Saturday, May 6, 2017

4300 m above MSL*

I land on my knees with a faint ‘plop’ sound emanating from the soft snow. I feel faint and dizzy. I fumble with the straps of my backpack to free the bottle of water safely ensconced amidst the garbage inside it. My trouser is getting wet from the snow and a remote corner of my mind registers it, but the rest of it is either too dazed or too scared to do anything about it.

I greedily consume precious few drops of water and return the bottle to its safe haven. The G-Shock watch around my wrist indicates the time as 12:25 PM – I have been walking for six hours straight. I am gasping for breath, feeling claustrophobic in the great white open of the Himalayas. It was Bangalore’s claustrophobic nature that drove me back to these majestic mountains in the first place. I shake my head to rattle my brain into focus.

I lean on my stick and pull myself up. “one, two, three, four, five…”, I count to myself and take a step forward. The first step becomes the second, the second trudges into the third and the third grafts into the fourth. One step at a time. I stop. My eyesight grows bleary. I think of just giving up.

Ok, let me backtrack a bit. You might be thinking ‘why is he making a big fuss out of a little trek?’. Didn’t realize that you were reading about my trek? My bad. With an over the top narration, I might have led you in into thinking that I was climbing the Everest.

It was Jax’s fall which triggered everything, I guess. He slid nearly 300 m down a slope, almost into oblivion, and damaged his ankle ligaments. I have acrophobia. That means an irrational fear of heights. But that hasn’t stopped me from skydiving, bungee jumping, or walking on the sky bridge with its transparent floor in Langkawi. I guess I need these adrenaline fixes to counter my fears.

This was my second tryst with the Himalayas. This year, our group of twelve had the honor of breaking trail on the trek through ‘Rupin Pass’. We were a mix of experienced and inexperienced, old and young, calm and brash people united with the single purpose of getting through the rigors of one of the toughest treks in the country. Jax, 58, was the de-facto leader of our group. He is a very seasoned campaigner on these mountaineers and it was a huge surprise when he lost his footing on a slope and went careening down towards the rocks lining up the bottom.

And with that, my acrophobia came roaring back. It was as though someone or something had put their fist inside my throat and was slowly constricting my windpipe. Every step I took from then, I felt like I was slipping.

I look around and notice that Roshan is smoking. He is cracking jokes with one of the porters. Kriti is taking selfies and Shan is lying down on a rock. Far ahead I see Jax limping forward, with a guide in tow. The near vertical Rupin pass smiles down at me. I have another two kilometers to trudge along in the snow before I can  attempt the climb through the pass.

Am I really this scared of heights? I mean, I used to jump off my balcony into the sand below when I was a kid. I think, more than anything, it’s the thought of getting injured or even dying in a remote place that scares me now. I think about my wife – pregnant with our second child and my young son. I suddenly feel extremely selfish for running to the hills. What if I lose my footing like Jax and plummet to my death? Will it be fair to them? I try to push away my fears. I see the porters sliding down Rupin Pass, having already carried our luggage to the top. They are screeching with unbridled joy as they return to the base to assist our climb.

Narendra and Ram Lal come to my side. ‘Don’t worry’, the former says. ‘I won’t let you fall’.

‘You better not’, I reply mock-threatening. ‘Otherwise, I will come back as a ghost and haunt your whole village.’       

They both laugh. I shake my head smiling, accept a drag from Ram Lal’s cigarette, pick my backpack and start trudging.  

*MSL – Mean Sea Level