Sridhar Iyer, Sr. VP Risk Management HSBC
DS:In your professional role as a risk manager, you’d define, analyse risks, take actions to minimise these risks while still achieving the targetted business goals. Does this define your approach to high altitude Himalayan trekking & mountaineering too?
SI: To be honest, my answer is NO. I am by nature a risk taker, and I have always been drawn towards adrenalin gushing and heart pumping activities. So that explains my innate attraction to Himalayan adventures. My job at HSBC is not always about risk minimisation but more about risk management – there is usually an argument that if we minimised risk totally, we would have no business and would need no risk management! But there are similarities between my professional work and the mountains. I always read the clues carefully, understand the data, talk to my intuition and gut more often, learn with experience and ensure that the decision made at any point is done to the best extent possible. It’s a bit ironic that I started my career in sales and marketing and then moved to risk management. Most traditional bankers would say that’s a bad move for the bank, because in my earlier role, I would often take risks in trying to get business. In a strange resemblance, I have never undergone formal training in mountaineering. I just moved from the Sahyadris to the lower Himalayas and then to the upper Himalayas. Even to date, I can’t tie a harness onto myself, but I feel comfortable in my mind trying a 6500 Mtr peak!
DS: When did the snow capped peaks first beckon you?
SI: I first started my tryst with serious trekking by climbing the Dzongri peak in west Sikkim over 8 years back. One led to the other and then before I knew it, I had completed a treacherous trek in Ladakh (Parang La), then summitted the Stok Kangri peak before adding the Chamsher Kangri peak too, to the kitty over three attempts. This elusive success was 2 years back. I now have my sights trained on Mentok Kangri in Ladakh for August 2009. Hope I succeed in summitting it.
DS: Were all your Himalayan adventures easy successes?
SI: Not at all. I was lucky with Parang La, but actually, there was no option but to succeed in it. It was a 125 kms walk, over 11 days, with the trail devoid of any human inhabitation anywhere, except the two ends. So once we were past the half way mark, the only way we could survive was by reaching the other end! I was lucky again with Stok Kangri and though it was very demanding, I just somehow made it to the summit. It was only on the way down did I realise why it’s said the summit is only the half way mark!! It was a tough climb and the lack of an advanced base camp made the 3000 Ft single day climb very demanding. Chamsher Kangri was a funny mix – on first attempt, everything went wrong, yet we laboured on and finally reached base camp. But one of our colleagues got hit by altitude and I had to help escort him down. In doing this, we lost the momentum and the mental strength to start back again and I called it off. The next year, heavy rains in Ladakh made it impossible for us to even commence the trek. Finally I was successful on the third attempt. It has been elusive, so at the end it was very satisfying.
DS: Of all journeys you’ve mentioned, we’d like to take you back to the year 2003 and the summit attempt of the 20162 Ft Mountain in Ladakh, Stok Kangri. Walk us through the last few days from Mankarmo to the Base Camp & then to the Stok Kangri Summit.
SI: Those few days were rather adventurous and bone tiring. I had actually lost my way from Mankarmo to Base Camp. I remember it was an arduous walk through a river basin, surrounded by hillocks and it went on for over 6 hours. I tried to play smart and walked ahead with Leela Alvares, lost my way, walked an entire 1.5 hours more till I realised we were off course. We had to re-trace our steps in an effort to rejoin the group. This added time to our schedule, it required an additional effort and we were the last ones to reach Base Camp. It had also started raining towards the fag end of this walk, making it a really ugly day’s trek. When I saw Base Camp, it was a great relief because I was mentally and physically too tired to continue.
DS: Not the most auspicious of starts to a summit attempt. Climbers tend to get very superstitious in times like this. What happened thereafter?
SI: Yes. It definitely wasn’t and it got worse as the night progressed. Often plans do not have as smooth an execution as you’d want. That’s precisely what happened. We were 3 to a tent. All of us were confident of trying to summit the next morning. Then things began to sort off slide out of control. It started with a heavy downpour which lashed our tents. The ground we slept on became slushy. We discovered our floor mats weren’t water proof which was extremely annoying. To top all this, the tent got claustrophobic with 3 of us inside. The oxygen levels also fast depleted. We had a very sleepless night. This resulted in a reeling and a throbbing head in cold, windy and wet conditions at 1.30 am when I awoke to prepare for the summit.
When things have to deteriorate, they do. I then realised my body was frozen with the wet conditions around us. A tent mate of mine was hit with altitude and refused to summit. I wondered what was in store for me. We climbed a real steep hillock to begin with and reached a glacier. For the first time perhaps, I felt nervous. It seemed scary too. I could hear the water try to tear through the frozen ice and here we were trying to walk over it. Midway through the climb, one of my climbing colleagues decided that she’d had enough and decided to retreat. She descended with a porter in tow. This was another dampener to our already stretched spirits.
Anyway, the next 4 hours was a mix of black rock and ice, making it slippery and unmanageable. Our main guide walked as if he was strolling on a beach. I must have asked him at least 50 times over 4 hours on the time needed to reach the summit. All he had to say consistently was “abhi toh door hai, aur teen ghanta! (It’s still far, atleast 3 hours)”. The climb along the ridge was tough, unending and I was really getting mind-fu****. We were 2 groups. Kapil Ranade, Vineet Sachdeva and I formed the first group of three. We were ahead of the other 2 team members. They had recently lost Aakansha who had descended to the safety of the Base Camp. We would simply count 25 small steps, then stop for one minute and then continue. This crazy mechanical counting and walking went on for at least 3 hours. I was so tired that even opening my water bottle and drinking water or munching a chocolate bar seemed like a tedious task.
There were some tense moments along the path – I had to climb over a boulder which was slippery. If anything were to happen, I’d be history! Then just before the summit – we encountered a very narrow path, all of 2 ft wide with traffic both ways. It had fresh snow (almost 18 inches deep), was steep, loose stones covered one end of the path while there was at least a 2000 Ft sheer drop on the other end. I think it was the scariest patch I have ever traversed. We summitted at around 11 am. We were so tired that we spent less than 10 minutes at the top. I didn’t really enjoy the moment. My mind was busy contemplating ways to manage the descent. Where would I get additional reserves of energy from I wondered? I was already on reserves and now faced 10 hours of continuous walking to Base Camp.
DS: The trek back is always the toughest, especially if it’s a long one. You seem to have lived a text book narrative Sridhar! You said you are drawn towards adrenalin gushing activities. Guess you found them on Stok Kangri…
SI: Adrenalin was the last thing on my mind then. I was tired and my legs were trembling. Just short of the summit, we saw a 55 year old European lady who passed and walked up faster than us. She was summitting this peak alone! At the summit, there were the Israeli guys who had actually carried a banner which said “Stok summit – we did it”. The entire scene was surreal. The descent meantime got extremely tricky, especially for me. It was raining, it was slippery, dangerous and the worst part was I was very sleepy. I had ice cold feet, was wet with rain and sweat, yet very thirsty. To add to this, I had very little water, which I was saving for the very end. We couldn’t rest, because it was getting late and as the sun shone, the glacier began melting! I remember that at one point in time, as we took a 5 minute break, I sat on a rock and just fell asleep. I couldn’t control my self. Somehow we laboured on without a guide fending for ourselves. Our guide had gone back up again to the summit with the 2nd team. Crossing the glacier was a real struggle as there were a few paths which had enough hard ice to hold our weight. The remaining paths were too fragile and stepping on it would have been a bad idea! I simply followed the paths left by the European and Israeli trekkers and hoped that since the time they crossed till the time I stepped on that path, nothing had changed. Like all ordeals on this trek, the glacier ended too but not without serious physical and mental agony. I had just another 20 minutes and I ran down consuming every ounce of energy left in me. “Dead tired” took its literal definition. I hugged my friends who had been anxiously waiting all day long, celebrated with a soft lift of hands and a muffled war cry, sipped hot tea, some soup and slept in the tent. I woke 5 hours later, alive and happy that I had finished that way!
DS: Quite a tale this. How important is leadership, team work and communication in such moments? Could you highlight this with instances?
SI: Leadership is very important e.g Jayesh the team leader had to take a tough call on who would be allowed to summit. Some team members didn’t like him making this decision, but having seen the treachery on the way up and down, I could only appreciate his foresight and his enforcement of caution. Many times, you feel you are right simply because you have no clue on how harsh reality could be! Jayesh was a great leader and he led by example – he would have given an arm and leg to summit, but when he felt he was sick, he backed out. That takes a lot of courage. But along with leadership, there must be trust and camaraderie between climbers. I would have never made it if Vineet and Kapil did not constantly prod me on, speak the right words, laugh with me, hold me, push me, wipe my fears off, share their food, their water, carry my bag, allow me a shoulder to rest, help me through difficult parts. The list is endless. That’s what I learnt – these guys were genuinely good at heart. At such harsh moments, you cannot fake it. It has to come from the heart. So on the summit trail, we had a lead climber (our guide), but I related more to the guys who helped me than the leader who drove us up.
DS: Hypothetically speaking, if there is mutiny in the team (where a team member doesn’t listen to the leader) in these critical moments, how would you resolve it?
SI: It’s never an easy answer. I face such situations in work life as well, where a direct report doesn’t want to walk along your path. In such times, friendship or relationship plays against your desire to play the situation correctly. I have always played to the situation based on what my mind tells me. I am prepared to cause friction in my relationship, but I will hang on to do what I think must be done at that time. It hurts, it affects you, but it’s easier to deal with the loss of relationship than to face the awful end result of a wrong decision taken.
DS: How would you react to what happened at Stok Kangri?
SI: Different people have different judgments. So no matter how I think of it, it can never reflect as a comment on what actually happened. I think for Jayesh safety of his team is always the most important. In doing this, he could sometimes draw the line wrong, and that can cause friction, but I would never ever question the intention. He thought some should not attempt the summit. In this, I saw his intent very clear. If I was told not to climb, I would obey. Some did not like it and it hurt their ambition, I don’t blame them – if I were Jayesh, I would have perhaps done similar to what he did!
DS: What does it feel like to stand atop a summit? A Stok Kangri at 20162 Ft or even a Chamsher Kangri at 21300 Ft which you summitted after two unsuccessful attempts.
SI: It’s a great feeling – it puts my self-appraisal of my achievements in life notches higher. It puts my self confidence in physical endurance and mental strength notches higher. I never make the summit my only objective. I start enjoying from Day 1 of the journey. I am more a lover of the journey than the end destination. I like being competitive, so I keep my eyes, mind and heart on the summit, but I never let that take away the joy of the journey. So even when we missed Chamsher Kangri 2 years, I enjoyed every moment of my trip and had the enthusiasm to go back again a third year and get lucky!
DS: Summitting Chamsher Kangri would’ve been tougher than Stok Kangri. Can you draw a parallel between the two trails and the peaks?
SI: I actually think Stok Kangri was tougher, because it was the first time I actually got stretched that hard and that far! By the time you do it a second time, your mind knows what to expect, and that in itself prepares you better. Chamsher Kangri was tough anf the climb on the final day was demanding. It needed crampons, which till the time I used on Chamsher, I had never ever worn or understood how to use! So I remember doing a test walk for a minute and then going live! For Stok, we left at 2 am and returned at 3 pm. At Chamsher, we left at 1 am and returned at 5.30 pm.
DS: Ever thought of chasing down the most coveted peak on planet Earth?
SI: Yes, I am keen to try my luck with Mt. Everest. It’s somewhere on my radar and I am sure it will grow stronger with time!
DS: What would your trekking and climbing motto be?
SI: Show me a path that’s a challenge and I will be there to make the most of it!
DS: Some thoughts to reflect for all aspiring trekkers…
SI: Enjoy the journey, not the destination. When you are with nature, away from the material world, you tend to put down all your acquired personality guards which reveals your naked personality. You also see your companions in a similar fashion enabling you to make the good ones a part of your life!
Sridhar Iyer. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you for narrating your gripping account of Stok Kangri. I was completely transported. I wish you a successful summit attempt of Mentok Kangri in August 2009.
and Ramnik Chhabra, Sr. Vice President & Head Marketing – Motilal Oswal Financial Services