Adventure in the Mountains


Gautam Dutta: There are two types of people on the road of life– Passengers and Drivers. People who take responsibility are the drivers and people who don’t, are the passengers. The drivers are in control of their lives… calling the shots… making the decisions on which way to turn and how fast to go… having fun and living with passion… and of course enjoying the fruits of taking responsibility.

Digging a snow tunnel at 7200m on the North Face of Mt. Everest. September 1991. Photo: Gautam Dutta (i)

I’m regularly being chased by few of my fellow friends to write something on Adventure…. as I look at it!  They are very sincere and hence my small write-up! Years of deep involvement in the field of mountaineering have given me a bit of experience upon which I’ll try to explain what the term ‘Adventure’ sounds me.

A child who has discovered the fun-filled joy of learning begins a life-long adventure. Our entire life should be an adventure, full of all the surprises, expectations, new experiences, and unpredictability and again expectation that the idea implies. And you get chiefly rewarded with excitements out of them beside many other things! But then, you can’t just wait for the excitement to come to you. You need to go after it, do some planning, even schedule your spontaneity. The best thing happens when you achieve three RIGHTs i.e. when you put yourself in the right places at the right times with the right people. And, the possibilities are endless. Mark Twain once said, inherently each of us has the substance within to achieve whatever our goals and dreams define…what is missing from each of us is the  training, education, knowledge, and insight to use what we already have.

The post-high school years (when one ages about 16-18 years) are the best to start one’s  journey for self-discovery and it could be made in various forms. Nothing is wrong with either. But, if you are of the kind who insists on doing something unusual, I’d tell them to think doing something leaving the comfort of the developed world behind for a wider ranging trek (climbing, if possible) or like which will make you go beyond the places where you’ve got your life in order and discover the excitement of the unfamiliar. You need to stay away long enough to feel homesick, and then longer to overcome the homesickness. But then it calls for a certain level of maturity and commitment to be prepared for such ventures. Beside, being outward bound, you must be self-reliant, confident, cooperative & sociable, adaptable, and tough with pleasing personality. And, don’t forget that nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.

Some elementary 4/5 days courses, which are generally held by our locals (different Adventure Clubs) during December–February would be of much help for a starter. The courses teach tremendous self-reliance, and students learn as much about themselves as they do about other adventure related subjects. I consider them passion-generating projects. If one is made to feel the love for the nature, the ‘love’ generates ‘passion’ in him for nature, and then one would automatically try to grasp the art of nature-living and its related subjects. Actually, one starts becoming educated on his subject of love with his hunger from within when passion drives! And, basically this is what one requires to achieve out of those courses.

You start achieving real world education when you are 18 – 23 years. By then you are in a college. There is no other time in life when an inquisitive spirit will not only take you to far-flung places, but also earn you credentials, both in and out of the classroom. In this period of life one can think of even changing the world! But my dears, always be benevolent to your environment and your environment means everything around you – your dear & near ones, friends, neighbours, greenery’s around, other mammals, reptiles, even insects and what not. So, you got to be more educated. Higher training/courses of 30 days or more duration are awaiting you. Welcome them in your life. And, side by side perform some exciting adventures. And, feel that you have become an adult.

The red line showing the route of ascent of the 1991 Indian expedition on Everest’s North Face. The team had to turn back from halfway up the ‘white limbo’ (they were very close to reaching 7800m at that time) section of the climb due to high wind and dangerous snow conditions. Photo: Gautam Dutta

Adulthood does not come to you automatically. There are people who have not got that even at my age. They look like an adult but not in reality! I think you don’t want to be so! As per National Opinion Research Center of USA, the average American believes that adulthood doesn’t really begin until age 26. It is a relative issue altogether and the age varies depending on various socioeconomic parameters. However, the age of 25/26 is more or less true for middle class Indian society. It means that, post college (24 – 30 years old), you’ve still got time for unfettered exploration of the kind that can’t be achieved through money only. Your 20s are your best shot to live free, poor, and ultimately happy. So, just get out of comforts of your home. Travelling teaches you that, everything you studied in books is not as distant from the real world as it may have seemed and Adventure travel teaches you a lot more, especially the aspects which are beyond the scope of books. You will always be getting something that will surprise you. And, such exposures are awfully required as a foundation for building your future on it.

And then only, being beyond 30 years of age when you are generally burdened by the tasks of your family, try enjoying the load of the burden with full vigour and spirit each time you return your sweet home from an adventure travel!

History should not be forgotten. Once, there was a time when British sun did not set at all; they could spread their empire so vast! It could happen as the Brits were adventurous! The first ascent of  Mount Everest by our Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary as part of a British team in 1953 gave a tremendous impetus to the mind-set of the people of whole of the world. The same thing repeated when the Americans set foot onto Moon in July,1969. There are so many such events of adventure which taught people to draw newer horizons to their ability, even in their daily life to achieve apparently impossible things.

Great minds believe that adventure builds the backbone of a nation. Pundit JL Nehru and Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy gave much emphasis on it and helped build institutes like HMI(Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, in 1954), Darjeeling to promote adventure activities in our country  so that our youths get the exposure, develop an adventurers’ mind-set to proceed toward their goal in an enlightened society. The affect of adventure on a nation can very well be depicted through a fact when Smt Indira Gandhi(better to describe as  the then Government of India) wished to put atop at least one Indian girl on Mount Everest and as a consequence one of my very close friends Bachendri (Ms. Bachendri Pal) made it in 1984. We all may recall how the event has moved the hearts of crores of our countrymen, especially our womenfolk, who could discover a new horizon with a different dimension in their hearts. And journey to a newer horizon always causes advancement to a civilisation. So now you’ll agree that Adventure has got a big role to play on our society.

It is also true that anything might happen if you are away living with unfamiliar; I’d concentrate in the field of mountaineering only for obvious reasons. So, you need to be conscious about your safety and hence, safety consideration is one very important aspect. I, myself was not at all careful about the matter and faced a number of catastrophes beside many successes – lost a good number of very dear friends in the mountains and myself being still alive, possibly a fortunate one (!) – would like to advise my younger friends to be more equipped with proper sense of safety while you are in the mountains.  It is because the real sense of enjoying ‘freedom of hills’ lies in the act of safe return from the venture and the burden of safe return and preventing any accident rest with the Adventurers.  By developing knowledge and experience in the practical mountaineering situations with rational analysis and intellectual investigation of the fundamentals of the sport one can become a mountaineer and a true mountaineer is a matured, motivated person mentally specialised in facing dangers.

You must be aware that, mountains are turbulent places full of swift violence and are extremely vast where human beings are tiny particles in comparison, so the art of mountain climbing or mountaineering is a highly adventurous sport and is risk oriented.  The adventurers, who deliberately accept this risk for enjoying the beauty of the nature or to explore the mystery of it, at times, trample on the string connecting life and death.  It has an exclusive appeal to an adventurist and there is no doubt that man will continue to go there till the mountains will be there.  There is no escape! Because, man goes there just not to climb a peak but to search and achieve many other things – may be beauty, may be to feel the pleasure of solitude, may be to test oneself of his/her ability to overcome hurdles, may be something else! This is an endless quest of an ever-dissatisfied mind possibly for self-improvement. ‘It’s not the mountains we conquer, but ourselves’— Edmund Hillary mentioned after his successful ascent of mount Everest in 1953. He understood as much as anyone the importance of ‘self-improvement’.

Interestingly, the dangers in the mountains attract people more, as because, one who faces the silent face of death learns to live more lively and probably, devoid of danger mountaineering would lose all its’ beauty.

It must be mentioned here that the mountains, in the process, does not at all frustrate anybody involving with it.  While exercising his craft a mountaineer finds reward on various levels.  At physical level one enjoys all the sensation of outdoor life; intellectually one encounters the problems of route, equipment, organisation and of course safety; emotionally he is richly rewarded by the pleasures of comradeship, instilled confidence and what not.  So, it can very appropriately be said that, “it is good that mountains are not easy places and one must not disregard or ignore any of the hazards which may cost not only pleasurable benefits but even of life and the best way to eliminate them is understand the elements of risks & dangers”.

In mountaineering, unsafe situations are often undertaken, as the hazards involved in the mountains cannot be avoided fully. So safety considerations play a very important role to a mountain adventurer – no matter whether a mountaineer, an explorer or a trekker. As a matter of fact, the best safety measure for any mountain sport is one’s physical fitness, for which one should undergo specific exercises and yoga or asana on a regular basis.  Side by side, it should also be kept in mind that “Safety or “the margin of Safety” is basically a very relative issue and its’ demarcation changes with physical condition of the mountains as well as the mountaineer.  It depends on various parameters like (a) one’s standard- both physical & mental, (b) knowledge on the subject concerned (c) experience (d) economic means (e) mode of venture- whether an expedition, a trek, or an exploration etc.,(f) presence of manpower (g) sense of involvement, etc.  And hence, safety is a very complicated issue altogether. And hence the term “RISK” comes in picture!

Risk in the mountains involves everything – one’s food, clothes, equipment, shelter, climbing techniques etc.  Failure of either of these can lead to serious accidents. Also, forces of nature are perpetually arrayed against him.  In fact, the risk involved can be classified in two sections e.g., calculated risk and uncalculated risk. I would not go for micro division of risk as well as hazards. You might get bored! I’d only say that, calculated risks may be undertaken on the hazards which are part and parcel in the mountains and hence to the mountaineers and about which a mountaineer has a preconceived idea.  In the mountains, one very often needs to undertake calculated risks as the accidents out of these being embedded in the mountain-craft can not be eliminated altogether.  But, these can be minimised by acquiring knowledge of common cause and basic sources of the hazards. Beside, one must not forget that “a mountaineer should have common sense in an uncommon degree” to visualise different aspects related to this activities in the mountains.

As far as uncalculated risks are concerned, these are related to hazards arising out of preconceived domain of ideas a mountaineer do posses and happens because of psychological orientation & pattern of the person concerned.  As a matter of fact, these are mainly caused if one is driven by inflated egos and climbs beyond one’s ability as an effect to that, or, suffers from— false pride of one’s institution or of one’s own, over confidence, superstitions etc. However, a rational, wise, well-experienced analytical mind can assess them in a better way.

Unpredictable extra human factors do also play an unprecedented role in the occurrence of hazards in ‘Uncalculated’ category.  It should not be looked into negatively as in practical situations such factors, though very much unwanted or unthinkable, do play a savage role and may put an optimistic climber in undue trouble for which he/she might not have any privilege to get rid of the situation and hence may face fatal consequences.  Under a prudent, able leadership such situations do not arise generally. So, while selecting a leader maximum care and importance should be given.  Side by side, priorities to be given for the selection of team members.  It must be kept in mind that companions should posses a minimum level of degree in all respect and can not be chosen and inducted in the team at random.  Beside many other parameters the qualities like adaptability, self-control, sense of cooperation and tolerance are most valued aspects for judging eligibility of one to be a member in a team.  If such important aspects are not looked into at the beginning, you will be moving with failure and pain all the time from the very onset.  Also, leader once selected, should be obeyed always unless exigencies call for obeying to majority rule.  It must be remembered that backbiting, group-ism, talking against an able leader lead a party only to defeat, despair and disillusionment beside creating unsafe situations hindering safety of the team.  Whereas proper planning and it’s execution by the members being guided by a well-versed leader always help to evade these. As such, hazards can be controlled to a great extent if the mountaineer is conscious enough and takes right action at right time at right degree.

Also, it is true that there is little difference in people…but that little difference makes a huge difference with respect to consequence of anything – big or small –in terms of the result, positive or negative. That little difference is ATTITUDE. Here I like to talk about it. Attitude can be defined as ‘a mental filter through which we process our thoughts and view the world’. People who filter their thoughts through a negative screen will view the world as a dark, ominous place populated with gloom and doom. If one filters the same thoughts through a positive screen …one would see the world as a bright, adventure–filled place overflowing with surprises and opportunity. A good leader accepts responsibility for making mistakes, instead of blaming others when things go wrong. He/she believes in getting results instead of making excuses; say ‘Let’s go’, instead of ‘Get going’;  looks at life as an Adventure to enjoy, hates to see life as a trial to endure and always looks past the thorns and points out the Roses.

In short I’d tell my friends that there are two types of people on the road of life – Passengers and Drivers. People who take responsibility are the drivers and people who don’t, are the passengers. The drivers are in control of their lives… calling the shots… making the decisions on which way to turn and how fast to go… having fun and living with passion… and of course enjoying the fruits of taking responsibility. For natural reasons all the people can not be drivers but some are born-drivers. An would be adventurist should aim to be a driver, should cultivate the things which would provide growth of qualities the write-up has described so far in it’s humble submission.

With best of my regards to you for spending your precious time in getting in to my thoughts– Gautam Dutta

Words and photos: Gautam Dutta

(i) The details of the 1991 expedition can be read here

About the Author: Gautam Dutta is one of those rare Indian mountaineers who in the eighties and the early nineties, had not only set the trend of self supported, alpine style ascents in remote ranges of the Himalaya; but also climbed hard looking for aesthetically beautiful lines. As a result, he has quite a few first ascents along with numerous daring attempts to his credit. In 1981, in a small party of three ( Led by the legendary Bidyut Sarkar Chhorda), Gautam Datta climbed three 22000ft peaks including Maiktoli. They neither used any high altitude porters nor fixed ropes. In 1991, Gautam Datta was one of the four Indian climbers that climbed the great couloir route of Mt Everest reaching nearly 7800m. His climbs and his spirit of adventure is still alive in a handful of alpinists in Bengal.

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