Tale of a rock climber, scaling Purulia’s Sirkabad hills

The rain pattered away on the corrugated tin sheet, drowning the sound of the approaching vehicle. Gaurav, was in his twenties, was nervously flipping through a book captioned “Basic guide to rock climbing”. The excitement in his eyes was palpable. Just about two hours ago, he met his maternal uncle, Dr. Sukanta, an army bred doctor who had served the Indian army for six years as a medical officer at Lucknow before he left the country to complete his MRCP degree in medicine from England. The doctor was a fitness freak and wanted his nephew to be the same.

He argued over everything that unless the human body is regularly exercised, the mind will remain clouded with the dismal thoughts of the vagaries of life.

Sirkabad hill face, at Purulia, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
At three hundred fifty-five feet, Sirkabad rock face looked like a mountain. The shadows of the trees and the rock played myriad tricks in a climber’s mind

The doorbell rang and Gaurav was shaken off his intense reading. His heart thumped in its bony cage. The moment had come, Gaurav’s mother has reached. He hurriedly got up and opened the door. His mother was holding the half-closed umbrella which was dripping rainwater and said, “Gaurav, move..the rain has drenched me all over. Can you get the bags for me, please…”. Gaurav moved out of the way and let her in. He plodded across the short staircase which ran to the road. Gaurav’s father had partly opened the door of the car, and he picked the bags up and ran back.

The red and white sari was almost wet, streams of water ran down her forehead as she bunched up the towel to mop her neck and face. It was the month of April, and usually, in India, the summer sets in by this time, and the heat rise but that day it was the afternoon of nor’wester. Water charged gusty wind was sweeping the city. It had drastically brought the temperature down. It was quite cool to the point of feeling cold. Gaurav looked at his mother and thought a hot chocolate drink would be ideal for her and went to the kitchen to set the small pan to heat the milk. He will do his best to please his mother. He has to… to keep her in good spirits.

As she sipped the hot drink, proffered by Gaurav, the sweetened warmness made her feel quite comfortable as she went on, “So, how was the day, son?”. Gaurav knew, telling her about his new job and the good work he recently did, would make her feel contented with her son’s progress.  After finishing his exciting story, which was peppered with rudiments of fabrication, he came slightly closer to her mother and looked up to her.  “Well, you want to share something ?”, his mother asked. 

“Hmm..yes, mother”, Gaurav continued, You know..I..I have been saving a few of my office leaves to take a really long one”,  “With a stroke of luck, my boss had granted it; about a week to ten days of work holidays.”. Mother smiled “That is good…so did you make any plans to go somewhere?”

Gaurav now inched closer and took her mother’s hand, “Mamma..I met uncle today and he has asked me to join the ten days crash course on rock climbing at Purulia.” “You know..how much I love it, about twenty students are being considered and I have given my name; they have accepted it.” The doctor has also paid the joining fees.” “We are a kind of…set, you know”. Purulia is the westernmost district of West Bengal state in India bordering Jharkhand state on its west.  Rugged, hilly, and comparatively dry, lacking moisture. The district has medium to slightly high hill ridges amidst lush green foliage due to myriad streams and rivers that flow through it. Professional rock climbers start their career here and Gaurav happened to share the same desire.

The eyes lost its redness – The fair to the wheatish complexion of Gaurav’s mother got replaced by a brownish tinge. The well-arched eyebrows with the bindi, in the middle, quivered. The forehead became deep furrows as if shoveled up by a tractor on a cultivated field. “Never…you cannot go”, “I will speak to your uncle.”. The mother snapped and went for the phone. Gaurav fell back in his chair, grimacing at the thought of it. A flurry of exchanges could be heard over the phone with some pregnant silences in between. Very interestingly, Gaurav’s mother subsided. She sat tight for over ten minutes before she looked up, shaking her head. The furrows on the forehead had started to melt away. The eyes lost its redness and the crack of her lipstick smeared lips parted. Gaurav stared at her in a dejected note. But the change was quite unexpected. Her mother gave a sigh and grudgingly agreed. Gaurav held her, excitement all over as he shook with the knowledge of acceptance from her. So, it seemed, Gaurav will make it to the hills.

Climber’s Circle, a medium-sized trekker’s club, born out of a pure passion to scale the nature in its various hues. Consisted of about twenty members, had organized a ten-day rock climbing course in the hills of Sirkabad in the Purulia district of West Bengal. Gaurav’s doctor’s uncle was attached as a physician with the club and participated twice or thrice to trekking programs every year; however this time he had different engagements and would not be going. The club although very small was famous for its maintenance of rules of the sports that it embarked on. Ten of the most senior members were ex-army employees and they were tough and wanted to drive the same discipline into the team they managed. It was that day of reckoning for Gaurav.

He met the senior team members who interviewed him. The interview was severe and he cleared it for his enthusiasm and definitely not for his connection.  It was decided that Gaurav with his full rocking gear will be at the Howrah station to meet his new team, his instructors to begin a journey of a decade. It was end April when he would set off. The new crowd with whom Gaurav will be sharing his hill journey was young, boisterous, and inexperienced. The rope leader or the instructors were introduced and their rough, mud baked skin, which covered the high cheekbones were matched by the glint of cold eyes which did not give anything away. He was loving the uncertainty – It was about nine in the night when the Howrah-Ranchi Intercity night train chugged into Garh Jaipur station. The team hastened to get down with their backpacks, luggage. The rock climber’s equipment was stacked up on the platform.

Under a barking order from one of the rope leaders, the team neatly kept the stuff and stood at attention. A flurry of comments rang out, the team will be moving to its final destination – Sirkabad hills. The hillocks were about fifty-five kilometres down south of the station. Without much fanfare, Gaurav along with his boys boarded a Jeep which took them to the hills after a bumpy ride over red lateritic soil between the sparsely populated belt and patches of jungle. Gaurav, a city resident, soaked in the new experience with complete obedience. He was loving the uncertainty of the course. He felt as if he was in the army, his missed ambition, and moving on the kill. It was those moments that Gaurav had re-lived several times, fierce physical training, harsh discipline, touching the raw nature in its barest form. There was just no respite.

Dislodging from the Jeep, the team pulled about twelve kilograms of luggage on their back; bent with the weight, heaving they trudged the hilly road, littered with loose gravel and rocks, the going was tough. The sun was beating down as Gaurav snapped his tongue to moisten his lips. Tall sal trees lined the broken road. The hunter boot was losing grip at places, but the team kept the pace till they reached the base of the camp.

Rock-strewn dry river bed as Gaurav inched his way upwards. The feet were being rotated to hold on to the mother earth for any sort of grip that could be generated to prevent any fall backward on the Sirkabad hill at Purulia, West bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Rock-strewn dry river bed as Gaurav inched his way upwards. The feet were being rotated to hold on to the mother earth for any sort of grip that could be generated to prevent any fall backward

Tasks were slightly out of normal – Purulia is dry and due to its topological undulations, experiences extreme weather patterns. Early morning is quite chill and when the sun slowly starts climbing, the heat slowly turns intense. Gaurav’s drill leader was Mr. Rastogi, who was perhaps a nice person; however, outwardly was very rough. The man did not know how to smile. He was seriously good though when it came to getting the job done through the boys. Being the first day, the team retired for the night, a wee bit early for the next day ahead. 

Gaurav was yanked off his sleep and with scanty water available, washed his face in a nearby stream. The coolness in the air along with the feet touching the cold flowing water snatched the last vestiges of sleep. He was handed a mug having several dents, with a handle, about five inches deep, having a seven-inch diameter. He was told that this is the only piece of utensil that he will ever get for the next six days. The mug will serve four, most essential purposes – to be used to take the bath in the stream at about five in the morning, within the same time frame, use it for the most basic ritual that absolves someone of the human waste, clean it and reuse it for the scalding tea that will be served twice a day. It will also be used for holding the lunch and the dinner when it came to some sort of a soupy food preparation made by the team cook. Gaurav was sternly told that plates would be a luxury. Handmade chapatis’ or ‘Fulkas’ will be provided for each food session that dotted a typical day. Nothing more, nothing less, it was a time of getting used to the most frugal elements to help to tick.  Gaurav sheepishly thought of his usual morning routine back home. His old home staff who has been with him for the last fifteen years touched his face and forehead and slowly called his name and after ten or more of loving touches, he gets up. Hot food is served on the dinner table with multiple options. It was a bad time to think of it. “Gaurav..”, a yell hit him hard, “Are you daydreaming, son?” Rastogi’s cracked lips were inches away from his face…“Get up, and hit the pit”. “Yes, sir,” Gaurav jumped out and bent to take the four feet long, two feet diameter-ed piece of a tree trunk which was nothing less than six kilograms. Tasks were slightly out of normal. 

Along with the team, he had to pick it up over his head, and in a slow canter climb the light inclination of the woody road around the nearest hillock, three times and if anyone made it, will have to finish it with another two before the next exercise came in. As Gaurav squared his cheeks and was moving with the others, none was smiling except for Rastogi who had turned rather social and continued with his hands clasped well behind his back, “Well, boys, you have to pump up your stamina. Need to ensure that you are in pristine health before you even dared to touch the rock… Won’t you ?” Gaurav along with others nodded in sweet agreement. The morning sun had come out. It’s faint and dispersing rays had come out just enough for the team to look around and wait for the next stage of being hill worthy. 

Everyone was at nearly exhausted state. Gaurav’s arms were red with the tree trunk sliding several times as he had completed the most arduous journey around the hill. Actually, it bled but he dared not make mention of it from sheer fear of getting rejected for the next stage. Gaurav and his team had been given a flat ten minutes to finish the morning chores and he ran with his team to the stream’s edge to take a bath. Near icy cold waters from the hills felt like searing the skin but the alertness was at its zenith. As they squatted, to dip the mug, Gaurav felt a globular structure caressing his bare hands. All the guys were about five to six feet from each other, and there was no time for niceties or preserving modesty. they all had to finish their bath in exactly five minutes. Looking back, Gaurav found in the early morning light, that he was standing beside a broken human skull along the edge of the river. On closer inspection, the team found burned out human bones, and later they discovered that they had accidentally got into an abandoned burning ghat within the hills. The team with deep reverence offered their prayers to the departed souls and crossed the stream and headed back to the camp. It was a chilling experience, not from cold though.

The rope leader hanging on to the lines as he climbed the hill face, Picture courtesy – https://www.pngfuel.com/

The smile wiped off – Shanu was Gaurav’s rope leader. A rope leader in a rock climbing event is the most important person to be with throughout the climbing and equally critical when coming down. He or she will be Gaurav’s lifeline. Rope leader makes the actual climb, catches the rock faces and climbs up, secures a line, and ushers the team to climb holding that rope which becomes the guide for the team. And in most cases, the members are novices. Shanu was a tough, lean lad in his mid-twenties and was a veteran rock climber. He had the honor of finishing his eighth climb before this one. Knew the hill, the place and Purulia like the palm of his hand. What Gaurav liked was Shanu’s affable nature, he was approachable and in the event of any exigency, Gaurav can ask for help. At least Shanu did not have the astute brutality of Rastogi.  The hard-running and severe physical capers had burned the last of the morsels in Gaurav’s tummy. He was hungry.  Somewhere beneath the bushes and from the four large tents that were dug and pitted in the clearing between the stream and the jungle, the clanking sound of the utensils was heard. So, the food was coming; everyone had a light smile. The smile wiped off as the guy who was serving handed that mug to everyone. Gaurav peered into the mug and was astonished to see the early morn breakfast. 

It was sprouted green chhole’ or chick peas, about a hundred grams with seven or eight slices of ginger. A spoon full of molasses and honey. 

Without much of a protest, which anyway would be crushed by the seniors, Gaurav and the team devoured the entire content. Shanu too finished his quota and informed that in the next fifteen minutes they will start climbing the lesser tall rocks before they attempt to scale the big ones. The reason for the light breakfast was to suppress hunger, provide the energy, and still keeping the tummy almost weight free so that all the physical moves can be executed as designed. There was no room for an error.

A big ridge over the surface –  Within the next two hours, Gaurav ran through one of the most comprehensive training regimes. It was both theoretical and physical. Gaurav treasured every bit of it. The tiredness of both mind and body ceased to exist. They say, if you love something, no matter how much strain one is exposed to, you continue to feel on top of the world. It started with the 3-point climbing, and as instructed, Gaurav was finding the climbing quite easy as he was wearing the specially designed rubber-soled shoes. The shoes should be one size smaller than required to hug the feet like skin. Every crystal on the rock face gave the required grip. The front tip of the rubber shoes held on to space about four square centimetres on the uneven surface and amazingly, the entire body weight was standing upright..such was the force of a good grip. The 3-point meant that both the hands touched the rock face and one of the two legs always be in contact with the ground or rock surface to provide the adequate leverage to push Gaurav up over the rock.

The carabiners that are lifelines for a climber as he makes his way across the jagged rock face as the climber climbed the Sirkabad hills, at Purulia, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The carabiners that are lifelines for a climber as he makes his way across the jagged rock face, Picture courtesy – https://www.pngfuel.com/

The balance of body was vital, and that was achieved by keeping the hands at shoulder level or slightly below to keep the blood circulation going. This way, Gaurav found the least of the tiredness hitting his arms. A big ridge over the surface came up next, and Shanu’s direction of never crossing the legs or hands came handy, as he climbed and to his surprise, he was able to see the vast vegetation around, and cool wind hitting him square of the face. Unknowingly, Gaurav had climbed about a shade above hundred feet off the ground. He was hanging with the harness attached to his waist. Shanu was about twenty feet above him. He had clambered by using the pinch hold. 

While traversing the rock face, Gaurav was provided the knowledge of several rope knots that were absolutely indispensable for survival. They included anchoring clove hitch knot, bowline’s knot, and figure of eight knot.  Shanu and Gaurav used the clove hitch knot to swing over a short crevice by tying the knot on a hard, solid branch of an adjoining tree overhead.  Using True lover’s knot or middlemen’s knot, Gaurav and Himesh, another teammate, roped in two different ropes and climbed the next phase.

Along with a broken joint – It was almost noon, and the team now down to ten people, from twenty were in the second phase of the climbing. A part of the team had already reached a flattened hill which would be used for a one hour break for lunch. Gaurav was now second from Shanu who was moving to his right to climb another face which towered above him at a drunken forty-five degrees. He shouted “Traversing right..” to move right to bypass the rock edge. He tugged the rope from his harness to belay which informed Shanu to loosen the rope tension to provide extra room to Gaurav to travel right about six feet above. All he saw, was a crack between two massive chunks of rocks. He inserted his right hand into the crack to get a grip, as part of the 3 point climbing. The crack was about thirty feet and ran along a broken joint. He nudged his left foot to heave himself and then it happened.

With the rope loosened by Shanu, he had a room for about three feet, and as he moved up, his right hand touched something irregular, and quite cold. He did realize what he had touched, but it was a split second late within which four successive short events took place. Within the crack came out a huge black snake with about a diameter of three inches, the snake after getting extremely agitated after Gaurav had punched through it’s slithering tail, turned nasty.

The snake strike from among the rocks. Picture courtesy https://www.freepik.com/

It turned its head and came right at the only dangling blob which was about three feet from its launch area – Gaurav’s head. The only thing Gaurav could do was to use both his legs against the rock surface and push himself back all the way into the air to avert the charging snake head. Gaurav moved out and the snake came flying towards it. Nature came to rescue. The entire snake was in the air when it poised to attack. Isaac Neuton’s discovery of gravity pulled the airborne snake below, at about 9.8 meters per second square of downward movement, and with every second, the snake went away to the depths below and from Gaurav’s mesmerizing eyes. He saved himself from an almost confirmed bite.

Gaurav’s second challenge came next, as he was looking at the falling snake, he forgot that like a pendulum he was hanging and was at the extreme end and now he was coming back towards the rock face with the same force with which he had pushed himself away. He again used his legs now to brake his inevitable rush and came crashing on the rock face. He was still in one piece, except for a deep cut on his forehead as he spun around the hanging rope and grazed the surface.

Shanu, mistakenly heard Gaurav asking to belay which meant the rope was let loose from above. So, there were these six feet of rope that had coiled down which gave way and Gaurav went down and crashed on the rock and vegetation below. Luckily, his head did not strike against any rock but he had landed on something from which he was not able to come out. The pain was instantaneous but far less damaging than the bite he had averted. As blood dripped, he tried to look below and heard a distant ‘thud’ after about a minute that told Gaurav that the snake had hit the ground below.

Himesh was the third man following close on the heels of Gaurav and he climbed after an agonizing ten minutes and inspected Gaurav’s back. Gaurav had landed on his back on a cactus or some sort of a mountain plant with thorns. About seven or eight of those had made deep gashes into his back. Shanu called for help as he was the next to be at the scene. The army trained Rastogi, who was the rope leader for another group came next. The hard-looking man was swift to take action. The shirt was taken off and five of the thorns were protruding out of the back.

Before Gaurav could react, Rastogi asked tersely a single question, Are you in a shape to go up or you want to end this and go down ?” Gaurav nodded, hardly able to speak, and pointed his index finger upwards. he was rolled on his stomach, a small wood was pushed inside his mouth crosswise, and was asked to bite it; the ends sticking out. A pain from another planet hit Gaurav. Rastogi had used a knife to prick the wound and one by one pulled the thorns from the bleeding holes. Immediately, a leaf of a big tree, perhaps, a traveler’s tree was ripped up, rolled up and a powerful hand squished the heap of leaves, a white liquid came down which was applied on the gaping gashes. Tears of pain, coupled with trembling hands which were pinned down by Shanu were the only movement seen from Gaurav. The pain was virtually gone.

The wild plant which was applied had acted like a salve. Multiple strips of white cloth came out of the first aid box which was rolled all over and a knot was placed which held both the natural balm and the cloth in place. Gaurav was asked to dress up, loosen the harness and re-attach it. He was upon his feet. Rastogi and Gaurav looked at each other for a full minute and on Gaurav’s swollen face, not a flicker of emotion was visible across. He held the rope and made his climb, followed by Shanu. He will make it to the end.

Tanking up – Visibly shaken-ed, Gaurav took about ten minutes to come to his senses. Shanu reared up from behind. He looked at Gaurav and pointed to the next rock ridge that loomed ahead. Shanu was hesitatingly sympathetic but asked Gaurav not to display any emotional turmoil that ran wild in him. Within the next twenty minutes, both of them jumped and careened across the jagged rock faces and landed at the opening where lunch would be served. A gray tarpaulin hung from two trees and the food was being made underneath it. The same mug sat beside Gaurav, and each handmade chapati was being scooped up from within an orifice dug into the ground which acted as a makeshift fireplace. The cook was making them and with a shove with his foot, kicked the bread towards it’s intended member who picked them and doused it with the hot vegetable soup which surprisingly tasted very good; perhaps Gaurav was famished beyond normal limits.

It was the time of coming down. A new device was used, called a carabiner, D-shaped metal devices that were hammered into the rock and it had a self-locking mechanism that let the rope through it. Gaurav learned the trick of keeping the metal door away from the rock to prevent accidental opening if the carabiner pitched while the climber was going up or coming down. The way a rock climber comes down depends on how best the technique of rappelling is executed.

Gaurav and Shanu along with Himesh rappelled along with the rock faces and after a grueling stretching of muscles, and tendons, the team finally landed on mother earth. By now, Gaurav had mastered the art of rhythmic pushback, one has to deploy in order to come down in stages. Bruised, injured, Gaurav was standing with a smile. He had it all. He looked back at the rock and the mountains that were forming dark shadows as the sun had come down well below the horizon. It was time for the team to return to the camp after a successful day’s events. Only seven had succeeded and Gaurav was one of them.

Bandaged and broken, but with spirits touching the sky, Gaurav saddled a broken rock as the dry wood started to crackle in its triangle of a raging fire. A bonfire was lit and the entire team was around it holding the same famous mug, now containing no tea, not even any soup or food.  It contained Old Monk, the army rum with few ounces of added water, and was organized by the monosyllabic Rastogi, and he was found not smiling but then the left edge of his mouth had pulled back across his cheek. 

AT the hill top of the Sirkabad hills
A beaming Gaurav after reaching the top of the Sirkabad hills, Picture courtesy – http://freerangestock.com

The team was jubilant about the day’s success. Gaurav was a happy young man, who completed what he so dearly wanted. He already garnered the strength for the next day’s climb. 

The pain, the trepidation, and the achievement were all being dunked in the mug as this tenacious young man looked up to the sickle of a moon in the night sky. Mummy’s young boy, Gaurav was contemplating what would his mother say when he meets her. Forget it, mothers have an insatiable desire from their offspring, the world over. He mused that she would be happy as he was.

He waited for the sun to appear; his mind was redolent with the aroma of the rocks which made him balmy and pleased as a rock climber.

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