Climb Every Mountain

Climb Every Mountain

Salil Tripathi

Imagine this scene-a slightly balding, Gujju businessman sitting on the gaddi near the galla in a dukaan in Bhuleshwar market and then walking down the streets and chewing away a meetha Banarasi paan and hatting away the cloth prices. And imagine the same guy with a rucksack on his back, in short and T-short, tattered hunter shoes running down merrily from the top after climbing yet another mountain and talking in shuddh dialect of that part of Maharashtra with the villagers and waiting for the bus.

But Harish Kapadia has always been like that. For six days he would be in the schoo. He is study, he’d be the leader. But come Sunday and he would be in the mountains. It all began with his school picnics and even today he joins the enthusiastic band of kids.

By sheer force of numbers his record is mind-boggling. Over 600 hikes in Sahyadris. Over twenty-five expeditions in Himalaya. And the peaks have all fallen-Sudarshan Parbat, Chiring We, Bhagirathi II, Ikualari, Devtoli, Kalabaland Dhura. Then there have been long, enjoyable treks. Like Ladakh last year (he still talks enthusiastically about Pengoing lake). Or Sikkim. Garhwal. Nepal. And so today he knows Himalaya better than do we know the goegraphy of Bombay. He could tell you the best time to visit the valley of flowers, what food to take, how much money to spend even if you called him up while he is hagging with dealers about wholesale prices.

And its a great experience to trek with him in the Sahyadris. You are walking him. There are a few other hikers along. They suspect that this is the Harish Kapadia. Whispers. One of them musters up the courage to come up and ask him-“Are you Harish Kapadia?” Yes, he says. The fellow goes back and tells the others that he is right, after all. All of them come forward. They are thrilled. They enthusiastically talk to him. Like little schoolboys talking to Prakash Padulone that they play badminton to keep fit. He smiles. He has seen them all. He knows how few actually make mountains their lifelong passion. He knows how few can resist the attemptation of a good social evening or an outing on a Sunday when otherwise they did have gone to the mountains of course, on every Sunday he is out. So if someone sees him on a Sunday in the town, prompt comes the phone from him-“What’s wrong, Harish? Are you not well or something?”

I ask him why he was not scaled one of these massive peaks. Like what, he asks. Say, Everest. He smiles again. Then quotes his friend Bill Aitkin. Wrote Aitkin, “Only an idiot would love a woman because she was taller than the rest. The current stampede to climb Everest only goes to show that there are a lot of idiots around.”

In fact, Harish goes to the extent of saying that Everest is one of the easier peaks to climb. He tells me of a sherpa saying – and sherpas are not wrong when it comes to these things – that even a yak can climb Everest. In fact, the dream of Sherpas is to take a yak on the Everest. So much for Everest being the sole ambition in life.

Harish’s ambition is different. He wants to go to as many different areas of Himalaya as possible. He tells me of the Europeans. They have scaled everthing in the Alps. But they still have one ambition-to be in the Himalaya. And when such Himalayan peaks are but a few nights away, who cares about the other places?

You cultivate a different outlook in the mountains. You are honest to yourself, you learn the grandeur of nature. The awesome presence of mountains. The strange music of streams. The hours of inactivity in the snowstorms when you are in the tent doing nothing. The heated discussions in the tent (Sometimes there is more of a violent storm inside than outside, he adds). The feeling when you are at the top. The long return back home. The camaraderie, the experiences… and you know you have had a rich, full life.

Harish and his friends-they have this group of eight-have made some innovations in climbing. Like they follow the Hindu calendar. This is because our calendar is more accurate in estimating weather changes. Often they get inquiries from abroad for getting an idea of weather conditions during a certain period. This is because the lunar cycle is more accurate. Also, it is theirbelief that one should eat, even on mountains, the food with which one is accustomed to. I mean, no lukkha-sukka pau, tin food for him. He conveniently eats his puri, shak, shiro, dhokla, bhelpuri and all that No eggs for him on the mountains.

Some of Harish’s finest experiences have been with the men who guard our borders. He has been to many inaccessible areas. The soldiers have been overwhelmingly good. There was this time when he went to a barrack with a few hikers. The Leader was ordering about in a stern, no-nonsense manner in Hindi to his men. Harish went in. Asked whether they could stay with them. That old chap said-“First you go and make your own tent.” They did. Then this guy came and said-“You guys will get whatever you want. But dara you talk with me in Hindi. I am sick of that bloody language. Speak in English.” On another occasion, they met the Maratha regiment. Harish started speaking in chaste Marathi with them. The soldiers were maha-khush. Harish gave them bhel and all. They got along famously. Another came to him and offered 100 kgs of milk powder in exchange of a tin of condensed milk, so sick was he the powder-some barter! But it has not been roses, roses all the way. He had a terrible accident some years back. He had been to Devtoli. He was returning downwards when the fell into a crevasse. Dislocated his hip badly. So badly, he could not move. He was airlifted by a helicopter. Underwent an operation at Bareilly military hospital. When he was brought out of the train, everyone thought he’d be in a terrible shape. And there was this guy smiling at everyone. Dr. Bhansali told him (now it reads a little like a HIndi film, but it is a fact), “Sorry, you won’t be able to walk. “Thundered Harish, “Walk? I will climb mountains!)” He did. For months he was in plaster. Then crutches for two years. But the call of the mountains was too much. He climbed Matheran on crutches.

Sometimes he finds it futile to talk about the mountains. I mean, here he talks of the beauty of Ladakh to someone, the other fellow nods and says, “Yeah, yeah, may be. Anyway, coming for a movie tonight? “What’s the point of talking about mountains with them,” he wonders. So he keeps to himself.

He has this theory why Gujaratis are so good at all this. “Organisation is very important is mountaineering. You have not to deal with the bureaucracy (that is why he prefers private expeditions with friends, French, Japanese, rather than go for these official, government expeditions). Money and people’s psychology also play an important role.”

Harish is also a gifted writer. He has written the only authoritative book on the western ghats-Trek The Sahyadris. It gives a wealth of information and maps. He has a thorough knowledge of Maratha history and whichever fort the climbs, he knows its history.

He is also, for the past three years, the editor of Himalayan Journal. It is the most authentic source on Himalayan mountaineering. It has a fifty year history and has had a glittering array of names as its editors-Kenneth Mason, Wilfred Noyce, H.W. Tobin, R.E. Hawkins. And now, Harish Kapadia.

He met his wife, Geeta, also on the mountains. He wants to put her on a 20,000 ft. peak. Hearing this, she grumbles. Their kids are named after sherpas.

He loves music, drama, films. Once he told Amjad Ali Khan, “When you play, you take music on aesthetic heights. We take it on physical heights when we take it with us on the mountains.”

Come May, and Harish will again we in the Himalaya. This time at Darma Valley. There will be meetings with the soldiers, stay in tents. Snowstorms, wonderful experiences, all memories packed in compact slides, a return to the city. and business as usual. For there will always be mountains to climb.

Salil Tripathi.