel and onward to Chowk, Karjat, Mhasa, Vaishakhare, Malshej Ghat, Junnar, Narayangaon, Chakan, Lonavala, Khopoli and eventually back to Nerul via Panvel. We made no arrangements for stay in advance and given the Mhasa-Vaishakhare stretch could see us bivouacking, we provided for some extra layers in the panniers besides regular stuff like snacks, first aid kit and bike repair / maintenance equipment. We thought of taking a tarp or a tent ground sheet along but finally dispensed with that; neither of us wanted to work overtime on fashioning a perfect ride. Take it as it comes.

Gorakhgad (background, centre) and Machindra pinnacle (to the left), as seen from the ashram in Dehri (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

By noon of the first day, on the Karjat-Murbad road, it was amply clear that we had underestimated the heat. Among the great achievements of civilization has been diminishing tree cover and this road seemed an excellent example of that. The land to the side of the road and the smaller roads meandering off inland had sprinklings of shade. But the main road itself was starved of tree cover good enough for you to stand under and feel cooled. Those big trees of yore – they are deeply missed. The result was a slow and steady progression of cyclist into dehydration. It wasn’t so much the lack of water, which we had in sufficient quantity. In my case, it was the loss of water and salts and the glare all around caused by exposed road and limited shade. To make matters worse, I love tea and soft drinks. Both, recommended as unsuited (perhaps the right description is: deceptively satisfying) for hot days, I downed in handsome quantities. It was a bad choice. I felt full and hollow at once and lacking energy. After a particularly bare stretch of blazing hot road, roughly an hour before Mhasa, I unhesitatingly rode into the fragile, thatched shelter of a tiny shop selling lemonade. It was sweet relief and there I remained for quite some time, waiting for Prashant and recalling a similar moment of God sent-relief on a hike to Prabalgad several years ago.

Our mountaineering club having acquired new tents, Abhijit Burman (Bong), Franco Linhares and I had decided to camp overnight on the hill’s apex, so that we could test the gear and also take in the unhindered sight of city lights in the distance. All that was good, except somewhere in the walk-in with tent, stove, fuel and provisions to cook food, Bong remembered that he had forgotten to take a matchbox. None of us smoked and that meant, there were no matches on Franco and I, as well. Suddenly we realized the value of a matchbox; the small thing separated us from a nice dinner and sleeping on an empty stomach. And we liked to eat. The evening was quickly fading to night, when we hurriedly retraced our steps to the nearby village. We worried that we may have to knock on people’s doors, be a nuisance. And what if they didn’t have matchboxes to spare? Luckily, ahead of the village, a lone old man appeared smoking a beedi. “ Maamaaa…,’’ Bong shouted in relief and happiness. He brought himself to a halt before the old man, bowed low and offered a heartfelt namaste. Never before in the history of the matchbox was a non-smoker so happy to see a person with smoke escaping his lips. The old man looked on amused. Bong narrated the blunder we had committed. The old man listened. He saved us, he let us have his matchbox. At the small roadside shack, I had three lemonades one after the other. Prashant had his share. Never before in the history of lemonade were two cyclists this happy to see a lemonade vendor. Thirst quenched and salts restored, we thanked the vendor and picked our way to Mhasa.

Sunrise on the Mhasa-Vaishakhare road (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

At Mhasa’s Guruprasad restaurant, we evaluated our options. Enquiries along the way had shown that rest houses were limited on the Mhasa-Vaishakhare road. “ Go to Murbad’’ – that was everyone’s suggestion. On the other hand, we had thought of days one and two of the trip as its main attraction and within that, the Mhasa-Vaishakhare road was important. Cycling to Murbad and then returning to Mhasa next morning to be on that road, didn’t appeal. The waiter who served us lunch at the hotel indicated that his manager may know more and so Prashant took up the task of speaking to the manager to find out about places of stay. He recommended an ashram in Dehri village and connected us to the caretaker there. It was a restricted property and securing permission for stay was difficult. But eventually, Prashant got a yes. The journey from Mhasa to Dehri was more or less a repeat of the conditions experienced on the Karjat-Murbad road. It was hot, dry and not generous in shade. By evening we were in Dehri and the ashram, located right at the base of Gorakhgad; Machindra pinnacle to the side. Under the greener circumstances of monsoon or winter this would be a pretty place. Unfortunately, we were visitors in March. In summer, vegetation in the Sahyadri dries up and the hills acquire a dusty, light brown shade interspersed with the black of ancient volcanic rock.

Gorakhgad holds a special place in my life. It was one of the first Sahyadri forts I hiked to, back in 1997-1998. After my first hike in Sikkim, I had looked out for company to go hiking around Mumbai and my first friend in this regard was a young, very tall Sikh gentleman. We made an odd pair; as tall as Satinder was, I was short. Gorakhgad was the second or third fort I visited with him. Those days, Dehri had been just a bus stop with a couple of shops. Having arrived in the late evening bus from Kalyan (or was it Murbad?), we slept in the veranda of one of the shops and hiked up Gorakhgad early next morning. However, it was in the years that followed, spent hiking and climbing with Girivihar (Mumbai’s oldest mountaineering club) that I realized the full scale and wealth of the Mhasa-Vaishakhare road. From Gorakhgad to Jeevdhan, Naneghat and Bhairavgad a massive wall of hills signified the abrupt drop of the Deccan plateau to the coastal plains. The last time I was here was to hike up Dhakoba and onward to Durga Killa (you can read about it here: https://shyamgopan.com/2013/08/05/the-short-cut/). Simply put, Mhasa-Vaishakhare is a special road; one of the less celebrated gems although of late (especially following the early waves of COVID-19), there have been reports of many visitors going in, naturally triggering concerns alongside. Our stay at the ashram was comfortable. The caretaker’s family made us a tasty dinner. Our gratitude to them. As we took leave of the family to return to our room, a car load of trekkers who had taken a wrong turn, arrived on the premises asking if the path to Gorakhgad ran through the property.

From the road to Malshej Ghat (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Early next morning, we pushed off for Vaishakhare and Malshej Ghat. The road was very good and distances marked directly on the tarmac indicated that it may have played host to road races. We cruised along, first in darkness and then, savoring a fantastic sunrise. A few kilometers before Vaishakhare, a man we met suggested that we take a short cut. We did so and ended up off-roading for a while. The path connected us to the road leading to Malshej Ghat. At the hotel we stopped for morning tea, a bus passenger traveling from Ahmednagar to Kalyan and halted there for breakfast, took much interest in our cycles and the small trip we were doing. He gave us an overview of the road to Junnar beyond Malshej. Tea had, we pushed off. Our next stop was another hour or more later – a cart and a van parked by the road to Malshej; the former offering tea and vada-paav, the latter functioning as a store selling packaged snacks. Both were managed by a local villager and his son. We had tea and vada-paav and enjoyable conversation with the father-son duo. Then, up the ghat road, we continued.

The small eatery called Hotel Malshej; Balu and his wife, who served us excellent food (Photo: courtesy Balu)

The mountain wall from day one now curved towards Malshej Ghat. The dyke-like Bhairavgad was an impressive sight to behold. Meanwhile we could see ranges coming into view on the opposite side of the road as well. Occasionally a motorcycle rider or the occupants of a passing car would give us a thumbs up for encouragement as we sweated it up Malshej Ghat (on the Internet, the average elevation of Malshej Ghat is given as 700 metres, around 2300 feet). We took periodic breaks, particularly at view-points with parking space created by the side of the road. Having learnt the importance of self-care from the previous day, we were also quite liberal with halts for hydration, especially lemonade. Around noon, we reached the entry to the final stretch; there was a lemonade stall, a fort-like structure and a patch of road with a fleet of cranes and many workers engaged in (what seemed like) strengthening the rock wall of the hill through which the road had been cut. Besides that, the workers removed lose rocks. We paused here for lemonade and some down time spent watching people and traffic. Early afternoon, we reached the side road leading to the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation’s (MTDC) resort at Malshej Ghat. But given Dehri had made us fans of the local cooking, instead of heading to the resort straight away, we dove into Hotel Malshej, a dhaba (small eatery) right at that corner. It was operated by Balu and his wife. They didn’t let us down. It was another encounter with tasty food; fresh, simple and beautifully made. We told Balu that we will be back for dinner.

Post lunch, we proceeded to the MTDC resort but ended up quite disappointed with their tariff, which despite it being off season, was high. The tariff showed no sign of being flexible. And they didn’t appear to require questioning the inflexibility because there were people driving in on their cars and SUVs, willing to spend that much for a room. What are two cyclists then? – I guess. We asked ourselves if the basic paradigm of a bicycle trip is to spend high for creature comforts or focus resources on the cycling. The answer was definitely the latter. So, we consulted Balu and he fixed us up at Hotel Nisarg a little distance away. It was a rather bleak lodge but liveable and with an evening stroll to a nearby meadow possible and dinner set up at Balu’s eatery, the hours went by quickly. Interestingly, the lodge’s biggest customer appeared to be the firm doing the work on the rock wall at Malshej Ghat. The officers of the company stayed there. There was a small temple near the lodge. Harishchandragad could be seen in the distance. There was however one emergent problem – the flow of traffic on the road was now steady and the number of vehicles, more. On top of it, the road here was in a bad state. It didn’t augur well for next day’s start.

On the road to Junnar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Hikers, climbers, runners, cyclists – they typically like an early morning start. The reason is simple. Unlike people traveling in the climate controlled comfort of automobiles, these activities involve physical strain. You therefore try to get at least some portion of the day’s work done before the heat sets in. It had been the same with us. We always aimed to commence cycling by 6 AM or earlier. Usually, it is a nice experience. That terrible irritant of Indian roads – traffic, is less and in places away from cities, you have a world at peace for bonus. Early next morning however, the cycling was a challenge. The road was gravely, the tarmac dipped sharply at the road’s edges and there were potholes. But the real nuisance was the traffic and the ocean of lights one saw in front. Probably because this is a hill section, trucks, cars, pick-ups, SUVs and vans plying on the road tend to have multiple lights. Their logic would be – the more the number of lights, the more the visibility. Oncoming vehicles therefore hark of a film shooting scene. There’s so much light; all one needs is a movie star dancing on the road. What they forget is, lighting technology has changed over the years. The average car or SUV of today has headlights significantly more powerful than what they used to be years ago. Adding more lights is overkill. For cyclist on the road, oncoming traffic awash in a battery of such lights is blinding. For an hour at least, I struggled to see properly. Dawn’s sunshine brought relief. Slowly the road condition too improved. We soon got past Pargaon and on to the hill road leading to Junnar. This road was a bit steep in parts but it was in excellent condition. There was very little traffic at that hour and hence, the road was quite enjoyable. It was peaceful.

We saw a well-dressed young woman, seemingly on her way to college, walking barefoot with her slippers in her hand. It was an odd sight. Prashant asked why she was walking so. She replied that her slippers were fancy ones unsuited for walking on the hill road. Maybe closer to her destination, she would slip them back on. The road climbed up to a lovely, small pass with a temple by its side. We parked our bicycles at the pass to hydrate and take in the view. It was an impressive landscape; a chain of hills and the lake created by the Pimpalgaon Joga Dam. As we stood there, we saw a cyclist on a light road bike, come up from the Junnar side. It was Santosh, jeweller and cyclist from Othur, out on his regular training ride. It was a study in contrast – he on an utterly light road bike free of load and us (an MTB and a hybrid) sporting panniers and hauling load. We exchanged notes and a brief conversation later, Santosh rode off elegantly as road bikers typically do; he essayed a smooth turn at the corner and disappeared down the road in the direction of Pargaon. We crossed the pass towards Junnar and were treated to a long, smooth descent. It was fun; that stint going downhill felt like a magic carpet-ride.  

Looking towards Malshej from the small pass on the road connecting Pargaon and Junnar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

After breakfast at Junnar, we attended to a major problem, on since day two of the ride. My shoes, veteran of several rides, were enduring a divorce; the upper had come off the soles completely. The first one separated so before the trip and I had it repaired in Navi Mumbai. The second one followed suit at Malshej. We located a cobbler just outside the Junnar bus depot. He stitched the whole thing up. Bless you sir. We set off for Narayangaon. In retrospect, all the attractions of this trip ended at Junnar. From Junnar onward, the route we had chosen was on a crowded main road or highway and therefore very reminiscent of India’s daily rat race-existence. We could sense in the environment, the distant presence of Pune, Maharashtra’s second biggest city and among India’s major industrial hubs. As traffic from all over merges and proceeds to such hubs, the local flavour recedes and an industrial blandness takes over. The return to urban life was viscerally felt in the lunch of day three – the thali we ordered at a dhaba along the highway had nothing authentic or regional. It tasted of everywhere. Several hours of cycling on characterless roads later, we reached Chakan.

Meeting Santosh; the small pass in the backdrop (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

By now the return to civilization was full blown. Its most visible ambassador was traffic moving nonchalantly towards you on the wrong side of the road. It seemed an institutionalized, normal practice. And it was dangerous, making for deadly roads. We turned into the road leading to Talegaon from Chakan and some ways off, decided to halt at the fairly upmarket Matrix Inn. While we discussed the tariff, we told the manager of the hotel that we were cyclists out on a multi-day trip and spending high wasn’t exactly what we wished for. He heard us out and offered a good deal; he also let us take our cycles to the floor we stayed on. It was an excellent stay. Next morning, the hotel even prepared an earlier than usual complimentary breakfast for us. There was sandwich, boiled egg, fruit and tea. Our thanks to the manager and his staff.

The early morning ride through Chakan was a gaze into the dim underbelly of GDP. The factories here contribute to the GDP that is bandied about as data for discussion in the financial circles of Mumbai and the government circles of Delhi. However, there is something bleak about how GDP is made; about Chakan’s early morning heavy traffic, the sight of buses transporting workers to various factories, people waiting at bus stops, the queues before factory gates and people walking along the road, mile upon mile, proceeding on foot to their places of work. And the sun isn’t up, yet. There was an Orwellian tinge to the picture; a sense of self succumbed to industrial order and redemption through money. It isn’t an uplifting sight and you cannot blame anyone for the lack of buoyancy in the frame. It is just us, our numbers and our predicament of life traded for means of survival. Spoken of as data and statistics and minus the human angle, GDP is sexy.

Day 3, lunchtime; our cycles at a dhaba between Narayangaon and Chakan (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

We wound our way to Talegaon, tucked into the traffic flow headed to Mumbai on the old Mumbai-Pune highway, watched paragliding over a cup of tea at Kamshet, breezed through Lonavala, descended to the coastal plains via Bhor Ghat and sat down for a ritual snack at Khopoli. The whole passage was as industrial as the morning mood of Chakan. A few hours later, Mumbai hit us in full force at Panvel. By afternoon on the fourth day (March 8), we were back in Nerul. In terms of daily mileage (approximate and measured on Google), Prashant estimates it was 95 kilometres covered on day one, 55 on day two, 90 on day three and close to 130 on day four. The cycles – a Trek 4500D MTB and a GT Traffic hybrid – held up well. The only instance of gear malfunctioning was a headlight (one of two used on the given cycle) that failed on day two. We tried repairing it in our lodge room at Malshej but to no success.         

The IMD’s warning, the Mumbai municipal corporation’s (BMC) advisory on heat wave and the related news reports not only put those hours on the Karjat-Murbad road and the Mhasa-Vaishakhare road in perspective, it also helped explain another aspect of the heat, which we had felt. Although the cycling beyond Malshej had been less enjoyable due to traffic and regular highways, the heat hadn’t been as punishing as it was in the phase before Malshej Ghat and the phase following Bhor Ghat on the return. That was unusual for summer – a comparatively tolerable Deccan and an unsettlingly warm coastal plain.

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

FOR A GOOD RESCUE INFRASTRUCTURE, FIRST TREAT ADVENTURE AS NORMAL

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The recent incident of a trekker stuck on a high rock face near Malampuzha and eventually rescued by army personnel, should be cause for reflection in Kerala.

Footage broadcast on TV showed a rescuer descending from the top of the rock face, collecting the 23-year-old who endured nearly two days without food and water (there was a small cavity he could sit in), and the duo then being slowly hoisted up. It seemed a fairly straight forward operation. By the evening of the rescue, there were TV debates asking why the local police lacked the required skills. Unfortunately, that’s the wrong end to start enquiring. What one must find is the source of the required skillsets and ask why climbing, the sport hosting many of those skills, never gained traction in Kerala. 

In India, civilian presence in adventure sports like climbing was traditionally inhibited by the fact that they are expensive. When it came to the ability to afford gear and access prized terrain like the Himalaya (which unfortunately constitutes a sensitive border), the armed forces always scored. In the list of Indian mountaineering expeditions, one will therefore find a sizable military presence. In Indian media, rescuers are often described as trained in mountaineering.

Rock climbing in India, evolved differently from mountaineering. Here one half of the traditional impediments to adventure – accessibility – is less. Engaging rock faces are available in the ranges south of the Himalaya along with access less constrained by weather and security issues. Consequently, domination by military is absent. In their earlier years, India’s climbing clubs attempted some of these faces and features with what gear they possessed. Later club members pooled their resources and bought better climbing equipment. Nowadays, thanks to the growth in number of rock climbers and rise in disposable income, there are individuals owning a full set (a rack) of climbing gear.

From the perspective of rescue, civilian-rock climbing matters because notwithstanding difference in terrain tackled and variations to equipment thereby, many of the basic systems of mountaineering and rock climbing are similar. Besides south of the Himalaya, you are not dealing with snow and ice. In peninsular India, Maharashtra and Karnataka have produced good rock climbers. Maharashtra has a number of hiking and climbing clubs; some of their members climb rock regularly in the Sahyadri and have also done courses in mountaineering. Rescue related to the outdoors in Maharashtra, rarely sees the army called in; it is done by a combination of the clubs and local authorities. According to Umesh Zirpe, among the most respected expedition leaders from Maharashtra (he has led successful civilian expeditions to several 8000m peaks in the Himalaya), in the above-mentioned combination, as much as 90 per cent would be civilian volunteers familiar with hiking and climbing, working for free. The club Zirpe belongs to – Giripremi – was instrumental in starting South India’s only mountaineering institute in Pune. In 2016, the club and the institute launched the Maharashtra Mountain Rescue Coordination Centre (MMRCC). Today, the state has a 24×7 mountain rescue helpline that gets volunteers to respond in the event of a mishap, he said.

Arguably, the most crucial aspect in this ecosystem are the clubs and the treatment of climbing as sport; not as spectacle or something extraordinary. Done so and treated in a relaxed, unpressured fashion, learning happens. If one wants to be a good rescuer one has to be competent at the technical systems involved. This is not a macho accomplishment. It is basically comprehension of a given situation, knowledge of climbing gear and its maintenance and an understanding of system architecture. One gets good at this in direct proportion to how often one is practising the sport and which sub-category of climbing, one is interested in.

Bouldering for example, is minimalist; it dispenses with equipment (except for crash pad, chalk bag and rock climbing shoes) but teaches a lot about physicality and the grammar of movement. Sport climbing teaches more about systems but given climbing routes are prepared in advance, there is no need to delineate afresh a route on rock or set up anchors oneself. Traditional (trad) climbing – particularly multi-pitch – brings climber closer to the range of contexts and skillsets required for rescue. “ In multi-pitch trad climbing, one navigates on rock in a fashion that isn’t simply a continuous vertical progression. One may climb up, then correct by climbing down. Unlike sport climbing, there is more looking around. Plus, we get situations that require applying one’s sense of judgement,’’ Dinesh Kaigonahalli, among Bengaluru’s best-known senior climbers, said. While knowledge of multi pitch climbing provides the foundation, to be a rescuer there are specialized techniques to master additionally. Club culture and regular climbing expose us to the basics and the world of learning beyond.

This skills-led, civilian-based approach is also in tune with models reported overseas. For example, one of the world’s greatest big wall-climbing destinations is Yosemite in the US. It is home to massive rock faces cherished by many as an objective to climb. Occasionally, climbers get stuck or accidents happen. Rescue is done by Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR). As a direct offshoot of adventure activity being treated as sport, rescue machinery in several countries is managed by motivated civilians familiar with the sport and locality, and trained in rescue systems. This is unfortunately yet to happen in India at large, although as mentioned earlier, in states like Maharashtra, there is an emergent self-reliance in rescue.

In Kerala, trekking and climbing remained small. Given the eco-sensitivity of the Western Ghats and presence of wild animals, the state’s wilderness is officially protected (as it should be). Extended monsoon adds to the complexity; rock climbing needs dry rock.  The state could have overcome this by opening up access to rock in less eco-sensitive areas and complementing the limited outdoor window with good indoor climbing infrastructure. That hasn’t happened as needed. Further, marketable soft adventure as is the case in tourism, is quickly understood in the state. When it comes to full blown trekking or rock climbing (or adventure in water and air), there is the tendency to initiate youngsters into the sport via agencies like the National Cadet Corps (NCC), which endorses the widespread notion that adventure is the domain of the armed forces. The paradigm was visible in TV programs around the rescue in Malampuzha as well; discussions featured police officers and ex-military personnel. This is despite the state of affairs overseas and the evidence of Keralites working in other states in India, who learnt to enjoy hiking and climbing as a responsible, civilian sport.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Wider knowledge of the proper techniques and etiquettes of trekking and climbing is the best way to avoid mishaps in the outdoors. Shorn of spectacle and treated as a sport (as done by responsible clubs), such awareness is disseminated easier. One gets to be in an ecosystem that is not only seriously pursuing the activity but is also sharing information on associated courses and workshops. Good club culture matters. If clubs end up serving vanity, alpha characters and internal politics (all, classic Indian problems), then they lose professionalism. Interestingly, one of the comments this author heard from a foreigner who spent time fostering outdoor culture in India, was how young Indians approached the outdoors like a caged beast set free. A direct product of conservative family and pressures at work, the behaviour breeds its own scope for accidents, he said.

Viewed through the prism of adventure, Kerala’s limitations are on show. Simple rescues have vaulted to the realm of madness by media and involvement of the armed forces. The solution is to treat adventure as an instinct within sport, base it in the civilian realm to which it naturally belongs and let a responsible club culture take roots. This will put in place a wider base of climbers, those competent in related first aid (there are first aid courses designed for people into outdoor sports and wilderness), and above all, a regimen of regular engagement with the sport for ultimately you are only as good as the last time you practised those skills. Ensuring that people stay in touch with their skills is a priority for Zirpe too, given the sizable share of volunteers in Maharashtra’s pool of talent for mountain rescue. “ We plan to conduct refresher courses,’’ he said.

The model of clubs should not be difficult for Kerala to emulate. Recreational running and cycling have become quite popular in the state and good clubs exist in those spaces. They invest in best practices, skills, dissemination of knowledge and provide support. That’s the way to go. But let’s be clear – notwithstanding the best we do, mishaps may still happen. A promising society learns from every incident without stifling the appetite to explore.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This is the longer version of an article by the author, published in The Telegraph : https://epaper.telegraphindia.com/imageview/386978/161648919/71.html )           

NOLS: GETTING BACK IN PHASES

N. Ravi Kumar, Director, NOLS India

NOLS is among the world’s biggest outdoor schools. Its headquarters are in the US; it has its India operations in Ranikhet, Uttarakhand. For years, practices evolved at NOLS have served as a benchmark for the outdoor industry especially the segment therein focused on outdoor education.

When the world slipped into the grip of COVID-19 in early 2020 (the disease was first reported in late 2019) and normal human life got disrupted, NOLS too was impacted. But characteristic of it, the school worked on new, safe means to conduct its courses and by early 2021 was back to operating many of its outdoor programs in the US.

N. Ravi Kumar, Director, NOLS India is currently in the US, working outdoor programs and first aid courses there. He spared time to answer a few questions on NOLS, NOLS India and outdoor programs in the midst of a pandemic. The exchange was via email.

Broadly speaking, how has the pandemic affected the operations of NOLS globally?

The impact has been significant. In spring 2020, NOLS was forced to shut down the following locations abruptly: India, Tanzania, Patagonia, Scandinavia, Mexico and all its locations in the US.

The school had to let go of a large portion of employees and retain only essential workforce to help with restart when things are under control.

When did operations resume and in which all geographies?

Spring 2020 everything was shut. In the fall of 2020, we did a few courses with COVID protocols in place and by spring 2021 we had most of our operations in the US going with limited course offerings. The response was very good. All courses were full in no time and we have had the least number of evacuations in the school’s history as everyone wanted to be out in the woods after a year of staying indoors.

This summer we had enrolment beyond what we could accommodate and had to cut back significantly due to staff shortage.

NOLS uses the expedition model to teach its courses. How has the structure of NOLS expeditions changed to handle the precautions and protocols required in these times of COVID-19? In one of our conversations, you briefly touched upon a multi-phased model that is being used. Can you give us an overview of this model?

Coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and variants are an evolving hazard. The risk of contracting the illness, COVID-19, on NOLS field courses cannot be eliminated. But we have identified mitigation strategies based on guidance by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to reduce that risk, which can be used in concert with testing and vaccines. With those strategies in place, we believe the risk can be managed appropriately.

The cornerstones on which, we have based our approach include informed consent, reducing the risk of virus transmission, hygiene with emphasis on hand washing or sanitizing to prevent flu-like illness and monitoring for symptoms of COVID-19.

NOLS has put in place COVID-19 risk management strategies for each of the outdoor activities it is associated with spanning land and water.

Our field practices are divided into phases depending on the documented vaccination status of course members. A course starting in Phase 1 will follow the recommended practices of that phase for the first ten days of the course. After ten days, if there are no significant breaches and if no one becomes symptomatic, we can reasonably assume that the risk of COVID-19 transmission within the group is reduced and the group can move to Phase 2. A course that is fully vaccinated can start the course in Phase 2, which is normal course operating routines with continued attention to hygiene. This is the broad paradigm.

Besides detailed protocols on hygiene, daily health checks, physical distancing, masking and cooking, the first phase features a few other key elements. For instance, in Phase 1, the tents used are of the sort that are roomier and capable of better ventilation. Models like the Mega Mid are finding increased use in the quest to have less confined, better ventilated shelters. Tarps, flies – they are staging a comeback. To provide adequate physical distancing, the number of persons per tent is kept low in Phase 1. Groups are also encouraged to use their shelters such that there is spare shelter capacity within the group, for flexibility. The Phase 1 model has the quality of a protective cocoon. If during this phase or at a later stage, somebody does show symptoms, then in addition to isolating that individual and preparing for further steps thereof, the Phase 1 model may be continued or returned to for the rest of the group.

The above is an overview. It is only meant to provide a broad idea of how things have changed.

WMI first aid courses are now an integral part of NOLS. How has the onset and spread of COVID-19 affected the WMI curriculum? Has measures around the avoidance, detection and field management of COVID-19 / infectious diseases become a part of contemporary WMI curriculum?

All WMI courses start with an hour-long class on infection control, right after introductions. The class covers a wide range of infections and devotes ten minutes to Covid related infections and how to mitigate the spread. This addition has forced the removal of the lightning class in WFA courses, and altitude illness. Now we direct students to watch videos on the topics as homework.

The WMI courses are full and busy. They even started running courses partly online and partly with classroom presence. We are still adapting to norms and restrictions in large classrooms and how we run practical patient care with minimum exposure to each other.

How did COVID-19 affect NOLS India? What is the short to medium term plan for India operations? Do you anticipate any changes to how you run courses here as a consequence of the pandemic?

NOLS has decided to close a few international locations for good. India is not one of them. I hope it continues so. Most of the students on our programs run in India, are from the US. Although the US itself has struggled to deal with the pandemic (even today the number of people succumbing to the disease is high) the combination of what happened in India and how it got portrayed, has been such that a proper perspective of the reality in India is absent in the US.

Hence the school has decided to take a conservative wait and watch approach as regards restarting India operations. It is imperative that when in India, our students should get proper medical care if required. We cannot restart when the health care system is overwhelmed or there are indications, it may be.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The WMI first aid courses offered by NOLS are WFA, WAFA and WFR of which WFA is the shortest.)

AS PREMIUM BICYCLE SALES GAIN, SCOTT LAUNCHES NEW MODELS IN INDIA

SCOTT Spark RC 900 (Photo: courtesy SCOTT India)

SCOTT Sports India has launched the SCOTT Spark series of mountain bikes in India.

According to an official press release made available on September 16, 2020, the launch includes the SCOTT Spark RC 900 Team, one of the most decorated full-suspension bikes, ridden by the likes of Nino Schurter, a winner at the Olympics, and Kate Courtney, a World Cup champion. “ The bike is a super light, super-aggressive steed that pedals with incredible efficiency and is priced at INR 369,900,’’ the statement said.

The launch follows an increase in demand for performance-oriented premium bikes in the price range of two to ten lakh rupees. When contacted, an official spokesperson informed that while the Spark RC 900 Team is currently available in India, the rest of the models in the range are available on request.

“ We’ve seen unprecedented demand in premium bicycles over the last few months. While fitness is the key driver, a lot of demand is specific to performance and high-quality components, and these bikes cost anywhere between 2 lakhs to 10 lakhs. At SCOTT, we always believe in bringing the best in innovation, technology, and design to someone equally passionate. And that’s why we are planning to introduce a higher number of performance-oriented bikes in India over the next few months,” Jaymin Shah, Country Manager, SCOTT Sports India, was quoted as saying in the press release.

“ We’ve seen an increase in demand for performance-oriented cycles, not only in the mountain bike category but also for road and gravel bike category. For instance, we received multiple orders for the SCOTT Addict RC series that are priced between 5 lakhs to 6 lakhs,” he added.

In the wake of COVID-19 pandemic there has been an increase in bicycle sales globally. Cycling is environment friendly personal transport; it is also an exercise contributing to good health.  Many cities overseas have actively encouraged citizens to cycle and walk instead of taking out motor vehicles.

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

COACHES SPEAK / ONLINE TRAINING PROVES BENEFICIAL, TAKE THINGS SLOWLY

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

With the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 lockdown easing, running outdoors has picked up. But the number of runners is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels. The absence of running events and the continued ambiance of uncertainty are prompting many to stay away from road running. Coaches feel it is only a matter of time before the reluctant lot too returns to running.

The decision of coaching outfits to offer training online incorporating various workouts that aid general fitness has helped runners immensely. Most of the trainees are in fairly good shape. As they return to the outdoors, they are able to ease well into running primarily because of the extended home workouts popularized by online sessions.

Once running events make their appearance, runners are expected to be back on the road pursuing their passion, coaches said.

Daniel Vaz (Photo: courtesy Daniel)

Right through the lockdown, Mumbai-based coach, Daniel Vaz, evolved fitness plans that incorporated a mix of strength and endurance workouts, which he shared regularly through social media platforms.

“ I included a jump-rope workout,” he said. The aim of the jump-rope workout was to bring the sessions closer to running as it activates the Achilles tendon and also engages the cardiovascular system. He had an online following for his workout plans that exceeded his own circle of trainees.

His curated workouts helped runners retain their fitness; it also improved their strength. When they resumed running after a gap, the struggle was manageable. Daniel said that he nevertheless asked runners to exercise caution in terms of mileage and pace. According to him, they should begin with only 60 percent of the ‘run-time’ that they were doing before the lockdown. “ I speak about time because it is not right to recommend mileage,” he said. Focussing on time-based running helps a slow build-up of mileage and pace, he said.

“ Runners who are in touch with me have been told that this is the best time to work on the Maffetone method of training and run at low, comfortable heart rate. In my group I advise them on how to go about this kind of training,” Daniel said. Some who resumed running and gave up, have reverted to home workouts. Some others have decided to stay indoors amidst the continuing risk of pandemic. A number of virtual runs have come up. Not all runners are opting for this option, Daniel said.

Dnyaneshwar Tidke (Photo: courtesy Dnyaneshwar)

Amid the lockdown induced absence of running, most of the runners training under Dnyaneshwar Tidke at Life Pacers, diligently followed a training plan created by him. The result is that the overall fitness has gone up although endurance levels have dipped through depleted running.

After the initial round of relaxation in nationwide lockdown, Navi Mumbai, where Life Pacers is based, went through a second dose of stringent lockdown forcing runners to retreat indoors for another fortnight. Once restrictions eased, Dnyaneshwar asked them to assess their fitness levels before resuming outdoor activity. “ The prudent approach would be to build up mileage very slowly. In the continued absence of any running events on the horizon, runners can take their time to ramp up training mileage,” Dnyaneshwar said. Improving endurance fitness primarily entails slow and easy running.

Some of his wards brought to his attention the tiredness they felt during initial running sessions. “ It takes a lot of effort to come back to running. Therefore, the progress should be slow,” he emphasized. In the absence of races, the current period should be utilized to build endurance and work on weak areas. “ For those who have access to hills or trails this is the time to run and explore routes,” he said.

Ashok Nath (Photo: courtesy Ashok)

Most runners training under Ashok Nath have resumed their running in a slow and sustained manner. What is unique in this phase is the dimension of gender sensitivity Ashok has brought in. He has decided to rework the training plan of his women trainees to align with their menstrual cycle.

Often, training programmes drawn up by coaches are not differentiated on the basis of gender. Women have traditionally followed a training program that applies to both men and women alike. During the menses period, which may last between three and seven days, the training should be light. This is followed by a follicular phase which lasts for 10 days. “ As oestrogen hormone is high during this period, hard training is possible,” Ashok said.

A woman’s body experiences changes through these phases – menses, follicular phase, ovulation, luteal phase and pre-menstrual syndrome. During the luteal phase, the progesterone hormone shoots up and it can be difficult to do workouts. Ashok has been redesigning his training for women athletes to bring it in sync with this cycle.

Overall, his athletes are in the process of building up the foundation for endurance incorporating long runs along with speed and tempo. Many of Ashok’s trainees have had access to running in some form or the other, through much of the lockdown. The lockdown period also helped runners to enhance their quota of strength training and core workout and improve flexibility.

He also devised training plans that helped runners to focus on issues otherwise shelved in preference of running such as functional strength and joint conditioning.

Samson Sequeira (Photo: courtesy Samson)

Some of Samson Sequeira’s trainees have returned to running. However several others have chosen to stay off the road because of the rising number of COVID-19 cases.

“ For most of the runners training under me, it is primarily fitness oriented running. I have started with mileage progression only for full marathon runners and those interested in the Comrades Marathon,” Samson said. Given the long absence of running that happened, upon resumption of training, some have been complaining of joint issues and muscular imbalance. “ Those who did indoor workouts diligently are in good shape. But some of those who resorted to running indoors have ended up with ITB and plantar issues,” he said.

According to him, cardio conditioning has to be built up slowly. As the lockdown norms ease, runners are slowly emerging from confined existence to road running. About 25-30 per cent of Samson’s trainees have returned to running. Others are likely to join when the running season picks up. “ Those choosing to run for fitness have come back. But those who look at running as racing will probably return only when running events start happening,’’ Samson said.

Praful Uchil (Photo: courtesy Praful)

Among marathon training outfits in Mumbai, Striders is one of the biggest. Their trainees have been venturing out for road running but the numbers are yet small, Praful Uchil, said.

“ Of our trainees, only about 20 percent have commenced running. But the number of runners venturing out is slowly increasing,” Praful, founder and director at Striders, said. Through the lockdown period – it started around March 20 – Striders organised online workout sessions to help its trainees focus on fitness while staying indoors. “ Runners are advised to run for half hour to 45 minutes when they commence running. Now some of our runners have ramped up to one and a half hours of running,” Praful said.

As traffic on the roads is low compared to normal times, it is comfortable to run during the early morning hours. “ But there is still uncertainty about going all out into road running. One does not know how the pandemic will pan out,” Praful said. The online sessions have helped runners stay fit. They are able to run with ease despite the break of over three months, Praful said.

Vijay Alva (Photo: courtesy Vijay)

Online sessions have really contributed to fitness. “ Runners have never been more fit,’’ Vijay Alva, coach, said. His training outfit, Vijay Alva’s Fitness Academy, designed and broadcast a home-based training program for its marathon runners. “ This training plan included a mix of cross functional, strength and cardiovascular workout. It has helped runners stay fit,” Vijay said.

Currently, his runners are not doing anything more than 10 kilometers. “ But they are able to run quite comfortably. Nobody is complaining of aches and injuries,” he said. The extended home-based workouts have proved to be beneficial for runners as they have learnt to concentrate on exercises other than just running, Vijay said.

A former national marathon champion, Savio D’Souza has his feet firmly on the ground when it comes to a primer for running in days of lockdown relaxed. He advises that runners take it easy and slow these days, for there are no events on the horizon. The important thing is to be fit, which itself is adequate work because the majority of runners would have experienced a drop in baseline fitness from the months of strict lockdown. “ Remember, you cannot store fitness,’’ he said. It is still not very long since lockdown commenced easing, including time allotted for daily exercise. “ I prefer playing it safe,’’ he said.

Savio D’Souza (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The coach explained the situation with reference to his own trainees. “ Most of them have started coming out, which more than running, is what they wished for. Seeing others from the group after a long time made them feel good. For the first few weeks we encouraged them to do brisk walking. We wanted them to de-stress and feel mentally relaxed. Then we started a routine of walk-jog. Now we do 9-10 kilometers – sometimes less – of slow, easy running. Same time last year, people may have been doing weekend runs of up to 30 kilometers but there is no pressing need for that right now,’’ he said. Asked what the most heard complaints by way of pains and aches were, Savio said that his approach had been to avoid pushing anyone such that they feel those aches and pains in the first place. “ This is not the time to push. You don’t have to. What’s the hurry? There are no events. Instead you should slowly, without risking injury, improve your baseline fitness. When events are finalized they are bound to announce it with sufficient notice because we are all coming from lockdown and relaxed lockdown with no serious training done. Right now, with my group, I believe we may soon reach that point where we should be able to get ready for an event with two months lead time. If we can preserve that fitness doing whatever we are doing, then as and when the need arises, we can revive the old training and countdown to events,’’ he said.

He quantified that sweet spot for his group – the substratum that can be worked on later – as 50 per cent of the journey to good form plus some more. It would be sensible to linger around in that zone till clarity about the overall pandemic situation and races therein, improve. For the same reason, he wasn’t a fan of the virtual runs announced in the June-July period. He felt that was too close to the period when lockdown started relaxing and people were just beginning to train afresh. Juxtaposed on the Indian lockdown calendar, those runs risked injury for want of enough moving around already done.  “ Virtual runs in September-October or later are alright because people have put in some amount of movement and running. I couldn’t agree with the earlier ones,’’ Savio said.

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

RECORD HEAT IN DEATH VALLEY

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Thanks to the famous Badwater Ultramarathon, Death Valley is known to running communities worldwide.

Among the hottest places on the planet, it is a desert valley in eastern California, in the northern Mojave Desert. The Badwater Basin in Death Valley is the point of lowest elevation in North America; it is 282 feet below sea level. Death Valley is roughly 136 kilometers east-south east of Mt Whitney, which at 14,505 feet is the point of highest elevation in the contiguous United States (the US excluding Alaska, Hawaii and other offshore territories). The Badwater Ultramarathon commences in Badwater Basin and proceeds to Whitney Portal, the trail head for Mt Whitney at 8360 feet. Several runners from India have participated in the 217 kilometer-ultramarathon, considered one of the toughest events in its genre.

On August 17, 2020, the BBC reported that temperature in Death Valley hit a scorching 54.4 degrees centigrade. Subject to verification, this may be the highest reliably recorded temperature on Earth. It has happened amid a heat wave on the US west coast. There is mention on the Internet of a still higher temperature – 56.6 degrees centigrade – recorded in Death Valley in 1913. The BBC report says, some experts consider that to be unreliable data.

Death Valley is the dry desert it is because it lay in the rain shadow region of four major mountain ranges. This forces moisture laden air coming in the from the Pacific, to shed its water content as rain or snow on the western slopes of the ranges. By the time these air masses reach Death Valley there is little moisture left to grace the region as precipitation. Other factors also contribute to the dryness. They include the valley’s surface experiencing intense solar heating, the area trapping warm air, warm air from nearby regions moving in and the phenomenon of warm foehn winds. According to Wikipedia, the period from 1931-1934 was the driest on record with only 16 millimeters of rain received.

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

TWO REALITIES: KHARGHAR AND KAUSANI

Chanchal Singh Kunwar (Photo: courtesy Chan)

Located in Bageshwar district, Kausani is popular for its tea gardens.

Although tea plantation was introduced many decades ago in Uttarakhand, it didn’t catch on. According to a September 2014 article in the Hindustan Times about the erstwhile standing of teas from Uttarakhand and how they languished later, tea cultivation was introduced in these parts by the British in 1835. They chose the hills of Kausani, Dehradun and Berinag to start the process. Initially, the teas of Uttarakhand did well. Subsequently, even as plantations became big business in North East India and South India, tea production in Uttarakhand plummeted. In recent times, according to media reports, efforts have been made to encourage tea growing and restore the market profile of teas from the state.

Kausani remains a small hub of tea gardens. As you come in from the Ranikhet side, the road ascends to the town, runs a bit on the ridge of the hill and then descends to the other side, which is when the tea gardens and their adjoining clutch of restaurants emerge to view. It is a popular halt for tourists, rewarding anyone making it to the spot at the right time on a clear day with great pictures of select Himalayan peaks. Kumaon is known for its panoramic view of the Himalaya. From the cafes near Kausani’s tea gardens, you see the peaks of western Kumaon. Late July, 2020 it was the season of rain in Kausani. It rained intermittently. The weather was pleasant; perfect for running. Some kilometers away from Kausani, is the village of Shauli. Early mornings and sometimes in the evening, a runner from here would take a route not normally taken by others around. While the general grain of economic development in the hills has been the tendency to trade walking trails for roads, this person – recently returned from big city – did the opposite. He traded Kausani’s roads for its quiet, forgotten trails. They wind their way along hill slopes sporting pine trees.

Kausani’s trails, July 2020 (Photo: courtesy Chan)

Until some months ago, Chanchal Singh Kunwar (Chan) was among those running regularly at Kharghar in Navi Mumbai. Navi Mumbai is a satellite city of Mumbai; it along with Thane is part of the larger Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR). MMR is one of the biggest urban agglomerations on the planet. An important node of Navi Mumbai, Kharghar evolved on flat land set against a backdrop of hills. The flats, roads therein and connections thereof to more roads in nearby Belapur offer adequate mileage for daily running. A five kilometer-long road leading up into the hills serves as additional tool for training. Every year as the annual Mumbai Marathon approaches, this hill road sees local runners and those from other parts of MMR, come to train. Indeed Navi Mumbai is one of the better places in MMR for a runner to be in. However, it is a bustling urban center and has been gaining vehicles and traffic by the day. The overall ambiance of your daily run is thus very much that of city.

Chan hails from Kausani. After a few years of growing up there, his family moved out to ensure better education for the children. Besides, his father worked in the Indian Navy and with any job in the defence sector, transfer is an integral part of life. Eventually, Chan found himself in MMR (at Kharghar), where as an employed adult, he worked with Star Sports. As of 2020, it was around seven years since Chan took up running. The bug got to him in Mumbai. In the initial years, he did what he could, sensing his way around in the sport and keeping an annual appointment with the Mumbai Marathon. By 2015, he was training seriously and by the following year, had graduated to attempting the ultramarathon. In 2016, he won a 50 kilometer-night run, a 75 kilometer ultramarathon in Pune and covered 96 kilometers at the annual 12-hour Mumbai Ultra. In 2017, he won the 101 kilometers category at Run the Rann, an ultramarathon organized in the Rann of Kutch in western India. That year he also won the IDBI Federal Life Insurance 12hrs stadium run in Mumbai covering a distance of 105.2 kilometers in the stipulated time; he also participated in and finished the 111 kilometer-segment of La Ultra The High in Ladakh. In 2018, he won the 50 kilometers category at BNP Ultra in Mumbai but later suffered injury while training for the Annapurna 100 in Nepal. “ As a comeback run in 2020, I bettered my course record at BNP 50 by two minutes, finishing the race with a PB of 3:56:01,’’ Chan said.

Kausani’s trails, July 2020 (Photo: courtesy Chan)

After his father retired, Chan’s parents shifted back to Kausani. The move isn’t permanent for them yet; at the time of writing his father was still undecided on whether it should be a shift for good or not. In March 2020, Chan was due to attend his Basic Mountaineering Course (BMC) at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) in Uttarkashi. By then he had also put in his papers at Star Sports and was looking forward to commencing something on his own in sports nutrition.  Against this backdrop, it made sense to blend his NIM trip with a visit home after the mountaineering course. After all, Uttarkashi is in Uttarakhand and Garhwal (where NIM is) and Kumaon (where Kausani is) are adjacent regions. However, the entire plan had to be cancelled following the outbreak of COVID-19 and onset of nationwide lockdown. Chan spent the first two and a half months of lockdown in Kharghar. Then, as the strict lockdown gave way to a slightly relaxed version, in mid-June, he traveled to Kausani to be with his parents.  With lockdown continuing and working remotely now an accepted way of life, he plans to make Kausani his new base.

Plains or hills, a runner cannot stay away from running. For Chan, Kausani situated at an elevation of 6200 feet, presented fresh options, especially on the trail front. He has plans to try some of the well-known trail running events of Himachal Pradesh and South India. It wasn’t long before he started exploring the trails around Kausani as potential training routes. Every day, he picks one of two windows or sometimes both; the first is in the morning around 7 AM, the other is around 4-4.30 PM. “ There has to be natural light. That is one problem in the hills. You don’t have street lights here as in the cities. But otherwise it is a vast difference between what I do here and the running I used to do in Kharghar. The weather in Navi Mumbai was always hot and humid and capable of exhausting you fast. The air was also polluted, which is the case in most urban areas. There was traffic. Here road traffic is less but then, I am not on the roads at all. I am on trails, which are frequented by very few people. It is peaceful. Yes the elevation makes you strain more than in the plains but the air is clean; you can feel good quality air in your lungs,’’ he said. As for inclines he has tonnes of it strewn around in hill country. According to him, the trails he found are a healthy mix of enjoyable running and steep, technical slopes. Incidentally, Chan is not the only one utilizing the value of Kumaon’s trails. Around the time the nationwide lockdown started, Nitendra Singh Rawat, one of India’s top marathon runners, had shifted from Ranikhet (where the Kumaon Regiment to which he belongs is headquartered) to his village in Garur. When contacted in early April, he was training on isolated trails near his village, away from people and the hustle and bustle of life. Garur is around 15 kilometers from Kausani.

Kausani’s trails, July 2020 (Photo: courtesy Chan)

As he continues his running in Kausani, Chan admitted to nursing a wish. Places like Garhwal and Kumaon have known running for long, possibly longer than it has been viewed as fitness movement or sport in the plains. The driving force for this widespread engagement with running was military recruitment. The Himalayan foothills have a tradition of sending people to the armed forces. Both Kumaon and Garhwal have regiments bearing their name. In the run up to every recruitment season (locally called bharti), the roads of Kumaon feature young men putting in the miles to stay fit. Same is the case in Kausani. “ The people here are good runners. They have the ability to do well. But they don’t have a year-round culture of running that is independent from military recruitment. They run to be recruited and when that reason isn’t there, they don’t have any incentive to continue running. I would like to do what I can to change that. I hope I am able to contribute in some way to creating a running culture here,’’ Chan said on the phone from Kausani.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Podium finishes and timings at races are as stated by interviewee.)

PSYNYDE BIKES / IT’S TIME TO CYCLETOWORK

This image was downloaded from the Facebook page of Psynyde Bikes and is being used here with prior permission.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has bolstered the case of cycling, worldwide. Amidst the requirement to stay healthy and also keep adequate physical distance, the good old bicycle has emerged a fine combination of encouraging fitness and observing pandemic related protocols. News reports in the recent past cited bicycle sales spiking in several countries. The bulk of the new interest was in practical bicycles for commuting purposes.

Pune based boutique manufacturer of bicycles, Psynyde Bikes, plans to introduce a model that packs into this slot. Aptly named “ cycletowork,’’ the commuter bicycle had been in the pipeline for the past one to one and a half years, Praveen Prabhakaran, founder of the company, said. The pandemic and the relevance of cycling it highlighted, has authored an opportunity to formally bring the model to the market. True to Psynyde’s value-for-money positioning, the commuter bicycle is slightly high end in components and looks but affordably priced for those specifications. “ We are hoping to price it at around Rs 25,000-26,000,’’ Praveen said.

The bike, which has been designed by Psynyde in India, has an aluminum frame and steel fork. The frame is a completely new design with geometry meant for commuting. “ Its new from ground up,’’ Praveen said. The bike employs Shimano Tourney derailleurs at the front and back. It has altogether 24 gears (8×3 set up). Where it makes a departure from other similar models in the Indian market is with regard to its crank. “ It has a hollow spindle crank,’’ Praveen said. The hollow spindle crank is a bit fatter in build than its brethren. This makes it stiff and thereby capable of better response when it comes to translating effort to movement. At the same time, because the component is hollow inside, it is light and does not affect the overall weight of the bicycle, Praveen said.

The company has around 100 numbers of the commuter model in stock. “ We have been getting enquiries,’’ Praveen said.

Psynyde is a home-grown company, founded by cycling enthusiasts. Its earlier models – Psynyde Furan (MTB) and Psynyde Oxygen (hybrid) – are known well in the Indian market. The company started as an outfit making custom-built bicycles and performance oriented bicycle components. It is now a young, small enterprise that sells a limited number of bicycles designed by it. For more on Psynyde please try these links:    https://shyamgopan.com/2014/02/06/the-story-of-psynyde/, https://shyamgopan.com/2016/11/09/psynyde-alert-the-hour-of-the-furan/, https://shyamgopan.com/2019/08/03/psynyde-bikes-weathering-tough-chemistry/

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

LOCKDOWN & ME / F.K.T IN INDIA GETS A BOOST, COURTESY KIEREN D’SOUZA

Kieren D’Souza; from the run up Friendship Peak. He is seen here a few hundred meters below the summit (Photo: 4Play / provided to this blog by Kieren)

It was in early June 2020 that Kieren D’Souza approached the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) of Manali with a request, strange for the times in which it was being tabled.

An ultra-runner with affinity for the mountains, it is now some years since Kieren made the tourist town in Himachal Pradesh, his base to train and live. The local mountaineering institute had been where he did his Basic Mountaineering Course years ago; the course had proceeded for training in the direction of Friendship Peak (17,352 feet). A non-technical peak, it is generally recognized as an easy climb. However a mountaineering course unfolds accommodating the wishes and abilities of a large number of students. Kieren’s batch completed their training successfully but did not climb Friendship. The desire to summit it, stayed in his head.

In the years that followed, the young man was acknowledged as a promising ultra-runner. A lover of the outdoors, it wasn’t long before he veered off the distance runs of the cities and embraced trail running and the ultramarathons of altitude. Besides polishing off a clutch of such runs in India, he completed Spartathlon and races within the UTMB fold. All this exposed him to emerging trends in the sport, one of which was the gradual but steady ascent of the mountain athlete – an athlete at the confluence of diverse disciplines like running, hiking and mountaineering.  It was this fancy that Kieren indulged, training and living in Manali, a town at 6725 feet offering quick access to several peaks of modestly high elevation in the neighborhood. He didn’t want to climb them in the regular expedition way or the comparatively lighter alpine style. Instead what fascinated him was the paradigm of fast ascents where the skills of running, hiking and mountaineering blended.  Plus, he wondered about the possibility of commencing the walk or run, right from Manali and ending it there with no car or hired transport in between. Away from the minimalist format, he also thought of attempting peaks in winter.

Challenging as these parameters may seem, fact is – dedication to the task at hand can prepare a person for the demands of aforesaid light, quick raids at altitude. A midnight in August  2016, this writer had seen Kieren running up Khardung La (17,582 feet) in shorts and T-shirt as part of the 111km-race of La Ultra The High. It was quite cold but he managed well. Roughly three years later, Peter Van Geit, hailing from Belgium and based in Chennai, would run across many passes in the Himalaya of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, often clad in nothing but shorts and T-shirt; a small daypack bearing essentials slung from his shoulders. Manali afforded views of several peaks ideal for the minimalist style. None attracted Kieren as much as Friendship, playground of the local mountaineering institute and climbed by many during tourist season. The peak located close to Beas Kund is part of a handful of peaks in the area regularly visited by climbers; other prominent ones in the vicinity of Friendship include Shitidhar (17,224 feet), Ladakhi (17,536 feet) and across the valley – Hanuman Tibba (19,625 feet). Kieren’s first attempt on Friendship was a winter climb. In January 2018, he and Aditya Pandey tried a fast ascent seeking to polish off the peak in under-two days. “ We failed, we didn’t reach the summit. We didn’t have the right gear for climbing in winter,’’ Kieren said over the telephone from Manali. A winter ascent is still on the agenda. It’s a different ball game entailing not just physical fitness but also investment in right gear.

Kieren D’Souza; from the acclimatization run of June 4, ahead of attempting the FKT on Friendship Peak (Photo: 4Play . provided to this blog by Kieren)

Two years later, by February 2020, Kieren was resolved that a run to the summit of Friendship and back should be attempted. Then COVID-19 brought everything to a grinding halt. By late March, all of India had slipped into a nationwide lockdown to check the spread of infection. Sporting activity came to a halt; even the morning jog disappeared as people withdrew indoors. In Manali, Kieren was reduced to working out at home and cycling on his home trainer. This he did, diligently. From late April, the town started allowing two and a half hours of morning exercise. “ I ran as much as I could in that duration,’’ Kieren said. Friendship Peak returned to focus. A young man trying to make ends meet through career in sports, Kieren’s fast ascent project was cast as a mix of athletic performance and media; there would be a film crew to document his journey.

Given lockdown, he needed permission from the authorities. That was how in early June, amid lockdown now relaxed a bit, he ended up at the SDM’s office talking about trail running and a shot at Friendship. He was asked to provide a window of choice for the attempt. It wasn’t hard to zero in on one. The effects of the approaching monsoon would begin to manifest in the region by around June 20. It would be best to wrap up the attempt before that. “ We asked for June 14, 15, 16 and 17,’’ Kieren said. While the process of obtaining approval was underway, on June 4, he essayed a foray up to an elevation of 4000 meters (13,123 feet) on Khanpri Tibba, a nearby mountain, to acclimatize. Once permission was sanctioned by the SDM, on June 14, Kieren did a recce of the trail to Friendship. That too would have contributed some bit to acclimatization.

Kieren started his run on June 16 at 1.02AM from Mall Road, Manali. He ran from Manali to Solang and onward to Dhundi, from where he took the true left of the Beas River and proceeded upstream. That is the path hikers take to reach Beas Kund. However Kieren didn’t require reaching this alpine lake. Much ahead of it is the deviation to the base of Friendship. The mountain’s real ascent starts at a long ridge called Lady Leg. From here onward there was snow. Kieren continued in running gear with one addition for this stage on, being micro-spikes fitted to his shoes. Some ways up, is a col. Members of the film crew were already in place at these points. At the col, he changed to slightly warm attire and traded his running shoes for proper mountaineering boots and crampons. He also left the small backpack he had been running with, there. Roughly three and a half hours later, he was on the summit of Friendship. Altogether, it had taken him seven hours and fifteen minutes to reach there from Mall Road, Manali. The film of the climb shows him running on the return too, all the way to Manali. Kieren told this blog that the GPS data from the trip has been submitted to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) to be officially ratified. The IMF is the apex body for mountaineering in India.

A July 2 report in the South China Morning Post quoting Kieren, positioned the run up Friendship as an exercise in Fastest Known Time (FKT). It is a culture that is quite strong overseas but is yet to catch on in a big way in India. Compared to the institutional scrutiny characterizing records in mainstream outdoor disciplines like mountaineering, FKTs started in the comparatively diffuse regions of outdoor sports – like the overlapping zones of running, hiking and mountaineering. They are actually loved for their informality as regards verification and the organic evolution of new quests. Perhaps you could call them the paradigm adopted till given activity becomes mainstream and formal.  “ With a dwindling number of outdoor milestones to be achieved first, top adventurers are trying to achieve them fastest. Trails of every length and mountains of every size are increasingly becoming racecourses for those lured by the challenge of the F.K.T,’’ an article by John Branch, in the New York Times of August 5, 2015, said. Commissioners in the space are unofficial. In the US, the article said, that position belonged to ultra-runner and former atmospheric physicist Peter Bakwin and the website he commenced. Claims of record timing are naturally accompanied by questions from competition. Bakwin has stepped in occasionally to settle some such disputes. It is a dynamic world in which quests crop up; records are claimed, some record holders specify rules and others question it. “ Trickier questions surround the degree of support the athlete receives: unsupported (carrying all supplies from the beginning), self-supported (collecting additional supplies along the way) and supported (having a team that provides everything from pacesetters to nightly shelter and food). Bakwin lists them all. It is left for readers to decide which is most impressive,’’ the article said. According to it, FKTs have no governing body. On the other hand, as Bakwin points out, the existence of questions and suspicion, indicate how passionately people in the field track FKTs. One of the best known FKT pursuits in the US is trying to be the fastest on the roughly 3500km-long Appalachian Trail (for more on this please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/11/28/the-pursuit-of-endurance/).

Kieren D’Souza; from a run in winter in Manali. The town can be seen in the distance (Photo: Nitish Waila / provided to this blog by Kieren)

In his earlier mentioned piece in the South China Morning Post, Mark Agnew wrote, “ D’Souza hopes that other runners will be inspired to set their own FKT and he has already received messages from other interested mountaineers or runners. But more importantly, he wants to show those who are apprehensive about starting mountaineering that it is not all-consuming. “ I’m not saying they will do it in one day, that’s not the point, but definitely over a shorter time,” D’Souza said.’’ There hasn’t been a culture of documenting FKTs in India. In the past, for instance, a speculated FKT would surface periodically around Stok Kangri (20,190 feet), the popular trekking peak in Ladakh. Outdoor clubs in Maharashtra harbor stories of people who did fast hikes in the Sahyadri. Same holds true for Friendship Peak as well. Kieren told this blog that he was aware of earlier attempts by some of his friends to climb the peak fast but a precedent on Friendship essayed in the specific style he did was unknown to him.

With COVID-19 causing cancellation of major events in running worldwide, Kieren has all of 2020 and likely a chunk of 2021, to focus on projects similar to the one he accomplished on Friendship. There is also the chance to sample the virtual versions of some iconic trail races. UTMB for instance, has said it will be informing of developments in this regard. Kieren can do such runs from Manali.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The heights of peaks and elevation of towns quoted in the article are as available on multiple websites on the Internet.)

COMING UP: SPORTS AS PART OF CURRICULUM

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

It is a good move but keeping a few concerns in mind wouldn’t hurt

If you take the typical Indian school and college education, there won’t be a day that passes by without emphasis on academics. In the glaring divide between curricular and extra-curricular activities, the latter – even if it contributes more to shaping an individual – is distant second. You may excel at arts and sports but it counts for little, except a sprinkling of grace marks. There is also this angle of how close to academics and bolstering its luster, your chosen interest is. Things literary agree with the Indian mind. As do music and dance, if they happen to be the classical sort. Cultural tastes that are more freewheeling or innovative, and sports – they don’t count as much.

Indeed the best way to sell sports in India is to highlight how the active life helps overall, including in studies. Needless to say, back in my school and college days, someone good at sports typically meant either an average student or a straggler in academics bailed out by grace marks. It was rare to find a combination of academic excellence and excellence at sports. For a long time, we justified the academics heavy approach on the grounds of India being a third world country where career took precedence. Now however, the continued justification reeks of conservative mindset.

Liberation from this academics-centric approach has been the dream of many Indian students. Even present day parents should agree because the number of middle aged adults and senior citizens who can convincingly say that they discovered what they are and got around to doing what they like to do, are few. Maybe none of us will ever really know that. But it remains one of life’s great quests and if great quests and questions are what education is all about, then, teaching you to discover yourself and become what you think you can be (or what all you can be), should be the purpose of going to school and college. Sport is an important tool in this journey. It tells you much about what you are the first time you rendezvous with it; it goes on to tell you what you are capable of as you train and improve. By what yardstick can you say this isn’t education? Media reports of June 11, 2020 quoted the Union Minister for Sports, Kiren Rijiju, saying that sports is set to become part of educational curriculum. It was encouraging news. The details of government policy in this regard, are still not known. But viewed as promised move, it hints of benefits.

Besides introducing young people to sports and putting sports on a more even platform with academics, it should provide job opportunities and job security to those specialized in physical education and coaching. Amidst the COVID-19 lockdown, Kolkata-based newspaper, The Telegraph, had carried an insightful article on the plight of those teaching non-core subjects at school, sports being one. When things shrink to essential (as in lockdown), like a drowning man reaching for a log, the Indian imagination of education instantly grabs academics to stay afloat. The rest become dispensable. If sport is part of curriculum, such injustice to the ` dispensable’ may become rare. Given the benefits of the government move can be imagined, let me focus on a couple of concerns. After all, good policy reserves vision to address concerns as well.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

For most people Brie Larson is the actor who played Captain Marvel on screen. In 2017, she directed a film called ` Unicorn Store.’ Three years later, it was among films I watched during the COVID-19 lockdown. What made me click on the film when it showed up on Netflix was the presence of Joan Cusack in the cast. She is a wonderful actor. As it turned out, I found nothing remarkable about the movie. But towards the final quarter, there was a stunning piece of dialogue from Cusack’s character, addressed to her daughter played by Larson; it went: the most grown up thing you can do is fail at things you really care about. I will remember Larson’s directorial debut for that single sentence, which encapsulates an approach that is the abject opposite of what the Indian education system drills into you. Here it is all about success and winning; to the extent, very few venture into unfamiliar territory including what they actually care about. Perpetuated across the years and imposed on large populations, this authors a mental trap. It skews the imagination towards certain priorities as though nothing else matters. This tenor is present in the Indian interpretation of sport too. I never forget what I once saw at the swimming pool of a housing society. A child, who was clearly hydrophobic, being shamed in front of others by his coach as the parents watched approvingly.

In India, the drive is to excel; not become comfortable with what you are doing as prerequisite to decide in due course, how you would like to navigate further.  A good example is the popular positioning of the Olympic Games as elite aspiration in sport. That is premature strategy when exploration of sport hasn’t happened yet at the required breadth and depth in India, a country of 1.3 billion people. It is the potential panacea for this predicament, which we see in the government move to make sport part of educational curriculum as well as the realistic assessment that the 2028 Olympics and not the earlier editions would be practical goal to improve medals tally. Still if you foray with Olympics as direction, you risk putting people off through excess evangelism of one sort and search for suitable talent. Instead, can you make young people fall in love with sport? Can you make them love it such that they don’t mind failing at activities they care about and come back for more?

Opening up young minds to the myriad possibilities indulging in athletics or playing a game offers, is an engaging task. Some won’t have a mountain to climb; they are already so good that all they need to do is slide into the lake of success. It is a coach / teacher who works with average talent and takes them places that you should applaud, not the ones making a beeline to train the best primed talent.  India has too many teachers / coaches of the latter sort; it is also what parents endorse. So you see, before we make tall claims for the future, there is a way of looking at human beings that has to be put in place. Without it, we risk doing to sports what we have already done in our mainstream academic education. One approach worth mentioning in this regard is India’s amateur running movement. Except some from the corporate category who are forced into it because it is the in thing to do at offices, amateur running is a personal choice. It is also a conscious choice because for many, it is an option exercised in midlife. There is no compulsion; no coercion. Yet the performances returned by Indians in their thirties, forties and fifties – long past the energy of school and college – has been fantastic. There are now several people running sub-three marathons from these age groups and in 2019, we had the first Indian finisher in a 555km ultramarathon at altitude. Marathons and ultramarathons are not for school and college. Point is – isn’t there something for educational curriculum to learn from these cases of results gained through affection for something and not, compulsion to do it?

Second, not everyone will be good at sport. There will be those whose wiring is different. There will also be those whose wiring is neither for academics nor sports. If the intention of making sports part of the curriculum is to treat these segments the same way those inclined to sport were once treated, then, you are not educating. You merely author one more reason to rank youngsters into winners and losers. Under education, we must all be helped to find ourselves and our capabilities. Sport – and academics – should not be put on a pedestal. It must be there at the same level as any other potential, resident in the human being.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Finally, there is the issue of a blindness upon us that isn’t for want of eyes but happens because we block vision with our insularity. In sport, there is an insularity born from world view by nothing but athletic prowess and the disciplined focus which goes into accessing that prowess. When everything is focused on performance, the mind becomes dull to so many things that are critical to keeping us aware overall. That is when like art hijacked for propaganda, sport degrades to being an appendage in service of other goals, political ideology and image building being examples. Mass displays of athleticism and physical coordination – the sort seen at certain giant ceremonies – also betray this tenor. Just like money is no guarantee of brilliance and some billionaires have uttered the most stupid things, pursuit of sports holds forth promise of awareness; it does not guarantee it. If you want a mind that is conscious of existence and responds consciously, then introduction to sport and one’s rooting in it has to be an experience immersed in appreciation of freedom. Individual and freedom – these are the two fundamental building blocks of awareness. That’s why the swimming pool episode matters – that little boy’s sense of individual was crushed; forced to perform and conform he would have also lost his appreciation for freedom. Instead, doesn’t he deserve the chance to overcome his fear of water, fall in love with it and find out if a swimmer lives in him?

It is this author’s personal opinion that notwithstanding instances of excellence produced, India’s mainstream academic education has contributed little to overall awareness and appreciation of existence. We are like foot soldiers following set recipes (all reform seeks to do is replace one curriculum with another). We shouldn’t repeat the same mistake in sport. Sport should set us free.

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