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.)

7KM SHORT, 215KM OF LEARNING

Shikha Pahwa (Photo: courtesy Shikha)

What defines outcome – the goal or the experience? This is an article by invitation. In 2019, Delhi-based runner Shikha Pahwa set out to attempt the 222km-race of La Ultra-The High in Ladakh. She tackled 215 kilometers before a combination of weather, fatigue and injury forced her to pull out (215 is the figure Shikha heard at the time of DNF, the figure shown on the race website is 212km. We decided to go with 215 because this is  a first person account of an experience and what you hear in the thick of an experience is part of it). For the past few years, Shikha has been a regular on the Ladakh circuit. In 2018, she ran the 111km distance category of La Ultra-The High, completing it in 18 hours, 15 minutes, 42 seconds. The year before that she was winner among women in the 72km Khardung La Challenge. In 2016, she had placed second among women in the Ladakh Marathon. This is her account of participating in the 222km race of La Ultra-The High in 2019.

My decision to attempt the 222km race at La Ultra–The High in Ladakh had its share of apprehensions. Not only was it double the longest distance I had run till then but its route also lingered at high altitude for a longer period of time given two mountain passes to tackle. Temperatures would range from minus 10 to 30 degrees Celsius.

I was not new to running in Ladakh. I had participated in events there since the past three years. I knew what I was getting into. To sum it up, I would say the 111km I had done the previous year was just a trailer.

Training for the 222km-run was not easy in Delhi. The weather and the terrain of the national capital are nowhere close to what one experiences in Ladakh. I focused therefore on just one aspect – more time, staying up on my feet. To be able to move for 48 hours at a stretch I needed to do a lot of training on tired legs. I started with two consecutive days of running 40km and 30km during the weekend for a month or so and then progressed to three consecutive days of 50km, 40km and 30km starting from Friday through the weekend for about two months. During Delhi’s summer months of May to July, this routine sapped my energy. In this period, I also participated in the Tuffman Shimla 80km ultra-marathon, mainly as practice for La Ultra-The High. It turned out to be a good decision as the event route featured some steep uphill and downhill portions; exactly what I needed.

From La Ultra-The High (Photo: courtesy Shikha Pahwa)

Weather conditions in Ladakh can be unpredictable. At La Ultra-The High, runners are warned to be prepared for rain or snow or heat or all of them. I knew the drill and I was ready. But the mountains proved me wrong.

On August 17, 2019, runners assembled at the start point in Nubra Valley. The race started at 6PM in light rain; it continued for approximately 60 kilometers. After that, it transformed to snow and blizzard. Going uphill to an altitude of 18,000 feet in those conditions was something I had never imagined. I felt like giving up several times but somehow, looking at Nischint Katoch, the only other runner in sight, fighting the situation ahead, I pushed on putting one step before the other. As I had never walked in snow before, it was nothing short of a nightmare. To add to the whole experience, I started to feel a pinching pain in my left shin (it later turned out to be a stress fracture in the shin and a ligament tear in my ankle, as per the MRI test report).

I felt a sense of relief upon reaching Khardung La. I expected the downhill from there to be easy. But I was completely wrong. Moving downhill in the snow was very difficult. I slipped at least seven to eight times in the snow. I had absolutely no control over my feet. I was either stepping deep into snow or into icy puddles. Worried about the manner in which I was moving, the medical teams stopped several times to check if I was alright. I was okay, except that my shin pain was increasing with no clear solution for it.

Downhill running is something I love. I just give into gravity. As I am wont to, I let go and almost immediately I felt the pain in my shin. The next four kilometers I resorted to run-walk.

As part of the 222km event (and for distances in excess), we are assigned support crew. They joined us at the 87th kilometer. The crew is not there to merely help runners with hydration and nutrition. They also act as motivators to ensure that participants keep moving.

When I reached the said mark, my crew, Milam Shah from Nainital and Kunzes Dolma from Ladakh, immediately jumped into getting things ready to make me comfortable. After a short re-charge break, I headed out again. With no rain and snow, it felt like things were back on track.

Arriving at the 111 kilometer-mark at Shanti Stupa felt great as it was almost halfway point for my distance category. There was a huge round of cheering by the gathered volunteers. After a break at a guest house ahead, we headed out again. From Leh, it was pretty much a flat route for the next 60 odd kilometers. As easy as that sounds, it wasn’t so in real terms. It was mentally exhausting to get through the endless road especially at night. It was pitch-dark. My crew car was the only vehicle tailing me. I started feeling extremely sleepy. I fought to keep my eyes open and at one point started seeing things on the road that weren’t there. That was when I stopped the car and decided to take a 20 minute nap. Even after that it was a struggle to stay awake and so the crew stepped in. They took turns to walk with me, talking, making sure that I didn’t lose self-control. We had another stop to eat and sleep in the car. Eventually we made it to the 173 kilometer-mark at the next guest house. By then, my shin was red and swollen and I was suffering from fatigue. After consulting the doctors, eating and taking medicines for the pain, I slept for around two hours.

Feeling refreshed and ready to take on the last leg, we started moving again. It was just 49 kilometers to the finish line but half of it was climbing up to Wari La at an altitude of 17,500 feet. The weather was good and there were many people around, as the 55 kilometer-category runners were on the course. Slowly making my way up, I saw two friendly faces; my good friends Taher Merchant and Gregor Gucwa, who had come all the way just to support me. These are the priceless moments of participating in an event like La Ultra-The High. We get to meet amazing people. Both Gregor and Taher were participants of La Ultra-The High. Gregor was attempting the 222km and Taher, 111km (unfortunately, both had to give up due to altitude sickness. They came to Wari La for the final stretch of the race to support me).

From La Ultra-The High (Photo: courtesy Shikha Pahwa)

After a couple of kilometers, Taher had to leave. Gregor and I, with the crew following, kept walking. As we gained altitude, the uphill walk became difficult. Gregor was going strong. He kept chatting with me and making sure that I was eating and hydrating all along. He helped me get through every sharp climb, one step at a time. We were on track, I was sure of making it to the finish in time. Then, reality hit back. We were told that there was snow along the route on the top. It brought back memories of the Khardung La stretch. The target got very very tight at this point prompting us to move faster. With snow and blizzard, there isn’t much you can do. It was slippery and wet all the way. Those four kilometers seemed endless. It played on my mind even more since I couldn’t see the point where I had to turn around; everything was just white.

At that juncture, I met Jyotsna Rawat, who is part of the La Ultra core crew team. She became my motivator, supporter and morale-booster for the moment, giving me the push that I needed, helping me to turn around. Gregor caught up soon enough, fighting the extreme weather, to be by my side. Although it was all downhill now, the snow and altitude didn’t allow us to gain much pace. With every step, time was slipping out of our hands. After the snow cleared, I started running down in small stretches. The pain in my shin was getting worse and the altitude was making me breathless. I knew there was very little chance of making it to the finish line before the cut-off time. Nevertheless, I kept pushing ahead.

The next time I asked Gregor if we would make it in time, he said it was too tight. Jyotsna, who was following me in a car, came up to ask if I wanted to continue, as there wasn’t enough time.

I was keen to finish even if it was after the cut-off time. But I had to slow down because of the agonizing pain in my shin. After another couple of kilometers I was again asked if I wanted to continue. There is that point when runners don’t see logic or consequences and are willing to endure pain and discomfort, just to reach the finish line. Gregor and the crew members tried very hard to convince me to stop, trying to prevent my injury from getting worse. After much resistance, I finally gave in. At that point I wasn’t sure how much distance was left. I later discovered that I had dropped out just seven kilometers from the finish line. Not wanting to go to the finish point at all, I was driven straight to the guest house close by to rest. After that, I only remember being comforted by Gregor, my crew and all the core crew members around.

I reached the 215 kilometer-mark but fell short of the finish by seven kilometers. To me it was an experience of a different kind. I wouldn’t term it failure. I witnessed several things for the first time, learnt a lot, realized my mistakes and understood how much the mind can push the body. Those 47.5 hours were one hell of a journey and I was extremely lucky to have so much support throughout. I couldn’t have gone through it without my crew and especially Gregor, who really is from another planet.

From La Ultra-The High (Photo: courtesy Shikha Pahwa)

Having said all this about how insane this experience was, I then look at those three super-humans – Jason Reardon, Matthew Maday and Ashish Kasodekar – who completed the 555 kilometer-event in similar conditions and over much longer distances; I feel I need to work a lot harder. Human endurance has seen a whole new level and I would be extremely happy to reach at least halfway there.

Putting together an event like this is a mammoth task. The core crew members were not there to just man the hydration points; there were multiple complex factors to take care of simultaneously in those harsh weather conditions and for several days at a stretch. Despite all that, they went all out to motivate and encourage every single runner on the course. These are the people who make the impossible, possible.

I wouldn’t call La Ultra-The High a race. I was competing with myself, fighting mind and body, battling fatigue, suffering sleep deprivation and nursing an injury. In a span of 48 hours, I saw an unbelievable side of nature and tremendous support from some amazing people. It was a completely overwhelming experience. As difficult as it was, I would like to go back and try again.

(The author, Shikha Pahwa, is a Delhi-based runner. She owns Café Qahwa, located in the city’s Safdarjung Development Area. The 222km category of La Ultra-The High saw only one finisher in 2019 – Amit Kumar, who covered the distance in 41 hours, 48 minutes. There were eight DNFs. As per the race website, both Shikha and Munir Kulavoor pulled out at 212km covered, the farthest run by those who stopped short of the finish. Shikha’s DNF followed that of Munir, the race organizers said.)

A PUNE CLUB AND ITS TRYST WITH 8000M

Mt Shivling (6543m / 21,466 feet). It was after an expedition to Shivling in 2007 that Giripremi’s string of expeditions to 8000m peaks, started (Photo: courtesy Giripremi)

Climbing an 8000m peak is a major project. A project to climb all the fourteen 8000m peaks is in a league by itself. Aside from the climbing, crucial aspects therein are – project structure, funding and management. Pune-based mountaineering club Giripremi and its senior mountaineer, Umesh Zirpe, have been tackling this challenge for a while now. Here’s a snapshot of how the engagement with 8000m came about and how they managed repeated expeditions to high altitude.  

Shivling, the 21,466 feet-high peak in the Garhwal Himalaya, is among the most beautiful mountains in the world.

It resembles a rugged pyramid. While ascents along steep ridge lines visible on the mountain’s popular pictures have won climbers the highest accolades in mountaineering, its regular climbing route moves up the mountain’s bulk that lay behind its well-known visage. But regular route or not, any climb on Shivling entails technical climbing. It is not an easy peak, modest elevation notwithstanding. In 2007, Pune-based mountaineering club, Giripremi, marked its silver jubilee celebration with an expedition to climb Shivling.

According to Umesh Zirpe, senior member of Giripremi, when the expedition returned to Pune after the climb, there were interactions with the public. At one such meeting, a woman held forth on her relative who had just been on a pilgrimage called Char Dham in the lower Himalaya. To her mind, Char Dham and attempting Shivling represented the same level of objective difficulty – it was all similar; all Himalaya. For Umesh, who had plans for more expeditions, the interaction was both reason to feel aghast and a lesson in marketing. Funding mountaineering expeditions has been traditionally difficult for civilians in India. It is an expensive sport entailing costly equipment, travel to remote places and eventually a method of team-work wherein the hard work of many will put a handful on coveted summit. It is also a fringe sport in India with proper awareness of climbing restricted to those who have been out in the mountains. In their ranks Shivling is hugely respected. Move away from that niche to larger world, and knowledge of technical climbing and other objective difficulties faced at elevation, fade. How do you raise funds for mountaineering if the public’s knowledge of climbing is limited?

South Col, Everest (Photo: courtesy Giripremi)

The Indian state of Maharashtra (where Pune is) had a successful civilian expedition to Everest in 1998; it was called Tata Everest Expedition, named so after the main sponsor. One of the expedition’s two members reaching the summit of Everest – Surendra Chavan – was from Giripremi. By 2007, mountaineering in India was increasingly aware of objectives like the many challenging peaks of medium elevation in the Himalaya (overlooked through obsession with Everest) and the much prized goal among mountaineers worldwide of climbing the planet’s fourteen 8000m peaks. Not to mention – Seven Summits, the quest to reach the highest point on every continent. Umesh’s vision was to attempt good climbs, go for the 8000m peaks and promote mountain sports on a large scale so that it got noticed. To do any of this you need funds. Problem was – in the public’s perception height of peak was everything. Therein nothing beats Everest (8848m / 29,029 feet) although as guided ascent by its regular route, the mountain is not ranked a major challenge by climbers. Still, as the woman at the public interaction proved, the world was blind to mountaineering’s details. All it asked was: how high did you climb? Space probes journeying far from Earth sometimes exploit the proximity of celestial objects to propel themselves onward. It is called gravitational sling-shot, gravity assist maneuver or swing-by. Umesh knew after that public interaction, Giripremi would have to be sling-shot on its journey by Everest. The club should first summit Everest and bring mountaineering closer to the public, if they are to become interested in more such big projects. Right then, in Maharashtra’s mountaineering circles that approach seemed regressive. Especially since Giripremi had just returned from Shivling, a peak genuinely respected by climbers. But then marketing has its rules and those rules are decided by the market.

Umesh joined Giripremi in 1986. He was into rock climbing; he also did his mountaineering courses from government-run institutes in the Himalaya. When the Shivling expedition occurred he was already some 20 years old at the club. A tax consultant by profession, he had become one of Maharashtra’s most successful expedition leaders with major peaks climbed by his teams (eight of these expeditions were to 8000m peaks). He had also been conferred the state’s Shiv Chhatrapati Award. Giripremi is at present Maharashtra’s most accomplished mountaineering club by a wide margin. The journey started in 2007 when after Giripremi’s return from Shivling and that session spent listening to Char Dham, steps commenced for a club expedition to Everest. “ I decided that mountaineering required the hue of a brand; something that draws the attention of the public. We will tell the people what the sport is. I was certain that I wanted to leverage Everest to popularize mountaineering,’’ he told this blog, July 2019, at Giripremi’s office in Pune. The planned Everest expedition featuring 13 members was estimated to cost Rs 3.5 crore (1 crore = 10 million). The number of climbers was large for a reason. Umesh wanted to avoid that classic mountaineering endgame of only a handful reaching the top. It kept a few in the limelight; the others faded to backdrop.

Umesh Zirpe (Photo: courtesy Giripremi)

The expedition budget initially shocked Giripremi. Back in 1998, a smaller budget for Everest had nearly gone unmet and the eventually successful expedition was a case of last minute bail-out by the leading Indian business conglomerate, Tata. Giripremi’s biggest budget till its Everest expedition was the just preceding trip to Shivling; that cost Rs 10 lakhs (1 lakh = 100,000). Umesh also wanted an altered approach to expedition. “ Usually in our expeditions a bunch of climbers did everything from beginning to end. By the time they reached the peak, they were tired. I didn’t want that, I wanted my climbers to be able to focus on their training and climbing,’’ Umesh said. He called for a meeting of mountaineers from Maharashtra. Around 125 people turned up to help the Everest expedition and spread word about the need for funds. In the fund raising campaign that followed, Umesh estimates that close to 25,000 people extended support. The campaign also had hooks built in. For instance, there was a trek arranged to the top of Kalsubai (5400 feet), Maharashtra’s highest peak. More than 470 people signed a banner kept on the summit; it would travel with the Giripremi team to Everest Base Camp. Specifically with regard to his climbing team, Umesh demanded commitment of two years from every member. Six people resigned their jobs to comply. The expedition members took to staying at the Giripremi office (while Umesh did not articulate it as such, others this blog spoke to said that this would have helped the team bond and know each other better). Aside from regular training, they also had sessions for meditation and breathing exercises. “ Roughly 80 per cent of funds for this expedition came from individual contributions. About 20 per cent was from company sponsorships,’’ Umesh said. It is a critical ratio. For in its progressive change over the years lay the contours of the machinery Umesh and Giripremi were putting in place. On May 19, 2012, eight members of Giripremi’s team reached the top of Everest. After the expedition, the attitude was one of objective met. For Umesh, it was launch pad for the next stage – attempt the planet’s fourteen 8000m peaks.

Last section before summit of Makalu (Photo: courtesy Giripremi)

The next peak the club focused on was Lhotse (8516m / 27,940 feet). It is adjacent to Everest and given some members from the 2012 Everest expedition hadn’t been able to top out, this expedition was made a joint Lhotse-Everest expedition. The previous success on Everest helped. Company sponsorships were more. According to Umesh, the ratio of financing for the new expedition settled at 60 per cent from individual contributions and 40 per cent from companies. In mid-May 2013, up on Everest, the team’s progress was hampered by unexpected bad weather at Camp 4. Descending to lower camps and then returning in fair weather was not an option as the Sherpas accompanying the team made it clear that in such weather conditions a descent would be descent for good. There would be no coming back up. Given oxygen supply was dwindling alongside, Umesh volunteered to go down; it would spare bottles for the others. On May 17, three Giripremi climbers reached the top of Everest. Same day, Ashish Mane from the club, reached the summit of Lhotse. The club now turned its attention to Makalu (8485m / 27,838 feet). In the Makalu expedition which followed in 2014, Ashish Mane became the first Indian civilian to reach the summit. In 2016 Giripremi had successful expeditions to Cho Oyu (8188m / 26,864 feet / two persons summited) and Dhaulagiri (8167m / 26,795 feet / Prasad Joshi became the first Indian civilian to summit the peak). In 2017, Giripremi reached the top of Manaslu (8163m / 26,781 feet) with two members summitting. Then in May 2019, it planted ten club members on the top of Kanchenjunga (8586m / 28,169 feet). “ That leaves Shishapangma and Annapurna from the list of 8000m peaks accessible to Indians,’’ Umesh said. The remaining peaks are in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Giripremi plans to attempt Shishapangma in 2020.

Ashish Mane; he reached the top of five 8000m peaks besides being the first Indian civilian climber to summit Makalu (Photo: courtesy Giripremi)

With this journey since the 2007 Shivling expedition, club member Ashish Mane has the distinction of reaching the top of five 8000m peaks (Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Manaslu and Kanchenjunga). Others from the club with the distinction of summiting at least two 8000m peaks include Ganesh More, Dr Sumit Mandale, Bhushan Harshe, Anand Mali, Rupesh Khopade and Krushna Dhokale. From an organization perspective (which is the thrust of this article) there are trends to note. When you ask about Umesh in mountaineering circles, you hear him described as someone focused on what needs to be done and a manager of people who connects with others. By his own admission, he has gone out of his way to ensure that his team members are properly taken care of; at one point he even met a company CEO to secure employment for a climber so that the latter could continue training for one of Giripremi’s expeditions in peace. You sensed premium for loyalty in the operating ambiance. There are also other vignettes of the style of project execution and attention to keeping constituents happy. Giripremi has done social work in the Everest region. Project Shivaji was launched for the welfare of the Sherpa community in the Solukhumbu valley; Mt Everest is located in the northern part of Solukhumbu district. In 2012, a statue of the Maratha warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji was installed at Gorakshep (16,942 feet), on the way to Everest Base Camp. Three years later, the club did relief work when Nepal was hit by a major earthquake in April 2015 (it did so at times of calamity in other parts of the Himalaya too – in Uttarakhand [2013] and Ladakh [2010]).

Still, what matters more from the perspective of repeating expeditions to major peaks is how well the project model transitions to stable funding. As subject, sustainable funding of expeditions has often been glossed over at India’s outdoor clubs. Good climbing clubs are a composite of considerable experience in the outdoors plus a convergence of people having different professional skills. With good leadership, mechanisms can be evolved and institutionalized to set up funds devoted for expeditions that a club can periodically dip into; at the very least, make the hunt for funds easier to handle. However, the traditional tendency at clubs has been to address expeditions as they arise. Once an objective is decided, the scramble for funds starts again, from scratch. At Giripremi, you notice departure from this attitude; you detect different pattern.

Prasad Joshi; first Indian civilian climber to summit Dhaulagiri (Photo: courtesy Giripremi)

As of 2019, Giripremi had organized more than 40 expeditions to the Himalaya (source: information provided in a diary brought out by the club). Somewhere along the way, the resource base available for Giripremi to play with began to change. Arguably the toughest part of life by expedition is getting started; that is when inertia is highest. Once the ball gets rolling, it develops its own momentum. The growing confidence and familiarity with solving problems become lubricant for journey’s progress. Through the club’s earlier expeditions, including the ones to Shivling and Everest, Giripremi built up a stock of mountaineering gear. Once bought, this equipment is good for several expeditions. Consequently such capital costs slowly declined with each expedition. The club’s budget for Everest in 2012 may have been Rs 3.5 crore. But according to Umesh, Lhotse-Everest settled at around Rs 90 lakhs and Makalu at Rs 60 lakhs. The budget for Cho Oyu and Dhaulagiri was one crore rupees; for Kanchenjunga, a major peak with time consuming access, the budget was Rs 1.57 crore. These figures must be read alongside location of peak, logistics and expedition size.

Further the ratio in funding between individual contributions and corporate sponsorships changed more from where it was by Lhotse-Everest. For the Makalu expedition it was 50:50. “ Now, we are at around 20:80, with 80 being corporate sponsorship,’’ Umesh said. Without doubt the Pune environment has contributed to this pattern of progressively institutionalized funding. After the successful 1965 Everest Expedition sponsored by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF), the early fulcrum of civilian mountaineering in India was Kolkata. The city and the state of West Bengal have many mountaineering clubs and they are known to have traditional strength in collecting funds through individual contributions. But well-oiled club machinery devoted to systematically targeting big budget 8000m peaks and repeating expeditions of that magnitude year after year (as Giripremi did) is rarely heard of. One likely reason for this – as per those familiar with the West Bengal mountaineering scene that this blog spoke to in Mumbai – was the lack of resource-rich clubs. West Bengal has a community that backs mountaineering and donates at the individual level to assist expeditions. But clubs backed by organizations / patrons with deep pockets, are few. Equally, once past the threshold of support by individual donors, expeditions don’t have a large base of companies to turn to, locally. As aggregators of people and resources, companies have the financial strength to sponsor expeditions on a scale individual contributions pooled-in, would find tough to match. Major companies (and companies in general) capable of vaulting civilian expeditions into the big budget league are more in western India.

Beholding peaks (from left to right): Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse (Photo: courtesy Giripremi)

At Giripremi’s 8000m expeditions, the drift to more and more company provided-funds was likely made possible by some structural changes in overall model. Around the time of the club’s Manaslu expedition, those working on the 8000m peaks project started an 8000-er club. By all accounts, in terms of economic background, this club is a notch above the regular outdoor club. “ Currently this small club has about 85 individuals and eight companies as members,’’ Umesh said. Members of this niche club get to hire equipment from the cachet of gear accumulated by Giripremi through sustained mountaineering. They can also avail facilities from another initiative commenced by Giripremi – the Guardian Giripremi Institute of Mountaineering (GGIM). In a national climbing ecosystem with leading government run mountaineering institutes located in the north, GGIM is Maharashtra’s first establishment in that role. The institute has a battery of services. As per its website, the institute – its advisory board has officials from the IMF and India’s mountaineering institutes – offers adventure courses, treks and hikes, mountaineering expeditions, tour of the Sahyadri for expats and adventure programs for companies. In August 2016, it launched a rescue co-ordination center for adventure enthusiasts landing in trouble in the state’s Sahyadri range. According to Umesh, Giripremi is a NGO while GGIM is a NGO under the Companies Act. GGIM is operated in league with the business group – Guardian Corporation; the latter’s involvement falls in the category of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). GGIM has tangible services to offer individuals and companies. In turn, that shared ecosystem, the goodwill it generates and the many people and companies it touches, is available to assist Giripremi’s expeditions. Not just that; as Umesh pointed out, GGIM has provided full time employment to some whose first love is climbing and the outdoors; they have been thus spared the need to struggle for livelihood in contexts they don’t fit in as well. One more point qualifies Giripremi’s funding model. Their backers are usually medium sized companies, not large ones. Umesh explained the reason. “ Large companies have more capital. But it is also true that decisions in such environments take time because the owners or really top officials, who decide on sponsoring expeditions, are far up in the hierarchy from the levels you get to speak to. On the other hand, at medium sized companies, this distance is less. You get to speak to owners. We typically speak to a basket of medium sized companies,” Umesh said.

Giripremi’s 8000m expeditions, essayed with Sherpa-support,  are not unquestioningly lauded by all in the climbing fraternity. For sure these expeditions are not in the same league as the alpine ascents, winter ascents and ascents up difficult routes done by some other countries. But it is a significant beginning and everyone this blog spoke to said, disagreements aside, credit must be given where it is due. Mumbai-based mountaineer, Rajesh Gadgil is a senior member of The Himalayan Club, one of the oldest and most respected institutions in mountaineering. “ I may have my differences of opinion in terms of what constitutes a great climb. But I cannot overlook a few important factors in the Giripremi story. First, they have been very consistent with their visits to the Himalaya. Second, they systematically groomed a new generation of climbers. Umesh is the expedition leader. His team belongs to a younger generation and that speaks volumes about how the club has operated, bridging generations. This is not a case of one group of people excelling and the club declining after they are gone. They have transmitted the enthusiasm onward. Third, they availed the same support systems as anyone else seeking to climb the high Himalaya. Yet, even as accidents occurred for others, Giripremi expeditions have returned safely from altitude, year after year.” Mountaineering circles recalled that there was a time long ago, when a set of tragic reversals in the Himalaya saw Giripremi reviewing its engagement with the world’s highest mountain range. The club eventually resolved to continue its expeditions to the Himalaya. The present track record follows that introspection, those this blog spoke to in Mumbai, said.

According to Umesh, the selection procedure followed for the Pune club’s 8000m expeditions is strict. A high level of physical fitness is demanded from participants. This is complemented by much training and preparation. “ Before each major expedition I travel to the location concerned to see for myself what the place is like and to develop a first hand idea of what safety and rescue measures we should have in place. We go in with Plan A, Plan B – like that. Finally, there is God’s grace,” Umesh said. Rajesh pointed out that steps like expedition members working and staying together at the Giripremi office would have introduced a degree of mutual familiarity in advance; something critical when it comes to intervening and assisting in hostile environments like high altitude. “ You typically listen to those you know. When you have known somebody for long, you trust their judgement,” he said. One classic occasion, when this mutual trust and respect becomes important is when people are told to descend for safety, much against their own wishes and perception of self. Timely descent from altitude has often saved lives.

On Kanchenjunga; approaching Camp 4 (Photo: courtesy Giripremi)

Umesh’s real legacy in Indian civilian mountaineering is most probably the systems and structures he evolved, which bring an element of sustainability – including sustainable funding – to mountaineering expeditions. Unfortunately even as he and Giripremi have emerged successful, the model they used may be a tough act to follow. Umesh’s journey started with Everest selected as objective for very practical reasons. At that time – Giripremi’s Everest expeditions happened in 2012 and 2013 – there were eyebrows raised in Maharashtra’s climbing circles over this continued pursuit of Everest, a much climbed peak and one associated strongly with commercial expeditions to boot. For mountaineers, the criticism was relevant. For the general public, it didn’t matter; in their eyes Everest was the pinnacle of mountaineering. To their credit, Giripremi successfully transitioned the public attention on their projects provided by Everest, to projects involving other peaks. However, by 2019, Everest, which kick-started the 8000m journey of Giripremi and Umesh, had fallen in public perception. There was yet again a season of high number of mountaineering deaths and most importantly a bulk of the blame was heaped on too many people lured to attempt the peak because the normal route is not very hard to do. If you can afford to pay the required money, guiding companies take you up. Queues built up at altitude when conditions turned adverse affecting climbers’ progress. Inexperienced climbers added to the mess. The long wait and exposure to the elements took its toll; people died. The media glare on Everest and the many stories told has meant the magic of Everest dimmed proportionately. The media has also brought to light the high levels of garbage collected and brought back from Everest at the end of each climbing season. It is likely that now if you say you are planning Everest, at least some may ask: can’t you spare it? Don’t you have another peak to try?

Simply put, it will be difficult to make Everest the sling-shot it was for Umesh and Giripremi.

What can you use other than Everest?

Time will tell.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Umesh Zirpe in Pune. Further conversation for building context and adding shades to debate was provided by others hailing from Mumbai’s climbing circles.) 

“ IF YOU ARE MOVING, YOU ARE DOING IT’’

Arham Shaikh (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In June 2019, a young cyclist from Pune found himself unexpectedly on the saddle at the 3000 miles (4800 km) long-Race Across America (RAAM). He had sought to crew for a team but found himself accepted as a racer. It was an unbelievable opportunity; he hadn’t trained for it, he was a fan among some of the world’s best ultra-cyclists and he was pedaling the same route they were on. Arham Shaikh recalls his RAAM experience and his journey in cycling so far.

In 1990, Colin Needham, an engineer working for computer giant HP in Bristol, started the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). It provides information on movies, TV programs, video games, home videos and content streamed online. Since 1998, IMDb has been owned by Amazon. The database has a page devoted to the top 25 Indian films based on sports. Placed eighth on the list as of August 2019, was the 1992 Hindi film Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander, the highlight of which was a bicycle race.

RAAM 2019; cycling through Arizona (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

The movie was a hit at the Indian box office. Arham Shaikh wasn’t yet born when the film released. But it was this movie and its bicycle race that got the young man, born 1993 in Pune, wanting to do something in cycling. Getting to focus on the sport took a while. Growing up, he was into several activities. “ I believe it is one life and I have to do everything. If I am not learning I am as good as dead,’’ Arham said. Thanks to his being in the National Cadet Corps (NCC), his childhood lived up to that credo. He got to train in mountaineering; yachting, shooting and diving. As university student, he also got into rowing and kayaking. He was in the naval wing of NCC. His desire was to join the Indian Navy. But the fact that he ended up graduating in computer science as opposed to being an engineer restricted his prospects for selection by the navy. It must have hurt for Arham had even been best NCC cadet at the all India level, once. However that cycling bug didn’t let go. It hung on.

RAAM’s route from the US west coast to the east ( Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

Arham’s father initially worked in the hotel industry and later, with the Baba Kalyani group of companies. His mother worked for Tata Motors. When he was in seventh standard, they bought him his first road bike – a BSA Mach 1. He asked his school coach what he should do to train and become a good cyclist. It was an unusual request; school coaches in India are typically generalists. Coach and ward had to figure out their way. Sole phase of proper structured intervention in between was a month when Arham trained at Kreeda Prabodhini in Pune’s Balewadi Sports Complex. They trained competitive cyclists. Then in tenth standard, Arham finished on the podium at a national level road race. He was promised a good road bike at home but funds crunch ensured it remained a mirage. A few years later his brother acquired a Hercules hybrid. Hitting the roads with that, Arham gradually got introduced to the culture of randonneuring, which had by then taken roots in Pune. Although he tagged along on his own with the riders, he didn’t do a BRM officially at this stage. He was a bit too casual and unorganized in his cycling gear to meet the safety standards demanded by the organizers. They recognized his earnestness but politely emphasized safety more.

Arham (left) at a pre-race interview for television, in San Jose (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

Towards the closing stages of graduation, Arham worked with the sole intention of saving enough money to buy a good road bike. He worked for a Pune based-bicycle retail shop called Cymour. Around this time, Divya Tate of Inspire India – she also oversaw randonneuring in India – had commenced the annual 400 mile (646 km) bicycle race called Deccan Cliffhanger. At a ride to Lonavala (a hill station roughly 65 kilometers from Pune) organized by Cymour, Arham got to meet Lt Col Srinivas Gokulnath. The latter asked Arham to crew for him at the 2014 Deccan Cliffhanger. Arham assembled the crew. Cymour helped Srinivas procure a new road bike – a Merida Scultura 300. “ It was a good race,’’ Arham said of the experience. That year, Chaitanya Valhal finished first; Srinivas placed second. Arham was sure he would try Deccan Cliffhanger sometime. Four months after he started working for Cymour, he received a Scott Speedster 30 as payment. Working for Cymour meant more than just getting that cycle. He learnt how to service and repair bikes, not to mention, he got insight into online sales. In 2015 Chaitanya became Arham’s coach. Arham went on to race at Deccan Cliffhanger in 2015, 2016 and 2017 – on all three occasions as part of teams (twice 2-person; once 4-person) he christened Relay Spirit; on all three occasions his team finished on the podium. He also made sure that besides participating in Deccan Cliffhanger, he crewed at one another race. The mix he followed every year was several short distance races, one ultra-distance event and an instance of crewing.

From the pre-race briefing session; Arham with members of Team Serpentine Golden Girls, a 4 person-relay team from UK competing in the 70-74 years age category at RAAM 2019. They had completed RAAM in 2008 earning the distinction of being the oldest female team to finish the race then. Unfortunately, although they cycled for seven days, 16 hours and 15 minutes covering 2673 miles in that while, they could not finish the 2019 edition of the race (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

Meanwhile the basket of races at Inspire India grew. In 2017, Arham thought of attempting Ultra Spice, at 1750 kilometers (it also has a 1000 km version), the longest race in their collection. But the dates clashed with a short distance race he had signed up for in Ahmedabad. There was also another event smoldering at the back of his mind; one he had heard spoken of a lot in the cycling circles around Inspire India – Race Across America (RAAM), the event entailing a ride, 4800 kilometers long, from the US west coast to the east. In 2017, Srinivas became the first Indian to complete RAAM solo; Amit Samarth became the first Indian to complete it solo on the very first attempt. At a subsequent party at Divya’s house, Srinivas shared his RAAM experience. Arham was in the audience. It added to the pull RAAM had on Arham. But embarking on a RAAM project was unthinkable for him just then; it cost a lot. A year later, in 2018, Amit successfully completed the Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme, a race over 9000 kilometers in length, almost twice as long as RAAM. Same year, Arham was asked if he would like to crew for Amit at Inspire India’s Great Himalayan Ultra. That good fortune of offers coming his way didn’t end there.

Arham with Pete Pensyres, winner of RAAM in 1984 and 1987. Pete held the record for being the fastest cyclist at the race for 27 years till in 2013, his record was broken by Christoph Strasser (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

In October 2018, Lt Col Bharat Pannu informed Arham that he was set to go for 2019 RAAM and as far as he was concerned, Arham was part of his core team for crewing. Arham likes everything at a race except driving the crew car, which he finds limiting as regards learning. Bharat assigned the responsibility of navigation and rider care to him. The team was well prepared. Bharat left a month ahead of everyone else for 2019 RAAM. He needed to train in the US, get used to cycling there and acclimatize. The first lot of the crew including Arham was scheduled to reach California ten days before the actual race, scheduled to start on June 11. Unfortunately Bharat had an accident while training. That ended his dream of participating in 2019 RAAM. It was a last minute setback bringing the curtains down on months of preparation. Tickets had been booked and all that was left for crew to do was, fly from India to the US. Instead of canceling his ticket, Arham decided to proceed to America. He planned to approach any other team requiring a hand in crewing. The logic was simple – crewing puts you in the front row to observe race and rider. It tells you how RAAM unravels, how the challenge impacts rider and crew. It is great experience to obtain especially if you have your own plans to attempt RAAM in the future.

Arham posted his offer and cycling resume on RAAM’s social media pages and community hang-outs. He even wrote to Christoph Strasser, among the world’s leading ultra-cyclists and winner of RAAM multiple times. Inspire India – connected as they are to the RAAM ecosystem – pitched in to help Arham secure an opportunity to crew with a team. Amit Samarth put in a word for Arham to one of RAAM’s all-time greats – Seana Hogan. Back in time, Amit had crewed for Seana. Around May 27-28, Seana called Arham. However Seana couldn’t confirm straight away. Then Dr Lam Do of Team SuperMarrow called. They were riding for a charitable cause. On their website, the team describes themselves thus: We are a team of relentless individuals, comprised of Leukemia patients, their families, and their physicians. Together we will race across America. We bike with the common mission to raise awareness for Leukemia, and to help diversify the Be The Match Registry by registering more potential donors. Team SuperMarrow supports Asian American Donor Program. All net proceeds will go to Asian American Donor Program to help support stem cell education and registration programs. Dr Lam Do asked if Arham was still available. Arham recalled what Dr Lam Do said, “ we will be honored if you come aboard and help our team to finish. Those were his words.’’ Team SuperMarrow was to be an eight person-relay team at RAAM. Arham’s role was to be assistant crew chief. SuperMarrow confirmed in five minutes.  RAAM was on, for Arham.

Arham on the De Rosa; near Wolf Creek Pass, RAAM 2019 (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

Next day, Seana called to confirm but it was too late. Arham recommended Ajay K, a teammate from Bharat’s crew for the job; he got it. A day before Arham was to leave, Dr Lam Do called telling him to pack his biking gear as well. Reason – Arham may have to race. Unlike attempting RAAM in solo category which requires prior qualification for eligibility, relay teams can pick up any cyclist they perceive as competent to be a team member. Nevertheless, Dr Lam Do’s announcement was a bolt from the blue. RAAM is a major race and Arham hadn’t trained at all. To compound matters, it was the month of Ramzan and its accompanying tradition of fasting was on. It isn’t the best period for a Muslim sportsperson to exert himself / herself. “ It was a weird time for me to say yes to racing,’’ Arham said. Five days after reaching the US, he was in Oceanside, California, fitted out in cycling gear and training with Team SuperMarrow. The team gave him a bike; it was a 54 centimeter-frame as opposed to his regular 52 centimeters. “ Usually cyclists take around three months to get acquainted with a new bike. I had eight days,’’ Arham said. On the bright side, he was given whatever gear he wanted. Back in Pune, only his parents and Chaitanya knew that he was going to cycle at RAAM. Chaitanya sent him a crash course on training.

From RAAM 2019; halting at a time station en route, to check-in. At right is Dr Lam Do, the team leader of SuperMarrow (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

On race day, having obtained official permission, Arham rode first with Kabir Rachure (rider from Navi Mumbai, he was attempting RAAM solo / he completed it successfully), then for 12 miles he rode with Christoph Strasser, a champion looked up to by many endurance cyclists in India. Team SuperMarrow was divided into two groups of four riders with four crew members; that’s eight cyclists riding on shift basis. One group completes its rotation first, then, the other follows. Arham was initially part of Team B therein. One member of Team B fell sick. Arham volunteered to do double shift. He was the youngest at 25 years of age; the rest were older ranging from 45 years to 72. The team’s previous experience in ultra-cycling was limited. The first few days were taxing. Mistakes happened. Past Durango, a team meeting was held to remind everyone of the need to work in harmony. At Wolf Creek Pass (10,856 feet; it is on the Continental Divide in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado), Arham’s exhaustion caught up with him. Some of his sessions on the saddle had been long. He was also doing night shifts. Amid this specter of inexperienced team whipping itself into shape, there was one positive. The team had provided Arham two bikes for the race. Both were top notch – a De Rosa and a Blue TT. “ They were the best bikes I had cycled in my life till then,’’ Arham said. Working diligently the team crossed all cut offs in time. RAAM spans the distance from Oceanside in California to Annapolis in Maryland. Arham got the honor of leading the team into Maryland. In all, they took eight days, two hours and 19 minutes to complete RAAM. It was well within the nine days cut-off period allotted to relay teams at the event. Team SuperMarrow raised a good amount towards charity, Arham said.

Team SuperMarrow; soon after they successfully completed RAAM in relay format (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

2019 RAAM had been a learning experience for the Pune based-rider. It more than met his expectations. He anticipated crewing; instead, he got to race and finish as part of a relay team. At the time he spoke to this blog in July 2019, Arham was planning to attempt Dunes, a RAAM qualifier race scheduled for mid-September 2019. He was preparing to do that solo. Also in mind was a Half Ironman in 2020; maybe the one in Dubai. Plus, there was the idea of taking a shot at the Great Himalayan Ultra. Of Dunes and solo rides, he said, “ I don’t have the training yet to do a solo. I have to work on my patience. Ultras are not about going fast; it is about being consistent. That’s what I learnt from 2019 RAAM. If you are moving, you are doing it. Not to mention – stopping is also critical. RAAM shows you how small you are.’’

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Arham Shaikh in Pune.)            

A CHILDHOOD DREAM AND THE LIFE IT GAVE

Catherine Stefanutti; occasion: completion of swim from Jersey to France (Photo: courtesy Catherine)

This is an article by invitation. Catherine Stefanutti is a South African swimmer based in England. An experienced Channel swimmer, she was a valuable late entrant to Team HOPE, the group of swimmers from Mumbai who successfully crossed the English Channel in relay format in July 2019. Here Catherine writes about how her love for open water swimming started, her journey to date in the field and suggestions she has for those planning to attempt the English Channel.

It was more than four decades ago that my coach in South Africa showed his squad of swimmers a newspaper article about somebody who had just swum the English Channel. I was then 12 years old. I instinctively told him that one day, I too would achieve the crossing. Growing up in South Africa, there was a lot of focus on sport within schools. There was a strong competitive environment between schools and good opportunities to participate at a reasonably high level. Born into a family of swimmers, I was a reasonably good swimmer and did swim competitively in my youth. I did well in competitions although not at the level of my siblings. My brother Andy for instance, swam for South Africa.

Andy was a really talented all round swimmer. He held South African national school records for several years in the 200m and 400m Individual medley and 100m and 200m butterfly.  He was selected for the South African team in the late seventies, a notorious time when South Africa was banned from the Olympics. Unfortunately  because of this Andy and other South African sportspersons never had the chance to participate in this great international arena. After school, Andy’s swimming talent took him to Indiana University in America, where he trained with coach Doc Counsilman (also coach to the US Olympic team, including Mark Spitz). He later moved to Louisiana University to complete his degree in Geology and continued to swim for the university squad until his final months of study, when he gave up swimming to focus on academics.

Notwithstanding my stated objective of crossing the English Channel, in my late teens, I gave up swimming. As I got older and moved on to university, the hours spent pounding up and down a pool lost appeal, and gradually fizzled out.

Andy, Christine and Catherine after their swim across the English Channel (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

Many years later, I moved to England. My sister Christine encouraged me to give open water swimming a shot. Christine had been participating in open water events in South Africa for a few years. It had rekindled her love for swimming and she was doing very well.  When she suggested that I join her for an event at London’s Docklands, I loved the idea.  I went for a few refresher sessions with my kids’ swimming teacher and took it from there.  I surprised myself by swimming the event in good time and so the journey began.That was the beginning of my journey to open water swimming. We – Christine and I – commenced by entering organized events like the Great London Swim, South Africa’s Midmar Mile and various Thames River swims. From that, we progressed to sea swims. Soon, we were looking for bigger challenges. The first of these was the Hellespont Europe to Asia swim in Turkey. A couple of years later, we swam the slightly easier Bosphorus (Asia to Europe). Then I swam the 17 km-length of Lake Windermere.

Meanwhile the old promise of crossing the English Channel resurfaced. Even with all the open water swimming I had done, this was an enormous challenge. What changed the equation was the realisation that the Channel could be swum in relay format. I felt sure that doing it this way was manageable and would ` tick the box,’ to fulfil my childhood dream. In 2014, Christine and I, along with a friend, joined a charity team to swim across the Channel as a six person-relay. Crossing done and that box in mind ticked, I was back in 2015, this time as part of a five person-relay team assembled by my coach Tracey Baumann. In 2016, I returned again for a third crossing. The occasion was special; it was a three person-relay team featuring my sister, my brother and I. Notwithstanding these three relay crossings there was still a niggle that I knew would go away only if I attempted a solo . The one thing that stood between me and the solo, was utter fear. I lacked confidence. Yet I knew alongside that I would nurse regret if I didn’t try.

Catherine; from her solo swim across the English Channel (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

I needed tiered progress to my objective. Emma France, a Channel swimmer who runs the Dover Channel Training group, suggested that I build up my confidence by first swimming from Jersey to France, a shorter, gentler crossing (approx. 26 km). Jersey is a British Crown dependency located near the coast of Normandy, France. Among islands in the Channel, it is second closet to France after Alderney. In August 2017 I successfully did this crossing in a time that surprised me and built my confidence. Still I was hesitant to book a slot for an English Channel crossing. So instead, I booked to swim around Jersey in July 2018.  This is an iconic 65 km swim; it is very tough but aided by the fast-moving tides around the island. No sooner had I booked this swim than Emma France approached me to say that somebody had cancelled their slot with Channel Pilot Neil Streeter and she was offering first option to take the place.  That was an offer I couldn’t refuse (English Channel swims are heavily booked, and one normally has to book with a pilot at least two years in advance). I was now faced with the challenge of two major swims booked within two weeks of each other – the enormity of this task was just the push I needed to focus and prepare.

The bulk of my training was on weekends, with the Dover Channel Training Group in Dover. They offer endurance training and full support for aspiring Channel swimmers. The training was complemented by a few sessions with their sister group, Durley Sea Swims, set on the South Coast in Bournemouth. The support given by these groups was invaluable. On 13 July 2018 I successfully swam around Jersey. Exactly three weeks later, I fulfilled my lifelong dream of swimming from England to France, crossing the English Channel solo.

All sports come with associated community of aficionados. It is no different in open water swimming. You meet people sharing the same interest in swimming and wishing to tackle objectives therein. In 2019, Team HOPE from India due for an attempted crossing of the Channel in July confronted an unexpected development. Theirs was a four person-relay. One of their swimmers – Samiir Wheaton – had to withdraw leaving them a swimmer short. Mere weeks remained to allotted time frame for the crossing. Given the limited time it seemed wise to scout for a replacement in the UK. A swimmer from there would be already used to the cold Channel waters. If someone was recruited in India then that person would have to go through the whole process of training in cold water; he / she would also have to do the obligatory two hour-qualifying swim in 16 degrees Celsius water. Against this backdrop, my friend Deepthi Indukuri, who is a Total Immersion swim coach in Mumbai, asked me if I would be interested to join Team HOPE as Samiir’s replacement. I saw it as a wonderful opportunity to get back into the English Channel.

Catherine after her solo swim to France (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

Many people think that if you have swum the Channel solo then a four person-relay should be easy. This is certainly not the case. A Channel relay comes with different challenges to a solo and one should never underestimate how tough it is. I met my team (Team HOPE) – the others were Zarir Baliwalla, Moiz Rajkotwala and Sudarshan Chari – a few times in the days before the crossing. The weather was unstable that week and the swim kept getting postponed or called off. Such uncertainty causes a lot of angst for swimmers; they are forced to wait. Finally, on the evening of July 11, our pilot Reg Brickell gave the go-ahead to attempt the crossing early next morning. On July 12, the swim started just after sunrise in reasonable conditions, which gradually worsened as the day progressed. By the time the team reached the French shipping lane, the weather had changed dramatically.  A strong wind working against a strong tide created large waves causing boat and swimmers to be tossed around in the cold water. The team did what they had to – dig deep and push hard through the tides. Fifteen hours after we started from England, we eventually landed on a sandy beach in France.

What an adventure we had, what a team we made. We started as strangers and now have a lifelong bond through achieving this great challenge together. Indeed, one of the things I love most about the open water swimming community is how swimmers from around the world are brought together by circumstance.  For some reason, I have repeatedly found a connection with swimmers from India. Some years ago, I met Deepthi Indukuri in a Masters swimming group, while she was training to become a Total Immersion Coach.  Deepthi was in the UK at the time, completing her Master’s degree. When she returned to India, she retained her strong connection with the group.

Catherine with members of Team HOPE. From left: Moiz Rajkotwala, Zarir Baliwalla, Catherine and Sudarshan Chari (Photo: courtesy Catherine)

In 2017, I spent most weekends of the summer training with the Dover Channel Training community, training for my Jersey to France solo swim.  Here I met Sameer Patil who had taken a three month sabbatical to come and train in the UK, in preparation for his English Channel solo that September. Sameer and I regularly swam together, we were a similar pace and I enjoyed training with him. My approach to training can be rather casual but Sameer was extremely driven and focussed. This pushed me to work harder and I really benefitted from that. During the season, Sameer often encouraged me to think about swimming the English Channel solo, something I was still afraid to commit to.

On 16 September 2017 Sameer Patil successfully swam the English Channel. As is tradition, a Channel swimmer picks up a pebble on the beach where he or she lands and takes it home as a well-earned trophy.  However, Sameer landed on a sandy beach in the middle of the night; he could not find a pebble in the dark.  Before he returned to India, I told him that I would plan a day trip to France and find him a pebble on the beach where he landed. His answer to me was very clear: No Catherine, I want you to swim to France to get my pebble.  I can honestly say that his words stuck in my head and played a big role in my decision to go for it (I did swim to France and got us both a pebble).

I have had the pleasure of meeting several Indian swimmers who have come to train in Dover, including amazing swimmers like Vandita Dhariyal. I never expected to become part of an Indian team swimming the English Channel. It was a great honour for me when this opportunity arose. I became a proud member of Team HOPE.

Catherine swimming for Team HOPE (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

Suggestions for those aspiring to swim the English Channel

If you are interested in swimming the English Channel as a team or individual, the first step is to book a pilot and boat. There are two official Channel Swimming Organisations and each has a list of registered pilots.  Pilot information and contact details can be found on the websites of these organisations, either the Channel Swimming Association (www.channelswimmingassociation.com) or the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (www.cspf.co.uk).  Channel crossings are done from mid-June to end September so there are only a limited number of places.  People book their slots up to three years in advance, although if you want to go sooner it is worth contacting the pilots as they do sometimes have cancellations.  Both websites contain lots of vital and useful information about Channel swimming.

Once you have booked your swim, it is time to start with the preparation and training. Cold water acclimatisation is a big factor and it is advisable to start with short swims in very cold water, gradually building up to longer swims as the water warms up.  In India the biggest challenge is finding cold water.  Some Indian swimmers have attended cold water swim camps around the world whilst others will plan to spend time before their swim in the UK to swim with the Dover Channel Training group.  In order to swim the Channel, it is obligatory to complete a qualifying swim in water temperature below 16 degrees Celsius.  Relay swimmers need to complete a two hour-qualifying swim, whilst solo swimmers need to complete six hours.  Training should be a combination of long swims as well as regular pool training and general fitness.

Channel swimmers’ tradition – signing on the wall of Fleurs pub in Dover (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

Swimming in a relay is great preparation for a solo swim as you will experience the conditions and challenges of the English Channel first hand. Obviously a solo swim is more demanding than a relay, both physically and mentally. However, both have unique challenges and a relay should never be underestimated.  A relay requires team members to swim in rotation till reaching France.  This means doing an hour of swimming, getting out, warming up and preparing to enter the cold water again for the next hour swim; repeating this until you reach France.  There are stringent rules to adhere to in order for the swim to be recognised.  Each time you return to the water, you need to prepare mentally for the hour ahead.  Whilst on the boat a big challenge is seasickness.  Pilot boats are small vessels travelling at a swimmer’s pace, which means a lot of rocking motion and many relays have been aborted due to swimmers being too ill to carry on. Preparing for this is essential and there are various medications available. These need to be tested for side effects beforehand.  Most crossings will involve swimming in the night and swimmers will need to prepare mentally for this.

It is beneficial to train in conditions similar to the Channel but it is not always practical to do so. It is a good idea to join open water swimming groups and take every opportunity to swim in open water.  It is also useful to become part of a Channel swimming community through social media as you can always draw on other people’s experiences and expertise.  Dover Channel Training is a good example of such a group, as is the Outdoor Swimming Society.

(The author, Catherine Stefanutti, is a Channel swimmer based in England. She is “ a full time mum (two teenagers), part time swimming teacher and company director for our family construction business.’’ For more on Team HOPE please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/06/29/a-relay-swim-across-the-english-channel/)