The MSc High Altitude Techniques Tour

Published in the WII Newsletter in 1993 or early 1994 (Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun)

In Kedarnath, October 1993, from left to right: Sridhar, Madhu, Kavita, Advait, Rohan, Suhel, and Sara.

“We at W. I. I.” I curse, “are nothing but a bunch of overgrown children playing at Cowboys and Indians. I mean, is this any place to be? The temperatures are so low, I am sure any decent thermometer would freeze over, my cerebrospinal fluid has icebergs that would sink a Titanic floating about in it, and my teeth have started a healthy erosion process from all the chattering.”

“Shh…” says Advait, while I pause to take a breath, “Shh… You won’t get words like that past any subeditor.”

We are on our way up Rudranath towards the end of an enlightening, enriching, exhausting trip to the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary as part of the M. Sc. high altitude techniques tour. The air is rare here, so my tirade is rendered much less effective by my constant need to stop for breath.

My lungs are full again. “When we first got here, it was fine.” I continue, “Mandal and its surroundings were breathtakingly beautiful, with landscapes that would need the brushstrokes of a Monet to describe them, sunsets that would require the lyrical abilities of a Naidu to capture, bird songs that would send Vaughn Williams into a musical compositional frenzy. The butterflies on the wing, the Strobilanthes in bloom, the mysterious fern at our feet and the pine cones on the trees, all these were stunning in their beauty, don’t you think?”

“Hmm”, says Advait in his typical loquacious manner.

And as we run down the steep slope of Rudranath, Advait asks Kavita: “Are there red and yellow spots on your jeans?”

“No.”

“Then I must be giddy”, says Advait.

High altitude sickness has struck, and while we watch the monal pheasant through the spotting scope, wonderfully majestic, a poem in colour, manoeuvering the rocks on the far slope, Advait is busy with his reverse peristaltic manoeuvres in the far corner of the hut.

“The food tastes better the second time around”, he quips between movements.

“Just shut up and throw up”, says Madhu, who is conducting the next movement.

“Quiet!” says Madhu in a loud whisper, his eyes blazing a rebuke. All around the sounds of night, in soft complacency, hum their serenades, and I shut up, swallowing the joyful hilarity that provoked my unfortunate outburst.

We are looking for flying squirrel, and we obediently follow with our eyes the dull beam of light from Madhu’s torch. Shapes leap out, not from the trees, but from our minds, but we feel safe; with Madhu in charge, the night could do its worst.

Madhu, the Protector.

Yet back in the hut, in the grainy glow of candlelight, we see him again, pulling Kavita‘s leg, ribbing her with mindless puns and childlike abandon.

Madhu, the Boychild.

Kavita’s knee is bad but she plods on with single-minded determination. “A stubborn mule she has to be” I think, “to keep her calm with us rowdies.” Nothing fazes her, no length of road and no amount of ribbing will get her down.

“You are just one of the guys” I tell her. She winces as I whack her squarely on the shoulders. “It’s difficult to treat you as the unequal that you are.”

But we try. By God, we certainly try.

“Come on, come on” says Sathyakumar who is goading us on our way down to Mandal, “we have to reach before sundown.”

“This is my kingdom” says Sathyakumar as he waves his hand with regal flourish across the postcard scenes that stretch before us. Trishul in the distance, with the red of the sunset on its peaks, the pine forests below us, the craggy rockslopes, the pika, the raspberries clinging to the rockface, the musk deer farm, the leopard on the street, the call of the Khaleej, the stone huts of Chopta, the windswept alpine meadows and the gritty little temples, all this he encompassed with the sweep of his hand and: “This… this is my kingdom. I call and it responds.”

“Damn the cold”, says Sara softly, for Sara very rarely says anything very loudly. He swears that he will never work in any area where the temperatures are not nicely tropical and sweaty. And though he loathes the cold with a silent vehemence, he does better than most of us in facing it, almost sneering it in the face as he does.

Sara has the poetic eye of an artist, for he sees hidden symmetry where others don’t, beauty in a certain play of light, music in a certain droop of the leaf. It is a magical, faery and exciting world, the world that is Sara’s lens.

“It was not very cold that night—just touching the –5 °C mark.” Dr Chundawat, sitting on the cold, stone quadrangle outside the Rudranath huts, is at his best today. The exceptional sunset, the rise of the stars in the moonless sky, the milky way, bright and dreamy as it lazes through the deep blue of the night, the smell of potatoes being cooked by Jabbar inside the hut and the soft drift of voices from within, all conspire to bring out the storyteller in him, and tales of Ladakh flow easily, in the curious anecdotal style that is his alone.

And in a style very much his own, Sridhar recounts the story of the Amazon researcher, and his experience with the rainforest flies. Satyakumar will spend the whole night wondering about it.

Sridhar is like that. He speaks, his nostrils flare, and he leaves you wondering.

The brook burbled and sang to us, inviting and cold. I resisted, the coward in me for once providing me with wise caution. Sridhar is more impetuous, but needs company to give it action.

“Let’s”, he pleads, “It won’t be all that cold.”

Suhel looks on with a little smile, refusing to be drawn into the pleading game. “Not me” he gestures.

Sridhar and I sit in cowardly camaraderie for an hour, with our feet in the flowing ice of the rivulet without further attempting to explore the limits of our bodies’ endurance.

Suhel stands alone against the railing at Mandal, staring out at the sky. We leave today, and I take my last looks, with the elated sadness that always grows within me at the end of a trip.

But Suhel has none of that sentimentality, none of those nonsense emotions that make man weak and frail. He is stoic, binoculars and notes in meticulous shorthand.

I watch him now as I dump my dirty socks into the rucksack, staring almost wistfully at the sky, drinking in the Mandal morning air. Later, in the bus, as we race back through the narrow mountain roads to Dehradun, he will play a jaunty, sad, “Oh Susanna” on his harmonica.

With the sardonic half-smile that is his trademark arranged on his face, he turns to me to make some soft, cynical comment.

“You’re fooling no one laddie” I say to myself, “You’re fooling no one.”

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