Mt. Whitney (Optimism:3, Realism: 0)

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I love hiking. Very few things give me as much joy looking down on a valley from above. Fewer things give me as much joy as knowing I have come a long way from my past habits which made me a diabetic in my teens. Even fewer things allow me to have a guilt free sweet(s). I have been calling San Francisco my home for last thirty three months. In these months , I have climbed Fuji, Triglav, Half dome , backpacked across Iceland, New Zealand and as of yesterday Whitney. In all of my trips, I have tried to shun cities and stick to remote wilderness.

Ever since I moved to San Francisco, I wanted to climb half dome. The lottery to climb it presented a further challenge. To compound matters, for last two years, I forgot to apply for preseason lottery. Last year I did apply for end-season special lottery for last week but I was not lucky. This year I was determined to climb it using they daily lottery. I did the math (or rather some else did the math and published it),  there was a thirty percent chance of winning the lottery on a weekday. To further optimize on my odds, I decided to take leave on Friday and Monday. Now I had four days to apply for daily lottery. This meant I had 66%  probability of getting the lottery. To further increase odds I convinced my roommate and his two friends visiting  to apply for lottery on one of the weekdays that I was applying and my odds increased to 91% . To no surprise of me I got the lottery to get to half dome.

Unknown to me at that time, (I had not heard of Whitney then), I was planting the seeds of a Whitney hike. I do not have a car and try to avoid renting it unless I am forced to. I usually take public transit for my hiking trips. This meant I could not carry camp gear with me to Yosemite nor could I stay outside Yosemite for my twelve hour hike. I had to stay inside the park. Like a seasoned visitor of the park, I started looking for accommodation inside the park for my target days. I searched for all places that did not cost an iPhone or both kidneys. I booked myself two three nights at housekeeping camp and one at Tuolumne meadows. For the people not familiar with the terms , they are very far apart and there was no prayer for me to do a hike of half dome while I was staying in Tuolumne. Thankfully , I got the permit for one of the days I was staying in housekeeping camp and Tuolumne happened to the best part of Yosemite. Tuolomne is open for a very short window and is located at a higher elevation than the more visited parts of Yosemite. At Tuolomne, there is no place to eat dinner apart from the lodge dining and if you are a single guy traveling alone (exhibit me), you have to share table with strangers. All my life , I have found sharing meals with fellow travellers is a great way to learn about their culture . I have learnt a great deal about my adopted country from fellow travelers. One thing lead to another and I found that there exists a mountain called Whitney which is the highest point of continental US and it does not require any mountaineering skills. In other words, by the end of dinner, I had decided I was going to climb it.

Climbing Whitney requires permit which are usually sold in April and August was not April. I had to do the math. I saw that there is a high probability of getting a permit on Tuesdays,Wednesdays and Thursdays.  I took leave for one Tuesday to Friday with an eye to climbing on Wednesday or Thursday .  I convinced my office colleague to join me. I planned on taking train and bus from San Francisco to Mammoth lakes,  staying at Mammoth lakes, taking a rental car from Mammoth, getting the Thursday permit on Wednesday and climbing Whitney on Thursday.

There was a problem though unlike the last few weeks, the option to buy Thursday permit did not appear on website Wednesday morning. The website said “W” as in “Walk in permits”. I decided to take the chance . Now I had to get a rental car from Yosemite airport . I went to website and tried to book a car but for some reason, I could not. I decided to take another chance and took a cab to the rental car center. The reason I was not able to book any car was because there were no cars available . I was out of luck on how to reach the “Walk-In” permit center. But while we were getting disappointed at the rental car center, there was Alison from Mammoth who was heading to San Diego. She overheard that we needed to go to Bishop. She told us she will take us there.(What were the odds?). The rental car center could not believe their ears and eyes. They called the rental car center at Bishop and blocked a car for us .

Optimism: 1, Realism: 0

An hour after the miracle at Mammoth rental center, I was on a car to Lone Pine to try my luck at Walk In permit. Once I reached the “permit center”, I was told that they do not give “Walk in Permits”, they had been asking recreation.gov to stop listing the option on their website for a long time.  They told we need to book it online . I had checked online in the morning but I tried to do the same experiment and expect different results. The Gods did not disappoint. Out of nowhere, two permits became available and we found ourselves with permits to Whitney for next day.

Optimism: 2, Realism: 0

Thursday we climbed Whitney. Unlike my other climbs, I got a bout of AMS. I have had migraines ever since I could remember and I can usually power through it. Unfortunately another effect of AMS is diarrhea. I was not prepared for it. My stomach started bloating up around half a mile from the summit. I had to open my bag straps and belt and my stomach had bloated like a hot air balloon at the summit. I did not put on 3 inches of belly fat between 12000 feet and fourteen thousand five hundred feet as the images of my summit might suggest. The climb back from the summit to parking lot was miserable till about 11000 feet. I was barely able to 1 mile an hour and had to take very frequent breaks to tend to my bodily functions. But towards the end of the never-ending descent, I had recovered enough to carry the bags of a fellow climber Mark . He had given up about a mile before the summit and had left for the parking lot about three hours before me. When I talked to him, he was very dis-oriented and tired and could barely tell his name. During the descent , we also lost the trail for a few minutes under darkness but we managed to find it . In net, I did the climb and down in eighteen hours instead of planned twelve and my pictures at the summit makes me look like a rounder Smiling Buddha than I am but I did climb the highest point of continental  US.

Our initial plan was to return the car at Bishop and take a cab to Mammoth and take the morning bus from Mammoth to San Francisco. But it was too late and I did not want to get stranded at Bishop. We instead drove to Mammoth . I hoped to return the car next day morning and take the 6:50 bus from Bishop to Mammoth. As per plan , I woke up @ 4:30 and dropped the car at the rental car center at 6:30. But uber told me there was no cab available at 6:30 am and I missed the bus. I then tried calling other local cab providers for a ride to Mammoth to reach by 8 a.m. But all calls went to voice mails. One guy did call back but he could not reach me and reach me to Mammoth by  8 am. He could drop me at Yosemite but that would cost me 450$. I would rather stay another day at Mammoth. I told my friend I will figure a way to reach Yosemite in time for 4:40 pm bus . I started looking for options to reach Yosemite. Google maps told me there was a bus leaving for Reno at 7:35 which could drop me at Juno lakes and I could then catch another bus to Yosemite with a connection time of 10 minutes. Unknown to me, I would be chasing the same bus that I was supposed to take at Mammoth. This time , I did not even try for uber. I sprinted to the bus stop with a forty pound backpack. I reached the Reno bus on time. The driver asked me where I was heading. He told me Juno bus was touch and go. Google had given me kind of false hope. It said that YARTS will leave from Juno at 9 am but it was to leave at 8:50. I booked another ticket for my trip to Yosemite.The ticket told me that the YARTs leaves at 8:50 and not 9. I panicked but then me and my friend realized I was trying to catch the same bus he was in and I was scheduled to travel. I told him to stall the bus for a few minutes in cases I was late at Juno.  The Reno bus driver was reading my mind, he said that Juno was touch and go for me and I should instead try to catch the YARTs at Lee Vining and he could drop me there with time to spare. I coordinated with Matthew my hiking buddy. The bus to Yosemite was to leave Juno at 8:57 and I was supposed to reach there at 8:58. Yosemite bus was supposed to reach Lee Vining at 9:20 and I was supposed to reach there at 9:10. I asked the Reno driver to drop me at Lee Vining and at the stroke of 9:20, I was on the bus to Yosemite en route to home.

Optimism: 3, Realism: 0

 

The weekend of February 2019

It is funny how life works. Like clockwork, every December I find myself setting goals for the next four seasons. Apart from the usual suspects like eating better and procrastinating less, I thought 2019 will be the year I would cover as many national parks as humanly possible. Remote, physically challenging, breathtakingly beautiful – NPS of US has everything that an introvert traveller like me yearns for me. Talking about national parks, Aaron Sorkin once said Yosemite makes America the greatest nation on earth.  I do not know what makes the greatest nation in the world but am pretty good at spotting a beautiful place when I see one.  It helps that I can go there using public transport. Yes, I do not have a car and also find driving a wee bit stressful.

As the year rolled by, I found myself lusting after another trip. As soon as the shutdown was over, I found myself looking for a place to stay inside the park. Thus far I have never managed to stay inside the park. I wanted to go on Feb 9th but there were no reservations for that day but there was opening on 16th Feb and 17th Feb. 18th Feb being a holiday, that worked fine.  This mundane detail had a lot of foreshadowing of how things worked out for my trip. As things stood, I got the terrible flu on 8th Feb and was bedridden for most of 8th Feb. Even if had booked a trip on 8th, I would not have been able to make it.

 

Speaking of foreshadowing, this was not the only alteration I had to do for my itinerary. there was heavy snowfall on 8th and all reservations in campgrounds for my trip were cancelled. But I had decided to go no matter what. I made an alternate arrangement and found myself staying inside the park for one day and just outside for the other.

Picture: On the road

 

 

 

Picture: Yosemite under the moon light

On the day of the trip, I woke up at 3:30 and took the bus, train and another bus to Yosemite. Did I say I really wanted to go during the weekend? After having booked the trip, I also found that my trip will be near a full moon and the valley will be bathed in snow.  I was pretty excited to hike in moon-lit snow. I reached the park without any incident and basked in the reflection of the rays of the moon or as some dictionaries in another language will say “Himangshu Jyoti”. Yes, that is my name and it literally means “Moon’s light”.

 

 

 

Picture: Start of upper Yosemite

Due to the heavy cover of snow, many of the treks were closed. I did my reconnaissance and found out the open treks. Early next morning I went out to hike Upper Yosemite Falls. A hike I had done one a half year back when the tracks were brown and stony.  I found out that the entire hike was not safe but it was safe to go to something called “Colombia Rock”.  This was going to very different. The brown soil had given way to a thick blanket of snow. I kept climbing and noticed there were few other hikers. Even as an introvert solo hiker, I like to meet other people on the trail for safety reasons.

Picture: One for the profile pic

 

 

 

Picture: The paws that made me run away

 

 

 

 

Picture: Colombia Rock

 

 

 

After some time I was startled by mini avalanches but I kept going on because I saw fresh footmarks in the snow. Eventually, I met someone returning who told me it was safe till Colombia Rock but that there was a bear prowling beyond it. I was worried about overshooting but kept on going. As I had feared, I overshot the lookout and kept on going. I had not met another trekker for quite some time. That gave me a pause but I had enough time to catch the bus back so I kept on going. All this story would have made for a great climax if I had a selfie with the bear but in an anti-climatic fashion, all I came across was paw marks. It was a bit scary all alone with fresh paw marks. I ran back double speed to human civilization.

 

 

 

Picture: Mirror lake that made me overstay

The upper Yosemite hike left me with four hours to kill during the day. So, I went to mirror lake. Mirror Lake was so pretty, I became a bit stupid and overstayed my intended stay by the lake. Long story short I gave myself very less slack to catch the bus. Due to heavy snow, most of the road signs were not visible and I got lost at just the worst moment and missed the last bus. So I found myself on the 17th of February in a snow covered national park without any way to get out. With no way out, I now was at the mercy of humankind.

 

 

 

 

 

I started asking for a lift to all passing cars. Of the fifteen-odd cars that passed by me over five stopped by. Sometimes, it is easy to get lost in the negativity going around but intrinsically all humans like to help each other. One of the cars was going in my direction. They hardly had any space but they decided to save the unknown soul and I found myself on a car out of Yosemite to El Portal. They drove me to a gas station which was a few miles from the hotel. Unfortunately unknown to them the hotel was another 5 miles away and it was a bit risky to walk on the road due to cars. So, I again found myself in a situation. Like before I got another lift to the hotel. Things were only about to get even better. Next day I was back in the park and while coming back, I found myself on the bus crossing the horsetail falls as it was about to turn bright red. I never knew about the Yosemite Firefall but there I was witnessing it from the comfort of my bus as the slow traffic ensured I got a very long glimpse of the miracle of nature.

Picture: Firefall a rare natural phenomenon

 

From the bottom of my heart, I wish to thank Saina from Portland who thought of saving me out of pure humanity and Suhas from Sunnyvale. I hope I can one day of some help to another human being like you guys were to me.

 

Evergreen Travel Memories

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Shall I say that I love to travel ? Love is a very heavy word enough to justify justifications like “everything is fair in love and war” . All I can say for sure that never has a new place failed to make me happy for days after I have left that place , provided it is not overcrowded with people. Maybe I am a closet introvert who just wants to run away from known faces. The thing about sentences starting with maybe is that there could be so many of them laying claim to be the cause that we can never be sure about the merit of those claims. Hours of pedantic analysis may tell us whose claim is greater but do we always need to know the whys of our emotions. Fair enough to say, I like to travel without any rhyme and reason. I think it wins a brownie point over my other passion of code for code earns my salary and my journeys use it.


Maybe, this has to do with the fact that every few years my fathers public sector job allowed us to go on free trips to any corner of India. While this coincidence could be the factor that influenced my likings. It is not a matter of conjecture that these free trips enabled me to see a lot of the country called India. My parents say we went on our first trip to Shillong, I don’t remember much of it apart from some lake where we did boating. The next was a trip to Darjeeling and Sikkim then Mumbai-Goa-Pune and then Chennai-Trivandrum-Kanyakumari and then Minicoy in Lakshadweep. Apart from these trips, my impressionable mind was overdosed with greenery of Arunachal Pradesh through my frequent summer holidays spent at my maternal uncles place. By the time I could take my own decisions, my travels were no longer hostages to freebies of my father’s company. I spent money from my pocket to travel to a few places in Arunachal, drove my bike from Hyderabad to Mumbai and back. My car clocked 20000 km in two years involving a few trips to places in and around Chennai and Bangalore. I have travelled as much as the limits of my budget would allow me.


Baseline established, I guess its time to come to the title of my post. Evergreen travel Memories. Let me give a background of the image that serves as the first image of this post. This was taken in an obscure hilltop of Bomdila. Bomdila is one of the most beautiful hill stations of India situated far above the clouds in the easternmost state of India — Arunachal Pradesh. We had planned to halt @ Bomdila for one day en-route Tawang. But the locals had some other plans. There was a strike in a town between Bomdila and Tawang and we had to stay for one extra day. We had one extra day @ Bomdila. Knowing nothing better we decided to go the highest point of Bomdila , they call it Tower. There is a military communications tower there. There was a proper road to it. But we decided that we should literally take the road less taken. We just ventured inside hills and decided to take the path devoid of any road so as to speak of. That was one of the best decisions I had taken in my life. We just kept on climbing hills asking local wood gatherers can we reach tower this way. Long story short, in our travels, we finally reached a mini hilltop. It had a nice grass devoid of any thorny plants. We decided to halt there. It was more a matter of lack of choice, we were dead tired. We were now high above the clouds and could look down upon a lot of geography. It was then the clouds took particular liking to our decision of hiking , it decided to let the various shades of green below us play hide and seek with our visual senses. I was told that green is a colour but the dance of the clouds was determined to clear my misconceptions and prove that green is not a single colour but a  range of colours. The photo above captures just one of the moments of this great poetic recitation of clouds.


Another image of my travel diaries that has stayed with we are from the coral reefs of Minicoy.  My primary school science told me about seven colours my knowledge of computer graphics told me about 65656 colours.   But Minicoy told me that colours are infinite.  This was not the statement of the white sandy beaches or the lagoon besides our hotel where you could see the bottom of the sea. It was school of fishes playing hide and seek in the imperfections of the dead exoskeleton of corals.  Many a engineers claim that modern hd tvs can accurately bring out the last pixel that a human eye can detect . I am sure this place has the other opinion. For no so-called high quality images have tainted my memories of that place. To top it all, I don’t have a single photograph of my trip to Minicoy so in a sense it is untainted by infrequent stimulus of digital pixels.


So, these places are beautiful but then why do I write about them some eight years after I bade farewell to these places. I guess it is the time that has elapsed that forces me to write about them . These memories stand out amongst all my geographical changes.  And then there is also the slight possibility that some of my friends who read this will want to do themselves a favour and find themselves in these places. To sign off, I will plagiarise the great Spock “I have been and shall always be in love with you -Bomdila and Minicoy”