Lifestyle

The Last Dak Runner by Trivik Verma

Mountain mail men once connected remote Himalayan villages to the outside world. They cut through jungles and navigated rugged terrain in the service of strangers. Now a dying breed, this is the story of a disappearing clan of ultrarunners.

I rush across a broken ridge with a backpack of heavy camera gear. A small pack of cameras is strapped to my chest for remote access, barely keeping me stable. On one side of the narrow path is an erratic drop, several hundred meters in height, down to the Tsarap River. On the other, an imposing mountain that will shed loose rock any minute.

Mohammad Ibrahim has lived in this land since birth. He has walked the desert for decades in service of villagers he has grown to know, delivering mail to the remotest regions in Ladakh. Ibrahim has witnessed the construction of roads, and the change in the lifestyle that it has brought about.

I am alone on this long walk, 4000m above sea level, where oxygen diminishes considerably and the sun shines brightly. My colleagues, Tyler Wilkinson-Ray and Yogesh Kumar, are much ahead of me. They are carrying heavier loads and walking with their heads down, perhaps in the hope of this ending soon. At every switchback, I pray to see a sign of them in the distance. But more so, a tree’s shade or a freshwater stream; ideally, both.

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●  As of Nov 2016, approximately 50 mail runners are working in the region of Ladakh.

●  The Home Ministry of India has initiated a project for construction of 27 roads covering 804 kms for the movement of troops of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), which guards the Sino-Indian border.

●  The Border Roads Organization is working on expanding its reach to 580 kms of metalled road in the western Ladakh area including the Zanskar Valley.

●  In the coming years, all mail runners will either become mail van drivers or lose their job.

●  In the last century, glaciers have been retreating at a rate of 3.5% annually, threatening the survival of all kinds of lifeform. Now engineers are building artificial glaciers to adapt.

My shoulders are cramping from the weight of the packs and lactic acid is building up in my glutes and hips. I’m dehydrated and worried about losing consciousness. There is a tree up the next switchback but I pull through and look for the next piece of shade. Still no sign of Tyler and Yogesh. I find the next tree after about a kilometre. I crumple under it, throwing my packs around for a makeshift bed. The lack of oxygen has left me with a wheeze and my eyes are involuntarily closing. The end of the trail is nowhere in sight.

Growing up, I had a dream. I wanted to go to Ladakh—“the land of high passes”—and explore its cold, barren, and deserted landscape; first as an aspiring Air Force pilot and later as a lone traveller. Neither of the two had worked out. Now, lying on my back, at this altitude, in one of the most remote valleys in India, I’m gasping for air. Much to my dismay, there’s no water left in my bottle. My life doesn’t flash before my eyes, but Mohammad Ibrahim does.

We met Ibrahim in Leh (the former capital of Ladakh) two weeks ago. He came out of our rented truck, shook my hand using both of his—a universal sign of respect—and stood next to me. His weathered face was gleaming; each wrinkle with a story of its own. He seemed excited about what was to come. After all, an American and two Indians in modern outfits wanted to visit his hometown; a distant village called Turtuk.

As we took to the road covering the 206 km journey from Leh to Turtuk, over the Khardung La Pass (arguably the world’s highest motorable road), Ibrahim gave us a bit of insight into the former years of his life, which coincided with one of the longest and largest periods of unrest in the history of the two nations involved. He was born in Turtuk, then part of Pakistan, in June 1971. Just a few months later, in November 1971, foreign governments declared a ceasefire between India and Pakistan, leaving Turtuk, along with a six-month-old Ibrahim, under India’s governance. Since the village is punctuated by the Line of Control (LoC) in the north—the de facto border between Indian and Pakistani controlled military posts—it opened to tourism only in 2009, after 38 years of isolation.

Ibrahim is about five feet and a few inches tall. At 45 years of age, he is lean and keeps a trendy hairdo; suggesting an amalgamation of his Balti ethnicity and Indian film culture. The Balti is a tribe of people who can be traced back to their Tibetan descent and mostly reside in the Karakoram / Baltistan region. He grew up in similar high-altitude mountains, close to the border, where gunshots from the neighbouring military posts were a part of life. “Gola barud toh sab suna hai saab,” (We have heard all guns and bombs) he told me over a cup of tea in Turtuk. Though he was born in a different country and has a childhood shadowed by war, he does not display any pain. During the journey, I heard him sing many different songs, all of which had a happy, lively tone. He is a Dak (Mail) Runner by profession; technically speaking a mail carrier who goes from point A to B delivering mailbags, but a truer version casts an image of a postman who crosses difficult terrain in order to deliver mail to remote places.

Tourism in Leh and neighbouring regions is on the rise. Locals of this region run adventurous activities as a means to support their livelihood. Every shop in the main city of Leh offers a tour or package. “Best adventure company..” they all advertise.

Ibrahim was a mail runner between the sub-post office in Leh and Turtuk from 1994 to 2002. Soon after, the Indian Army started plying its vehicles for sending mail up to Diskit, a village that falls much before Turtuk, when coming from Leh, over the Khardung La Pass. With that, his journey was cut in half. He still carried on the gruelling walk (or a motor ride of his own accord; the Postal Department of India doesn’t pay for any rides for Dak Runners) back to Leh to see his family. That’s eight years of walking on foot for 200 km spanned over every week. His average speed was 6 km/hr. When I quizzed him about the postal reforms for mail runners in India, he shied away.

In the early 19th century, long before India and Pakistan were divided, a local Indus Valley system called Scinde Dawk was used to deliver mail in Sindh (now the third largest province of Pakistan). As the British East India Company started expanding its territorial reach, the intricate network of postal runners and communication channels grew together. The runners were initially paid per kilometre of the distance they covered to deliver mail. However, the inefficiency—in other words, the delay in mail deliveries—of the system, affected the military and business needs of the Company and several reforms were introduced to amend this. Chitra Joshi, an independent scholar from Indraprastha University in Delhi, penned a detailed account of the coming of age of the Dak system in Dak Roads, Dak Runners, and Communication Networks; an article published in the Journal of International Review of Social History.

Eventually, runners started gaining importance among labour circles and a sense of pride evolved among the tribe that worked for the Company. They could get out of pickled situations by simply quoting their status. In other postal systems, such as Awadh; a region between Nepal and Uttar Pradesh in India, runners were hand-picked based on their ability to run. Company mail system was frequently under threat from local systems that served rulers of various regions.

The word Runners may have originated as a loosely defined traditional term, but the competition between postal systems for the efficiency of delivering mail reaffirmed it. The Dak (post) had always prevailed, long before the Company’s advent in the eastern world. Runners had, until then, worked on local authority; a ruling king or a village head. Speed was a muddled concept. It depended on volatile factors like the volume of mail, a contractor’s willingness to be fair, and the number of runners employed for a job. But in light of all the competition, and its goals to revolutionise the communication networks of the east (for its own benefit), the Company started various contracts to introduce modernity to a system that was until then working in a conventional manner.

“New contracts were drawn up for the Company’s runners; their speed was clocked at regular intervals and they were dictated by a new body of rules,” Joshi explained over good and cheap government coffee, at the India International Center in Delhi, after we returned from Ladakh. She went on to explain how the runners' paths, which were known only to the individual runners themselves, served an important purpose in the politics of a colonial rule; to benefit the primary motive of the Company in terms of trade. “It was the very footfalls of the runners that led to the modern day postal system,” she recounted.

Despite the crucial role they played in keeping communication feasible in the face of all the disadvantages, there was and is no reward for a mail runner’s job. In the 1820s and 30s, runners would make a mere sum of 2.8 Indian Rupees per month. Today, Ibrahim earns Rs. 10,000 a month, an equivalent of a pair of Salomon running shoes. He and other runners cover long distances (anywhere between 30 to 200 km), sometimes for days at length, so strangers sitting in far-flung villages receive their mail on time. “Aur kya karega saab? Na padhai kiya, na zameen hai,” (What else will I do, Sir? I neither studied nor do I own any land for farming) said an emotional Ibrahim. The ethics of delivering mail without any delays aren’t motivated by deductions in salaries anymore (the Indian Postal system doesn’t adhere to contractual laws that existed in the 19th century). It is kept alive by a certain code of conduct among the tribe. A civil servant by the name of Geoffrey Clarke describes the runners in A history of the Post Office (1921), “Postal runners are largely drawn from the less civilised races of India, many of whom are animists by religion. They will face wild beasts and wandering criminals, but will go miles to avoid an evil spirit in a tree.”

Since 2010, Ibrahim has been living in Leh and driving a postal van exchanging mail between Leh and Kargil; the second largest city in Ladakh, to the east of Leh. This is a change in his life he rather enjoys because he gets to see his family every day. He is a father to five children; two boys and three girls. One of his daughters studies in the village school in Turtuk and lives in their family home, a place he built with fortitude. His other daughter married an army officer of the Indian Army. She is studying in Leh to become a doctor and takes care of her one-year-old daughter. He talks like a proud father.

As we reached Turtuk, an unassuming trail led us to the top of a deck and opened an entirely different view of the river below, beautifully laden fields, and the LoC. Ibrahim pointed to the top of a mountain, “Woh unka batti hai” (That flickering light is a Pakistani post). The decked landscape overlooks the farmlands, where most of the elders spend their days farming. Turtuk is spread as a flattened tripod on the Shyok river which flows into Pakistan, where some of Ibrahim’s extended family still resides. In spite of being about 20 km away, he never sees them. Citizens of the two countries cannot cross the LoC; the only point of entry is on the western side of India.

The main source of income for the villagers comes from four kinds of apricots that grow in the wild. They sell it to traders who then carry it all the way back to Leh on the same roads that were paved by the likes of mail runners like Ibrahim, and used throughout history to service the residents of many villages, making economic survival possible. These roads have opened up the villages to the possibility of tourism as well. Recently, the villagers have started a few homestays and a guesthouse for travellers. The kids and adults don’t shy away from asking for money in exchange for a photograph; perhaps an artefact of coming out of isolation after decades.

During our time with him, Ibrahim took excellent care of us: from cooking a sumptuous breakfast to ending the trip with a cup of tea in his home. On the way back to Leh, Ibrahim slid his phone number and email in my pocket smiled and said, “Yaad rakhna saheb. Aapko humaara kaam dikhaya, achcha laga” (Please remember me. It felt good to show you my work). The last few days had somehow shown him that the work he dedicated his life to may have greater significance than he ever imagined.

A week after we got acquainted with Ibrahim, while sitting in a coffee shop in Leh, Tyler restated the reason he was here. “We have climbed and skied all the mountains. We have gone to every part of the world. I am interested in different stories, where athleticism is built in the character’s livelihood, a means to earn a living, as opposed to just sport.” Over the past decade, numerous blog posts by travellers have reported sightings of runners on frozen river treks and trails in and around this region. A few identified them as Dak Runners. Tyler received a National Geographic Young Explorer’s grant for his quest to come to India in search of its remaining Dak Runners; a tribe of people who have been running for decades delivering mail to very remote parts of the Himalayan valleys. Calling them ordinary would be a gross understatement.

Our self supported expedition took us to winding narrow ridges next to fast flowing rivers. Most of the trail was either broken or submerged by the floods that had hit the region in 2010.

Lying on my back next to the Tsarap river, struggling to breathe,  I recollect my thoughts about Ibrahim and the reality of the distance we’ve covered dawns on me. And so does the triviality of it. I get up and start walking, one step after the other. Within ten minutes I spot Tyler and Yogesh sitting under a stream of water waiting for me, or for the cookies in my pack. I reach them and collapse again. This time I am not worried. The journey to Turtuk was barely a brief account of the history of the tribe. Our journey to and from the village of Cha is proving to be a different experience; one with a glimpse into the lives of the runners, as it was long before we were born.

Cha is one of the most remote villages in Ladakh. To get there, we drove on paved roads from Leh to Kargil, followed by an equally long but a more enduring journey on unpaved roads to Padum (an administrative town in the Zanskar region on the way to Cha). Our journey included a kaleidoscope of landscapes, from flooding rivers which we were unsure of crossing, to mountain passes overlooking thinning glaciers and dry lakes. Wide deserts opened every so often, with giant peaks crossing us in the distance. Cha was still a day from here on foot.

Much like a network of veins and arteries flowing through the body to sustain life, the rivers running off glaciers in the Zanskar valley make life possible in Padum and its neighbouring villages. In the winters, Padum is completely cut-off and inaccessible by roads, including the one we travelled on from Kargil. The only other way in and out of Padum is the ‘Chadar’, which ices over (hence the name Chadar, meaning layer). It provides a perilous route over the Zanskar river that flows between Leh and the Zanskar Valley in the Zanskar range and takes around ten days to cover; home to many unfortunate events with both tourists and villagers. The village postmaster, Tashi Tundup; an enthusiastic old man, has many stories to tell.

Tundup arrived in Padum in 1983 to set-up the first post office of the Zanskar region. He was accompanied by six carefully selected runners, all of whom traversed with him over the dangerous Chadar for ten days, to reach their destination. They had ropes and metallic bolts to secure themselves over the river’s most treacherous sections. “That was the best thing I ever did,” he recalled, lost in his own thoughts. Tundup is happy in his environment. A post-master by day and a homestay owner by night, he serves a handful of travellers every summer. The villagers spend sub-zero winters drinking Chhaang, a locally brewed Nepalese and Tibetan alcoholic beverage, and sitting through large gatherings around fires with music and food.

“People will realise it in twenty years, what they had was so much better,” Tundup expressed, gripped with emotion. He explained how the seasons were changing, including farming patterns and river flows. Soon, roads will be completed to connect this valley to the rest of Ladakh, when “culture, food, and language will be lost forever,” he said. Construction of roads in the recent past allowed us to get closer to Cha by another three hours. We found ourselves southeast of Padum with all our filming equipment, on foot. This time we were accompanied by yet another mail runner. Yountan Gyatso called Cha his home, much like Ibrahim did with Turtuk.

We followed Gyatso on meandering paths up and down narrow sidewalks. The last bend ended in vertically serrated cliffs, completely hiding the trail. There sat, on a bowl-shaped plateau, the village of Cha. Kids from this fabled land had rosy-red sunburnt cheeks. Elders were sceptical of unannounced drones and their pilot, an American who didn’t speak their language. Some though were curious about our story and the story we were seeking. Everybody greeted Gyatso and shook his hand. He had a reputation for bringing mail on time.

Cha is very different in its lifestyle from Turtuk. With frozen rivers and snowed in trails, winters aren’t forgiving here. There is no electricity and no sense of the events of the economic world. Transportation is primarily on mules. Even the ration looks different—meals are devoid of onions and tomatoes, which is a staple food in most other parts of the country. Until recently, people here had little understanding of roads. Industrialisation has crept up on many paths that kept the region secluded yet accessible for many decades. Now, villagers are waiting for a day when they too can go to the cities with ease.

While sitting among buzzing bees and huts insulated by manure, Gyatso was trying to catch his breath. For a brief moment, I wondered why he found the terrain as difficult as we did. Then it dawned on me, he hadn’t walked the path in many months and had stopped traversing the longer trails. His working hours had reduced every year, as was his ability to navigate these mountains. He was the last remaining member of the tribe who still traversed paths to otherwise inaccessible villages.

Our meeting with Ibrahim, and then Gyatso, was a result of Tyler’s vision. Both men returned to their villages after almost a year of their previous visit. These mail runners, much like the forefathers of their profession, dutifully ran for many years to deliver mailbags. Their life’s work and many others charted a path not just for communications but also for exploration and growth of remote settlements. If they were aware of the athletic industry in the west, where money is spent in abundance on endurance based sports and competitions around it, they may have been confused with how valued some skills are that come naturally to them but receive no acknowledgement from others.

Cha is almost a day’s hike from Ichar, end of the road from Padum. Roads are planned for this region and in a few years life here will change drastically. The region’s 23-year-old postmaster is not too happy about it. “Nobody will care anymore,” he said with disappointment. Illustration: Dhruv Vyas

The construction in Leh has sprawled to an extent that people in this town wear masks to avoid the dust. Around Leh, roads are being constructed to connect the remotest cornersof Ladakh to its economic capital.

This wasn’t the state of things when it all began. The East India Company unintentionally empowered the runners to pave way for building settlements and roads all around India, Pakistan, and other parts of the sub-continent. It not only used the runners’ prowess in navigating difficult terrain but also in establishing its own trading routes across the heart of India. Such developments, in turn, fostered the growth of India’s economy. Today, the remaining runners run the same paths, carry the same mail, for descendants of the same villages; back then through fields and forests only they dared to cross, and now on extensively used roads.

The legacy their ancestors have left behind is dwindling away with them. Runners are becoming drivers, drivers are moving on to better lives. Gyatso, the last mail runner, is tired. On our way back, far away from Cha, under that stream of water, when our bodies are exhausted and our minds are more aware of a long forgotten tribe and its history, Tyler thinks out loud, “it’s ironic that the very people who pioneered these ways will be wiped out because of the industrialisation they’ve enabled.”

The ‘Changing’ Land of High Passes by Trivik Verma

  Evolving landscape  Ladakh is a cold and dry desert in the upper Himalayas. In the recent past, locals have started planting vegetation close to their villages; emerging green patches of trees are sprouting all over the landscape, which in turn cause occasional rain. Photo: Tyler Wilkinson-Ray

Evolving landscape Ladakh is a cold and dry desert in the upper Himalayas. In the recent past, locals have started planting vegetation close to their villages; emerging green patches of trees are sprouting all over the landscape, which in turn cause occasional rain. Photo: Tyler Wilkinson-Ray

The highest and coldest desert in the world is set for change, both natural and manmade

“People will realize it in twenty years, what they had was so much better,” Tashi Tundup was gripped with emotion. The postmaster of Padum (Zanskar), a perennial remote region of the high Himalayas, explained how the seasons were changing, including farming patterns and river flows. “Roads will be built soon to connect this valley to the rest of Ladakh, when ‘culture, food, and language’, will be lost forever,” he said. Tashi is happy in his environment, a post-master by day and a homestay owner by night, he serves a handful of travelers every summer. Sub-zero winters are spent drinking Chhaang, a locally brewed Nepalese and Tibetan alcoholic beverage, and sitting through large village gatherings around fires with music and food.

  The Military presence in Ladakh  Leh - the once known capital of Ladakh, is a military base that shares its airstrip for public use. In 1998, the Indian Army started a program called Op Sadhbhavana (goodwill) to return some peace to the community. Despite that, military areas occupy majority of inhabited land. Photo: Yogesh Kumar

The Military presence in Ladakh Leh - the once known capital of Ladakh, is a military base that shares its airstrip for public use. In 1998, the Indian Army started a program called Op Sadhbhavana (goodwill) to return some peace to the community. Despite that, military areas occupy majority of inhabited land. Photo: Yogesh Kumar

  A peaceful home for refugees  After her parents fled from Tibet in 1970, Tashi Sinon was born in Leh. Ladakh is at the center of a war waged by three governments - India, China and Pakistan. Yet, things here are peaceful. Tashi reflects that emotion well; she is stylish, makes her own jewelery and speaks fluent English. Photo: Trivik Verma

A peaceful home for refugees After her parents fled from Tibet in 1970, Tashi Sinon was born in Leh. Ladakh is at the center of a war waged by three governments - India, China and Pakistan. Yet, things here are peaceful. Tashi reflects that emotion well; she is stylish, makes her own jewelery and speaks fluent English. Photo: Trivik Verma

  The economy is based on experiential travel  Tourism in Leh and neighboring regions is on the rise. Locals of this region run adventurous activities as a means to support their livelihood. Every shop in the main city of Leh offers a tour or package. “Best adventure company..” they all advertise. Photo: Trivik Verma

The economy is based on experiential travel Tourism in Leh and neighboring regions is on the rise. Locals of this region run adventurous activities as a means to support their livelihood. Every shop in the main city of Leh offers a tour or package. “Best adventure company..” they all advertise. Photo: Trivik Verma

  Receding glaciers of the high Himalayas  "This glacier used to come up to the road connecting Kargil to Zanskar," Stanzin Chotchan recalled, during an interview in the quest of finding the last Mail Runners of India. Chotchan runs an expedition company in Leh. Once the glaciers dry up, the only source of water in Ladakh will disappear. Photo: Tyler Wilkinson-Ray

Receding glaciers of the high Himalayas "This glacier used to come up to the road connecting Kargil to Zanskar," Stanzin Chotchan recalled, during an interview in the quest of finding the last Mail Runners of India. Chotchan runs an expedition company in Leh. Once the glaciers dry up, the only source of water in Ladakh will disappear. Photo: Tyler Wilkinson-Ray

  Greenery in patches  Purne (Zanskar district) is a three-house village situated at the confluence of two rivers - Tsarap and Kargyak. For the lack of roads, people here run up to the neighbouring Chah village for daily work. For them, the altitude and steep terrain don’t matter. Athleticism is built in their livelihood. Photo: Yogesh Kumar

Greenery in patches Purne (Zanskar district) is a three-house village situated at the confluence of two rivers - Tsarap and Kargyak. For the lack of roads, people here run up to the neighbouring Chah village for daily work. For them, the altitude and steep terrain don’t matter. Athleticism is built in their livelihood. Photo: Yogesh Kumar

  Remote villages of Zanskar  Chah is almost a day’s hike from Ichar, end of the road from Padum. Roads are planned for this region and in a few years life here will change drastically. The region’s 23-year-old postmaster is not too happy about it. “Nobody will care anymore,” he sadly thinks out loud. Photo: Trivik Verma

Remote villages of Zanskar Chah is almost a day’s hike from Ichar, end of the road from Padum. Roads are planned for this region and in a few years life here will change drastically. The region’s 23-year-old postmaster is not too happy about it. “Nobody will care anymore,” he sadly thinks out loud. Photo: Trivik Verma

  A young resident of Chah Village, Zanskar Valley  Chah has a population of merely 500. Adults have to go to Padum or Leh for Jobs. There is a school for basic education in the village but some children go up to Manali for education. There are Homestays among these brick-walled houses and tourists are a common sight throughout summer. Photo: Yogesh Kumar

A young resident of Chah Village, Zanskar Valley Chah has a population of merely 500. Adults have to go to Padum or Leh for Jobs. There is a school for basic education in the village but some children go up to Manali for education. There are Homestays among these brick-walled houses and tourists are a common sight throughout summer. Photo: Yogesh Kumar

  The treacherous valleys of Zanskar  The rivers here are frozen in the winters. They are coined the term Chadar (sheet), symbolising a blanket of ice, on which villagers walk to the closest motorable towns for ration. Mules and horses are used to transport their things. Summers here are not any easier. Photo: Trivik Verma

The treacherous valleys of Zanskar The rivers here are frozen in the winters. They are coined the term Chadar (sheet), symbolising a blanket of ice, on which villagers walk to the closest motorable towns for ration. Mules and horses are used to transport their things. Summers here are not any easier. Photo: Trivik Verma

  Phugtal Gompa in the Lungnak valley in Zanskar  The Lungnak valley is the most remote region of Ladakh, including the Phugtal Gompa (monastery), which is the only monastery that is truly isolated and requires a long trek through difficult terrain. Photo: Trivik Verma

Phugtal Gompa in the Lungnak valley in Zanskar The Lungnak valley is the most remote region of Ladakh, including the Phugtal Gompa (monastery), which is the only monastery that is truly isolated and requires a long trek through difficult terrain. Photo: Trivik Verma

  No phones, no rescue. A place for adventure?  Hiking, Mountaineering and Skiing are some of the sports that draw tourists from around the world. Locals living in such inhospitable conditions are organically more agile. For them, traveling the world for sport doesn’t make much sense, but adventure tourism is part of their livelihood. Photo: Yogesh Kumar

No phones, no rescue. A place for adventure? Hiking, Mountaineering and Skiing are some of the sports that draw tourists from around the world. Locals living in such inhospitable conditions are organically more agile. For them, traveling the world for sport doesn’t make much sense, but adventure tourism is part of their livelihood. Photo: Yogesh Kumar

(As published @ RedBull)

Biomechanics of the Outdoor Athlete by Trivik Verma

In the age of rapidly evolving outdoor sports, athletes deal with injuries while simultaneously growing faster, fitter and stronger. Their bodies are like fingerprints, a balance of its nature versus the nurture it receives. What dictates the course of their bodies - musculoskeletal injuries, diagnosis and learning?

Vibram USA – a barefoot running footwear company – was sued in early 2012 for asserting that their shoes reduce foot injuries and progressively strengthen foot muscles. A long debated topic of discussion – barefoot versus shod running – has gripped both scientists and athletes for decades. Yet, all practitioners of the sport regularly face befuddling injuries; some because of the nature of the sport itself, while others due to the lack of a proper form.

I was ignorant of this fact five years ago, when, while practicing a different sport altogether, I heard the sound of a muscle stretching irregularly as I jumped for a Dyno.

A Dyno – in climbing parlance – is a dynamic movement to leap across a blank section of rock to grab a hold that is otherwise out of reach. This looks simple with enough grace but masks a volley of internal forces, sometimes outrageous in magnitude.

The silence in Fontainbleau was overwhelming. Laying on a crash pad, in the epicenter of outdoor European bouldering, I reflected on the consecutive winters spent inside climbing gyms, training regularly for any outdoor adventures.

 A rotator-cuff tear on the left shoulder of a climber after executing a dyno. Illustration: Naveed Hussain

A rotator-cuff tear on the left shoulder of a climber after executing a dyno. Illustration: Naveed Hussain

Once back in the Netherlands, I visited a doctor, who diagnosed me with an inflammation of the rotator-cuff. She advised me to train my shoulders for at least a month before I started climbing again. I inquired about the extent of the injury and wondered how it could have been avoidable.

First, let’s talk about Danny Way. Unless you are a skateboarding enthusiast, it is hard to put a face to that name. In 2005, he jumped off a ramp to clear a 19-meter (62.34 feet) gap at The Great Wall of China. This is no ordinary feat in itself but most of the world, at that moment, was oblivious to a tiny piece of detail. His steering foot was smashed and his knee had broken mechanics at play. In addition to living through this incomprehensible attempt, Way threw a 360 in mid-air. He then did it five times over. The amount of force a human body would experience standing on earth was quadrupled in Way’s case.

In comparison, a dyno demonstrates negligible force.

Every so often, in climbing gyms scattered around the globe, teenagers crawl through overhanging 7c (5.14 in US terminology) routes, exerting much more force on their bodies than a mere dyno would. Today, they have abundant resources, controlled environments, thoroughly robust exercise regimen and dogged food habits. Alternatively, I started climbing much later in life; when my body had already set up limitations on its abilities following a lifestyle that barely involved any stretching.

 Raffael Walter attempting a boulder in Selma, Switzerland, through a rehabilitating left elbow. 

Raffael Walter attempting a boulder in Selma, Switzerland, through a rehabilitating left elbow. 

My recovery and subsequent physiotherapy after the episode in France made me realise the nature of my body. The truth, at least for most of us with a sedentary lifestyle (coupled with demanding athletic endeavours), is that our bodies are accustomed to being at rest. We spend, on average, a third of our lives sitting, a third sleeping, and maybe a minor fraction of the remaining third indulging in very demanding athletic activities. It is conceivable that such extreme forces may make us prone to injury on occasion.

Musculoskeletal injury is one of the primary hazards of industrialisation where normal body movements are occasionally compromised by regular lifting of weights. Dr. Kathryn Sophia Stok – a lecturer at the Biomechanics laboratory of ETH Zurich – asserted in one of her lectures, “Muscles are a core element of strength,” in an attempt to reiterate how important muscle forces are in the study of Orthopaedic Biomechanics.

Our muscles are made up of basic rod like units called myofibrils. It is the contraction of the myofibrils that generates the force a muscle produces. We can train our neural pathways for better contraction of muscles to exert more force. A child’s brain learns faster and adapts muscle contractions quicker to the task they are performing. Have you tried learning how to ski at the age of twenty-four? Kids aged four or five are much faster and more comfortable at learning this sport, or for that matter any exacting sport.

The same myofibrils allow professional climbers like Alex Honnold and Ashima Shiraishi to warm up on menacingly flat pieces of rock, habitually. Honnold is thirty years old. Shiraishi, as the The Guardian reported in March 2015, became the first female to climb a 9a+ route (5.15a in US climbing terminology). No female has ever achieved such a feat earlier. Shiraishi is only thirteen years old.

Let’s try a different perspective, one that doesn’t excuse the older generation. How is it that Dean Karnazes (aged 52) runs through the warmest conditions known to man and Will Gadd (47) climbs overhanging ice walls in sub-zero temperatures? Just in case our standards have already digested the potential of these outdoor athletes, Kilian Jornet is attempting to “run” up Everest in 2015.

These athletes neither have a different bone structure, nor are they dictated by special mechanics. So what explains this spectrum of physical variation? Our musculoskeletal system is like a fingerprint; everybody has one, yet each is a story of its own. The environment individuals grow up in, their eating habits, physical routines and medical histories are all factors that shape this story. It is the same set of bones, tendons, ligaments, muscles and cartilage, packed up in a personal experiment of nurturing.

 Ironman Zurich, 2014. Athletes from around the world are training in cold open waters before the race. 

Ironman Zurich, 2014. Athletes from around the world are training in cold open waters before the race. 

Locomotion is one of the cardinal functions of our musculoskeletal system. Tissue component surrounding the tendons allows us to move our limbs with ease avoiding any excess stress on them. Tendons control the movement of muscles by connecting them to the bone. Whereas, ligaments keep the bones in place by connecting them at joints preventing unreasonable movement of our body parts. This intricate network of bones and surrounding tissue works in perfect synchrony.

A disruption of this locomotor system can turn a privilege like walking or holding a glass into the most arduous task, especially during old age. Reflect on a senior member around you who may be suffering from Osteoporosis. This condition results in weak bones that are more prone to injury. Osis – degeneration of tissue (collagen fibers in this case) – results in the bone and tendons around the bone to degrade in their tissue component. In contrast, itis – inflammation of a tissue – is the body’s response to an injury to muscles, tendons, ligaments, cartilage and bone itself. Sometimes, longer periods of wear and tear of our joints or tissues (leading to repeated inflammation) cause chronic damage and ultimately, degeneration.

Inflammation of muscles or tendons is common among climbers and runners. How many times have you landed wrongly on your strong foot while bouldering or running along the trails? Once an injury occurs, the first step to dealing with it is to form a diagnosis. The frequently occurring ones become common terms of use and are often used incorrectly. For instance, the difference between a strain and a sprain. Muscles and tendons can be strained upon stretching. Tearing or stretching of ligaments is called a sprain.

When we abruptly land on our foot and hear a snap, it is associated with a sprain. The ankle, along with a multitude of ligaments to support the joint, also has attachments to the tendons of the muscles of the leg. Hence, as non-practitioners of medicine, we do not have enough knowledge and experience to point out the difference. Doctors try to do their best to diagnose the problem. Its success depends on how accurately we dictate our medical histories. Once the diagnosis is confirmed, spotlight shifts to repair and rehabilitation, which depends on adequate treatment given in time with proper follow-up and patient compliance.

All the examples of extraordinary physical prowess (despite injuries) commence from a single point – Learning. Even if evolution is understood down to its very ingredients, we have to depend on our learning abilities. This learning process of our brain put simply, starts with imitation. As a child, we have seen our neighbours “jog” with bent vertebrae, landing on their heels. The runners among us start running like that trying to naturally correct their form. But sensory feedback in running is delayed (most often until after injuries) because we have worn “comfortable” shoes all our lives. In contrast, the Tarahumara people, a tribe settled in the high sierras of Northwestern Mexico, who run barefoot, have different biomechanics. As is clear from the text of Born to Run, a book written by Christopher McDougall, to this day they are faster and fitter than most ultramarathon runners in the world.

In this epoch of accessible climbing gyms, we learn to mimic all kinds of climbing habits. A larger gym-climbing population crimps on small holds with a closed hand grip, the thumb covering the fingers, acting as a lock to avoid any slipping. This is the fastest way leading to injured fingers. “The correct way of doing this, with open handgrips where the subjected force is the least, is often ignored as it takes months of patience to develop such a style of climbing,” Doctor Schweizer told me.

I was sitting in his office – bereft of any expectation– with a folder of my past diagnosis, and a taped finger. A different but old injury had restricted me from climbing regularly. After my blasé narrative, Dr. Schweizer asked me to remove the tape and prepare for an ultrasound, the first in a year of visiting doctors across three continents. A finger pulley injury – a tendon related injury often attributed to climbing – had left me with an awkward feeling in my hand. The ultrasound indicated that everything was intact. I didn’t believe him, skeptical of having countless unsatisfactory opinions and therapies. He smiled and said, "You shouldn't stop climbing." As a hand surgeon of Swiss origin, he has a rather unconventional manner of dealing with his patients. Perhaps because he is a climber himself.

  Raffael Walter on a classic Jura pitch (5.10/6a) in the middle of a cold, foggy morning.

Raffael Walter on a classic Jura pitch (5.10/6a) in the middle of a cold, foggy morning.

Dr. Schweizer has been climbing for more than two decades, something I realised when he first shook my hand. He showed me the results of our radiology examination. I was surprised to notice that a layer of collagen fibers, maybe three times as thick as mine, had developed around his fingers. He correctly pointed out that I must have started climbing four years ago back then. These fibers take time to generate, and progressively add to the strength of our hands.

In later life, I am attending a lecture in orthopaedic biomechanics. After a series of injuries that I have tumbled through since France, the inevitable consequences of the sports I indulge in are now transparent. Mikhail Baryshnikov, cited as one of the greatest Ballet dancers in history, says, “The more injuries you get, the smarter you get.” A lot of people have never studied the mechanics of their bodies and still manage to avoid unnecessary injuries.

By sixteen, Honnold was doing one-finger pull-ups. Steph Davis, prior to discovering her passion at eighteen and becoming one of the strongest female climbers in the world, religiously played a piano while growing up. Dean Karnazes quit his corporate job at thirty to add more running hours to his life. Mandy-Rae Cruickshank has gone deeper than most across oceans around the world, without supplemental oxygen. Jeff Clark surfed the Mavericks alone for fifteen years until others discovered it.

These are mind boggling feats performed by individuals who have spent a better part of their lives perfecting the art of balancing mind and body, learning to demand just enough of themselves, which makes them achieve what seems impossible but have the wisdom to stop when damage outweighs performance with long lasting repercussions. Yet, there is one thing in common for all of these outdoor athletes. Injuries. No one escaped them.

This article was edited by a practicing medical doctor for any inconsistencies. 

(As published @ The Outdoor Journal)

Snowboarding for dummies by Trivik Verma

 Forest Reider showing me how it is done before I could even grasp the full depth of what I was getting into. 

Forest Reider showing me how it is done before I could even grasp the full depth of what I was getting into. 

There is nothing like learning a new and dangerous sport, all by yourself.

Couloirs. The word carries a certain element of mystery. The natural feature itself evokes fear, divides beautifully serrated cliffs into powdered columns of gut-wrenching fun and is certainly the backyard of mountain lovers.

I looked down and could only see a winding path coming out of nowhere. There must be a drop of about a hundred meters. I involuntarily started descending forward as if the path was calling out to me. It was no couloir but given my introduction to this sport materialized not more than two months ago, I was way in over my head.

Let us backtrack. Many people advise you to try a sport before you actually go ahead and pursue it. Snowboarding should be one of them. I beg to differ. It began with a movie called The Art of Flight that my friend Amulya introduced me to. It was also the age of maddening YouTube videos. What followed was an online crash course in snowboarding and cogs of dreams were set in motion.

Last winter I moved to Switzerland because flat was not enough. A year has passed and I can call myself an amateur, a snowboarder nonetheless. The first ten months were about waiting for snow and the next two, well, about doing what needed to be done. Before starting out I watched merely two hours of YouTube lessons, which were undeniably a great learning experience. I have always believed that a good theoretical foundation helps. Besides that, Forest advised me to embrace speed.

 Jonas getting ready for the plunge. He taught me all day, by doing, and not enforcing any rules on going down the slopes. 

Jonas getting ready for the plunge. He taught me all day, by doing, and not enforcing any rules on going down the slopes. 

Forest has spent a decade growing up in Boulder, CO. The thing about Boulder is, or at least something I believe to be true, that it is home to the happiest population on the planet. These people are the world’s most fearless and best mountain athletes or just remarkable souls calling outdoors their home. I had no choice but to believe him.

Snowboarding has an eerie feeling to it. Not many pursue it and even fewer continue. If I had to guess right, the ratio of skiers to boarders must be about 70/30. The board restricts your freedom on one hand but gives you less to deal to with - if things go wrong - on the other. Figure out if you love such an unconventional sport. If you do, buy yourself everything. Commitment is the only way to ride these mountains. Also, the one thing standing between you and unforeseeable brain damage is a helmet. A black ear-padded helmet. Bicycle helmets are for, well, bicycles.

I have snowboarded through a season full of falls that probably resonated through mountains across the world; at least it felt like that to my numb ears after falling in ways I had never anticipated. The last one piggybacked on a humbling experience. I picked up speed on my toe edge racing towards a sunset with all the exuberance I could muster up. That ended with three side flips, none of which I recollect at this moment. I managed to stand up and mid-way through a proud cheer, dropped down again.

This is snowboarding for dummies, by a dummy. Every time I strapped my legs onto my board, I got better at it. The learning curve is beautiful. You get to a point where you actually believe that with couple of good winters you will be off becoming the next Jeremy Jones – who practically designed all the different paradigms of the sport through his sheer desire for exploring big mountains. Maybe, who knows?

With every unidirectional sport, one needs to know which side is the natural one. After trying out numerous techniques to decide how to proceed (as each one seemed more contrived than the last), I let my body do the math. I am a goofy snowboarder by the book, but a regular one in reality. The worst thing is to let yourself believe that you are a particular type in lieu of going with the natural flair of your body. Since I am not in the minority, I am envious of the goofy kind. That is just how my neurons fire up efficiently.

Snowboarding has its unconventional fun but also caters for odd falls: till you get used to them. There are generally two ways one can easily trip, flip or fly in any of the 244 degrees of freedom human body can long for. I have experienced both and loved the aftermath. The first one was during my initial perfect run down a long and winding blue slope (European norms dictate blue as the easiest slope). The thing about being a beginner is, when you have a good run you start thinking that you should stop because something must go wrong very soon. Conveniently enough, my back leg possessed this syndrome.

As I glided through some unevenly flat terrain and tried going on my toes, my front leg did a great job. My back leg acted stubbornly, perhaps, not believing its luck so far. The board deviated to the front without giving me a heads-up. Imagine, you are running really fast and suddenly trip right before the trail encounters a drop. I did that on the board, at over thirty kilometers per hour without being able to move my legs in any direction. My life did not flash in front of me. It was a horrible fall and I had to count to ten before moving any limb. I secretly patted myself on the back for having all the right insurances. Just then a little British girl glided past me bragging, “Mr. I think you need skiing poles”.

Limbs intact. Get some rest. Try again tomorrow.

 At the end of a powder filled fall day. All limbs were intact but hurting.

At the end of a powder filled fall day. All limbs were intact but hurting.

In that moment though I had an honest realization. I came to terms with “shit happens” and figured out a sport all by myself. I did not sign up for lessons and it brought me back to the day I learnt how to drive. It was just by looking at my father drive all those years. That was one complete circle of understanding how I function in life.

The second time I tripped on a black slope (again, European norms mark blackfor experienced riders). You read it right. With Forest, you need to challenge yourself. This run was at the end of the day and I was already hurting from the semi-pro turning and some strange and uncontrolled flying-like powder experience. We reached a flat but winding narrow gully. A girl was being attended by a medic. It seemed serious and I drifted out of my focus on the slope. While cruising at a high speed, I looked back. Mistake number (insert personalized number here). I regained my senses and encountered a drop I was in no way ready for. Falling was the only option in comparison to flying off of a cliff without the right training and gear. So I tripped myself the best way I could. This time on my back. Now imagine running backwards, really fast, and tripping. I got up, moved my limbs to check for any damage and finished the slope down to the last bit. It was scary and I toppled all the way down with moments of anger and pride puppets fighting each other for space in my head.

I believed I was ready to take on new mountains and gave Abhishek a call. We booked tickets and flew out to the most convenient mountain range. Andorra is a great place to be in the mountains. It is cheap, high enough and full of small village resorts interlinked like a water park would be. Seeing him was a great start to the trip. Adventure sports have captivated Abhishek for long and I am glad he took this one up before I did. It was like reinventing our already strong friendship in ways I had never imagined.

Snowboarding for four days in a row, I recognized that turning is not as important as speed is. When we turn too much we destroy the piste for other skiers and boarders. Speed must be feared, but like any other fear it helps us control our emotions and lets us slide into the right frame of mind, most commonly associated with flow. I am sure you do not need me telling you about neurobiology and the sort of thing adventure sports athletes tap into.

 First powder runs of the season. Resorts are fully booked with kids learning how to ski and snowboard on slopes and off piste. 

First powder runs of the season. Resorts are fully booked with kids learning how to ski and snowboard on slopes and off piste. 

So we learnt how to carve. Not only were we looking down an awfully long and vertical slope, we were startlingly stoic about the outcome. One. Two. Three. Drop. We literally dropped all the way down like a stone that has no brain of its own. We went up again and repeated our actions, each time getting more stoked about every carving sequence that we managed to muster up from our exhausted bodies and brains.

Carving gives us an infinite realm of possibilities. A fundamental thing about snowboarding, that nobody told me, is consistency. That comes from being able to carve, not turn. Red slopes are meant to test the courage and skill of a snowboarder. If we know how to carve, and have befriended speed, red would be the color of limitless fun, if nothing else. Before you move on to big mountains and white wilderness, at least go find yourself a black board with a golden monastery and a half moon that reflects hope and unimaginable fun.

Tears of Joy is a real thing.

(As published @ The Outdoor Journal)

Ironman Zurich, 2014 - The almighty human beings of our time by Trivik Verma

 Boris Stein, from Germany, won the Ironman Zurich 2014 under nine hours. Seen here moments before collapsing on the side.

Boris Stein, from Germany, won the Ironman Zurich 2014 under nine hours. Seen here moments before collapsing on the side.

A vivid account of the race, and undying admiration for the ‘indestructible’ spirit of the Ironman triathlete.

I am not a 4 AM person. The only people outside at that time are either inebriated strangers or the ones who build your city. There were more than five thousand enthusiastic people walking haphazardly in all directions. If you are an early riser, there is much to learn from these athletes and their loved ones.

 The swimming leg of the race.

The swimming leg of the race.

Zurich was hosting an Ironman. Thanks to a methodical city, beautifully arranged around a crystal clear lake, one can swim, bike and run (in that order) at the same time. I was determined to catch the start and headed straight to Safa Island, a small piece of land connected by a narrow bridge, where more than 2400 fluorescent green caps, who traveled from different parts of the globe, were waiting in the cold and captivating waters of Zurich ready to destroy their bodies over the next sixteen hours. I was confused about what was to be gained, mostly by doing it for an audience.

The whistle blew, crowds cheered and the water level of Zurisee rose by a small margin. This 3.8km swim features a unique Australian exit over the Safa Island. I have swum many times in the Zurisee but never at 545 in the morning and never with world-class athletes from around the world. The energy here was incredible, owing to the love and devotion from the families of these unstoppable machines. There are only a few people in the world who run, bike or swim with all the energy they have got. Doing all three together in one day was evident enough of what a human body could achieve.

Racing through one of the biggest financial capitals of the world, Zurich has a remarkable view of snow-capped mountains and lush green fields. Just twenty kilometers out of the city, athletes find themselves in rolling green farmlands and loud cheers of spectators lined up on either side of the track. For many of them it was their first Ironman race and quite a tough one that. Two laps that include two climbs, “The Beast” and “Heartbreak Hill”, can get to one’s nerves after a cold-water swim in not so sunny conditions.

Racers found themselves in the company of many nationalities bustling with so much vigor and cadence that it was hard to differentiate between their ages. I spent some time lingering around the transition zone talking to a few organizers. Manuel was busy making this event a solid hit but had a minute to say, “This is my fourth race and the energy of this crowd makes up for my lack of sleep. At the end of the day, when I see them crying and laughing while limping away from the finish line, my job is justified.”

On the sidelines, a stranger was walking into the water alone. He asked me to oversee his belongings. When he came out, I asked him why he was not taking part in the race. He replied by saying that he wanted to come check out the city and the circuit. He bought a Speedo wetsuit and wanted to try it out in the cold waters of Zurisee. He said I would find him on the starting line next year.

The dedication of Ironman athletes is beyond recognition. Naturally, we practice one sport, train for it and attune our bodies to every bit of reaction the sport demands. An Ironman race, seemed to me, took a lot of shifting in mental attitudes towards sports that are all endurance oriented in nature but have very different regimens for training. I was in awe of the entire show and started feeling an itch to experience the inexplicable joy that I saw on their faces.

All the racers were in a zone of their own and many did not even acknowledge cheers and hi-fives from their own families from the sidelines. There were many women amongst many men in the race; not only upholding a good fight but also surpassing many of the bare chested, six-pack infested muscle men.

 Daniela Ryf, Swiss champion, women's section, running through her first lap of the marathon.

Daniela Ryf, Swiss champion, women's section, running through her first lap of the marathon.

Daniela Ryf, the champion of the women’s section, came out of the transition zone after the biking part ended. I remember how the noise in the environment grew to a different scale at her appearance. She was running like there is no tomorrow and not an ounce of worry on her face. I followed her graceful steps for about a kilometer from the side just to figure out if my own running stride was getting better with time or not. Above all, I was having fun.

The transition zone was bang in the middle of the race and had commentators, both in Swiss German for this vast and animated audience and in English for the International community that was visiting. Hotels and hostels in Zurich were completely booked.

The final part of the race is a marathon; four laps around the lake in a U-shaped circuit that passes through the city and some of its parks. I noticed the ingenious ways in which the runners had stacked chocolate bars and some kind of juice in their body tight skins. By the third lap, many were just strolling past and stopping for a kiss or two from their partners. Many were still running, with a strong pace and totally zoned out, just looking at their fancy GPS watches every now and then, perhaps hoping for this grueling event to end.

At this point I rushed to a small bridge from where one can spot bikers and runners, at different paces, going alongside each other. In my opinion, these bikers are the heroes of the day, struggling for more than fourteen hours as they see runners heading towards the finish line and the constant commentary of how some German beat his own record. They still had a marathon to begin.

At this stage I spotted Nikhil Kapur, running his second lap. Nikhil, from Pune, Maharashtra (as intimated by TOJ), is a businessman and was running his first Ironman. Unfortunately, I could not get down from the crowded bridge in time to get to him and cheer him through that part. But at this point it felt really incredible to find an Indian going through this international event and doing really great at it.

 Cycling through the cheering crowds. 

Cycling through the cheering crowds. 

Next stop was the VIP photographer’s lounge. I had to pull some strings but I got a media pass to enter this zone. I had previously only seen the inside of such a place on television. Luckily, I had a camera to justify my presence there.

The atmosphere was getting tense and the crowd, louder. The commentators had already made it clear who was going to win, unless some unknown forces play their part at the last minute. Of course, the German television crew was there to welcome their star athlete and winner of Ironman Zurich 2014, Boris Stein.

Stein came to a halt just before the finish line, shed tears and pulled the finish tape seconds before collapsing on the ground. He must have been physically destroyed and mentally elevated at the same time. He got up again, gracefully accepting his medal, to hop along the final row of his fans and thanked everyone with teary eyes and an unbelievable expression of accomplishment. Moments later, Stein fell on the grass outside of the winning arena and was wrapped in a silver blanket by his partner.

The electricity that ran through this crowd uplifted my spirits and I saluted to the two thousand odd athletes that were still running and biking for their indestructible spirits. Though I swim well, my fear of open waters keeps me from thinking about being on the other side of an Ironman someday.

(As published @ The Outdoor Journal)