OUR REFLECTION IN PETER

Peter Van Geit at the talk in Navi Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

It was a small gathering, just outside the shop floor of a major sports goods retailer in Navi Mumbai. Maybe 15-20 people at best; a couple of them were the retail chain’s staff. But that didn’t stop Peter Van Geit from speaking passionately about what he had been doing the past several months.

A Belgian national and former employee of tech giant, Cisco, Chennai-based Peter is well known in the Indian outdoors. He was among prime movers at the Chennai Trekking Club (CTC), contributed much to promoting the active lifestyle, helped clean up the city’s beaches, did excellent relief work during the Chennai floods and then got villainized when an unexpected forest fire killed several trekkers in Theni. That last incident from March 2018 was a tense chapter.

At CTC, one of the activities Peter and others embraced was ultrarunning. They would run for a few days covering a couple of hundred kilometers. In 2018, Peter commenced a personal project. Over 75 days, he ran (the right term would be fast-hiked) 1500 kilometers along trails and across some 40 high mountain passes in Himachal Pradesh and the then state of Jammu & Kashmir. This venture followed an earlier one in Vietnam, wherein he ran close to 2000 kilometers over hilly terrain. Then in 2019, running from the Uttarakhand-Nepal border towards Himachal Pradesh and Zanskar, he crossed 120 passes. The number includes little known routes taken by shepherds, who incidentally are his frequent refuge for food and shelter on these trips. Later that year, in a foray to the Maharashtra Sahyadri and the Konkan coast, he ran or cycled linking some 200 forts. Active on social media with his travel posts, Peter has a fan base. In January 2020, when Peter was in Mumbai to speak at the Himalayan Club, this writer shared a suburban train journey with him. He was quickly recognized by co-passengers and selfies taken.

At two presentations I attended this year, there was a slide that always drew laughs. It showed a small child sitting naked on a beach. “ That’s me. I was minimalist even then,’’ Peter would quip. He says traveling light makes him fast. On the trail, that means less stuff hauled around as he manages to either reach known shelter or camp light at lower elevation having already got past the high crux. That’s utter contrast with the regular. Consider this: a typical photograph of Peter from the Himalaya shows him in running shorts, a small backpack, a thin T-shirt and a pair of running shoes. The backdrop is high altitude; steep, snow clad, at times glacier, clearly cold. Other speakers at the same venue may have just presented slides of them and others in similar environment clad in multiple layers, armed with gear and heavy backpack. That would be the Himalayan experience of most in the audience too.

In the mutual admiration society we are, people flock to similar others. Peter gets applause but you wonder – was he accepted into the tribe? Much of the establishment sitting in judgement came up in a more structured fashion with outdoor courses done and rigid views of what defines a particular sport. They seem organization-builders; lovers of hive and the politics of the hive if we were all bees. Corporate – you could say, for imagery. Peter seems an activity-lover, happiest outdoors, happy to be afloat afterwards in a people’s durbar. In his heart warming short film, Peter stumbles, slips, gets his face liberally licked by a buffalo, does some sketchy river-crossings. Those formally trained in outdoor techniques will question some of his actions. Yet there he was, up in the mountains, doing a hybrid of running and high altitude hiking, most of the time solo. Solo is something few Indians like. Indians are all about groups. Further, where most of us make a whole annual trek out of one pass, he was polishing off a pass a day. For now in India’s world of hiking-mountaineering and running, the Peter-way is an outlier.

Here’s another vignette – Peter is a runner but now nurses little appetite for the organized marathons, ultramarathons and stadium runs that the majority of runners favor. He likes to be away from cities and crowds. When out in the Himalaya, he lives and eats with shepherds and at houses along the trail; he likes that simpler life. He navigates with digital map and GPS co-ordinates on his smartphone used offline and set to battery saving-mode. On the Konkan coast, confronted with the fort of Suvarnadurg located on an island a kilometer out in the sea, he just swam across to access it. The central values of his excursions appear freedom, solitude and living the life he wants. Accessible and easy to talk to, Peter may impress as anything from celebration of the outdoor spirit to bull in a china shop unintentionally smashing our gear laden surrogate commando self-image, with his minimalist approach.

Peter, in a Mumbai suburban train, en route to a lecture (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

To be fair, Peter’s journeys in India fell in a list of projects headed to the body of work he achieved. Long before digital became commonplace in India, in 1997, a team of Indian women completed a trans-Himalayan trek from Bomdila in Arunachal Pradesh to the Karakorum Pass. They crossed 39 passes above 3000m, 15 passes above 2000m and covered 4500 kilometers in 198 days. In the years that followed, at least one seasoned outdoorsman anchored a project seeking to thread a hiking route from Ladakh to the Uttarakhand-Nepal border, replete with GPS co-ordinates for independent hikers to use. More than five years ago, when the Himalaya was yet to be run as Peter did, this writer spoke of the project in waiting to an Indian ultrarunner. Nothing happened. Over August-October 2018, a team of three young Indian mountaineers hiked from Ladakh to the Uttarakhand-Nepal border crossing 27 passes (please try this link for their story:  https://shyamgopan.com/2018/11/13/a-long-walk-traversing-the-western-himalaya/). Then over 2018 and 2019, in two tranches, Peter crossed around 160 passes in the western part of the Indian Himalaya, visited 200 forts in Maharashtra and made the journeys available as digital resource. His own project, Peter has said, was initially spurred by data from a blog by Bengaluru-based trekker Satyanarayana; in the blog Satya used to document with GPS logs, the passes he visited.

It was two years ago that Peter resigned his job, did an Airbnb with his house and embarked on a new life of running around. At the February 2020 talk in Navi Mumbai, he spoke of young Indians he met during his long stay in the country, who were stronger athletes than him but whose promise faded with marriage and corporate life. The young people in the audience laughed. Peter’s face remained expressionless. “ It is not a laughing matter. Life is short and you live only once,’’ he said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For more on Peter please try these links: https://shyamgopan.com/2017/02/28/i-dont-have-time-isnt-a-valid-excuse/; https://shyamgopan.com/2019/03/22/running-in-the-himalaya-75-days-1500-km-40-mountain-passes-talking-to-peter-van-geit/)             

“ IT MAKES YOU FEEL ALIVE, COMPLETELY OPPOSITE OF DAILY ROUTINE’’

Photo: courtesy Peter Van Geit

It was in 2018 that Chennai-based ultrarunner, Peter Van Geit, first stitched together several passes in the Himalaya, doing an extended spate of fast-hiking. In 2019, he took that up another notch, journeying across 120 passes in about as many days. Then he shifted his attention to the state of Maharashtra and ran or cycled to some 200 forts. In January 2019, Peter was in Mumbai for a talk. He spared time to speak to this blog. Excerpts:

How was your trip of 2019 to the Himalaya different from the one of 2018?

This was longer. I was there for almost four months – from May until September – covering about 120 passes in four months, almost doing one pass a day. This time I had to plan more carefully because in the month of May you still have snow in areas above 4000 meters. I started from the Kumaon-Nepal border and worked my way towards Himachal Pradesh. During the whole of May I was traversing from east to west in Uttarakhand. In the beginning of June the snowline started retreating. At that time I was in Himachal, where I spent some time in the Great Himalayan National Park; very dramatic landscape with steep slopes. From there I proceeded to the Dhauladhar and the entire range from Dharamshala to Palampur, which separates Kangra plains from Chamba valley. By the end of June, monsoon kicked in. I had to retreat and cross the Pir Panjal range towards Lahaul. I crossed over to Zanskar, Ladakh and Lahaul where I spent all of July and August. I went to Hemis National Park, where I covered many passes. I had to plan it carefully as there was lot of snowfall last winter and much meltwater in the summer that followed. In peak summer there were strong currents in the streams, it was very difficult to cross these streams. In 2019 too, probably due to climate change, sometime in mid-August there was flooding in parts of the Himalaya – Chamba, Manali. Manali-Leh Highway saw heavy landslides. At that time I was somewhere in Zanskar and got stuck. I managed to come down and for another couple of weeks explored a lot of valleys around Bada Bhangal and places like Kalihani Pass. I explored the Chamba valley fully. It was an amazing journey.

In the first phase you had been minimalist traveler with little gear. This time did you make any alternations to your gear?

Actually this year I reduced my gear further. I did not carry any tent, just a small bivy sack. Also, I had a light weight sub-zero sleeping bag, which was very comfortable. My ration plan was minimalist and optimum. I would just carry enough food to get to the next village. First few days I mostly carried fresh food. But then in Ladakh-Zanskar where you have 5-6 days trek, I had to cook some food. I carried a very minimalist stove. But I decided to give up that stove. Instead, I would collect dry cow dung and yak dung and horse dung and sprinkle that with kerosene and make a cooking fire. I would cook white oats which is easy to prepare with some water. That way I only carried a 4-5 kilogram backpack.

Photo: courtesy Peter

You mentioned taking an ice axe in 2019. Was that only for a portion of the trip?

Snow and ice were new to me. Previously, I had only gone in the months of July and August. In Uttarakhand I did not carry an ice axe. I just had some light carbon hiking poles, which were very useful. Snow is easy to tackle if it is on a flat surface but when it’s on a gradient, then you need poles. Poles are also essential for stream crossing especially over uneven river bed. Stream currents in some of the canyons in Ladakh can be dangerous. In July I was near the Dhauladhar. There I was lucky I met a person who had an ice axe. We trekked together for a week. It was a light weight Black Diamond axe. That became my main tool. By mid-August the ice axe was not required. But I continued to carry it because I was going to new places.

Are you going back again this year?

In addition to the May-September period, I am planning a new mission. I am planning a winter mission from February till April not to the passes but some remote valleys. Some of the valleys have beautiful hamlets. I want to go in winter and experience how it is. But I will have to be careful. I know snow can be dangerous. I will have to see how I can optimize my luggage. I will have to carry warmer stuff.

Will you be attempting a higher elevation this year than what you have done so far?

More than elevation, I would say traversing shepherd routes across Pir Panjal, Waru and the Kali-Cho Pass. In 2019, many passes opened late because of the heavy winter. Across many of the lesser known passes I was able to follow the shepherds; otherwise it is impossible to know these places. These are not regular hiking routes.

Is east of Nepal on your cards?

Nepal and Arunachal Pradesh are there on my mind.

When you chose places do you prefer to go to places which are not frequented by people?

The contrast between commercial versus unknown is striking. Visiting an unknown place is so much more enriching, both in terms of natural beauty and the absence of plastic waste and garbage. You don’t meet visitors there and the shepherds who are there – they also don’t see many people. They are surprised to run into me, a solo traveler. They receive you with such heart-warming hospitality. In commercial places you are treated as a customer and in other places they see you as a guest.

Photo: courtesy Peter Van Geit

What took you to the Sahyadri?

The Sahyadri was unknown to me. This place is unique; almost 300 ancient forts, many of these are in ruins now. That; combined with the unique geography. Last February when I was this side for a talk at the Himalayan Club, I stayed with a couple of guys in Pune and they took me on a trek. That’s how I got a feel of it. I did about 20 forts. After my 2019 Himalaya trip, I was looking for a place where I could spend a couple of months. I considered the southern states of Andhra, Karnataka and Kerala. But access to places here is restricted by the forest department. Both the Himalaya and the Sahyadri are like paradise, you are not restricted by anyone. I was already following a couple of people on Instagram who would post beautiful pictures of the Sahyadri. I started searching for names of forts and checking with Google maps, GPS logs. There were some specific websites which gave detailed information. I was able to get proper routes for almost 200 forts. For other forts I started studying satellite maps, finding the trails myself. Then I started to work on how I could do this in the quickest way. I was in that ultra-running mode – light and fast. I visited many of the hill forts, running or fast-hiking. The forts of the Konkan coast – those I visited on my bicycle.

That way I was able to wrap it up within two months. I used to put up photos on Instagram and within no time my followers grew from 6000 to 20000. For many people, I was not visiting forts but temples of Chhatrapathi Shivaji who fought invaders.

What do you hope to do with all the information you have gathered?

I am a little bit privileged in the sense that people can hardly take a week or a weekend off. For somebody like me who has quit his full-time job I feel privileged to spend an entire month out. In the Himalaya, I acclimatise once and then go very fast. Those 120 passes were done in four months, which is roughly 120 days. Planning these long journeys is not simple because you have to spend quite a few weeks to put together a 3500 kilometer-route with so many passes which in my case includes many non-touristy places that are remote.

There was a lot of study. All the data I collect and the maps I create by studying the terrain are compiled in my blog www.ultrajourneys.org to make it easy for people to follow in my footsteps.

So, is it possible for those who want to do a few passes to just download the digital information and proceed with GPS co-ordinates?

Yes. I have documented all the passes; I rate them on the basis of elevation, distances, duration and scale of difficulty. Novices can start with easy passes. I also have a column for dangers. Some passes are risky in terms of stream crossing. People can start with conservative, safer options.

Photo: courtesy Peter Van Geit

The same digital information is available for the Sahyadri too?

Yes.

You had a full-time job at Cisco and now you are a full-time explorer, runner etc. How do you sustain this activity monetarily?

I have a home in Chennai. When I am not in Chennai I do an Airbnb with it. Financial is one aspect. If you live in cities you end up spending a lot of money. When I get to a remote place, I cannot spend money anymore. I carry my tent, I don’t stay in hotels, don’t use private transport, always commute in buses. In the end I eat two meals a day which is like Rs 60 per plate of momos in the Himalaya, Rs 50 per plate of bhakris in the Sahyadri.

Are your social media accounts fetching you anything monetarily?

I am not looking at that. Now I have some 22,000 people following me. I am giving talks and doing some workshops. I am not looking at monetizing them. I feel very uncomfortable charging people for it. This is my passion and I want to inspire as many young people as possible. In every talk I am able to reach out to 200-300 people.

While you were doing the passes you were burning a significant amount of calories. Is it possible for you to match the two – significant burn of calories and frugal lifestyle?

I have done it now for two years. In the Himalaya, the elevation gain and very challenging terrain can be exhausting and you can easily burn 6000-8000 calories a day. These need to be replenished. Many times you end up with members of the Gujjar community and other mountain people. They cook fresh food. They typically source local organically grown stuff. You get a lot of nutrition from their food. High altitude cereals are high in nutrition. Also, living in these remote places is like detoxing your body because the air and water are unpolluted. All of these keep you in good shape. Also in the mountains your sleeping pattern gets aligned with the solar cycle. You will always settle down by sunset. You get up automatically when sun hits your face. That rest makes you mentally and physically fit to do the next day’s traverse. Further when you are exploring new places you are mentally engaged.

Photo: courtesy Peter Van Geit

At the start of the season when you have drawn out plans to do a certain number of passes, it is a task sustaining yourself that long. Does the goal feel formidable at the start of the season?

I never think of the numbers, I just take one day at a time. Although you plan your journey the actual journey can be different because you could get stuck somewhere due to some unexpected snowfall. Of the 120 passes, 2-3 of them were quite dangerous to traverse and I have had to take a mature decision and make a U-turn. Some of them are quite technical. Sometimes you get on top of the pass and then you realise that it is impossibly steep to get down on the other side. You don’t want to take unwanted risk. Sometimes it is like trial and error. You have to take a call.

Why do you do this?

People ask that question. I don’t have an answer for that. It is more like an internal drive. I have always been very excited and feel very alive when I go there. Even when I was working I used to go to such places and feel the freshness of nature, waterfalls, streams, jungles, birds and wildlife. The forest gives you so much of positivity, both physically and mentally. Also, it gives you internal peace. Climbing up 3000 meters and not seeing anybody for two days, there is total peace all around you. It makes you feel alive, completely opposite of daily routine. Probably that connection is what drives me.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. All the photos used with this interview were downloaded from Peter’s Facebook page; they have been used here with his permission. For more on Peter please try these links: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/03/22/running-in-the-himalaya-75-days-1500-km-40-mountain-passes-talking-to-peter-van-geit/ and https://shyamgopan.com/2017/02/28/i-dont-have-time-isnt-a-valid-excuse/)

ON A BICYCLE / MUMBAI-GOA

Photo: Shyam G Menon

Cycling from Mumbai to Goa is a popular endeavor undertaken by many. The journey is approximately 550km long and is usually done via roads hugging the Konkan coast although some seeking faster passage are known to take the highway. Each rider has his / her set of reflections. These are mine:

Summary

Mumbai-Goa: the pairing is old.

I didn’t know of people cycling between the two places, till into my thirties, working in Mumbai and more importantly – member of the outdoor club, Girivihar. In 2002, Rajneesh Gore, a club member, cycled to Goa with a friend and wrote a book on it called Goa on a Cycle. That was my introduction to the Mumbai-Goa cycling bug, later packaged into group-trips by commercial service providers and done by many every year. In December 2019, Prashant Venugopal, friend and fellow club member at Girivihar, decided to avail his annual leave from work. As residents of the same suburb in Navi Mumbai, we had done a couple of single day bicycle trips of 100km and more. We decided to attempt Mumbai-Goa via the coastal route, unsupported or as some call it, self-supported. However, we weren’t going to carry tent and stove. Those two needs – stay and food – we decided to pay and obtain on the way. Much of the rest – and there is a bit therein ranging from hydration to snacks, clothes, first aid kit, pump, locks and bike repair tools – we decided to carry ourselves.

Goa on a Cycle; the book by Rajneesh Gore

There was a reason for the above mentioned self-supported approach. As freelance journalist surviving frugally, I cannot afford commercial service providers although I would love to be client having support vehicle, hired mechanic, prearranged places to stay and no luggage carried on bicycle. Who wouldn’t? At the same time, as a once active hiker-climber, I am used to trading speed and achievement for the slower world of progress with all that you need lugged alongside. Not to mention – a major challenge in contemporary life (if challenge also be what you want) is not making things faster but slowing them down. Can the competitive mind with voracious appetite for distinctions, take it easy, be patient? Can it feast on life’s innocuous details, life’s ordinaries instead of the brag-worthy conquests? Over the years, little by little, we had accumulated some of the gear required for bicycle touring. All we needed to do was, load up the pannier bags and cast off.

Prashant (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

To get us started, we needed a route map. That was easily found on the Internet. In our case, we picked the route available on the website of Add-Venture India, a commercial enterprise in Navi Mumbai started by a couple of Girivihar members, which among its activities, offers an annual cycle trip to Goa. It provided an overview of the route they followed; the rest we filled in ourselves or decided to figure out as we went along. Early morning, December 16, we pushed off. Less than seven days later, on the afternoon of December 22, we reached Panjim in Goa. Like most other denizens of the urban universe, we too ended up slaves of haste working our schedule back from limited number of days to spare. We kept a disciplined grind of cycling from 6AM every morning to about 6PM with a break of little over an hour for lunch, which isn’t recommended pattern, for the right way is to avoid wasting yourself in the warmest hours of the day. Our indestructibility wilted slowly. By around midway through the trip we were very mortal and most accepting of the laws deciding human limits. At Panjim, we loaded self and bicycle into one of those Volvo buses headed to Mumbai; suffered a vehicle breakdown near Kolhapur, changed bus to Pune, changed bus again at Pune and eventually reached Mumbai happy to sink our sore butts into the comfort of cushions and mattresses.

The poster we saw on a ferry boat (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The route

Most commercial operators commence their cycling from Alibag after taking the ferry from South Mumbai’s Gateway of India. Given Prashant and I live in Navi Mumbai, we cycled through Uran to Karanja, took the ferry there to Rewas and then pedaled on to Alibag. That first day, ended in Murud.  Day 2: Murud – Agardanda – Dighi – Borli Panchatan – Harihareshwar – Bagmandla – Veswi – Kelshi. Day 3: Kelshi – Anjarle – Karde – Dapoli – Dabhol – Dabhol ferry – Dhopave – Guhagar. Day 4: Guhagar – Palshet – Velneshwar – Tawsal ferry – Jaigad – Ganpatipule – Ratnagiri – Pawas. Day 5: Pawas – Purnagad – Jaitapur – Padel – Devgad – Kunkeshwar. Day 6: Kunkeshwar – Achara – Malvan – Parule – Vengurla. Day 7: Vengurla – Aramabol – Panjim. This route likely includes some creative connections we opted for, making it marginally different from the original route map we had. For instance, both of us like ferries and didn’t waste a single ferry that presented itself as potential onward link. This was thanks in the main to a poster we spotted – we saw it first on the Agardanda-Dighi ferry – which listed the ferries along the Konkan coast. It also ensured that we remained close to the coast and never very far from the sea. When hard at work, I have a tendency to hunker down and slog in tunnel vision. I miss noticing the world. I am also not digital savvy; I prefer to ask people for directions. So credit for whatever adoption of navigation’s modern avatar we did, should go to Prashant, who is comparatively more comfortable with apps and Google.

A scene from the trip (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

An easy way to visualize route

Keep your palm face down on the table. Now imagine climbing up each finger, then down into the cleft in between and up again over the next finger. That’s how our route was – it was relentless uphill, downhill. Every time you descend to sea level and find a bridge, ferry or beach, you know there is an ascent waiting, not far away.  Each segment of elevation gain is not significant compared to the height and size of hills elsewhere in India. What plays with your mind is the relentlessness of the up-down mix, which serves as idiom for the trip. It should also be mentioned that there are some sharp, stiff inclines served without notice and sometimes, served with notice, which the urban ego then shapes into a competitive tussle. It reminded me of lessons learnt in hiking. It took many hikes to abandon the competitive streak, discover one’s steady, sustainable pace and then gradually improve efficiencies therein. On the Mumbai-Goa coastal route, there were also a few combinations of sharp, stiff incline followed by longer uphill and bad road. Very memorable for me was one such combination of all three attributes or two, following which I emerged on to a flat, smooth road atop a plateau where a posse of policemen sat. They beheld my panting self on bicycle married to easiest climbing gear. They smiled and waved. Then the inspector shouted: o kaakaaa….kahan jaa rahen hain? Goa?  Strangely, unlike those instances from my early forties, when being called kaka (uncle) alarmed and reminded of fading youth, now it didn’t. Maybe there’s nothing left to defend and the mind knows it. Kaka waved back at the policemen, showed a thumbs-up and carried on.

Road on plateau; a typical specimen from the trip (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Eventually you embrace the uphill-downhill idiom of the Konkan coast. There are also portions of road that are utterly straight (like the one where I met those policemen) but they stretch like runways atop plateaus with no tree cover. It is solitary cyclist and miles of open space. We called it spaghetti westerns with a twist: Ennio Morricone’s background score plays as Clint Eastwood becomes visible on the horizon, not on a horse but a bicycle. Talking of plateaus with no shade; if there was one complaint we heard consistently from residents all through the route, it was this: this is not how December should be. It should be cool. But it just isn’t.  Welcome to climate change. And yet we ridicule Greta Thunberg. I am not a geologist. But the incessant ups and downs and the palm-on-table analogy it inspired, made me recall that era from India’s northward drift millions of years ago, when the volcanic explosions forming the Deccan, occurred. Were the fingers of land we kept ascending and descending, the remnants of ancient lava flows that cooled off into the sea? Is that how you got this beautiful weave of hills, estuaries, coves and inlets? Who knows? But I remembered well what Mumbai based cyclist Sumit Patil had recalled from his childhood. One of his earliest memorable experiences in cycling was a school trip. Led by their teacher, the class pedaled out to get an idea of the lay of their tehsil. On day one of our Goa trip, as I cycled through Alibag noticing the place with my eyes and feeling it under my wheels, I remembered Sumit. He grew up there. Cycling through, Alibag came alive as geography lesson. You want to learn? Then, you should walk, run, cycle, swim, sail or float in the air; anything else is a compromise. And by the way, there is no compulsion, no rush. Let it unfold at your pace.

Beach at Kelshi; sunset (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Some good people

Located in Raigad district’s Srivardhan taluka, Borli Panchatan is roughly 65 km south of Alibag. By the time we reached Borli Panchatan, we had become very aware of both the up-down nature of our route and another challenge – stretches of terrible road; some almost wholly gravel and dust, others, erstwhile tarred surface ruined by large potholes and craters. It was humbling to the mind (to realize that people lived so) and numbing to butt perched on bicycle saddle. In my assessment, a well finished asphalt / bitumen road is surface friendliest to cyclist. There’s something firm and yet soft about it. Unfortunately, there’s another category – concrete – increasingly popular with the ascent of infrastructure projects. That’s like a truck ramming bicycle frame, human bones and joints above it. The hardness is so much and so acutely felt that everything vibrates. Not far from Dighi we had run into a terrible stretch of potholed road. Then that gave way to a stretch of concrete. It felt weird. If you want to know how good a road is, you should run or cycle on it. Which government official overseeing roads does that? Unfortunately the surface quality of roads is decided by motorized vehicles engineered to soak vibration, not bicycle or human knee which sense vibration. The roadside tea stall we found at Borli Panchatan appeared a small, makeshift arrangement. We had no expectations when we sat down for tea. But a bunch of men there took great interest in our trip and proceeded to not merely inform us of the best route options ahead but also present it in terms of ascents, descents, road conditions and availability of shops for tea and snacks. That was amazing; most helpful. At Guhagar in Ratnagiri, the next district; the home-stay we chose referred us to their next door neighbor for dinner. According to the manager of our home-stay, Jog Kaku was in her seventies. She had a few tables and chairs for people to sit and eat at the back of her house. The dinner she served was the finest on the trip and among the best specimens of home cooked food I have had anywhere. Bless her. Food was without doubt, one of the highlights of this trip. There wasn’t a day without good, simple food for breakfast, lunch and dinner; all of it local cuisine, made with what was available. The less digital savvy of the two and often cycling alone to sense personal ecosystem, I was happy to periodically see pointers and markings drawn on the road, courtesy two names well known in the domestic cycling circuit. The first was `YHA’ – Youth Hostels Association; the other was `DC,’ which I assume is – Deccan Cliffhanger. As helpful as the lot at Borli Panchatan, was a juice shop owner on the outskirts of Malvan. An avid talker, he first informed that all groups of riders halted at his shop. Then as we sipped glasses of sugarcane juice and kokum sharbat, he provided a detailed overview of the way ahead, recommending lunch at Parule. We did as he said.

Murud beach; sunset (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Whoooosh

“ Hello, happy journey?’’ the man on the scooter said, bit inquiringly, trying to figure out if cyclist was Indian or foreigner.  “ Thank you,’’ I replied, continuing to pedal. Encouraged, he drew alongside and said, “ your friend? He got puncture. But not normal puncture; it was like a small blast: whoooosh.’’ I stopped, thanked him for the information and turned back. Whoooosh didn’t sound good. All trips have some point when things go wrong. For us, that point occurred less than 10 kilometers past Ratnagiri, at Pansope, when one of our cycles suffered a burst tyre. It was a warm afternoon. What we had was a rip through both tyre and tube. We had carried spare tubes but not spare tyre. A new tyre had to be purchased. Given the cycle in question also seemed to have a few issues with gear-shifting, we figured the best option may be to take it to Ratnagiri, get it checked by a mechanic and if required, stay in town and carry on the next day. We parked the cycles in front of a small restaurant and using our phones, located a bicycle shop to go to in Ratnagiri. The husband and wife team running the restaurant served us tea. Then we flagged down a three wheeled-cargo carrier and asked if the driver would take rider and cycle to Ratnagiri. “ Are you the guys who called me on the phone?’’ he asked. Apparently, somebody in the neighborhood had called him for assistance in taking a damaged motorbike to the city. He was responding to that call. As it turned out, that caller was from a shop right across the road and the destination of the motorbike (its place of repair), pretty close to where the bicycle shop was. The motorbike owner agreed to take the bicycle too into town and suggested that if we paid the return fare, the same three-wheeler would bring the cycle back after repair. Prashant went along. I waited at Pansope.

A scene from the trip (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In that while, the husband and wife team at the restaurant served me some more tea, gave me a bottle of water, shut the place and left briefly to get supplies and on return, told me about their business – how long they had been running the restaurant, where they had started it first before shifting to Ratnagiri. It was a business model we saw in other places too – the woman ran the kitchen; the man got the supplies, served customers and maintained the front desk. Truth be told – the woman’s share of work, wherever we saw this model in action, seemed more. On day one, there had been a hotel we got into for lunch at Kashid. The man promised food without delay, barked a few orders loudly, the kitchen came alive like machine switched on, a woman in saree could be seen working furiously and chatting happily at once in there. Fifteen minutes later, as I tucked into the delicious fare she had cooked, I noticed that the kitchen was back to quiet and the woman was now busy cleaning the guest house adjacent to the restaurant. She was hanging sheets and towels out to dry. After lunch, as we asked for tea, one of the men around scratched his head, stared at the kitchen now bereft of its engine and said, “ sorry.’’ But the couple in Ratnagiri appeared quite happy. I felt envious seeing their happiness and wondered to myself – what monsters was I trying to slay in my head cycling daily from morning till evening when happiness is not a case of because of or due to, but simply, is? The bicycle repair-episode took some time. It was dark by the time we reached Pawas.

A scene from the trip (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Me, mid-life and my baggage

As we age, we become several people in one till at some point, fed up of all that we are defending as accrued baggage, habit and conditioning, we strip away the layers and genuinely simplify. At 51, I am still far from that simplicity; ego rules. That’s what makes expeditions by humans tricky. It isn’t only about enduring nature; it is also about enduring one’s self and that of others as complicated, defensive and hauling baggage like you. Week-long outings as a team are a bit like that TV show: Big Boss; it can become too much of each other. Not to mention, all that plus the stress accumulating from pushing one’s limit daily. There are good days and bad days. Days when we speak a lot to each other; days when one or both clamp up briefly, often to preserve the peace. You can’t do anything about it. Staying aware of these possibilities is the best solution. Joke about situations; joke about your tortured butt. Give each other space. Visit a beach at day’s end. Clean your cycles. Have some good food. We did all that. Not every reflection in the mirror will be pretty. But hey, you knew this possibility from start. That’s why you are here – to know what all may happen.  Speaking of what all may happen, our first aid kit mercifully stayed untouched. The one time it begged being opened it had nothing to do with either of us; it was someone else in trouble. At the guesthouse we stayed at in Kelshi, the manager’s friend was delicately poised on a chair atop a table, repairing a ceiling fan, when both chair and table gave away like a pack of cards. The man fell awkwardly, hurt his hand; he was in considerable pain. For some time, that is. An hour later, he started his motorcycle and drove away.

Beach at Guhagar (Photo: Prashant Venugopal)

Kabaddi country

Kelshi in Ratnagiri district had a quiet beach. There were all of seven people there, the evening we visited. The absence of crowds and the soothing quietness seemed to come with an unspoken footnote for the visitor: you homo sapiens, you are the disturbance, so tread carefully and the less you are here, the better it is for aesthetics by nature. Hopefully someday, our species gets it. A couple of youngsters wearing identical T-shirts jogged barefoot on the beach.  On the approach to the beach, next to the village path; was a small playground with carefully nurtured mud floor. Two youngsters in identical T-shirts did exercises there. A few more, dressed the same way and on their way to the play field, told us that they weren’t the local running team as I thought, but recruits for kabaddi. The jogging on the beach was part of daily training. Kabaddi competitions existed in the region and on day six as we found our way to Vengurla, we met a youngster who was on his way to Sagareshwar beach for training. He said he occasionally played for Sindhudurg. There were kabaddi players running barefoot on Guhagar’s beach too. Possessing strong legs, they bounced along smoothly on the beach sand. Each lap would have been a kilometer, easily. It was the time of sunset. A woman sat meditating some distance away. As we prepared to leave, a different type of runner arrived. He wore black shorts and black vest and on his feet, were a pair of Vibram Five Fingers.

Fishing boats at Vengurla (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Operation Thali

On day four, I was so hungry on the approach to Tawsal that I mistook the police station perched on the edge of a plateau just before long descent to ferry, to be a hotel. Most of these roads on plateaus have few restaurants and tea shops; so perhaps, it was a case of plateau-mirage, my mind replacing reality with that which I wished to see. Less than a kilometer before the ferry, we found a nice restaurant bathed in the aroma of cooking and ordered two thalis. The women in the kitchen promised to deliver it promptly. That was when a team of three or four policemen arrived. They seemed to have a feast unfolding at their office; maybe some senior officer visiting. For the next half hour they hung around, gazing expectantly into the kitchen, as the women fried several slices of fish, made chappathi, rice, curry and salad. Then they packed it all up along with steel plates and spoons, loaded a small pick-up with the precious cargo and proceeded to wherever the meal was due for staging. It was an operation effected with efficiency and enthusiastic team work; much like a crackdown on crime except, the target here was a dozen or more thalis laden with curry, fish and meat.“ I am sorry. We had to give them priority,’’ the elderly lady who served us, said apologetically. Understandable – that was a big order. By the way the thali we had – it was yet another case of delicious Konkan food.

Ravinder and his bicycle (Photo: Prashant Venugopal)

Time and touring

Sometime on day four, on a road atop a plateau – to be precise, after enduring that treeless road for long – I was happy to find a shop and check into its shade for a couple of cold drinks. I had by now abandoned caution and was experimenting with brands I was seeing for the first time; names like Fizzingaa or something similar. Five minutes later, Prashant too pulled in. We were at the shop for a while and when we left, true to my tunnel vision-self, I locked on to next major destination and pedaled off. Prashant on the other hand, noticed another cyclist – out touring like us – tucked into the shade of a nearby shop. Ravinder from Chandigarh was on a long journey through India. According to Prashant, he had been on the road for five months already. At the next halt, as we discussed Prashant’s meeting with Ravinder, it was opportunity to reflect on how differently time was perceived by people. Unlike us, this cyclist appeared comfortably settled into a patient experience of existence. I remembered some cyclists I know, who don’t hesitate to spend longer time than originally planned at places they like or pedal at leisurely pace making sure they don’t needlessly stretch themselves. We had limited number of days at our disposal; we just kept pedaling, chasing a goal each day. We might as well have been in the city. But more than that, it was mental; conditioning. We simply didn’t know how to cope with a slower flow of time, flow of course being a human sensation for time is whatever it is. Do less and you sense existence and time. Do more, you seem to own time, which (the ownership) is an illusion. Prashant’s meeting with Ravinder was brief. But the unhurried cyclist left us with much to think about.

Karanja; early morning (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Two low points: the beginning and the end

The coastal route to Goa is by and large an escape from the urban, competitive paradigm of life. However the route we were on started in city and ended in city. Both these ends are steeped in all that has gone wrong with the urban model; its best ambassador being ugly exploded traffic. Thanks to infrastructure projects, a major sea port and real estate business, the once pleasant road from Navi Mumbai to Uran has been usurped by vehicular traffic. Cycling here is not a pleasure anymore. You are at the mercy of a mindset that gives no damn for bicycles or thoughts in the slow lane; it’s called development. But you still cycle through the traffic laden road to Uran because there is something charming in the contrasting quietness of Rewas just a ferry hop away from Karanja. It is a contrast (like so many other such contrasts) that should inspire people to introspect: what are Indians doing to their daily existence? Does a tonne of money made, justify the ruining of life as we know it? A week after we set foot in Rewas, Navi Mumbai returned as Goa. It was Sunday and yet, the road from Mapusa to Panjim was filled with traffic. Life had come full circle. We were back in the embrace of development. Someone with a talent for the blues should compose a song: Development Blues; sing it like John Lee Hooker belting out Boogie Chillen.

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

AN AQABA TO REMEMBER

Nupur Singh (Photo: courtesy Nupur)

Nupur Singh got into running in 2014. Two years later, she quit her job in Delhi and moved to the mountains to organize races. In November 2019 (as reported earlier on this blog), Indian ultra-runners did well at an international 100 kilometer championships in Jordan. In the same event, Nupur – she was not part of the official Indian team but running in the open category – finished in fairly good time.

On November 23, 2019, a team of ultra-runners representing India participated in the 2019 IAU 100 kilometer Asia & Oceania Championships at Aqaba, Jordan. The men’s team won the gold medal and the women’s team, the silver.

Mumbai’s Deepak Bandbe won the bronze medal and set a new national record in the men’s 100 km. Kolkata’s Anjali Saraogi set a new national record in the women’s 100 km; she finished fourth. The course on which, the race happened was a 10km-loop.

Alongside the Indian runners on that loop was another compatriot; Nupur Singh. She was running the same race but in the open category. She was not part of the Indian team. In fact, Nupur had resumed running only in July 2019 after a gap of three years. By November in Aqaba, it was only around four months since returning to running. Nupur finished the race in nine hours, 36 minutes and 15 seconds. She finished second behind British athlete, Joasia Zakrzwenski, the winner of the open race. Joasia finished in 8:25:50 hours. There were just two women in the open race in their gender category.

Nupur’s first race in three years had happened three months earlier – the AFMC Pune Marathon of August 2019, where she finished second overall among women. On October 6, 2019, she ran 60 kilometers at Solang Sky Ultra, which has cumulative elevation gain of 3570 meters and cut-off of 14 hours. She was the overall winner finishing the distance in nine hours, 46 minutes and 48 seconds. Aqaba followed.

Photo: courtesy Nupur Singh

Nupur, 32, is from Lalitpur in Uttar Pradesh. She took to amateur running in 2014. But she was not new to sports. “ I come from a conservative business family. My mother was the mayor of Lalitpur,’’ she said. She is the third among four siblings – two brothers and one sister. After an initial phase of schooling in Lalitpur, she did her senior years at Indore Public School. She was into a variety of sports such as swimming, tennis, basketball and cricket besides getting as far as the inter-school nationals in air-rifle shooting, wherein she secured a bronze medal. She moved to Pune to pursue graduation in architecture. As studies took precedence, sports got relegated to the background. Once done with studies, Nupur took up employment in Delhi. “ For three years, I was deeply involved with work with no room for any sporting activity,’’ she said.

In 2013, Nupur decided to take a break and went on a solo trek to Kedarkantha in Uttarakhand. “ This trek helped me get into the outdoors. I started trekking regularly. I also bought a cycle and started doing bicycle trips,’’ Nupur said. She spent a lot of time training to cycle from Manali to Leh, a trip that is hugely popular among amateur long-distance cyclists in India. After trekking and cycling, the next thing she got into was running. Nupur enrolled for the 2014 edition of Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM) and finished the race in two hours, pretty good time for a first time runner. It encouraged her to pursue running. Alongside the treks and bicycle trips continued.

In 2016, she quit her job in Delhi and moved to the mountains to organize races. She shifted to Bir in Himachal Pradesh. She joined hands with Vishwas Sindhu to co-found The Hell Race, which includes a clutch of races mostly held in the foothills of the Himalaya, besides routes in other ranges. That put a complete brake on her personal running plans. Organizing races under the Hell Race banner took up all her time. It involved traveling to various destinations, finding routes and marshaling the logistics required for the races plus other responsibilities.

Photo: courtesy Nupur Singh

In 2019, she decided to get back to running seriously. For that, she resolved to move away from The Hell Race but not from organizing races. Vishwas and Nupur decided to split The Hell Race. Of the many races organized under the banner, Nupur decided to take three and resume them with coach and ultra-runner Sandeep Kumar under the enterprise called Grand Indian Trails, also known as GRIT. “ We split on amicable terms,’’ she said. This new arrangement, Nupur hoped, would give her time for her own running. From the basket of races held previously under The Hell Race, the Deccan Ultra, Bir Billing Marathon and Coffee Trails are currently organized by GRIT. “ The best part of organizing running races is that both running and organizing are co-related. It needs discipline at my end to focus on both equally,’’ Nupur said.

In February 2019, she had met Sandeep Kumar at Deccan Ultra. The Deccan Ultra includes the Sahyadri peaks of Kalsubai, Alang, Kulang and Madan (Alang-Kulang-Madan is one of the classic hikes of the Maharashtra Sahyadri) in its route. Nupur decided to train under Sandeep in ultra-running. From Sandeep she learnt about IAU’s open category at the 100 km race at the Asia & Oceania Championships in Aqaba, Jordan. She applied for the same. Sandeep was part of the official Indian team heading to the championships. “ My training started in earnest only in September. Sandeep helped me with goal-setting, training plans, nutrition, recovery, running gear and race strategy,’’ Nupur said. Her preparations entailed all the elements required for an ultra-distance race – speed workout, core and strength workout and long runs. “ I could have done better in training. My weekly mileage was in the range of 100-150 km but my single day long run could not exceed 60 km,’’ she said.

At the race in Aqaba, Nupur’s first 50 km went off quite well. “ My target was to finish the first 50 km in 4:30 hours. I finished the distance in 4:15. At around 60 km, I had to slow down. I started to have stomach issues. At 70 km, I had to take a toilet break and then resort to some bit of walking,’’ she said. Headwinds were quite strong. Although the elevation was only 75 meters, repeated running on the 10 km route and the variations in temperature had an impact on many of the runners. “ The Indian crew was absolutely amazing. It is because of the crew members that I was able to finish the race quite well,’’ Nupur said. A lesson from the championship that Nupur takes home is that she needs to work on her nutrition. She recently shifted to being vegetarian. According to her, this choice has been helping her immensely in post-training recovery.

Photo: courtesy Nupur Singh

Two weeks after Aqaba, Nupur ran the SRT (Sinhagad-Rajgad-Torna) 53 km with cumulative elevation gain of 2350 meters and finished in the top position among women and sixth overall. She had a timing of 7:33:09 hours. At the time of her speaking to this blog, winter was beginning to set in and Nupur was scheduled to head back to Solang, where she has a base. This winter, she may attempt skiing. “ Last year, I learnt the basics of skiing,’’ she said. Sandeep believes Nupur has a good future in ultra-running. “ She trains wells, is quick to learn and works hard. Among women, she is one of the best in ultra-running in India,’’ he said. Going ahead, Nupur has her mind set on the Comrades Marathon (the downhill version) in South Africa, the IAU 100 km World Championships to be held in the Netherlands and the Asia Trail Master Races.

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

CHANGE OF MIND ON DENALI

Seema Pai (Photo: courtesy Seema)

In late June 2019, Seema Pai from Bengaluru reached the summit of Denali, North America’s highest mountain. She returned with many questions in her head and the desire to rethink the projects she was working on.

It all started unexpectedly with a hike in the Sikkim Himalaya in March 2015. That was when Seema Pai and her partner, Dinesh Kaigonahalli, met Sergei Chulkov, a Russian mountain guide. They agreed to meet again; hopefully in the Caucusus Mountains, the mountain system at the intersection of Europe and Asia. A few months after the hike in Sikkim, Seema and Dinesh had an enjoyable outing in Ladakh, trying out a hiking route they hadn’t been on before, in the eastern Nubra Valley. The trek involved three passes all above 17,500 feet in elevation. At its end, the duo decided to extend their outdoor experience to the Caucusus. It seemed appropriate in another way – they were well acclimatized from their stay and hike in Ladakh. Why waste that fitness with a return to the plains?

They flew to Moscow and from there, traveled to the resort town of Mineralnye Vody in Stavropol Krai where they met up with Sergei. Given their recent acclimatization to high altitude and the fact that its benefits stay on for a brief while, Sergie recommended that they attempt Mount Elbrus (18,510ft), the highest peak in the Caucusus. A mountain guide, he kitted them out for the trip. That was how Elbrus happened. With it, rather unexpectedly, Seema found herself looking at the possibility of attempting Seven Summits. It wasn’t something she sought. Elbrus happens to be among mountains constituting the Seven Summits challenge in mountaineering. She had just traveled to Russia and climbed it. So, how about trying the rest? First accomplished by American businessman Richard Bass in 1985, Seven Summits entails climbing the highest peak on each continent. The seven peaks are: Everest (Asia), Aconcagua (South America), Denali (North America), Elbrus (Europe), Vinson Massif (Antarctica) and Kosciuszko (Australia) or Puncak Jaya aka Carstensz Pyramid (Indonesia). That last choice depends on whether you view Australia as continent or tectonic plate; if latter then Puncak Jaya in Papua, Indonesia qualifies to be highest.

On Elbrus (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Belonging to Bengaluru’s early crop of woman rock climbers, Seema has been climbing, hiking and going on expeditions to the Himalaya for many years. A self-made person with multiple rebounds from testing predicaments to her credit she owned of a couple of shops selling outdoor gear in the city. In mid-August 2017, after another acclimatization trek in Ladakh, Seema and Dinesh flew to Tanzania. In less than a week they were atop Kilimanjaro (19,340ft), the highest freestanding peak in the world and the highest mountain in Africa. In early 2018, the two of them traveled to Argentina in South America, where Seema successfully climbed Aconcagua (22,841ft). All these ascents – Elbrus, Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua – were guided trips that were also supported (meaning – use of support staff) to varying degrees. It made the next expedition, Denali, stand out. Trips to Denali are mostly self-supported. It is only in the Himalaya and the mountains of Africa that clients are indulged with support services. In the world of hiking and mountaineering, respect is highest for people who do things by themselves. Seema was certain she did not want to be a tourist on Denali. She wanted an expedition in which, she did her share of hard work. There was also another angle at play here.

If you go through Wikipedia’s page on Bill Watterson, a sentence to remember is his observation that he works for personal fulfilment. Watterson is the creator of the popular comic strip: Calvin and Hobbes; first published November 18, 1985. Despite its success, Calvin and Hobbes had a syndicated run of only ten years, from 1985 to 1995. According to Wikipedia, Watterson stopped drawing the strip with a short statement to newspaper editors and readers saying that he felt he had achieved all he could in the medium. He is also known for his battle with publishers against merchandising his characters; something he felt would render his characters cheap. Amid the comic strip’s immense popularity even today, Watterson’s take on commercialization is, arguably, not as well-known. Seema is a huge fan of Calvin and Hobbes. In her childhood, she had been the strong-willed, independent sort with penchant for courting trouble. The story of the six year-old adventurous boy and his stuffed tiger had instant appeal. Among concepts that she latched on to was the idea of the transmogrifier, the cardboard box Calvin uses many times to transform himself and Hobbes into a variety of characters. She had long wanted her own cardboard box.

From the expedition to Denali (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Alaska has been an emblem for the world’s wilderness spaces. There are other places similar to it or near similar, but when it comes to imagining vast snowbound landscapes, polar weather and animal and human existence evolved in such circumstance, Alaska easily invades the brain. It is also true unfortunately that some of the results of human intervention – like oil spills; they too enter the frame. Alaska is home to North America’s best known mountain – Denali. For many years, the mountain was also known as McKinley, called so after William McKinley, 25th president of the United States who was assassinated in September 1901. Although its height is only 20,310 feet – significantly less than many of the peaks in the Himalaya – Denali is both a big mountain, among the world’s most northerly big mountains, quite cold and capable of attracting feisty weather conditions. There is also plenty of raw ascending involved given the walk-in starts at around 7000 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier. According to Wikipedia, the first verifiable ascent of Denali was in 1913, by Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens, Walter Harper and Robert Tallum. Within the Seven Summits world, Denali is among the most demanding climbs because in addition to whatever it offers, the challenges are tackled with few of the luxuries of guided ascents. After Elbrus, Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua, as Seema knocked on Denali’s doors she knew a different experience waited. This would be her personal transmogrifier to become the sort of outdoorsperson she wanted to be.

In Bengaluru, along with her regular training, Seema commenced a special 24 week-program designed for the Denali ascent. The focus was cardio-vascular, core and strength training. Additionally she also pulled heavy tyres and periodically did stair workouts at an apartment block having 15 floors; her backpack loaded to almost 30 kilos. Then just before heading to the US, she and Dinesh spent two weeks in Ladakh. They hiked to two passes – Stok La and Ganda La – without much load; they carried just about five to six kilos of stuff in their backpack. The idea was to take it easy, provide a tapering, relaxed phase to all the hard work that had gone in. It was also a case of repeating the pattern they had resorted to before the previous peak ascents as part pf Seven Summits – Ladakh was ideal place to acclimatize ahead of expedition. Early June, they flew from Delhi to Seattle via Frankfurt. There they met Madhu Chikkaraju and Pranesh Manchaiah, climbers from Bengaluru who had previously been on Denali as part of faculty for a premier outdoor school. Seema had tied up with them for the Denali attempt. At Anchorage in Alaska, which they reached on June 16, they were also joined by Brian, who had come from Oregon. Seema’s birthday – her fiftieth – was celebrated at Anchorage in the company of her expedition team and friends from Sacramento, who showed up for the occasion. There was some final shopping also done at REI, Anchorage.

On Denali (Photo: courtesy Seema)

A few days later, the team proceeded to Talkeetna. “ It is a rugged place,’’ Seema said.  Here, the expedition’s gear and supplies were reviewed and repacked. Given an expedition proceeds setting up camps on the mountain and a load ferry precedes each camp, the supplies had to be repacked in plastic and dry bags so that they could be buried six to seven feet deep in the snow; each such cachet is identified with markers bearing the expedition’s name. “ Since there is nobody to help you haul what you take, every unwanted gram is left behind. You orient yourself for life based on essentials and what is relevant,’’ Seema said.

Talkeetna was where the final paperwork and briefing related to the expedition got done. The rangers who interviewed the team had already seen the climbers’ biodata. They had much respect for the altitudes of the Himalaya. But that didn’t stop them from checking whether the predominantly Indian team was aware of what it took to attempt Denali. They made sure the team members knew glacier mountaineering, that they knew the basics of climbing; they even asked how many trips Seema had made to the Himalaya given Bengaluru is in South India. Their focus was more on Madhu and Pranesh, who were the more experienced members and assuming responsibility for the rest. The region around Denali is a national park. The rangers gave a Power Point presentation on dos and don’ts; they also provided an overview of the route available for the season, prevailing conditions and how many attempts had happened as yet. The park service, responsible for maintaining the environment and ensuring visitors’ safety, provided sledges (to pull gear) and poop buckets (to collect and ship out human waste). You have to pay for these. “ The park officials were professional and articulate,’’ Seema said. The private expedition was given the name: Team Bengaluru. They would attempt Denali via the popular route – the West Buttress Route.

Indicative of the ice, wilderness and far flung settlements ahead, there were plenty of planes around in Talkeetna. They do the work of ferrying people and supplies to remoteness. Alaska is among regions that birthed bush flying, wherein the tough terrain that planes take off and land on offered few prepared landing strips and runways. It called for tough pilots, tough planes and much innovation. Bush planes are characterized by their ability to operate from short landing strips, large tyres to tackle bumpy terrain, undercarriage designed to host floats and skis and high wings that permit easy loading and unimpeded gaze downward for pilot and passengers. Alaska’s first bush pilot was Carl Ben Eilson, hailing from North Dakota in the US. Bush planes, pilots – they are as much part of Alaskan stories as nature and people are, in the region. Team Bengaluru flew from Talkeetna to Kahiltna East Fork Glacier. The Kahiltna Glacier is Alaska’s longest; it is 71 kilometers long. “ You are supposed to be dressed for life on glacier and ready for it from the moment you step on to the plane,’’ Seema said.

From the Denali expedition (Photo: courtesy Seema)

The plane dropped off the team and their gear, took on those waiting to go back and left. It was now down to four people, their supplies and a vast landscape. Backpacks weighed over 20 kilos; there was roughly 55-60 kilos of gear per head in total. The distance from East Fork at roughly 7000 feet elevation to Denali’s summit – 20,310 feet – is 29 kilometers. Sense of work to be done, sank in for reduced to the minimalism of so much stuff, a few humans and  nothing else around, one thing was clear – none of that gear is going to move unless human being hauls it. “ I am thankful that I put my butt on fire in Bengaluru, preparing for this expedition. You have to be fit if you want to attempt Denali as part of a self-supported team,’’ Seema said. It was the evening of June 19, 2019. Aside from two metal shelters, there was no other permanent installation at Kahiltna East Fork. It was just miles of glacier. You saw the lower portions of Denali; its middle and higher reaches remained unseen. The months of May, June and July form the traditional window to attempt Denali. Thanks to global warming, Seema said, late July is not recommended while late April-expeditions have begun happening. Although flying with Seema to Talkeetna, Dinesh wasn’t part of the climbing team. He was scheduled to return to India. Dinesh is among Bengaluru’s pioneers in rock climbing, a former NOLS instructor in mountaineering and one of the original founders of India’s popular backpack brand: Wildcraft.  Before leaving Talkeetna, he went for a cruise on the river. The settlement is at the confluence of three rivers – Susitna, Chulitna and Talkeetna. From the boat, he saw Denali in the distance. He recalls thinking how massive it seemed. Mt Foraker: Mt Hunter, Denali – they are all in the same area. But Denali towered above the rest.

Life on a giant glacier comes with its own protocols. There were assigned camping spots on Kahiltna East Fork and limits on how far you venture off the designated zone for there are crevasses. You respect the safety markers that have been put up; you also watch out for each other. Climbers heading to Denali stick to the assigned path, identifiable thanks to periodic markers and the footprints of those who went earlier. On vast, barren glacier with nowhere to hide, a pee-break or poop-break finds you going about your business while others look away to provide an illusion of privacy. Tents, easily set up on other types of terrain, can be installed on a glacier exposed to the wind only after sufficient snow has been shoveled off and a flat trough excavated for the pitching. With so much ice around, snow goggles are a must. Sleep is quite different from mountaineering in the Himalaya. The Alaskan year is divided into two halves of summer and winter. June is summer and in summer, daylight never goes off fully. “ You put a scarf on your eyes and try to sleep. I went to Denali like a student. You have to have humility. What I liked about Denali is that you can’t be competitive in this landscape. If you are still competitive, then you are spiritually zero. Nothing works here without team work,’’ Seema said. The first few days of load ferry is done wearing snow shoes, designed to prevent feet from sinking into snow. Back in Bengaluru, Seema had trained to pull sledges (that’s what the earlier mentioned tyres were for). Still doing it for real was a challenge. She hadn’t factored in how traction would be with snow shoes. On the approach to Denali, she elected to do her hauling in the backpack instead. The team used snow shoes and sledges till the fifth day. Then they were cached (buried) in the snow at Windy Corner to be retrieved on the way back. Past this point, Seem also stopped using both her trekking poles. It became a pole and an ice axe. Among the camps en route, the one at 14,200 feet was sizable. “ It resembles a colony and is just ahead of the actual climb up Denali. This camp has a medical facility with Gammo Bag to tackle altitude induced sickness,’’ Seema said.

On Denali (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Fixed ropes installed every season for the climb, commenced from this camp. Here the team also faced their first set of serious problems. To begin with a storm was forecast. Bad weather typically entails lasting it out for a fresh window to open up. That puts pressure on the team’s supplies. Then, one of the team members became unwell, apparently caused by altitude. The medical personnel advised that the individual descend for safety. He was relocated to camp at 11,000 feet. Simple as it sounds, in reality this wasn’t easy. In the thick of an expedition with work to do and summit to gain, altitude sickness is rarely acknowledged by patients. When it is established through external intervention, there is the issue of patient buying into it adequately and descending to safety. Finally in small alpine teams, when one person is taken out of the frame, the others have to pull that much more for there are only so many to get the job done. The diagnosis of altitude sickness and descent to safe camp to park the individual – all this happened alongside responsibilities parceled out and load ferry continued to set up higher camps. By now the body clock had gone haywire; in Denali’s blurred divide between day and night sleep was happening at hours distinctly odd by the habits of lower latitudes. And so one of the timelines read like this – team members after transferring their colleague to lower camp (where his condition started to improve) got back to the camp at 14,200 feet by 3AM. They rested till 3PM and then left for high camp at 17,200 feet – below Denali Pass – which they reached by 10.30PM. The weather was starting to go bad. They rested till 8AM, then, left for the summit at 10AM. The narrative may as well have been of one long solar day; sleep – a case of badly required shut eye and not world blanketed by darkness.

The summit push is divided into three parts – there is the Denali Pass, the summit slope and a large slushy snowfield, replete with the associated risks of glacier travel. The team moved efficiently, tackling Denali Pass in under-two hours. “ Summit day was 12 hours long for us. We reached the top of Denali at 5.50PM on June 28. Luckily for us, the weather didn’t worsen that day and the next. Having gained the summit, we got back to the camp at 11,000 feet and our friend recuperating there, by around 10PM,’’ Seema said. Reunited and briefly rested, they wound up the camp at 11,000 feet and descended to East Fork at approximately 7000 feet. Having returned to Bengaluru, Dinesh had been monitoring the weather in Alaska online. He saw the storm forecast. He also saw that around the team’s previously calculated summit window, conditions were holding and not deteriorating further. “ Up and down Denali in eleven days is admirable,’’ he said.

For Seema however, there were other thoughts taking root. The whole Seven Summits journey had been triggered unexpectedly. Once she launched into it, there had been the related big expedition-rigmarole of impressing sponsors, articulating purpose and marketing it. All of that to try and raise funds. A century ago, in times vastly different from now, George Mallory could say he wanted to climb Everest “ because it’s there.’’ Now, adventure finds support because it promises relevance for sale in human collective. Empowerment; no-limits, team work – such descriptions help market adventure, when it is actually a case of nothing but because-its-there and you wanting to try it. Bucket lists by fifty are perhaps no different. Or to be more precise – there is nothing wrong in wishing for something but if you want it to be a soul-cleansing experience alongside, then it has to be just that and not what impresses sponsors and human collective. Seema had Elbrus, Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua and Denali in the bag. Everest, Vinson Massif and Puncak Jaya remained. Denali in particular had come after much preparation. She had worked for it. It had been mission mode. And just when it delivered results, it also posed questions. What are you on a mountain for? “ I don’t want anything in mission mode anymore on a mountain. I want it to be a fuller experience of what it is like to be out there. On a normal expedition, one is happier. You have time. Mission mode, chasing an objective or ambition, does not offer opportunity to connect deeply to the experience, ’’ she said.

From the Denali expedition (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Denali done, Seema has been questioning her pursuit of Seven Summits. “ I don’t wish to go after the remaining peaks in Seven Summits. On the other hand, Denali has given me the confidence to attempt bigger peaks. Not tick them as some objective achieved. Woh race mein nahin lagne ka….’’ she said. Not to mention – Seven Summits is an expensive proposition and the peaks remaining to be climbed – Everest, Vinson Massif (in Antarctica) and Puncak Jaya (in Indonesia) – are costly affairs owing to challenges in logistics or the commercial enterprise they come wrapped in. Is mountaineering all about measurement by capacity to afford costly expeditions and logistics? In days of commercial expeditions like today, it would seem so. “ The problem in life is that sense of accomplishment easily transforms to self-obsession. I don’t want that,’’ Seema said. Back in Bengaluru, she has been reassessing her life. Alongside her business, Seema has maintained a presence in farming. The latter’s appeal has been growing. Denali was indeed transmogrifier.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For more on Seema Pai please try this link: https://whynotat50.com/)                

OCTOBER 2, 1955

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

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

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

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

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

SLOW AND SOLO

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

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

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

It is a combination of restaurant and general store.

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

NIM days (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ficycles (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At Solang (Photo: courtesy Vijay Beladkar)

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

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