Thursday, January 02, 2014

The mountains are calling and I must go...

This article was first published in DNA Online on 30 December 2013.

In 1873, John Muir, the famous Scots-born American explorer, botanist, naturalist and author, wrote a letter to his sister, Sarah Muir Galloway, just after returning from his longest and hardest trip to the mountains. He had been away for five weeks, exploring the mountains and glaciers around the Yosemite Valley, and talks about his next trip to Kings River and Lake Tahoe. 

He signs off in a display of deep yearning: “The mountains are calling and I must go...”

Mountains had everything Muir wanted: solace, wildernesses, challenges and the ability to understand nature. Even today, they mean different things to different people. For some, they represent the ability to escape from the mundane, for others they are a pilgrimage. 

Mountains, to me, represent immense beauty, resilience and strength. For a few days a year, they also allow me to exist in an environment where I am not a slave to time. Time is instead a great expanse in which I can walk, talk, climb, read, sleep, cook, gather wood for a fire, sing or listen to music. My sense of time undergoes a significant alteration when I am in the mountains. A day’s trek of eight hours may often seem like an eternity. On other days, I may have walked for 10 hours straight but felt as if I’ve been walking for barely two.  The Himalayas are an escape from my time-bound and transactional life, and I embrace this escape every year.

On my first trip to the Garhwal Himalayas, I struggled a bit and thought it might be my last trek. But I underestimated the lure of the mountains. Ruskin Bond writes in his poem Living with Mountains in A Bond with the Mountains: “Once you have lived with mountains, under the benedictory pines and deodars, near stars and a brighter moon... You will return, you will come back to touch the trees and grass, and climb once more the windswept mountain pass.”

Why: The motivations

There are times on every expedition when I ask myself, “Why am I doing this? Why am I here?” On my recent trek to Changabang through the Bagini Glacier, there was a particularly steep climb up to Kala Khal, the last pass we crossed on our 12-day trip. As I trudged up this tough mountain, I asked myself that same question.

It is easy to glibly repeat what George Mallory said after climbing the Everest, “Because it is there”. But this answer somehow misses the point, for Antarctica is also ‘there’, and I don’t feel the overwhelming compulsion to visit annually. The Himalayas, on the other hand, draw me every year. 

On a trek, especially at altitudes above 4000m, every day can be a struggle. Many times, my friends and I are exhausted and somewhat irritable. On most days above 4000m, we suffer headaches (and sometimes, nausea too) from the high altitudes and oxygen scarcity. Some climbers and trekkers have to take Diamox, a pill to combat acute mountain sickness (AMS). I have not had to use it yet, but I am acutely sleep deprived at heights over 3500m. On most trek nights, I am on a two-hour sleep cycle, with an hour in between to toss and turn, listen to music and somehow will myself to sleep again. (I carry a solar charger to recharge my iPod and our camera batteries.) There is no water to wash or shower with on a regular basis. A bowl of hot water is all you get every morning. 

Here are a few specific 

Yet, the lure of the Himalayas is immense. The views, the pure air, the quiet, the solitude, the ability to introspect, and the ability to exist in a different sense of time and space have made a trek to the Himalayas an annual necessity. I experience a heightened sense of accomplishment and freedom in the mountains. On most treks, even as we complete one climb, we are already planning the next, one which is invariably higher and more difficult. 

While on a climb, as I contemplate that ‘why’ question, I am essentially addressing an internal conflict: where my irrational fears war with my intellect; where awareness of my capability and weaknesses clashes with misplaced overconfidence; where my ego confronts my conscience, which tells me climbing is not about conquering. It is here that I learn most about myself. 

You can train for a climb, acquire all the physical strength you need, but in the mountains, mere physical strength isn’t enough. Sometimes, just the intellectual strength, drive, passion and motivation isn’t enough either. It’s all about striking a harmonious balance. I cannot be arrogant or self-obsessed enough to think that the climb is just about broadening my understanding of myself. And it is certainly not about conquering peaks. 

My friend and Garhwal mountain guide Raju said to me many years ago, “We Garhwali folk do not conquer mountains. To us, the mountain is a Goddess. We take her permission to use her for our own benefit.” He added unpretentiously, “I have never ever conquered any mountain.” 

Now, Raju is someone who radiates fitness and good health and, in over 30 years of trekking and climbing, has climbed many difficult peaks in the Himalayas. He went on to explain that this was why Garhwali guides would never place a flag at the peak of the mountains they climb. A flag at the peak would suggest that the expedition had ‘conquered’ the mountain. “We always place the flag a few metres short of the peak. If we think we have conquered the mountain, our Goddess has a way of teaching us unpleasant lessons on the way back.” 

This message resonated with my own sense of respect for the mountains, although I could never have articulated my thoughts as beautifully as Raju did. I feel each step on the mountain is an act of devotion and submission. I suspect that this, more than anything else, enables me to endure much more than what my modest physical abilities would otherwise allow me. 

And here is a post on 

The American Alpine Association answers the ‘why’ question quite simply: 
“It takes us to places of incredible beauty, and it challenges us to find untapped reserves of strength and resourcefulness. It’s also just plain fun, if you don’t mind putting out a little effort. For some of us it will be our life’s work; for others it’s a deliberate detour on the way to bigger things.  But it’s a passion that comes naturally to all of us.”

How: The preparation

You have to train to climb mountains and the training is not easy, especially if you want to attempt heights greater than 4000m (about 13,200ft). You have to train physically as well as mentally. You also have to learn to appreciate the risks and dangers, and how to mitigate them. 

Tough pre-trek training always pays off when you are in a particularly difficult position on a climb. You need to know that you have successfully tackled it before and can do so again. You train so that in testing situations in the mountains, your rational intellect can immediately co-exist with the mind, which perceives dangers. That is when the preparation, the daily conditioning, the acclimatization, the experience and the risk awareness come together harmoniously. Fear is replaced by a fabulous sense of calm focus, abundant lucidity and drive. 

My training has been severely compromised – in terms of intensity – in Mumbai, where it is very difficult to find either open spaces or training playgrounds (essentially, easily accessible trekking tracks). I alternate between interval training on a treadmill and stair climbs for 3-4 months prior to a trek. On some weekends I also undertake treks to nearby hills around Mumbai. 

This preparation is crucial. You just cannot attempt a serious trek without the preparation. You have to feel the pain. You have to sweat, run out of breath, feel like you’re about to collapse.

When I begin training before a trek, I try to climb up 25 flights of stairs, starting at four repetitions, and doing as many as 10 repetitions as I get accustomed to the routine. The more you train, the faster, quicker and easier it gets. Often, boredom kicks in. But you just persist because you just have to. On some days, I run up and down 6 flights of stairs to weave in interval training into my stair climb too.

Earlier, when I trained early in the mornings, the cleaners, the newspaper boy or milkman – the only other people I see using the stairs at 5am – would look at me, all covered in sweat, and wonder why I was doing this. I’d often feel silly, smile sheepishly and keep plugging away. I do it because I know that if I hadn’t put in the preparation or if I hadn’t practiced pressure breathing (or forced hyperventilation) I wouldn’t have – couldn’t have – completed the treks and climbs I have undertaken. So every day during my preparation, I will myself to do better or climb more than the previous day’s stair climb. 

If the preparation is wrong, I believe almost everything is compromised and we end up with a thoroughly sub-optimal outcome. I’m a big believer in a sharp focus on daily hygiene factors and if this is accomplished, the outcomes just take care of themselves. 

By the end of my preparation for the recent Changabang trek, I had worked myself into doing eight repetitions of 25 floors reasonably easily – sometimes with weights around my ankles or with a backpack filled with weights. The idea is to simulate the conditions and stresses induced in the mountains. Of course, it is impossible to simulate the cold, thin air. Mumbai does have a high-altitude training centre called Pilates Altitude, started by John Gloster, a former fitness coach of the Indian cricket team, and his partner. Though I haven’t used it yet, I have heard it is a wonderful resource. So far, though, the stairs have worked just fine for me.

I believe preparation and hard work are key to most things in life. This is doubly true when it comes to the mountains, where almost everything is difficult. The weather is the only facet of a climb not in our control. In the months preceding a climb, you need to prepare such that the weather is the only variable and all other aspects are completely under our control.

What: The lessons

The main lesson the mountains have taught me is of the importance of preparation, commitment and balance on a trek. 

Mountain climbs have taught me to not be overconfident. In spite of that, on the recent Changabang trek, an overconfident stride on a boulder resulted in a slip. The resulting cartilage damage to my wrist that has still not healed completely some 12 weeks after the conclusion of that trek.

What worries me more, though, is the lack of confidence that constantly arises in the mountains. Doubts plague you constantly: Will I be able to tackle this ridge? Are the boulders too loose? What if I fall down this crevasse? Is it too steep? Will the scree or loose sand send me crashing down the slope? What if I stop breathing? Why is my heart beating so crazily? Why is the pain in my heel not going away? Why can’t I sleep?

In the silence of the mountain, you can sometimes hear your doubts as they replay in your mind. You cannot let them get you down. You have to learn to convince yourself that your training and your preparation will get you through; that you have done all the hard work; that the only unknown is the weather.

You have to respect the surroundings and constantly strive for a balance between overconfidence and lack of confidence. The latter produces excuses and what is referred to as ‘anticipatory regret’. It is necessary to make more and more of the unknowns known through focus and hard work during preparation. This learning can be carried across to your professional life too, in the workplace and the projects, groups or teams that you lead.

The mountains force you to introspect, and banish your demons and irrational fears. Over time, as we battle through our days in tough and sometimes unpleasant city lives, the mirror that we need to hold to take a deep look at ourselves loses its shine. We are often unable to see who we transform into. In the mountains, when you encounter a particularly tricky ridge or a glacier crossing or a climb, when you are out there on your own, completely vulnerable, you have no choice but to dig deep within and find who you are and what you are made of.  

Sir Edmund Hillary got it right. He said, “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”

These treks have also taught me the values of commitment and persistence, and instilled in me a willingness to work hard. I might hate the laboriousness of daily preparation, but I must do it for two reasons. First, I do it for my own satisfaction. There is nothing worse than a trek you are badly prepared for. It turns into a dreadful experience very quickly. I prepare well because the journey must be enjoyable, and without the preparation, the mountains expose you completely. 

I also put in the hard-yards, for otherwise I would drag down the entire team that treks with me. There is a larger sense of purpose to the battery of training. It is as much about you as it is about the rest of the team, to whom you have a responsibility. The preparation makes the journey pleasant and enjoyable – not only for me, but for everyone else. And that is a significant lesson from the treks I have undertaken. We do not exist as islands; the work we do impacts others too. If we do not prepare well for the work we need to do, it not only affects our work (or enjoyment) but others’ too. Commitment and persistence are vitally important.

As Nik Wallenda, adventure seeker and tightrope walker, said of preparation: “Being on a tightrope is living, rest is waiting.” 

At one point on the recent trek, I slipped, fell and injured myself slightly. We were at a high altitude, so I was totally winded by the fall. Our guide was a bit ahead of me. He rushed back, looked at me and held out his hand. He indicated that he could hold me, assist me and, if needed, drag me up the rest of the way up the peak. Perhaps I saw a lack of belief in his face; perhaps my ego kicked in. I built resolve. I told myself I could do it, I would do it. I instinctively trusted my preparation – and myself. I thanked the guide and said I wanted to complete the climb unassisted. I did. A bit of confidence and self-belief – and occasionally a bit of pride and ego too – does not go awry. Of course, as long you strike a balance.

I realise this may sound clichéd, but on treks and climbs, it really is about the journey and not the destination. The previous year, for a variety of reasons, I could not reach the peak of the Stok Kangri mountain. I decided to abandon the climb some 300m short of the peak. I have absolutely no regrets over that decision. I had thoroughly enjoyed the climb until that point. On every trek, I need to enjoy the journey, and especially the preparation. If I do that, the destination (or the outcome) takes care of itself. 

But the most important lesson is that the Himalayas can elevate the soul even when it tears you up from the inside, emotionally, physically, psychologically, physiologically and mentally.

Just go. And if you do, like John Muir, you too will say, “The mountains are calling and I must go...”

-- Mohan (@mohank)

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