Monday, October 15, 2018

Elusive Mt. Fuji Part 6

Watching the sunrise at Mt Fuji wasn’t the end of our trek. The destination was reached but the journey was far from over. We still had to climb down 1700 mtr. This was a different challenge altogether. 
From the summit of Mt. Fuji to our dormitory was simple 45 minute descend. The same queue that ascended was descending. But the mood was quite different. There was no competition, no rush. There were smiling faces, laughters. Row of colourful jackets looked pleasing to the eye. We reached the dormitory and had our breakfast. 6 AM. Little did we know that there was another challenge waiting for us.
We packed and checked out of the dormitory. 7 AM. Wondering if there would be any other place whose check out time was 7 AM.
By now the sun had started beating down. It was quite warm. Being a volcanic mountain, the top of Mt Fuji is quite barren, there are hardly any trees or any shade. But that wasn’t the biggest challenge. The biggest challenge was the slippery slopes. Its famous as sand run in Japan. Basically its a very steep slope with gravel, small pebbles and sandy soil in different proportions. This makes the slopes very slippery and dangerous. The possibility of slipping and falling down exists at every step.
Initially, I was very careful. Making sure my trekking pole is nicely placed, making sure I was getting tight grip for every step, determined not to slip and fall. But later, I saw some trekkers literally running down the slopes. They were not scared of slipping and falling. In fact, they were using slipping down the slope to their advantage to cover some distance. Instead of controlling the slipping, they were anticipating and allowing the slipping and moving down very fast. They seemed to enjoy it too. After a bit, I threw caution to the wind and I tried that technique too. After a bit of trial and error, I started enjoying that too. I was coming down much faster and had lot of fun. Sure enough I was slipping and falling but was getting up with a smile and doing it all over again.
My Vonfucius mind said - your glory is not in worrying about the fall but to get up every time you fall with a smile.
We took long stops, refreshed ourselves with drinks, clicked pictures. With this worry-free technique descend was fun. Before we knew we were in the bus that took us back to parking lot.
It was exactly 24 hours since we started our ascend. Out of those 24 hours we were trekking for almost 16-18 hours. We were carrying a back pack which was nearly 5 kg. The meals were paltry and basic to say the least. We were at the mercy of weather, for some time we felt hot, for rest of the time we shivered. The beds we slept were so narrow that you couldn’t move your hands without touching your neighbour. In short, we went thru all the hardships we could in last 24 hours.
Yet when we got into the car we said - The fun is over, we have to go back to grind till next time buddy!
So here we are back to the grind of air conditioned offices, swanky cars, plush sofas, flat screen TVs and high speed internet, pining for next escape to the mountains!

Monday, October 8, 2018

Sunrise at Mt. Fuji

After all the hustle bustle we reached the top. Since it is volcanic mountain, the top of Mt. Fuji is quite unusual. There is a crater in the center and one can walk around the crater. So all the thousands of climbers could be accommodated easily. Offcourse vantage positions towards eastern edge were taken first. My fellow trekkers were faster than me, they went and blocked one such vantage position for us. The stage was set for grand finale.
Eastern skies were brightening up, wind was blowing hard. We were in luck as there were hardly any clouds in that direction. The tricky part of climbing all the way to watch sunrise or sunset is one small ill-positioned cloud can play the spoil sport. But the Universe was conspiring to show us the sunrise. It was very cold and blowing wind made it seem colder that what it was, so much so that it was difficult to take off gloves to click pictures or video. After initial hesitation, I flicked the gloves off and started taking pictures. After all, that was the reason, I had climbed 1,773 meter.
Cloud formations were striking, blowing wind was changing their shapes every few minutes. The sun was rising behind the horizon, it was apparent from changing colours of clouds. My vocabulary is too limited to do justice to describe colour palette that changed every moment from dark to black to grey to shades of pink to shades of orange till finally it became light. As the light went up the landscape started getting clearer. There were magical moments that unfolded in front of our eyes as the landscape turned from 2D to 3D. The contours became clearer, the crescent shaped Kawaguchi lake separated itself from the dark background. The mountain range on the right was struggling to contain all the clouds which were trying to escape to the left and engulf the view.
The magical moment came when the orange sphere appeared on the horizon. There was a loud cheer and sporadic claps, cameras clicked non-stop. Only when the Sun appeared on the horizon, we realised how fast the earth was moving. We could watch the sun only for a few seconds before it became it became so bright that we had to look away.
We had toiled for it for last 10-12 hours and it lasted only for a few minutes. But it filled our hearts with joy and sense of fulfilment. The images we saw were imprinted on our minds. We took a lot of pictures but those could capture only minuscule version of what we saw. The images we carry in our minds can’t be replicated on any medium and the air that we breathed smelt different. Just as the sun appeared in the sky, wind slowed down, there was welcome warmth in the air. There were smiles all around. Tiredness had evaporated. Sense of accomplishment filled our hearts.
We went around to take a look at the crater. It was huge, appeared bottomless from where we were standing. We were in awe with nature’s brute force which would have caused this eruption.
I hear a popular phrase - he conquered so and so mountain or so and so peak. I don’t really agree with this phrase at all. Peaks, mountains and nature in general is not really conquerable. It is not meant to be conquered at all. We are too inconsequential to make such preposterous claims. The only feelings I carry back from treks are gratitude, humility and feeling of oneness with the world.
Destination was achieved but journey wasn’t over. We slowly climbed back to our refuge without speaking a word. 

Cosmic peace had filled our minds.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Elusive Mt Fuji Part 4 Rush hour @1:30 AM

We got up next day morning at 1:30am and got ready to summit Mt. Fuji. The temperature outside was in single digits and very windy. So we had put on 3 layers - cotton T shirt, down jacket and windcheater, hand gloves, woolen cap and most importantly the head torch. Luckily we didn’t have to carry our sack.

We were excited that long cherished dream was going to be realised. 

Got ready to step out but I couldn’t come out of my dormitory because there was a big queue outside... a big human traffic jam towards the summit. At first, I couldn’t believe it. Guess One has to see it to believe it. The queue was at least a 1 km long and building up. The headlights made it easy for us to track the queue. There were twinkling stars in the sky and headlight formations along the route to climb up. 

When you have closely packed group moving forward slowly, its difficult to chat. Only sound in the air was footsteps and trekking pole. The footsteps on gravel-soil road sound like chap chap. When the trekking pole hits the ground it sounds like chuk and when you pick it up it brushes against the light gravel and makes the chyak.
Chuk Chap chap chyak
We were moving slowly along three lanes. Carefully watching our footsteps, trying not to slip. Careful not to touch each other. Carefully planting our trekking poles in empty spaces.
Chuk Chap chap chyak
Wind is blowing hard making some of us shiver. We are thankful that we are in group. Those in side lanes breaking the wind speed and provide the warmth to others. Slowly we are getting used to the warmth created by the group.
Chuk Chap chap chyak
This is not a city road so the width is not uniform, in some places its narrow and wider in others. Its breaking the monotony of the group. Three lanes are merging into two or even one, testing our patience. As soon as we hit wider sections we start running. Its mad rush to reach the top before sunrise and secure a good viewing spot.

Chuk Chap chap chyak
Some impatient folks look beyond the safety ropes and figure out that there is still some space to climb up safely. So they cross over and take the short cuts. Some brave hearts follow them, others give condescending looks. The tempo is building, initial calmness is giving way to impatience.

Chuk Chap chap chyak
We hit rockpatch. Taller trekkers can still manage to climb, shorter ones use their hands to climb. Everyone is trying to avoid contact and worse stepping on hands. But mishaps are unavoidable. The initial oneness of group is slowly giving way to competition.

Chuk Chap chap chyak
Japanese volunteers are the most sincere. At this hour in those mountains, they are guiding the crowds with their fluorescent sticks while speaking continuously in Japanese. By now heartbeats are up and some are slowing down. Others want to overtake. Tempo is definitely in the next octave.

Chuk Chap chap chyak
We see some trekkers napping in sitting position on narrow spaces on the sides. They must be the trekkers who couldn’t secure the accommodation but decided to do hike anyway. Wind is getting stronger and sheets they are wearing are clearly inadequate to protect them from winds. But they are so tired that they are napping anyway. We feel pity for them, but only for a moment. We are in a rush. We have to reach the top before the sun. Bye folks, we feel sorry for you but sorry can’t stop. Just like in cities. By now, all trekking courtesies and etiquettes are out of window.

Chuk Chap chap chyak
Oh take a look. The sky on eastern direction is brighter. We can easily spot the brightest point and imagine that the sun would rise from there. There are hardly any clouds on the horizon. Great! Twinkling stars are slowly disappearing, making way for the sun. We look at watch, still sometime before sunrise then look at the peak, the queue is slowly winding up Mt. Fuji. It looks like a fluorescent centipede moving slowly over the obstacle. We are not sure if we will reach the peak before sunrise. So rush!!

Chuk Chap chap chyak
Cut the line! Take the short cut! Avoid the hands! Oops Sorry! Don’t stop! Give way please! Where is my group? Never mind, they will find you, keep moving. I want to take a picture. No no. You will drop the camera. Move move move.
Its rush hour at 1:30 AM @Mt. Fuji.

Chuk Chap chap chyak
Chuk Chap chap chyak
Chuk Chap chap chyak

Monday, September 24, 2018

Elusive Mt. Fuji Part 2

There are four trails to reach the top of Mt. Fuji. Yoshida is the most popular and highly congested trail. I heard that one has to stop and give way to oncoming human traffic on this trail. It didn’t sound very different than Japanese train station so I requested Yuriko-san our boss for the trek to find another option. So she chose Subashiri trail.

We were four of us Nitin, Yuriko, Georgia and myself. All of us were from diverse backgrounds. Nitin is my classmate but has spent 25 years in Japan, Yuriko is Japanese looking to study abroad, Georgia is Canadian has studied in China and now doing higher education in Japan and me living in Singapore and travelling to Japan on work and trying to squeeze in a weekend to sumit Mt. Fuji. Sheer diversity of the group was fascinating. I love this aspect of trekking the most. It puts you in unimaginable situations and pairs you with totally unknown souls. I had several such treks in past two and half years. In each and every trek, I have come out more enriched, more accomplished and have formed strong bonds with friends whom I may never see again. Like Harry Potter’s story, activities select people so more often than not they come with similar attitudes and value systems. So four of us from four corners of the world had one aim to see sunrise from top of Mt Fuji next day morning!
Weather plays an important role in any trek and more so in Fuji. One can’t go by what the weather report says, one can’t even believe own eyes. Eternal rule is : Weather will change. If you have clouds, you will get Sun. If its warm it will become cold, eventually. We had to be ready for all 3 seasons - summer - which was where we started, winter - which was waiting for us at the summit and rains/ clouds - which was lurking in there somewhere, held the key whether we see the sunrise or not.
Something inside was telling me that behind the clouds and whistling winds, the Universe was conspiring to get me to summit and show me the festival of colours that the Sun plays with horizon, everyday. 
We offered our prayers at Komitake Shrine, hoped for good weather and started our climb!

Part 1 of this blog can be read in :

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Elusive Mt. Fuji : Part 1

Mt. Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan standing tall at 3776 m. The kanji depicting Mt Fuji also means wealth or abundance. I thought it is so befitting as Mt Fuji is as elusive as wealth or abundance is. It is open for climbing for just 68 days in a year. (July 1 - Sep 9). This season also coincides with typhoon season hence climbing Mt. Fuji and catching glimpse of rising sun requires a lot of planning and dash of luck.
I missed the opportunity in 2017. The weather played spoilsport last year and I had to change my plans. So I was determined since then to summit it this year. Planning began since Jan 2018.
There are 2 distinct itineraries for climbing. First type doesn’t involve any stay at the top. One starts at level 5 in late afternoon. Climb all the way to summit to catch the sunrise and descend to reach back. Second type of itinerary starts involves stay at level 8 or below. This requires a lot of planning as the dormitories get sold out 3 months before. We opted for this. My Japanese colleagues did all the planning.
They booked the dorms for every weekend in the season. The plan was we check the weather, choose the weekend and just go.
It worked spectacularly well. I summited Mt. Fuji on 26th August and saw the sunrise.
Plan to write all the stories here. Stay tuned!
Do leave comments about what you would like to hear!

PC: Abhijit Vaidya

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Simulation of Life

Trekking in many ways is short gamified version of life.

We prepare a lot to go for trek. We go to gym, go for hikes, stretch ourselves to simulate trek. In real life we go to school, take degrees and try to prepare ourselves for real life situations.

But soon enough, as we start tiring and breathing gets heavy we realise either we could have prepared better or probably no amount of preparation was enough. Similarly, when we start our career, we realise all skills required to succeed were not taught. Somethings that were taught may be needed to unlearn.

We anticipate almost all kinds of weather situations and carry things that protect ourselves. Sunblock, wind cheater, warm jackets, gloves, ponchos, thermals, fleece jacket etc. But does that guarantee that we won’t feel cold? Does that guarantee we won’t get sunburn? Does that mean we will not get drenched?
No. Just like real life!

We find all kinds of trekkers around. Some carry heavy sacks packed with extra medicines, clothes, jackets... things required in eventualities. Some carry almost nothing... just bare necessities. To me later seem happier as they have less to worry because they worry less. Somehow they manage with what they have and those carrying large sacks remember what they forgot to pack. Just like real life!

Some trekkers are too technical. They wear gadgets that measures their speed, elevation, distance, heart rate...everything. They are conscious about how fast they are moving and whether they are in good form. Some others couldn’t care less. They stop everywhere to take photos. They notice chirping birds, color of the sky, vividly shaped stones. They are in no hurry. They enjoy journey don’t pine for the destination alone.

Those who rush have more statistics, less stories. More knowledge, less memories. More gadgets, less pictures. They are proud, later are happier. Just like real life!!

Why do we trek?
Because it is gamified capsuled version of life, that helps you to live life better.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Limitless human spirit

There were some moments in my trek, when I felt I was someone special to be at right place at right time.

We were slowly coming back from Everest Base Camp. It was very tiring. We ran out of breathe very often. But as soon as we reached the spot, it felt as if the body released some reserve energy. All of were happy, cheerful. Lot of high fives going around, everyone posing for photos. Thirty minutes we spent there was what we we walked for ten days. One important item on the bucket list was ticked. As we started coming back, all the additional efforts started weighing down on us and we started to walk even slower.

Out of blue, we heard a bell ringing softly. Many yaks, cows had crossed us but they didn't have bell around there necks. So this was something different. We saw a a trekker as ringing the bell as he walked. When we saw his fellow trekker we were surprised beyond words. The person following him was completely blind.

Human spirit has no limits.

Road we were walking on was trecherous. We had to be careful about every step. A wrong step could mean twisted ankle or fractured bone. But when we got that right, we were rewarded with great views. View of nice blue sky, contrasted with snow white mountains, green valleys, turquoise green coloured river curved thru the forest made us forget our tiredness. Physical efforts was our investment beautiful views was our reward.

I wonder how it worked for that blind man. I felt humbled. All my problems seemed miniscule. All my fears seemed absurd.

A motivated blind man merrily climbing up to the Everest Base Camp made me feel that I don't really have any right to complain about my life. It opened my eyes to possibilities I had never imagined before.

I love trekking because once in a while, in many unexpected ways, we experience things that might shake us out of our protected lives, set patterns and cosy limited realities, to show us the human spirit that we can never imagine.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Never too late to start your life!

My surprises about remarkable people in trekking was far from over.

After successfully reaching Everest Base Camp, I was on my way back. Literally zipping down the slope, rushing towards higher oxygen, talking loudly. Thats when I noticed a lady walking very slowly, carrying a long stick in her hand and her nepali guide was offering hand at every step and she was refusing to take it. This looked very interesting so I slowed down. I was curious about this lady and wanted to know more.

One remarkable thing when you are on such trails, in a contrast to our urban life is, if you smile at anyone on the trail, you get a smile back. Conversations are easy to start. No introductions nor any ice breaking is required. Color, race, age doesn't matter. If you need a smile you get it, if you need company you get it, if you need a hug you get it.

It wasn't difficult to start conversation with this lady. As luck would have it, she was from India and spoke same language. Conversation started flowing from word go. To my amazement, she was 75 years old. She had successfully reached Everest Base Camp. Looked very satisfied as she was slowly making her way back.

I wanted to know her story. She was an ordinary middle class woman from humble background. She did her first high altitude trek when she was 60 to Badrinath. She liked it very much. So she did a few more treks, Kedarnath, Kailash Manas Sarovar and finally Everest Base Camp. What great spirit! I asked her what was her motivation. From Childhood to early adulthood she did everything her father told her to do. She studied, she learnt to cook, she learnt to do little things at home. Then she got married. Then she did everything her husband asked her to do. She managed the household, raised the kids, made them good human beings. They got married too and then at 60 she was an empty nester with her husband again.

She said, "That's when I asked myself, what do I really want. I had lived my life for all others so far. Never thought of myself. So at age of 60 I had lived a reasonably happy life but I didn't real know what I wanted. So I went for my first trek without thinking too much. I didn't even know whether I will be able to complete it, leave alone liking it. But once I was in nature, I knew that was my calling. I knew this is what I wanted. Since then I never looked back. As soon as I reached back, I would plan my next trek. This makes me really happy and make me forget all the hardships I have faced in my life. At age of 60 I started living my life. I thank god for that."

The simple conversation turned profound. Its never too late to start your own life. Peep in your soul and ask yourself what you really want and start doing it.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Age is just a number!

I have completed 5 treks in last 15 months. 2 out of them were high altitude treks. My friends and colleagues tease me that my mid-life crisis is manifesting itself in resurgence of my old hobby. Trekking was rather easy in 20s, it was less tiring, more fun. I would walk up the slope singing, talking non-stop. Trekking in 40s is a different ball game altogether. Walking up the slope now needs preparation and determination. I had to accept that trekking was manifestation of my mid-life crisis by saying 40s is new 20s. In heart of hearts I was feeling very proud that I had embarked on my latest mission of trekking to the Everest Base Camp.

What happened in that trek completely changed my perspective.

"I am Nick I am an American and I am 64 years old"
Nick was my fellow trekker. I didn't know how to respond.
"Are you sure you will be able to complete the trek?" Our guide asked in a polite tone. A very offensive question asked in a polite tone doesn't hurt.
"Well, I have to because after EBC, I am planning to go to another peak at 6000+ meters."
He looked very confident but I wasn't sure. But all my doubts were laid to rest once we started walking together. Nick had obviously prepared very well and he was walking very well. I could barely catch up with him.

Nick wasn't alone we also had Meg with us, she was Japanese about same age as Nick. She had an equally amazing story. She had taken a month off and she was planning to do Everest Base Camp and Annapurna Base Camp treks back to back.

I was proud of myself for doing trekking to EBC in 40s but it was such an humbling experience to meet people who were much senior and were planning to do much more than me.

I saluted their motivation. I saluted their determination. I saluted their perseverance. I saluted their preparation. I saluted their families and friends for their support

If 40s was new 20s for me, 60s was new 40s for them.