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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)