International Mountain Day: Rahul Ogra, Mandip Singh Soin, and Gowri Varanshi share why they find the peaks enthralling
For those who have seen it from afar, mountains might just be one of nature’s most beautiful creations—towering, majestic and mystical. But for those who live there, the realities are different. Hosting about half of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, the mountains are home to over 15 percent of the world population. And yet, climate change and overexploitation have led to a situation where people who call it home struggle to survive. In order to bring more attention to conserving the ecosystem, the UN declared December 11 as International Mountain Day, being observed since 2003. While Mountain Diversity is the theme this year, we speak to three established mountaineers— Rahul Ogra (Manali), Mandip Singh Soin (Delhi), and Gowri Varanshi (Bengaluru) — who share with us their fascination for the peaks, unforgettable encounters, and what we must do to conserve the mountains.
“The mountains have always been a sheet-anchor for me, keeping me grounded and steadfast through the rough seas and vicissitudes of life. I have known the mountains intimately, first, during my formative years, because I grew up in the mountains of Kashmir and then through a career spanning more than two decades, as a professional mountaineer,” shares Rahul Ogra, outdoor educator and conservationist in the Western Himalayas. Based out of Manali, he runs a sustainable mountain travel outfit called Mystic Himalayan Trails where their endeavor is to create and nurture an ecological and cultural awareness about this region.
Having worked in the region for over a decade and a half, Rahul shares, “ It doesn’t matter what kind of self-image you’ve built up for yourself, the mountains can show you in an instant exactly who you are and what your place is in the vast canvas of nature. What fascinates me is the fact that such amazing biodiversity can be found in such an ostensibly inhospitable environment. I have a very deep-rooted interest in the natural history of the Himalayas and have spent half of my life studying the flora and fauna of these great mountains. This has been the main reason for my allied pursuit as a Himalayan naturalist and conservation educator.”
In addition to being the founder of Mystic Himalayan Trails, he also volunteers with advocacies such as the Spiti Snow Leopard project and WWF India’s Himalayan Wetland Conservation program. Sharing his most memorable climbing experience, he adds, “I was leading a group of climbers on an expedition to Mt. Deo Tibba, a beautiful 6001M peak in the Kullu Himalaya. That day, the instructors and trainee climbers were supposed to climb up to Duhangan Col, our advance base on the shoulder of the mountain, to stock up with supplies for our summit attempt. This involves a tough ascent, where one has to fix the rope and climb up through a steep – technically demanding - rock and snow couloir, to reach the col. As most of the trainees were struggling with their loaded backpacks and the weather, which had suddenly turned inclement, a collective decision was taken to dump our loads, at a particular point beneath a boulder and return the next day to finish the job. I somehow, on personal gut feeling, decided to push ahead towards the col and not return to the base camp. The grueling one hour and 45 minutes that it took me to gain the col, through driving snow and howling winds were nothing short of a soul-cleansing experience. Once I had reached the col, all weather-beaten and weary, I hurriedly set up my tent and unfolded my sleeping bag, into which I crawled to regain my composure. When I had rested for a couple of hours, I crawled out of my tent and was rewarded with the proverbial icing on the cake. The weather had lifted a little and I was all alone on the vast – windswept –expanse of Duhangan col; with lofty summits and majestic glaciers dappled with amber light, surrounding me on all sides. I have never felt more at peace with myself. I was one with these great mountains and the 24 hours that followed, in this splendid isolation, were beyond the expression of words.”
Talking of how climate change is increasingly becoming a potent threat to the wellbeing of the mountain ecosystems, Rahul further adds, “As mountaineers and explorers are often at the forefront, we witness its detrimental effects first hand. One of the most observable out of these is the increased melting and recession of a majority of Himalayan glaciers. Let’s not forget that the Himalayan peaks and glaciers are repositories for most of the potable water on this subcontinent. If they were to disappear, a huge chunk of the global population would be in real peril. This situation is further aggravated by the explosion of the human population and the increased consumption of fossil fuels, which in turn exacerbates the melting of the perennial snows of the Himalaya and puts inestimable pressure on the forest resources of these mountains. Therefore, it goes without saying that decreased usage of fossil fuels and more reliance on sustainable energy resources would be the way forward for us.”
Favourite mountain peak:
There are many mountains that have left an indelible imprint on me, my answer to this would be Mt. Kailash in Tibet. Going to this 21,778 Ft high, the jewel of a mountain, was a life-transforming experience for me.
Mandip Singh Soin is a prominent Indian mountaineer, explorer, environmentalist, and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Having spent over forty years in the field of adventure, the 63-year-old has gone on expeditions to all the seven continents of the world. “I’ve always been spellbound by the grandeur of the mountains, the imposing shapes, the environment around them, even the changes in the moods of the mountains- whether it’s a storm or a beautiful sunrise, or an incredible sunset. All these are what make for an amazing, memorable, immersive experience and I guess once you’ve been to the mountains, you always tend to get a bit addicted, and I think that’s what happened with me.”
Recollecting one of his experiences, Mandip shares, “In 1986, I was on an alpine-style ascent of a peak called Mount Meru, which is, according to Hindu mythology, the center of the universe. We were lucky to make the first Indian ascent by an alpine style. On the day that we had hoped to make the summit, we couldn’t because of bad snow conditions so we decided to wait it out but because we couldn’t go back to the last camp we had made. We made one emergency one. We had no sleeping bags or tents, only our rug sacks, so we took out our ropes and sat on them, and we put our feet, our legs into the rug sacks to keep warm and of course, the best thing was in order not to go to sleep because that would have been bad, we had to crack some really terrible jokes to keep ourselves in good humour. Had one gone to sleep, given the gear we had, we might have gotten frostbite. Bad jokes notwithstanding, the next day we were able to make a summit.”
An advocate for responsible ecotourism, Mandip shares, “We know the glacier melts, there are lakes that are formed that are likely to become problematic in the future. In the Himalayas, the pollution, the AQI level are all indicators that it’s all definitely getting affected. The role of the traveler, the climber, or the trekker is not to leave any garbage there. They must bring it back, or at least bring it to a place where it can be properly disposed of. Himalayan areas and smaller towns don’t have proper facilities. The second most important thing would be for the village communities to not burn the garbage and stop burning dry leaves and branches which can definitely be turned into manure, and compost.”
I can easily say it is Nanda Devi. It’s a very impressive peak in the Garhwal, and I’ve been lucky to go into the Nanda Devi sanctuary twice when it opened in the `70s. Once on an expedition to Dunagiri, and once on an expedition to Kalinka. I sat in a base camp right under Nanda Devi and I have to say it must be one of the most beautiful peaks. It’s got a lot of mountain folklore, it's got a lot of mythology.
The grazing moose
“Mountains bring a feeling of deep calmness and silence to my mind. The beauty of mountains always amaze me, it’s nothing like the jungles or any other type of ecosystem. The towering peaks and the enormity of space make me feel small and remind how fragile life and this planet is,” says Gowri Varanshi, the first Indian woman to execute the climbing route 'French Indian Masala' in Badami, Karnataka.
Sharing one of her most memorable climbing incidents, the Bengaluru-based rock climber says, “One of my most memorable times was during a NOLS course in a mountain range in Wyoming, USA. I decide to go explore by myself one day and as I walked around a bend on a dry stream bed, I walked into a female moose peacefully grazing! She looked at me and froze. I froze too and then slowly walked backward while still keeping an eye on her. Then I found a rock nearby to sit and watch for the next 15mins. I actually cried by myself out of happiness watching her graze that day.”
Talking of the need for preserving the mountain ecosystems, she further adds, “Mountains hold high diversity of plants and animals but most importantly they are one of the biggest sources of fresh water. They are known as the water towers of the world, because of the amount of fresh water they provide. It’s a complicated solution to figure out how to impact them less because climate change is a larger global issue that affects various ecosystems due to the earth heating up and changing the makeup of these delicate spaces. The rising temperatures are melting glaciers in the mountains. So we as humans need to start making major changes to our lifestyle in order to start reducing our impacts.”
I love hiking for hours with a backpack filled with rock climbing gear in mountains to arrive at rock cliffs in far off places. Then climb to reach the top of the rock cliff to eventually hike back down.
Catch the Mountain Day Special line up on 11th December from 12 pm to 8 pm only on Sony BBC Earth.