Thursday, April 24, 2008

Ratnagiri Rock Climbing Camp

Day 1

Life is beautiful

Catching trains for treks has never been easier since I got my VT office. Earlier, I would have to leave early, rush home, frantically finish packing, run back in peak rush hour to arrive, gasping and sweating like Rocky Balboa, and leap into a running train. Now, I can stroll across the road, and I’m there. Ahaha. Aha.

Goan Actor versus Yellow Sack

Every journey serves up it’s own in-house entertainment, and this was no exception, thanks to a Goanese Person (GP), who came dragging a giant wheeled suitcase down the vestibule and stopped short by a yellow sack of machine parts.

GP: Kiska hai? What is this? Please move, I have to go.

Sack Owner: Side se jaao

GP: Arre! How I will go from side? Ye bag dikhta nahi? You do not see bag? Such big bag? How will it go? (waves arms)

SO: You turn, jaaega

GP: What turn? Who turn? I will not turn. You move your bag!

SO: Huh?

SO: You move the bag, na

GP: (hysteria creeping in) I am your servant that I will move your bags?! I have a shoot tomorrow in Goa! You MOVE this BAG or you MOVE my BAG!!

SO: (Gets up, turns GP’s bag sideways, slides it past his bag, lies down)

GP: (Blinks, nonplussed, then steps over the bag)

GP: What disgusting way these people behave! Bringing such big bags in train! How other passengers will go! (violently rattles his own bag) Rubbish! Hah! Huh! (stalks down the vestibule)

Me: Paagal ho gaya?

SO: Paagal nahi, nonsense tha (closes fist, tips thumb to mouth, mimes glug-glug)

GP: (far down the corridor) I am not nonsense! YOU are nonsense! Your whole FAMILY nonsense! This TRAIN nonsense! The WHOLE COUNTRY NONSENSE!


15 minutes later...

GP: (meek as mouse): Sir, please. Kind request. This is my seat. I have reservation. You are sleeping. So sleep. But kindly adjust and let my son also sleep.

Son gives us a look of ‘why, God, why me?’

Elderly Uncle

An elderly auntie was sitting in front of us. An elderly uncle came, sat down, and asked her, “where are you going? Madgaon? I am also going to Madgaon. I will give company.”

Elderly auntie gave him a smoking glare of unalloyed suspicion and disgust.

KT had a seat in the next coach, so he asked uncle if he could exchange, and all of us piped up with ‘Please…please… please uncle’. Uncle gave a deep sigh, and after a bit, was convinced and packed off next door, bag clinking merrily with bottles. It turns out that all the other co-passengers in that compartment were young women… so uncle is also happy and entertained. Until the next morning, at least, because we were getting off at Ratnagiri… so at around 6 AM, uncle, either still high, or hung over, or dead to the world, would be turfed out of the berth and packed off back to his own seat, cursing us all the way, by the passenger who had the Ratnagiri-Madgaon reservation.

Not our problem; we’d be gone by then. He he he.

Brown Pup

At regular intervals, a hysterical high-pitched moan of sheer terror would float through the coach at night, coming from a pink basket under a seat. It turned out to contain a sad brown pup being taken to Goa; one can only hope it was a reconciliation gift to a girlfriend who had done a dump and walked out. All the best, brown pup buyer.

Drinking Logic

Fished out a couple of reeBs once the lights were out, and talked about when what tastes best. D maintained that in cold climates you had to drink to survive; others disagreed, and said that the firangs drank the year round, everywhere, winter and summer. D came up with a classic statement that can be written in stone and put up as a monument to drinkers everywhere –

“You need a reason to drink, not a temperature.”

Day 2


Ratnagiri station, empty and quiet in the grey dawn-light. Red sun rising over kilometer-long train of vehicle carriers, loaded with trucks. Eat at the canteen, head for Bhatye village.

Meet Mr. Pradeep Kelkar, who is organizing the camp here. He’s one of the well-known figures in India’s adventure sports and trekking circuits, especially in Maharashtra. A thin, wiry, gentleman with a salt-and-pepper beard, carrying a bag so heavily packed with equipment that it probably weighed more than him, casually slung like it was biscuits packet.

Rock Climbing Rules

Head down to Bhatye beach, and practice rock-climbing on a boulder before heading for the main event. Realize I’m quite out of shape; body is just not bending the way it’s supposed to, and weight feels too much when you’re stretched out and reaching for handholds.

Rock climbing principles are a mix of common sense and the techniques that utilize them, condensed into one body of knowledge. They say a good rock climber climbs with his eyes; the most important principle is in looking, planning, deciding the route, mapping the holds, formulating a sequence, long before you even touch the rock. Everything else is just… technique. That’s also where people hurt themselves; there are no mistakes here, just physics. If you can’t support your body, or get stuck, get tired, you fall. Overbalance, fall. It doesn’t matter if you’re five feet from the ground or five hundred. But if you can climb at five feet properly, five hundred is as easy.

The rocks want blood

Pradeep Sir also added one more rock-climber aphorism – You cannot learn rock-climbing until you give blood to the rock. Until that happens, you’ve just been lucky. After it happens, you either learn properly, or not climb at all.

Adrenaline heat

The main training was on a thirty-foot vertical rock wall, where you climb up, rappel down. The first twenty feet were okay; then people would get stuck and scared, and nothing drains strength faster than panic. When you’re up there, arms trembling, and realize that much as you stretch, the handhold that looked perfect from below is too sloped to be used and you’re going to have to stretch just that one little inch more, and another, and another, while your body’s creaking… panic will suddenly leave you completely helpless and unable to move, an instant away from losing your grip and bouncing all the way down, crunching bone and stripping skin. But the rush that comes when you do reach it and the pressure eases… makes every pain worthwhile. Only when you finish, do you realize how much you can push yourself when the alternative doesn’t exist.

Sitting and recovering from the climb, I could feel a deep, humming heat in my forearms and hands that I’d never felt before… simply because I’d never used them so hard, before.

The wrong way to rock-climb - with bent knees.

The right way to rock-climb - straightened legs.

Steve puts the lesson into immediate practice on the way back

I am famous! And dearly beloved in Ratnagiri

Sensory deprivation

Did some rope-walking in the afternoon, first to get a feel, and then again, this time blindfolded. When you can’t see, balanced on just a single line gently bouncing in the air, there’s a sense of… disorientation. Floating. You find yourself straining for sound, anything, to give you some sense of direction. There is no up or down, forward or backward; just the tension in the balancing rope. Lose your sense of that, and it’s a very quick trip back to solid ground.

the real expert climber

Acupressure walks

By the time we were done, it was too late to go back and change, so we just headed into the water anyway. We’ll dry off while walking back. Forget to remember that the shoes can’t be used with wet, sandy feet, so we walked barefoot over rough gravel for close to a kilometer. Ooh. Aah. Ouch.

Heat of the night

The nights are blood-warm after the sea-breeze drops off, and deadly silent, broken only by a mosquito’s hysterical high-pitched buzz as it tries to fly up your ear. The village is pitch dark; the sky’s overcast, you can’t even see stars. There’s just an occasional silent flare of lightning deep in the clouds, when the sky flickers, the landscape hovers on the edge of perception; then it’s gone, and there’s just the hot, still darkness again.

Day 3

Rappelling reaction

Ratan Durg Fort sits on top of a 300-foot cliff, around thirty stories high. One side of the cliff is vertical, dropping straight down into the ocean; if you lie on the edge, looking down, you’ll see waves washing over flat, sun-shattered rocks far below. Look around, and you see the rocky shore stretch around the curve of the peninsula, miles and miles of seascape, fishing boats, birds, a lighthouse, the pink spire of a faraway temple, clear blue sky and blue water - a beautiful background to the black rocks, white waves and red fort walls.

It’s a lovely sight, if your balls aren’t in your mouth the minute you look down and see the rappelling path. In a few minutes, you’ll be stepping over that edge and going down, your entire past, present and future held in a length of rope slimmer than your little finger.


You know what the worst part of rappelling is? Watching other people go down. It ties your stomach in knots, which must really bug the butterflies in there; makes you dizzy, nauseous, tensed, and drains your camera battery in the bargain, because everyone wants that classic going-down photo.

The day’s getting hotter, the sun now blazing down. The horizon shimmers. A huge cloud of swifts flutters around, and faraway, we see a pair of beautiful bramhani kites circle… and I get extra intestinal intertwining when I realize I’m watching them flying, from above.

Close Shaves
JD clears the path with a machete, after an abortive start when he goes over the edge and realizes he’s forgotten to wear the descender, and is hanging only by his hands with no support. Hauls himself back, and it’s time to start heading down.

Steve starts off, under the influence of too many people giving instructions; locks his feet on the edge, and his body weight pulls him backwards until suddenly he’s suspended over open space, almost upside-down. The raw fear slowly drains away from his face, and he goes from scared to panicked to terrorized and out on the other side, in a death-calm; he told us later that he went because the worst that could happen, had happened. In his words, itni phat gayi thi ki aur nahi phat sakti thi.

Tricks of the trade
The toughest bit is negotiating the step, gradually letting your body go semi-horizontal; toughest because you fight all your instincts that scream blue murder to get back on flat solid ground. Three million years of evolution have taught that safety lies on rock, not nylon, and the alternative lies thirty stories below with nothing in-between.

I tie the handycam to my forearm and get ready; there’ll be some interesting videos from this trip. D’s screwed a digicam in video mode to his helmet; between the two of us, we’ll get a feel of the actual rappel, in first-person perspective.
My past rappelling experience doesn’t give much confidence, because this feels different; I don’t realize why until later. I was struggling to feed the rope into the descender loop, but 300 feet of rope has a solid weight of its own even without wind drag; I had to fight to lift it every inch upwards. Once over the edge, body weight took over and it’s smoooooth sailing…
Except for thorns. Rocks. Scree. Pebbles. Long dried grass.
So how do you feel?
Hanging in empty space, I take some pauses between heading down for the photos… What is it like, rappelling, overcoming your instincts and fears, floating in mid-air on the rope and watching the void beneath and around you? It’s hard to describe. There’s certainly some fear, and your heart goes at doublespeed, your hands clench at the rope in a deathgrip; but there’s also a sense of immense pride that in spite of feeling like this, in spite of the butterflies, you didn’t back down. You went ahead and did this thing; there’s a sense of having joined some kind of elite club, the achievement of doing something you never thought you could do; and in some way, it’s made you better than you were. Braver, stronger. More confident. After this, a lot of things will cease to frighten; you’ll remember the feeling you had at the top, and you’ll know that if you overcame that, you can overcome anything.

The rope hisses onwards, and my nostrils catch a faint tang of heated metal and friction-burnt mitten; there’s such high tension that if I let go your controller hand, and let the rope slide free, the friction can melt the quarter-inch-thick steel descender loop. Some people can do this without gloves; I’m not risking it. I also realize that I’m beginning to bounce; after two hundred feet, the elasticity in the nylon is becoming apparent, gently stretching up and down it’s length. It’s unnerving, to say the least; the rope, like a living thing, seems to be trying to shake you off. Keep going, and finally, I’m in the blessed shade after five hours in the blazing sun, with the ground just ten feet below and coming up to meet me.

Cooking Lessons
Gasp in the shade for a while, dipping my feet in rock pools, before we begin the long walk back. Surya-Dev is out with a vengeance now, and the landscape is pitiless; no shade. I was fried before I came down; now I get baked, roasted. Gulping down warm water only boils me as well, and by the time the car returns to pick us up, I’ve gone into the dark side of charred.

We have to stop at the coolest hangout in Ratnagiri, the local ice factory. Load up a giant slab on the roof, drive back with ice-cold trickles running down the sides of the car, which we catch and rub onto our faces. Break it up in buckets and stick in the bottled water; a few minutes later, we savor the best drink ever. Chilled H2O, after a long, thirsty wait.

Up your Chimney!
Afternoon. A cliff on the beach. Two parallel rocks, about three feet apart, rise vertically for twenty. This is where we’re going up, in a type of climbing called a ‘chimney’ climb. It looks a lot harder than it is; once you’re doing it, it’s a very natural, instinctive way of climbing. But man, do you need to be flexible and have lower-body strength! You brace your back against one wall and push against the other with your hands and one foot, and use the other as a support to push yourself upwards. After some time, if you can’t straighten your leg sufficiently, it begins to tremble and it’s time to cool it and get back. Fast, before it slips and you slide down, bouncing from one wall to the other.

The evening was spent on a practically private beach, swimming, playing beachball, getting wet, getting sandy, and generally lazing around.

G left in the evening. We dropped him off, walking down pitch dark roads swathed in silence, with an occasional high-powered bike blasting past at 80 kmph, and decked-up rickshaws shining like mobile dance bars.

That night we sat out, chatting, going through the snaps, reliving the last two days… and finally talking about the animal called Fear. Its nature, habits, where it lives, what it feeds on… how it can be tamed. Everyone has seen a different creature; some have better control over it than others, and some can’t handle it at all. It takes a scary experience to put that into perspective; so, go out! Get scared! You’ll come back a better human being.

Day 4
An unbearable lightness of being

Either it’s the quiet environment, or fresh air, or being scared shitless the previous day, or high-fiber veg food, or high water intake… but taking a dump never felt this good.
Sleeping is… strange. I’m sleeping fewer hours, sleeping on a thin slice of foam on bare floor, and every time I open my eyes they fill up with fruit flies. Yet, I get completely refreshed, and enjoy the rest to a point that even at home, my body automatically assumes the sleeping-mat sleep stance – rigidly straight and stretched out, not moving an inch till dawn. Very useful during those train journeys…
A subterranean experience

a person who explores caves, esp. as a hobby.
Pronunciation [spi-luhng-ker]
[Origin: 1940–45; spélunc(a) cave (Gk spêlynx, s. spélyng-, akin to splaion; cf. spelaean) + -er1]

A tiny little gap at the base of a cliff, which you’d walk past without at glancing, is the entrance to the secret escape route of Ratan Durg. The entrance up to the fort is blocked, but the exit is still open…
So we crawl down at a 45-degree angle into the dark, and the hole becomes a passage that opens into a dark, narrow cave, the other end of which is a boulder, held up by rubble a foot above the ground. Crawling is now too grand a term for my progress; I’m flat on my stomach, dragging myself along, and I’m acutely conscious of feel the couple of dozen tons touching my back.

We emerge into pitch blackness; even the ambient light diffusing from the hole is gone, and we’re completely underground now. The walls are damp and trickling with groundwater; it gets worse as we proceed, until it’s dripping wet. Another boulder at the end, six feet high, smooth, and mossy; it would be impossible to negotiate without the ropes attached. Even getting up on it is a challenge. On the other side, a rope-ladder descends another fifteen feet straight down, into a smaller rubble-strewn cave. You know rope-ladders, right? With every step, they sway, buck, and slither around wildly, and it takes a lot of control to negotiate; just some more drama in an already high-tension setting.

Air doesn’t move here, and I can hear a soft lapping of water. Humidity is at its highest, and the rocks are warm; it’s a perfect sauna, and we’re soaked in seconds. The heat is shockingly highlighted by an occasional drip of cold water down your sweaty neck from the ceiling. You also need to breathe a little deeper; oxygen is lower.
Mr. Kelkar’s people have strung up a small floodlight shining down the passage, and we see a long tunnel, created when two massive cliffs apparently decided to rest against each other, and left this gap in the middle. A few feet wide, with a high ceiling, and stretching away into the darkness ahead.

My Preciousssss…
And the floor? There is no floor, just dark, still water. When we wade in, we can’t touch bottom at the furthest stretch of our toes; and trust me, diving down into the dark is not something that you want to do. There are fish here, and have been, for generations; blind, white things, that have known only this cave as their universe, and have been living their lives in perfect darkness for centuries. Remember Gollum from LOTR? This is the world he lived in, when he was first introduced to our imaginations in The Hobbit.

Fear of the Dark
After some time paddling, a narrow throat in the cave appears; we have to turn sideways and squeeze through. It’s curved, and the floodlight disappears around the bend. We switch on our torches. This is the only light now in the darkness; a jittering wash of illumination flickering over rock and water.
We paddle on till the end of the tunnel, until it narrows into a passage a few inches wide, which rises out of the water. At the end, we can see a perfectly square, copper-colored rock wedged between the walls – I try to go up to it and touch it, but halfway there, squeezing between the two cliffs, I have a sudden… I don’t know, flash, intuition, vision, whatever. Of these two giant rocks just shifting a bit, a tiny little bit, not closing, but tightening just enough so I’m stuck in between, slowly suffocating in the fetid darkness.
The thought freezes me instantly. I can’t go on. Not because I think it’s likely to happen, but because I’m afraid I may think it is.
That’s the trouble with an overactive imagination; things that may not ever happen suddenly assume mind-numbing, larger-than-life proportions in your head. And when that happens, it’s a total brainfreeze, a lockdown on all rational thought; panic swamps you like a dark tsunami from the depths of your subconscious. I decide not to risk it, and come back from the edge.

The smell of swamp-gas, result of decades of fermented bat guano putrefying underwater, gives the air a distinctly sulphurous taint... In the mines, they call this firedamp. It’s a highly flammable, poisonous gas; the early miners used to carry canaries that would asphyxiate earlier, giving them enough warning to get out before they choked. The Hawthorne lamp was also invented for this scenario, allowing you to carry a light into the mines without triggering a catastrophic explosion. Lighting a match in here would definitely not be a good idea. Nor would staying too long… you’ll slowly suffocate.

Buried Alive? Not today
Once we get back to the floodlight, I wait while the others take their turn, taking photos of each lot. I spend some time looking around the cave, and realize the entire ceiling is a titanic boulder, resting on the narrowness of the passage. Just as that realization strikes, my torch shorts out; some water must have got into the LEDs. There’s a moment of onrushing claustrophobia before I turn my back and face into the floodlit cave. I can feel the dark, and the weight of thousands of tons of rock overhead and behind watching me like a live thing. It takes effort to ignore it, push it back into the hindbrain where it belongs. I wait it out, and it goes away after a while; I don’t freak and everyone gets their portfolios enhanced with a cave-dive snap.

Social Events
Crawl out into the sunlight later, camera in my teeth like a shutter-happy pirate. Wash off the cave-water in the sea, pile into the car to head back. Unfortunately, a detour happens; the District Magistrate, who we had taken along for the trip, was so enthused by our company that he’s invited us all over to his house. Unfortunately, we hadn’t anticipated a social gathering, so we’re dressed in hardly the most – um, appropriate – attire; shorts, wet tracks, and in one case, underwear. Eat some yummy green Hapus mango – khairi – at his place, while D leaps into his ornamental fish-pond and catches turtles. His house at the top of the hill has an awesome view – you can see most of Ratnagiri sitting out on the lawn.

Falling down
We do a Trust-Fall activity on our return; six people create a support pad, and the seventh is tied, blindfolded, and pushed back on them. This is an activity that reveals a lot about people as part of groups; how well do you really trust the people that are going to catch you, when the chips are down and you are literally in their hands? Played in corporates, it throws up some very interesting patters; junior level people are all fighting together against management, with the same troubles, and have a sense of solidarity; there’s no hesitation there. Among managers, who are out to cut each other’s throats, generating trust is a lot more tough. For managers falling into the hands of their juniors, it’s nerve-wracking. And interestingly enough, Human Resources refuses to participate at all!

There’s disorientation and vertigo when my turn comes, but I just think I’m falling into a nice, cool pool; in the heat, the thirst for that shock of cold water is so strong I practically throw myself in. Between desire (as I fall) and disappointment (when the ‘water’ turns out to be a dozen interlinked arms) there’s no room for nervousness.

The Truth, and Nothing But The Truth
Finally, there’s a small informal ceremony, where the certificates for completing the rock climbing course are handed out, and Mr.Kelkar takes feedback from everyone on how they found the experience. D asks Steve how he felt – honestly – when he flipped over on the edge and dangled a single slip away from going head-down over the void.
Steve takes a thoughtful pause.
“I shat more bricks than used in that farmhouse.”
No more coherent discussion is possible after that.
Endings, Nature Knights style – Pet Puja
In the evening, we walk up to the local lover’s point, a plateau with an awesome view over the sea, taking snaps by the roadside. Head back into town, and in a violent reaction to three days of vegetarianism, stuff our faces with some of the best surmai I’ve ever had in my life, topped off with icecream. Staggering with sleep, we make it into the train, and then crash, dead to the world, until Dadar.

Waking up was confused. In talking, we realized that all of us had experienced a common dream in the night, of confusion, hustle, noise, and someone trying to urgently tell us something and disappearing. A check of the next compartment revealed it was because we slept right through Thane where some of us had to get off; the shared dream was the others trying to wake us, and finally giving up and getting off while we continued to snore. Still others had leapt up in a flurry, got off with luggage, and stood blinking in confusion, realizing nobody’s following them, and scurried back inside, only to be hustled out again by the wakers. Five of us never got beyond sleepy grunts and turned over, back to sleep.

From Dadar, we go our separate ways. Now there’s just one daunting, mammoth task ahead – collating several thousand photos and videos into a single album.

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