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The mountain Singhs

They lead us beyond yonder but seldom find their way into our acknowledgments or albums, status updates and shares.

The best mountaineer is not one who climbs the highest mountain

A couple of days in the jungle and I was good to snore my way through grunts and growls, squeals and shrieks. But this was strange, unheard till then, and it woke me up. Somebody was euphonically lilting his way through the Chalisa. At daybreak hanging around the kitchen tent for tea I enquired about the Hanuman bhakt.

“It’s Mohan ji the Everester.” Chorused the camp boys.

Mohan Singh Gunjial had joined us only on the second day of our trek to Kuari Pass for he lived, well, two days into the trek: in a clearing parted by a crystal water creek hemmed in by a copse, the deep wooded massifs just a stone-throw away. By then the apotheosis to ‘Mohan ji the Everester’ had reached such a crescendo that I was expecting a carabiner-clad Conan.

Mohan Singh Gunjial

Mohan Singh Gunjial

“Is an ascender needed for the Pangarchulla?”

“You should ask Mohan ji, he is an Everester you know.”

“How about crampons? Heard the verglas there can be quite tricky.”

“Not if you start early…but still confer with Mohan ji.”

The reed-thin, balding, brown man was everything I didn’t expect. Instead of swagger there was stoop, in place of billowing biceps there were limbs that worked like pistons, no flash just glint – in the eyes, and a bravado that stemmed not from the legend of Mohan ji but from the monkey god. And loquacious he would get only if you really prodded him and/or you were serious about trekking and eager to take it to the next level. I told him about my treks in Tibet and my earnest desire to highpoint a few this side of the Himalayas including the Nun.

“I have been up the Nun.” He replied. “A few times.” He made it sound like my forays to the INA Market for turkey during Thanksgiving.

Once he was on his way up the more dangerous north face of the peak with an American team when the weather got rough and they took shelter under an overhanging. One of the team members slipped from the belay and plunged to his death. Now deaths are commonplace in this pursuit but what happened next was mindboggling. One of the climbers who saw the accident lost his mind and attempted suicide repeatedly by jumping after his dead teammate. The expedition had to be called off and Mohan skied down the rest of the peak carrying the unhinged mountaineer, bound, fireman style.

Storytelling sessions

Storytelling sessions

More than the publicity or the incipient awards that follow such acts of valour it is the joy of having saved a life which matters more to these mountain souls. Money doesn’t count in their scheme of things but the warm afterglow of doing the right thing. The thing right. While engaged in a rescue operation around the Lahaul area during the epic avalanche that washed away entire villages and killed over 250 people, Mohan found some caches filled with gold bars and currency notes. Without thinking twice, he informed the Himachal state police of the discovery. There were even intact bottles of premium, imported liquor.

“Well, I might have done a few things differently there,” I chirped in.

The daring and escapades would have been enough to strain any domestic bliss but it helped that his wife was not aware of what he did for a living: a long-haired Mohan was ITBP’s go-to man for any high risk, high altitude derring-do. When she came to know of it, it was too late: “We had all our children by then,” even the usually collected Mohan couldn’t help but chortle here. It doesn’t bother him that none of his four children followed his path (“It’s their life, they decide”) but he gets moist-eyed when he speaks about his protégés Roy and Dorje who died in separate accidents on the mountains. Mohan himself has retired from active climbing and devotes his time to coaxing and cajoling, at times pushing even, novitiates like me up the mountain. Does he miss the adrenaline? The adulation? The real action?

“You don’t become the best mountaineer because you have climbed the highest mountain.” He replied. “But you also have to bring others closer to the mountains, in every way.”

I didn’t have to look very hard or far to see what he meant. We sat at the end of the Kuari Trail. Mountains fells over each other in all directions around us, beckoning us.

The khichadi keeps them going

Among the younger lot the stories are not only outnumbered but overpowered too by their dreams. Anecdotes bandied about over bonfires are not as much from yesterday as from today. They open up to a smile; a simple gesture like lending a hand in fetching water from the nearby stream and they lay their lives bare for you. Conversations are marked by a refreshing ebullience: a no-holds-barred parade of opinions and observations. Some are affable to a fault. If you could detect a tinge of timidity in Mohan when facing the camera, these lads were a mile away from bashful and did anything to dude up; many had even literally raised the selfie bar – the White Needle and Kamet and Nun jostled behind them.

“I’ll look better with a cap,” Bhuwan Singh said whipping mine off when I asked him to pose for a picture. It didn’t really matter – to him – that my sunburnt nose screamed bloody murder at the mere thought of light. Though Bhuwan had begun his trekking career when he was 17 years old and had now a decade behind him amongst the mountains, he preferred to share his expectations more than experience. Expectation from life, from himself and from other trekkers.

Bhuwan Singh

Bhuwan Singh

“These mountains belong to us but it is the foreigners who take better care than us.” He quickly salvages the condemnation with: “The Indian trekker has to be better sensitised on the need to dispose waste carefully, to trek responsibly.” Bhuwan, a little improbably perhaps, links this cavalier attitude to fitness levels. “For a huffing and puffing trekker chucking away a plastic wrap is easier than tucking it into his pocket, right?” More a statement than question. I am tempted to agree. Heck. I had seen it happen. “Indians should prepare more before a trek, at least two months of running and stamina exercises.”

“And focus,” he continues without must instigation “the foreigner is so focussed on completing the trek that he doesn’t feel the exhaustion. I have led many Indians on treks where members kept disappearing into camps en route. We would collect them on our way back.” Heck again. According to Bhuwan, among Indians, it is the Bengalis who are most focussed, energetic, even. The reason he attributes to their everyday, every time meal of rice-dal khichadi while on the trail.

“They are like mules, they don’t know their own strength and sometimes go even beyond where the trail actually ends. Maybe it’s also because they don’t hire guides.” He said. I waited for him to laugh before I did but he didn’t.

“Show me the picture you have taken. Do I look good in the hat?” He asked, starting to walk towards me.

I don’t want it someday…

Virendra Singh

Virendra Singh

A trekker coming from Delhi who was supposed to reach Haridwar Junction at 7AM was arriving at 5AM and since he was accompanied by his newly married wife he didn’t want to hang around the railway station for two hours. Virendra Singh shouldered the phone while he sorted the predicament while with his free hands he polished trekking poles left muddied by the group he dropped off at Rishikesh Junction that morning. Starting work as a ‘just guide’ with an outdoor adventure company, his good command over English – which he picked through diligent practice with trekkers while on trail – quickly saw him being given additional responsibilities of picking up clients who arrived at railway or bus stations. Being the first personal interface between the customer and the company, his raffish charm held him in good stead. Though not much of a jump financially, Vir had made a status leap: from the mountains paths to the city roads, straddling in a way both hill and file. Many other Singhs aspired to be like him.

Even today – after about a decade on the job – he doesn’t baulk at playing acolyte to a more senior, accomplished trekking guide if he thinks he can learn something. It could be a new route, new botanical names or even better English. In fact Vir so loves his job he says that he doesn’t remember wanting to do anything other than lead a life of adventure. Not just trekking but he also leads river rafting groups and mountaineering expeditions. Quite a happening schedule, I point out. But no, Vir wants more: he wants to learn scuba diving and spelunking and paragliding and… just about everything there is, before he grows old, that is.

“But one day you will grow old.” I pointed out a bit philosophically this time. “And then?”

“Then I will get married.”

Chain Singh

Chain Singh

The Himalayan keeda: “This is the Himalayan Keeda,” said Chain Singh who was my guide for the Har Ki Doon Trek his hand raised, the thumb and index fingers a few inches apart. “It has entered your stomach now but you don’t feel it. Once you reach Delhi, it will start gnawing from inside. Whatever you do, you will not be able to rid of it. Nothing will kill it. You can only placate it so that it doesn’t swallow you up. And for that you have to keep coming back to the Himalayas.”

4 Comments »

  • Nisha said:

    Such harsh realities! Of saying that foreigners take better care than Indians.

    We Indians need to be responsible.

    And travel is about stories. Isn’t it? 🙂

    • Admin said:

      Largely yes… we are quite cavalier when it comes to taking care of our own backyard. And such a glorious one we have! And you are right here: Travel IS indeed about the stories (too!) 🙂

  • matheikal said:

    Singhs are always Himalayan.
    Nice write up. Intriguing insights.

    • Admin said:

      Yeah…the sons of the altitude soil. Thank you Tomichan.

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