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Aug 05, 2015

First Indian ascent of Meru North — a personal account

In 1986, mountaineer Mandip Singh Soin and a small group of friends made the first Indian ascent of Meru North, alpine style — fulfilling one climber's determination to defeat the crux that had been his undoing before.

WRITTEN BY

The Outdoor Journal

The camera panned in slow motion sweeping across the 2,460-foot rock face to the glacier below. As I clung on at the crux, hammering a piton for protection, I felt the shiver again. Not from the 5°Celsius temperature while climbing at over 18,000 ft, but because I had just then sensed the enormity of this exercise.

My wife Anita, pregnant with our daughter Himali, had fretted frantically when I first told her I was planning to embark on an expedition with two Indians and a Swedish friend to climb Mount Meru. I soothed her with euphemisms: It’s a cakewalk, I said, a mere stroll through the Himalaya. Later, however, as we watched the telecast footage, Anita gasped. Everything came to scale: suddenly, the contortion on the screen seemed not too hard after all, whilst by contrast, in my own bedroom that evening, I hung on for dear life, fearful of the imprecations of my outraged wife.

And suddenly, it seemed unfortunate that Åke Nilsson, our Swedish friend, had filmed the climb so beautifully and that Charu Sharma had told its story with eloquence, for the film captured the experience perhaps too accurately and poignantly for my wife. The footage was aired on prime time television soon after the movie Gandhi. I tried, weakly, to remind Anita of the philosophies of ahimsa as she muttered beneath her breath.

The ‘clinging on at the crux’ depicted in that suspenseful scene was significant. It had been the culmination and undoing of the previous year’s attempt by Åke, part of a Swedish expedition, to climb Meru North.

The crux was the point on the upper rock face that had ultimately defeated them. This, of course, (because the wistful ‘almost’ is the best impetus to go up again) paved the way for another attempt by Åke, who upon his surrender, had said in a calm and decisive tone of voice: We have to give it another shot. Let’s combine forces.

So there we were in late 1985 after Åke’s return to Delhi, at the bar of the India International Centre – the watering hole before lectures on faraway places and unimaginable accomplishments. As with many a good expedition plan, in between Kingfisher beers and upturned beer coasters with rudimentary routes resembling ibex scratches, we evolved a plan of action to reach the crux. It was exciting to try to attempt a technical route, the likes of which were rarely attempted by mountaineers in India. With the last beer in the bar drained, the die had been cast and we toasted to what would become the world’s first Indian ascent of Mt. Meru’s North summit.

Meru’s North upper rock face goes at 5.9 or harder, and had defeated the previous Swedish attempt. The team’s goal was to overcome this technical rock.

Åke would bring a strong climber friend from his previous Meru attempt, Birger Andren, and I would join him with two delightfully mad climber friends Dr Tejvir Singh Khurana and Charu Sharma. We had been climbing together since our university days in Delhi on the crags of the nearby Aravalli hills and its rough slates of sandstone. By the time Åke started visiting India on a work trip with the Swedish International Development Agency for groundwater research, he was quick to see that digging deep for groundwater was a lot of work, but climbing far above it was much better! It wasn’t long before he joined our motorcycle rides to Dhauj and Damdama in the Aravalli as we rode off with coiled ropes and rock climbing crash helmets.

For such a small group on a serious undertaking, it was good that we knew each other and most of us had climbed together, other than Charu, who was my old friend from college days at St Stephen’s. He was an affable person and whatever he overlooked in nimble style, he made up for with strength and determination, being a natural athlete. He had a brilliant habit of grunting, twisting and turning, but would suddenly top out on the route! Known for a baritone voice and theatrics when required, today he is a well-known sports caster and a cricket commentator. Despite being a faithful vegetarian, he is known to have tasted a sardine high up on a mountain when food was running out; perhaps his green gods still shadow him with asparagus spears!

Dr Tejvir Singh Khurana aka “Teji” was a fearless Sikh, very much on the frontline of putting up new routes at the Dhauj rock face. The joke was that between him and his other doctor-climber brother Jaisy, the only prescription ever to emerge from either was of countless alcohol bottles for “medical” reasons! He went on to Harvard to study medicine and is currently a researcher in Philadelphia, last known to have carried mice on Everest to study muscular dystrophy at high altitudes. During the Meru climb, he insisted on using us as guinea pigs. The experiment involved taking our blood samples far too many times, to calculate the extent to which blood thickened at altitude. A second experiment was to continually peer into our eyes with a flashlight, to check for retina blood vessel ruptures, and then correlate it with altitude adaptation. All his objectives were highly suspect, but we gave in the name of teamwork and tiredness.

Åke Nilsson had discovered in his many years in India that “Swedish” implied “dessert”. He adapted to the country and its idiosyncrasies of language, accents and pronunciation with a smile. He had also acquired a reputation as a ladies’ man. So it was always a bonus to be around him at parties! Having taken to climbing, he made rapid progress and was able to make the first ascent of Swargarohini in the Garhwal after the success of Meru. Today, as an international consultant, he traverses continents and flies the flag of the Himalayan club as its Local Secretary in Scandinavia.

It was with a sense of disbelief that we discovered Birger Andren had unusually high blood pressure when he reached Base Camp. He would have to return to Delhi for further checks. This was a big loss for our team, but we took the rough with the smooth, and persevered.

From Delhi, things were falling into place. I managed to get permission to go on the trek by telling Anita that Meru was going to be a ‘cakewalk’ and the others had nodded in agreement – the first measure of great teamwork! Åke was asked to get from Sweden specialized climbing gear that we couldn’t then (and still today) get in India, like plastic mountaineering Koflach boots, and rappel devices. Pripps and Vicks became our overseas sponsors. Charu (who didn’t smoke) worked for Vazir Sultan Tobacco, so they became our major sponsors. We named our expedition the “Charminar Challenge Indo-Swedish Meru expedition”. We took a few trekking friends, including Jean-Phillipe who would assist us in filming, and Dr. Pathak, who was in cahoots with Teji for all his highly suspect medical experiments! Of course, with my own company, Ibex Expeditions, I made sure we put our best foot forward for helping arrange all expedition logistics.

Meru lies at the headwaters of the river Ganga (Ganges). It remains hidden as one walks up the picturesque Gangotri valley from the roadhead at the temple. Every ring of the temple bells filled the mind with a revolving kaleidoscope of the Hindu pantheon: this was a valley steeped in legend and mythology. Our first footfalls were already soft and obedient as we observed the evening aarti and started our neo-immersion into things godly. In 1986, at 29 years of age, one was apt to look more enticingly on the smoke out of the sadhu’s pipe rather than smoke out the demons of our minds. Although most of us were not really religious, and certainly not ritualistic, we too sought contentment in life. So we prayed to all the gods for safe passage at the ashram towns we passed through, happily conversing with people from all walks of life, reveling in this valley’s very special, spiritual atmosphere.

Meru's North upper rock face goes at 5.9 or harder, and had defeated the previous Swedish attempt. The team's goal was to overcome this technical rock.

After Rishikesh, we reached Uttarkashi and dealt with the paperwork needed for permits, and potential rescue procedures with the local administration, and also visited the famous Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. The next morning we set off in a private bus, passing landslides and journeying through the deep gorge of the Bhagirathi River. A small truck followed with our gear.

After Gangotri, we started trekking at about 9843 ft, passing Chirbasa, then Bhujbasa the next day, and finally Tapovan, the beautiful grassy meadow at 14,435 ft under the headwall of the mighty Shivling – The Himalayan cousin of Switzerland’s Matterhorn, both in shape and form. We spent this extra day deliberately, so that we didn’t confront any altitude problems, as we knew there would be enough technical ones to occupy us.

After Birger left us, we sorted our gear and debated every possibility, at times tying ourselves in verbal knots! However, the broad plan that emerged was to make an Advanced Base Camp at the base of the wall at 16,404 ft and then begin climbing after being totally acclimatized, with no porter or guide, carrying everything ourselves on one single continuous push. At BC, we had made the plan that should something go wrong, we would alert each other with flashlight signals from the Wall (we had no walkie-talkies). If necessary, we would be able to call for helicopter rescue from the Indian Air Force, that was well versed in high-altitude flying. Sometimes, the adrenalin would remind me of my younger days of going hunting in the deep bush, not knowing when a wild boar could leap out.

After a night at the BC, we were moving in slow motion the next morning as we struggled to get exceedingly heavy rucksacks on our back, get the climbing ropes in order and climb in pairs –Åke with Teji and Charu with me. Although it was tempting to use a few fixed ropes from the previous year’s attempt – and we did occasionally use them – we were very aware of possible cuts and damage. We essentially climbed with our double ropes and quickly moved on this not-very-steep ground. As soon as we got to the top of a pitch, the rest of us would jumar up quickly. Of course, Charu, despite his grunts, flashed his best profile as he neared Åke, who was busy shooting with the lightweight, first-generation Sony Handycam.

Tejbir Singh Khurana between the first and second bivouac on the Meru North Headwall, August 1986

Our first bivy was at a reasonably wide ledge called “Swallows’ Nest,” as it was just a third of the way up the face. We saw startling views of the twin peaks of Shivling as we gazed at its West face. The morning broke to light up the twin summits. As the sun’s first rays warmed us, we began climbing the rest of the rock face with the hope of getting as high as possible, so that the following day we would be well poised below the crux. This was at the very end of the rock face before joining onto the snow and ice ridge of the upper 2625 ft.

By now, the route had become far steeper at 70-80 degrees, and we encountered the occasional water stream. Later the same day, we faced some alarming rock fall, most of which fortunately bounced away harmlessly. Both Teji and I as Sikhs had taken the precaution of swapping cloth turbans for fiberglass helmets! The going got a bit slower here due to the gradient, and we arrived to our next spot where we would get a night’s rest. It was the same spot that Åke had used the previous year.

Compared to the previous night, we felt downgraded, like having gone from Business class to Economy, only even worse. We all sat on a narrow ledge on this massive mountain wall, with legs dangling; no blankets, only sleeping bags; and since there was no service at this altitude, we resorted to using our delicately balanced gas stoves for lots of tea and soup.

The next morning, the sun was slower in reaching our rock face and we made a variety of excuses for a delayed start (which we bought into happily–good thing, this teamwork business). Making sure we didn’t drop any gear into the abyss below, we packed deliberately. It had not been a very comfortable night: Each of us had had a similar experience of nodding off and finding ourselves pulled and pressed at those delicate parts of the anatomy. We unanimously called it the ‘Ge Night-al’1 bivy.

Now the ground got steeper to about 80 degrees and more; soon we were near the last 320 ft of the rock face, at the crux. Åke had led up to a pitch below and it had been HVS / E1, (English grades) climbing in the last few pitches. With a secure belay from Åke, I led the last one up with some delicate moves despite large plastic Koflach boots. Having managed to get up and secure the belay, I yelled with happiness for them to come on up. Finally we were at the snow lip. The route went on to flatten out in a snow bowl, and here we made our third bivy (called simply the “platform bivy”), cut out with our snow shovel. Now, back in Business class, we could claim our flat beds!

The last morning, our target was the summit. We left most of our gear at this bivy, taking only what was absolutely necessary for the summit push. However, there were a few crevasses to negotiate and the route weaved around them, losing time. As the sun rose, soft snow slowed our pace. At this point, the summit was tantalizingly close, but we knew we would not make it. So we decided to use a nearby ice cliff as a wind barrier. We wouldn’t reach the summit in time. This was going to be our next emergency bivy.

This was called the “Sautan” bivy–Swedish for ‘Satan’. It was cold at minus 15º Celsius and we didn’t even have our sleeping bags. Legs were stuffed into emptied rucksacks; climbing rope coils became our seats. The one emergency bivy bag we carried was spread as a thin sheet as we sat huddled up, shivering, with a weak stove, even weaker jokes, and howling spin-drift. At one point, it was fascinating to convert Sikh jokes into Irish ones: Why did 19 Irishmen go to see the movies? ‘Because they read the movie poster that said – Under 18 not allowed’.

At that moment, the movies seemed so far away.

From left to right: Mandip Singh Soin, the author of the story; Åke Nilsson, Tejbir Singh Khurana (Teji) and Charu Sharma. Åke carried a Sony handycam up the entire climb, videoing it for primetime Indian television. Birger Andren, the fifth member, had to drop out for medical reasons.

We were the quickest to get up at day break and started to get ready – luckily we had carried our emergency bivy stuff and the stove and re-hydration had come in handy. We had six pitches left and Teji led valiantly on steep snow with the final pitch being taken by Ake along the gentle crest that made the Meru North summit. We sat straddled and enjoyed the 5000 ft chasm that lay on one side of us–between Meru and Shivling–with the Thaley Sagar massif behind us. Åke’s filming was luckily going to come to an end, and Charu would stop striking his best poses; as a result I thought we had a good chance of descending quicker!

As it happened, we had to be doubly alert on the descent, because nightfall set in just as we reached the platform bivy. We had to jump across a few crevasses very deliberately and slowly, as this was not the time to lose alertness. The summit is only halfway. We were at the end of an exhausting day. With only enough food supplies left for the last day, we got back to the edge of the snow lip, pulled off crampons, changed gear, and started rappelling down all the way into ABC in one shot.

The following day, we were met by some of our team who had come up to ABC and were we glad to give up some weight. At base camp, hot pakoras and Indian chai never tasted better.

The journey back was uneventful except that when we were leaving BC, a Japanese team of four was also going to climb Meru North, taking a variation on our route on the rock face. On our return in Delhi, we heard they were killed in a rock fall. We were shattered, having exchanged a few pleasantries with them, but it put perspective to our own ascent – of the luck we had had and really some of the many gods, perhaps, who had cast a protective eye over us. We were certainly more centered after the ascent of the beautiful Meru – the centre of the Universe, according to Hindu lore. Regarded as the Olympus of Hindu mythology, with all the planets revolving around it, the Ganges falling from heaven on its summit, and the whole mountain covered with gems, Mt. Meru’s summit is the residence of Brahma and its four quarters, guarded by the Regents. It makes for a perfect place of meeting of all the divine beings.

The film ended and when Anita looked into my eyes, I knew I could never say I was off for another “cakewalk” again. I am still looking for another word.

Feature Image:  ÅKe Nilsson and Charu Sharma on the summit of Meru North.

Images:  Mandip Singh Soin

About the author: Mandip Singh Soin – Spending four decades in the pursuit of adventure in six continents earned him the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award presented by the President of India, amongst many others. He is the Founder & Managing Director of award winning adventure travel company Ibex Expeditions and the Founder-President of the Ecotourism Society of India. Mandip also represents India in the Mountain Protect Commission of the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA).

This story was featured in the Archive section of Issue 01 (Summer 2013) of our print magazine.

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Athletes & Explorers

Jun 19, 2019

REWILD with Tony Riddle: Part 2 – Children and Education

Tony Riddle explains how our educational system must be reinvented to better preserve childrens' innate abilities and uniqueness.

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WRITTEN BY

Davey Braun

In our latest series called REWILD with Tony Riddle, The Outdoor Journal has been speaking with Tony about his paradigm-shifting approach to living a natural lifestyle that’s more in line with our DNA than Western society’s delerious social norms. In Part 1, we introduced how Tony is leading a rewilding movement through his coaching practices as well as his commitment to run 874 miles barefoot across the entire UK to raise awareness for sustainability.

In this installment, Tony discusses society’s disconnect from our ancestral hunter-gather lifestyle, the need to completely reinvent the education system, and how to preserve children’s innate abilities.

REWILD

TOJ: When I see the word “rewilding,” I picture the opening scene of the movie Last of the Mohicans where Daniel Day-Lewis is sprinting and leaping through the woods on an elk hunt. Is that how humans are supposed to be, an athletic animal in tune with nature?

Tony Riddle: In modern society, we’re basically living in these linear boxes, breathing in the same air, getting the same microbiome experience, sleeping in the same room over and over, and nothing alters. Whereas the tribal cultures that we came from are moving through a landscape that’s forever changing. They’re always uploading new sensory pathways, new sensory experiences, constantly in a state of wiring and rewiring the brain. For me, the path of rewilding is getting back to that – being present in nature and honoring a cellular system, a sensory system and a microbiome system in their natural setting.

When you start to really assess it, some people have this vision of hunter-gatherers as savages, but these are sophisticated beings, and as they move through the landscape, they become the landscape.

By “Rewilding” we can get back to a lifestyle that’s more in line with our innate human biology.

Tribespeople operate in these states of meditation which, when you have kids you appreciate it. I’ve studied childhood behavior in the formative years, those first years up until the age of seven. The brain is working at a certain hertz that you and I can only achieve through meditation. This is the state of Flow. It hasn’t been cultured or schooled out of them.

When I think of “rewilding” now I have a term I’m calling “rechilding.” We’ve got to try and get back to that level of frequency that tribes have managed to stretch into adulthood. I’ve tried to break down the behaviors of these tribes. I discovered Peter Gray’s work, who asked the question to 10 leading anthropologists, “What does childhood look like in nature?” From infancy through the age of 16, children play. That’s all they do, without any adult intervention, and they learn everything they need to learn about their adult environment in those first playful years. So if that’s the case, then they go into adulthood still playing and they don’t have to work to find flow states through that field of senses and the frequency that they’ve been operating in.

PLAY

TOJ: In familiarizing myself with your work, I noticed that some elements are about reverse engineering the range of motion, movement chains and posture of our own selves as children, while others focus on reconnecting with a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, how do you reconcile those concepts?

“For children, it’s about preserving their wildness and their innate abilities.”

Tony Riddle: For children, it’s about preserving their wildness and their innate abilities, the stuff that you and I would have had but we went through an educational process where it’s not appropriate to move or say anything out of turn, where children are expected to just sit still in a classroom for hours on end and not share anything. But then you realize that when you go out into the world that you have to share everything, We need to show them the appropriate behaviors and not dumb them down by limiting their experience.

Tony spending time climbing trees with his children to preserve their innate ability to climb and balance.

In those early years, we have things like physical education, but before physical education, we have play. We were all playing around, trying to understand the physicality of our body. We’re born with all the gear, we just have no idea how to use it, because our adult species doesn’t know how to demonstrate the appropriate behavior. When we go through the playful state to try to understand this system as children, we might impersonate all the animals, but now as adults, we have to go to animal flow class to relearn it.

When children go to physical education class, they’re given specialist clothing, which includes sneakers and the specialist clothes that their adult species wear. The adults model to children how tough exercise is and how brutal it is. Adults come back profusely sweating, which is absurd because imagine the hostile environments that this species has had to traverse! My DNA goes back 270,000 years to a tribe in East Africa. So imagine how hostile these environments would have been!

“Imagine the hostile environments that this species has had to traverse!”

We observe these parkour kids, they’re showing us what’s innately in us. I love hanging out with them because it’s just expanded my mind and my movement. The physicality of the human being is unbelievable, but it’s been cultured into a sedentary position at this stage because the adult population is showing a compromised, sedentary lifestyle. By the time a child reaches the age of seven, all of the observations are made – the templates for the rest of their lives. So if the adult species is compromised, then within those first six years, that’s all the child will recognize as their potential range of behavior. I call it their “Tribe of Influence.” The tribe of influence is made up of your family, your friends and your close community around you. If you’re observing all their behaviors, that just becomes your social core. It doesn’t mean it’s biologically normal, it’s just the social norm. And social norms of today are so far afield, we are doing the most horrendous things. I read a stat yesterday, since 1970, 60% of the wild animal populations are gone. We’ve managed to do that in 50 years. That’s less than one human life span. Our social norms are compromising the planet.

Read next on TOJ: Tony Riddle: Introducing REWILD

REMEMBER YOUR PAST

There’s a great term I’m plugging the moment which Peter Kahn called “environmental generational amnesia.” Every generation that’s born, it can either expand on the knowledge passed down from before, or be dumbed down further, and it only remembers where it left off. So for those 60 percent of the species that are gone, to the new generation that comes in, that’s their new norm.

“It doesn’t mean it’s biologically normal, it’s just the social norm.”

The natural human pathways from our previous generations have been forgotten in a way, but movement is just a component of it for me. It goes beyond movement. There’s a whole physical, social and spiritual animal that needs rewilding. There’s also sleep and play and nutrition and human contact, even sunlight. We’re just disconnected.

Tony regularly plunges his body into icy water to maintain proper cardiovascular health.

We have a D3 issue with our culture now. We’re surrounded by artificial light in artificial environments, but when we do go out in the actual environment, we cover up by wearing sunglasses, so we’re not actually absorbing any of the nutrients from the sun that we should be. Especially in the UK, people are starved of sunlight, but as soon as the sun is out, they’re wearing sunglasses. If you look at helio-therapy, the highest absorption of D3 is around the eyes. There was a study recognizing that sun exposure helped kids with TB recover, but it also found that when they put sunglasses on, they didn’t get the results.

REINVENT EDUCATION

TOJ: If you were the superintendent of a school, what changes would you make if you are in charge?

“The educational system has to be scrunched up, thrown in a bin and restarted again.”

Tony Riddle: It’s almost like the educational system has to be scrunched up, thrown in a bin and restarted again. It’s flawed and it’s not working. In countries that are trying to do something about it, in particular, Finland in Scandinavia, it’s completely different. People are starting to wake up to the fact that it’s not biologically normal to be indoors all day, it’s not biologically normal to sit down all day, it’s not biologically normal to eat processed foods. But, that’s the environment where we’re growing these young bodies and minds.

The future is unraveling at such a rapid rate with tech. My understanding is, the current iteration of the educational system will have to die because of the way that the tech world is transforming things. So what can we possibly take from the educational model of today for five years time or 10 years time, where are we actually going to be in terms of the evolution of tech?

Like father like daughter, training their hanging L-sits on the olympic rings.

There’s almost like a natural pendulum. It’s swinging way back over this way. Now we’ll start to explore more biologically normal ways. With my barefoot run, I’m trying to raise awareness of these issues like sustainability in the environment and I can reach a wide audience through technology.

“It comes down to small changes.”

It comes down to small changes. You can drive yourself nuts thinking, “I’ve got to do this and do this…”, but actually, there’s value in just assessing things that are in your hands, looking at what is a biological norm versus a biological extreme. If you can’t justify something, you have to let it go. Then, what you can start to do is whittle away at things that aren’t appropriate behaviors and that will improve in the next generation that is observing those behaviors.

You and I are walking around with the observations from those first six years of our lives, and then if you really unravel it, we’re walking around with the norms of our ancestors as well.

We need a different educational model. We need a schooling system based on educating kids about their fundamental needs, including movement and play, one that gets them involved in growing natural foods and learning about their own independent role within the interdependent social tribe.

We’re all unique, but we go to school and we’re taught to conform. You have to sit and do the same exams, but in a real tribal situation, there’s an interdependence of the tribe, When you have kids, you suddenly realize how important it is. I’ve got three kids and another one on the way. They’re all different. Nature didn’t design them to be the same. They’re designed to be uniquely different so they fulfill their role in our tribe. Why not nurture the fact that they are different in order to grow their individual talents at a very young age. How do I nurture their unique abilities and create the appropriate environment for them to learn and become uniquely awesome?

Tony’s coaching is individually tailored based upon the belief that we all have a unique role to play in our community.

Stay tuned for our REWILD series featuring an in-depth discussion of Tony Riddle’s socially extreme, yet biologically normal practices.

Part 1, Tony Riddle: Introducing REWILD
Part 2, REWILD with Tony Riddle: Children and Education
Part 3, REWILD with Tony Riddle: Transforming Your Body
Part 4, REWILD with Tony Riddle: Barefoot Running Across Great Britain

To connect with Tony, visit tonyriddle.com

Facebook: @naturallifestylist
Instagram: @thenaturallifestylist
Twitter: @feedthehuman
Youtube: Tony Riddle

Feature Image: Tony’s daughter working on her grip strength in Tony’s studio.

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