Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Tr[i]ad Wars on Chanderi

It's becoming more and more apparent that climbing in the Sahyadris is not necessarily just about the rock climb, but that the whole trip becomes a full-on adventure from start to finish.  This trip report ups the ante a bit as we tackled non-existent villages, uncooperative rickshaw drivers, barking dogs, nocturnal mice, hot days, and to top it all off,  goondas (goons) posing as cops on our way out!  Read on...

Here's a link to ALL the pictures on Picasa; only some are included here. Make sure to read the captions:

I had determined from my last trip to Bhatoba that the local climbers were indeed lacking some nice big gear to free climb most of these cracks (better known to us in the west: off-widths).  A friend was coming from the USA, so Black Diamond Camalots 4, 5 and 6 were on their way.  She arrived on Wed night and a friend was taking her directly to Pune.  She did not want to haul the stuff around, so I had to get it from her in the airport parking lot!  This meant a forty-minute train and fifteen-minute rickshaw (aka auto) ride each way, plus an hour waiting for her to come out.  It must’ve looked very suspicious as we opened a duffel bag and removed these fantastically huge, shiny pieces of metal along with ten carabiners.  It was a long night as I got home and went to sleep near 2 AM and was up to teach yoga class by 7:30 AM.  To add to this I was already feeling very weak from catching a cold with the changing weather; yes, that’s a whole 10 degree difference in temperature here in Mumbai!  I ate only fruit for three days and was feeling tired from the lack of sleep; I couldn’t sleep, because I was just too damn tired from the recent lack of it!

By Thursday, I was still too tired, but we had a plan and Ajit and Richard were ready to go to Chanderi, a buttress just outside Panvel, which is at the end of the Harbour Line in Navi Mumbai.  On Wednesday, Ajit had also caught a cold, and did not sound very good at all.  By Thursday, he was sure he wasn’t going.  I was a little apprehensive, as I looked to him for all the information we were getting as well as his experience as a strong off-width climber kept me from committing.  It was Friday morning.  Richie was ready, while I wasn’t.  If we were to get up there, it would be nice to have a third person to help carry the gear.  Fortunately, Chanderi had a water source, so we would not need to haul the water up.  It was noon before I had made up my mind to go.  Richie had gotten more information from one of the first ascensionists Walwekar.  He also said we had a third person Lama, who would go along with us for support.  I had no option, but to say yes.  I didn’t get home till 3 PM and didn’t catch a cab till after four.  We were going to hit the middle of Mumbai working-day rush hour ... again!  The domestic help at home had made my chapattis (Indian flat-bread) and I added nuts, dried fruit, apples, oranges, and water for the two days we would be out.  The game was on.

Getting There

I told Richie that we would have to forget about meeting at Podar College and meet at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) from where the train would depart.  The gear we had used before would suffice.  We would be short a couple of items, but not from the free climbing end of things.  CST was packed.  I stood in line to get our tickets, while Richie and Lama made their way from Podar.  I called my friend Prashant who worked a few minutes away and used the Harbour Line to get home.  He said he would join us and was there in a few of minutes.  While I was waiting for him to use the toilet, I got a frantic call from Richie telling me they had already made their way to the train.  I couldn’t figure out how they could have walked past me with their huge backpacks.  They later told me they had actually hopped through several trains, from one platform to the other, instead of actually walking around the head of the train, where they would’ve seen me waiting.  They told me to hop on the train NOW, and as I turned around to do so the train started to move.  My pack was probably over 60 lbs as I jumped 18” up onto the moving train, only to learn that they had not gotten on it themselves!  And, Prashant was left behind as well ... damn!  I always tell people not to separate themselves from their partners in the mountains and here I was separated from mine on a a Mumbai local!  Not a good start.  Is this going to be another epic?!  I called Prashant, who could not find Richie.  They all ended up getting on the next train to Panvel and I got off two stations down, so I could switch to theirs.  Now, I know that mobile phones do have a use on climbing trips as we were to find out the rest of the evening!  Prashant got out of his first class compartment as I located Richie waving with one hand while he hung out of a second-class bogie with the other; crazy!  We had thirty seconds to shuffle ourselves back on and there we were all together again.  Phew!

We chitchatted all the way in the Friday-night rush.  I pulled out some grapes for everyone, but since we had gotten on at a later station, there would be no seats for us, with our backpacks on the floor.  We thought we needed some more aid gear and called Sir Bong at Girivihar.  He said he would have it out and waiting for us to pick up in Belapur.  At some point, we decided it was getting late to make more side trips; my four and two-foot slings would work just as well as aiders and an Easy Daisy, and most importantly, the plan was to climb it clean.  Prashant got off at Nerul and Sir Bong was informed that we would not need his gear.  The train got into Panvel nearly two hours later.  We were unable to get hold of the guide that would tell us exactly which village he lived in.  Many sketchy-information phone calls later, we were told where we should begin the next leg of our adventure.

We started looking for an auto that would take us to the village of Tamsai (like Tonsai in Thailand).  Only thing was no one we asked had heard of it.  Not the auto drivers.  Not the tumtum (like tuktuk in Thailand) drivers.  Not the state transport bus drivers.  Not the guards at the dam.  No one, except the first ascensionists knew of Tamsai!  More phone calls to no avail.  It was getting late.  We were getting hungry and it was time to eat.  Several idlis, vadas, and masala dosas (south Indian delicacies) later, we again started querying more auto drivers about this village; still no luck.  We did have the name of a dam, and one of the auto drivers said he could take us to what he thought we were talking about, but the names weren’t matching and we were skeptical.  Also, he would not go any further as this was close to 20 km out in the boonies and he was afraid of encountering goondas (goons) on his way back.  Typical Indian negotiations; he doesn’t really know where he is going, but the price keeps getting higher!  We didn’t want to be left at the end of the road, with no way of knowing where we were going, or any means of getting back so late in the night.  We got out of the auto and eventually back in again.  It was nearly 9 PM when we headed out.  Forty minutes later we came to a sign that said Dehrung Dam.  Not what we were looking for as far as we were concerned, but in the faded light of the night we could definitely see a huge buttress in the distance with other pinnacles nearby.  We decided to check it out.  Richie walked across the 300m earth dam in the dark, and when he returned, we decided this was where we wanted to be.  We got the auto driver’s mobile number for the return trip and he was on his way with thirty rupees more than he had asked for!

We hiked across the dam and up the hill into the village.  It was already past 10 PM, and very quiet and deserted, until we walked through.  Suddenly, all the village dogs started barking; pandemonium!  We quickly headed for the temple as it is a place that anyone can rest overnight at.  It was a small 20’ x 20’ building with a bright light bulb outside.  A one-eyed drunk joined us, rambling on as we unpacked our sleeping gear.  With all the noise, the neighbours came out and invited us to sleep in their yard twenty feet away.  Richie and Lama accepted.  I thought I was good where I was under the light in my flannel sleeping bag liner.  Not!  The light was on all night and I froze as the temperature dropped.  There wasn’t much I could do the whole night as I tossed and turned through villagers screaming on cell phones, dogs barking, babies crying, cattle trundling, cats in heat, crickets, the one-eyed drunk, and the incessant crowing of roosters from 4 AM onwards!  Needless to say, it was a long night for all of us.

The plan was to get up early on Saturday, hook up with the guide, finish our approach before sunrise, have breakfast, take a rest, take the whole day to climb the route, sleep the night in the cave, leisurely hike out on Sunday morning, take the bus to Panvel, and then the train home.  All well and good, except it didn’t quite happen that way!  First of all, we didn’t know if we were in the right village.  The locals had not heard of our guide’s name.  We didn’t know where to start our approach in the dark.  I was up and had eaten my breakfast by 5 AM thanks to the cocks crowing.  Richie and Lama took another hour to get up as first light appeared.  Our hosts didn’t rise till 7 AM, after which they served us a leisurely tea and chatted.  A local guide was secured, but it was nearly 8 AM before we left.  Damn, we were supposed to be up there resting by now!  The adventure was dragging on slowly.

The Chanderi massif with the dark gash of our route clearly visible in the first [left] quarter of the buttress. The Shivaji monument and flag can also be seen on the summit to the left of the route.
The approach with our guide Sitaram was uneventful as we made our way to the base of the buttress.  Three hours later, we were settled in the cave, with plenty of water.  The effects of the heat, long hike, lack of sleep, and a general not-so-good feeling left us sleeping away the afternoon.  It was 3 PM before we stirred.  We decided to gear up and climb the first two pitches before dark, fix a rope, jumar up the next day, and climb the rest of the route.  That’s basically what we ended up doing.

Trad Wars - Day 1

Richie wanted to lead the first pitch.  It looked like a bare, water streak with nary a hold on it, or so it seemed.  He did it in excellent style, finding a three-cam-lobe placement, a ring bolt under some grass, and a bolt anchor before making it into the gash.  He set up a two-cam belay.

Richard Kher bravely taking the first, slabby and thinly-protected pitch. An anchor behind a boulder uses the first placements of our newly acquired Black Diamond #5 and #6 Camalots!
I followed gingerly.  I was feeling weak, tired and scared.  Stories about loose and falling rock, aiding, following-head versus lead-head, as well as not having Ajit along ping-ponged through my mind.  I got to Richie and we switched.  There was a blank headwall with a small roof in front of us with no bolts or gear placements.  There appeared to be climbing about 20-30’ to the right, but this seemed implausible as there were what looked like, huge detachable blocks.  I was basically pooping as I traversed on pebbles, grass and slab with no protection.  Richie kept saying “I’ve got you, man.”  And I’m thinking, “Got me?!  Where?!”  I realized he was still new to this multi-pitch stuff and had no idea what a swing from a 30’ pendulum with lots of rope out and loose rock all over would do on his two point anchor!  I got a piece in and started moving up, but there were no footholds to speak of.  I would have to smear with high tension, pulling hard on the loose blocks and I was just not willing to commit to that.  Also, I had no idea if this was the actual route or whether I was supposed to make my way through the headwall straight above Richie.  I down-cleaned and made my way back to the gash.  After much inspection and Richie’s urging, I thought I had better go back to the right and reluctantly aid my way up.

Richie was all for aid as he said this could be one at least two aid sections on the route.  I started by putting in a finger size piece behind the first loose block.  It held.  I stepped into a sling and clipped in directly.  I could only figure out that I needed a piton next as none of the cams would fit.  I hammered my first ever piton in with instructions from Richie below; “To the neck!  To the neck!” Definitely, the blind leading the even blinder here!  The piton was still moving, but at 120 lbs, I didn’t think my weight posed a problem.  I again looked for a cam placement, and since the size I needed was in the anchor, I gingerly sat on the piton and asked Richie to give one up!  He sent it up on the rope and I put it in, stepping onto it.  The loose blocks were still holding, but it was getting dark.  The next moves looked a little scary as I gained my confidence.  This was the largest detached block and it looked like the ones below were just holding it in place.  Don’t move, I say!  I got off the slings and onto the face.  Placed a piece and moved past the huge block, finger-locking and laying it back to a four-inch ledge.  After pitching several loose rocks off my soon-to-be perch, I came face to face with a ring bolt.  It was not visible from below in the low light, but was I glad to see it!  I gingerly clipped it and stood up on the thin ledge, making my way back to the left, where I came upon a single drilled descent hanger with webbing.  I cut the webbing, clipped in, built an anchor, and put Richie on belay.  He had already gotten on his headlamp and was bringing up mine.  After much aiding and beating on the piton he was up beside me.  It was nearly pitch dark, with a sliver of moon above us.  We fixed the second rope and descended to the base.  Another split day, damn!

Panorama of the cave we stayed in under the Chanderi massif. There was a temple to the god Shiva, complete with a lingam, bells, flags, ceramic floor tiles, graffitti, garbage, firewood, clothesline, and a mouse that ran over and kept us awake all night! Rahul Lama on the right prepares our next meal while Richard Kher walks between our gear and sleeping areas.
Lama and Richie had noodle soup for dinner, while I ate dried fruit, nuts and chapattis.  We could see the lights in the valley below us, but we were focused on getting a good night’s sleep as we wanted an early start.  We were in bed before 10 PM, but the night was spent battling the little mouse that was after our food.  It was hung on a clothesline above Richie, but Ratatouille incessantly ran all over us as he made his way around the huge cave.  Apparently, we were on the most obvious path home!  Every few minutes one of us would be sitting up swearing at the little bugger.  Richie left his headlamp on all night, while I zipped the net of my bivy sack.  Neither of these seemed to help.  Richie smoked half a bidi (local tobacco cigarette) to calm himself down and left the other half beside him only to find it gone in the morning.  He mentioned it to us saying Ratatouille obviously liked bidis, until Lama confessed he had smoked the other half as he was also at his wit’s end!  Anyway, we were pretty tired when we got up, ate breakfast, and racked up; late again at 8 AM!

Trad Wars - Day 2

The sun was already upon us as we jumared the first two [short] pitches.  I was having a lot of trouble getting off the ground  I had never actually jumared before and I decided that I was not going to start learning today!  I climbed the route using the jumar as a self belay.  I was feeling much better, and did the route clean until the overhanging headwall.  Richie had cleaned the traversing aid section the night before.  Lacking technique and with two left-handed jumars, I literally had to climb the rope.   On the other hand, Richie was up in no time.  Again, the game was on as we made our way up pitch three.

Richard Kher jumaring his way up to the P2 anchor on Day 2.
It was a longer pitch with two off-width sections, where I ended up using the BD Camalot 6 and switching it out both times so as to keep it in reserve lest I come upon another large section requiring it.  At the second crux, I encountered another ring bolt on the right.  After clipping this, I was unable to chimney through the section in the left-facing orientation I was in.  I was ready to use Richie’s suggestion of stepping on a sling and aiding my way out, but was determined to work this section through.  I’m not sure what was in me today, but I definitely had my lead hat on.  I was making moves on broken rock without thinking three times, although I’m sure I was thinking twice about it first!  I felt pretty confident.  I downclimbed the section and stemmed the gash with tension moves and made my way out of this crux, much to Richie’s amazement.  The next section was a cave formed by what looked like a section of rock and an enormous chockstone with a sling around it.  This must’ve been a rappel anchor like the one on pitch two.  Some nice hand jams, stemming (aka bridging) and cam placements brought me out of the hole and onto a fine sitting deck.  I built a full trad gear anchor and got comfortable taking off my protective fleece layer in the extremely hot sun.  It had swung around and it was like an oven now.

It was Richie’s turn.  He still had not gotten his off-width technique down and had to jumar through at least one of the two offwidth sections.  I pulled the backpack up ahead of him on the tag line, which was actually an old, heavy 10mm Mammut Galaxy.   There was a lot of grunting on both our parts as he made his way up.  He really enjoyed stemming in the cave as you can see in the pictures.  Actually, this chap never stops smiling, and I’m glad for that!

Richard Kher stemming (aka bridging in India) his way through the cave up to the hole between the chockstone belay station.
We exchanged gear, took pictures, drank water, and chatted.  I started up the fourth and last pitch.  The crux moves were between 20’ and 30’ above the chockstone belay.  There is a ring bolt along with at least one peg driven into the dirt, and a few hand jams with at least one cam placement.  It was definitely in the 5.10 range free and I was able to successfully execute it with a combination of grass-grabbing and jittery foot work!  Phew!

This was also the longest pitch with low-angled, sloped, grassy sections without much protection.  Another rappel bolt was found in this section.  At some point about 150 feet up, the rope drag from both ropes was getting dangerous.  I pulled the tag line up and placed it in a pile, which made the last 50’ a breeze.  Now, only Richie was pulling on me as he couldn’t see me!  I saw two ways to the summit in the last 30’ or so.  The right looked direct, while the left topped out on a huge boulder with a large crack in the middle.  I opted for the left and more aesthetic exit through and over the boulders.  While setting up the anchor, I used two cams and a distant ringed peg driven into the summit dirt by the first ascensionists.

Three-point anchor made from two cam placements on the right and a peg driven into the ground on the left that was the first ascensionists single anchor. Our exit was obviously different from the first ascent.
It was Richie’s turn now.  He climbed up to the crux and after trying a couple of times to free it, he opted to jumar his way out.  The combination of backpack, crumbly rock, heat and lack of hand-jamming technique must have gotten .  He took a bit of a rest as he worked a small cam that had walked into its crack.  He signaled to me that some trekkers (aka hikers) were watching us from below.  I took a gander over the boulders and they waved back with much excitement.

Richard Kher exiting the boulder, which seemed a far better way to summit than the full on clawing of grass that would've been required to exit as the first ascensionist might have; speculation, of course!

Soon he was up and we were prematurely congratulating each other.  We still had to descend; I’ve been trying to impress upon my partners to stay on until they are completely down.

Richard Kher and Sunny Jamshedj in a selfie on Chanderi's summit with several pinnacles and buttreses in the background between Badlapur (visible in the distance on the right) and Panvel, which would be directly to our left.

After a photo op at the top with Shivaji statue, we started our descent.  The first part was not too bad, but the second half was crazy!  We were descending on pebbly slab on the face of the buttress!  Richie has on chappals (aka flip-flops) and is waiting to pass me while I am seriously nervous reverse climbing ahead of him.  He passes me once I can’t see where the path is.  Why?!  Because, it is full-on face climbing with steps and handholds chopped into the rock.  Holy-shmoly!  Last 60 feet are easy-peasy as I have something to hold onto and I’m not skating on the footholds.  Phew, down again!

Another selfie of Sunny Jamshedji and Richard Kher from near our waterhole, which we unfortunately did not get a picture of. This guy is always smiling!

We decided we would fill some water at the tank before returning to the cave as the back and forth was not exactly a pleasant trail which involved traversing pebbly slab.  Lama was asleep when we got there; a little too much Old Monk (local rum), if you ask me!  We collected garbage, packed, ate, and rested for a few minutes as it was already getting late.  The longer we stayed here, the later it would be catching the train home.
It was 5 PM before we slung our backpacks on our shoulders.  Lama graciously took most of the rack and we made our way down to the village in two hours.  It was getting dark, when we reached the village.  Our newly-made friends came out of their house as we cleaned up at their wash basin.  There was much discussion with various opinions about whether the state transport bus would be available till 8 PM.  Several said “Yes!” for sure and others said “No way!”  Another man wanted us to walk to the neighboring village where there may be an auto available for rent.  To be on the safer side, we opted to call our earlier auto driver.  After all he knew where to pick us up and would just charge us the same amount to get back.  We were just too tired to argue anymore.  He’d be there in an hour.  Our hosts had already served us tea and told us that we could eat dinner with them.  Actually, they had rice and dal (soup of lentils and vegetables) for us in a about twenty minutes.  When we were ready to leave, they would not under any circumstances take any money from us.  They said they always fed the trekkers and never took any money.  We were welcome to give their mobile numbers to our friends for future reference as well as feel free to visit any time.  Wow, this is the real India for you, not the rabid, slime bags we were just about to meet.

Triad Wars

The auto driver had arrived and called us a couple of times to come down.  Little did we know what we were in for!  We bid our hosts farewell and headed down and across the damn.  All was quiet until we reached the entrance guardhouse.  The two old men were there from a couple of days ago and waved us in.  We walked innocently towards the building where a loud voice asked us what we were doing here, where we were coming from and going.  We explained Chanderi, trekking and climbing.  We were told this was not the way to Chanderi.  We said, funny thing was we had just climbed it, so it was obviously a good way to get there!  They asked how we would be leaving.  We said an auto.  They told us they were policemen and ordered the auto driver to come down from the road.  We asked why.  If there was a problem, it was with us, not the driver.  We were told that this was government property and that it was dangerous for people to walk across the dam.  We said, we had come through quite late two nights ago without a problem; the old men could verify this.  They were getting irate with our quick and bold responses.  Then they told us we were not allowed to be in the area between 9 PM and 5 AM.  I looked at my watch and said it was 8:53 PM, so it wasn’t a problem.  They got even angrier and the shorter of the two came up into my face shouting, saying I was speaking disrespectfully.  I said how that could be.  This even got him more inflamed.  Maybe, it was because Richie said that I was an American citizen and they did not want to stir things up unnecessarily

These chaps were drunk and had at least two others goondas along with the two guards backing them up.  Actually, the old guards were completely terrified themselves!  As Lama and I walked away, urging Richie to follow, we met the auto driver making his way down.  He intimated to us that while he had been waiting these two “policemen” had harassed him for money and he had told them off with his own threat of pain and mayhem from his buddies who he had, by now, summoned by mobile phone.  It only took me a minute to realize that their beef was really with him and we were just caught in between.

I quickly walked back to find Richie in an apologizing tone, being asked for money.  He was trying to remain friendly, but was just getting screwed!  I urged him to walk away repeatedly.  In the middle of this, both he and the goonda introduced themselves to each other; a name was known!  We walked away quickly to the auto.  The driver was livid, making calls to his buddies.  We took off thinking that was the end of it.

About ten minutes down the road, a motorbike overtook us and whaddyaknow, it was the two goondas.  They stopped us in the middle of nowhere; pitch black with no lights or cars in sight.  They told us that they had orders from headquarters to check our bags.  For what?!  RDX!  Do these fellows know what RDX is?!  We asked them to call their superior, so we would talk to him.  They refused and told us to get out of the auto.  No way!  We asked for their superior’s number, so we could call him.  No way, who did we think we were.  We said we were not getting out and if they wanted to search our bags, we would do at the police station.  I think, they were flummoxed by all our responses at this point.  They got on their bike and asked us to follow.  Fifty meters down the road, they slowed down, blocking us to animatedly take the auto’s license plate number.  In the meantime, Richie memorized his plate number as well.  Now, we had a name and a license plate.  These chaps were just not very bright!  Then, they took off and were gone in a jiffy.  What the @$*?!
Again, more phone calls from our driver and another ten minutes later a car flashes us and stops.  It is his backup from the town ahead.  They escorted us in and alighted.  Whoa!  These guys were big and ready to bust some chops, but of course, our two imposters were nowhere to be seen.  After much discussion with the head honcho, giving them his name and license plate, they determined he was a local drunk who harassed people for money regularly.  These guys themselves appeared to be the town’s enforcer’s, with no actual connection to a security apparatus.  Wow, what had we just gotten ourselves in the middle of?!

As we made our way to Panvel station, we discussed whether we should report this to the police.  All of us were quite determined to do so as other hikers would have the same problem.  We later learned from older members of the club that indeed, people were being mugged around Chanderi.  We were quite confused at this behaviour though.  We had two complete opposite experiences within a matter of an hour and hardly a kilometre distance from each other.  A family with nothing fed us and wouldn’t take any more, while two goondas asked us for money with nothing but harassment and intimidation in return.  Again, we got to experience the extreme contrasts within India.  Now, we were flummoxed!  Eventually, we decided that we would not report it, as it would only hassle us to have to make a three-hour roundtrip to Panvel each time the police needed us on site.  In India, it is common for thugs to get away, while victims are harassed, so the police look like they are doing something; it’s all about image here.

At Panvel, the ticket lines were long at 10 PM.  We separated the gear while we waited.  My pack was heavy again.  Our train was delayed by thirty minutes and by the time we got on we were definitely exhausted, but not enough to prevent us from chatting the whole way back!  I opted to stay on the Harbour Line all the way to CST as I didn’t want to switch trains twice and wait for a cab for thirty minutes before getting home.  It was just past midnight.  I was tired and filthy.  Another Sahyadri adventure successfully completed.  Many more lessons learned!  Wow!

Until next time...

PS:  Here's a link to ALL the pictures on Picasa; only some are included here. Make sure to read the captions: