There are days in our lives we don’t forget. I have two very important milestones like those. One when my father passed away and I sort of forgot how to live, and the other, when I met Arundhati. Let’s add a third to that, the day I failed the two, only to make them proud, the day I crossed the Chola Pass in Nepal.
Earlier this year, in April, I embarked upon on the Everest Base Camp trek, via Gokyo Ri. At 31, this was only my fifth. Before that began, I was on a month long adventurous and extremely educating solo trip to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, eating street food and relishing daily brewskis. Not the best way to prepare for a rigorous trek but seldom does a man get to escape for 50 days and tick one off of his bucket list. Now, a 15 day trek is intense, and Nepal is a different terrain. The rule says, the longer the trek more are the chances of things going wrong. It was all good and comfy in the first week. Rather on the seventh day, we witnessed heaven on Earth, after two hours of climbing in the dark, standing up top Gokyo Peak at 545AM, in the heart of the ocean of the biggest imposers in the world, Cho Oyu, Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Nuptche, Macchermo, Cholache, and a hundred others. I’ve not seen nature’s beauty any more alluring than this.
We descended the peak, crossed a glacier in heavy snowfall and piercing winds, to reach Thangna at 4740 meters. Most commercial treks in India have their peaks and summits perched that high, and this was just one of the camps for us on the way to the Base Camp. With that said, one can already understand the intensity of this trek we were on. The following day though was to simply rest and brush off the Gokyo Ri climb’s fatigue, acclimatise, and prepare for the day after. This is where things started to change. That night, at nearly -15C outside, with the heavy snowfall now in its continuous second day, I caught a bad cold, with a wet sleeping bag in which my water bottle had earlier leaked being the only respite. The morning after brought the obvious dreaded cold, congestion, sneezing, sweaty throat, body ache, and more. My trek leader had no other advice but to send me on a three-day complete antibiotic course, one hellish scenario while on a high altitude trek. I wouldn’t take one for nothing, but here it was either that or descend. The morning after we were to wake up at 3 and be up and running at 345AM. It was the morning of the dreaded Chola Pass.
At the breakfast table, with barely any desire to gulp that gloopy, synthetic, tasteless porridge down my throat, my trek leader handed me a 500mg antibiotic, a paracetamol, an antacid, and a strong loosies tablet, and asked to line up for departure. At 345AM, with four tablets fighting in my empty tummy, screwing up the system as bad as it could, in the freezing cold, with no reserve of energy to even begin with, we embarked on our day’s mission. Now, crossing the Chola Pass with a fit body is a task, and there was me with nothing on my side. My body was buzzing.
Slowly the sun came and shoo-ed away the cold for a bit, thawing me down, and filling in some optimism. At the end of the second hour, our group had finally reached the face of the pass. Pass’s foot was still at least a kilometre away, set on a carpet of massive boulders. Beyond that, there was nothing in sight but an erect, never-ending, snow-covered pass, on which other trekkers seemed smaller than ants, and filling barely any excitement in us to even attempt it. It was as if it was waiting to put us immortals in our place against the giant 40 million years old mighty Himalayas. It was a terrifying sight. By this time my body had already given up, but the mind was still there in place. The additional 12 kilos of backpack was not helping at all, shoulders paining as if they were carrying melting metals. But, with the group’s support, and a promise to stand true on my aspirations, I moved ahead and reached the pass’s foot.
In all my treks I was always in the lead party, at times even ahead of that. I started last on the day of the Gokyo Ri peak, and was amongst the first to reach, accomplishing a 3 hours climb in just 2.15, surpassing nearly everyone in the group. But here, standing at the foot of the pass, facing the demon laughing to intimidate me and crush the already broken confidence, I was not even in the lead of the trailing party. What was to come was an elevation gain of more than 600 meters, two kilometres of sheer 80 degree gradient ascend, on boulders, and melting ice. Every step was a vertical lift, pulling your entire body, and that of your backpack. Oxygen there was down to 46% than that at sea-level, the cold was troubling, and breathing wasn’t easy.
Nearly 10% in to its climb, I learnt that the only one person behind me had fallen to a life-threatening condition called High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), a condition where water reaches the lungs in considerable amounts, as much to drown and kill one in about 8-16 hours. It was for sure that he was to cross the pass with that condition, reach the camp, and be rescued out in a helicopter, and that’s exactly what happened. This further dampened my spirits. Moving ahead was difficult and carrying the backpack now posed a serious challenge. At this time, our assistant guide generously took upon self to carry it for me. It was a big relief. At about less than one-third in, walking any more than ten steps at a time was a herculean task, leaving me gasping for air, panting like a runner who had just crossed the finish line of a long marathon. I was crying for even a single reason to continue. This was now a battle between mind and the body.
My mind was split in two, the good and the evil. The good had the promises from my pretty lady, to make her proud, and present the success of the day to her as our first anniversary gift. The night before, due to no connectivity, I couldn’t even wish her, this was further marring my spirits and desires to climb that day. After my mother, she is the strongest woman I know and I couldn’t have let her down. I pushed for her. It couldn’t take my body too far though. Once that exhausted, then came the sole reason why I even trek, for my father’s watchful eyes on me from the mighty heavens. I have numerous reasons why all my treks are in his memory, and that’s one of the reasons why I couldn’t have given up on this pass too. He was watching, I could feel it. The promise to make my old man proud of his ill and physically broken little one was way too much for me to carry on. There’s way more pain and agony he must’ve gone through battling cancer in his last days with us. However, the body failed reading this determination.
After a while, may be a little over midway, the two minds called for a conference and concluded their collective surrender. What good was it to bring if I was to crash and burn and fall to an illness that could potentially take me to the heavens? Would it be a gift for Arundhati? Would she want her man to go away in a spur to conquer a pass, one that he could’ve returned to anytime in his life? Would she be proud or take me as a fool? Is my madness to yield any good for her? And the answer was obvious. Then, there was my father’s watch. Would he be proud of me that I died trying, or be sad that I left the portion of his unlived life and came to him? Would he be happy that I took away another one from our small family? Would he not take me as a fool instead? Yet again, it was an obvious conclusion. Finally, in sync, my mind sent a signal to my body, surrendering to the conditions, both physical and natural, ordering it to call quits to this trek, and return to base. And at that point, my body smiled at that decision, nearly in awe of my kiddish mind’s brave attempt of seeming like a grown-up, in a parental soft voice, with a response that shook me – ‘You’re giving up now? I gave up a few hours ago’.
I was left with a cocktail of emotions then, but had no reserve to express it. It took me some time to even gather what just happened, let alone in conjuring the next move, and concluding on the final decision. It was an out of body experience transpiring over a few nanoseconds. What is a man to do now? Do I continue, or fall back? Do I start again from here, or listen to the two fuels and surrender? A new chain of thoughts was just nurturing itself to conceptualisation when my assistant trek leader said – ‘You’ll soon be going to my town and making me proud’, and just then I knew what I had to do.
Dhan Singh Ji, our assistant trek leader, who stuck by my side in this pass climb that day, was from Uttarakhand. A matured, practical, and a charming man with a big heart, and a highway between his head and words. I am scheduled to go to Nehru Institute of Mountaineering at Uttarkashi in September-October for a Basic Mountaineering Course, which is his home-ground. When he said those words, I was fuelled with an unprecedented breed of energy and desire, an aspiration to make someone proud again. My father taught me – should you wish to guarantee your success at something even before embarking upon it, dedicate the journey and its success to someone, and the regard to not fail that person will assure you attain your goal. This is exactly what I wanted at that 5000+ metres terroir. I stood up again, and yet again, passed a few men from our team, and a few hours later, I parked myself at the top of that 5370 meter monster, the Chola Pass. It was 2PM when I reached the summit, and realised it had already been 10 hours climbing on this path. The view on the other side was just an ocean of pure white snow, as far and wide the eye could see, the challenge ahead of us, after a vertical fall of a few hundred meters, a sheer wall of rocks. There, I popped another pill, this time a rather friendly multi-vitamin. I nearly passed out for the next thirty minutes and the next thing I knew was someone waking me up at 230PM to get moving. That day I reached almost the first at the camp, but then stopped about a few metres before to escort the member defeated by HAPE. It is the camaraderie trekking injects you with that couldn’t allow me to have a personal glory over someone else’s condition.
It is the first time that I gave up on my lady and my father’s promises. Ambitions failed, sensibility prevailed, yet, the disappointment of having given up on them is crushing. Everyone is happy to see me alive and accomplished on the trek, but a secret battle inside remains unsettled, that of being unable to carry them as the firsts to fuel my ambitions and passions. They, along with my kiddo, Beatle, are the three pillars of my life, and to let them down is a shame. On the face of it they do see me successful, but, in the heart of my heart, it is not a sweet victory. I returned to them, and rushed to fall at the mercy of their undying love and adulation, and they nurtured me selflessly, seeing not a different man in me, the one that I had become. This day at the Chola Pass also instilled the idea how strong we humans are. I gave up, and yet conquered the task at hand. Now, I smirk at self when I am struggling to finish that last kilometre run, or am in discomfort, or feel I can’t do it. Chola Pass, that smirking monster has left me with a lesson of a lifetime, and what a beautiful one it is. Not physically and mentally, it has strengthened me emotionally too. May be it’s a part of growing up, I reckon it was quite matured a decision to give up on a competitive task and save self first over the embarrassment of not having finished another trek (Goechala Trek, Kanchenjunga National Park).
Life teaches us lessons in its most unusual ways. All we have to do it let go of our inhibitions and be at its feet to receive the valuable learning. As once said, you won’t burn in the sun if you’re baptised by fire. I have understood and lived it now.
This one’s to life, to Papa, to Beatle.