Just sharing my thought for this special day. I call this “real freedom”.
I think real freedom comes from within. It’s not someone else that puts shackles on you.
I think it starts at a point when we realize that blaming someone or something else for where we are does not help. No more crying, moping, and thinking about destiny, what if scenarios and alternate endings. No more thinking of good and evil, right and wrong, fair and unfair. No more proving your point, showing the world, and making it big etc etc. Just get up and move on.
I always thought of myself as a ‘free soul’, or at least someone who needed to be. I thought I can eventually be independent when I start my own company. That came and went, and I am still struggling 🙂
Here’s my list of things that I think we all need some level of independence from.
Independence from financial security – no longer bogged down by work / job
Independence from material needs – Happy with what we have, needing less of everything
Independence from ideas – Be open to but not stuck with ideas and mental barriers
Independence from feelings – Feeling, but not bogged down by emotions
Independence from others – no longer bogged down by others expectations
Independence from yourself – no longer bogged down by self expectations or controlling the narrative, creating your destiny etc..
The way I have summarized this to myself is that as long as you want to ‘have something’, or ‘be somebody’, ‘get somewhere’ etc, you will never be really free. Real freedom comes from letting go.
This is of course easier said than done. Everyday we strive to be better.
When I first saw you, you were just You.
Your love, simple, present, and pure.
Mountains were mountains, Rivers were Rivers.
Then I climbed your cliffs, I swam in your tides.
Blown by the wind, flattened by the waves
Inhaling, clinging and floating sometimes.
I saw who you were, what you were made of.
At every turn, with every view, a learning, an inspiration
Mountains were no longer just mountains, Rivers no longer rivers.
Now I seek your secret gift, on your endless paths.
And I find only your love, simple, present and pure.
No lofty meaning, no sage wisdom.
Like when I first saw you, you are now just simply you.
Mountains are mountains again and rivers are rivers.
And deep inside me, I feel your pebbles and your streams.
A lot has been spoken, written and streamed on this topic, so I will keep this centered around the fundamentals. I have been researching this area for a writing project and ended up discovering, validating and organizing a lot of my thinking. So here it is.
Let’s start by examining the core psychological issues. As an individual, as I browse through the myriad social media platforms and the uncontrolled media floating around in their streams, I am exposed to several mentally exhausting and harmful situations that I have no protection against. Whether I end up just plain addicted, with reduced self worth, exposed to anxiety and depression or victimized and driven towards physical harm, seems to be not a matter of if, but when. It is interesting to note that the World Health Organization has not yet termed social media overuse as a mental disorder, simply because although deep correlation exists, a causation cannot be confirmed.
Addiction is a definite problem. Stats show that 2-3 hours of social media use per day is the new normal. Apps like Google’s Digital WellBeing or Apple’s ScreenTime can provide most of us with enough data to understand this deeper. Some studies have indicated that for students and the younger generation, this is way more magnified – a whopping 20% of students use social media for over 5 hrs / day.
The self esteem topic is confusing to the core. Studies have resulted in insights that are polar opposites, with some saying that online self-propaganda leads to belief in an altered reality, where you start ‘believing what you project’ and then ‘fake it till you make it’. Other studies have indicated that self esteem is significantly reduced by constantly watching others ‘living it up’, the now famous FOMO effect and therefore having a heightened expectation of life experiences and constantly falling short of it. In most cases, a negative self esteem results in hyper self-promotional activity that turns into a vicious cycle, eventually causing depression.
Substantially darker are the realms of cyber-bullying, dark accounts and at the extreme end the ‘Kilfies’ culture. There is an evolving new ‘Dark Social web’ that’s within threatening reach of our young ones. A recent BBC article covered this in great detail.
So what’s behind all this. What’s the science and what are the facts?
The science is fairly well understood and clear in this area, as long as we don’t get into technicalities of correlation vs causation. Almost every single scientific study has pointed to the obvious correlation of increased use of social media to increased mental disorders. The neurotransmitter dopamine, the ‘happy chemical’ and the associated RPE (Reward Prediction Error) encoding aspects have been known to humans for quite some time now and heavily used in all kinds of ‘sticky’ marketing theories. Casino slot machines are a prime example.
Documentaries like Netflix’s ‘The Great Hack’ show how biochemical phenomenon like Dopamine and RPE that have existed since thousands of years are now being exploited fully, by the social media data marketplace that’s willfully abusing personal data, and manipulating our minds, deep rooted behaviors and feelings, influencing not just elections, but the very nature of our society.
One might ask ‘Is there any such thing as free will anymore?’ Therein lies the deep rooted impact of social media on the human psyche. Does it matter that the WHO has still not classified social media overuse as a disease? If free will is compromised, where does that take our democratic society?
A closer look at the Indian situation reveals that we are not at all prepared to cope with our current mental health situation, let alone the future that will be exponentially magnified through social media boom in recent years. With 0.05% of annual budget spent on mental health (compared to (3 to 5%) for most developing / developed nations, limited understanding and regulations around social media and smartphones and Whatsapp spreading at pandemic proportions, we have a lot of catch up to do.
So what has been the response so far?
The world has acknowledged it, prominent speakers and leaders have spoken strongly about it, and more than 40+ governments worldwide now have some for of regulations or measures to curb it, but responses from the social media giants have been lukewarm at best. Mark Zuckerberg’s 2018 US Congressional hearings over the Cambridge Analytica probe were clear signs that Silicon Valley and Tech giants are yet to stand up and take responsibility of the content they publish.
In spite of the piled up evidence and intense political scrutiny, there have been only a few scattered responses like Instagram’s recent proposal to hide likes and suppress photoshopped images, twitter’s fact checking, facebooks’s hate speech removal algorithm.
This is not only clearly insufficient, but also speaks of the complete lack of willingness on the part of the social media companies to get to the resolution. We need a holistic strategy and some immediate action.
How should we move forward?
Although we are ultimately accountable for our mental health, can we always control it? Is it enough to self-limit social media usage, promise to fill our lives with more real experiences, and elevate our personal awareness of digital well being, or are we fighting a losing battle to political inaction and corporate greed? Has Wall Street taken control over our neurotransmitters? How do we preserve free will, free choice and a fundamentally democractic society.
Social media has many positives. It has created immense opportunities through it’s connected social fabric, but we should stop and comprehend what’s optimal. Where should we draw the line individually and collectively? What kind of content we need to censor? Can we really look at facebook and draw a clear line separating good and bad content? What makes the content addictive and harmful? is it the content, or the platform, or both, some of the time, or all the time, for adults or for teens, or everybody universally?
These are tough questions. The answer for us, like everything else has to start with acknowledgement of the problem and a willingness to resolve it.
As Lao-Tzu famously observed ‘A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step’. This multi-layered knot of interwoven socio-political, coporate, technological and behavioral dimensions will take time to unravel. Technology is changing at a fast pace and regulations are struggling to play catch up. But with that said, we cannot afford to not take a step.
Parliaments around the world need to debate and find a balance between content takedown vs free speech. They need to formally criminalize disinformation, fake news and need to define what contitutes illegal content, unambiguously. Media accredition, watchdog organizations, citizen media literacy programs need to be institutionalized. Parliamentary inquiries need to be opened and legal proceedings need to be accelerated.
At the same time, social media companies need to bring in clarity of how they use our data, and provide us an opportunity to opt out. They need to alter their model to remove or reduce dependency on advertising dollars, and strictly enforce dark and illegal content per government guidelines.
As individuals, we are certainly not the weakest link in the chain. We need to use technology mindfully and fill ourselves with more of real, physical and meaningful interactions. We need to be watchful of our digital well being and keep an eye out for our immensely vulnerable youth. They are growing up in an extremely unpredictable, dangerous and uncontrolled digital environment, and our inaction or negligence can destroy the very foundation of their future.
Please don’t worry about ‘liking’ this post! I won’t feel offended 🙂
As a teenager, I always felt claustrophobic in a living room social setting with elders. All of a sudden my brain would lock down, and my lips would seal. I could not think of anything to talk, and in the rare event that I did think of something, could not get my lips to move. My hands would not know where to settle themselves down, and alternate between being in the pockets, crossed on the chest and get busy sharpening nails on each other’s fingers. My feet would wonder whether to stay straight or crossed. My eyes would roam from wall to wall, from painting to shelf, lighting fixtures to carpets, avoiding human bodies and faces, especially the two sockets on the top half of the head which held the eyes.
If by some freak chance that did happen, my lips would curl into a smile, as if to say “Sorry, I am brain dead right now, and this is all I can manage as far as communication goes. If you are interested in conversation, please find an appropriate partner. If you do not take your eyes off me and look elsewhere in exactly 2 seconds, blood will possibly rise to my head and spray out through my eyes, nostrils and ears. So please..”
When I started out drawing portraits, I never imagined I will finish 100 of these. But here we are! I think I may have gone past the 100 number sometime in the last two months, but then it doesn’t really matter. Numbers are just numbers. I enjoyed doing each one of these, and I’m sure there’s plenty more to come. Really grateful to all of you who were game enough to become subjects of my artistic indulgence. I know many of you got imperfect portraits in return!! 🙂
Days after my mother died in a car crash, and with my father nursing several broken bones in his body that included a shattered lower jaw, and still not able to sit, walk, talk, eat, shit or sleep without assistance, my sister and I decided to pick up the pieces and pull it all together. No one told us to. They didn’t have to.
With one parent dead, and the other one invalidated, one does not need to be reminded or advised into taking responsibility. You just do it. It’s a survival thing.
Our extended family, uncles, aunts, friends and well wishers did much more than they could. Everyone involved went well beyond the extra mile. They gave their best to us and I will be forever grateful to them. We just could not have made it without them. Finding your inner strength, and taking charge of your life is a different thing, however. No one else can do it for you, however hard they may try. Only you can do it. That’s what I mean by picking up the pieces and pulling it all together. We tend to call this ‘taking accountability’ for the most part, which I know, sounds very business-like for my preference.
I was 18 and my sister was 22. We decided it was best that she provide full time nursing support to my father, teetering as he was between insanity and numbness. Insanity driven by the anguish and desperation at having lost his wife and inability to help his children, and numbness driven by the morphine that took him into a limp vegetable like condition. We couldn’t decide which was worse. My sister took it on herself to deal with it. It was too hard for me, she thought perhaps, after seeing me choke once. I choked as I watched our father go in seconds from wild anger into drug induced limpness. His face contorted from lack of control, paralyzed by the drugs being injected into him. He looked like he was on borrowed time. It felt like staring down into a bottomless pit. We could be orphaned in days, I was thinking as I sighed.
Anyway, so my sister had the hard part. I in turn, had to look after running errands and making sure the tactical things were done, especially those that involved riding the scooter or jumping on the bicycle, mostly getting medical supplies or food, which was fine by me. Or so I thought, till I realized my pockets were running dry and I needed more money. At this point, I realized that my extended family must have been paying for all the hospital bills, my mother’s funeral services, and everything else that was going on, the economics of which I was, till that moment, blissfully unaware of. Plus, there was my father’s jaw surgery and treatment to be done, once he recovered enough from the trauma he was going through. We needed the money.
I spoke to my sister and we found some cash in one of the usual suspects – an aluminum box inside the steel almirah, and some bank passbooks belonging to our parents. There seemed to be some money there, but we had absolutely no idea how much we really needed. Our parents never discussed their bank balance or wealth with us, other than the occasional reminder that we were middle class and didn’t have much, how we needed to understand the value of whatever we had, and that lesser was better. Now with both of them absent from the scene, one permanently and the other temporarily, we had to figure it all out.
Subsequently, I spoke to my close friends and realized that there was bound to be some medical coverage that the state department offered. Both my parents’ years of service was worth something. Assuming the state would take care of my father’s medical expenses, I rested with a sigh and made a quick estimate of all the other things I needed money for, including our education and hostel expenses for the next 3 months. 3 months was my estimate for my father to get back on his feet and take the financial reins back from me. Plus I didn’t think I would last more than 3 months managing this stuff. Every time I looked at his drugged state however, I felt he was slipping more and more into the abyss. On one hand it engulfed me with the stark likelihood of immense personal loss and sorrow, and on the other made me realize the financial responsibilities I may need to take on. I shuddered thinking of the future.
On hindsight however, those moments were possibly the ones I subconsciously drew strength from. I remember calculating what 3 more years of engineering for me and a year of post graduation for my sister would cost, the utility bills for the house, annual cost of grocery etc. All these were part of my worst case scenario. I secretly counted on my sister starting work soon after her post graduation, or us finding some other secret stash of money in one of those steel almirahs that would render these estimates meaningless. But the sheer activity of estimating for my personal outcomes helped me understand what responsibility meant, what it means to stand on your own feet. I got an inkling of what not having a roof over one’s head could mean, literally, and I understood what losing the ground beneath you could mean. I learnt to take care of myself, and worry about someone else’s survival at the same time. Some call it ‘to be a man’.
Over the next few days and weeks, as I grappled with my newfound understanding about the value of money, I also received information regarding my mother’s funeral service expenses, questions after questions from her life insurance company, various proofs needed for various procedures, death certificates, bank account closure and release of money and all that made me extremely bitter. I found myself wondering at once about the value and futility of money. While one side of me felt that we needed everything we can get, the other shunned at the pointlessness of it all. My father’s situation demanded it, but no amount of it could bring my mother back. My first serious brush with money was taking shape, my relationship with money was being defined in those days and weeks.
Over the years, I have consciously thought about my relationship with money, many many times. Should I pursue its accumulation, should I renounce it altogether, or should I have a dispassionate tool-like approach to it? I have decided, at least for now, to treat it as hygiene. It’s the bottom layer of Maslow’s hierarchy, and that’s where I think we should leave it. If in your life, you want to self-actualize and try to ‘be the best you can be’, then you have to leave the pursuit of money behind. That is my opinion.
Now, irrespective of my attitude to money, I have the role of the provider, and I do have the responsibility to make sure my loved ones are safe and feel secure financially, while recognizing that my best efforts can fall short. And they certainly will, if my son for example, approaches this conversation 10 years later with a sense of entitlement and expectation. It does not really matter if that gets labeled as my failure or not, since everyone concerned ends up being unhappy in that situation. I think the right way to approach the ‘what’s enough’ question is to come together as a family with love and understanding and converge on a perspective. What’s our earning potential, and consequently, what limits does that pose? I hope my son grows up to understand that those limits are environmental and circumstantial, and not created by my complacence, lack of responsibility or love towards him. I hope he grows up to not be driven by entitlement and expectation.
Back to my 1994, my sister and I eventually learnt that we would be OK. That meant that our parents had just enough money to deal with the situation. We wouldn’t have to borrow. In our family, we always felt like we had enough, even though we didn’t have a lot of luxuries of life. I feel that to this day. I am eternally grateful to my parents that they taught me to not worry about money, and instead worry about other things, like being good and taking responsibility. I am sure they had their limitations, but those were certainly not complacence or lack of responsibility towards us. Like I do for my family, they worked their butt off to give us safety and security.
I think having enough is not at all about money. It’s all about gratitude.
A satellite moved from right to left, right overhead. The milky way was about to rise. It was a perfect starry night on the white rim sandstones. A crescent moon had just set on the mesa table top in the middle of Canyonlands National Park, taking the last of the ambient light with it. We all lay on our backs, inside the sleeping bags, staring into the night sky, full of wonder like a bunch of ten year olds, spotting meteorites, constellations, guessing the exact location of the north star and occasionally pointing Suresh’s high powered DeWalt flashlight on a string of stars whenever we had a doubt. Our tents were empty. It was sleep-out night.
Earlier that day, the second day of our White Rim biking tour, we had biked through 27 miles on the white sandstones, through the hardest terrain we could have imagined. Emerging from Candlestick in the morning, we had coasted through the first 9 miles, waiting for Murphy’s Hogback to emerge. Mike and Anne, our guides had warned us about it. “It would be a little harder than Hardscrabble”, Mike had remarked, faintly underlining the degree of difficulty, just enough to keep it within grasp, just enough to keep us interested and encouraged. We had struggled through Hardscrabble. I had barely been able to bike 30% of the way to the top of that section, painfully hauling my bike up the rest of the way. Gasping for breath, gulping down electrolytes, chewing up energy bars and humping on the pedals like there was no tomorrow. It was excruciating. By the time we finally got to the top of Hardscrabble, going up, was the one direction I wished my mountain bike didn’t have to go. I could handle anything else – left, right or downhill, even backwards would be fine. But going up, please! Let there be another day, and another way to do it. Then I thought of skiing and chairlifts for a fleeting moment, but all that melted away quickly with the harsh Utah sun.
Well, all that was just Hardscrabble. Murphy’s Hogback was supposed to be a little harder. I wondered if its a good idea to give up even before you started. I’ll give it a go, I told myself.
And then I saw the unfolding ascent of Murphy’s Hogback emerge, quickly dissolving in its prominence all of my resolve, Mike’s faint encouragement, the memory of Hardscrabble, the alluring and haunting beauty of the canyons and all the easy and comfortable aspects of life in general.
Shit. No way!
So I ended up with another Hardscrabble like attempt. I pushed my pedals like there’s no tomorrow, gulped down electrolytes, gasped for breath, stopped, walked, chewed some energy bars, then humped the pedals a little more and then gave up at around 50% of the way up. Not to forget the blurry vision of Mike effortlessly riding past me on the way up, comforting me that it was OK to walk up the way. Then I found Mike, Rajiv and Suresh hanging out in the shade under a protruding rock face a 100 yards from the top, and promptly gave up, walking. It was tough. Vishnu biked much further up than most of us, but he too gave up eventually. So did our big rig. Anne had a tough time driving up the beast and had to stop and back track a couple times, before giving it all she’d got and revving it all the way to the table top.
We had lunch on the mesa with the most wonderful view we could wish for. Cold sandwiches, chips, soda and fruits served with views that went all the way to La Sal Mountains, the Needles district and much of the Maze district of the Canyons. With the mid day sun high up, and a lone big rock providing some scanty shade real estate, everyone huddled close together. I sat under a Pinyon Juniper tree and looked at the berries. They looked like small blueberries, and are apparently used in making some kind of local gin. All I cared was that they contributed to the shade in some miniscule way. Alcohol was the last thing on my mind.
As we ate lunch, we became a subject of the curiosity of a squirrel and a motorbiker from California. They both amused us no end. The squirrel left us in about 5 minutes, but the biker lingered a little more. As everyone got some much needed rest, Vishnu and I climbed up the lone rock at the top and treated ourselves to some Zen like moments. Mike joined us soon after and confirmed that it was his favorite sleeping spot at the Murphy’s Hogback campground. I experienced a pang of sudden jealousy. I could not be any place else in the world at that moment. The scale of the monuments all around , the raw & wild beauty of the rocks. eons of history in every face and layer, the vast distances my eyes could see, all that filled me with wonder. I felt insignificant, but complete, content and peaceful. The breeze flew through me.
I want to be an atom. An atom, of its own. Free. Free to fly deep into these canyons underneath, or just sit here on the mesa top and soak in the goodness of the universe. I wondered if there was someone standing on the summit of the La Sal mountains looking at us and thinking the same thing. Quite possible.
We were ready to roll in minutes.
An uphill climb almost always comes with a nice downhill, but the White Rim Trail had something else packed for us. The downhill from Murphy’s Hogback proved to be the biggest psychological test of the whole weekend.
“That’s a gnarly downhill you’ve got coming up” the Californian biker had warned us pointing towards the road ahead. “You understand gnarly?, do you.. yeah? It means dangerous.. You get it? It’s really, really steep. Better watch out with those bikes!” he followed, just to make sure we get the point. Mike and Anne ignored him. “It’s ok. Nothing you guys can’t do” they assured us. Just when we got to the edge of the imposing downhill, we found another well meaning old gentleman. He rose from somewhere behind the bushes and decided to offer some good advice right away, before we had a chance of saying Hello.
“I wouldn’t go down on one of those bikes if I were you! Too steep, that one” he said. Then he repeated the same exact sentence, maybe three or four times, much to our annoyance and adding to our anxiety. The right edge of the slope was pretty much a cliff, and the gradient just too steep for my comfort.
“Go for it” Mike quietly prodded, as I loosened by brakes gradually. I let the tires roll, my heart skipping multiple beats. I had to decide really really fast whether to bike it or walk it , as the gradient was taking over my balance. My indecision eventually forced me to stay on the saddle, and in a few sub seconds, it was already too late to jam on the brakes. I had to bike it. “You can do it. You can do it. You can do it..” I kept telling myself in a fast loop, going faster and faster as I picked up speed, rolling downhill in the most thrilling roller coaster ever, ultimately yoo-hooing to the bottom of the slide without any accidents. It was certainly the most thrilling 15-20 seconds of the weekend, or wait, maybe of 2017!
The rest of the day turned out to be some real fun mountain biking with rolling hills and pleasant down hills all the way to camp at Gooseberry. They were “free miles” as we called them – carry enough speed into the climbs and then roll downhill, and just repeat the sequence. Taking your butt off the saddle while you glided also gave some much desired relief to our ravaged behinds. We joked about needing “satin pillows”, with a marked outline of an adult human butt – a “x marks the spot” to aim for, so the worst affected areas can get the most plush treatment.
I remembered our camping night on an earlier trek to Mt Whitney. When the body is sore, the soul feels so complete, and relaxed. Perhaps they are related. The harder you work for something, the better you feel at having achieved it.
We had Pad Thai for dinner, followed by a freshly baked carrot cake, thanks to Mike and Anne, who were absolutely delightful and so kind hearted. We sat nursing our sore muscles, joked, sipped some whiskey and then decided to sleep outside under the stars. It turned out to be a great decision.
As the night deepened and the milky way emerged, I wondered when I may do it again. Spend a night under the stars and fill my life with amazement and wonder. Feel the whole universe around me, twinkling and shining in the stars over my head, flowing in the breeze over my body, in the warmth of the sandstone underneath me, rustling in the wild junipers and expanding into a whole eternity all around, miles in all directions.
I felt engulfed in the whole. Like a drop sinking into a massive wave.
Before this hike, I had the dubious distinction of only having climbed the most climbed mountain in the world. It’s called Mt Monadnock and at a modest height of 3,165 ft, is known to be the highest point in Cheshire County, New Hampshire. That was good enough for me. I’m not saying it’s true, but it’s highly likely that someone from Cheshire Country bribed the cartographer to get it on the map. But I am not being judgmental. Being of a very modest height myself, I can empathize with Mt Monadnock. Height isn’t everything.
Well that’s what I thought, when my dear friend Vishnu messaged about yet another backpacking lottery win, this time to Mt Whitney, the tallest in contiguous USA. At 14,505 ft, it’s almost halfway to Mt Everest, and a little less than five times the height of my only mountainous acquaintance so far. Hiking permits were hard to get and Vishnu had been extremely lucky in getting one.
“It’s very very rare. You don’t win these often”, he persuaded. But there’s family visiting, I retorted. “Can’t you ask them to come later” he pressed on. It was a very difficult choice, which I had to discuss with my wife. After 10 long minutes of deliberation, Anu clearly understood Vishnu’s line of persuasion. She then promptly decided that this was indeed a great opportunity for me to do the thing I love doing most – go out there and get lost in nature. It was very hard to disagree with her. And when your wife is convinced about something, you just do it. You don’t ask questions. So I confirmed with Vishnu that I was coming. I like Vishnu and I love my wife way too much. So it is possible that this may have been an entirely altruistic decision.
Of course Vishnu didn’t want to hike it alone, and as I would I discover later, all of this was a carefully laid out trap to lure the amateur into the big bad world of backcountry hiking and camping in alpine conditions. It’s a ‘non-technical’ hike, the website said, and in my enthusiasm, I assumed ‘non-technical’ meant ‘easy’. So, spoiler alert – this is indeed a story of the folly of foolish enthusiasm. What I cannot understand is why I still love hiking and why I still consider Vishnu a dear friend, after what happened. I must be a very enthusiastic person, given the fact that I do not think I am foolish.
But like a fool, I rushed. Onto a plane and into San Jose airport within 72 hours. “You have balls. I didn’t think you would turn up’, Vishnu chuckled. It was his characteristic super nice way of saying ‘Dude, do you have any idea what you have got yourself into?’. Anyway, we celebrated all that stupidity with some Scotch and packed our backpacks late into the night, getting ready for a 6 hour drive early the next morning to Lone Pine, CA. Vishnu had everything organized – a tent, camping stove, gas cylinders, water filtration systems, a bear canister, energy bars, electrolytes for the water, to name a few. There are a hundred other things you need to plan for if you are camping backcountry. All of which I had left to Vishnu’s good judgement. I just made sure I carried enough underwear. In my hiking book, every other discomfort fades away when you are wearing fresh linen where it matters. It almost powers, propels you forward. Definitely a must have, when you are trying to summit a tall mountain. So, after having completely ignored a long list of things Vishnu rattled off, I slept.
The next morning we scorched the California freeways, before arriving in scorching Lone Pine, a small sleepy tourist town that lies where Sierra Nevada ends and Death Valley begins. The ranger at the visitor center handed us our permit and some WAG bags, short for Waste Alleviation and Gelling. The trouble was that all that waste alleviation and gelling had to be carried in person out of the area as you exited. You could leave nothing behind. I thought of arguing over the bio-degradability of my stuff and how if left to nature, we didn’t have to worry about all that alleviation and gelling. But it seemed pointless. The ranger seemed highly convinced about the bags and looked like someone who could possibly withhold our permits, call 911 and hand us over if we argued too much.
With our permits in hand, we headed over to the Whitney portal area, where we camped overnight to acclimatize, at 8,245 ft. The air felt light, but there were hikers and campers all around, and a little store that served food, last minute gear and souvenirs. 7am-9pm, the store-hours sign announced, and a chalk board next to it boastfully mentioned a breakfast menu of pancakes, toast, omelets, bacon, sausages and hash browns. We met a group of hikers cooling off outside. One of them had just completed his hike up and down the mountain and gleefully reported that it took less than 9 hours. 6 to go up and 3 to come down. We then did a small mile long hike to acclimatize, that gave us a taste of things to come. ‘Let’s have a good heavy load of carbs tomorrow before we head out’, I suggested to Vishnu as we slipped into our sleeping bags, thinking alternately about the champion hiker and the hash browns.
We met Rick B at breakfast the next day and he really tried to motivate us. It was the first time we had ever met him. He was a complete stranger. ‘Youth conquers everything’, he said. He must have been 65, or 70 even. I thought about being 40, and about the 20 something we met the evening before who had conquered Mt Whitney in 9 hours. I nodded. Rick was right. Only he wasn’t talking about us. Our foolish enthusiasm and limited mountain hiking experience ensured that we did not carefully examine the risks that lay ahead. Rick then proceeded to tell us some interesting anecdotes from his youth that included hitchhiking across the Sahara desert. He asked about India, the British Raj, Mother Teresa and the City of Joy. It was hard to not like the guy. We thanked him for the interaction and lifted our heavy backpacks. Mine weighed 20 lbs, Vishnu’s a little more.
It was time to hike.
Our plan was to get to Trail Camp at 12,000 ft and camp the night there, and try to summit to 14,505 ft the next morning. It was almost 6.5 miles to Trail Camp and a further 4.5 miles to summit. That decision seemed logical, given the fact that we were inexperienced with high altitudes and it’s never a good idea to leave a lot for the last day. The plan after summiting was to descend all the way to Lone Pine Camp at 10,000 ft and relax overnight, before heading back to the Whitney portal parking. In short, a distance of 6.5 miles+3,500 ft of ascent on Day1; 12.5 miles+2,500 ft ascent+4,500 ft descent on Day2 and 2.5 miles+ 1,500 ft descent on Day3. Easy, peezy, lemon squeezy.
The first couple of hours of the climb were very uplifting, pun unintended. We walked close together, talked a lot about being close to nature, appreciating it’s beauty, respecting it, belonging to the soil and all the other inner aspects of a hiker’s mindset. We stopped from time to time to gasp for breath, and the electrolytes and energy bars worked great to refuel us during our quick pit stops. We were clocking almost a little more than a mile an hour, which given the heat, the elevation gain and the weight of our packs, wasn’t bad at all. Towards the end of the second hour and the beginning of the third however, the true weight of our backpacks slowly emerged. The beautiful landscape offered some fantastic reprieve, and we were truly glad we came. As we climbed on the side of a gorge, streams kicked, rolled and curled under our feet, blue, gray and orange birds sang and flew about, big ferns and other alpine trees offered much needed shade, mountain flowers bloomed on the trail side, a cool breeze altered with the bright sun during certain bends, and majestic rock faces stood on the sides like gigantic guardian angels. The most breathtaking were the alpine lakes with their clear blue center and a shade of green around the edges offering spectacular reflections of the seriously beautiful terrain above. We stopped at a very picturesque rock face overlooking Mirror Lake to take some panoramas. It felt like we were right inside the picture postcard. The vastness of the landscape made us look small and insignificant, but filled us with wonder and overwhelmed with gratitude. As we soaked it all in, I secretly thanked Vishnu for winning the lottery and Anu for pushing me to jump in. At that moment, there wasn’t anywhere else on the planet I would rather be.
By the fourth hour of the climb however, we had already exhausted a lot of our energy, more than 2 liters of water each, and chewed through a significant number of energy bars and gels. The Trail Camp seemed nowhere in sight, and our conversations became less frequent as we looked inward to get our strength reserves working. Our GPS dot seemed to crawl. I started counting as I trudged along, sometimes as slow as a mere 2 steps for each breath. Each step up a rock was a backbreaking affair. ‘One, two, three, four, five – once I caught a fish alive’ I tried to sing from my 3 year old son’s rhyme repertoire. It helped me break into a smile thinking of his beautiful face. Soon enough, he will be big enough to go hike up somewhere with, I thought. I would give him a small backpack, and transfer some of this freaking weight, my mind wandered back into my unforgiving reality. Vishnu may have sensed my frustration and paused for a quick huddle. ‘The camp is just north of Consultation lake, which should be somewhere over there’, he pointed. His fingers were showing the general direction of the trail, which was not much of a giveaway, considering there was only one goddamn trail and which was going only one goddamn way – up. ‘We are already at 11,000 ft’, he encouraged, then proceeding to ask whether I felt the thinning of air around us at all. I frankly had not felt it so far. With so much weight on my back, I hadn’t been paying attention to my nose and breathing. It felt ok. My shoulders hurt, on the other hand. They were already sore. It turned out that I hadn’t tightened my backpack at the hip, and was wearing it too low, all the weight of the backpack falling on the shoulders. So like all new backpackers quickly discover, it’s the hip that packs the punch, not the back or the shoulders. Vishnu’s tips gave me some renewed strength and belief and I restarted my trudging. The trail turned mostly rocky and uneven and walking was tough. When we got to Consultation lake, we were well above the tree line and all their cool shades were gone. It just looked like a huge pile of rock everywhere. The afternoon sun glared in the alpine water and the barrenness of the landscape revealed itself for the first time. The first feeling I got was one of being exposed. There was nowhere to hide from the elements here. Rain, snow, heat, hail, lightning, whatever it is, you were going to be in its path. I had lost most of my strength and resolve as I tramped into the Camp at 12000 ft. I looked at my fitbit. It showed 6:30pm, 15,000+ steps, 88 floors and 400+ active minutes. We had walked for more than 9 hrs to get to 6.5 miles. I unclipped my backpack, lied on my back and closed my eyes for a minute. Filled with gratitude that I had made it, and for all the amazing landscape I had seen on the way.
Vishnu ambled in a few minutes later and we filtered water from the nearby alpine lake for some much needed chai. Then we sat near the lake, sipped on our heavenly elixir while soaking in our first sighting of Mt Whitney. It lay at the right most end of a string of peaks, not majestic by any means, and just about creeping up to the top of the height chart among the equals, perhaps all 14,000+ footers. The moon was starting to bathe the mountains in its glow, and the temperature starting to drop. Having used my bare hands as I filtered water from the cold alpine lake water, I could feel them going almost hypothermic. I struggled with dexterity as we setup the tent. Then we lit up the stove, boiled water for some freeze dried food, and gulped it down at supersonic speed. The hot and very bland chicken rice tasted fantabulous, and my 20Fsleeping bag looked very inviting. I was dead tired and feeling very very cold. After a quick change into thermals and a couple of ibuprofens, I went off to sleep. Vishnu, meanwhile stayed out to photograph the milky way, an activity which under the circumstances I would have paid $100 to bail out of. But bravery is often rewarded, and he got some fantastic shots to show in the morning.
As the morning sun rose from the gorge directly lighting up the line of peaks, Vishnu woke me up from my slumber ‘You got to see this light show. It’s awesome” he shouted. From inside the comfort of my sleeping bag, it took some shaking up to get rid of the inertia and move about. “You are going to miss this buddy”, he reminded. Enough laziness, I thought and quickly pulled myself together and got out to vie the breathtaking sight. Seeing the rising sun itself was quite glorious, given I don’t normally see it, unless I have been awake the whole night on some sort of a life threatening emergency. So the prospect of seeing the rising sun come out of a gorge and light up a string of majestic peaks while creating a fantastic reflection on an alpine lake is all pretty much once in a lifetime thing. I had never seen quite this beautiful, and together with the slight crispy chillness of the morning air at 12,000 ft, this was really really special. “It’s a great start to our Summit hike day”, I thought to myself, as Vishnu scampered around finding the best spot to capture this heavenly postcard. If the morning really shows the day, this was indeed the perfect setup.
The 4.5 miles from Trail Camp to the summit of Mt Whitney is indeed a roller coaster as far as hiking trails go. It’s got wildflowers, cute little marmots jumping around in every other bend, fresh streams of melting ice , fantastic views of the Sequoia side, and then 99 switchbacks, loose rock, passes as narrow as 1 foot at a height greater than 13,500 ft, slippery ice, massive crevices, almost vertical drops of hundreds of feet, 2,500 ft of ascent, and yes, no shade; at least nothing between 9 am and 7pm. That is a great amount of interestingness packed into 4.5 miles, a lot of which the casual hiker would not bargain for. Of course, ignorance is bliss, so we started soon after our morning chai and breakfast. We stashed our tent, one of the backpacks, the bear canister packed with food and a garbage bag close to our campsite and headed for the summit. We carried with us one backpack packed with basic supplies of water, energy bars and our respective cameras. Vishnu graciously offered to carry the backpack on the first leg of the morning, and I gleefully let him. Climbing without the backpack was a breeze, and I soon left him behind, enabling me to take longer breaks in between as I waited for him to catch up. The switchbacks must have been incredibly tiring for Vishnu, but it didn’t quite show. After reaching the Trail Crest point , I decided to take over the backpack. But soon after, near the intersection of Whitney trail and the legendary John Muir Trail, we saw some other backpacks stashed, obviously belonging to hikers on the summit trail ahead of us. It was tempting to leave the backpack behind and just carry our water bottles and cameras, which is what we ultimately decided. A trail marker showed 1.9 miles to the summit and we didn’t think that would be much, the only nagging concern being the mild headache Vishnu had been complaining of off and on.
It turned out to be one of the toughest legs of the whole journey, cutting through jagged rock and an extremely uneven trail, with very little margin for error, sheer drops and deep crevices. I drank sparingly and tried to preserve my water. Although, the altitude did slow me down, I felt fairly ok. Vishnu, however seemed to not enjoy the altitude as much and lagged behind. I was always confident of his strength and experience and knew he would ultimately catch up and kept trudging along, sometimes counting steps, sometimes taking short gasps, and at other times just stopping to soak in the view and renewing my resolve. As I got to the last mile, my strength seemed to drop exponentially, and I was torn between stopping and recharging or just keeping the momentum. I decided to keep the momentum instead and somehow scraped through the rock, ice and direct sunlight to reach the summit at 12:52pm. It had taken me almost 5 hours from Trail Camp.
Reaching the summit is a funny thing. For most of the last part of the ascent, things are so difficult that you almost take one step at a time. Every little step feels like forever. For every rock you climb, more rock shows up ahead. The ordeal seems never-ending. And then suddenly and magically when you reach the top, and there is no more rock to climb. The relief is instantaneous. As I reached the Smithsonian shelter at the top and stopped to take a 360 degrees view, all my pain seemed to go away instantly. Hikers were cheering each other and taking pictures. One even had an American flag. Some were drinking up water, some were gasping for breath, but everyone seemed happy. “We made it” someone cheered. “Go, sign the logbook’, another one shouted. The panoramas were awe-inspiring. I looked for a flat piece of rock and just lay on my back looking up at the sky. A half moon was already up, and battling for real estate with the bright shining sun. There were no clouds for hundreds of miles.
A minute later, I remembered that cellphone coverage was promised at the top, and I fished for my iPhone. It was time for a quick call to Anu, some selfies and panoramas and some whatsapp messaging. She hadn’t heard from me in 36 hours and seemed relieved to hear my voice. She also seemed a tad proud. It’s not often that you see a lazy bum who forever complains of lack of sleep, has a non-existent exercise routine and an undying love for french fries, ice creams and chocolates; scale a mountain. Perhaps she felt that all her pushing and prodding had had some effect finally – the kind of “satisfaction of a job well done” a teacher gets after her worst student gets a distinction. Whether it was the choppy line or Yeshe’s dirty diaper, I can’t remember, but I let her go soon, and returned to my summit experience.
Vishnu arrived after what seemed like ages, almost 40 minutes later. We congratulated each other and did some high fives. He seemed tired and weary. I noticed that his water bottle was almost empty. But the pleasure of having summited quickly took away the exhaustion, and we chatted about the experience and taking snaps of ourselves like 2 kids after a tiring afternoon’s play. We then signed the logbook near the shelter and started heading back down. “We are only half done. There’s a bunch of things to see and experience.” Vishnu reminded. We decided to continue to take it slow, soak in each moment and not just hurry the way down. We also realized that we may not be able to make it all the way down to Lone Pine Lake by end of day as we had originally planned. It was 2pm already. I had almost run out of my water and Vishnu’s bottle was dry. We had a 2 mile downhill, before we could get to our stashed backpack with the water reserve. Let’s just get down to the backpack first, then we will figure it out – we decided. With one last look at the summit, we headed down. It had been a special place, and taken us a lot to get there.
On the way down, I soon started gaining on Vishnu. He was visibly in discomfort, and taking it really slow, almost pausing every 5 minutes or so. But like always, I was more confident of his strength and experience than my own, and started setting a brisk pace. I also wanted to get to the backpack quicker, so I can get some water to drink. Although the air was chilly, the sun was directly overhead and we were sweating from the exercise, and I didn’t want to get dehydrated. I was very close to the John Muir Trail intersection, when a group of hikers we were criss-crossing all day stopped to tell me that they had overtaken Vishnu, and he had looked extremely slow. And what was more worrying was that in spite of them stopping for a significant duration, Vishnu hadn’t caught up along the way. It made me very anxious, and I decided to stop and wait. I was at the bottom of the final ascent by then and the trail winded up on top of me, vanishing at the tip of the visible rocks. Every 5 seconds I would look up to see if Vishnu emerged, and would find nothing. Almost 30 minutes passed, and with my anxiety and my thirst skyrocketing, I decided to climb back up to find my buddy. I was absolutely certain that if he was in any sort of danger, I would be unable to help, given my own dehydrated condition. But I couldn’t just sit there. Well, as luck would have it, a few steps into the climb, Vishnu’s figure emerged from the top. It was surreal. I waved at him a few times before he spotted me in the rocky background and waved back. It looked like he was ok. I turned around and resumed my walk towards the backpack. Within minutes, I reached the backpack and was taking some much needed gulps of water. There was a little shade in a rock canopy and I squeezed into it with my water bottle and some energy bars, giving myself some much needed rest.
Vishnu walked in 10-15 mins later, looking completely exhausted and confirmed he was suffering from the altitude sickness and dehydration. We sat in the rock canopy, drinking water and trying to regain our strength. Our muscles were tightening, and minds getting numb from the elements. For a few minutes, it felt as if everything was working against us. We reminded ourselves that this was in fact one of the perfect days to summit, weather wise. I also remembered the hiker we had met at the Portal store, the one who had gone up and down the mountain in 9 hours total, all in one single day. “Youth conquers everything” echoed Rick B’s wise words. “I must be getting old”, I thought.
We gave ourselves a long rest of 20-30 minutes, drank almost half liter of water each, refilled our bottles and then mustered up enough courage to restart our descent, this time through the difficult 99 switchbacks. I took over the backpack, feeling half responsible and half concerned at Vishnu’s condition. Progress was slow, and we labored through the switchbacks, hardly able to enjoy the scenery and the changing lights of the setting sun. In a little less than an hour, the Trail Camp came into clear view down below. It was pretty obvious that we didn’t have the time or the strength to get down to camp, pick all our load and then walk a further 4 miles to Lone Pine lake. It was out of the question. Our best option was to stay the night at Trail Camp again and descend all the way to the Portal the next morning. Thinking about the tent, our sleeping bags, some more water to drink, some food and ibuprofens helped me tap into my final energy reserves and push downward. Fully aware of his condition, Vishnu was preserving every ounce of his strength and walking very very slowly, but steadily. Once at the camp, we discovered that marmots had ravaged our garbage bag and our waste was strewn all throughout the area, one more small aberration to the day’s problems. After dealing with the trash, we drank the filtered alpine water to our heart’s content. No time was wasted in eating, setting up our tent and slipping inside. Once inside the sleeping bag, I looked back at the day we had. We had walked almost 8-9 miles, climbing 2,500 ft through some very tough terrain, survived altitude sickness and dehydration and safely hiked through the toughest part of the whole journey. The next day was just about getting our load to the bottom of the mountain. And we were already getting a good night’s rest before we do that.
We are over the hill, really, I thought.
We were really over the hill. Although we had our backpacks on, at low altitudes it all felt like a breeze. Well, almost, and only in comparison to the previous day’s blues. 2 days of climbing had made a mess of my muscles, and any compensation my body did for one area started to hurt somewhere else. It started with what felt like a tear in the inside of the thigs, and suddenly I started feeling it in the calf, then my shoulders started feeling sore. Finally my snug fit hiking shoes started hurting my toes. Every step I descended, my toes started bending and bruising. But it was something I would take any day in exchange of climbing up at 14,000 ft without water. We paused to give our muscles some break, and enjoy the scenery throughout our last descent and ultimately reached Lone Pine lake at 11am. It was breathtakingly beautiful. By this time, my toes were hurting so bad I had made up my mind to buy flip flops, the first occasion I get. At the bank of the lake, we unclipped our backpacks, opened our shoes and started walking around barefoot. I sat down to meditate and Vishnu captured it all so awesomely on his camera.
We stayed a little over half hour at Lone Pine lake and it gave us time to reflect. Solitarily and together. Hiking and outdoors has come to mean so much, and given us so much to think about and experience. It has given us so much of awareness about our own selves and the world and such a fantastic avenue to be happy. A moment to reflect makes an occasion even more eventful, even more satisfying. I think it’s all in the mind. We go to a place to get happiness, but we come around realizing that it’s been with us the whole time.
We got back to the Portal at around 1pm. There were no fans waiting or any drumrolls celebrating our conquest. But there was the hiker’s satisfaction at the end of a trail. We rested our feet some more and had some Gatorade and ice creams. Then it was time for souvenirs, some ‘I Climbed Mt Whitney – 14,505 ft’ t-shirts. We talked about our bragging rights and decided it would be acceptable to brag about all of it for exactly 2 days, beyond which people would just stop caring and think that we are idiots.
It’s not a big deal. Perhaps one hundred hikers summit Mt Whitney every summer day. ‘Tallest in the lower 48’, ‘Half of Everest’ etc etc are just words. I walked away thinking, if I could do it, anybody can. Someone said we climb mountains, because ‘they are there’, because it’s hard. True. There is an incredible happiness that comes from doing something that’s hard. To the extent, that I feel it’s incorrect to say ‘There’s no pleasure without the pain”. I am beginning to think that real pleasure comes “from” the pain itself. Almost as if the pain is the genesis of the pleasure. They are not two different things. If it had been a breeze, I wouldn’t be sitting here at 3am writing about all this.
I just feel like I unlocked another level of happiness.