Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Beginner's Guide to Surviving a Trek in the Rain

A few days back, I was on my first-ever rainy trek up a hill-top fort (Rajgad). Here's my first impressions:-

1) Unless you're one of those chaps heading off into a hermitty retirement in a cave in the Himalayas, remember that you will have to climb back down at some point. "Duh," you think? Well, it's surprising how often people forget that climbing down is ten times as scary as climbing up. So, if you look up a steep incline, and just the thought of climbing it makes you feel religious, turn back immediately. Far better to piss off the rest of your party and be teased for the rest of your life, than have them eulogise you for your bravery at your funeral, is my philosophy.

2) As long as I'm spelling out the obvious... Picture this scenario. A narrow trail a foot wide. A huge rock to your left. A sheer drop to your right. Do you:-

    a) traipse along the cliff edge, whistling your favourite tune?
    b) do your best imitation of wallpaper and flatten yourself against the rock to the left, with a look of absolute terror on your face, and move at a pace of about 4 inches per hour?
If you answered "b", read on; if "a", you have the life expectancy of a villain's sidekick in a Bond film, and might as well stop reading this, and try and get more out of your numbered days.

3) Pride is a deadly, deadly sin. While a few photos of you crawling on hands and knees on the scarier bits, or slithering in the mud on your ass, may end up in circulation for the amusement of your near and dear, I'd take that any day over your near and dear scouring the mountainside with a plastic bag, searching for your remains.

4) Not really a survival tip, but try not to wear those cream-coloured cotton trousers you bought the day before. They're liable to change colour. Also, if you're new to trekking like I am, you tend to reason that as long as you're already sitting (refer to the "slithering in the mud" part of the previous point) and stay that way for the entirety of the climb down, you cannot fall, because, by definition, "falling down" requires you to be vertical in the first place. This is very sound reasoning. However, wearing cream-coloured pants tends to highlight this not-very-brave approach, by drawing attention to the seat of your pants once you're done with the trek, and pride regains its ascendancy.

5) About the "slithering in the mud" bit, I've been told that, when climbing down, facing the hillside, like you do when you're climbing up, is far safer - and more dignified - than having your back to it. Could be, but I couldn't quite manage it at Rajgad.

6) For guys. Don't be too macho to take anyone's hand. Take any hand offered, and hold on to it for as long as you can.

7) Try and let the people below you know that you're rubbish at trekking, and liable to tumble down the slope any second. They will then try and help you out whichever way they can. They will pause to point out footholds for you. They will take time out from their busy climbing schedules to advise on where to hold. They will even lend you a hand on occasions. This is not because they're all Mother or Brother Teresas. Rather, think dominoes. You see, if you take a roll down the hillside, you take everyone below you along for the ride.

In my case, when I told the girl below me that I was afraid I was about to fall down, her initial reaction was, "Well, keep at least 3 feet from me, then." But she gave it some thought, and apparently concluded that irrespective of the distance between us, if I fell, there was no way she could avoid being collected. From then on, her husband, who himself was just below her, and who is excellent at trekking, took a deep interest in my safety.

8) Chivalry is dead. If you see a pretty girl in trouble, don't hasten to her rescue. Let other gallant knights do the rescuing. There are many pretty girls in the world. And you have only one life. You do the math. This is, of course, assuming that the girl in trouble is not immediately above you (see previous point). In that case, pretty girl \ ugly dude, makes no difference. Either help them, or learn the manoeuvre below.

9) So what do you do when you're faced with someone directly above you, who has as much chance of getting to the bottom in one piece, as Clint Eastwood's mortal enemy has of surviving a Sergio Leone western? Well, you wait until a particularly steep fall comes up below you. Then you move to one side, reach up to him \ her, as if to give a hand, get a good grip, and then tip him \ her over the edge. It sounds harsh, but it's either you or them. Make sure no one sees you.

10) Well, this is not exactly a survival tip for you, but do try and make out the difference between an empty foothold, and one with someone's hand in it. As a general rule, if you happen to hear a loud "aiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeeeeee" followed by the person below you taking an aerial trip to the bottom of the hill, you've probably just stepped on the latter kind of foothold.

11) If there are monkeys around, try not to aggravate them. You can challenge them to all kinds of mano-a-simiano contests on flat ground, but on a climb down a hill, they probably have the upper hand.

12) You remember those lessons in school where they showed our ancestors using round logs to reduce friction when moving large blocks of stone and stuff? Well, keep this in mind when you encounter a lot of seemingly harmless little stones in your path.

13) However, if you happen to see a shiny big rock, with a slimy green coating, don't be an idiot and jump on it, just to avoid the little stones. The little stones are the lesser evil.

14) While on this topic, if you happen to come across someone who's fallen flat on his back, resist the temptation to say, "Be careful, be careful" in a quiet, soothing voice. Not only is the advice of no help after the fact, but it also falls in the "rubbing salt into the wounds" category, in my opinion.

15) We now come to the mind. For some reason, I kept visualising a heavy rock falling on me during much of the climb up. Try not to. Also, no matter how windy it is, you can't get blown off the top of the hill. At least, I think not. One of the most rewarding experiences of any trek is the strong wind blowing at you after a tiring climb up. Try and enjoy it, rather than wishing you had those extra pounds for anchorage, and conjuring mental images of you falling through the clouds.

16) A gigantic backpack with 3 changes of clothing, 2 towels, food and water to feed an army, the entire Jeeves collection from Wodehouse - bad idea. Keeping the size of the backpack to a minimum helps you balance better. Also, big backpacks tend to snag here and there.

17) If you're an unfit software engineer, rainwear is bloody useless. Correct me if I'm wrong, but rainwear is not for protecting you against the rain. That's only incidental. Its real purpose is to keep you from getting soaked. Now, if you're unfit, it doesn't make any difference whether there is rain or not, because you get drenched in sweat either way. Might as well leave the rainwear at home. Saves you some weight in luggage.

18) If you were to buy trekking shoes, take someone along with you who actually knows what they are.

19) Once again, we come to pride. If you see someone twice your age nimbly making his way down the slope at 3 times your speed, don't try and prove your alpha-male status by trying to keep up with him. Remember that it is good to stick to estimates for climbs down. Theoretically, you could reach the bottom of a hill, that should take 2 hours to climb down, in less than 30 seconds. But you wouldn't want that, would you?

20) When someone asks you whether you want to trek up Torna in the rains, don't say "yes" with nonchalant abandon. First, go to Rajgad, get scared out of your socks - listening all the while to horror stories of people who've actually been to Torna - and then, if you get back to Pune alive, delete the Torna girl from your address book.

That just about covers everything I can think of for now. Happy trekking!