Monday, November 16, 2009

Post Script: A tough goodbye to a dear friend

I may have unwittingly made a few grave errors in recounting what may have happened to Arun in terms of the route he may have taken and also that in implying it may have been a mistake that cost him his life. I would like to redress some things after a mail I recieved from a close mutual friend who had also trekked the mountain. Some excepts

"He seemed intent on hiking the southern ridge to the top, beginning from the Highland inn.
I remember commenting that I didn't know anything about that route, or whether one even existed, and that I (and I believe Pearly as well) had hiked the northern ridge instead, which was conveniently trisectedfirst by a tourist path, and higher up by an access road."

And the last paragraph

"Throughout this situation I've often found myself recalling an episode from my first time climbing the same mountain. In a foolish attempt to avoid what I thought, incorrectly, to be a checkpoint (wanted to avoid paying that measly 30 kuai) I wandered off the beaten path and began climbing an increasingly treacherous and confusing bit of the mountainside. I was sitting in the middle of a thick reed forest (at an altitude very close to that of Arun's accident), on a steep mossy mountainside with no visibility of what lay around me and aware that I could easily wander onto a brittle overhang without warning. While cursing my newfound stubbornness (thank's a lot Pearly) who should call but Arun. After patiently fielding a few questions about laptops and viruses and how to install this and that, I gently explained that given my current situation, this probably wasn't the wisest use of what little credit remained on my phone. We both had a good laugh at this, he wished me the best of luck, and I went on my uncertain way.
That day I could have met a similar fate. I wasn't being any smarter, or any more cautious. I was lucky, Arun was unlucky, and I don't think there's anything more to be said about it."

At this point I can only paste what I replied to the friend and I feel compelled, more by strong emotion than lucid reasoning, that I have to add a few things with regard to my own experience on the Changshan mountain...

"I don't really know what to say....but I feel you must be carrying the burden of grief a lot heavier than us. The distance from Dali helps dilute some of the shock and though I often pause and sigh, it's been going a little better for me; as hopefully it will eventually for all of us. I can share that I was a little bitter and was firmly convinced that rescue work was not carried out properly. I'm afraid there is still a faint tinge of resentment especially since you've thrown some light on the people involved in the rescue work, especially that of the proprietors of Highland Inn. But it will not help to carry this taste in my mouth.

As for your slight reference to my stubbornness which I might have forced on you on more than one occasion, I have to admit to it. I have been incredibly lucky in many situations I'm deliberately put myself in. My run with luck has often made me reckless and confidant in my recklessness. During my run in with the mountain, you might recall I called you twice to confirm my route and to be honest, to calm my near point of panic at a point when the fog moved in thick and the top seemed so close but I couldn't see a peek of it. Again luckily for me, the mist lifted abit and I once again gave in to my often cocky self and set out to reach the top. My heart was thumping during the descent as I struggled to hurry and reach before nightfall. I entered the town's gate after 9 pm, closer to 10 pm. I seem to have forgotten much of the dicey moments I faced with the rush of adrenaline and cocky pride that comes from knowing you met a challenge and came back safe.

I need to thank you for your mail for it has refreshed my memory and I have to take back my thoughts that Arun may have made a mistake. It could have been me as well. I think I didn't share any of the doubt and fear I faced in the mountain for it was the exhilaration and blissful tiredness I chose to remember the most. I even ignored to talk of the sweet relief once I was safe in bed. I was even too tired to stop long enough to pick brochets, the only late night food available at the road side stalls and relied on instant noodles.

As for your latter note, there are no apologies of any sort required. From the consortium of friends Arun had in Dali and Kunming and everywhere else, you were probably one among the few who I could sense was, if I may, a better friend and one I was genuinely happy to meet and get to know somewhat.

Hope you don't mind me sharing this mail with everyone else but there are some things I have to redress and would like to share as well."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A tough Goodbye to a Dear Friend

These pages have been empty for awhile and might be again. I'm deeply grieved to hear news that one of my dearest friends died in Dali, China while on a solo trek to the summit of the Changshan mountains that fringe the west of Dali Old Town.

Arun Veembur was a dear friend. He was my senior from Christ College and has always been a bit of a lovable eccentric. We'd often meet and talk of travel, mountains and aspirations we had to get out of the city we were bound to and travel to remote corners of India and the Himalayan mountains. He was particularly interested in the North East of India and we had many talks about it, me being from there as was another close friend of his from Assam. Arun was the one who eventually introduced me to Robin (from Assam) and other friends of his who are now my firm friends for life.

It was his intrepid curiosity and fascination for the mountains that led him to sign up for a course at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute which he later relayed to me and I eventually joined the course as well. After the course he travelled to Robin's place and there came across the Stillwell road, an old 2nd World War road that had been built by the Americans to transport supplies to China during the war against the Japanese. The road from Ledo in Assam, through Burma and upto Kunming in China's Yunnan province. Arun became obsessed with the road.

He spoke about it incessantly and set out to write a book about it. It took him 2 years to get required funds. Once in Kunming, he fell in love with it. He learnt the language and we friends heard less from him except for updates on his latest projects and ploys he had to remain on in China. We knew he was obsessed to a point that saying he loved the corner of China he adopted lightly. We'd often joke that he was hatching a devious plot to sell India over to the Chinese.

I had my own plans to travel to China and beyond, to Mongolia. I shared much of it with him and he was really encouraging. It took me two years and a few twists of fate to finally start my trip, a slow journey by bicycle. Arun was excited to hear that a friend from home would be visiting him in China. He was enthusiastic and kept in touch with us all through our trip doing what he could when we had minor setbacks like being denied entry to China at the Laos border and when my bicycle and belongings got stolen in Gejiu. More than anything it was his succinct wit and gleeful humour that helped me get over alot of these hitches.

When we finally arrived in Kunming, me bikeless and bagless with only the clothes I was wearing, he was there; waiting for us at the date point with his exaggerated Buster Keaton impersonating routine. Arun threw himself into all his passions with a dedicated obsession that was a part of his total eccentric lovable oddball self. He pursued the Stllwell road with as much intensity as he did Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton routines. Often it wasn't really well done and friends of his from Kunming would remember his often painful comic routines that he would stage at the Hump Bar. But it was part of the Arun we all knew so well. Closer friends will also remember the times he'd force us to sit through endless Buster Keaton movies, often pausing and rewinding parts he loved the most just in case we missed the finer nuances of the man's genious. In the end he had us all converted and loving Keaton.

Arun took care of me in Kunming like the friend and brother he was. He made sure I didn't brood on my loss and reminded me I was only missing material things. He introduced me around proudly as I was the first of his friends to have visited him from India. Not once did he underplay the excitement and happiness that he felt that with my visit.

I have to admit we had a few arguments as well. He had a way of trying to convince people about what he felt and also a knack for sustaining long arguments till you back of or admit to his view. He tried his best to get me to stay and agree with his view that travelling was pointless without stopping and learning the language and absorbing the culture of the place. He had developed a disdain for 'backpackers' and the lonely planet style of travelling by the book and tried to get me to admit what I was doing, though by bicycle, was almost the same as the rest of the pack. I ahve to admit it was also his way of getting me to consider staying. After one particularly heated discussion we had to both admit to mutual friends that we were a little sore with each other. But that didn't last, you can never be sore at Arun too long. As Arun told another friend of ours, he liked to get me worked up sometimes just because I fell for it each time. He added to the same friend it was abit like a sibling taunting game between us.

I decided to move to Dali while waitng for Ced, who'd gone back to France for awhile on business, as the mountains beckoned. I needed a different view from Kunming's highrises and Arun was just getting involved with a project in Dali at that point. Part of The Hump group for whom he worked. I loved the Dali life especially for the mountains and I spent a lot of time walking and exploring little paths on it which I would relate to Arun. It was me and Nick who found a path that led to the summit of Zhong He peak, at 4200m, a tiring but exhilarating 4-5 hour hike along one of the many ridges of the mountain chain. Nick and I both climbed to the top separately and encouraged Arun to do the same.

The Changshan mountains loom 2000 odd m above Dali. It has incredibly steep slopes and many gorges and deep furrows along it's slopes. The path we found sticks to the ridge of the section of the mountain just behind the huge temple complex south of the Three Pagodas. While steep and tricky in sections it is very manageable for those accustomed to mountain walking. When I had gone I took utmost care to make sure I had time to come back down. I had noticed several paths that seemed to lead down but decided to stick to the one I had come by. The climb and height gain had also left me feeling a little giddy and though it was getting late, I made sure I didn't deliberately hurry. Things didn't seem to have worked out for Arun.

While exact details to the turn of events are not clear, Arun presumably tried a new route after successfully reaching the summit and slipped while trying to navigate a cliff face down a dry waterfall. Gravely injured he called for help around 6 pm. He might have been unconcious for awhile. He also called his parents to let them know he was hurt but comforted them with a small lie, saying he was on his way to the hospital. A search team went out looking for him all night but couldn't locate him. Confused and weak from the fall Arun wasn't able to guide them properly either. It also turned out he had crawled under a ledge to keep away from the wind. When they finally found him, it was too late....

It is painful to share details of these last precious moments and I feel a need to talk about it to avoid the same happening to someone else. I can't help but feel there are many things that could have been avoided. No one was prepared for it and rescue efforts, if I may, perhaps a little disorganized. His friends who set out to locate him loved Arun as much as I and I may cause further pain to his friends and family in speaking out my mind but I feel we have to face the facts.

It is essential to find out where things went wrong, the awry communication, the fact that not all his friends who could have known of his whereabouts were contacted and that people were hopelessly unprepared. I may be wrong to presume as I was far away but I need to speak out.
Dali has a mountaineering club, it has mountains that people frequently hike in, there are local villagers that go frequently to gather stuff from the mountains and there doesn't seem to me much of a rescue team in place. I could be wrong and what happened, happened. We don't really require a crack elite team (it would be good if there are resources) but we definitely need a group of committed individuals who study the mountain and are in touch with villagers who know the mountain. Cordoning off the mountains and sealing it off from hikers will not be the solution. What Dali needs to do now is make sure the possibilities of avoiding accidents and the means to tackle them if they do happen are put in place. People need to talk about this and communicate. We owe it to Arun to see to it that someone else doesn't go through this pain.

And as for readers of this post and all my dear friends, I have to share that I believe spending time in Nature and with nature is healing and crucial to better understand our relationship with the earth and our purpose for living. I am happy Arun decided to finally go to the mountain. He had been going through a rather tough time with his job and related lifestyle and had decided to get back on track and get healthy and fit again. In our last mails and bits of communication he told me he was healthier and intent on maintaining an active healthy lifestyle and to focus on the book he had ignored for awhile. I think going to the mountain was part of his plan to refocus and prioritize what was important to him. But he may have made a few mistakes that anyone of us are capable of. I will not elaborate until I get the full details but if ever you happen to go alone on a hike or trek alone please keep a few pointers in mind.

1. 80% or more (figure may be inaccurate) of mountaineering related deaths happen during the descent. Often it is due to tiredness, time contstraints and the consequent likelihood of making mistakes or bad decisions. Always make sure you have optimal time to descend and if not abandon plans. Remind yourself continously to be careful.
2. Always stick to the same route you came up on. Do not try a new path if you haven't tried it before and are unfamiliar with the landscape. Especially when the area is steep and tricky.
3. Always carry emergency rations, a torchlight, a whistle, warm jacket and first aid no matter how easy or short the trek may seem or how warm the daytime air may be. If anything goes amiss a torchlight or whistle can help guide rescuers.
4. Inform, inform, inform....friends, guesthouses or family where you are going, the route you plan to take and what time you expect to be back. It may be sometimes difficult to stick to the time frame and delays may happen in coming back but keep a margin and ask more than one friend to check up on you. And make sure you contact them too when you get back. Worrying people is better than bad news being handed to them.

There may be many more things to add to the list but according to me these are the most important. As for Arun we will miss you. For a long long time.

And once again my intention is not to blame or hurt. I am fully aware that the rescue team tried their best and the events will continue to haunt them more than me. Especially as some of Arun's dearest friedns from China were on that team. But this has been written in the hope that the same doesn't befall someone else. One of Arun's last mail to me was about the recent cirsis The Hump faced after two core members walked out of an ongoing project after a disagreement. He wrote, in chinese, the word 'crisis' combines the characters for 'danger' and 'opportunity'. here i sense - i hope (touch wood) - the opportunity is the greater by far."

That was Arun.