REGULATION SHOULD MAKE ADVENTURE SAFE, NOT RESTRICT IT / TALKING TO STEVE SWENSON

Steve Swenson (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In February 2019, Steve Swenson, well-known mountaineer and former president of American Alpine Club was in Mumbai to accept the 2018 Kekoo Naoroji Book Award for his book: Karakorum – Climbing Through the Kashmir Conflict. Besides giving two talks that dwelled on his book and drew upon his wealth of experiences in climbing, Steve also participated in a panel discussion on risk management, safety and regulations pertaining to adventure sports. Thanks to accidents, litigation and complaints of environment degradation, the issue of regulating adventure tourism and adventure sports has been slowly gaining traction in India. On the other hand, poorly imagined regulation, harsh regulation, excessive regulation – these can stifle adventure.

In India, as rules and regulations for adventure sports are framed, some of the emergent concerns include how restrictive they would be of personal freedom and where the trained and experienced amateur sportsperson would be positioned in the pantheon of subjects to be regulated. Each location has its own matrix authored by population, natural spaces and resident empathy for adventure. India has to find its way. The US has one of the most active and evolved climbing scenes in the world with regulations to match. This blog met Steve after the Himalayan Club meeting for a chat on a range of subjects; among them – regulation of climbing, the US experience with regulations, the adventure point (as Steve put it), what he has learnt as a veteran climber now partnering young climbers on expeditions, the need for the young to be patient and of course, his book. Excerpts:

Denali; view of the summit from Wonder Lake (Photo: Ted O’ Callahan)

In the US, how well do you distinguish between adventure-seekers going out on their own assuming responsibility for their safety and conduct, and guided trips? Do individual adventure-seekers, doing so after years of training and frequenting the outdoors, also get caught up in the same rules and regulations as applied to guided trips?

In North America, amateur climbers going climbing in public lands which would be mostly parks – they have to observe the rules of the park. They have to pay the entrance fee and in some of the parks there may be restrictions on the number of people allowed to visit certain areas. Amateur climbers have to fall within those rules. Some of the national parks on big mountains like Denali; they have a thorough permit and registration process even for amateurs. On Denali you have to register 60 days ahead, you have to go through an interview with a park warden who is an expert climber. On a big mountain like that, they like to make sure that the people who are coming are people who know what they are doing and won’t get themselves into trouble. They can’t tell them they can’t go. They try public education to minimize people who are clearly going to get themselves into trouble.

I think the climbing community has done a good job educating people about issues like safety, environmental protection and stewardship and providing information about concerns like avalanches. There is a lot of education in the community to ensure that when you go out you have enough information to make a sound decision. There is a pretty big network on these matters. However, as the sport becomes more popular, I do see increasing numbers of inexperienced climbers out there. This is putting greater demand on the different climbing clubs and professional guides to try and make sure that all these enthusiasts are getting their outdoor education needs met.

On the guided side – wherein people pay money to be taken on trips – there is much more regulation. The land managers at different parks, they need the companies involved to have permits to take clients climbing on public lands. They demand a certain level of certification to operate. If you don’t have certification and permits and they catch you for illegal guiding you will be in big trouble.

Canyon Lands (Photo: Dinesh Kaigonhalli)

When it comes to ensuring technical competence, In India, there is always the contest between the organic route featuring climbing clubs with you learning from others over a period of time and assigned institutes where you undergo an adventure course and receive a certificate. What do you follow in the US?

There are multiple paths you can take to learn those skills. There are some people who never take a course, they climb with friends, read books, refer videos – they sort of do it organically. Then, there are clubs that teach outdoor education but these are formal courses. You have to sign up, pay for the course and you are taught by experienced volunteer instructors.  It is a course with a curriculum and you have to complete it before you get a certificate. Then there are schools like NOLS or Outward Bound – those would be similar to the institutes you have in India. Then there are those who learn by hiring private guides and once they have acquired the required skills, go out with climber-friends and eventually, go on their own.

From a land manager’s perspective – if you went to climb in a park for instance – is any one of these approaches deemed more acceptable officially than the other?

No, no they wouldn’t do that. However, there will be caps on the number of people allowed in per day based on the land manager’s study of each valley’s carrying capacity. For example on a weekend, when many people turn up to climb, the land manager may say – this guiding company gets five, this other company gets ten and the amateur club over here, you get 15. They will be limited that way. But the land manager is not going to show any preference as long as everybody is following the rules.

Half Dome; Yosemite National Park (Photo: Dinesh Kaigonhalli)

You have been president of the American Alpine Club. How important is it for you to keep the amateur category alive; how important is the amateur flame – if I may describe it so – to the sport? I ask this because increasingly in human predicaments like India, it is very tempting to conclude that guided trips are the way to go….

I think that if land managers decided that anyone who is climbing has to be part of a guided party, there will be this huge protest against it. People would go completely crazy if they ever did anything like that. Land managers would be flooded with protests. Elected representatives would be flooded with complaints. For people in North America, a lot of the appeal in going to the mountains is to experience that personal freedom, have your own adventure. If the government was to come in and restrict the kind of adventure that you are going to have, then, people would be really, really upset. That would never happen.  Different things work for different people. I believe the land managers recognize that there has to be a variety of options. In some places, restrictions are stiff – rafting in the Grand Canyon being an example. The number of people wishing to do that often exceeds the carrying capacity of the place. If you are an amateur river rafter you can get a permit to go there but it is a lottery. When you get the chance you better go because it may be another decade before you win the lottery again. Some amateurs may argue that in such instances the permit regime is partial to commercial operators because they give permits every year to them to operate a certain number of boats. Your chance of winning a lottery is small but you could sign up with a commercial operator because they will be running boats that already have permits.

How important is it for land managers in the US to be familiar with a sport in question? That is a challenge we face in India because administrators designing policy and implementing them are often not familiar with the sport.

In the parks in the US, the people that are administering a climbing program – let’s say Denali, Yosemite or Mt Rainier, you know any place where climbing is a big part of what goes on – they are climbers. And they are usually good climbers. When you go to the ranger’s office you are talking to a fellow climber; someone who knows the mountain, knows what current conditions are and is familiar with all the rules and carrying capacity of the place. I have friends who are climbing rangers. On off days, we go climbing together. So they are as much a part of the climbing community as all the amateurs, guides and everybody else. They are very knowledgeable.

Is there a lot of interaction and exchange of information that happens between the climbing community and the land managers?

Oh yeah. Sometimes it is very co-operative, sometimes it can be a little bit contentious. In Canada, where I go ice climbing in winter; one of the biggest hazards up there is avalanches. If I want to know what snow conditions are like and if after my research I am still unsure of exactly how things are, I can just pick up the phone and speak to the park’s safety specialist and ask him.

El Capitan from the meadows; Yosemite National Park (Photo: Dinesh Kaigonhalli)

For the sake of clarity I wish to ask this: the tenor on the part of whoever is answering that phone is not to stop you from climbing….

No, no, that’s not their job. However if the rangers thought that where I was going is a bad idea, they would tell me. They can’t tell me: don’t go there. That’s not part of why they are there. But they may tell me: we think that’s a really bad idea and if you went there then the possibility of an avalanche killing you is quite high. So we would avoid that.

But there are other situations, where historically the park managers and climbers have had a testy relationship. Take a park like Yosemite. It is an iconic rock climbing Mecca. That park is very crowded. They have all the problems that you would find in a big city, there. What the rangers have to do in a park like that is law enforcement. There’s not enough room in Yosemite Valley to accommodate all those who go there and camp. The climbers that go there, they want to live there; they want to stay there for months at a time. But the rules say you can camp there for only two weeks at a time. If you exceed, you deny others their opportunity. Rangers don’t allow that. The climbers then end up camping illegally. The rangers don’t like that. They go out at night to find them and then give them a ticket or they kick them out. Situations like this can create tensions between land managers and the climbing community because you are dealing with a limited resource – camping space. And climbers can sometimes be iconoclastic, you know be very adversarial towards rules and regulations and people in positions of authority. The rangers don’t like that. In the past in places like Yosemite, relations have devolved to being very poor. Now in such situations, organizations like the American Alpine Club do things to foster better relationship between the land manager and the climbing community. For example, in the past, the American Alpine Club has done things like pay for Sunday morning coffee and biscuits for the rangers. They are at the camp with the climbers and it becomes an opportunity for both sides to meet and interact, get to know each other better.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

At the Himalayan Club meeting, you would have heard about how the need for Indian states to frame rules and regulations for adventure sports, commenced. In one instance, a case was filed over a fatal accident by the aggrieved party and from there the process started. In India, generally speaking, we are also at that stage where if tomorrow a marathon is held and somebody dies attempting it, the negativity of death outstrips the underlying fact that the person expired trying something he wished to, valued or liked. The US is a country strongly associated with litigation. How are fatal accidents in the outdoors dealt with in the US? Is there a strong cultural empathy for adventure, which works as bedrock in such situations or is there the tendency to stop adventure because somebody died?

I am not a lawyer, so I wouldn’t be able to answer that in detail. You should ideally talk to a lawyer in the US who has experience dealing with recreation. At my level, my understanding is that in the past there have been instances like somebody put a harness on incorrectly, they fell out of the harness and died and their family sued the harness manufacturer. This did happen some thirty years ago. When that happens, the whole community sort of rallies around the gear manufacturer and offers assistance to defend the business because they don’t want the litigation shutting down their sport. And they don’t want that litigation leading to a situation where nobody makes harnesses any more. There have been a number of such cases in the past. Most of the time, the gear manufacturer or the guide service provider – they are able to successfully defend themselves.  In the US, there is probably enough case law by now (for such defence)……unless there was gross negligence (involved in given case). There is also over time a legal standard that the gear manufacturers and service providers have to live up to. If they live up to that then the case law sort of kicks in to protect them. Guiding services, clubs – anyone who enrolls (at these facilities) has to sign waivers, which recognizes the sport they are getting into as dangerous and potentially fatal. Everybody participating is required to read and sign waivers. If you go to any indoor climbing gym there is a whole waiver process you have to go throw. Waivers have to be renewed every year. It’s a requirement in everyone’s insurance that they go through this to establish the legal standards of what they got into.  I think all this has got pretty standardized in North America that people feel they are protected. It doesn’t hold the sport back. It’s the same with access.  In America we have something called Access Fund, which helps put in place the necessary standards so that the land owner does not have to worry (about being held liable in case of accident) if climbers access his property to pursue their sport.

Would you say that there is also this angle of how each culture – maybe human predicament – relates to adventure? For instance, at the Himalayan Club discussion on risk management and safety, there was this observation or something very similar: lower the risk, increase the adventure…..

I don’t agree with that observation. I don’t think it is adventure if the risk is low. I have given talks on adventure and risk. I often speak of something called the adventure point. For me the adventure point is – on one side you have risk and on the other side you have ability. If your ability is high then the risk is low and that is not quite adventure. If I go and climb a rock that is really, really easy for me it is not going to be that much of an adventure. If my ability is low compared to what I am trying to do, then the adventure is high but so is the risk. I could kill myself. So to me, what I call the adventure point is where you have these factors in balance; where risk and ability sort of balance each other. You push yourself as hard as you can to be reasonably safe.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

There is a video on the Internet of you giving a presentation to The Mountaineers in which you speak of the growing number of gym climbers and the need to acquaint them with the outdoors. Can you elaborate on this issue?

I’d say clubs like The Mountaineers are old fashioned clubs, like the Himalayan Club. They offer these basic courses and take people outdoors. It is a bit like what probably happens in India at any of your institutes – they teach you a basic course that is a mile wide and an inch deep. In other words, they teach you a little bit about a whole bunch of different things ranging from camping to rock climbing to snow and ice climbing to crevasse rescue to navigation – all that stuff. You get to know a little bit about a lot. And then what happens is that when you take an intermediate course, it would be like layering up. When you do that for many years, you actually end up knowing a lot about a lot of things. In North America now, nobody learns like that. It’s got flipped on its head. It’s completely upside down. People now learn a lot about a narrow part of that information base. Like rock climbing – they start in a gym; they get really strong, they know how to train, they know how to clip bolts, they are way stronger and have more technical skills. But if you took that person outdoors and asked them to navigate their way through difficult landscape from point A to point B, they would have no idea how to do that. In North America, all these people coming out of gyms – their outdoor IQ, if you call it so; is low. There are special courses now that clubs are teaching, knowing that they are really strong in some areas and weak in these outdoor skills. They teach these outdoor skills, they don’t try to teach them stuff they already know. Gyms in the US now offer a course called Gym to Crag. It is just teaching people how to go outside. It isn’t just about sport climbing outdoors it is also about aspects like taking care of the environment, stewardship, dealing with human waste, handling pets etc. The only people learning the old basic courses are a small number of people at old fashioned outdoor clubs.

Photo: Shyam G Menon

So in retrospect there is value in the old basic courses….

There is value. But at the same time it is important to recognize – you can’t be somebody who is wishing for the past. I say: wake up. This is not how young people do it now. We have to adapt and change to how people learn now. If you can’t, you just need to accept it and go away. I would say that for ninety per cent of people in North America who are getting into climbing, their first exposure to the sport would have been at a climbing gym.

During your talk at the Himalayan Club, you mentioned about your experience climbing with young people. You spoke of how you hold yourself back on climbing trips and intervene only when needed; you also spoke of things that you learnt from young people. Can you tell us some more about what it is that you learn from them given you have already spent almost five decades in climbing?

One of the big changes in climbing is that climbing has become much more of a mainstream sport. People are now developing sophisticated training specifically for what we do. In the past you couldn’t go to a shop and buy a book on how to train for climbing. Today you can not only do that, you can also buy books specifically on how to train to be a boulderer or sport climber or alpinist. You can also hire a trainer. That kind of formal training for the sport is new to me. The young guys grow up with these training programs. When I hang out with them, they give me insight into these programs or provide me tips on what to do to improve. One of the things I am not good at in climbing is – power. You must have noticed this – when you are climbing in the high sixes you can do things pretty statically. But to break into the sevens, you have to be comfortable making dynamic moves. To do that, you have to be able to pull hard. So one of the things young people helped me with was – Steve you got to work on your power; here’s how you do that. When we climbed Saser Kangri II, in 2009, it was very difficult on a mountain like that to find a place to set up your tent at night. Everything around is tilted up or down. There is no flat place. In the past, we spent time looking for a place. There was nothing; we just wasted time looking. When we went back in 2011, the young guy said: we are not going to do that. We are not going to waste time. We will keep climbing and when it gets dark, we will camp. We will just figure it out. And he was right – we did figure it out. Another thing I learnt from young people is – how to go lighter. Equipment is always changing and it’s hard keeping up with it. It isn’t just technical climbing equipment it is also clothing. The young guys are really into it. If I want to get a new piece of gear, I just ask them.

Steve, your book Karakorum – Climbing Through the Kashmir Conflict won the 2018 Kekoo Naoroji Book Award. Can you tell us how this book came about?

I never really had an opportunity to reflect on my many expeditions spanning some thirty five years. When I came home from a trip, I would get busy with my profession and family. So I wanted to go back and examine what that was. I think that was the primary motive – see what we were doing, what it was all about. It was all these things that I had done but I really didn’t know much about. One of the big things that I realized during the writing process which I didn’t know going into it, for example, was that – when we were on K2 in 1990, we had a big dispute on our team between the four climbers and these two support guys. The two support guys – they came from Australia, they were the friends of one of the climbers – they were quite inexperienced.  They didn’t have proper footwear for instance. As soon as we saw that, the remaining three climbers said, they are not going up. It turned into a big dispute. At the end of the day, we came up with a compromise. We let the two guys climb up to 7000m using fixed ropes we put there. There were also restrictions like they shouldn’t use the food we had brought up. We compromised so because we were a four person team and we wanted all four climbers working. The process of reaching that compromise felt a little bit ugly at that time. It felt so particularly when juxtaposed on the traditional idea of the brotherhood of the rope. I left it there.  But when I started writing the book, I began thinking more and more about it and you know – that was a really good team. In reality these trips aren’t about people sitting around holding hands. You got to work through tough situations and work out compromises to keep teams together. Until the writing process, I hadn’t thought of it and figured it out. The tragedy is that we didn’t know it then.  Now we can look back and say: we made a good team.

You have spent over fifty years in climbing. You mentioned at the Himalayan Club meeting that you waited a decade for your first major summit. You said it in the context of reminding the younger generation to take things a little slow, be more patient. Can you elaborate on this point?

There is this young guy that I climb with in the Canadian Rockies. He has only got three years of experience and he is doing expert level stuff. He is a very talented athlete. He is a classic example of someone who is very strong, has a lot of athletic skills but he does not have the commonsense – you know practical knowledge of the entire landscape he is practising in – to be safe. So I am worried about him. Just last week, he took a hundred foot-fall and broke his scapula. He was lucky; he could have got hurt way worse than that. It doesn’t surprise me. I try to communicate that at least for me, it took a long time to learn how to be safe in a complex environment. Maybe I am a slow learner. But you are not going to do it overnight. The word I use a lot is patience. You got to learn to play the long game. When you are young, you are playing the short game. If you want to live to being an old guy like me, you know, you got to take it a little bit slower. Realize that you can’t learn everything that you need to know about what you are doing in a very short period of time. It is the nature of what it is. It is complicated.

Climbers on The Nose; El Capitan, Yosemite National Park (Photo: Dinesh Kaigonhalli)

Looking back, at any point in your career, was climbing ever a proving ground for you? That you got to prove that you are somebody by doing it?

No. It never felt to me like a proving ground. One of my favorite expressions is: every day is a school day. To me, it has always felt like a learning environment; never proving ground. If I felt that it was a proving ground, I’d be dead by now. That is not a sustainable way to be doing things. It is like this kid who took a hundred foot fall. He is desperate to be recognized by the climbing community as this tough guy. If he doesn’t get over that, he will get killed. I have told him so. The sport is not about that. I have written about it in the book – you know we were putting tremendous amount of effort into these trips that were not getting us to the summit. But every one of those trips was getting us closer. We did this one better than we did last time. We didn’t quite get to the top but I really feel better about how I did it. I could see that if we stayed on that trajectory then eventually we were going to succeed. We were going to have success in a way we felt in control. You know, not like – I made it to the summit but I almost died. That to me would feel like failure. I wanted success to be the result of a learning process and not the result of being crazy. That learning process – I really enjoy it.

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

JOURNEY TO FIRST OPEN WATER SWIM / AN ENJOYABLE EXPERIENCE

Pervin Batliwala (Photo: courtesy Pervin)

Pervin Batliwala, Mumbai-based long distance runner, attempted her first race in open water swimming recently. The 64 year-old did not finish within assigned cut-off time. But she enjoyed the experience thoroughly. This is her journey; as told by her:

In 2018, I participated in three major marathons – Mumbai Marathon, London Marathon and New York City Marathon. Including training sessions, that was a lot of running.

I was getting weary of running.

I needed a break.

Many of my friends had participated in Swimathon, a sea swimming-event in Goa, organized by Enduro Sports. Some of them suggested that I attempt it. I took up that idea and decided to enrol for the event’s 2019 edition.

Several years ago, I had learnt swimming at the pool at YMCA, Bombay Central. I ended up training in the breast stroke; I was not very proficient in freestyle.

Every now and then I used to swim. Swimming is good cross training for running. One of my friends, Zarir Baliwala, is a member of Breach Candy Club. I would go with him. He is a very good swimmer.

For Swimathon, I signed up for the event’s two kilometre-distance category. My preparation for the race was great fun. They say that one should enjoy the process and not worry too much about the outcome. This was entirely true for me in the case of Swimathon. I just completely enjoyed the process, right from deciding to enrol to finishing the event.

My event was on March 24, 2019. I landed in Goa on a Thursday. On Friday, many of us who were participating in the various races decided to do a small practice swim. This was the first time I was stepping into an open water situation. My training had been entirely in the swimming pool at Breach Candy Club. However I was absolutely comfortable swimming in the sea at Goa. It was more like a bay. We swam for 600 meters just to get familiar with the water body.

On the day of the race, there were about 200 swimmers attempting the same distance (2km) as me. It felt like a giant churn when the swimmers started the race. As I was first timer, I decided to wait until the swimmers had all started and then commenced. Also, most of them were freestyle swimmers and I was doing breast stroke. I thought it was best to allow them to go ahead of me.

My aim was to finish the race. Just two weeks ahead of the event, I had suffered a back problem. I had experienced similar back problem soon after the Mumbai Marathon too.

We had to swim a distance of one kilometre, turn around and come back to log the scheduled distance. The going was a bit tough for me. The current in the sea was quite strong and it was flowing against the direction the swimmers were moving to. At the turning point many swimmers collided into me and I ended up getting cramps in my hamstring. I lost about five minutes trying to get to the other side of the boat marking the half way point. But once we turned, the current was in our favour and the return to the finish line was quite easy.

I was not tired at all. In fact, at the finish line I felt I could have gone on for some more time. Also, I guess because of my long-distance running, I had the endurance to sustain it. If your breathing technique is right there is very little chance of getting tired. Because I was doing breast stroke, sighting the route was not a problem for me.

Photo: courtesy Pervin Batliwala

I exceeded the time limit of one hour, fifteen minutes assigned for the swim. I finished the race in 1:19:21. Initially, I was a bit disheartened. But then I remembered my first ever run. I had so much difficulty that I had to walk the second half of that half marathon in Mumbai, years ago. Compared to that, the timing here at Swimathon was not bad at all. It is good to know where I stand. I can now train better.

Overall, it was an extremely enjoyable experience. It was a well organised event. During the race, there were so many kayaks going around with volunteers asking the swimmers if they needed any help, hydration etc. There were quite a number of volunteers. There were many participants too; the estimate I heard of was – over 600 swimmers across various distance categories.

Swimming is definitely on the cards for me. I plan to now train in freestyle swimming because that gives you more speed compared to the breast stroke.

I also plan to learn cycling. I would definitely like to attempt a triathlon.

This year, I will be attempting Berlin Marathon in September. I will be registering for Tokyo Marathon and Chicago Marathon – both in 2020 – to complete the World Marathon Majors. Once that is done, I may look at triathlon or running events entailing distances longer than the marathon.

(Pervin Batliwala spoke to Latha Venkatraman. Latha is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. For more on Pervin please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2016/09/30/age-is-what-you-make-of-it/)

RUNNING IN THE HIMALAYA: 75 DAYS, 1500 KM, 40 MOUNTAIN PASSES / TALKING TO PETER VAN GEIT

Peter Van Geit (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Chennai based-Peter Van Geit is well-known in the field of ultra-running and outdoors, in India. In 2018, Peter completed an ultra-run (most of it solo) spanning 75 days, in Himachal Pradesh. Doing so, he covered roughly 1500 kilometers and crossed 40 mountain passes some of them frequented little by visitors from the outside. This was the first time Peter was running off-road in the Himalaya. While the seed of the project was a map on a Himachal Tourism board that he came across near Koksar during an earlier run, a lot of the initial information required for planning the project was sourced from a blog run by Satyanarayana (Satya), avid trekker from Bengaluru. In mid-2018 Satya was reported missing in the Himalaya. He was out on a solo trek. In February 2019, Peter was in Mumbai to deliver the annual Kaivan Mistry Memorial Lecture organized by the Himalayan Club. He spared time to talk to this blog. Excerpts:   

How did you get to know Satyanarayana? What was it about his writing that attracted your attention?

When you talk about Himalaya, to go there on your own, self-supported without any groups – the challenge therein is one of not much clear information on the map. Generally speaking, there are very few good blogs available to go through. An exception is Satya’s blog. When you start searching for the names of mountain passes you will be directed to his blog. Satya has been to the Himalaya extensively. The surprising thing was that he was from Bengaluru and not from North India. He was extremely good with maps. He used to get Survey of India maps; they have a lot of terrain data. He used to take photos, digitise them. He used to geo-reference-index them. He used to explore a lot of trails that were documented on those maps. Satya was pretty good with technical details. He documented the passes he went to accurately with GPS logs and latitude-longitude of campsites. Even the maps that he used for navigation were available on the website. Somehow, I was able to contact him through an email id and he called me. We had a long chat on the phone. He was leaving before me on a one-month journey exploring more of Kinnaur and Ladakh. Listening to him on the phone – I never met him in person – he came across as a very caring person. He was very accurate in his blogs. He was going on a solo self-supported trip without guides and other hikers. That was my style of traveling too.

Photo: Peter Van Geit (This photo was downloaded from Peter’s Facebook page)

Was it your plan all along to do this solo or it happened so because of other reasons?

I got inspired seeing a board of Himachal Tourism. It showed a lot of passes. That board triggered it off for me. I had done some solo biking in Himachal but most of the time I was running with a small group of two-three friends. This time also one of my friends was planning to do a little bit of exploring in Pangi valley sometime in August. That was the initial plan for two weeks. I had a lot of friends at Chennai Trekking Club (CTC) who were making plans. Some were planning for July, some others for September. Then I said I will do two weeks with one set of friends and another two weeks with another group. But as it turned out, although they were ultra-runners some could not mentally sustain the strenuous environment with glaciers and cold temperatures, especially when it started raining. Some suffered altitude sickness.

Eventually, about 70 per cent of the time I ended up being solo. It is an experience. It was scary after the first group left. But once I got into the solo momentum it was fine. The terrain was quite complicated, weather was challenging. Going solo allowed me to go at my own pace, comfortably, without having to wait for people who were slow.

In addition to what you got from Satya, how much more homework did you have to do?

Satya’s blog had a lot of information. But he had grown over the years, meaning in some phases he was not that accurate and not that technical. It was in recent years that he became really proficient with maps and GPS. I also took a lot of data from street maps. They are the public equivalent of Google maps wherein if you go beyond the roads you can see trails. Then there were two to three blogs which were very useful. Based on all these inputs we started identifying the exact location of the passes I wished to attempt.

Was the master-map your individual work or was there a team from CTC that worked on it?

Mostly it was me and Maniraj. He is quite good with maps. Mani has done a lot of hikes; in fact he has hiked for more years than me. He has done hikes in parts of Uttarakhand and Ladakh. He is also technically sharp. He offered a lot of inputs on the maps. Both of us are good at looking at satellite images and finding trails that are one metre wide. In terrain like Ladakh which has very little vegetation it is easy to spot trails. The colours and contrasts of trails make them visible. Putting our skills together we made a beautiful map. Initially we planned some 21 passes but then we kept adding.

Photo: Peter Van Geit (This photo was downloaded from Peter’s Facebook page)

This was the first time you were going off-road in the Himalaya. Was it easy for you to do that with just maps for guide?

For many of the trails there were GPS logs which always gave a good feeling. They had been prepared by others after being on these trails; they were accurate, so chances of getting lost were remote. If you go off track you can always work your way back by looking at these logs. This is helpful especially in places featuring glaciers and moraine; they resemble a battlefield. Having GPS log was quite useful especially in places like Pin Parvati. In such places not having a GPS log would have been tough. You could cross over to the wrong side and make a fatal mistake. Having GPS logs and over ten years of experience roaming around in dense jungles gave me a lot of confidence. Further when you get above tree line in the mountains, you get a good view. But I was wary of crevasses in glaciers and thoughts of getting stuck; I was very cautious about these things. In some places the maps we used were old and features had either changed or grown over or landslides had altered the landscape completely. A couple of times I got totally stuck. On one pass there was a trail but there were too many bushes, thorns and it was too steep. Then I tried the same pass from the other side and I got the right trail. One good thing about the passes is that they are like saddles and on both side there are valleys. It not landscape with many sides. That helps. The problem I faced was – wild streams. You better be on the correct side of such streams as you don’t get a second chance to cross.

You mentioned about the board you saw near Koksar past Rohtang Pass, which was the start of the whole project. Was that the reason why you picked Himachal? Did you have the option of going to any other state?

I am quite familiar with this region. For three to four years I had been running in Pangi and Chamba. Rohtang Pass, Spiti-Zanskar all that was quite familiar. Given I used to stick to the road, I was not familiar with the ranges. I was also familiar with the terrain from a biking point of view. I had gone there in 2000-2001 and also a few times more recently. That’s why I picked Himachal. Uttarakhand is on my plans for 2019.

In terms of number of passes were you comfortable with the number of passes you chose? It is an ambitious number of passes that you tackled at one go….

Whenever you go to the Himalaya, typically you go for one pass. You need three-four days for acclimatization. The thing is – from the second pass onward I don’t need to acclimatize. I have been hiking up to an elevation 2500 meters in South India. We knew forests, alpine meadows – this was known terrain. Once you stepped above 3000 meters you were in rocky areas, moraine, glaciers, passes which – for me – was unknown terrain. I didn’t know what to expect there. I did not know the rate of progress, how long it will take. But my history of being a hiker and ultra-runner – I had run over 2000 kilometers in Vietnam – that helped in terms of strength and lung capacity. I have been able to go at a good pace even at high altitude. Also having mental endurance helped. What I saw with those who kept me company on my wilderness trips was that they were not intimidated by the terrain or the physical difficulties. They found it tough mentally. Going solo is easier than taking a group of 20 people along.

With respect to gear, you whittled everything down to five kilograms. Was this something you developed as a standard from your runs or was it something that you arrived at specifically for this project?

On most of the occasions that we ran from town to town we didn’t have to carry food. Stay was easy. Also, we were running with a mix of runners and cyclists. We had the luxury of dumping all the camping gear on the cyclists. That meant we were running completely free with zero luggage, no food, no camping gear – that was so until I went to Vietnam where I did a solo run and had to carry some basic stuff. I didn’t have to carry too much. I went in winter when temperatures (including at elevation) go down to five degrees and it is around 30 degrees during the day. I had to carry some amount of shelter and warm clothes for the night. There I was running with a four kilo bag, not as heavy as the one that would be needed in the Himalaya. In Vietnam I ran 50 marathons with that four kilo bag though not at high altitude with low oxygen. There I felt quite comfortable. From the beginning itself a group of cyclists came along. It was a good experience.

Photo: Peter Van Geit (This photo was downloaded from Peter’s Facebook page)

In Himachal was the run originally planned for 75 days or it turned out to be so?

I had planned for less number of days, may be one and a half months or two months covering 21 passes. But as days went by Mani kept adding passes! In Kinnaur, I did not want to go by bus to Leh. He said try this pass. Like this we kept adding and adding till the start of winter.

Was Mani adding passes even as you were out in the mountains?

Yes. Whenever I reached town and had access to 3G I would download. He was a good guy to have at base camp and kept supplying me with useful options.

Peter, do you still have your job?

July 2017 I quit my job. Financially I was independent. I had to scale down. I was making good money at Cisco as a project manager. Because you make a lot of money, you buy a lot of things. You earn money; you spend money. You sit in traffic every day. You waste a lot of your life sitting in a cubicle attending to work. My work was interesting but I am 46 now. I should think about my life too. When you have a job, whenever you want to go on a trip like this one you are stuck with just two weeks of leave. That kind of time does not give you freedom. From day one you start counting the days and you always get the feeling that time is running out. So quitting that job and scaling back a little financially – it really felt as though you could go on for months and be able to decide from day to day. You could look at a valley you found yourself in and say: now I am going to spend some time here. This time I could enjoy my trip without being too stressed for time.

Was this project designed with limited capital in the frame?

This was one of the cheapest trips I ever did. Both in Vietnam and in Himachal I spent Rs 200 a day apart from the expenditure incurred to travel to the place. The major cost in such travel is transportation and stay. I was always traveling by state transport buses and staying in a tent or in somebody’s home or shelter. The only expenditure was food and food in extremely remote places is quite cheap – like Rs 60 for a nice plate of ten momos and five rupees for tea. I must have spent some Rs 5000-6000 for a whole month.

You however need to spend on gear. I spent around Rs 2500 on my first pair of shoes. I wore down some three pairs of shoes on this run.

This particular project is the culmination of how many years of experience?

First of all you need to have physical fitness. I also mentioned about mental endurance. Then, if you really want to do these things self-supported you need experience in navigation plus you need enough time to spare. That kind of combination makes it unique. There are quite a few things involved. So you won’t find too many people doing this even though they may be physically fit or mentally fit. But just looking at the physical aspect, I have been running very consistently for the last five years since I started running in 2013. Running is all about consistency. I have been doing weekday runs and during weekends, my long runs are trail runs. Running long distance so, gets your legs used to rocky trails. I have seen a number of runners struggling to balance on rocks. Also, the elevation practice – you need to go up and down. In Chennai, I run at least twice a week on nearby hills which also give an elevation gain of 500 meters. Running on trails and tackling elevation makes you stronger than running on flat roads.

Photo: Peter Van Geit (This photo was downloaded from Peter’s Facebook page)

You would encourage people to start small before scaling up?

Yes, two factors are essential – regularity in running and patience in scaling up distances. Running has to start slowly with easy pace; else, you risk injury. It is also about enjoying your run, not just about speed. But young people are very impatient, they want to see results. There is too much running to prove to other people. City runs are more about competition, medals and timings. Once you step into nature running becomes a different thing. It is about enjoying your surroundings, mentally engaging by looking at the beauty of nature. That way you can continue to run from morning till evening. At the end of the day you actually feel refreshed because you ran through so much beauty. Ultra-running is a totally different experience.

In the outdoors did you move continuously through a given day or you chose your hours; when to be active and when to rest?

In the south, we used to definitely have a break from 12 noon to 3 pm. It is too hot and humid. But in the Himalaya I kept going from sunrise till sunset because there it was not very sunny. Weather was always pleasant, never hot. The sun was intense but not hot. So, it was comfortable to keep going but you can’t have a constant pace. When you ascend you have to switch to walking. After you cross a pass initially it is quite steep and then when it flattens out you can start running.

What next for you?

The Himalaya is endless, so I think I will keep going. In summer I will be going back to Himachal, Uttarakhand and Ladakh and trying to cover 100 passes. I took these 100 passes from another blog. I will be referring Satya’s blog too. He has traveled so much and gone to areas which are so remote. I would like to walk in his footsteps. And then you have the backup security of meeting some shepherds. That will be the summer plan. In winters I am planning to run in different countries. I am planning to go to Laos. I don’t want to go to touristy places. I want to make my own route and go running where people don’t go.

You are designing your own trips. Are you also attempting international ultramarathon races?

Yes, I have been doing that. In 2017 I did so. But the point is – once you become self-sufficient and make your own route, carry your own gear; you don’t depend on aid stations, you also navigate by yourself. Organized events will always be competitive. You can’t enjoy them because they will say you have to finish it in specified time. You end up running day and night. By the second night you are sleep deprived and you start hallucinating. The enjoyment of running is not there. It also feels artificial that people stand in the middle of nowhere with food, pasta, biscuits and Coca Cola for you. Someone who is serious should go on their own with food in their bag and explore the outdoors. Once you go to that level, there is no stepping back to doing events. Not to mention the expense incurred for participating in these organized events. Many of these races are quite expensive. Add to that flight tickets and stay. With that kind of money I would rather spend a month in the Himalaya.

Photo: Peter Van Geit (This photo was downloaded from Peter’s Facebook page)

At 46 you left your job and now you are full-time in the outdoors. How do you imagine your life ahead?

I now know that you can do this in a very cost-effective way. If I had known this I would have done this much earlier instead of spending 25 years in a cubicle. I met two cyclists from Belgium; they had been on the cycle for over two and half years. They pedaled all the way from Belgium through Middle East and Kazakhstan to India. They were just 21 and 29; a couple. I have seen a lot of people like that, touring. They earn for six months and then disappear somewhere for six months. I had studied hard and then, worked hard. Looking back, I feel the quality of life is not in making money and buying fancy gadgets. In the remote areas I visited, I met real people; I woke up every day in a different place to a different sunrise. Each of those 75 days was amazing. The most important thing is to be healthy.

In Chennai, you are also associated with open water swimming. Are you contemplating anything in open water swimming?

Once in Chennai we did a 15 kilometer-swim from one town to another. Swimming is good; you can keep swimming and not feel tired but swimming in the sea can be boring. It’s akin to running on the roads as opposed to running in the mountains. It was possible to keep running day after day during my 75 day-run because I was mentally excited. Every day was unique. Every pass was unique, the approach, the challenges. Every one of those 40 passes was a completely different experience. You go from forests to meadows to rocks to glaciers. Mountains give you the mental stimulation to keep going as opposed to the plains.

(Interviewed by Shyam G Menon; transcribed by Latha Venkatraman. Both are independent journalists based in Mumbai. The photos downloaded from Peter’s Facebook page and featured here include pictures from the Himalaya and Vietnam. For more on Peter Van Geit please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2017/02/28/i-dont-have-time-isnt-a-valid-excuse/)

TRIVANDRUM DIARY / MARCH 2019

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

I know it is Thiruvananthapuram. But for the heck of these musings, let’s keep it Trivandrum in the title for that is what the city was called years ago; the start line from which my generation commenced its journey. Vignettes and thoughts from a recent visit:

From deluge to frying pan

At his house in Thiruvananthapuram, my uncle told me of a video his son sent him. It was shot in Chicago, during the extreme cold weather caused by polar vortex. In it, a cup of water is thrown up in the air. It transforms to a shower of ice in no time. I remembered this well into my regular morning run in Thiruvananthapuram. The predicament around was abject opposite of Chicago’s cold. It was a few days into March 2019 and Kerala, still bearing scars from the floods of 2018, was officially into heat wave.  From extreme rain, the state had swung to unbearable heat. With humidity also in the mix, the resultant brew wasn’t pleasant by any yardstick. Advisories had been issued by the state government urging people to stay hydrated and avoid working in the open during hot afternoons.  Sweat is familiar companion on runs in Kerala. But the run to Kovalam from home in the city went a bit beyond that. Heat overall and straight, monotonous road in parts – that’s how the bypass leading to Kovalam was. It brought spells of boredom. Good thing was, the struggle made breakfast on the beach well earned. After days of such warm weather, we had a slightly overcast evening. Early next morning as my daily run entered its concluding phase, an excuse of a rain drop made its presence felt. It seemed the reverse of that story from Chicago.  Once was rain drop. Somewhere along its passage through hot atmosphere, it vaporized to excuse. For a while it rained excuses. Despite drizzle, the road betrayed no sign of wetness. As Bob Dylan sang: the times, they are a changin’. Yet Kerala marches on; its priorities in life, consumerism, social attitudes and lifestyle declining to acknowledge the changes afoot. From weather to environment, demographics and remittances from overseas – there are impacts felt or due to be felt. An hour later, runner and excuse of rain gone, that narrow city road lined by myriad plots sporting individual houses within, would be lost to a flood of automobiles. Like serpent eating its tail, our habits swallow us. Thus content, we conclude: nothing has changed.

City of stadiums

Thiruvananthapuram’s Jimmy George Indoor Stadium is right next to the local swimming pool, venue for many national competitions from years past and training ground for several promising swimmers. In his younger days, this author too had his share of time at Thiruvananthapuram’s pool aka Water Works pool. Promise, unfortunately, there was none. My swimming stayed survival-level. Early March 2019, the indoor stadium named after Kerala’s greatest volleyball player yet, was hosting an exhibition of sports equipment. On land between the stadium and the pool, was a make-shift auditorium for panel discussions and demonstrations of various sports; right next to this temporary facility was an equally temporary boxing ring. The first evening of the expo, a few boxing bouts were staged for the public to watch. A law student into boxing that I consulted for better understanding of how points are awarded told me that Kerala lagged in the senior category in the sport even as it managed to perform decently at junior level. Somehow the promise seen at junior level didn’t get carried over; there was continuity lost. He couldn’t articulate why. I asked him about local facilities to box. According to him, there was one boxing ring on the outskirts of town. College level boxers trained in improvised circumstances and before a major competition, managed some sessions at the ring for the feel of being in one is distinctive. On the brighter side, he said that Thiruvananthapuram now had a boxing club of sorts with he and interested others training youngsters in the sport. I have said this before and I say it again – few Indian cities have as many stadiums, sports facilities and synthetic tracks, all within relatively short distance of each other, as Kerala’s capital does. What we need to do is use it well and along with that, love well-rounded education more than one heavily partial to academics. To exist is to breathe life into all of one’s faculties; mind and body fuel each other. Ideally, success by career should be secondary to awareness by existence. Don’t you think so?

Extreme academics

Kerala loves films. In my childhood, English films were regularly screened in Thiruvananthapuram. Past college, as the ascent of television commenced and programming in Malayalam gained currency, Hollywood faded at the city’s theatres. Cinema halls previously associated with English films started hosting the latest Malayalam blockbuster. For a while I was upset because there was little in vernacular content that fascinated me. Not anymore. Some Malayalam movies are now genuinely engaging and well made; among the best in India. Back in time however, Hollywood was welcome diversion from plots, contexts and characters I couldn’t relate to. Several years ago, on a visit home I was delighted to find Apocalypto running at a local cinema. Until the latest visit home that was the last movie I saw in Thiruvananthapuram. With many of the old cinema halls since converted to multiplex and spliced for consumer preference, Hollywood seemed back. Given Mumbai’s multiplexes are unaffordable on my freelance journalist-income I hadn’t seen Bohemian Rhapsody, the Oscar winning biopic on Freddie Mercury. Courtesy Oscar glory, a Thiruvananthapuram multiplex had this movie and Black Panther returned to the screen. As memorable as Bohemian Rhapsody, was a set of hoardings I found outside the cinema hall; actually across the road from it. I quote from memory. One board sported two messages: For your entertainment (arrow pointed to multiplex); for career advancement (arrow pointed to a nearby building offering coaching classes for various exams). Another board nearby announced: Extreme Coaching Classes; cautionary note below added: only hardworking-students need apply. Who said extreme is meant only for extreme sports?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The success epidemic

I love Kerala. I hate Kerala. Middle aged, living life as I wish and hauling my share of broken ware courtesy such experiments, I visit families only to be treated to tales of successful parents, successful children and successful grandchildren. It is typically success measured in terms of academic brilliance, intelligence, smartness, career and well settled life. In land by attributes like academic excellence, remittance economy and well settled life, the above said narrative is all over the place like a background drone. Families draw satisfaction from humming it. I sit and listen. In Kerala, this parade of success would seem a bigger epidemic than all the fevers, coughs and ailments surfacing by summer. Successful people should be happy people. Interestingly, that isn’t always so. I have a theory for it. When life is lived too much on the theme of last man standing, accumulating all the wealth required to buy your passage when world crashes, it is possible that you revel in having bolstered your chances of survival; it is also true that you acknowledge inevitable disaster lurking in the horizon. Else why would you arm yourself so with more and more money? Are you then, happy or afraid? Worse, none of the factors around raising fear of potential disaster, are addressed. As this trend grows, private fortresses become coveted shelter.

In Thiruvananthapuram, a friend’s father told me this – he had been attempting unsuccessfully to get the residents of his colony to meet up and chat. It is something everyone wants to do for there is real loneliness in successful Kerala. But as yet, the chat has remained a dream. Except one person, nobody turns up. Why? – He asked me. My analysis was simple and drawn from the distance growing between my friends and me as we age. The colony in question showed no visible sign of struggling to exist. The houses were solid, many were multi-storeyed and all houses had compound walls and gates securing them. It was the epitome of successful well settled life; very Malayali. Each plot, likely a tiny kingdom. When people emerge to meet world outside it is like ambassadors dispatched for diplomatic engagement. You are projecting image, lineage, social standing. Now, people are people. They will socialize. The problem is when they come accompanied by their success and other related baggage, including ego. Too many peacocks in one room make it a competition in preening. Who feels happy comparing and competing all the time? Park that baggage outside and the human warmth and company sought, should resurface. Life is about you, your times; your friends and what you understood of planet from your fleeting existence. Why crowd it with talk of parents, children, grandchildren, engineering, medicine, MBA, career, USA, Europe, NRI, bank account, mansion and car; none of it really you as in you in your bubble of existence? Families, dynasties and kingdoms have had their time. You have a sense of world, all your own. Revive that. That’s the challenge confronting my friends and me too. In our middle age, the ego and baggage we reaped living, does the talking. To meet person like you once did before the deliberate living began, you have to get past an entire chess board of accomplishments, avatars and accomplices.

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

FREE SOLO WINS OSCAR FOR BEST DOCUMENTARY

The world of climbing won’t forget the 2019 Academy Awards ceremony.

The movie Free Solo which profiles rock climber Alex Honnold, won the Academy Award for best documentary feature. Alex Honnold is noted for his stunning free solo ascents; basically solo climbs without using any ropes or climbing gear. All that he uses on these ascents from the litany of climbing paraphernalia are rock climbing shoes and climbing chalk, carried in a chalk bag.

Free Solo covers Honnold’s 2017 solo ascent of El Capitan’s Freerider route. El Capitan is a vertical rock formation, roughly 3000 feet high, in Yosemite National Park, US. It is a much revered objective in the world of big wall climbing.

The film is directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, a documentary filmmaker and Jimmy Chin, professional climber and skier who is also photographer for National Geographic. “ The film benefited from Honnold’s thoughtful charm on camera, and Chin and Vasarhelyi’s incredible access during Honnold’s years-long training process, including while he was thousands of feet off the ground without a rope,’’ Outside magazine observed in an article marking the Academy Award. The magazine described the movie as the first climbing film to receive such broad mainstream acclaim.

Free Solo was released in August-September 2018. According to Wikipedia, it has so far made 19.3 million dollars at the box office. The highest grossing documentary on IMDB is 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11, directed by Michael Moore. It made 119.19 million dollars.

The 2019 Academy Awards ceremony – it honored the best films of 2018 – was held on February 24 (early hours of February 25 in India) at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, US. For more on Alex Honnold please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2017/03/16/alone-on-the-wall/

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

ADVENTURE COUNCIL PROPOSED

Panel discussion at the 2019 Himalayan Club annual seminar. From left: Steve Swenson, Vasant Vasant Limaye, Peter Van Geit, Shantanu Pandit, Amod Khopkar and Mrudul Mody (Photo: courtesy Ashok Kalamkar)

Moves are afoot to set up a state level adventure council in Maharashtra.

The yet to be named body aspires to bring together stakeholders in the field of outdoors and adventure sports; stakeholders broadly meaning service providers, persons / organizations availing service and the government.

Following Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by a bereaved parent some years ago, the Maharashtra government had issued a set of guidelines for adventure sports.  The original set of guidelines was subsequently replaced by a second lot. At the time of writing, the second version was in force. Over the past year or two, several Indian states have pushed to frame guidelines for adventure activity. Concerns fueling the trend span guidelines for safety and risk management to impact on environment from too many visitors to sensitive wilderness locations, not to mention poor understanding of best practices to follow in the outdoors.

It is understood that the proposed council, besides bringing together the aforementioned stakeholders and contributing to guidelines, seeks to serve the community associated with outdoors and adventure sport, engage in advocacy and be able to facilitate required processes through a multi-pronged approach.

The adventure council found mention in a panel discussion on risk management in adventure sport, done as part of the annual seminar of the Himalayan Club, in Mumbai on Sunday (February 17, 2019). Panelists included Vasant Vasant Limaye, senior mountaineer and founder of High Places, Shantanu Pandit, senior outdoor educator; consultant and safety expert, Amod Khopkar, management systems consultant and trainer with longstanding association with the outdoors and Mrudul Mody, senior management team member at Pugmarks. Steve Swenson, former president of the American Alpine Club and winner of the 2018 Kekoo Naoroji Book Award and Peter Van Geit, Chennai based ultra-runner who delivered the club’s annual Kaivan Mistry Memorial Lecture also participated in the discussion.

Samgyal Sherpa (right) after receiving the Garud Gold Medal (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Among points debated were the relevance of standardized guidelines nationwide as opposed to each state having its own with consequent questions over mutual compatibility and the prospect of grading service providers (example: adventure tour operators) on the basis of track record and safety standards so that clients have a truer picture of who they are dealing with.  Also mentioned was the need to support the adventure council with adequate resources for effectively implementing its work.

Earlier at the day long-proceedings, Peter Van Geit spoke at length about his 75 day-trail run, spanning some 1500 kilometers and covering 40 high, mountain passes essayed last year in Himachal Pradesh.  Steve Swenson spoke of the Khumbu Climbing Center established in Nepal by the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation. Later, as part of receiving the 2018 Kekoo Naoroji Book Award, he also spoke about his book Karakoram – Climbing through the Kashmir Conflict and his climbs in the region. While the Jagdish Nanawati Award for Mountaineering Excellence was not given this year, the Garud Gold Medal for excellent support staff was presented to Samgyal Sherpa.

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

LADAKH RUNNERS / FROM POTENTIAL TO PERFORMANCE

Jigmet Dolma (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In seven years of participating at the annual Mumbai Marathon, Rimo Expeditions’ team of runners from Ladakh, have made it to the podium for elite Indian women, twice. The time taken by these women runners in the full marathon – they represent the new generation of runners from Ladakh – is yet to dip below three hours. But they are within striking distance despite the limitations in which they train back home. There is a sense of what’s next opening up in the program. Key to it is Indian sports authorities taking note of the improvements in performance made. Question is: will they?

Jigmet Dolma remembered the first time she ran in the elite category at the Mumbai Marathon.

She and fellow runner from Ladakh, Tsetan Dolkar, reported to the start line of the 2017 edition of India’s biggest marathon. It was a year when the field in Indian women didn’t have some of the prominent elite runners. But elite is nevertheless elite; the atmosphere is more purposeful, a sense of aim prevails. At such levels of competition, even relaxation is ingredient for enhanced performance. As runners warmed up ahead of battle, the duo from Ladakh felt nervous. “ I was a bit scared,’’ Jigmet said. But being underdog helps. Many runners who secured podium finishes in their career would recall the buoyancy afforded by that predicament. There are no expectations. You run free. That year Jigmet finished third in the elite category for Indian women. Tsetan completed the race in fourth position, the two separated at finish by a mere four seconds. Then, the uphill began. You have podium position to live up to.

At a café in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra, some days after the 2019 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), Chewang Motup put his project in perspective. Motup owns Leh based-Rimo Expeditions, among the best known adventure travel companies in India and organizers of the Ladakh Marathon. He started the Ladakh Marathon with a simple goal in mind. In distance running which counts on endurance, training at altitude is recognized as helpful. As location, Ladakh enjoys high average elevation; much of it is over 9800 feet high. Born to altitude, people from here should have a bank of endurance. Rigzen Angmo is good example. In the 1990s, she ran sub-three marathons, was podium finisher at national and international marathons. But that was years ago and a case, not repeated since in Ladakh. Motup wished to unlock the potential for endurance running in Ladakh by encouraging a culture of running. He also wanted to see local runners representing India at the Olympic Games. Hence the choice of the marathon for unlike the ultramarathon more easily associated with Ladakh’s mountainous landscape, the 42.195 kilometer-distance is firmly recognized as Olympic sport.

Chewang Motup (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Hailing from Igoo village, Jigmet was into running while still at school. But it was the Ladakh Marathon staged in Leh at an elevation of over 11,000 feet that brought her (she used to run the half marathon) and Tsetan to local prominence. Although their early timings are quite slow compared to the pace at which marathons and half marathons are run in India’s cities, they were consistent podium finishers in Leh. Rimo Expeditions pioneered an annual program for Ladakhi runners – selected on the strength of their performance at the Ladakh Marathon – to travel to races at Indian cities with the Mumbai Marathon as main focus. “ My first visit to the Mumbai Marathon was in 2013,’’ Jigmet said. After a couple of years spent participating in the half marathon at the event, in 2015 (so she recalls), she ran the first full marathon of her life in Mumbai. “ I ran it at half marathon pace and ended up walking the last three kilometers to the finish,’’ she said outlining the lack of experience she had in races and race strategy then.

In the period that followed, Savio D’Souza – former national champion in the marathon and well known coach in Mumbai – was brought in to train the team. A structured approach was introduced. Given Ladakh’s cold winter with sub-zero temperatures, runners like Jigmet and Tsetan, begin their training in April. Around July, Savio visits them in Leh, gauges their standing, imparts tips and before returning to Mumbai, gives them a training schedule. “ We then keep in touch on the phone. They call me and tell me what they have been doing. The thing about them is – they are utterly dedicated. If it is too cold and they haven’t managed to run in the morning, they will run in the afternoon. I give them a training schedule, they follow it to the T,’’ Savio said. The intervention paid off. Between Tsetan and Jigmet, the latter was always the faster runner. Tsetan had completed the 2013 Ladakh Marathon in 4:54:05. By 2017, she was completing TMM in 3:14:42, four seconds behind Jigmet; both runners in the elite category for Indian women to boot. That was the year Jigmet finished on the podium for the first time in Mumbai.

A week had elapsed since 2019 TMM. It was late evening. At the Mumbai University’s athletic track, the hours of training had just concluded. “ Let me explain what happened in 2018,’’ Savio said. That year, the Ladakhi runners had failed to repeat their podium finish in the Indian women’s elite segment. “ The podium finish of 2017 was unexpected. Next year, it became a burden. Ahead of race their discussion was about who had turned up to compete in the elite category. If you run to defeat others, you end up running someone else’s race. You have to stick to your plan. But the whole thing was new for them. They were under pressure. When you run under stress, you commit mistakes; your race plan goes haywire. That’s what happened in 2018. Last year they got distracted by the elite runners. This year was different. They ran their own race. The attitude was – whoever comes, we are not bothered. Now we will do better,’’ Savio said. At 2019 TMM, Jigmet was back on the podium in the Indian women’s category; she placed third with a timing of 3:10:43, Tsetan finished fifth clocking 3:13:05. With podium finish secured for the second time, it appears both Motup and Savio have to contemplate: what next?

Savio D’Souza (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Dr Aashish Contractor was Medical Director of the Mumbai Marathon from 2004 to 2014. Now Head of the Department of Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine at Sir H.N. Reliance Foundation Hospital, he produced a photo on his computer showing the Ladakhi runners from a 2018 visit to the hospital to assess their VO2 max level. “ VO2 stands for volume of oxygen – it basically tells you how much oxygen your body can consume while doing exercise. It is considered to be a gold standard of one’s cardiovascular fitness. For someone to do well on the world stage in long distance running, cycling, swimming, rowing or skiing – they must have a very good VO2 max. We tested six Ladakhi athletes. All of them had phenomenally high numbers, definitely world class,’’ Dr Contractor said. But it has to be seen in proper perspective. As the doctor put it, you can’t be a world class athlete without good VO2 max but high VO2 max does not automatically guarantee that you will be world class athlete. Between the two – potential and performance – lay other factors like circumstances; training, mental strength, diet, experience and strategy. VO2 max is therefore an indication of potential, especially endurance. “ That’s the most important attribute you can measure in a distance runner,’’ Dr Contractor said. At the apartment near Mumbai’s Chhatrapathi Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT), where the runners from Ladakh stay, Jigmet reflected on what she required to improve. “ My weaknesses are two. First, I am still slow compared to other elite runners. Second, I tend to run a marathon like a half marathon. My pace progressively drops,’’ she said. Figures prove her correct on the first and marginally correct on the second. At 2019 TMM, both Jigmet and Tsetan had pace across splits ranging from 13.1 to 13.5 kilometers per hour. This compares with Sudha Singh (winner among elite Indian women) who straddled 16-16.3 and Jyoti Gawate (second among elite Indian women) who ranged from 15.3 to 16. As regards splits, Jigmet was fairly consistent barring minor variations, which is actually good. Both Sudha and Jyoti had pacers. “ My goal now is to run a marathon in three hours,’’ Jigmet said. Savio wants her to get there on her own steam, without pacer.

“ Using the word speed can be misleading,’’ Dr Contractor said. All running involves speed. In a marathon you have to sustain decent pace for the two and half to three hours that the run lasts. This can be viewed as a case of endurance. But can high VO2 max – often cited to highlight endurance – be construed to also imply promise of maintaining good pace for the duration of a marathon? “ It is hard to answer it directly. Let’s put it this way – if you took a roomful of 50 people and you tested all for VO2 max and you made them all run five kilometers, it is likely that their performance would be in the order of their VO2 max roughly. If you train them all equally, they have the same circumstances in life – then again, the result would be the same. But if you take away those variables and everybody eats differently; lives differently – then there is the possibility that somebody with low VO2 max may beat somebody with a high VO2 max. Mental strength, how badly they want it – so much goes into it,’’ Dr Contractor said. In a competitive marathon, there are several elements at play – among them: endurance, race strategy and pace. Motup’s ongoing project is founded on the premise that Ladakhis have good endurance. Rimo’s team of runners brings that to the table. Not just that; team members couldn’t recall an instance of Did Not Finish (DNF) from their ranks, ever since they started traveling out to races in the plains. Both Motup and Savio said that no matter what difficulties they faced, the runners typically finished a given race. Between the two critical attributes – endurance and pace – pace would also seem an animal inspired in part by ecosystem. Endurance grows in you as part of location and lifestyle; probably why residents of hills and mountains end up with superior endurance compared to plains dwellers. Pace on the other hand – one can legitimately suspect – feeds off competitive circumstances too.

In Ladakh, there is only one marathon – the Ladakh Marathon. In a region with few popular initiatives in athletics, the Ladakh Marathon has been consistently topped by the likes of Jigmet and Tsetan. Given it is one of India’s most expensive marathons (acclimatization schedule forces long stay in Leh for participants) elite runners from the plains don’t turn up to participate even as a matter of curiosity to pitch their ability against high altitude. The event’s USP revolves around running in Ladakh, the adventure tourism destination. It has come to enjoy a high level of attraction among foreign runners with travel companies marketing packages around the annual marathon. It has also extended the local tourist season with hotels booked and high spending visitors – Indian and foreign – in town. Simply put – although local runners win the race comfortably, beyond a point neither the event nor the local ecosystem in running can serve as robust proving ground for the events of the plains because the required level of competition is absent. And without runners as good as you or better than you around, local runners needn’t feel compelled to push themselves. The ecosystem contrasts the circumstances runners from the plains hail from. But that is where Ladakh’s runners are for most part of the year; they come out to compete in city marathons for only around four months every year.

2015; Savio on a training run with Ladakhi runners during a visit to Leh (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

When they leave Ladakh for the plains in November, Rimo’s team of Ladakh runners – especially those running in elite category – make a jump to truly competitive environment instead of gradual transition. This was particularly felt in the run up to 2019 TMM because Delhi’s prestigious half marathon, which the team likes to run for accumulating race experience, got shifted to October. According to Savio, the team needs to participate in more races; there is also the need to have more races happening in Ladakh as that is runners’ home ecosystem. More local races contribute to bigger pool of local runners and hopefully thereby, greater competition for existing top notch runners in Ladakh. The breeding ground of most Indian marathoners is the middle distance categories (reference here being to 3000 meters to 10,000 meters) including the steeplechase. Indian elites like Nitendra Singh Rawat, T. Gopi, O.P. Jaisha, Sudha Singh and Lalita Babbar – all spent time in middle distance disciplines before coming to the marathon. It was true of the late Shivnath Singh too whose national record in the men’s marathon, set in 1978, was still standing at the time of writing. The great Emil Zatopek’s competence spanned 5000 meters, 10,000 meters and the marathon. Ladakh’s running calendar lacks a basket of middle distance races. Competitive ecosystem and middle distance – isn’t that where speed is picked up and ingested into potential marathon runner’s system? Both Sudha Singh and Jyoti Gawate (Jyoti who finished the full marathon at 2019 TMM in 2:45:48 hails from challenged circumstances) have more race experience than Jigmet. Sudha who has won medals for India internationally, has the ecosystem of the national camp – an assembly of India’s best – to train in. Further, both Sudha and Jyoti don’t have to worry about weather while training. “ When I go to Ladakh we do some speed training on the road. But road is not ideal surface as it can cause injury. Ladakh does not have an athletic track and so far, we haven’t been able to locate a good mud track. Further once the runners leave Ladakh for the plains, given races they are scheduled to participate in, we have to train conservatively making sure to avoid injury,’’ Savio said. Motup hopes he can pitch in to bridge the deficit with an array of treadmills to keep the momentum of training going on in Leh even in times of inclement weather. But the gap in infrastructure is clear.

A bit of a mystery in the story of Ladakh runners is the relation between altitude and distance running. Most people seem agreed on the link between altitude and endurance. But on the other hand, marathons have been increasingly won by those hailing from or training in mid-altitudes, not high altitude. India’s high altitude sports training facilities are also at these mid-altitudes as are the hills and mountains the elite runners of Kenya and Ethiopia belong to. Iten, the famous home of distance runners in Kenya, has an elevation of 7874 feet. Having said that, it must be pointed out that the Internet (to the extent this writer looked it up) did not specify a clear reason why training is set at this belt of elevation, apart from mention that it corresponds to where the best athletes currently hail from and also, where some of the high profile competitions are held, the latter likely in terms of threshold of elevation (for instance – Mexico City, location for the highest altitude at which the Summer Olympics have been staged so far, is at 7350 feet).

Rigzen Angmo with trophy after her win at the 1995 Bangkok Marathon (Photo: by arrangement)

For runners from Ladakh, the question is how to leverage their natural strengths, train and perform well at altitudes lower than where they come from. They need to marry endurance and pace. For this, do they train high (as in Leh) or train low? Can you simplistically conclude that if the middle altitudes are good for training in long distance running, then still higher altitudes would be better? “ No. Not necessary. You go very high, the air gets rarified; it is difficult to train. Living at altitude is beneficial. Everybody living at altitude will have those beneficial changes compared to you and me. But to be able to train – sometimes the altitude is so high that you get tired. Then training itself becomes difficult. How do you do your sprint workout and your long distance workout and all of that? I think there is a sweet spot as to what altitude is good to live and train at,’’ Dr Contractor said. The story of Rigzen Angmo is characterized by training stints outside Ladakh at gentler altitudes (please visit this link for Rigzen’s story: https://shyamgopan.com/2015/09/28/the-spectator/). Her personal best of 2:45:42 set in 1996, is looked up to by the runners from Ladakh. For dwellers of altitude, long stay away from elevation is a tricky quantum. One sensed unease in the runners when the question of extended stay in the plains was discussed. Apparently, such extended stay temporarily saps high altitude residents of some of their strengths at elevation. On return to Ladakh, they find themselves needing to adapt afresh. It isn’t a development the young runners seemed comfortable with.

Savio feels it is time the national authorities took note of this project, which has systematically dispatched runners to Mumbai since 2013 and secured podium finish in the elite category, twice. If they make it to the national camp or at the very least its proximity, the top Ladakhi runners will get the ecosystem to improve their performance further. They will have good facilities and most important, the good fortune of running with those currently better than them in the marathon. “ I wish the authorities took note of how far we progressed despite the challenges faced,’’ Savio said. Motup is acutely aware of the stage the project finds itself in. Rimo Expeditions has funded this journey as well as the Ladakh Marathon, from its own resources. As someone who wishes to see a Ladakhi at the Olympics, he wants more races in Ladakh – a sort of feeder system into the Ladakh Marathon, much the same way the best performers from the Ladakh Marathon find their way to TMM. But that deepening of running culture can’t be done by him alone. Ideally it should be a broader campaign involving local government. At a more immediate level, as a matter of strategizing next stage for the current team of Ladakh runners (including more time spent away from Ladakh if that is the need), one avenue open to him is to get aboard a strategic partner or sponsor for the Ladakh Marathon. Either such move frees up Rimo’s resources to invest more in the running team or whoever decides to partner the Ladakh Marathon, buys into the idea of sustaining and growing the running team as well. In today’s world of sports those willing to associate for visibility or gains in marketing are easily found. What’s tough is finding someone for the long haul of investing in a running team or a project to grow running and see it through. “ So far I haven’t met anyone convincing in this regard,’’ Motup said.

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