Trekking to Kalsubai

I’m not a fighter. Not anymore at least. When you realize that most of your life has been spent fighting for the wrong things, and for the wrong reasons, you find yourself questioning if anything really is worth fighting for. If the scars are all that remain, then why bother, right?

But Life is strange. It sometimes gets you to do things without you realizing what it is you’re doing. You just throw the punch, you just keep walking, you just refuse to stop and you never realize – you were actually fighting. And what’s more – that you chose to fight. Trekking to Kalsubai is one such fight – one that you never realize you’re in while it’s happening – only when it’s done, and only once you’ve won.

We climbed the highest peak in Maharashtra on New Year’s Eve. To be precise it was actually New Year’s Day, because we started climbing at 12:30 AM on January 1. It was a night trek organized by Mumbai Travellers. The aim was to see the first sunrise of the year from the highest point in the entire state. Sounds pretty dramatic, I know. It’s why there were 70 of us on that trek. Everyone loves drama.

And action. Kalsubai is not easy, regardless of what some trekkers (and the organizers) might tell you.It’s 5400 feet of sheer climbing. The terrain is rocky and steep, and in patches so steep that you need ladders to continue the climb.

blog 2The entire climb takes around 3.5 – 4 hours – in the night. In the day, with the sun bearing down on you, and the sight of the terrain wearing you down – I would assume it takes much longer.

We also happened to go on the coldest night of the year, or at least what seemed to be the coldest. It didn’t seem so bad when we started off for Kasara, or even when we traveled to Bari – the base village – from Kasara. But once you’re in the village, and the lights of the city have all but vanished, and the air is free from the heat of the pollution, the cold gets to you. As you start to climb, you start to pant, and with every breath you suck in more and more of the chilly night air until the cold is in your belly, spreading it’s icy tentacles inside you slowly. It’s not so bad when you’re climbing, because the heat in your body keeps it at bay; but the moment you stop, you freeze. This is probably the only drawback of climbing in the night. You’re miserable when you walk, you’re miserable when you stop.

However, the vista surrounding you as you climb does leave you with a happy, warm feeling, even when the wind gives you goosebumps. A million stars give you company. Bright yellow dots suspended against a black nothingness remind you of warm houses. When you look down at the trekkers behind you, you see a line of torch lights draped upon the mountainside like lights on a Christmas tree. Even in the pitch blackness of the night, you glow. Or maybe it’s just the sweat.

But Kalsubai is a kind mountain. It gives you ample patches to rest in. A small temple about 1/3rd way to the top. Another grassy patch halfway. This patch is particularly beautiful, as it offers you a panoramic, unobstructed view of the night sky and the mountains around. It’s hard not to forget about the trek (and everything else) and just stay there. You could almost doze off into a little snooze if it weren’t for the biting cold and a local villager narrating the legend of Kalsubai. It’s almost killing us to get up and start walking again. And well, this would be the second drawback of trekking on a cold night – when you start climbing after a break, you feel even more miserable than before.

To be honest, there were umpteen times on that 4-hour climb when I wholeheartedly wished that I’d just gone to some stupid new year’s party and gotten bored instead of subjecting myself to this ordeal. And I’m pretty sure a lot of other people felt the same way, at some point on that night. That my husband kept reminding me whose idea this was didn’t do much to soothe my frayed nerves, aching muscles and runny nose. However, climbing at night had the single biggest advantage of ignorance. Except for the next rock you had to step on, we had no idea what we were climbing. We couldn’t see the terrain, we couldn’t see the summit, we couldn’t see each other. We were completely in the dark, literally. All we focused on was the next big rock, the next stepping stone. We had absolutely no idea what we had actually gotten ourselves into, except that if we kept going long enough, we’d eventually get there.

When you are doing a trek like Kalsubai, not seeing the mountain of a task in front of you is really comforting. I’m pretty sure a lot of people including me would’ve given up half way if we could actually see what we were climbing. And therefore, if you’re going to do Kalsubai, do it in the night. That sounds very weird. Anyway, do it in the night, and do it with Mumbai Travellers. Getting 70 people to climb the highest summit in Maharashtra, many of them first-timers, is not an easy task. But they managed it effortlessly. No one was left behind, no matter how tired or slow they were. The organizers were extremely skilled climbers, but more importantly, were incredibly efficient and managed the entire trip without any glitches.

If you’re lucky, at the base of the summit, there will be a villager making kanda bhaji and chai in a little hut, at 4 AM. Yes. You read that right. And if you’re really lucky there will not be a group of rowdy, loud boys playing mafia at the top of their voices outside that hut as if their lives depended on it. Obviously we weren’t really lucky. All we got were the bhajjis and chai. But the rest of our group was worse off. All the way to the top you are relentlessly whipped by the wind which is hell bent on skimming the skin off your bones. As you near the summit there are many patches that are on the leeward side, and hence will protect you from this onslaught. This is where you should wait to rest. Our group did not. Our group chose the most windy spot you could find to start a bonfire. Now, I’m one of the most sensitive people when it comes to cold that I have ever met. I was wearing five layers and was still shivering. The chai and bhajji had not helped. The hut hadn’t helped either. In hindsight, brandy may have, but I didn’t have the foresight to carry any. There was no way I was sitting  out in the cold, so me and the hubby opted to stay in the hut. I’m sad to say that did not help either. I shivered for a whole hour sitting next to that stove.

An hour later, we were jerked out of our stupor by someone who said the rest of our group was on their way to the summit (we were parked some 100 feet below it) to see the sunrise. It was around 5:00 AM. In a maddening hurry we managed to align our creaking bones with our stiff muscles and stumbled out of the hut, scrambling in twilight over the last 100 feet in an attempt to catch up with the rest of the torches.

I want you to take a minute to let this seep in. This is my first trek in 3 years. I can barely run for 5 mins without panting. Both my knees are on fire. I’m shivering through the 5 layers. I can’t feel my hands or feet. We haven’t slept in 24 hours and have climbed 5200 feet in 3 of those hours, 3 coldest hours. And now just when we were finally beginning to rest, we had to climb some more. Those last 100 feet – the very last of those hand-hewn stone steps were torture – pure and simple. I stopped in my tracks, and cried. I cried. And told my husband I wanted to go home. I’d had enough. My husband, who’s is the most resilient of people, too was on edge. He looked at me and said, “Mini, there’s really no where else for us to go.”

That’s when I knew, I was fighting. More importantly, that’s when I knew I wanted to win. I didn’t really know whether we would see a sunrise through the fog and clouds around us. I didn’t care. I would make it to the top. I would climb this damned mountain. And then I would die in peace.

When I would go to dance classes, my teacher would often say, “Just give in to the pain. Don’t resist it” while we moaned and groaned in the prone position for 30 counts. I never really understood what that meant up until that morning. For the kind of pain I was in (my knee problem is a little serious for a 26 year old) I have no recollection of how I climbed the rest of the 100 feet. Throughout the trek I’d waited for every small break and devoured it – because that’s when the pain stopped. Now, I just didn’t care for it anymore, not even for it to stop. It was going to hurt. Period. And I was going to climb. Perioder.

Far scarier than it looks

We climbed over 4 really poorly constructed ladders on this trek. We had to climb the fourth and last ladder right now, which would take us to the top. This one was over the steepest part. I remember climbing it with such disdain and hope. Disdain that there was one more step to climb. Hope that I had climbed one more. When I finally set foot at the top, I could have fallen down on my knees and kissed the ground, but it was too cold.

The freezing gale blowing at the summit could have swept one off the cliff. And it looked like it had, because our group wasn’t there. What we’d seen were villagers making their way to the temple on the summit for the morning aarti. One of them kindly lit us a small fire and we tried to warm ourselves while waiting for the promised sun.

I don’t know how many of you have seen a sunrise. It kinda sneaks up on you. One minute the sky is blue, then it turns purple, then pink,then orange, and then finally yellow-white.

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It’s an amazing feeling. You don’t really notice the colours – all you realize is that things around you get clearer and clearer. It was still a very foggy winter morning, and I began to think that we might not be able to see the sun after all. I went back to the fire just as the aarti was about to end. The villagers started with ‘Ghalin Lotangan’ – the customary aarti to end all aartis (and also one of my favourites), and that’s when we saw it.

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A bright ball of Orange. The brightest orange you could ever see. Like a glowing ember suspended amidst dark clouds. At first we could only see the uppermost rim and slowly, as the chants of the men grew louder, as the sanskrit words began, the ones that praise the Almighty for being everything, the parent and the brother, the friend and the teacher, the alpha and the omega, the eternal and the infinite, it appeared, its entire form slowly emerging. And as the final chants of Hare Rama and Hare Krishna resounded, it glowed brilliantly, having now ‘risen’ completely. And having witnessed it like I did, I felt like it had risen for me alone.

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It was the most spell-binding moment of my life. I had not slept the whole night, but I awakened then. It had been the most befitting end to my struggle. For the first time, in a long time, I had fought for something – that I knew, with utmost certainty – had been worth the fight. And I had won. I felt redeemed. I felt humbled.

It wasn’t over yet though. There was still the journey downhill – but it didn’t matter. Actually, nothing mattered anymore. Climbing down that ladder was nerve-wracking to say the least, particularly because you had to descend it facing downwards. The rest of the descent was surreal, to say the least. We were now actually ‘seeing’ what we climbed over last night. Everywhere we turned were vistas of the Western Ghats, and we looked down upon the mountain tops, from the highest among them. We saw the valleys and the slopes, the mountain forms and the roads – all with a wondrous feeling of – ‘Did we really climb all this in the night?! HOW did we DO THIS?!’. Had we climbed during the day, our fatigue would have definitely not let us enjoy any of this. And while I’ve trekked down many mountains before, trekking down the Kalsubai gives you a view like no other.

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It was exactly 24 hours later that we were on a local again, to Mumbai. A lot can happen in a day, they say. But what can you do in a day? You could go to work. You could travel to a new country. You could meet someone. You could get married. Or you could climb a mountain. The highest in the state, just for kicks. If that’s possible in one day, imagine what’s possible in 365.

(The images on this post are courtesy of fellow trekker Pratik Koli. You can view the original images here: http://goo.gl/gT6jXA)

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Trekking to Lohgad

If you trek to Lohgad in the monsoons on a Sunday, you will mostly be put off by the piles of garbage at the base village, the sheer number of people in your trekking group, the annoying locals who are intent upon singing home productions of Bollywood songs on top of their voices all the way, more annoying locals with alcohol on their breath, assorted discarded bottles in otherwise freshwater pools, and the pitiful state of the Indian Railways. But then, when you’re sitting at the tip of the Vinchukata, taking in the mindblowing vista, fog/clouds drifting in and out of your vision, misty rain cooling your face and wetting your clothes, you realize that nothing else matters, and that it’s all worth it. And if you’re lucky, you’ll find a few other trekkers who share your thoughts.

I went with Green Carpets, which may or may not be your best choice, depending on what you’re looking for. Yet, they seemed most reasonable when I started off, and while not entirely managed as well as I would have liked them to be, the ‘leader’ did what he could, or what he thought he could/should. Yet, there were too many people, too many unruly people, for my comfort. Yet, I don’t (can’t) blame them, I found my future trekking group with them 🙂

We started pretty early. We took the Indrayani Express from Dadar at about 5:45 A.M. You could take the Mumbai-Pune Intercity too, although I don’t think there is one that early. These are mostly the only two trains that halt at Lonavla (our immediate destination). Unless you are ‘absolutely’ okay with standing in a PACKED, PACKED general compartment with the windows sealed tight (coz of the rains) please consider getting reservations. The ticket is usually less than 100 bucks. Alternately, you could do what we did. As soon as we got on, a plucky girl with us suggested we explore the length of train to check for any vacant seats which we may be able to occupy for sometime. And the five of us, (3 girls, 2 boys) set off, travelled through 6 cars to finally hit upon the General Reserved compartment, with empty seats. We got to sit upto Karjat, and it was a rather enjoyable ride. At Karjat the 2 boys had to get off and run the length of 6 train cars to get into an PACKED, PACKED general compartment to retrieve their bags. Evidently, they didn’t think we would find seats. Moral of the story: Never be pessimistic on a trek. 🙂

We had breakfast at Lonavla, although you could have it anywhere. Lonavla would be the most efficient way of doing it because you have to catch a local train that plies between Lonavla and Pune, to get off at Malavli (the base village). So it makes sense to do some pet puja while you pray for the train to be on time. (Oh, and btw, direct tickets to Lonavla are available only at Borivali, Andheri, Bandra, Dadar and mostly Virar, subject to the sole discretion and mood of the guy sitting at the counter at 5:00 AM on a Sunday morning. Tickets to Malavali are available from Lonavla) This whole journey takes about 4 hours, with half an hour for breakfast.

Once you’re at Malavli, it’s pretty straight-forward. You just follow the throngs of crowd — don’t get too close though. If you went on a weekday, though, it may be a lot different. There are three paths to the base of the fort. Don’t take the nice tar road or the steps, take the mucky trails and paths that cut through the mountain, ‘coz duh! you’re on a trek. And no, it’s not difficult. Depending on your speed and the crazy photographer in you, you’d take about 2-3 hours till the base. I AM a crazy photographer, so I’d say I took about 3.

From the base of the fort to the top is also pretty easy. There are good stone steps, and the walls have been reinforced with mortar. Lohgad is pretty impressive; there’s a lot of the fortification visible for you to be impressed. The view, of course is awesome. There are tiny doors leading into dark rooms from where a young boy will fetch you nimbu paani, slant windows from the days of the good ole bow and arrow, and a temple/mosque on top (sort of mixed architecture, couldn’t really figure it out).

Lohgad is a huge fort. The top of the fort is almost endless. And there’s a panoramic view of the nearby ranges, the Pavna dam, and the clouds. It is all just hitting me right then, and I’m sort of like the junkie who’s just beginning to appreciate his high, when the trek leaders gathers everyone around, chants some Marathi mumbo-jumbo with an echo effect which ends in a deafening cheer of ‘Shivaji Maharaj ki jai’. Thankfully, Lohgad is a strong dose; the high doesn’t wear off.

By now the plucky 5 who found seats in the general reservation car (minus 1) and a 6th (5th, actually) doctor have separated from the rest group, or rather have lost all sense of direction and the capacity for facial recognition. So we ended up roaming the entire top by ourselves, looking for the legendary Vinchukata. This blogger and another guy are extremely persistent, and in the meanwhile find a pond. This is something you have to do if you chance upon it too: You have to take off the socks and sneakers and sit on the few rocks in the middle of the pond and dip your feet in the refreshing, most coolest water body imaginable. After the labour of climbing, the feeling is orgasmic.

However, Vinchukata is still elusive, and one full round and some higher ground later we finally spot it. To those of you who do this trek when no one else is around, find the highest point on top of the mountain and look in all directions until you see an orange flag somewhere. That’s Vinchukata.

Now, the way to Vinchukata is as much fun as the structure itself. You have to walk along the edge of the mountain slope, to go down and then along (or over, if you prefer)some last remnants of what were once fort walls to reach the tip of a rather curved, longish tail of the hill. It’s futile to explain, really. I have pictures here.

This is an excellent spot for lunch. But since the plucky 5 are slightly worried about the trek leader getting worried, they decide to settle for a few biscuits and head back. Now, you can go back along the mountain slope, but heck, we’re plucky, so we climb a section of the cliff. After some good climbing (with the help of a few locals) and a strategically, yet unceremoniously torn pair of pants later, we’re back to the top of the fort, and on our way down.

We lunch on village home-made zhunka bhakar and besan at the base of the fort. There are other lunching options here. Thankfully our trekking group hasn’t really left us, there are in fact a lot of people still up on the fort. So we’re able to lunch in peace, albeit at 6 PM.

Leaving Lohgad on time is important. Remember, you still have a 4 hours journey back home. We conveniently forgot. So it’s 7:30 PM by the time we’re at Malavli station. Ideally, it should be 5:00 PM. From Malavli we have no idea what train to catch, we are waiting for anything that will stop anywhere in or around Mumabi. The standard process is to purchase tickets to Dadar, which turns out to be pointless because we end up in the general compartment of some Ahmedabad-Bangalore express which seems to run on the Harbour line. (Dadar is on central/western line) The plucky 5 are seriously considering hiring private transport from Malavli to Mumbai. But some of the plucky 5, this blogger in particular, are always hard-pressed for cash. So no matter how exhausted you are, or how claustrophobic that general compartment makes you, you’re willing to stand 4 hours on feet you can’t feel anymore.

The journey home is long: Malavli-Lonavla-Karjat-Kalyan-Vasai-Goregaon, but this blogger is a freaking junkie. Junkies are relentless in their pursuit of high. And they can disregard everything else that comes in between. So at the end of the day, it’s not the crowds, or the garbage or the locals that you remember, it’s all the scenes along the way, all the short-cuts that caused all the delays, all the views from the top, every, ‘Wait, Wait, Sit like that, This is an awesome pic’ and every moment spent sitting at some of the most mind-blowing spots around the fort. And of course, having a plucky bunch of friends makes a whole lot of difference.

Why do you climb mountains?

‘Because they are there!’

Yup, he's still alive

Yup, he's still alive

This was what Reinhold Messner answered when questioned in an interview. For those not in the know, Reinhold Messner is regarded as the greatest mountaineer of all time. He was the first climber to make a solo ascent to Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen and also the first to climb all fourteen eight-thousanders (peaks above 8000 mtrs.) solo. Yeah, he was pretty crazy.

Mountaineering, I believe, requires a bit of insanity. Something’s gotta have fallen off from up there. Messner’s answer was not ridiculous; it was not even rude, or silly. It was the only answer. After all, what purpose is there to mountaineering?

If the extent of your contact with mountains has been watching them through your car window while you were holidaying in Himachal, then you probably don’t appreciate what I’m saying to its full extent. Mountaineering is no joke. It looks great fun and seems exciting — living life on the edge and all — but the only thing on the edge here is your life. Reaching the summit may or may not be possible, but death is always a possibility, with every step. If not death, you face the possibility of becoming disabled temporarily or permanently, physically or mentally, and rest assured, any of these consequences are going to be unpleasant in the least, if not agonizingly painful and dreadful. This is what mountaineers live to do. Does it make sense? At all?

And yet they do it. When Reinhold Messner climbed the Everest without supplemental oxygen, he achieved what was considered physicially, physiologically even mentally impossible for a human being by doctors, medical experts and moountaineers alike. Reinhold Messner chose to do it because he thought it was only fair to climb like that. It may seem mighty unfair to some that he’s still alive.

All this brings us back to my point — Why? What’s so amazing about the possibility of getting buried alive in an avalanche? One might say it’s the thrill. But no, not entirely. Mountaineering is not exactly thrilling. It’s dangerous, and when done at an amateur level it is purely adventurous, but it’s not ‘AXN’ thrilling. You can’t afford to get thrilled on a mountain. It would take up too much energy and oxygen.

There was a time when it was necessary — in order to battle the enemy or to travel to another country. Even that’s not the case anymore.

I think the answer lies somewhere in this statement: “If you stand in front of the mountain and don’t think, there’s no psychological space between you and the mountain. You are the mountain”

I’ve spent some time in the mountains and I know, that it is the only place that can suspend my thoughts. And looking at a picture doesn’t do it. When I stand right there, right in front and behold that spectacle of might and majestic proportions, for some time, even if it’s a moment or two, I stop thinking.  At that moment I’m just being. Being in that moment, in that place, in front of that mountain. And it is the only other thing that can do that to me.

In front of a mountain is the only place that I have felt humbled, and yet felt good about it. There’s this majestical entity in front of you. It’s real, it’s not those lines you would draw with pencils on your drawing book. It’s been created, evolved rather, over millenia. The formation of the Himalaya started 70 million years ago, and it is the youngest mountain range. Can you imagine such a measurement of time? So when you stand, looking at this mountain, you realise that you are looking at something that is 70 million years old. You can’t even comprehend the extent of the time period this would be. And here you are, on this planet for a mere 22 years and you’ve come to climb it. Or have you?

No, the mountaineer hasn’t come to climb the mountain. He’s come to see it. His own smallness is no match for the mountain — but he’s not here to compete. He comes because he relates the might of mountain with the might of his own will. The mountain makes him what he is, it gives him a sense of who he is. This has not been made by him. But yet this is real. Reality untouched by man’s perception, and yet existing. A truth that no one can deny. A truth only he knows, and the mountain.

However, people are so used to creating their fanciful, whimsical and flawed versions of reality that even the realism of the mountains seems lost on them. They watch the mountains through their car windows and play in the snow and they will never know what a mountain really is. All they can do is ask: Why do you climb mountains?