|Mandar Natekar, National Sales & Marketing Head – Big Adda||Ramnik Chhabra, Sr. Vice President & Head Marketing – Motilal Oswal Financial Services|
DS: Mandar Natekar and Ramnik Chhabra. Welcome to Debolin Sen. In addition to being successful corporate professionals, would you say Everest Base Camp (EBC) was an adventurous addition to a diverse list of interests?
MN: I have been in the corporate world for the last 10 years but have always made it a point to “live my life”. This is important to me to stay refreshed and enjoy work. I play cricket through the season, badminton twice a week, tennis at least once a week. I have also started taking guitar lessons! All my leisure time is either spent on the activities mentioned or holidaying with my wife to remote locations. Both of us are diagnosed with a very serious bout of wanderlust! There is no cure for this, thankfully! Next on my to-do list is the Annapurna Circuit Trek. J.R.R Tolkien had once said “Not all those who wander are lost”.
RC: Sure, it has been quite an addition, to an existing list which already includes music, quizzing, history and more recently, long distance motorbike riding.
DS: As first timers on a high altitude Himalayan trek, was it daunting, when you thought of reaching the world’s highest mountain?
MN: The thought was daunting, yes, but how many people do we know who have seen Mt. Everest with their own eyes? At that time I knew none. Regarding first timers, I believe it’s more about mental strength than physical. Till then, I hadn’t been on a trek before. I weighed 80 kilos, didn’t go to the gym, but had been active with outdoor sports, so was basically fit. People laughed when I told them I was going to trek to an altitude of 18000 feet and said I would never manage, but I chose to ignore and I proved them wrong.
RC: For me, there was a ‘buzzing fear’. The maximum I had trekked in my life before was for 2 hours to Karnala fort. I also hadn’t prepared for the trek as much as I’d liked. So yes there was a fear of the unknown, of how the body would adapt to the exertion and altitude. Yet at the same time there was a tingling sensation of anticipation – of a once in a lifetime experience.
DS: How did it all happen? What made you go to the Everest Base Camp?
MN: It would be hard to believe but I’ve wanted to do this since the time I was 10 years old. I had read an article in Readers Digest on the EBC. I had decided then, that I’d go someday. So when I knew of the March 2008 trek, I was ready to fulfill a childhood dream.
RC: I hail from Delhi. The mountains were quite accessible to me during my student years. I was also part of the college adventure club. But sadly, the only thing I did then was a weekend rock climbing session at Anand Parbat. It was only when I moved to Mumbai did I realize what I had missed. Corporate life also ensured that I never got enough time for the Himalayas. Shorter experiences like river rafting in Rishikesh only further accentuated the feeling. A couple of years back I saw the movie The Bucket List. I figured I might as well not wait till I was old to create my own list and quickly acted on it. A trek to the Himalayas was the first on my Bucket List.
DS: What was the personal experience like? Describe it for our readers.
MN: Well, the personal experience of seeing Chomolungma cannot be described. Everyone should experience it someday. The experience of the Debolin Sen Everest Base Camp Trek from Mumbai to the sights and sounds of Nepal was exhilarating, especially when passing through small hamlets of Lukla, Phakding, Lobuche and Tyangboche. One thrilling moment was when I was the first to reach Dughla Pass, which was a steep back breaking trudge for 2 hours. But the view from the top of the pass was phenomenal. Also, as we gained altitude, it was difficult to take more than 4 steps at a time. But when your body fails, your mind takes on, as if on autopilot. Reaching the Chai lodge was a treat. The lemon tea, the Sherpa soup, the buttered potatoes, the omelettes, they were something else. I actually looked forward to this every single day.
RC: I couldn’t agree more with you Mandar. Don’t forget the chocolate doughnuts later on the trail! In many ways it was life changing for me ~ an experience of enjoying the journey (good, bad and ugly), the sense of achievement on reaching the destination, to be one among the 5 who finally made it to the Base Camp was immensely satisfying ~ and along the way the mountains taught me many lessons which were always there in the sub-conscious, but came into sharp focus in the rarified air.
“You have nothing to fear but fear itself” – the first daunting & dreaded climb to Namche Bazaar was over 1000 feet in a day on just my second day of the trip. But as I started walking I realized that once you accept the fear of failure as part of your psyche and not let it intimidate you, you can actually use this fear to motivate yourself to reach into infinite inner reserves. Don’t get intimidated by fear; embrace it and use it to your advantage.
“The Power of Patience” – I am an aggressive, impatient person by nature. I had no reason why I couldn’t take the mountain head on. The mountain taught me something different however; aggressively tackling the height at that altitude made you lose energy fast. Based on a tip from Debolin Sen I started taking small, slow steps and it did wonders to my stamina. 50, 60…70…80…100 steps and counting and I still hadn’t stopped! I recall there was a period of 45 minutes without a break. I passed more experienced people and found I was not waiting to catch my breath. On the mountains I learned the power of patience and the consistency in tackling any task, however insurmountable.
“The path of least résistance” – When it means climbing mountains you don’t fight or resist. It is better to take a slightly longer/easier route then the tough one; to go around a stone rather than over it. So I avoided every rock, tried to climb as few steps as possible and employed the slow/short step routine effectively. My powers increased exponentially.
“In the zone” – Try to build a rhythm. Once you get into a rhythm while walking, you find it difficult to stop. I found that once I hit this zone. The last stretch upto Gorak Shep and the EBC was actually enjoyable.
DS: Were there any incidents, any difficulties you faced on the way?
MN: Ramnik, that was indeed very profound. But great tips to keep in mind. There weren’t any difficulties for me. If you travel with a good group, you don’t face anything. All difficulties were related to the uphill trail and as you start getting acclimatised, you get totally used to it. But the incident at Gorak Shep will forever remain etched in my mind. Those were difficult moments for me.
RC: The stretch to Lobouche was supposed to be ‘Nepali flat’ – an oxymoron as any Nepali terrain is undulating, rocky and unforgiving for us lesser mortals! The only consolation was, the walk was besides a frozen river – another first for me. But strangely I felt listless; a complete anti-climax after the hill assault up the Dughla Pass. Was the altitude and terrain finally getting to me I wondered? Guys who I was well ahead of earlier were passing me. I finally figured. When you don’t have the objective in sight, you can’t give your best. Another incident was on the final stretch from Tyangboche to Khumjung. Mandar and I stopped at the village Sanasa. It had a billboard advertising the world’s highest bakery at Khumjung. The imaginary aroma of fresh bread and rolls powered us to soon reach a sign that said we were only 20 minutes from cappuccino nirvana. 20 minutes became 30 then 40 to 50. No sign of the town (or the bakery). When all seemed lost, we bumped into a chubby, jovial Australian lass who told us that Khumjung was still 40 minutes away! Her sunny disposition and accurate information filled us with renewed vigour. We soon reached a small room signaling the beginning of a dwelling and then the wider expanse of the town. We truly learned that boards that say 20 minutes actually mean 20 minutes walk for the local Nepalese and over an hour for us. After ‘Nepali flat’ we were done in by ‘Nepali time’!
DS: Often personal egos tend to emerge in a diverse group of individuals. How was it with the team you were part of?
MN: You don’t have time to cater to egos actually. As you begin trekking, for the longest time you walk alone as everyone generates their own pace. You can see your fellow trekker a 100 Mtrs away but you just don’t have the energy to accelerate. You are all by yourself. And after you reach the camp for the day, the only thing left is to feast on some good food and rest comfortably. So there really isn’t any time to cater to or look after egos.
RC: Except for Debolin Sen, I knew no one in the group. It takes me some time to get to know people and anyways on a trek you spend most of the time walking on your own. Interactions with the group would happen during lunch breaks and in the evenings around the fire in the Chai shops where we stayed. Ofcourse there were moments of friction and egos – who sleeps where, who gets to bathe first, who sings when etc etc. But these are momentary and really trivial lapses of reason. You put it down to the cold, the loneliness (for some) and the altitude. But I wouldn’t dwell too much on it.
DS: What was the toughest stretch you think you faced on the trail & how did you overcome it?
MN: Well, the toughest one was on our way to Khumjung while returning from Tyangboche. It was the toughest because the trail was never ending! Ramnik’s explained it already. Another tough stretch was Gorak Shep. I think that’s the only time I felt really sick and thought I had lost my way. I could see Debolin and Ramnik a little ahead, below me. I shouted myself hoarse asking them to stop. But ofcourse they couldn’t hear me. And there was nobody behind me, no fellow trekkers from other groups either. I couldn’t figure the path or the direction on which to proceed. So I sat by the wayside. Leaning on my walking stick, I fell asleep by the edge of what was actually a steep cliff. It seemed like an eternity, but would have actually been a few minutes I think. Thankfully I was woken up by the sound of yak bells from a passing team of Sherpas. The lead Sherpa was able to guide me and I resumed walking the trail. Phew!
RC: After the euphoria of reaching EBC and taking a few photos, it was time to turn back. There were clouds looming on the horizon. Not good news. We started walking back earnestly. And then it started snowing, first in specs and then in powdery swathes. None of us were prepared for this. So the only option was to get back to Gorak Shep and shelter as fast as possible. Our guides went ahead to pick up sustaining soup for the laggards. I was last in the pack on the trek back. Suddenly, the people in front vanished. And there was no sign of the trail either. Flexing my fingers and toes furiously to counter imaginary frostbite, I contemplated my next move. A sudden flash of instinct made me turn right and down and I almost banged into a plaque; a memorial to a Sherpa in the middle of nowhere. For me it was a beacon of hope, a sign from the mountain gods that I would make it. And sure enough, right in front of the plaque I stumbled on a flat patch of land beyond which would definitely be Gorak Shep. What’s more, my 4 other EBC’iters were right in front of me. I had inadvertently stumbled upon a short cut! All of us were now moving furiously ahead towards the visible distant chimneys and to a warm hearth and hot food. In 10 minutes we had opened the doors to our Chai shop, covered in snow, tired but triumphant. After a good meal and some great exchange of experiences we decided to turn in for the night. It was -16 degrees Celsius outside and -6 degrees in our rooms. But all we could feel was the glow of achievement that warmed the cockles of our hearts and minds.
DS: Were their moments when you felt unsure of yourself and wanted to quit?
MN: No; actually, yes; on the second night of the Debolin Sen Everest Base Camp Trek. I dreamt about a romantic vacation in Paris with my wife for 4 nights! What was I doing here, struggling with my breathing and trying to sleep (which incidentally doesn’t happen for more than 20 minutes at a stretch)? But then this feeling quickly went away as my body and mind got used to the trek.
RC: It happened on the first day of trek from Lukla to Phakding. The IC flight to Kathmandu had served some scrumptious food and I overdid it. By the time we started the trek I had the runs! Constant nature breaks not only slowed me down, they also weakened me. Luckily I caught up with the group when they stopped for lunch and thanks to some homeopathic concoction, I managed to carry on till Phakding. The next morning I was fine and never thought of turning back.
DS: When you neared Everest Base Camp, what thoughts crossed your mind?
MN: I was actually too numb to think. Everest Base Camp was ahead of me with Mt. Everest looming large. To my right was the huge Khumbu glacier. The sun was scorching hot, I was sweating inside with my 4 layers of clothing but every minute the wind hit the glacier, I froze to the bone. I was happy that even with my level of fitness I was able to reach where I did with no trouble at all. I had fulfilled my childhood dream of seeing Mt. Everest.
RC: The final stretch from Gorak Shep to the Everest Base Camp was supposed to be a comfortable walk and we were lulled into a false sense of comfort. Spirits were good for the first one hour. We took our first break an hour down assuming EBC was just round the corner. That’s when we were hit with the spec of a tent 3-4 km away. At least 2 hours more. This sight was what broke the back of a couple of resolves and some turned back. We trudged along hoping for the red spec to get larger with time. We were now walking past a huge glacier on our right (the infamous Khumbu ice fall) with icy winds cutting through our bodies and covering us with a layer of snow. Ever heard of a cold knife through bodies? I felt inadequately prepared with my woolen gloves and flimsy jacket. Would it be safe to go on? Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I hadn’t come all this way to turn back. Not with the objective within striking distance. We trudged along like automatons; eyes glued to the red spec, gaining an imaginary force from it, arms and legs moving like pistons. 3 km….2….1…500mtrs…50. And then Mt. Everest and the Khumbu glacier! We had reached the destination we had all planned for so many months; pushed our bodies, tested our spirits – for a small pile of rocks at the bottom of an ice fall. I think sometimes things that look small demand big sacrifices. For me the only feeling was of a sense of achievement; dulled by the cold. That it’s done! That someone with my capacity and physical shape (103 kgs no less) could do it. That’s when at 17500 odd feet, cold and weary, with a raven and a pile of rocks for company; a saying by Zig Ziglar finally hit home –”It’s your attitude that determines your altitude”. Quite Literally!
DS: What advice would you give aspiring first timers who’d want to attempt the Everest Base Camp?
MN: Just Do It. The experience will be etched in your mind forever. It will completely change you as a person (it did for me). I am a totally different person now in terms of being more aware of nature, its power and importantly, the power of the mind. You really have to embark on this trek to know that your mind has awesome reserves of power which we don’t realise and never use at all.
RC: “You have nothing to fear but fear itself” ~ “The power of patience” ~ “The path of least résistance” ~ and “In the zone” ~
DS: Is there any self defining moment you’d like to share with us?
MN: It has to be the Dughla Pass for me, since I climbed it first! Besides, I really am a much stronger person physically and mentally after this trek. I now know I can do anything in this world. That’s the level of confidence I am fortunate to have imbibed.
RC: The steep, impossible climb up a hill from Dughla to reach the Pass. Steep, full of rocks; you had to criss cross its face many times looking for even ground to climb. Walking for an hour seemed like an eternity, stretching every sinew as well as my resolve. Thankfully, the resolve held up and with a final push I bundled myself to the top. It was an awesome climb and psychologically more difficult than the one to Namche Bazaar. Looking down that hill at the speck that was Dughla was one of life’s true achievements. This for the first time instilled in me the belief that anything is possible. I can make it to the Everest Base Camp. And I did!
DS: Your trekking motto?
MN: Do Not Litter. Appreciate the environment, respect it. If you cannot improve it, at least do not spoil it.
RC: “Never go up the same path twice.” There is nothing like experiencing something for the first time. So make everytime the first time. This applies not just to trekking but to all other adventure activities I have been partaking in since the Everest Base Camp. “Try everything you want to do in life atleast once.” If you don’t enjoy it atleast you won’t have regrets of not trying later. And if you do, don’t let go of it.
Mandar Natekar & Ramnik Chhabra. It’s really been terrific and quite an eye opener listening to every moment on the trail. This is Debolin Sen signing off. I will be back soon with equally interesting personal accounts.