Post Trek Write up - You are stronger than what you think

Wednesday, April 9, 2014
I spent the two hardest days of my life over the last weekend, trekking up the Nagalapuram hill, guided by the Chennai Trekking Club (CTC) with a group of around 80 explorers. Sitting in my couch now and thinking back about it, I can safely claim that I survived it, but only just! My body was pushed to its limits like never before and to a good extent, so was my mind. They both remained strong and sane till the finish line was crossed but the satisfaction I feel now is worth all the pain I endured.

This trek was labelled a 'moderate trek' on difficulty levels by CTC and we had to go through a fitness test to be shortlisted for this trek. It involved climbing the Pallavaram hill opposite Chennai Airport in a rough terrain with around a 10 kg backpack in under 10 minutes. I managed to do that in 8 mins and with the experience of a few treks prior to this (treks to Tada and Kumara Parvatha are the ones I have written about earlier), I had a good impression about my fitness and endurance. But this trek eventually turned out to be a great reality check for me. 

We started around 5 AM from Chennai on saturday, carpooling to the parking zone at the foothills. Two sub-groups were set to explore the same hills with two different objectives. There were several boot campers whose objectives were to navigate the mountain and reach pre-determined points assigned to them in teams of three. They had undergone training sessions earlier about topography, map creation, trail planning and analysis, compass, geographic latitude and longitude, GPS, navigation and positioning. Ours was the trekking group and our objective was pretty simple and straight forward: 
Climb up till you meet your forefathers. Get down alive if you want to meet your family and friends. 
*Minor terms and conditions like minimal food and water; steep,risky rock-climbing and the unmerciful April sun also apply. 

The trek started with a fairly long walk from the parking to a dried dam across which the mountain started. Not only was it dry but the trees supposed to be under water in the dam were all charred and the place gave a fair glimpse of what lay ahead. Not knowing those implications, we happily took pictures for Facebook uploads there. Should have read those signs properly!

We proceed to the base camp from there which was set up along a stream where the two groups diverged. Peter, the founder of CTC, joined us with the trekking group. The boot campers had their tasks assigned to them. From the base camp we started a challenging trek upwards. Water was a rarity in most places and wherever we saw water, we had to fill our stomachs and bottles as much as possible. The highlight of the trek came just a few minutes later, where we reached a crevice where water was flowing down from the top. Peter asked us to climb up the crevice to proceed forward. What is so tough in this climb? 

Water flowing down the crevice falls at a very deep pool down down. One can't climb up the crevice in normal mode. You have to switch on the 'Spiderman' mode and push on your feet and hands from left to right in an almost vertical crevice. Between your legs, there flows the silvery stream ready to take you down to the deep end the moment you place a foot on it. I don't know the actual name of that point but I propose it to be called 'Spiderman crevice'. 

Climbing the spiderman crevice
Then we continued the trek through terrains that got more and more challenging till we reached a near dead-end. Peter and another veteran trekker decided to halt there for lunch and we unpacked the sweet bolis and bread that we had packed for lunch. There were some home made chocolates too. I was wondering how we would proceed forward from that place since it was covered on three sides with very steep rocks and the trail from where we came up there ended behind us. The last thing I wanted was Peter telling us all to return in the same route to some other point. He had other surprises for me! A few minutes after lunch, he effortlessly climbed one of those rocks that was inclined at almost 70-80 degrees and asked us to follow. He seemed to walk on those steep rocks as if he were walking in the Marina beach in the early morning. 

Every now and then, he would do that. He would become invisible suddenly and while we all think that he has stayed behind for some reason and get some happiness that there will be time to rest till he comes, he jumps from some rock ahead of us with his unique base voice, egging us on 'Up.. Up.. Up'! And whenever we start after a break, he would give us an estimate of time to reach the next halting point. Very soon, we learnt to multiply the time he mentions into three for our understanding. We were in the ratio of 1:3 to Peter. 

After an arduous trek, we reached a point where Peter decided to halt. There was no trace of water and teasingly small amounts of shade. He asked for a smaller team to volunteer to go on a detour and fetch water for everybody. According to him, the water team was supposed to go around 1.2 kilometres from there to fetch water. While we happily stayed behind, one of my friends joined the water warriors. And we stayed and waited for them to come back and resurrect us from the dead. After an hour, they came back with water. Apparently, they had almost walked 3-4 km for water since water had dried up in the place where it was expected to be. I told my friend that we would all have been dead there if they had not come with water for 10 more minutes. And he replied quickly that they would all have been dead there if they had not found water for ten more minutes! Life's like that in Nagala in April. 

After water and rest for a while, we did a single stretch descent via a trail that took us close to the base camp. Close to the base camp, we went to a pool and took a refreshing dip and ended the day. Or at least I thought that was the end of the day! After the pool, we had to trek upstream for nearly 2 hours in the dark, equipped with our torches, slipping into the stream every now and then, to reach a place where there was sufficient flat space for us all to bunk for the night. Maggi Noodles was prepared for everyone and after eating up to recharge ourselves for the next day, we slept there. What a night it was! With the sound of flowing water nearby and the beautiful stars above us and two steep hills to the either side of us, it was one of the best places where I have slept. 

Our bunking spot by the stream
Day 2 started early with tea and Aval for breakfast. Peter informed us that we will do a mini easy trek to a level 1 and then those who wish can join him on a challenging trek to a level 2. I and my friends had almost made up our minds to stop at level 1. We had already neared our limits and considering the 1:3 ratio, Peter's proposal did sound intimidating. On the way to level 1, we paused briefly for a dip in an amazing sliding pool. Non-swimmers like me could also enjoy it with the help of the rescue team. The pool was deep where the water fell and a few feet ahead, it was shallow enough for us to stand. You just have to trust the swimmers down there and slide and fall into the water. They will pull you to safety in a few seconds. Complete surrender! 

Slide pool
Level 1 was truly a mini trek from the sliding pool and Peter said that those who wanted to stay back can play at the sliding pool till the others returned. It was a very tempting offer and I was almost leaning 70:30 to stay. Then casually Peter uttered the words I will never forget, "Level 2 will differentiate the men from the boys. Those who have balls join me for level 2". That's how my misery started! In spite of all the campaigning done by a few friends to stay back with them, for the sake of my ego, I joined the level 2 group. 

The trek to level 2 was risky, exhausting and highly demanding. Angles of the climbs became even steeper, rock edges became even narrower and slippery, thorns adorned the routes all the way and the sun was sucking every drop from the body. Two legs would not suffice and you had to put all four limbs to good use in this route. This is the stretch where I almost lost my will to continue further. From my experience in this trek - one needs to have two of the following three to complete this moderate trek. 
  1. Extremely strong physical fitness and stamina
  2. Experience/ habit of highly regular physical activities like jogging, sport etc.
  3. Extremely strong mental resolve
'Extremely' is a key word above and 'decent' is not an acceptable word there. I have decent stamina and no regular physical activity and hence my mental resolve had to work more than its share to make me complete the trek.It required great effort to climb without any luggage for myself and there were people carrying food and water in small backpacks in front of me. Every now and then I could not help but stand still and admire their fitness. Unfortunately, the others misunderstood that I was gasping for breath whenever I took those admiration stoppages :-)

The level 2 group
No, but honestly I was the last person to reach level 2 in the group and I had almost given up on the way once or twice. I owe a lot to the support and motivation by the kind hearts who stayed with me at the tail of the group and pushed me on inch by inch. I remember giving Peter a smiling thumbs-up when I reached the top in one piece and that moment was my certificate! There were a lot of kind souls at the top who shared some of their precious food and water supplies to refill my energy. 

The view from the top was breathtaking. We headed on to the next destination where we expected water to quench our thirst. A big surprise awaited us there. There was water but it was just flowing as a thin oily layer on the rocks. It required some ingenious thinking to get water there. A fellow trekker tied a kerchief to a root and channelised the water thread to fall into a bottle and we would get 1 litre of water every 15 minutes this way. To quench the thirst of 20 odd trekkers!
Flowrate  : 1 litre/ 15 mins
We waited for the sun's severity to come down a bit and started the descent after a 2-hour break at that point. It was a mini climb up and then a fairly long descent all along rough rocks to finally catch a trail that would take us down in a relatively easier route. From there it was only a matter of time till we joined the wiser ones who stayed at level 1 and then to the dam and then to the car park and then to home. 

The trek gave me a lot of revelations and a few moments to swallow my pride. I am very thankful to my body and mind for staying with me till the end. I owe a lot to the mutual support and motivation exhibited among the whole trekking group, egging each other on and finding a lot of happy moments to share a joke and spread smiles. I admire and respect Peter and his team for their superior fitness first and then to the initiatives in organizing and leading us as a group. 

As I said, I was the last person to reach level 2. But to those who stayed back in level 1, I was part of a group that accomplished a monumental feet. To those who watched cricket in the comfort of their homes this weekend, I was part of a group that challenged itself to scale a peak and live with nature in its true form. That is all that matters!

I hear that there is a common phrase used in military training which goes like 'You are stronger than what you think you are'! Very true. New benchmarks have been set this weekend for my mind and body. Let's see how far I can push them further!



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