Monday, August 04, 2014

What goes up, must come down - Part IV

On the occassion of my driving up my second 14k feet peak at Mt. Evans in Colorado, I felt it only appropriate to complete the story of my first 14k peak - a story from more than thirteen months ago, but one that remains fresh in memory like it happened yesterday. Part III of that story can be found here, and Parts I and II are linked from Part III, so let me not make this a link-fest. All that said, here goes...
We were still catching out breath in the trekker's shelter at Dronagiri, ready to settle in for a night in a solid structure after two nights in a canvas tent, when our still-active treak leaders informed us that it would probably not be the best idea to sleep in that shelter for the night. We had abandoned our sleeping bags, tents and any other item that could provide us warmth at the base camp. We would freeze through the night if we tried sleeping in our jackets, in that non-insulated building on a concrete floor. Seeing as there was no arguing with that logic, the next natural question then was "Where then?". 
The answer - in the stables of the kindly old man who had lent us the mules for the trip. And thus the 14 of us piled into the 'upper floor' of his house, if it could be called that, in an area of approximately 10 feet by 8 feet, and were greeted by the heavenliest item that we could hope to find after three wet, shivering days in snow - a little wood fire burning merrily in the center of the room. At that moment, we realized what the first man who managed to make fire felt like. Short of jumping into the fire itself, we managed to dry ourselves off, and crept down into the stables, which was basically a hole cut into the mountainside. In another display of optimal packing (and reduced sensitivity to smells) we drifted off while overhearing the locals tell our guides about how the mandir doob gaya. They were of course, talking about this, but we had no idea at the time.

The next day - June 18th dawned bright and sunny, almost in mocking contrast to the misery of the previous three. And we slowly started to piece together the true scale of the destruction that had actually happened over the past three days. While we had been snowed in for 48 hours, the parallel mountain range had been practically wiped out in a series of cloudeburst-flooding-landslide events. This also explained the strange looks we had got from the locals the previous night. "You were the ones that were stuck in the snow?, they asked. "We didn't expect you back". The true nature of what we had survived was just beginning to sink in. 
We didn't start our descent to Jumma as planned on the day, because the landlides had wiped out our original route. So while the guides explored other routed down the mountain, we pottered about with the locals, learning card tricks and eating raw potato with this simply amazing concoction that we ended up calling Dronagiri Masala. After another night of drying out shoes, socks, gloves and hats, as well as generally returning to a state of wholesomeness under the completely inviting hospitality of people who themselves did not have much to begin with, we were told that we were ready to go the next day. There was a path down - it would involves a few points of inching along on a ledge about a foot wide, and a few points of jumping across 'minor' chasms, but there was a path. Of course we were gonna go for it.

Not that we jumped across that. We just weren't photgraphing cliff-hanger moments
Apart from the mild acrobatics, which again we megotiated quite succesfully for a group of novices, the rest of the descent went by without much drama (relatively, of course). The thing with the descent is that it is much harder on the knees, since you are constantly landing on the knees to 'brake' so that you don't go too fast. However, those nuanced fitness reasons were far from our mind as we took all the assistance that gravity provided us to quicken out pace. We reached Ruing, the point of our first stop when we were climbing by mid-day, and took a little breather. We were finally back in reasonable weather and got our first chance to evaluate the condition of mind and body. Satisfied that they were all fine, we continued our half-walk, half-stumble back down to the roaring Dhauliganga, which was certainly fuller and faster now than we remembered it going up.
Bridge. River. Kwai etc. Also you can see 'Jumma', the bus stop
After succesfully negotiating this last bridge and the last climb, we reached Jumma, the point till which we had previously had mechanized transport. However, the landslides had meant that there was now a portion of the road almost exactly halfway to Joshimath, that had been rendered non-motorable, hence leaving us with a three-part journey. The first, piled into the back of an open-top convertible as shown below, then on foot across the parts where the road had been damaged, and back on to our original Maxis to head back to Joshimath. And life. In all, an entirely fun journey. And one not complete without a callout to the Border Roads Organisation, who were already at work clearing up the roadway and waited on their dynamite while we trundled across their work zone, calling for us to 'watch the rocks'. A salute, to the BRO.

Our open-top convertible
The rest of the story is really about getting back to civilization - first at Joshimath and then to Delhi. Once again, the scale of the event that had just happened in the area was evident only at Joshimath, with stranded tourists, rescue helicopters and incessant army movement. We were asked to get down the mountains as quickly as we possible could, and we once again passed the mighty Alakananda on our way down. Only this time it was a lot closer to the buildings than we remembered it.

That, is a river in spate.
Epiphanies are pretty easy to have up in mountains with the deathly silence broken only by the rumblings of a breaking glacier. But they also arrive on a highway alongside a raging river, when you realize for all of humankind's advancement, there really isn't much to do when nature really turns it on. Except watch in awe. And hope.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Bringing Back the Energy

This blog has been a lot of things for me. Originally, and when people were willing to read and write more than 140 characters, this blog witnessed quite a bit of verbiage, including some that were just that - pure verbiage. Then there were moments where I wrote Fiction, with this one apparently the favourite of the 19 or so people that read it (and mine as well). And then there's the 'Dear Diary' type posts about things that happened in my life and that I captured for posterity because, well, I think they are completely worth it. Like my trek stories, though that is still a little incomplete (really have to get to Part IV to round it off!).

Outside of all those though, were the posts that were about things that I felt extremely strongly about. These were the ones that required no work to be honest, with the words just tumbling out on their own without much mental prodding from my hippocampus to my fingers. In my young and restless days, these were issues that I felt strongly about, but felt helpless to do anything about. Now that I'm old enough, knowledgeable enough and with potential access to decision-makers in multiple fields, I wonder if that could change in any way.
So what has becoming older and wiser done? Well, I now know that I cannot save the world by doing everything at once. I probably cannot even save the world through doing one single thing (though Google and Facebook offer pretty strong evidence against that). However, based on my career experience, and what I hope to learn over my time in school, I do know which of the world's primary needs (and problems) I want to impact - Energy.
There is an oft-quoted equation in Sustainability Theory, known as the IPAT. In short, it states that the environmental impact of anything is proportional to the population and affluence, and ideally, inversely proportional to technological advances (in the field). There is no industry where this is more intuitively understood than energy. More people need more energy (as evidenced by India and the developing world), more affluence demands more energy (as evidenced by most of the developed world) and technological advances, especially recently, are all hoping to drive down this energy use. Right now though, the factors pushing the global energy needs higher is clearly winning. Of course, Energy has traditionally been dominated by Oil&Gas. But the Energy ideas that have the potential to become the next big thing are mainly driven by alternate energy and cleantech solutions. You can pick your reason as to why, but suffice to say there's enough reasons to work on 'alternatives', and from what I have seen so far, quite a few people agree. 
Over my past few months at Kellogg, I have had the opportunity to interact with companies in the field that have gone public (SunEdison), companies that were bought out (SoCore) and a start-up that is just... well, starting up (SiNode systems). The common theme among everyone is the capital-intensive nature of the industry. Energy companies take time to grow, to reach scale, to break even and are operationally expensive even after that. Most of their pressing problems are in the financing - reconciling the short-term focus of most returns-driven investments with the longer term timelines that is just intrinsic to the industry. There are multiple ways by which companies in the field are trying to solve this issue, but the question itself remains. And that, I think, is the fascinating problem that I want to take a shot at.

And hopefully, through some incredibly convoluted Butterfly Effect, there will eventually be fewer people at a signal in India who haven't had their first meal till 6 PM. Because after all, isn't that what we are all trying to solve?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

What goes up, must come down - Part III

This is Part III of the account of our trek up the Himalayas right in the middle of the torrential rains that hit Uttarakhand in June. Please find Part I here and Part II here.

We ravenously devoured our dinners in record time on the night that we reached the Base Camp at 14,500 feet. It had already darkened and started steadily drizzling by the time we were all done with our usual communal dinner in the kitchen tent. Obviously, there was going to be no acclimatization walk on this night - climbing any higher would have meant summiting a peak and that was not a feat to be attempted in cold, wet and zero visibility conditions. By novices. Besides the day's climb had really taken it out of all of us so there was no problem falling asleep inside our tightly stretched, green plastic tents.
Day 5, June 16th, dawned bright and sunny... not. We woke up to bed tea and a heavy knocking sound beating against our plastic tents. Our initial fears of being attacked by a mountain lion were soon dispelled as we saw the reliable silhouette of Kunwar Singh moving around our tents scraping off something solid from its sides. A careful peek outside the tents revealed whiteness all round. It had snowed through most of the night, and now the snow was weighing our poor little plastic tents down. And Kunwar was gamely walking about from tent to tent tapping the snow off them as well as from the the huge, canvas kitchen tent. He kept it up for about an hour, before poking his head into our tent and smilingly announcing, "Tent tootne wala hai" (the tent is about to collapse).

For a bunch that had been lying around all somnolent till that point, watching the snow forming clear dark patches on the tent as it fell incessantly, that statement galvanized everyone into action as if the Chinese were coming (though even they wouldn't have, not in that weather). Within exactly seven minutes, everyone was all dressed up in four layers of our coldest gear, as well as neatly packed up with our backpacks and all. And then we were all shepherded into the sole surviving kitchen tent, to begin what would end up becoming fifteen people, three stoves, two kerosene cans, steadily dwindling rations of potatoes, eggs and rice, fifteen backpacks and one pack of playing cards all huddled together through 30 straight hours of snow. This was Survivor, Live.

Survivor Tent. Also, only surviving tent.
This was to be the day when, according to plan, we were supposed to summit the ridge that would take us above the Bagini glacier, from where we would be able to see our spell-binding views of the surrounding peaks including Changabang, Trishuli and Rishi Parbat. As it happened, all we did was to play the most poker I have ever played in one long stretch, interspersed by the occasional lifting of the flap to check that it was still snowing like there was no tomorrow. It almost always was. The minor inconvenience of not being able to get to the summit was very quickly replaced by a slightly more major inconvenience. We shall call that inconvenient act 'Singing in the Rain'. Except it was of course, in the snow.

'Singing' in the snow. No, it didn't freeze as it came out.
To be fair, we didn't really notice the twelve hours that we spent boxed up in a 20 feet by 6 feet space. There was enough intellectual discussion on the nuanced differences and merits / demerits of poker and teen patti to occupy everyone's mental space. Every three hours there was some type of meal or beverage to occupy the culinary space. There was not really much physical space to begin with. And the occasional discharge of kerosene fumes occupied the rest of the... well, space. Finally, just as the poker was beginning to drag just a little bit towards late evening, a miracle. The snow stopped! That was it, everyone's cue to get out (with the greatest trepidation though, your faith in the weather takes a bit of a hit when it's not gone your way for 24 hours) and finally see what we had climbed all this way up for. We weren't disappointed.

That's it, the glacier. In all its glory.
We poked around outside in the snow for another twenty minutes, making the most of the little snow-free window we were having and trying to get the blood flowing again in our legs. The temperature, as informed by our trek leader's very handy thermometer-altimeter-but-not-GPS device was apparently 0.5 degrees C. In the peak of summer. This is where there would be a climate change reference if this was the New York Times. Unfortunately it's not, it's just a poor, little barely-hundred-readers blog, so we'll let that be.

After our half an hour of freedom, we made our way back into the tent just as it started snowing again. Given this was our 'summit' day, we were still on schedule as per the original plan, except that we had just not summited. So after another round of potato and boiled egg, or dal and roti, or some such combination of all of these (food was basically just to help the body maintain the 25 degree temperature differential at this point. We weren't exactly being all Masterchef on our chef), we all gathered around to hear what the plan was. It was still snowing like there was no tomorrow, and would snow like there was no day after tomorrow as well. So were we still going to descend in those conditions?

The answer was Yes. For two simple reasons. Firstly, you don't just sit around at 14,500 feet in 2 feet of snow, waiting for things to happen. Secondly, we were running out of kerosene. Which meant no heat. So it was decided, and we settled in for the night in our tight fifteen-in-one-tent formation again. As expected, it snowed all night, again. Adding to the mild pitter-patter of the snow was the occasional much-louder-than-pitter-patter sound of parts of the glacier breaking away and falling off. When you're on top of a mountainside in two feet of snow, and there are other parts of the mountain breaking and falling away with a great big rumble every half an hour, it gives you perspective in life (this is the moment in movies when John Williams and the London Symphony will be in full flow). It really does. We survived the night of course because we were on stable camping ground, but speaking for myself, there wasn't much sleeping happening.

We got up the next morning and checked to make sure that the weather was still horrid. It was. So this was it. We were going to take on the snow and the mountain together, with a little bit of ice-cold river crossing thrown in just in case it was going to be too easy. The target was Dronagiri, though there was also a clearly-much-less-preferable option of going to another village in case the river was too cold / fast / full to cross. We set out fairly late in the morning for a 'normal' trek day, surrounded by white. And of course, promptly got lost (well, a little bit). "Yahaan raastha hi nahin dikh raha".

"In 400 feet, turn... um... sorry guys, you're on your own"

                                 *                                           *                                          *                                     *
After dealing with snow-weighted bags and slight confusion of paths on our descent, we finally had one thing go our way when we reached The River again. We were approaching it from upstream this time, so we could tell exactly where the broader parts were, where it was flowing faster and other such life-saving details from the mountainside that we were descending. It was a no-brainer  to not remove our shoes this time - they had seen 4 hours of snow already, how much wetter could they get? Besides, we were sure none of our toes would survive that rock bed again. Better wet than bruised was the decision. Such was our concern with The River that the idea of rappelling across at its narrowest point was also considered at one point. But the leadership took the executive decision that it is better to keep novices on their feet than suspending them mid-air, and set out to chart the shallowest, slowest-flowing path across. This was not necessarily the shortest route across, but that's what you learn about Himalayan rivers - speed is their real danger, not volume.

It felt like everyone was a lot more, well, assured during The Crossing this time. Maybe because the river was now a familiar foe, maybe because we had our shoes on, or maybe because we had just trudged through four hours of snow so heck, what is a little river. We still struggled with our footing, lost our feet to the cold, and held on to each other for dear life, but the mood was almost celebratory. A round of heart-felt applause followed once we all completed the crossing, because it just felt like that was the last big test. Next stop would be civilization.

Civilization. Coming Up.
It wasn't quite a walk in the park from there on though (all these idioms start to make sense now. Try walking in the bloody mountains!). We were supposed to have lunch once we victoriously completed the crossing, but we all ended up choosing shelter over food and continued to plod along. Since we had crossed the river fairly upstream from where we had crossed it on the onward journey, there were now a few more hills to traverse along the way on the other side. But hey, what's a few more hills when there's the promise of covered space and no snow coming. It was still steadily drizzling through all of this, and we once again started to battle fading daylight (a la Michale Clarke in the third Ashes test. Apologies for the very-involved heavy cricketing reference). But finally, just as the last wisps of sunlight were fading away, we crested our last hill of the day and there it was, in all its forty-house-glory. Dronagiri. We practically rolled downhill towards the little trekker's shack and collapsed against the walls, bags and everything. We were trying to catch our breath, but also generating significant amounts of inadvertent groaning and other suspicious noises.

But at least we had made it. We were in shelter, we didn't have to walk anymore and the bag was off our backs. Tomorrow's problems could wait... little did we know.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

What goes up, must come down - Part II

This is Part II of the account of our trek up the Himalays right in the middle of the torrential rains that hit Uttarakhand in June. Part I can be found here.
Kunwar Singh scanned the snow-covered landscape as the ten of us stood waiting in a single file anxiously behind him. This was the first time he seemed momentarily unsure of his bearings, and not without reason. The landscape was such that a mountain goat wouldn't know where to go. The continuously falling snow was not helping either.

A fairly accurate representation of what we were faced with
Suddenly he stopped craning his neck, turned to us, smiled and nodded towards a ridge to our left. 

"Pathar dikh gaya"

He was pointing to a group of stones neatly arranged on top of each other, still strongly sticking up above the two feet of snow. The top-most stone was clearly pointed, placed there to show direction. The famed cairns, used and assiduously maintained by the mountain-folk for a situation just like this, would now lead us home. We quickly backtracked the little distance that we had gone down the wrong way, and trekked up towards the cairn.  From then on every sighting of the next set of stacked stones was further validation that we were on the right track towards dryness, civilization and all that good stuff. Remember that little game called Seven Stones that we played as a kid? That game will never be the same again. 

Weighed down by almost three extra kgs of wetness, we trudged along with the overall objectives of losing altitude and getting below the snow line, which seemed to have gone all the way down to almost 12, 000 feet. The path was wet and slippery, but at least we were not fighting gravity anymore so the physical effort was restricted to the carrying of our backpack. Half-walking, half-sliding down our increasingly more visible path, we first cleared the snow line, and then finally saw a familiar sight that we all remembered very well from our onward journey. 

The river.
                                                                    *                             *                              *

We woke up to wet grass and our first instance of bed tea (i.e tea before teeth-brushing) in the Ruing meadows on Day 3. The night's sleep had been sporadic - the rain had been clearly audible on the tightly stretched covers of our tents all through the night, and any impact sounds quite loud inside an enclosure of four feet by six feet. Nonetheless, everyone set off bright and chirpy on a glorious, sunny day towards our next destination - Dronagiri.

The path from Ruing to Dronagiri was for the most part 'standard trekking fair'. The single-person path wound its way around mountains while gaining altitude very gently. Basically (because every sentence begins with a basically), it was going to be like batting through overs 20-35 in an ODI game - keep the scoreboard ticking and don't do anything silly. There was apparently enough stamina and sensibility in the group to do just that, and we reached the lone proceed-with-caution part of this leg in good time. This part was known as The Landslide.

The Landslide - A very WYSIWYG name
The deal with the landslide, if you haven't already guessed, was that there was a huge landslide at some point in time. Unfortunately this landslide occurred right across the path to Dronagiri, which is of course, annoying. Therefore what does one do? Well, one walks right across the landslide by the same path, of course, because it would take far too long to go around the mountain. So that's just what we did, slipping and sliding across mostly loose rocks on a thirty-degree incline for the same reason that the chicken crossed the road. To get to the other side. Very impressively for all of us, we made it again with the minimum of fuss.

On the other side, in all its mountain-enclosed glory, was the village of Dronagiri. Legend has it that those mountains were the remnants of the mountain that Lord Hanuman took to Lanka during the Ramayana. The medicinal value of our surroundings, coupled with the fact that we got permission to stay in the solid structure that had been built on the outskirts of the village for trekkers, had us hoping that we would get some good sleep for that night. That and the fact that we had done as much physical work in a day as we would have in a whole week of our collective lives meant that all we had to ensure was that we climb high before sleeping low so that the altitude issue was taken care of. So we sauntered up with the mules into the surrounding mountains before retiring for the night.

Chilling with the mules
The night at Dronagiri was a wet and thunderous one as well, but possibly because we were inside a steel and concrete structure this time, everyone seemed to have got a reasonably solid night's sleep. This was important, because we had to start quite early on that cold, misty Day 4 morning to get to The River. We were politely informed by our trek leader that the later it got in the day, the more the snow melted and the more the river rose. Needless to say, there would be no bridge across this river. So, if we could all please wake up early so that we were not swept away by ice-cold water. Fair enough. Heading off 'early' at 8AM (after planning for a 7AM start), we still made it on the scheduled time of 10AM at the river. Mostly because Geology 101 was in our favour and we had to walk downhill to the valley floor to get to the river. Along the way, we also had some practice streams to cross, just to check our footing, capacity to bear cold and overall familiarity with gushing, freezing water.

About 1/10th the size of The River which was coming up.
The River, when we finally got to it, appeared truly massive for sure, but not full by any stretch of imagination. It was flowing along in split-up streams, with patches of rock like above in between to take a break during The Crossing. It was suggested that we go barefoot across the river, to avoid plodding along in damp shoes for the next six hours. This would normally be a great idea and everything, except that this river was at approximately minus 100 degrees temperature and it didn't have a sand bed. It had a stone bed. On the plus side, there would be no illegal sand quarrying on this river.

No sand here, no sir.
 As soon as we stepped into the river, we lost our toes. Not literally, but they were definitely not under any neural control of our respective legs, such was the cold. We formed a human chain and were 'helping' each other across the river, but mostly we were hanging on to each other for dear life. Slipping and falling on one's arse was simply not an option, the river was not kind to human contact of any form. We moved from rock island to rock island, wading through knee-deep water and feeling blindly for the next stepping stone on the riverbed with our non-responsive toes. The crossing took a solid hour before we finally reached the other bank, where we all settled down for a session of Kill-Bill style 'Wiggle your left toe' to try and recover our toes. It was largely unsuccesful.

Wiggling our left toes
Post-river, our route started climbing straight up to the Bagini glacier. This was the longest and steepest day by far, with an altitude gain of 1000 meters on the day and a total distance of 12 km. The path took us straight up the Himalayas with mighty, snow-covered ranges revealing themselves every time we crested each consecutive mountain. As the day wore on, we had to start battling two factors - the fatigue and the impending darkness. The physical effort was starting to show on all of us and the impact of the river on the toes was not helping. Every consecutive ascent we came up against took progressively longer for us to cross, and daylight was rapidly fading. As is evidenced by the lack of photographic evidence for this section, we weren't really stopping and enjoying the view at this point. The situation wasn't helped by the ominous dark clouds that were increasing in the skies with every step. We finally came upon a particularly steep ascent, which we were informed would be our last one before we would reach our camping spot for the night.

With our last remaining reserves of will (which was all that was keeping us going, the energy had long since ebbed away), we crested this final ascent to emerge on to our Base Camp for the night at 14,500 feet. We had just half-Everested, if that was any achievement. It was suitably cold for the height, and there were multiple snow-covered peaks all within literally touching distance now, rising majestically to our left. To our right was the glacier - a stream of ice and rock just sitting there unmoving, except occasionally when a large piece decided it had done enough handing about and just broke off. It was a sight to behold, as we were to find out later in daylight, but we did not have the time to behold it just then. For just as we reached the meadow hoping for some rest, it started raining.

This was the night of June 15th.