The note in the autographed page simply read “To Anindo with love”, and was signed, “Bear”.
I managed to jump the queue of nearly 70 people lining up to meet him at the IBM conference on that summers’ day in St. Louis, Missouri. He was taller than I had imagined him, and lean! The shy smile on his face betrayed his discomfort of getting attention from so many hundreds of people thronging at the conference to hear him speak. He was a new celebrity those days in 2005 after the success of his new adventure show, “Man vs. Wild”, on Discovery Channel! Bear Grylls’ book “The Kid Who Climbed Everest” was my first book on mountain literature, and more specifically, Himalayan literature, and I was hooked!
The owner of the conference bookstore was my customer and he made sure that not only would I be at the head of the queue to get my book signed, I would also get a free copy of the book. I was thrilled!! I did not realise then what impact Bear Grylls would have in getting me started on my own Himalayan adventures.
It was only two years later that I finally had the time to read the book. I was back in India in 2007, planning my next career move and really excited at the opportunity of returning to my beloved Himalayas. My parents had gotten me hooked to the mountains after spending at least one vacation there every year during my school and college days. It was the Himalayas I missed the most when I moved to the US and I would look at images on the Internet and read articles on Himalayan travel from various magazines like Outdoors during my business trips. I would regularly pick up National Geographic magazines at every opportunity from Hudson News hoping that I would get to read a new article on the Himalayas each time.
My good friend, Karen Allanson, gifted me my second book on Himalayan adventure, “In the Himalayas: Journeys Through Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan” by Jeremy Bernstein. I was driven to read this book even before the book by Bear because it talked about a land, its people and culture that time had forgotten. So many tourists travel to the Himalayas to look at its beauty, but most of them completely miss out on the culture and thriving communities of the land, whose people are so hospitable and welcoming, that they do everything to share their lives to assist others who merely want to travel through.
And then I read the third book on the Himalayas that would change me forever, would turn my love for the Himalayas into an obsession. I bought a copy of “Nanda Devi, A Journey to the Last Sanctuary”. In it I read about an author’s passion for a mountain, writing a book about her beauty, what drove him to give up everything he had to fulfill a life’s dream of seeing this mountain, of journeying across continents, inhospitable terrain, forbidding tropical rainforests, navigating impenetrable mountain rivers, just for that one chance to gaze up at a mountain that redefined beauty. Hugh Thomson’s account of his journey to the last sanctuary, the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, fulfilled me like no book had ever done before. I read it in three days, and then re-read it again, and again.
What Hugh Thomson did was to set me on a journey of identifying the myth around each mountain, what the people felt about them, the unique local cultural ecosystem that evolved around each peak, so gigantic in size that they developed their own unique story. The travels through the terrifying Karakorams, a mountain range different from the Himalayas, whose people are more closely related to the Persians and the Greeks than to the Tibetans. Ed Viesturs’ death-defying conquest of K2, perhaps the second most deadly mountain in the world to climb, and the world's second highest peak after Everest. He wrote the brilliant book on mountaineering, “K2-Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain”, cataloging the complexity of climbing a Himalayan peak. The enormous amount of time of up to six months, sometimes, that one has to spend camped at the base camp to acclimatize. The terrible loss that one feels when a colleague dies on the mountain and the pain felt when mountaineers often have to climb over frozen dead bodies of former climbers who perished in their attempts.
However, while Ed Viesturs, as a passionate mountaineer, often recollects his experiences of seeing death a bit mechanically due to his drive for the conquest of a mountain, (and, to be fair, he had seen too much of it) it is Bear Grylls’ accounts as an adventurer and an amateur climber that really hit the chilling reality home. When Bear successfully climbed Everest he was one of the youngest persons at the time to climb the world’s highest mountain. He writes, just a few steps away from the top, deep in the zone of death....
“I knew exactly where I would see him, I had read the accounts of Rob’s tragic death up here many times. They proved right. Slumped and half hidden by the passing of two years, his frozen body sat in its immortal grave. Since that final appeal from his wife over the radio, where Rob had tried with all his being to stand up and climb these ten feet over the summit, he had sat here. Time up here stands still. The cold ensures this…….He had died where he now sat, only ten feet to my left……I knew that we would see various corpses up here, yet somehow nothing had prepared me for the sight.”
The tragedy on that fateful day in 1996 on Mt. Everest when one of the most experienced and brilliant mountaineers, the New Zealander, Rob Hall, died on Everest along with another guide and a couple of clients, is beautifully chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s book, “Into Thin Air”, which I read in 2011. Everest does not spare even the most experienced! Rob Hall had successfully summited Everest 5 times and he died on his sixth attempt on the world’s highest mountain. Rob faced a lot of criticism for trying to commercialize Everest expeditions, making a lot of money in return, but the mountain ultimately won under tragic circumstances. That fateful night, shortly after midnight on May 10, 1996, some 33 climbers were attempting to summit and 15 died on the mountain, including Hall and fellow guide, Scott Fischer.
I turned my attention to Annapurna, the world’s tenth highest mountain and, arguably its deadliest. One in three people die attempting to climb her, even today. Annapurna, located in West Nepal, was the first 8000-meter peak to be conquered by a French team led by Maurice Herzog in 1952. The climb was controversial as Herzog made an attempt to glorify it in his famous book, “Annapurna-The First Conquest of an 8000-Metre Peak”, as a magnificent example of French heroism and teamwork against all odds thrown at them by nature. But it hid deep dissent within the team, with accusations of malicious attempts to legally stifle internal strife coming from other members in his team like Louis Lachenal, Lionel Terray and Gaston Rebuffat. The book itself makes for hard reading, as it’s a translation from French, but David Roberts’ book “True Summit-What Really Happened on the Legendary Ascent of Annapurna”, gives a superb account of what truly transpired, not just during the climb, but also during the planning stages in France, and the aftermath when the climbers returned to a hero’s welcome to a country decimated by the war and in desperate need of rebuilding their national pride.
I continue to read about the Himalayas. Percival Landon’s “Lhasa”, cataloging Sir Francis Younghusband’s pioneering exploratory journey of discovery across the remote and forbidden Tibetan plateau, sits on my bookshelf. The accounts are often about British and European supremacy and thoroughly racist, but very revealing in how Tibetan culture was perceived by the Colonials. What’s also revealing is how much influence the Chinese had on Tibet, often controlling the Dalai Lama, movement of goods and services into the region, as well as setting up of local commerce. Chinese “controllers” were everywhere in Tibet in the early 19th century, limiting the movement of Younghusband’s convoy across the desolate plateau. The Tibetans themselves were unwelcoming of the British and would often attack the party. But superior firearms and firepower in possession of the Colonial party made for limited casualties.
I have read several more books on the Himalayas but Bear Gryll’s and Hugh Thomson’s books remain my favorites. They talked about beauty in the Himalayas and not of conquest. Viestures’ and Krakuer’s books are classic documentations of conquest and tragedy, both words deeply intertwined in Himalayan adventure. Death seems to be a part of life in this region and everyone venturing there reads about it, often experiencing it first hand. The yearly news about a new tragedy, be it on Everest or Annapurna, as it happened in 2014, will only increase in frequency as more adventurers, often inexperienced, venture deeper into uncharted territory. But what it will give me is the chance to simply do what I love the most. Curl up and read another book about another new adventure in the Himalayas.
Well, not quite “flew with” as much as we were on the same Virgin early morning flight out of New York’s JFK airport. We sat close to each other, separated only by eleven rows of Business Class pods and two rows of Premium Economy seats. So it was not that far, although I could have done better. Like using my Gold Card privilege to demand extra face time with the great man! Oh well! If only I were more enterprising in my approach with him.
However, I did follow his every move with my half jetlagged eye as he moved the curtain that separated his esteemed world from mine. Mind you, I do fly Business Class as and when Virgin wishes to upgrade me, which happens not-too-often enough, and alas, not this time either!
I did notice that something was up when the crew was unusually more friendly than…well, usual. I do fly Virgin a lot, something like 20 times a year (ok, so just one return trip to the US is 4 flights, so its not that much!) and the crew are usually friendly as long as they have their virginal-red coats on, i.e. at the gate, but once the doors are shut, its BAU (that’s Business-As-Usual for you jargon-ignorant folks).
Ah, I digress. I was going to say I followed Rich’s every move (I just can’t call him “Dick”, can you?) in and out of the toilet, and that’s only because that’s how far he would venture out in my Premium Economy world lest the ghouls of Business-Class-rejects gobble him up. Naw, I’m just being bitchy here. Ha! But I did observe him go to the toilet twice over the six-hour flight to London. And this is where things become more interesting. I guess.
Not once did I see any flight attendant escort him to the toilet, wash his ass for him (so maybe I wouldn’t see that anyway) or have someone hound him. He was the Boss of the flight after all, a-la Korean Air Lines (who cares about IATA laws that state the Captain is the Head of a flight). I did not even see the occasional packet of macadamia nuts fly through the cabin!! There was peace and quiet all round. Too quiet in fact and I fell into a deep sleep where I dreamt of Sir Rich flying through the cabin in a pink mu-mu and a red cape. Not!
I did wake up to go to the same royal toilet that Sir Rich had graced. How could I not rub shoulders with royalty after all, and better still, not sit on the same pot that his highness had soiled. Did too!
But then two things happened out of the usual, though not in the said toilet. I spied with my little eye, Sir Rich holding fort in front of a goggle-eyed audience of all the flight’s attendants, standing around the bar counter. It was Sir Rich talking with his crew, his employees, in his tell-tale soft voice, laughing with them, telling them what great staff they all were, how hard they worked, making them feel all good and mushy about being employees of Virgin Atlantic! Eewww!! Can’t he learn leadership skills from Heather Cho???
And worse was to come! Soon after, just before the un-hassled Captain announced we were going to land at London Heathrow, SRB (that’s Sir Richard Branson for you ignorant folks) came onto the microphone and thanked us for being wonderful passengers and for flying Virgin Atlantic, thanked his crew for all their hard work and for being such wonderful employees of his company! Ugh!! Hasn’t he learnt anything from American Airlines and United, not to mention Air India, that passengers are never to be thanked for spending money on their airline?!? That it’s the passengers’ privilege that these airlines fly them through all the hardship they endure?
As he left the plane, Sir Rich said a friendly “Hello” to a couple of passengers and then walked away, hands in his pocket, a man of the world, no bag. I wanted to call out to him but did not. I wanted to tell him we shared the same toilet, but restrained myself. He just looked confident and totally self-assured in walking by himself. He walked like a Leader but also a fellow passenger. Alone, but comfortable with it. Superstar!!