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A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.

- John James Audubon

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Op-Ed

Aug 21, 2018

India’s Lost History – Part 1. Indians are Embracing Mountain Sports, But There is a Big Problem with #FakeNews

India's Instagram generation is finally getting outdoors - but has a deep-rooted problem acknowledging India's long-established climbing history, and those who came before them.

The Outdoor Journal is proud to present the first in a series of articles by Siddharth Chattopadhyay, that will rediscover India’s Mountaineering History. With interviews and contributions from many generations, who have contributed to India’s rich outdoor legacy across the country.

Technology is increasingly affecting and altering our lives faster than we ever imagined. It has not only made our lives easier and knowledge more accessible, but it has uniformly altered the social fabric of our modern society. Of all the generations so far, as some may say and agree, millennials seem to have gained the most from its use. The gain, though obvious, calls for a dialogue on how it may influence a culture built around telling untruths.

Of all the generations so far, millennials seem to have gained the most from the access to information brought on by 21st century technology. This so-called gain calls for a dialogue on how it may influence a culture built around telling untruths.

Unlike the inevitable generational gap, there appears to be a disconnect between the older and current generation of our times that is more subtle than you might think. The disconnect possibly emerges from a generation that stresses on baseless and often trivial claims to fame rather than the actual perceived values of their actions.

It is very self-centered and almost presumptuous of millennials to adopt technology and use it as a means to monopolize their contribution to the outdoor community. This not only reflects on their ignorance but also brings to notice a kind of ignorance that seems intended. Essentially, what this means is that when you work under the premise that all who came before you simply don’t exist, then it becomes a serious cause for concern. Under such a construct, if it wasn’t recorded and posted to Instagram, then it didn’t happen. And the first ascent or descent or flag planted on a summit belongs to the one who social media-ed or Instagrammed it first, rather than the generation which might have done all of that, and possibly even more without ever publishing it on the Internet. “Climbing was never a competitive sport, but now there is so much pressure to find some way to be the first,” said Billi Bierling: a German Journalist and climber now managing the Himalayan Database.

A screengrab from a 4Play Facebook share about the first North Face ascent of CB 13. Note the copy that the video was shared with; they mistook the north ridge with the North Face. North Ridge has been climbed before.

You can read The Psychology of Summiting Everest by Billi Bierling on OutdoorJournal.com.

When Apoorva, the founder, and editor in chief of The Outdoor Journal, first spoke to me about this subject, I remember being quiet for some time, lost in thought. I guess I wasn’t sure about where I’d start. Although, what concerned me the most was the foundation upon which I’d build the narrative. When I did begin my research, I came across overwhelming evidence that not only peeled off the disingenuous nature of Outdoor Journalism in our country but so much more. One of the most distasteful findings surrounded the indefatigable effort funnelled into branding of the heroic “first ascent” of a frozen waterfall in India. Mountain Dew India, one of the biggest adventure sport sponsors, had just published a video on their youtube channel titled: “Mountain Dew Real Heroes presents The Fall – India’s First Frozen Waterfall Ascent”. It was April 22, 2016. The video has since garnered more than 2 million views. There were other media channels that soon followed suit. “Their goal? To attempt the first ever ascent of a frozen waterfall in India,” said YOURSTORY. Another title from a different media outlet read: “These Brave Mountaineers Completed India’s First Ever Frozen Waterfall Climb. Bow Down!.”

This was nowhere near the first time someone climbed a frozen waterfall in India.

The really strange thing – this was nowhere near the first time someone climbed a frozen waterfall in India. Mountaineers have been climbing frozen water ever since front-point crampons were invented in 1933! The 1938 ascent of the Eiger’s fearsome North Face in Switzerland actually has a section called… wait for it… the Waterfall.

Encountering a section of a frozen waterfall on a massive mountain is generally par for the course – you only have to spend a few hours perusing entries in the American Alpine Journal to read all about Micah Dash and Johnny Copp’s epic ascents in the Zanskar region to understand that they were climbing rock, snow, crumbly shale, epic granite and frozen waterfalls as they reached the summit of Shafat Fortress in 2007.



Even if we are to talk about ice-climbing as a separate activity, akin to sport climbing or cragging or something similar to the Ouray Ice Festival in Colorado, the “first ever” recorded ascent of a frozen Indian ice/waterfall could have been in Sikkim in 2004. The team consisted of  Adam George, Philippe Wheelock and Richard Durnan, all from Colorado along with Carlene Grant from Canada, Kelsang Phuntsok and Tashi Sherpa from Sikkim and Andreas Prammer from Austria (Durnan, R. Sikkim. The American Alpine Journal. 2004. 384)

while it could be the most competitive space to get introduced to, it is built around humility

The thing about this community, as I have learned over time, is that while it could be the most competitive space to get introduced to, it is built around humility. And yet some of our present-day cultural icons have me convinced that it’s the mountains we climb and not ourselves. I remember one such conversation with a person whose preoccupation with becoming a known alpinist belied his earnestness. Now, this doesn’t mean that we aren’t pushing the envelope, what it means instead is that there’s a lack of maturity. It feels as though there’s an underlying competitiveness in our pursuit; a kind of complexity that arises from a complacent attitude of “me-knowing-more-than-you-do”. Isn’t climbing a selfless act or as Karn puts it: “an exercise in the destruction of ego?”

Over time, I realised that I couldn’t just single-handedly hold technology accountable, though it does add to the gimmick. I also realised that it is almost impossible to sustain a culture when it doesn’t have a strong footing, in which case the community can only thrive so much. So I visited The Prow area in Dhauj while climbing with a friend of mine, Prerna Dangi, a young and accomplished female Indian climber and mountaineer. It was my first time top-roping outside. I specifically remember the rack Prerna pulled out of her bag. As soon as I had the harness on I tied my first figure-of-eight knot. My gaze then shifted to this green multipurpose belaying-rappel device that felt unusually lighter. Although what impressed me the most was this nut tool meant for pulling cams or nuts out.  

While nearing Dhauj, possibly one of the best trad crags in the world, the outcrops made themselves visible from far away. It seemed like a climber’s paradise. As soon as I set my foot on the holy Dhauj soil, I became wary of the late climbing scene from the 80s. There is an undervalued guidebook that Prerna spoke of – compiled and written by Mohit Oberoi, a 46 year old doyen of rock, who has spent a lifetime climbing all across India, with a list of alluring crags in and around Delhi. When I learned about the book I bought it right away. I couldn’t have been more appreciative of the effort and work that went into bringing this record together. It just seemed so well-organized especially for a country that is yet to understand the value of institutional memory. Upon leafing through, l came across several routes with monikers such as “Burra Sahib” and “Hysteria with a Sten gun,” laid out with appropriate grades and caution. It gave me the impression that some of these folks were more active than I’d thought. Shortly after, I caught myself reflecting on what it must have been  like to be climbing back in the 80s – the heartiness of the community and culture around it.

This series is going to be a diary of my learnings as I rediscover India’s seemingly lost outdoor history, as an exercise in honest journalism, with research and interviews conducted with stalwarts across generations of the Indian outdoors. They will include Captain Kohli, known for leading an Everest expedition in 1965, which put 9 men on the summit; Mandip Singh Soin, a Mountaineer, Explorer and a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society; Mohit Oberoi, an accomplished Climber and Triathlete; Punit Mehta, another accomplished climber and Harish Kapadia, a distinguished Mountaineer and editor of the Himalayan Journal. I hope to inspire our readers to dig into their own histories and that of their passions to help “rediscover” lost heroes.

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Features

Feb 20, 2019

The Death Zone

World champion free-diver Pierre Frolla sinks without air to depths unreachable by most scuba divers. One day he nearly didn't make it back to the surface.

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WRITTEN BY

Pierre Frolla

This story originally featured in print, in the fall 2015 issue of The Outdoor Journal

Deep down under the sea, so far away from where you live, I have been through the last seconds of my life.

In 2005 or 2006 (oddly I don’t remember), I had the worst accident of my freediving career. After being world champion in variable weight apnea with a dive at 123 metres, where I used a weighted sled for descent and returned to the surface by pulling myself along a line and using my fins, I was training to go deeper.

“No matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.”

In my sport, risks are quite important. Imagine you’re running a 400-m race. You start way too fast, and after a few hundred meters you’re out of breath and you just can’t go anymore. What do you do? You just stop, walk a bit and slowly catch your breath again. When you’re free diving, no matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.

The basis of my sport is quite simple. Going beyond 100 meters is mythic. Only a few hardcore specialists, including the “no limit” guys can go beyond that. Athletes use a weighted sled to dive down and an inflatable bag to return to the surface. This means that the free diver reduces his energy loss to the max, and that’s exactly why he is able to go so deep. The world record is held by Austrian Herbert Nitsch: 249.5 metres on June 6, 2012, in Santorini, Greece. The problem is that at those depths, water pressure is unbelievable! At 100 m, for example, the pressure is about 11 kg per square centimeter of your skin. Consequently, the volume of air inside the human body is pressured and reduced too. Take an empty but sealed plastic bottle: If you get to this kind of depth, it’ll greatly deform. That plastic bottle is a metaphor for your body. This also means that if water manages to seep somewhere inside you through your mouth or nose, it will do so with such force that it’ll destroy everything in its path. Drowning is inevitable, and no Apneist can be saved in such case, even if experienced help quickly intervenes.

At great depths, nitrogen becomes narcotic and leads to what is called nitrogen narcosis. This kind of intoxication from staying in great depths for too long is the same as when you drink too much. In other words, you lose total control of your body and mind, and you become unaware of potential dangers. Acting like that underwater can kill you, as the slightest mistake will have incredible consequences. In my personal training, I mix apnea in variable weight and other constant weight dives, where I dive only with the force of my arms and legs.

Today, my team and I decide to put the weight to 118 m. I know I can go down 115 m, but we want to push a little, as it’s part of training. Once down, I’ll have no choice but to go back on my own. I also know there will be a small parachute and an oxygen tank hooked to the sled, but neither will be for me. The bottle empties very slowly and inflates the balloon. Both serve only to return equipment back to the surface. It’s easier for us to work like that rather than starting a counterweight system.

If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water?

I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material.

I begin my descent. I pass my midterm diver. Very soon, it gets dark. I do not have glasses because they would serve me for nothing in this environment. So I stand, with my eyes closed. I’m relaxed and sinking slowly in the water like I’m used to. I feel the pressure now, but I also suddenly feel the sledge slowing. Then it stops, softly. Usually it stops dead. When I realize that something is wrong, I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material. It is almost as if moving sands are closing in on me at 112 meters below the surface. It is actually a mixture of clay and silt, a mound a few meters higher than the sonar onboard the boat. It wasn’t identified even though it stood in the stack axis of the descent of my sledge. It’s nobody’s fault; sonar is not so precise.

In no time, I understand what’s happening to me. I’m stuck. I cannot get my feet outside the box, and I know there’s no exit door. I simply do not have enough oxygen to both work my way out of this with strength and go up as I have expected, swimming, with my hands and fins. If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stopped, stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water? I’m dying; that’s it. Today is the day. In 15 seconds, I will have consumed all the remaining air I was keeping for my ascent. I am also a few seconds away from being caught by nitrogen narcosis. I will go crazy right before dying.

“Did I become a vegetable?”

Suddenly, I have an idea. The parachute. Yes! I trigger the opening of the small air valve, which then rushes into the parachute. It’s working but it’s slow and long. So I wait, very still, with my eyes closed. I have no other choice. I try to relax. Everything at 112 m is multiplied by 10. One consumed oxygen molecule at the surface is equal to 10 or 12 molecules consumed at that kind of depth. One second is equivalent to 10 seconds. Time and life are both very cruel at the bottom of an ocean. I am now barely conscious. Finally, I remember feeling the chute tearing me away from my trap like a champagne cork. The ascent back to the surface, back to life, is way too long. When I reach the surface, I have strangely not entirely lost consciousness, but my body no longer responds to my brain. Did I become a vegetable? My team, frightened, retrieves and saves me. If I had not been so well-trained, I would not have survived this scary adventure. Instead of the planned 2 minutes and 40 seconds that I went down under water for, I stayed 3 minutes and 50 seconds. In the boat, I gradually recover and quickly regain all my abilities.

Pierre Frolla reascending to the surface, following the guideline with the sled and parachute attached to it.

A few years later, I’m on a movie set doing 60-m free diving over and over all day long, and an air bubble is created in my brain on one of these repetitive dives. But instead of being redirected into my lungs, it remains stuck in my head. When ascending, inevitably, this tiny compressed air bubble suddenly decompresses and its size gets multiplied by six. I immediately lose consciousness. Later, I wake up in a hyperbaric chamber. I stay there for eight and a half hours. But when I wake up in that box, I cannot feel my body. I’m unable to move. For hours, I do not know if I will stay quadriplegic or not. This awakening in the box is one of my worst-ever memories of free diving. I do not understand what is happening to me. It takes me 30 minutes to remember that I was free diving and to deduce that I certainly had a bad accident.

Apnea is an extreme sport. I’ll remember it always. Yesterday I dived to 113 meters. I’ll do it again tomorrow.

Photos by Franck Seguin

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