Anindya Mukherjee: With a two century spanning delay, an impoverished financial paradigm, and a legacy of colonial rulers, whose dealings concerning mountains in this country remained restricted to the indigenous hill-people, what profundity of impressive feats should the young alpinist seek from India’s mountaineers? Have they not had their own, incredible adventures, with spirits kindled by the same unquenched thirst for the heights untrodden?
There is a fashion right now for blog posts telling you that your dream/adventure/expedition is totally possible. Just Do It! Throw your fears to the wind! Believe in yourself! Stop dreaming, start doing! The cliches abound, all of them look great pasted on a sunrise stock photo in a jazzy font, and uploaded to Instagram. Underlying all of them is the same message: the only thing holding you back is yourself. If only you had more confidence and courage, you too could be living a life a grand adventure. For some it’s an inspiring call to action. For others it’s a demoralising judgement – your failure to live this exciting life is entirely your fault. – Cathy O’Dowd [i]
Twenty years ago, I left a lucrative career with a fast growing pharmaceutical company with the singular thought of living a life of adventure, of climbing unknown mountains, of discovering glaciers, of travelling to distant lands and making friends with complete strangers. However Utopian this might have sounded at the outset, the simple realisation that I had only one life to live convinced me to quit a job where I had been doing well for eight years. From that day onward I have lived my life on full compass, embracing the inevitable of financial insecurity on one hand, and the pure joy of living a life of adventure on the other. I always knew that money mattered. It almost always made everything easy in life. But money was one thing I did not have in my family, nor was I born in the so called ‘first world’ with its inherent socio-cultural and economic advantages. It did not take long for me to understand one thing very clearly-it is marvellous to be able to plan and visualise an expedition to a remote, distant land but it is also necessary to know that in order to find a grand adventure one need not travel a great distance. Because, it takes money to pay for the flights, gears, permits; the procurement of which, if inadequate, is a demoralising outcome to say the least.
Being born in a country with no apparent history and culture of seeking adventure as a sport, as a lifestyle, and even more rarely as a philosophy, I always knew that I was starting with a huge disadvantage. Since our independence from the imperial British, the definition of a ‘desirable adventure’ was drawn simultaneously by the media and the feudal apex body of mountaineering in this country. An ideal adventure, according to them, was either parading up Mount Everest by the traditional routes or ‘defeating’ a sizeable mountain with fixed ropes put up by skilled labourers called High Altitude Porters of various ethnic origins. But the thought that even after 71 years of independence, nearly 60 per cent of my countrymen barely manage to stay alive at Rs 200 everyday, made me feel fortunate to be able to even dream of an adventure other than scrounging for food. I always looked at it this way- there are many routes up a mountain, but I should be taking a comparatively challenging one as a value addition to the whole process. Perhaps something of a purist’s approach to life’s challenges helped me stay positive and not give in to the nagging and ever increasing brouhaha of the ‘sponsored’ and ‘breaking news’ social media mountaineers (found previously in the crony-feudal-mutual- glory-certifying-societies and currently rampant all across the social media) that flaunt their cravings for instant gratification. What this hashtag generation does not understand however is that, adventure in its true sense is not a pizza ready for home delivery. As Cathy O’Dowd has rightly pointed out, the fastest ‘seven-summits’ or ‘youngest to climb 8000er’, or ‘the first Everest summiteer from ABCD municipality’ records often have more to do with cash than talent and since almost always, these ‘record-making-glory-seeking’ trips are supported by agencies and guides, they are not adventures but merely a form of instant gratification of personal desire which in essence is similar to a home delivered pizza with some extra cheese on top. What we see quite often in the mountaineering world today is the mere mimicry of the current Western ways. The Western way was corrupted long ago through greed for gain and the depravity of perpetual want of ever more. Most of their adventure activities, at least what we get to see in the media, are no exception.
To live a life of adventure, like a few other noble pursuits, requires a long and devoted apprenticeship, physical, as well as philosophical. While it is true that not all adventurers are born equal but this reality should not stop them from trying. We should not, for a moment, stop believing that we too can deliver world class adventure-be it in alpinism or in any other manifestation of an adventure pursuit. Each and every adventurer can influence the world for the better, like ripples in a tranquil pond. Before influencing the world adversely with our shortcut to fame, hashtagged bragging, let us give thought to the positive influence one might effect by cultivating oneself first and then sharing with others.
A Suitable Adventure
With the same grit for self cultivation and a spirit of apprenticeship, I was training on the Singalila Ridge in the opening weeks of 2004. The Singalila Ridge trail with an average elevation of 3000m and with the friendly tea houses along the way, has always served as an ideal training ground for me. The regime of my training was simple and its motto clear- build up strength and muscular endurance. Every morning I used to load my backpack with 40 kilos of Onion (for that is what my host Sangay Sherpa of Kalipokhri happily provided) and paced up and down the steepest 6 kms to Sandakphu a few times a day and play volleyball with the locals in the afternoon. Weeks passed swiftly, my condition improved and I headed home to embrace the final and decisive round of my preparation-the money matter. Months before, I was given assurances by certain corporate bodies and magazines that I will be given grants in order to cover the expedition costs and it was time for the final verdict. I made appointments with executives, editors of newspapers and ran from office to office with no positive outcome. All the contacts that had promised me financial support from the very beginning, showing some reason or the other backed out. Thus, with just a fraction of the funds required at my disposal, it was time for me to write to my expedition partners and express my inability to join them. For a day I felt rather depressed. The flight of my first dream expedition to a distant land was about to crash before even taking off.
That Summer I was getting ready for an expedition which aimed to cross the polar ice cap of Greenland . We were a team of four, and our plan was to do the crossing of the second largest ice sheet in the world by skiing cross country while pulling our sleds. We wanted to start from Ammassalik on the East coast and journey to Kangerlussuaq on the West. It was supposed to be an expedition unsupported by agencies and without a guide. We were trying to keep our adventure as unadulterated as possible. By March 2004, we had our permits sorted out from the Danish Polar Centre and we were approaching that critical moment when each member had to commit funds. If I remember correctly, we were looking at a budget of US$ 4000 per person and all I could gather was a flight ticket (donated by an well wisher) and fifty thousand rupees from the West Bengal Council of Sports. However, it didn’t take me long to shake off the dark quilt of depression. I decided to take the flight to Greenland, knowing fully well that there was no expedition waiting for me. What followed was a life-changing few weeks of solo camping, hiking and even climbing in the wilderness of Ammassalik. I kayaked frigid arctic waters with the Inuit and went seal hunting with them. Teaming up with complete strangers I climbed a beautiful rock peak named Polhelm’s Fjeld across the King Oscar’s Bay. Now looking back, I still cannot forget the expression of disbelief on one of my many Inuit friend’s face, when I told him that the earth is kind of round and I came from the very bottom of it. “How can all the people at home stay hanging upside down?” He looked pragmatic when he asked me this and we both broke into laughter. I still cannot forget the kindness and concern of the villagers over my safety from polar bear attacks as I was camping outside the village area.
No, I could not ski across the ice cap then, but what I experienced instead was by no means any less enriching. My training and preparation did not go in vain, as my conviction that the true adventurers’ purpose is the quest and not the end, was reinforced in this process. Over time I have come to the realisation that the path is rich in meaning and fulfilment, and not the striving for only the end like ‘the first Indian to do this and that’, or ‘the youngest to climb this and that’. The moment we stop aping the west and start learning, we shall begin to grow and stand at par with the world. The relentless, pretentious and blind mimicry of the west reminds me of the following joke:
Joe: What a fabulous singer, huh?
Dave: Ha! If I had his voice, I’d be just as good.
We must therefore, be ready to embrace ‘our’ realities, evaluate ‘our’ dreams, make sure of its purity and then embark on a suitable adventure. Otherwise, sooner or later, we might start sounding like Mr. Dave above.
India and Alpinism
India has produced great alpinists in spite of its almost two hundred years’ late entry into the game. Around the same timeline (1773-1799) when alpinism was born in the West, Warren Hastings was being appointed as the first Governor-General of India, Narayan Rao Peshwa was murdered by his Uncle Raghunath Rao’s wife in front of Raghunath Rao, a series of Anglo-Maratha wars were being fought, Tipu Sultan died and East India Company emerged victorious. Mountaineering did not arrive in India until Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Chomolungma in 1953. The seminal philosophy of mountaineering or alpinism for Indians thus was the ‘glory’ associated with the conquest of the highest and not the more subtle ‘because it is there’.
The Indian mountaineering schools that trained the first few generations of alpinists were all run by officers from our armed forces and not by the alpinists who knew the ‘freedom of the hills’. During the training schedules, regimentation prevailed over teaching the student the aesthetics of climbing and imbibing the spirit of the ‘freedom of the hills’. As a result, across generations and over the years, the mainstream Indian alpinists’ attitude towards climbing mountains became more conquest oriented and style of climbing in general has become a second priority. But in spite of this mainstream monotony, India has seen alpinists who went on self supported, alpine style climbs often establishing new routes in lightweight expeditions.
Mainstream, of anything that we know on this earth, irrespective of its origin and context is almost always predictably mundane. Analysing the apparently deprived climbing culture in India, as well as an empty resolve to redeem it, is but the pleading of deficient reasoning. This is not to say, that in prowess, the community of alpinists in India parallel those of that of the innumerable pinnacles of the western climbing heritage. In fact the staggering free-solos and unreal speed records- for which the hashtag-folk so wistfully mourn, have evolved to this present abundance ( contrary to India) for reasons that set the very cultures apart. The histories and contexts of alpinism in the two worlds couldn’t have been set in sharper contrast. With a two century spanning delay, an impoverished financial paradigm, and a legacy of colonial rulers, whose dealings concerning mountains in this country remained restricted to the indigenous hill-people, what profundity of impressive feats should the young alpinist seek from India’s mountaineers? Have they not had their own, incredible adventures, with spirits kindled by the same unquenched thirst for the heights untrodden? Why need their very own, original passion for the mountains, rising out of such unspeakable odds, be hailed plaintively and with disregard? Why aren’t Indians ready to be alpinists of their own flavor? Because, perhaps, it is easier to nurture disdain, with sheepish complaints and pernicious wishful thinking, only proclaiming boisterously about the ‘glory’ that they so profess to herald.
A Closing Statement
“In his 1955 book, The Lakers: The Adventures of the First Tourists, Norman Nicholson argues that the industrial revolution brought about a fundamental rupture in man’s relationship with the natural world and he suggests that in one way or another we have been trying to get back to nature ever since. Nicholson describes three post-industrial ‘cults of nature-the Picturesque, the Romantic and the Athletic’ which are all symptoms of our society’s problematic separation from the natural environment.[iv] “
The richness of an adventurer’s life more than compensates for the hardship. Perhaps for the common Indian, it is frightening to live without security and stability. For us Indians, security and freedom are new found realities and we are still very obsessed with it. The period (1760-1840) when Europe underwent their industrial revolution, we suffered their tyranny as the defeated and the colonised. In the inter war period, while the West developed their ‘Athletic cult’[v] of re-establishing their connection with nature in their Lake districts and the Alps; their governments ensured that we endure mass murders, organised loot and legalised plunder. We therefore should not be ashamed of not being able to climb at par with the western climbers, as in spite of passing through all the odds; over the last few decades, India has produced numerous alpinists of great talent.
The Himalaya, with its vast expanse and permanence, remain an important symbol for the highest ideals within our imagination. But we are yet to overcome the centuries’ old pang of remorse in our search for a life of security and excess over a life of simplicity and adventure. Perhaps one day, we will find out that we were born to know a simple life, and find meaning and fulfilment rather than pursue a life of our own aggrandisement. Perhaps that day, our very own ‘Athletic response to nature’ will begin. Perhaps then, we will depart and take leave of society’s ways and grow wild to them, to the prevalent beliefs and values we call normal, and let go of what might be called a normal life; and embark on a rich and solitary journey of self discovery- a path of true adventure, be it mountain climbing, cycling, or any other adventure.
An Indian alpinist’s reflections on the philosophy of alpinism and adventure in India.
All photos in this article: Copyright Anindya Mukherjee
About the Author: An active mountaineer and adventurer with a penchant for exploration, Anindya Mukherjee has been on 56 mountaineering expeditions across the Indian Himalaya (including mountains like Kamet, Shivling, Satopanth and Nanda Devi East).When he is not finding an entrance to an unknown glacier, Anindya Mukherjee enjoys climbing lightweight and in alpine style. Outside of Himalaya, he was seen racing on Elbrus (2008), cycling across Africa (2012 & 2017) and documenting an unknown mountain range in China (2015). Anindya has also climbed and trekked in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Greenland, Iceland, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Cascades (USA), Peru, Northern Ireland, and in the Swiss and French Alps. He received the inaugural Jagdish Nanavati Award for Excellence in Mountaineering (2012) for the first ascent of Zemu Gap from South from the Himalayan Club and writes regularly of his adventures in Indian magazines and newspapers.
[i] Not All Adventurers Are Born Equal-Trek & Mountain (www.trekandmountain.com)
[ii] ‘Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar…’-Daniel Klein and Thomas Cathcart
[iii] The Himalayan Journal, Vol. 72, P-216
[iv] ‘Living at Our Full Compass’-Michael Roberts and the Poetry of Mountaineering, Dr. Penny Bradshaw, The Alpine Journal 2012, p-229
[v] ‘Norman Nicholson depicts the Athletic response to nature through a range of physical pursuits such as swimming, climbing, cycling and hiking which allow the city-dweller to experience ‘at least for the weekend , a more heroic and adventurous relation with the world about him.’-Dr. Penny Bradshaw, The Alpine Journal 2012, p-229