Travel

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)

Nepal earthquake: Guerrilla style relief ops keep hope alive by Trivik Verma

A small bed-and-breakfast delivers aid to remote regions, a small non-for-profit uses open source mapping to create precise maps of the rugged terrain, an adventure gear company manufactures tarps and other relief material. Apart from the government and big agencies doing their bit, it is the small enterprising outfits helping Nepal back up on its feet after the earthquake.

 Victims of the quake trying to find shelter in Shikharpur village, Sindhupalchowk distric

Victims of the quake trying to find shelter in Shikharpur village, Sindhupalchowk distric

Houses along the Tikucha River in the North-East corner of Kathmandu valley are traditional in construction, where clay mortar is used to bridge the gap between thick inner and outer wall structures made of baked bricks. They are supposed to be earthquake resistant. Now, all that remains along the river is a pile of rubble. Durbar Square is one of the three royal palace squares in the valley and a popular tourist attraction. It is now home to dilapidated temples, all of which are UNESCO world heritage sites.

Recently, a major earthquake (7.8 M) – the first one in a series of two – claimed over 8000 lives and injured more than 19,000 across various districts of Nepal. Tens of thousands of people are still in need of shelter, food and clean water.

 Food for Relief team allotting relief materials for people affected at Mulabari, Kalleri VDC, Dhading under the coordination of the Armed Police Force at their camp.

Food for Relief team allotting relief materials for people affected at Mulabari, Kalleri VDC, Dhading under the coordination of the Armed Police Force at their camp.

While the government's rescue missions are focussed on Kathmandu and was earlier directed toward Everest, they are reportedly inactive in many regions. "Mountain villages are cut off from almost everything, landslides block the roads and no significant aid is on the way," CNN reported from the ground. Survivors have no access to potable water and landslides and rock falls have disrupted the chances of any potential aid.

Mountaineering expedition teams from around the world, who contribute to a major part of Nepal’s economy, have returned home. On a normal day, mountaineers would meet at the Rum Doodle café in Thamel district of Kathmandu. That too is partly wrecked in the devastating series of earthquakes. A few groups have stayed back to help aid services on the ground.

Merely fifteen minutes from, an unassuming bed and breakfast called the Yellow House is running a guerrilla style relief and rescue operation, emerging as one of the many ad-hoc relief services. After a day of organically establishing itself under the leadership of Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati, the group sent a truck filled with bread and first-aid kits to six towns in the Lalitpur district of Kathmandu. When one of her volunteers – a British nurse – came across injured people in an inaccessible village close to Sindhupalchowk, Gurung Kakshapati arranged for a private medevac for them. Abe Streep has documented their efforts in a comprehensive article for Wired Magazine, directly from Nepal.

Even May is a cold month here and erratic rains in the pre-monsoon season have hastened the need for tarps throughout the wrecked rural parts of the country. While international aid is sitting at the airport in Kathmandu, Sherpa Adventure Gear, a gear outfit based in Nepal is manufacturing and delivering relevant aid to the rural parts. “The company turned Sherpa's headquarters in Kathmandu into a mini relief centre and they quickly turned to manufacturing and distributing 700 blankets, 300 simple tents, and 500 tarps,” Tsedo Sherpa, vice president of the company, intimated to The Outdoor Journal. “Additionally they sourced another 1000 tarps from India via family connections.”

The middle hills region – as the locals refer to it – is wedged between flatlands in the south and high mountains in the north. Villages in this area are surrounded by steep and inaccessible hills. A local non-profit called 'Kathmandu Living Labs' run by Nama Budhathoki launched the site quakemaps.org for reporting real time earthquake response information. This has helped various relief groups in creation of maps for understanding the rugged terrain of a country where navigation is otherwise an onerous task.

Another, more amateur, organization found itself using the quakemaps site. Food for Relief, started as an effort with a group of friends trying to help the grieving villagers of Nepal. Two days after the first quake, Mridula Saria reached out to the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce (FNCCI). “My immediate instinct was to go to the relief camp and see how I could help. But looking at the politics going on within the organization, I was demotivated,” Mridula told The Outdoor Journal.

 Distribution of relief material in a village in Dhading distric.

Distribution of relief material in a village in Dhading distric.

Disappointed with the bureaucracy, a handful of them gathered 100,000 Nepalese Rupees to procure rice, lentils and biscuits and left for villages in the Harisiddhi area of Lalitpur district. Food for Relief has an active Facebook page and was started from a broken house in Kathmandu. They are neither registered under any official name, nor licensed to provide aid in disaster-stricken areas. But Mridula and her friends are getting the job done.

The lack of a common platform led different relief groups to reach Sindhupalchowk (the quake epicentre) separately where many villagers leapt at the volunteers to snatch food and other supplies. “It seemed that a lot of other groups had gotten together the same way, to help the quake victims, but none of us coordinated with each other, because of which all nearby villages were receiving supplies repeatedly by two or more groups, and there were other villages that were receiving no supplies,“ says Mridula. Amid such confusion, quakemaps was rather simple to use; you register your group name and mark the areas you are helping on a map. Their relief efforts have sped up over the past few weeks.

In light of such damage and local heroic uprisings, the broken infrastructure of Nepal has found worldwide attention. Aid through government organizations and established international NGOs hasn’t reached villages. Instead, after every aftershock, these local aid groups are sending out trucks with supplies trying to cover as much ground as possible, even if it means hiking uphill for two hours.

 TLC Project Update - Khare Dhunga Ward 6, Dhading on 9th May 2015.

TLC Project Update - Khare Dhunga Ward 6, Dhading on 9th May 2015.

The economic losses post the Nepal earthquake are estimated to be around $10bn by a United States geological survey, which is close to half of their economy. One of the poorest nations in Asia, it is landlocked by two rapidly growing economic superpowers. The villagers near the epicentre of both quakes are unaware of this lapse in infrastructure and are waiting for substantial help to rebuild their lives.

Exports are badly hit too. Nepal’s tea which normally finds itself in high-end cafes of Europe has no means of leaving the country. Tea plantations and other livestock are buried below the cracked earth. The villages that were least affected are also going through a period of turmoil due to lack of basic resources.

Food for Relief is also setting up temporary schools for the children of demolished villages. Mridula describes, “The one thing that most villagers in Dhading district complained about was the schools and houses. They had no roof over their head and had nowhere to leave their children while they went to work. So we got in touch with UNICEF and an architect friend who helped us design a Temporary Learning Center (TLC), with minimalistic materials.”

 A completed TLC at Khare Dhunga, Dhading.

A completed TLC at Khare Dhunga, Dhading.

Nepal has a deep rooted connection to westerners. Its rebuilding is not just an effort from within the local community but is also proving to be a worldwide collaboration of sorts. Adventurers of all kinds who are drawn to the mountains of Nepal have volunteered to bring relief to the people. An Indian photographer informed The Outdoor Journal of his efforts to bring extremely effective and simple water filters to the victims of the quake and asked to remain anonymous. The Nepalese government is under scrutiny for its broken aid system. Mridula and her friends do not care about this vilification. They only want to get food and tarps to people, many of whom are still sleeping under the open skies, hungry and cold.

Image courtesy : Food for Relief

Feature Image: Kids collecting relief material from a Food for Relief volunteer at Khare Dhunga, Dhading

(As published @ The Outdoor Journal)

Half-Marathon by Trivik Verma

The streets were empty. I remember running along a canal that did not seem to end until a bridge appeared. I crossed the bridge to the other side and ran back the same way I came. The city of Rotterdam was lit as usual, somewhere after midnight. I neither knew the time nor the distance.

I have been running since I was in high school, in between other sports life has thrown at me. The only way for me to stay in control of my own body is to let it move. In the early days of my childhood, an Indian self-proclaimed holy being - as I refer to them - told my mother that I would follow the course of a flowing river, untamable and free. I believe him and the only thing any godly personality would ever have to say about me. I believe him because it is the truth.

I run more than thirty kilometres a week. These unabated and unconditional units of distance come at a rather debilitating cost. I run because I don’t like people. I don’t like crowds gathered together to prove a point or to celebrate and compete. These kilometres come at a cost of social anarchy that revels in my being as I run to change everything this society stands for.

So it came as a surprise to me when I found myself on the starting line of the Lausanne Half-Marathon minutes away from the gun shot that would, as I were to find out, dramatically not change anything about my life. Ryuta, my Japanese friend, finished the marathon minutes before I was about to start mine. He urged me to come here and I signed up because well you know everyone runs. So what the hell.

Barefoot shoes, check. Heart rate monitor, check. GPS active, check. The first few kilometres were fun. I was striving to maintain my speed while not tripping over slow and coagulated hordes of runners one of whom just smoked a Marlboro light merely twenty minutes before the race began. Not to judge anyone but hey, when you run, don’t run with your tobacco deodorant in my face. Anyway, he was long gone as I sped up to 11.4 kilometres an hour.

There is a strange sense of abandonment in running. Your head clears out as if the momentum of the body is much faster than the brain and the thoughts don’t have enough time to catch up. Sometimes I get out-of-body glimpses of myself where I imagine my strides perfectly touching the ground one after the other.

Lausanne was stunning. It was a clear grey sky, thanks to the sun doing its magic over the lake. The clouds acted as a perfect spread between the sandwich of mountaintops and a crystal clear lake. Every time I felt exhausted and not in control of my pace, I looked left glancing over the shadows of vineyards to see sailboats and windsurfs moving steadily in an ocean of water that looked like a painting straight out of MOMA (Museum of modern art). I just like the sound – moma.

Running is beautiful, except of course when you outrun your joy. Some famous runner must have said that somewhere and it stuck with me. I always make sure never to outrun my joy. Running amidst a crowd of eclectic runners not only confused my thoughts but also my strides. When I run, the only thing that matters to me is to feel in control of my body and let go of my emotions. There is a beautiful space in my head that gets developed every time I let go. But running with so many people made it look pointless. At kilometre nine I normally realise a brush of burn on my inner thighs and run past it, but it started to feel drab and pointless at this time and the burn became a constant badgering thought in my head. I looked left failing miserably to grab any ounce of motivation from the sandwiched clouds or the quiet blue lake. The lean and lanky fellow next to me was quite focused, running with a gait unmatched by anything I have seen before. He didn’t have a watch, a cap, and sunglasses or for that matter any music either. He was apparently running for the beauty of running in plain simple clothes and shoes that looked straight out of the eighties.

A lot of running is now industry driven where people (including me) frequently buy new gadgets. Some make it to marathons; some get washed away by lack of a strong will to keep the ground moving beneath their feet. Some never care. They run for running. Heart rates don’t matter. Water seems to appear when they need it. Sun is a boon not a bane. There are some people who just… run.

This guy jolted my soul to fade the nonsense and keep running. I picked on it and maintained a steady pace for the next three or four kilometres. He was obviously here to do what he did best and in a timely manner went past many in front of me. He even crossed the pacemaker that I intended to cross.

I am not a competitor, and I couldn’t give a fuck about winning (winning against what?). But this race brought out the worst in me. It made me want to finish, but finish better than the person running in front of me, every time I crossed one. Given that my performance was average, this would be a never ending task. I felt appalled with the lack of joy I was experiencing. The innocent smiles of children throwing their hands at the athletes in unreserved joy were the only thing that kept me going.

The race did give me a dose in reality. I am much more aware of my body limitations and the hacks to overcome them. I was never a runner who ran because running was so awesome. I ran for the aftermath, the cold and desperate thought of feeling your internal organs breathe against your skin. There was a moment when I became aware of my existence as a micro individual in lieu of being a soldier in an army of some ultimate being wallowing in the misery of a questionable routine.

Now, living through a mild ankle injury, I look over my cold and dark city. I see a meandering trail longing for every step of this lonely road. But I promised someone that I would wait till I fixed my ankle.

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)

Lauterbrunnen - lessons to be learnt by Trivik Verma

When your outdoorsy friend wants a taste of adventure, better carry your harness, rope and ice axe. Stories of a journey to the top of Switzerland.

There is chaos on the streets. This ought to be an unusual sight in a seamlessly ordered country like Switzerland. The train stops in Lauterbrunnen, a convenient town for outdoor enthusiasts who like to bend the laws of nature.

 Jumpers packing parachutes

Jumpers packing parachutes

Gaurav is visiting and he wants an adventure packed holiday. I bring him to Lauterbrunnen, secretly hoping to catch a glimpse of a wing-suit jumper in the midst of nowhere. It is a valley that has beautifully arranged itself along vertical cliffs and scattered waterfalls. I have planned to show him the top of a 3000 meter peak the old school way, put him on vertical cliffs with dead air beneath his feet and show him the isolation that I revel in. We get on a bus that takes us to Stechelberg. There is a line of para gliders, base jumpers and wing suit pilots. The three sports require a wide range of skills with the common denominator of a parachute that gives them wings to fly.

We wait for a gondola filled with these jumpers to disappear behind a massive 800 meter cliff. Minutes later there are human beings gravitating towards the earth. Canopies open up, perhaps one every minute. There is a golden yellow wing that looks like a moving sun with white colored mountains in the backdrop. A beautifully inflated blue one is painted in the clear blue sky, as if that is all one wants from life. A red canopy inflates and moves in a zigzag manner with a rocky cliff as its canvas making it difficult for my camera to pan or focus. While these free-spirited souls go up and down maybe fifteen times a day, we want to reach the peak with the next morning light.

 Paragliding atop Lauterbrunnen

Paragliding atop Lauterbrunnen

Schilthorn is primarily a gondola driven mountain in the middle of the Alps. Numerous people from around the world come every year to witness astonishing beauty atop this 2970 meter dome. The hike ideally starts from Schilthornbahn, Stechelberg. From here it takes three hours to get to Murren, a village at 1650 meters, which is home to both outdoor veterans and first-time thrill seekers alike. Along the rocky, tree like trails, there are a few waterfalls that speak something of the intense splendor of this place. Speeding down-hill mountain bikers and elderly folk erratically appear at winding paths through the forest. The hike is long and rewarding. Upon reaching Murren, the weather breaks and leaves us with views of the most famous mountains in Switzerland. I only have one thought, somewhere in this village the jumpers are gathering and emerging into the sky.

In Murren one can enroll for a tandem paraglide, jump off a cliff (only advisable for ‘certified’ Base Jumpers) or try Via Ferrata (a mix of climbing and hiking) that leads slightly horizontally to the neighboring village of Gimmelwald that we left behind a while ago. Murren also acts as a lovely base for hikers who are aiming for the top, since camping is a strict no go on these foothills, or in general, in the mountains of Switzerland (unless there is a camp site around).

We are not carrying any camping gear, well because. Even the sports stores do not keep any. We reach Intersport hoping to figure something out. We are welcomed with a big smile by the owner of the store. A young, vibrant and engaging woman, with an immaculate English accent, helps us find an accommodation that is both cheap and luxurious. She is a godsend. We fist bump and go look for the jumpers.

 Jake's friend leaps off off 'High Ultimate'

Jake's friend leaps off off 'High Ultimate'

The first exit called ‘High Ultimate’ is located to the left of Intersport, next to a tennis court. We walk down to the main exit where an old and tattered piece of rope is hanging. I quietly wait there till someone arrives. Jake is tall, well-built and has a golden brown beard that brags of his peaceful character. He walks up to me and changes into his suit. It seems to be from Phoenix-Fly, a company based in Slovenia that designs and manufactures modern wingsuits.  Jake is as calm as one can get. I will later find out that he is fighting the adrenaline rush and getting ready to activate flow. In the midst of what I can only imagine being chaos and other emotions you and I ignorant about, he looks sideways and smiles at his friend.  They fly away. There is a brave new world I do not know about. It has been eight years since I watched a man jump off a cliff somewhere in Norway, YouTube. To this day, I think of that moment and thank my parents for getting broadband. We sit in one corner to digest everything while other jumpers cross us and vanish into the bushes below. While walking up to our graciously arranged accommodation, I can see Gaurav being thankful for every second of this experience.

The hostel is located in Sonnenberg, an hour hike upwards from Murren. It is a remarkable place. People who go to the mountains to find solace may not be very lucky in Murren but Sonnenburg literally has a handful of houses. The owners are a really nice couple and offer to pack us lunch for the last leg of our hike the following morning. The hostel has a trampoline, a bar and a restaurant that offers a panoramic view to the The Eiger, Monsch and Jungfrau. Not many places in the world would offer you so much for so little. We get settled in the comfort of the trampoline, sipping Jim Beam from a bottle that Gaurav managed to fit in his backpack. In retrospect, it all turns out great.

After a comfortable but short night's sleep, we depart at five in the morning. It takes us another three hours to get to the absolute base of Schilthorn.

 Scattered waterfalls along the way

Scattered waterfalls along the way

The path is full of rocks and snow caves. In the distance the sun is shining and the mountains are waking up, through a layer of mist. To our surprise, some snow patches welcome us that turn into snowfields as we get closer to the top. We start walking up the field, one step at a time and make our way across to the bottom of the ridge. The rope along the ridge is buried under hard ice and the rock is loose. I can sense the nervousness in the air and feel vulnerable for this is my first time without gear on a mountain that I do not know. There are lessons to be learnt.

We realize that we are not carrying ice axes to arrest any fall, neither do we have any rope to protect each other. The last hundred meters of the ridge are more nerve racking than the last exam I failed in the university. To the right lies a massive snow field that ends in a fifty meter fall onto a frozen lake. To our left is nothing.

I do not have enough alpine experience and Gaurav has none in climbing rocks. I count to ten and ask Gaurav to trust me. I jokingly tell him that a helicopter rescue would cost him at least ten thousand francs. I see a reassuring glimpse in his eyes and we start moving up. One step at a time, we follow the mantra of grab-check-climb-repeat.

A New Zealander couple applauds our effort to the top. Perhaps they were in the first Gondola up and we were the first that morning to reach the peak sans public transport. This journey has been more overwhelming than I expected. It is not an alpine style route but for average experienced hikers it is a challenge. We take about four hours to get back to Murren and try ‘via ferrata’ down to the village of Gimmelwald.

A via ferrata is a protected climbing route in the Alps. There is no need for climbing equipment such as ropes. One could use a via ferrata kit to secure themselves onto steel cables that run along the route. This one starts from close to where Jake and I had the pleasure to exchange a respectful glance of each other’s existence. We meet another jumper on the way, this time from the Flower Box exit well into the route. He seems more focused and stiff and is going through a drill to check his gear. He jumps and we track his entire flight, as this exit is more accessible than the last one. He steers left and flies close to the rock face, then over a tree cladded region, onto a farmland where the landing zone is apparently marked.

The trail is pretty much easy and needs no security until a point where we have to cross a thin steel cable over an eight hundred meter drop. I metaphorically zoom out and look at ourselves from across the valley thinking that we are probably the most inconsequential beings on this planet, the size of ants, enjoying a little bit of sun and bursts of adrenaline running in our veins from time to time. I snap back and while walking on this little piece of cable, I know this is what makes for most of my life. This is why I moved to Switzerland and this is why I ask so much of friends who visit me.

We scramble down and sideways and walk bridges of various widths (and lengths) till we reach Gimmelwald and close another sweet adventure.

Gaurav dreams of a long and much awaited dip in Sarnersee while I make a mental note, “He’s one brave soul”.