Sunday, February 10, 2008

Returning Home

Two of the people with whom I work at Conner Partners have recently moved from Atlanta to Myrtle Beach. The rationale for the move was the same in each case. “Why should I live somewhere that I don’t want to be, and then ‘go on vacation’ to where I do want to be spending my time? “

Coming home, I have Sima’s recommendation in mind. What will I do that is special, so that I will not feel the inevitable post-vacation letdown? I had thought about this on and off throughout the trip. It is only on my return home that I know the answer. I will resume the life that I live each day. It is just the life that I want to live. It has its own routine, its own rhythm. It is filled with simple pleasures: the fresh-ground coffee; the fresh-squeezed juice; yoga; meditation; time with family; time with friends. I make pictures, and find joy in the pictures I have made. Each morning I greet the sunrise through my windows as it begins to light the skyline of New York City. Each night I go to sleep with the moon and the stars shining through my skylights onto my bed. Several times a week I shop for fresh produce, vegetables, meat, chicken, and/or fish. Monday through Friday I am up at five to begin my yoga practice. Saturday or Sunday I am at the yoga studio, celebrating the balance that I have found in my life.

The first Tuesday I am home, I return to the gym, and to my training with Mitchel. We had scheduled my return before I left; we had also scheduled a dinner in the place of my training on Thursday night. By Thursday, I know my new training goal, and I lay it out to Mitchel. As we age, we loose balance, we loose flexibility, and we loose agility. My goal is to do a split at the age of 60. This week I ask Mitchel whether, as my trainer, he will be demonstrating the split when it comes time for me to practice. He smiles. He will be ready.

I may never do a split. In some ways, whether or not I do is irrelevant. When I reach 60, I will be more flexible, agile, and balanced than I am today. (Because of the way that Mitchel and I train, I will also have greater cardio-vascular capacity and be physically stronger.) That alone will be cause to celebrate. It is about the journey!

This is my last entry in this blog. I thank each of you for joining me on my journey.


Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Rescue

Others are better positioned than I to provide the details of the rescue. Let me summarize it as best I know it.. As afternoon settles in, those remaining on the mountain become concerned that they will have to spend the night. They move Aaron to a flat, somewhat sheltered area a few hundred feet down from where he lay. Raja, the guide, returns to the summit to find tarps and the begin the prepare a shelter. The porters return, and fashion a stretcher, somewhat like a cocoon. Aaron is placed in the stretcher, and is wrapped in so that he can not see anything. In this way he is carried down to Gomuck.

At Gomuck they are met by the crew from Gangotri. Aaron is transferred into the dandie. A passing tourist from Sweden helps to secure him in. It is at this point that my poles are used to splint his leg. Aaron is then carried into Gangotri, arriving at 11:00 that night. Tom travels with Aaron. Robert, Robert, and Jojo, stay in Vojbasa for the night.

By midnight, Aaron, Tom, and Raja are in the back of the ambulance for what is supposed to be a three hour trip to the nearest hospital. They arrive more than thirteen hours later, delayed once again by a landslide.

Robert Johnson, once he is able to get cell service, calls one of his law partners who has family in Delhi. They in turn track down a hospital and doctor for Aaron.

We arrive late Sunday afternoon (September 9) at the first hospital that Aaron has been transported to. There is no electricity. As we walk in the front entrance (there is no actual door) we step around the dogs sleeping on the floor.

The next morning at 6:00 Aaron, Tom, and one of the drivers leave for Delhi. On the way, they stop in Rishikesh to let Aaron rest. While there, he makes hotel arrangements for the rest of us.
Aaron arrives in Delhi Monday night, and is put into traction. Tuesday afternoon they operate, putting a rod into the femur and pinning it on both ends. He will remain in the hospital for a week before returning home.

The rest of us arrive in Rishikesh Monday afternoon, and stay until Thursday morning. We then drive into Delhi. Robert Johnson and I visit Aaron in the hospital, pick up Tom from the hospital and head to the airport to return home. Others are staying on in India as tourists for a few more days.

I arrive at Newark Airport at 4:45 in the morning, 17 days and a lifetime after I left. I am home by 6:30. One of the first things I do is to grind the beans and make my morning coffee. Then I take a very long, very hot shower.
(x-ray photo by Robert Johnson)


Monday, January 21, 2008


September 8: The morning dawns crisp and cold. The warmth of the sun gives way to damp chills as clouds move through, then returns to bless us again as the clouds pass by. After breakfast, we pack our gear and move to the ridgeline once again. We stop, the eight yogis who have trekked through dung and leeches; we who have sweated and cursed and shivered together; we who have shared our most private thoughts, and fears, and aspirations; we who have waited out landslides, and who have climbed to heaven. We stop, form a circle, and hold hands.

Together we chant the Gayatri Mantra three times. For many months, Gayatri has been the first music I listen to each day. Today, at the edge of Topovan, we chant.

Om Bhur Vhuvah Svah;
Om Tat Savitur varenyam bhargo devasya dhimahi;
Dhiyo yo nah prachodayat. Om.

(Oh, creator of the Universe! We mediate upon they supreme splendor. May thy radiant power illuminate our intellects, destroy our sins, and guide us in the right direction.)

Without shame, the tears flow down my cheeks. What beauty surrounds me. What beauty accompanies me in the men who stand here. What beauty is within me. Aaron reminds us that the divine power of the universe is the power in each of us. We prepare to descend.
Once again, I am positioned immediately behind the guide. I lengthen my poles for the descent, and we set out. It remains difficult to stay focused on the path. “It is all downhill from here.” There is talk and laughter behind me. An occasional slip of the foot, mine or another’s, sends a trail of gravel sliding down the mountain. There is also caution. No one has forgotten where we are, nor Aaron’s promise before we left Rishikesh that he will bring us all off the mountain safely.
I don’t know how long it has been. We aren’t very far down the mountain. Perhaps it was fifteen minutes, a little more or a little less. I hear shouting up above and turn to see a boulder careening down the face of the mountain. It bounds to the left, lands and bounces left again. Perhaps the next bounce will take it to the right, or straight ahead. I start shouting. I check my footing, looking where and how far I am able move in each direction in order to dodge it. What they say about these moments is true. It seems like it all is happening in slow motion. What is only been a matter of seconds unfolds frame by frame in front of me. The others above me hear the screams, perhaps mine, perhaps from the hikers above them. They begin to turn, to look upward. As he turns and looks, the boulder takes one more bounce and hits Aaron on his upper left leg.

My world is frozen. There is no sound. I loose sight of the boulder. And then, Aaron screams. He screams in pain, and in anger. And he screams. And he screams. It seems as if he takes a few hops on one leg, and then he folds down to the ground. Others, who are close by, surround him instantly. And he screams. Our guide moves back up past me. I remain where I am, not sure that I can provide any assistance and not wanting to be in the way. And he screams. He screams in pain. He curses. And he screams.

The others position themselves around Aaron to stabilize him. They are below him to prevent him from rolling down. They are above him to prevent anything else coming down the mountain from hitting him. They begin to cover him, to keep him warm, and to administer first aid.
And Aaron finds the power of Gayatri within him. Once again, he takes charge. First, he sends Tom with one of the guides into Vojbasa. Tom is the most agile and swiftest among us. He also has an incredibly level head. When he reaches the police station in Vojbasa, he is to ask them to radio the military base outside Gangotri, and have them send the helicopter we saw there to airlift Aaron.

Next, he sends the porters down the mountain. They are to also travel into Vojbasa (if necessary) and find items to fashion a stretcher, leaving the burdens they are carrying there so that if need be they can carry Aaron off the mountain. Finally, he summons Pablo, Brent and me. He assigns one porter to guide us off the mountain. The two Roberts and Jojo will stay with him.
Before we leave, Robert Johnson asks me if I think I can make it without my trekking poles. They would like them, if needed, to help stabilize Aaron, perhaps to splint him. My poles have been how I have traveled the entire trek, yet there is no hesitation. I swap my two high-tech, carbon-fiber poles for one too-short bamboo pole and head down the mountain.

Leaving Aaron and the others behind, there is only one thought in my mind. Aaron still feels responsible for getting us off the mountain safely. Now it is my responsibility to reach Gangotri without mishap. We move swiftly. I am not sure that we stop for more than a few seconds to grab a drink of water or to check in with one another. We are not moving in a foolhardy way; but, we are not wasting any time.

All the way to Vojbasa, I keep scanning the sky, listening for the helicopter. It never comes. At Vojbasa we meet Tom and the other porters. They have stowed the gear along the trail, and are heading back. Tom is uncertain whether he has been able to communicate to the police the nature of the emergency, the seriousness, or the urgency. We hurriedly eat our lunch. Pablo, Brent, the porter and I then set out for Gangotri. I watch the sky, and I listen.

It is mid-afternoon by the time we arrive in Gangotri. Perhaps an hour out, while still on the trail, we are passed by four men carrying a dandie, or “sedan chair.” It looks like the frame of a kayak with a seat suspended in the center, and a pole at each end for carrying. We hope they are heading to Aaron. Arriving in Gangotri, we are assured that this is the case; the police in Vojbasa have radioed the police in Gangotri, and they have dispatched the rescue crew.

We knew that they cannot reach Aaron on the mountain before sundown, and they can neither climb nor descend in the dark. We have to try again. A call is placed to the tour company that had provided the guides and porters; it is Saturday and they are not there, so Pablo leaves a voicemail message. We then track down the guide who had left us after the first trek. Reaching him by phone, I ask him to find the number for the US embassy in Delhi. Soon after, he calls back with the number. For the next eight hours, the embassy and I are in contact as they trace the progress of the rescue. They advise me that it will not be possible to get all of the approvals required to send a helicopter. And, they have an ambulance sent to Gangotri to await Aaron’s arrival. (photos by Robert Johnson)

Sunday, January 13, 2008


September 7: Today’s trek is not terribly far either; on the descent tomorrow, we are planning to return all the way to Gangotri from Topovan.

The first leg of the day we spend continuing up the trail to Gomuck at the snout of the glacier. The ascent is, overall, gradual. I realize that I am no longer cursing those downturns in the trail that at one time screamed to me “for each step you go down, you are going to have to go back up again!” The trail, like life, requires ascent, as well as descent, to reach its destination.

We stop to rest at Gomuck. There is an open-air shrine (“please no shose in tempel”). From here we can see the glacier as it is calving, breaking and falling into the emerging Ganga. Aaron reminds us once again to watch our step, remain on the trail, allow the proper distance between one another. We will be crossing the glacier, which is covered in rock and dirt. Then we will be ascending rather sharply. The terrain, which has been largely stable, will be anything but stable until we reach Topovan. We will be climbing in sand, loose dirt, and gravel. The face of the mountain is littered with boulders, left when the glacier retreated, or melted. Now they are perched in anticipation of gravity calling them down. Attention becomes our mantra: attention to our steps, to our footing, to those around us. There is no margin for error, or for carelessness.
Once again, I am positioned as the pacesetter, directly behind the guide.

I pick up my trekking poles, and look up to my right. Across the mouth of the Ganga is the face of the mountain we will be climbing. I think of the climb up the mountain from the lake at Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco. That was an ascent that challenged me at eleven, energized me at fourteen, empowered me at sixteen. That ascent would barely get me from where I am standing up to the top of the glacier and to the base of the climb that I am now facing. I no longer feel the adrenaline rush that had challenged me earlier in our trekking. Now I feel the steadfastness of myself—heart, body, mind, breath, the physical and the spiritual—stepping forth in unison. My feet, my poles, my self move as one.
There is no question, the climb is challenging. It is difficult to not be distracted. The views are otherworldly. When you look up, all you can see is the very top of the world, and it is very far away. Looking out you see postcards from the Himalayas, the pictures that were in the encyclopedia when you wrote your report in the sixth grade. Looking down and behind, you see the otherworldly terrain that you are slowly crossing. My mind turns briefly to the lunar rover; it seems that this would be the type of surface it would need to be prepared to traverse. I allow myself these thoughts, these looks, only when I stop and stabilize myself.

At one point, we stop to rest along the trail, and allow the porters to pass. They have dissembled last night’s camp, and have now caught up with us. They are carrying all of the equipment on this trek; there are no donkeys. Each of the adult men is carrying about 100 pounds on his back; the two young teens accompanying them have 50 pounds apiece. I marvel.

Later, still ascending, we find an area that is large enough for each of us to find a seat. From my position in the lead, I am one of the first to be seated. As he approaches me, Robert points out a large fissure in the ground between where he is standing and where I am sitting. Perhaps it was there and I stepped over it without seeing it. I am careful to move around it when I stand to begin climbing again.

Perspective is a funny thing when you are climbing. Over the horizon may only mean that the angle of the climb will moderate slightly, or that the next sharp ascent is set back a bit from the one you are on. I learn not to anticipate the top, only to appreciate the climb.

When I look up once more, I see the porters walking back and forth across the ridge. I know that we are nearing our destination. We all gather as, one by one we come over the top edge. We marvel at the view. I glow with pride in my accomplishment. Aaron asks if I understand why he considers this place heaven on earth. I certainly do. And, I posit that “you just have to go through hell to get here.” We both chuckle, and we move out toward the campsite.

I realize how tired and hungry I am. I began the day with an empty system and a light breakfast. We have only stopped to snack. I find a tent and lay down to rest. Others set out to explore the area. Later I will join them in a visit to Mata-ji, one of the sages who resides here. We bring her chocolate. Even sages have a sweet tooth! As we sit on the ground outside the entrance to her cave, she serves us tea and tells the most marvelous stories. I walk away with many lessons, as do each of us. The most important for me is a story that reminds me, the fire of my potential is inside of me. Only I can unleash it.

I sleep in peace.

Sunday, January 6, 2008


September 6: As is my habit, I am up at 5:00 this morning. I complete my morning prayers and head to the temple to observe the sunrise. By 6:10 I am sitting at the far end of the plaza. The morning’s rays are reflecting off the silver paint of the temple across from me. The morning rituals are beginning. There is a small gathering outside the temple doors. Bells are ringing, the priests are chanting the prayers, and incense is burning. What is my bell, what is my prayer, how do I live my life more fully as one?

Robert and Jojo are there as well. We silently acknowledge each other, joining the celebration in our hearts even though we lack the words. We join the procession, receive our blessing, make our donation, and begin the day.

Given what we have been through, and what awaits us, the hike from Gangotri to Vojbasa is mild. We begin by heading up the same stairs that lead to our rooms, climbing them slowly, acknowledging each we pass with Namaste or another honorific. At times the trail is as wide as a road. The weather is cold with a misting rain, which is unusual for this time of year. We move above the tree line, stopping for chi at a teahouse along the trail, and again for noodles at another teahouse just above Vojbasa. By 4:30 we are in camp; I notice that the latrines are the furthest they have been from the tents. Several of us go down to the Ganga together, though each of us interacts with the river on our own terms. I say a prayer, dip my fingers into the glacial waters, and extend a blessing.
By dinner I am not feeling well. I arrive at the mess tent with a Cipro in hand, and take it with dinner. I take a seat at the back end of the tent, as I usually do; it is warmer. Unfortunately, it also means that as the gas and cramps start to take hold, I need to work my way around the others to head out and to the latrine. By the time I get back to my tent, I am racked with chills and gasping for air. I unzip the outer flap, then the inner. Sitting down inside, I remove my boots, and leave them between the two flaps. I carefully place the zipper pulls where I can find them in the dark (they zip from both directions), a decision that will prove wise several more times over the next twelve hours.

It is, quite literally, freezing both outside and in as I shiver myself out of my clothes to add layers and crawl into my sleeping bag. I am sure that I sleep some between my runs (pardon the expression) to the latrine throughout the night. I know that I don’t rest. However, by morning I am feeling better. I go to the mess tent for an early breakfast of chi, toast, peanut butter and jelly, and another Cipro. The others join me a short time later for a more traditional Indian breakfast.

I am not 100%. I know that I could return to Gangotri; the others will be back tomorrow. However, I also know that I am able, and thus will, continue.

Monday, December 31, 2007


September 5 (continued): Shortly before we reach Gangotri, we pass a military base. It is a rambling encampment of buildings on both sides of the road. Soldiers walk alongside the road, or traverse their routes on motor scooters. Delivery vehicles of every sort site along the shoulders. At one point we observe that there is a helicopter. Only an observation.

Gangotri is the last village accessible by road as you travel toward the headwaters of the Ganga. Some say that at one time it sat at the snout of the glacier that becomes the Ganga River. Today it is several miles below the glacier. Arriving, you immediately notice that it differs in some ways from the many other villages that we have experienced. Gangotri greets you with a gate, the town dump, and a parking lot. The gate is old and concrete, straddling the road. It is chipped, the paint faded. The dump, which is smoldering, is evidently also home to some of the town residents.

Our drivers adroitly thread the cars into parking spaces where they are to remain for several days. We are assured that we can leave anything that we won’t need in the cars. I find myself leaving behind much of what I once thought indispensible. It is no longer indispensible, and I trust that it will be there on my return. I am learning what is important. I am learning India.
It is late afternoon. We will not be able to trek today. Instead, we walk up the road in Gangotri to the guesthouse that is expecting our stay to begin in another three nights. They are able to accommodate us. We go into a restaurant, and up a flight of stairs, emerging on a terrace. There is some concern about the rooms that are first shown to us, and we are offered others further up. However, in this case, further up turns out to be a bit treacherous. We walk/climb up along the broken top of a wall that is six inches wide to reach the next level. From there, we go up another level along an inclined sidewalk. Later we will find the stairs that go from the street level. They are outside the restaurant, and offer their own challenges. Some of the steps are eighteen inches or more in height.

Gangotri is an unexpected treat. Tonight we will get to visit the temple at sundown, to shop for woolen hats and gloves (which we will need in the next few days), to eat in a restaurant, to pour warm water over ourselves as we shower, and to sleep in a bed. Each room has a small balcony overlooking Gangotri, the Ganga, and the river valley. I spend time marveling at the beauty, and taking pictures.

Tomorrow we leave for Vojbasa. The next day, we will go on to Topovan. At 14,600 feet, this will truly be the peak experience of the trek.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Traffic. Flooded roads. Travel delays. I am sure you have experienced them, as have I. However, never have I experienced them in the same was as in India.

September 5 (continued): Shortly after leaving for Gangotri, we find that the road ahead is blocked by a landslide. We turn around, and head back a few minutes to the last village we had passed. There is time for breakfast. As we enter the small eatery (I am not sure that I have ever seen an American equivalent), our guide and drivers have already started assisting the proprietor at the stove. Soon we are being served chai, freshly prepared bread (one of the many forms that bread takes in India, though I don’t remember which), and butter. There is a school located up the hill behind us, and as we eat several boys come in the buy new pens. I am sitting at the front table, closest to the cash register, and observe these transactions. For most, it is a quick exchange, pen for rupees. Then one young boy, perhaps eight or nine years of age, comes in. He must try the pen, then another, and yet another. The clear plastic barrels, the colored caps, the ink are all the same yet he tests each one, comparing the results, before finally settling on one of them. I wonder whether this is a habit that will follow him through life, and how it will serve him.
Breakfast is leisurely. We know that when we get back on the road, it will be open or it will still be blocked. There is no need to rush to find out.

In fact, we discover that the landslide that allowed us breakfast has been cleared. However, not many kilometers ahead there is another. This one is much more substantial. As we drive toward it we pass a huge bulldozer starting to warm up. It will be a few hours before it passes us, parked on the side of the road. When we travel as far as we can, we pull to the side of the road and park. The parking is a bit random, some vehicles on one side of the road, some vehicles on the other. There are buses of pilgrims, taxis, motor scooters, cars, and trucks. Everyone knows that we will be here for hours. I confirm that for myself firsthand when I walk down the road to see the massive rocks blocking our way.

Imagine this. You have a travel itinerary, a destination. The plan is to drive to Gangotri, drop some gear at a guesthouse, and begin the next trek. Instead, you and hundred of others will be waiting for an apparently significant period of time on a mountain road. For us, the experience was very Indian, amazing, and thought provoking.

Some took the opportunity to nap, either in their vehicles or along the rocks on the side of the road. Others read. People walked up and down, stopping to meet others and to talk. We had passed a waterfall shortly before we stopped. The sun was out, so it became a place for people to do their laundry. Some (myself included) set shoes and clothes out in the sun to dry. There was dancing and singing. There were processions of pilgrims. What was missing was the anger, the vitriol, the impatience, the honking of horns, the expressions of rage that such a circumstance would have elicited anywhere I had ever been before.

Eventually, the road was opened. It took a bulldozer, dynamite, and a large road crew. It is 3:10 in the afternoon; we have been here over six hours. People move back to their vehicles and, slowly, our pilgrimages resume. We reach our destination three hours later. Tonight we will spend at a guesthouse in Gangotri. Landslides happen, itineraries change. It is about the journey. Namaste