Monday, November 5, 2012

Why do I (we) trek, ride, jump & climb?

So, it boils down to the basic question? Why do I trek, cycle, climb mountains or get away from the creature comforts of a metro, away from family and friends, kith and kin and subject myself to such physical efforts and mental isolation?

I remember my first steps out into the mountains. It was 26th January 1995, just after securing a comfortable job, post an MBA course. We had chosen, what today may be defined as a moderate or difficult trek in the Western Ghats of India. I recollect the thoughts that crossed the mind on the way down. "I like this! I will do it again"

Not too many months later I found myself on the same trail downhill toying with same thoughts. I liked it again.

Was it the awesome appeal of nature, was it friends or the company, was it the air, was it the feeling of exploring, was it the achievement of trailblazing newer routes which only few choose to walk, or was it me? All these were positive inputs. But then, was I trying to get away from it all, keeping relations at an arms length, keeping work worries away, keeping the urban buzz at bay, or scared of the big fat race in the middle? In another couple of years, I had launched myself fulltime into the outdoors, so most of the latter worries disappeared too.

Then, what made (and continues to make) me go back week after week, doing the same trails, cycling paths again and again enduring the efforts and at times the pain?

This is difficult to pin point! Over the last few years I have been riddled (and overwhelmed) with the same question. But over a lot of discussions and deliberation within and with our friends, here is what I come up with!

Primarily there is no denial that it's nature that works the magic. But that's the external influence. An intrinsic and an all encompassing factor that may be driving me (and maybe most of us) is to do more with the way i deal with my past and future. I believe both our past and future are always a cause of worry and anxiety for us. We carry a lot of burden of our past and let it impact our current action as much our future worries us. Trekking, cycling, rappelling, rock climbing, mountaineering, rafting, sky diving or any such activities have the ability remove ourselves from these time lines and let us be; focus on what is our present. Nature and the activities engage our minds in a manner that all the cloud and clutter of thoughts part ways; the only thing that matters in our mind is the step we are taking.

This feeling of removal from the past and future, I am sure, can be extrapolated to other hobbies, activities, vocations and for some, even regular work life. A challenge or an action is the most joyous if it has the ability to absorb you and makes you experience your immediate present. All relations, bonds, attachments, yearnings, greed etc fade into the nothingness of such an experience.

Recently we returned from a grueling expedition, where our challenges were unknown, we thrust ourselves into complete isolation with no phone calls and contact with the outside world, atop 6200Mtr passes. Initially many team members grew uncomfortable with the isolation, but soon enough, we gelled well and focussed on the everyday challenges. I had forgotten about the outside world and what lay ahead of me were only the hurdles, people who mattered and the limited resources to our disposal. That meant a lot to me. As we weaned back into civilization, i remained in the zone for longer (and so did some others) as i did not want to connect back to the real world. I did not want news from family, friends, work, people as it meant that I re-establish relations with my past and future. Not worrying about it was the real joy!

The present truly teaches you things that you never knew existed, has no answers borrowed from the past or make no presumptions about the future!

Another aspect that this 'joy of the present' transcends is the fact that while you live your present, it does not matter who you are, where you come from, what's your social position and what your physical and mental state is. Once you assimilate this, no challenge is big enough for your mind and body. The physical self is ready to take it all. It easily changes to a mind-over-body experience.

Keeping in shape, making friends, enjoying the small pleasure of nature, taking in the experiences, bonding with self and others, now seem a necessary but an essential part of the overall package.

I know it's unfair on all my dear ones around me as I embark on such journeys very so often, but guess that defines who I am!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Cycling on City Streets - The Attitude!

Rajendra Dwivedi, a senior media professional was run down on the Eastern Express Highway near the outskirts of Mumbai on September 30, 2012. This is a really unfortunate incidence and an eye-opener for us cyclists.

My condolences to Rajendra Dwivedi’s Family. May his soul rest in peace. 

This incidence set me thinking about the new craze of cycling and how people's attitude towards this new found love has taken a drastic turn in its favour, but not without its consequences. I find it neccesary to point out some concerns regard this. I have a few points to make about riding on the gullies, path, streets, roads and highways around any urban location.

While understanding the risks of riding on the highway and main roads, I have always ridden on all kinds of roads and terrain and shall continue to do so. Over the years of experience, it is a learning that ‘of prime importance for the cyclist is to be aware of his/her environment’. Nouveau cyclists are often blind and deaf to their surroundings. By Nouveau Cyclist, I mean all those people who have only recently acquired a bicycle and taken to the saddles after years since their childhood (mostly for fear of traffic) or really the newer breed of cyclists who have only recently set out exploring the world of cycling.

Since my first year on the saddle in 1987, I have never changed my attitude towards traffic and cycling. Initially even I was tentative, and it took a few years to test the attitude. What this 'attitude’ is, is not something I can say. But it exists and it shows on the roads. Think Krishna Kumar and Prashant Patil were privy to it when we went to Mumbra the other day and in Thane on the EEH saw me riding bang in the midst of speeding traffic. I know they were extremely nervous seeing me do that and may take some time to get that under their skin, but it will come with consistency and vigilance. Your attitude as a cyclist shows on the way you ride and motorist will respect that. Mebbe its body language, posture, you mannerisms on the roads as you ride, your communication - spoken and unspoken, etc. But guess you cannot see that yourself. However, it's a two way communication.

Recently i rode with a cycling activist from Bristol, who said that he likes the way I ride on city roads with full awareness and attitude towards the traffic. Easy friends, that observation does not make me more confident on the saddle as it's about my life too, right? It does seem dangerous and fatalistic, but I never understood people when they said it's too dangerous to ride on Mumbai roads! It still is and isn't. Just because now there are hundreds riding the bike does not mean that it's that safe. It's just the statistics and idea of looking cool. I am not saying that we all ride to look cool, but after all it is! Isn't it?

Here, I must agree a wee bit, that many motorist who own a bike (so what if it's not used) or is an active rider or has friends / family riding, does look at you with respect. Likewise for the Thumpers, Davidsoners and the Ninjas. More people ride, more will awareness be until a point it becomes a real movement. Yes, some like Rajendra will perish.

JJust a few questions here:
  1. Do we know how well protected was Rajendra while he was riding?  
  2. Where on the road was he riding when the knock down happened? In the middle or sides? What was he doing when this happenned?
  3. Did he take any panga (scuttle) with car fella while riding? (Do we realise that we are miniscule compared to the power of even a Maruti 800 at 60kmph! The laws of momentum are not in our favour (m1xv1 = m2xv2, remember?). 
  4. Was he completely aware of his environment while riding? 
  5. How long has he been riding recently or after he took up cycling again?  
  6. Did he believe that a better cycle made him a better cyclist or gave him the right to own the road? 
  7. I am not even asking if he had rear blinkers, helmets, reflectors because they mean nothing or add only that micro-extra protection!
The above questions by no means challenge Rajendra's abilities, character or preparedness, but they allow us to introspect and ask ourselves the above. It is an opportunity for us to STOP for a while and ask ourselves the same. 

After all, how well do we know ourselves, cycles, motorists, roads, rules and attitude?

May Rajendra's name go down in the "city's cycling martyr's" names as this incidence will force others like us to ask the authorities for our share of the road and bring awareness.

Here are some tips for ourselves that will bring about that attitude:

(I am assuming that your bicycle is in absolute spic conditions, oiled, brakes checked, chains cleared and bearings greased. As also the bike is well fitted for you to ride and has no cause of concern or worry on the ride.)

  1. Learn to look over your shoulder every moment there is a chance.
  2. Respect the motorist. Because, other times of the day, you are behind the steering, no? You have no choice. If you are in his way and he throws a tantrum, smile or just move away! Do not argue for arguments sake. For now, he is stronger, faster and mightier than you.
    • And Of course, do not try to race with unequal competition. Will you ever catch a car / motor bike? Further, how do you know his state of mind.
  3. Keep your ears open to the traffic moving around you.
    • Do not ride with iPods and mp3's on! I hate it when people do that even in the outdoors. Itna hi music sunana hai toh gharpe baitho. Bahar kyon aaye? Aur horn kaun sunega?
    • A speeding car or motorbike makes enough noise to sound you off much in advance. But are you listening to it?
  4. The corner of the eye has great vision! Have you tried and trusted it ever?
    • Do not wear dark cycling glasses when not needed. Kya matlab hain yaar? I understand that the sun is harsh, but early mornings? If you must protect your eyes against grime and dust, wear a neutral colour. But remember, any eye wear will block vision. Most of us like to wear the wraparounds and Oakley’s to look cool! But why block that danger when you can better spot it without the sunglasses! And after all the sun is much bearable until 9-10am when you return home after the morning ride. 
    • Here's a fact: 'a human mind riding on a bicycle processes and stores data faster than the fastest supercomputer in the world'.
    • I will add a corollary: 'provided the input ports are free of clutter'. The processing and assimilation of information will be highly reduced if the senses are blocked, occupied or obstructed. This is a mantra not only for cycling, but for all outdoor activities!
  5. Use a red 'blinker' light  (though I never used one until last couple of years and never felt threatened).
    • Though as in Pt 1, looking over the shoulder is still considered the best practice even in western world. Practice this on crowded and safer roads.
  6. Keep your bicycle uncomplicated and clatter (and clutter) free. Any unfamiliar noise can distract you greatly and any distraction can be dangerous at those speeds / conditions.
  7. Equip your bike with the right (and only necessary) tools and carriages. Do not carry too much on person. Just keep an identity card, basic phone, some small monies (to have a snack and/or carry you and your punctured bike home on a taxi) and maybe a key or two. If you wish to carry a small pack and has waist and sternum straps, use them. Have no straps hanging loose. They are not a show!
  8. Keep gadgetry and hi-tech gizmos off your bicycle for another time, not while training. Learn to operate your gadgets on other leisure rides in safer environments and times. Then get them to the ride so that you are not distracted and precisely know how to use it.
  9. Early Mornings though a pleasure, are dangerous times too when cyclists cannot judge speeds of vehicles and many fatal accidents will continue to happen then. Most fatal car accidents and two-wheeler mishaps too happen at that time. But does that mean we give up? Guess we all play to the mass statistics. The better your awareness the better your survival chances.
  10. Know your tires, many imported tires are not made to ride well on wet Indian roads they slip on the smallest metal strip like man holes, tiles etc. So, beware! Likewise, learn the other stuff your bike has. Many pieces on gear on a modern bike may not be best suited for our kind of weather and road conditions.
  11. Keep cool and don't get flustered with what motorists say and how other bikes look!
And finally, what if Rajendra had qualified and passed all the above and many more tests? Why him? Well, that's what luck is all about, Right? And we cannot question destiny. 

Do we stop living even when we know that one day we will go?

Okay too much gyan and my attitude for now. But guess have made my point. You guys ride safe!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Up Karoli, Down Sandhaan.

It was a challenge perceived, task daunting! We had chosen our trail. It was going to be trekking up Karoli Ghat from Varpadi, Dehne. Eight of us drove out on a Friday night, bellies empty we stopped prematurely at a joint just ahead of the Kalyan-Bhiwandi junction. Waited a lot for the meals to arrive, in the process got half eaten by mosquitoes. Food was just about okay. Overall, a bad call, this! Continued the drive through the night, thought we lost our way in the middle of the darkness but not yet! Reached the base village of what we thought was Chinchwadi (but actually was Varpadi), slept at 0200Hrs in the night, woke up at 0500hrs and began walking at 0615Hrs.

Karoli Ghat was a done affair earlier, so we knew what to expect. The trail after that was spectacular to say the least. One of us had to leave the trek due to bad cramps and going down 'The Sandhaan Gap’ (what we would like to call it) would have been a tough task with that kind of ailment, so we thought it was okay to let him go. He took the long way out, I am sure enjoying his part of the journey through some remote sections of the region.

The top of Karoli saw us on a plateau and a short walk took us to the village of Samrad, which was a first time. Well, not exactly. We had been to Ghatghar, a neighbouring village, many years ago. So many times we had climbed Ratangad, Alang, Madan, Kulang and looked down on these intermediate plateaus, discarded them as small. Now, here we were! Vast open scrubland with beautiful vistas of some of the highest mountains in the state. Chota Kulang, Kulang, Madan, Shiv Khind, Alang, Kirda, Kalsubai, Ghanchakkar, Ratangad Khutta, Ratangad, Kathra, Ajoba and Sitecha Palna all in one single sweep. WOW! It looked like an idyllic camping spot and a must do in monsoons.

We turned our attention to Sandhan valley! Sandhaan, or Saandhan, well I don't know, but it was something we had never seen before! I would call it the Sandhaan Gap! The local who lead us here estimated that it would take us 3.5 Hrs just to get to the patch from where we have to rappel and a total of 7 hours to hit the base from where we would again have a long walk back to our cars! Add another 1.5hrs. It was already 1245Hrs when we began our march to the valley.

The entry was nice and green, but then a few picnickers and revelers had been here before and left their garbage behind. A small water pond afforded some clear potable drinking water. A relief in this sun. A few steps deeper and the signs of habitation disappeared. Only few water bottles, some irretrievable, were found, signs of the struggle and the difficulty this terrain offers. You may wish,but may not be able to take any item that you drop, back home. So be careful of your water bottles, electronics, valuables…It was boulder strewn gap with the murmur of trickling water at places. At places the water collects into small ponds that we have to bypass or wade. It takes a toll on your legs. Mentally it is one of the most tiring things to do. Hop-skip- jump over rocks, big and small; some are as big as a truck or even bigger. What made us nervous was the width of the gap at places was no more than 15-20 feet. More importantly, it was the occasional falling rocks that causes a stir in the mind. You got to move very rapidly.

At this point, we were reminded of some stories and aspirations of large groups of people walking through this gap. Spine-chilling! Well, with a group that may not possess the kind of experience at this terrain and a marginal or no experience of rappel; if they do not move quickly out of this valley, we are almost certain, that this valley will assume a killer name soon! So beware of whom you are going with, what is the team size, their experience and yours too!

This gap has sheer verticals and overhangs that keep throwing rocks and pebbles, some sprightly monkeys playing donkey-kong with you; there barely being any gap or space for you to run! You will quickly see the signs of fresh rock fall too.

We moved pretty quickly over the rocks and reached the rappel zone in about 2 hours. Some old ropes/slings had to be done away with as someone in the future would use these only to realize halfway down a rappel that they are not as good and be helpless about the mistake. Many slings were burnt, old and brittle. The rappels at first don't look high, but all of them, even the short ones are daunting with various challenges like wet landing, overhangs, awkward patches, invisible steps, unstable rocks, rope abrasions, anchors locks, last man exit challenges etc. It is advisable to wear a helmet as there may be danger lurking in any corner. At a couple of places we had small pebbles fall hurtling straight at us. Looking for cover for more than 1 or 2 people is difficult and hence it is advisable for a group to keep moving on. A bunch of people-in-waiting is calling for a certain disaster. This brings us to the point that we needed more than one rope to tackle all the rappel points and as much experience. Luckily we were equipped enough.

Contrary to what we were made to understand, there were more than the 3 rappel points. There were 5! Some really small, but safer to do it that way. Certain other places, we had to go back and forth to find a way over the boulders and descend. Only after the last rappel, does the valley open up to the base and bingo! You are at the beginning of the stream. Walk into the dry stream-bed and out in the open. We finished the Gap in about 6 Hours reaching the base at about 1845Hrs. Just the right time to head to the village.

Of course the adventure never ends! Self and another walked out of the dry river bed, asked for Chinchwadi and walked past within 50mtsr of our cars in the thick of the darkness. Then we were directed to Dehne back to where our cars were at Varpadi. Actually we had our cars parked at Varpadi and not Chinchwadi. Anyhow we lost an hour at that. Reached Varpadi first at 2000Hrs and then again at 2100Hrs!!!

Driving through the night was another challenge. We were hungry, sleepy, tired and spent! But the bed was wanting. Reached home at about 0100Hrs!

Knees baulking, minds exhausted, muscles twitching, eyes strained, lower backs cringing due to all the jumping and hungry at the end of it!

Hungry for more of it.

What a trek it was!We will go back here with a DSLR one day! The point-n-shoot did not do justice to such a marvel of nature!

Please read all the sections above if you wish to do this trek!!!
We agree that its not that difficult a trek, but it has its subjective dangers!!!