Ever since the world came to know that I have been surviving despite forgetting my wife’s birthday every year for the past 12 years and that I can catch her flying shoes on my face with the bravery of a warrior and the calmness of a monk, I have been bestowed upon a super-human tag. A superhuman image is difficult to keep up with because people naturally expect even wilder things next time.
Okay, ignore the above paragraph. It’s just to warm you up for the long read. The actual post starts here.
You know what, I actually have a superhuman image, especially among people of my own age. Since most of them are already wilting and withering in the heat of family life, they look at me with a degree of wonder because I have been able to keep myself relatively fit and in shape along with being free-spirited. This has also resulted in them drawing a colorful and gross overestimation of my physical abilities.
Some of the wild stories are that I can climb 300 stairs 20 times without losing a breath or breaking a sweat, that I can shoot a football towards goal from the opposite goal and burst the net, that I can drive ten hours nonstop without shifting my bottom from the seat even once or bat an eye, that I can swim faster than a fish, and even more imaginatively that I can charm a snake by just looking into its eyes. I remember Kaipulla (Vadivel) dialogue in the movie Winner – Epadiye usupethivittu usupethivittu udamba ranakalam aakitainge! which translates roughly into something like, ‘Flattering me like this, they have made my body a bloody playground’.
To be frank, I haven’t done anything hugely impressive to carry a superhuman image. I do, of course, play football on a regular basis and that’s about it. So when this opportunity came to do something impressive, I didn’t think twice.
It’s a trek to Annapurna base camp. No, it’s not a visit to Annapurna Atta factory in Gujarat. The Annapurna I’m talking about is the tenth highest mountain in the world at 8,091 meters (26,545 ft) and the deadliest in the Himalayan range.
Trekking in the mighty Himalayas in Nepal will be a dream-come-true event. High mountains and Everest, in particular, caught my imagination after I read Jon Krakauer’s book ‘Into Thin Air’ some years ago. The book was recently (rather poorly) adapted into a movie, Everest. Into Thin Air takes you on a perilous journey to the summit of Everest where you can see yourself – dying!
It’s an autobiographical book about Jon Krakauer’s Everest experience in 1996. His team summits Everest but the euphoria of standing at the top of the world soon vanishes as a deadly blizzard sets in reducing visibility to zero and temperature much below zero. It becomes a fight for survival and eventually, 8 people would freeze to death on that day making it the deadliest day on Mount Everest before the 16 fatalities of the 2014 Mount Everest avalanche and the 18 deaths resulting from avalanches caused by the April 2015 Nepal earthquake.
Into Thin Air doesn’t show high-mountain climbing in a favorable light, but it lit a spark in my head – to try Everest. I went on to read many books based on Everest and watched documentaries for months. Sanity, though, would eventually prevail. I began to ask myself, why should I pay an exorbitant amount of money and walk – die several times in the process – to ultimate death in a place where there isn’t enough oxygen to breathe even a sentimental last breath. I decided I would rather die – without having to pay a fee for it – in a place like Goa, facing the beach with a beer bottle in my hand.
A trek to the base camp of Everest, however, continues to be at the top of my bucket list. If for nothing else, in my old age I will be able to look at the far horizon, stroke my beard thoughtfully and say, “Yeah, I have shit in Everest”
Unfortunately, Everest will have to wait for some more time. Annapurna may not be as glamorous as Everest, but it is no child’s play either. Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) trek is 9 to 12 days, 4130m in elevation and 120 km in total.
I form a number of rationalizations. ABC trek is one of the best in the world. It would be a good preparation for dream Everest Base Camp trek. I would be able to test my endurance. There would be rumors that I did the whole trek upside down. Above all, I can prove that I’m indeed one big Paruppu*.
The downside of the trek is – without mincing words – death is a possibility. People have died. 2014 October, about 39 people including 21 trekkers died on the Annapurna trail when a blizzard hit them. Death by AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) is common. Every trekking season there are at least seven deaths related to altitude. Hypothermia can kill and it is a real possibility in November – the month we are going – because it is going to be very cold. Kidnapping, avalanche, black bear attacks are some of the other issues to deal with while trekking in Nepal.
Positively, various sources say the chance of rain in November is nil, ruling out a blizzard attack. Hypothermia can be avoided by wearing appropriate clothing and altitude sickness by following basic precautions. Kidnapping is unheard of on the Annapurna trail as it is a crowded route because the majority of the way is actually inter-village highways. And, avalanches only happen in the higher reaches of the mountain.
I want to be calmed by these assurances but generating the necessary leap of faith is not easy. Studies indicate that climate warming has increased the odds of unpredictable and never-before events. Nature has not signed a treaty that it will not strike in November with a blizzard. I also read the number of human-bear conflict in the Annapurna sanctuary area has increased at an alarming rate in recent times so why wouldn’t they want to pick up some interest in me for a happy-hour snack?
Let’s imagine a black bear decides to have a go. What are we supposed to do? According to Stephan Colbert (who randomly came up in google search), we should stand our ground and fight back. Yeah right, you first mister. I think I should be running as fast as I can. The bear would undoubtedly overtake me, but I can be satisfied that I really tried to do something in the last few seconds of my life. Maybe I should find a bear and do some practice fights before I leave for Nepal.
The Asian black bears are usually found in areas 1,500 to 4,000 meters above the sea level and that means I will be right in their zone by default. Usually, they tend to avoid an encounter with humans but nothing can agitate a bear more than seeing a human show up close to its path. To negate the element of surprise for a bear, some websites suggest that we should be making our presence felt on the trail by making some noise. Singing loudly is a recommended idea.
I don’t feel any rush of positivity reading this. All I think is it could be like inviting a hungry bear – “Hey Pooh! I’m here, come and get me” – who is otherwise calmly going his own way. And I’m not very confident about singing either. Whenever I tried to sing, the little sound that escaped the four walls of the bathroom were shot down so quickly. “Can you please stop singing?” my wife would plead. In that case, the best I would be able to push my windpipe to sing in that altitude would be to sing “Hufff, pufffff, hmmmm, echhh” Knocking at a sleeping bear’s door and mocking him right on his face is not a good idea, you know. I could find my face scraped off my head. Bears are actually quite fond of disfiguring human faces.
India Hikes, says in a matter of fact tone that there are no fool-proof ways of protecting yourself in case of bear attacks and that if an encounter is inevitable, drop down to the ground and cover your neck and face with your hands to minimize blows on your face and skull. Well, thanks.
I think I wrote a bit too much about bears. I’m actually fascinated by the idea of facing a bear. Intriguingly, I don’t hear anybody talking about bears in ABC trail despite the trail passing through the Annapurna sanctuary area which is made to look like the epicenter of bear attacks in Nepal by various news articles. Intriguingly, again, the latest news that’s out there on the internet about bear attacks in the area is dated back to 2014. I don’t know what happened to the bears after 2014. It cannot be like they just flung themselves off the cliffs to commit mass suicide. I make a side note that I should ask this to a localite once I’m there.
Anyway, after weighing up the pros and cons, I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t go. Risk is always present in a mountain environment, but every year, more than 100,000 trekkers head for the trails in the Nepal Himalaya and only a tiny number of people have any problems on their trek.
However, in case I couldn’t make it to the base camp for some reason, I have my ass covered already. Here are the proofs:
The expedition team celebrating reaching the entrance of the base camp
No mistaking here. Annapurna is clearly visible.
Okay, I’m not in these photos but I’m the one who took these photos, so I have been here!
Paruppu – (Tamil slang, meaning ‘Big-shot’. Often used to mock a person who thinks he’s a big shot)