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Issue # 3, April 2013

For Private Circulation Only 

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Dusty Trails

Dusty Trails

Sheer grit Jyothi Raj's free solo of Jog Falls

Ted Talks

Barefoot running

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Flying in Vagamon Paragliding festival

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Mani: Everything changed after the gold medal Manikandan Kumar – ‘Mani’ to friends – became the first Indian to win gold at any international climbing event when he won the IFSC Paraclimbing World Championship. The 27-year-old polio-affected Bangalorean won the gold from among 23 climbers in the Arthritis/ Neurological/ Physical Disability category. Mani opens up on the win: His disability: My upper body strength has always been good, so the weakness of the leg wasn’t a problem. I became a climber due to my disability, because it was APD (Association of People with Disabilities) that took me to my first camp. If I’d been able-bodied, I would probably have become a mechanic. The competition: I felt no pressure. I had prepared well. I’d been waiting for my opportunity. After I came first in the first round, I was confident of winning the gold. Winning the gold: I’m happy to be the man who won the gold medal for my country. Standing on the podium was the best thing while the national anthem played. It felt great to stand as a world champion. I fulfilled my dream to become a world champion after 10 long years. There are no words to describe how it was.

How life has changed: It’s changed in a lot of ways. Everything has changed – personal life, family life, friends. A lot of people got to know about my climbing. People come up to me and talk to me. That feels good. The papers and television channels covered my achievement. I’m happy with the money I got. I received money from Gethnaa, IMF, and a few private sponsors. My family is happy. Earlier, they wanted me to get a job, but once they heard I won the gold, they were happy. There is no more talk about getting a regular job. The year ahead: I will be going to France for a month’s training in August, and from there to Italy for an event called Rock Master in September. I want to explore new routes in other countries. I hope to spend a month in Europe, and I want to explore Fontainebleau, which has more than 10,000 routes. How the gold made a difference: It gave me confidence. I tell everybody not to lose hope. It was difficult, but I never gave up, however much difficulty I had to go through. That’s what made me strong. This is my 11th year in climbing. I have never got bored of it. Whether people are at the wall or not, I will be there. Climbing is like life for me. Even if I’m not doing anything I will be at the wall.

‘We have set a standard’ National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) is among the most respected wilderness education institutions in the world. Founded by mountaineer Paul Petzoldt in 1965, NOLS focuses on building leadership qualities in the wild. The Indian chapter of NOLS is headed by RAVI KUMAR. Excerpts from an interview with DUSTY TRAILS:

Could you tell us about NOLS? NOLS was started 48 years ago in Wyoming by Paul Petzoldt. He started NOLS to produce leaders who would then propagate good use of wilderness. It operated at a personal level. Then an episode titled ‘30 Days To Survival’ was shown on TV, and people started valuing NOLS education. The first international branch was in Kenya. NOLS came to India in the early 1990s.

There are 600 qualified instructors from around the world. Any of them can choose to teach in India. We offer contracts. Those who wish to come get shortlisted and sent to India to teach that course.

Hong Kong, Canada, Europe and other places. For our trip-leader course, which is over 21 days, we’ve had close to 75 graduates in seven years, and about 250 WMI (Wilderness Medicine Institute) graduates.

How has the adventure scene in India changed since 1991? People are more aware of the environment. We want to create leaders who will use the wilderness in an appropriate way. We don’t teach people how to climb mountains; we teach them how to take care of themselves in adverse weather, to navigate, to layer themselves well, to cook. We teach them to manage risks, so when they are on their own, they do it safely.

Personally, what has the journey been like? My first experience with mountains was in 1985 when I was 16 or 17, and I went to Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. Wilderness was like therapy, and it became an addiction.

How did NOLS take off in India? A couple of NOLS instructors came to climb in India and saw a potential for a classroom. We believe in self-sustained expeditions, without porters or mules. Having NOLS in India gives opportunity to youngsters to work in the US,

How has NOLS influenced you? The biggest learning for me is the potential of producing responsible wilderness users. We propagate that well, and that’s what we need in India. That’s been a propelling point for me, to make sure we have good leaders who use wilderness responsibly and lead people responsibly. We have set a standard unheard of. Contact Ravi Kumar at: 09410159900. www.nols.edu/courses/locations/india/


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Steep climbs and noodle soup What’s the best way to celebrate an occasion? Most people party all night; a few challenge themselves to perform extraordinary feats. MOHIT OBEROI decided to begin his New Year 2012 with a 50K at the Annapurna 100. Here’s a first-hand account: This was the best New Year’s Day of my life… a lovely, drizzly cold run from Pokhra to Birethanthi in the Annapurna region of Nepal. 9800 feet of climbing and 8500 feet of descent made it a lovely and brutal experience. I did not think at one point my knees would hold… a steady diet of Kingfishers every day for the past few years can lubricate any joint in your body – highly recommended for everyone trying this event especially. The weather suddenly turned on the night of December 31st. It had been brilliant before that, clear sky, with excellent views of

Machupachure, Annapurna and Dhaulagiri from Pokhra. We spent two days spent in Pokhra carbo-loading on dal/ bhat and beer. The run started at 5.30 am on January 1st from Pokhra. With headlamps on we ticked off the first 12.5 km (first check point 1.30 mins), steady pace and small climbs, all on road, eventually starting up on the mountain trails, and then the real stuff started. Following jeep trails first and then stone paths we made steady progress. The first 21km went pretty well in 2.35mins and then it started to drizzle and the trail started climbing through the forests. Running on slight flat and low gradients and downhill and walking on the ups. At 37.5 km was the village of Ghandruk, the next 2.5 km to the 40 km mark would decide the race for most people; a very stiff cut-off time of 12 hours for the 100K runners and rightly so, for the 100K is at Landruk which can be reached after a 1,000 foot descent to the bridge on the river and then climbing 800 meters (2500 feet) to Landruk. I hated the downhill as this started killing my left knee but as soon as I hit the climb, I loved it,

enjoyed it every bit. Passing a whole lot of 70K and 100K runners to Landruk (6500 feet)… it was still drizzling and cold… great weather to run but NO views. Noodle soup in Landruk after the climb was downed and then a steep 2.5 km knee jarring descent to the jeep trails for the last 7.5 km run back to Birethanti and finish. 50K. Did it in 9 hours 40 mins, give or take a few minutes. Sonali Bhatia from Mumbai ran a strong race just a few minutes behind... quick shower and then sucking endless beers after… reached back at 3pm... so in daylight all well at the end... could walk. Recovery was quick... just a few niggles. However, for a lot of the runners, especially the ones trying the 70K and 100K the run got into an epic. Snow (2 to 4 inches) and hail on the upper parts... nightfall and then staying in tourist huts along the way for the night. Around 20 or 25 people did not make it back to the finish that night and stayed in tea houses overnight. Less than five (Nepali and foreigners) finished the 100K. This is certainly worth doing... my first trail run and will not be the last for sure...100K calling someday...?

Representational photo. Courtesy: Gianni Scopinaro/ Wikipedia (Creative Commons license)


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Dusty Trails

Pictures: Nishant Ratnakar (at the fort) and Dev S Sukumar (at Jog Falls)

Matchless courage under pressure J Jyothi Raj’s free solo of Jog Falls, despite a nasty fall midway through the climb, was a revelation of his skill and steely nerves, writes Dev S Sukumar

yothi Raj’s free solo of Jog Falls (830 feet) must count among the most courageous feats in the history of climbing in India, and is probably comparable with similar attempts across the world. The Jog Falls is one of India’s most spectacular tourist attractions, featuring four columns of water (‘Raja’, ‘Rani’, ‘Rocket’ and ‘Roarer’) that barrel down a cliff on to the rocks over 800 feet below. According to Wikipedia, it is the second highest free waterfall in Asia. The selftrained climber from Chitradurga has climbed along different routes of the Jog a few times earlier – he was thrice called to retrieve corpses that were lodged on the rocks and irretrievable by other means. But Saturday (6 April 2013) was special – he would be climbing along a water column, defying the oncoming torrent of water and the treacherous, slippery rocks.

True to his style, he was equipped with nothing but inexpensive plastic-soled shoes. More than the technical difficulty of the climb (he graded some sections as 7A-plus), what was required perhaps was sheer courage, a nerveless ability to ignore the fact that he was hanging on exposed rock hundreds of feet high with nothing to cushion a fall. “I was never scared,” he’d say later. “The view was spectacular.” There were times during the three-hour long climb when it looked like he would not make it. The most nerve-wracking of these moments came when he was approximately 600 feet up. Attempting a traverse under the column of water on slippery rock, Jyothi Raj’s grasp slipped and he fell heavily some 20 feet down, disappearing behind the water. There was stunned silence among the 50-odd spectators as he failed to reappear for some 20 minutes. Jyothi had fractured his left leg less


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than a year ago. He’d fallen off the fort wall after a sudden downpour. Having fallen feet first amidst the rocks, had he hurt his leg again? There was no way anybody could communicate with him… what if he was unable to get his message across? Was he conscious? These thoughts sprang to mind. There was no movement from behind the water. One of his trainees fidgeted nervously, calling the others on the phone. There was little either could do. They hadn’t even brought ropes in case of an emergency. There was no Plan B. “He’s moving!” someone shouted. We could detect some activity behind the water. After another five minutes, he climbed atop a rock and rested for a while. By this time, the cops had arrived and were questioning everybody. They wanted to know how they were the last to hear of the climb. “He looks like he’s hurt,” said the cop. “Now who’ll take responsibility?” Jyothi did appear tentative. He was at least 200 feet from topping the route, but with any kind of injury, either to the hand or leg, he was probably at a huge disadvantage.

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More importantly, had his confidence been shattered by the fall? He began to make his way up. I couldn’t bear to watch. He had to negotiate one tricky spot – cross under the water again before making it to dry rock, and it was another traverse. This time he made it across without faltering. “This was my toughest climb so far, because I was climbing along the water column,” he was to say later. A stone had fallen on his head and the cut required eight stitches. The fall itself hadn’t hurt him. “It was a calculated risk,” he said. “I knew that even if I fell, I wouldn’t go all the way down. The climb was difficult in parts. In some places I had to rely only on leg holds. “This is my eighth climb. I try different routes each time. I wanted to show that Indians are capable of such feats. The fall has not discouraged me; I will climb higher. I will not encourage my students to climb without safety equipment. I do hope we get a sport climbing wall in Chitradurga.” Climbing is a sport, but what Jyothi Raj did on Saturday goes beyond the definition of sport. Sportsmen are addicts to routine;

>5 their diets are measured and even the clothing they wear and the equipment they use are products of years of research. Jyothi Raj, on the other hand, ate nothing on the day because he fasts on Saturdays. His shoes aren’t even standard climbing shoes; they were bought from the local store. Highlypaid professional sportspeople talk of ‘risk’, but nothing they do can compare with what Jyothi Raj did on the day. For him, it was a life-or-death issue all the way through; he didn’t have the comfort of a dressing room to retire to after a hard day’s work. He had nothing to gain, really, from the climb – and he was risking everything he had. It takes a


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'I might go missing some day' The man who is apparently fearless acknowledges death as a constant companion

special kind of human being to lay it all on the line, and push the meaning of life and death, in the manner he did. For that reason, he is special. “I’ll climb as long as I live,” he said with a smile, even as he was laid out in hospital.

He is Chitradurga’s most famous contemporary name but he didn’t exist for a long time. Questions of identity forever haunted Jyothi Raj, the ‘Monkey King’ of several hit YouTube videos and probably India’s only free solo climber. He could not prove he existed, even though he was flesh-and-blood and seen by audiences worldwide. He didn’t have a valid ID, the kind that the Indian state demands: PAN, ration card, passport. It’s only in recent times that he managed to get one legitimate ID: an election card. Come to think of it, who is Jyothi Raj? Daredevil? Soloist? Showman? Or, more importantly, one of many million young Indians struggling to escape the dreary circumstances of birth and childhood? These questions won’t go away, even though he might not articulate them. They define who he is. In a sense, that’s why

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he talks about death too, dispassionately, for it dissolves all questions – and he has flirted with death before. That was a one-off dalliance. These days the relationship is more serious. “I might go missing one day,” he says emotionlessly. “It’s a matter of time.” Death is a constant companion – either in his bloodcurdling stunts in front of a cheering audience at the Chitradurga fort, or while retrieving dead bodies of people at Jog Falls. He’s retrieved three dead bodies without charging the relatives any fee, for he doesn’t want to disturb them in their hour of grief. “It was cold,” he says, of one corpse. “Like it had been kept in an AC room.” Death might come suddenly, unannounced and when he’s climbing by himself away from public sight, and he knows it probably will. “When I climb, I’m always looking for something, like a tree, to cushion my fall,” he says. “So I probably won’t hurt myself on the smaller falls. But if it’s a major fall, it will be death.” He did have a bad fall a year ago at the fort – he was halfway through the climb when it started raining. The fall broke his left leg. A local swami, Murugarajendra Swamy, paid for his treatment. Jyothi Raj’s story begins as a runaway


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from home, aged seven. He was a troublesome kid and had thrashed a classmate, had “broken his bones”, so the school dismissed him and he ran away fearing his parents’ wrath. He went to the small town of Bagalkot, working in a sweetmeat shop until he was 12. He left because the owners were constantly abusing him. He then began a long walk to Chitradurga, sustaining himself by raiding bee hives and sugarcane, and eventually started working as a household help with a family. One day they accused him of stealing money. Bitter and disgusted, he decided to end his life. He went to the Chitradurga fort, spotted a boulder, and started climbing it, wanting to jump off from the summit. It was his 18th birthday. He was about to throw himself off the boulder when he saw people cheering for him. They were astonished by his climb up the boulder and had no idea he was planning to kill himself. “I felt better,” says Jyothi. “The next day I returned to the fort and saw a monkey climbing a boulder, and I thought – if he can do it, so can I. And so I started climbing the boulders and fort walls.” He worked as a construction labourer to make ends meet, spending all his spare time and money at the fort walls and rocks of Chitradurga, befriending the monkeys there, and trying to replicate their stunts. Over the years, he has become an internet and TV celebrity. One video shows him scaling a wall, stopping half-way and, using his hand as a pivot, flipping his body around, some 15 feet off the ground. Another has him performing a leg split as he balances himself on his hands at the edge of a wall. Most of his antics have elements of buildering and parkour, and a fall would cause death or severe disability. The climbing community is divided in its opinion of his skills. While some rate him highly, others believe he has some technical deficiencies, which explains why he hasn’t done too well in competitions – a fact he attributes to the lack of training on a competition wall. There’s no doubt, however, that he occupies a unique place in the still-emerging Indian climbing story. Most climbers believe it’s time for him to stop risking his neck. “Climbing should be a personal thing,” says a senior climber. “Showmanship is the last reason you should be climbing. And the kind of stunts he does… if he has a bad fall, it’ll be over. There’s nobody to take care of him.” But climbing is the only thing that matters to Jyothi Raj, and he is determined to push the envelope. “I’m told to be careful,” he says, “But you can’t achieve anything if you are too careful.” He does come across as an earnest simpleton. He wears the Indian national flag

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as a headscarf because the date of Indian independence holds great significance for him. “I was born on 15 August 1987, and it was on 15 August 2005 that I started climbing,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to be in the army, and to shoot our enemies. But because I cannot be in the army, I’m asking my students to join. I cannot get a passport because I don’t have a ration card. People say, get married and you’ll get a ration card. But why would I want to ruin somebody’s life? My own life is very insecure.”

Editor: Dev S Sukumar Design: Venkatesh E N Content copyright DUSTY TRAILS www.facebook.com/dustytrailsindia www.issuu.com/dustytrails For advertising, contact: 0-9611 833 630 or mail: dustytrails76@gmail.com Published at: Print Factory, Bangalore. Conserve paper. Once you’re done reading, pass this on to a friend or place in a public reading space.


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TED Talks T

he most gripping part of Christopher McDougall’s cult running book Born To Run is the climactic race featuring accomplished runners like Scott Jurek, Arnulfo Quimare, and a bunch of others. Of them, one character in particular is striking – Barefoot Ted, who appears for the race and makes a definitive statement about barefoot/ minimalist running. It’s been a good time to be Barefoot Ted since the book was published. Apart from the recognition, he’s become an entrepreneur himself, developing the Luna sandals (in honour of the Tarahumara runner Manuel Luna), and seeking to popularize the barefoot way of life. DUSTY TRAILS caught up with him for a chat:

How’s life changed since Born To Run? That’s a good question. Before Born To Run, many people thought it was odd that I’d become a barefoot runner. It’s like saying to your momma… mom, I’m going to start smoking… but worse, I’m going to start smoking unfiltered cigarettes! It turned out that barefooting was what worked for me. And there was no product at that time. A lot of people would’ve been stopped because of the social pressure. Being barefoot in the US is not socially acceptable. I had the kind of personality that didn’t care what other people thought. Follow your own bliss, stay on your own path. The newfound fame from Born To

Run was my reward for staying true to my path. It ends up resonating with many other people. Now, many hundreds and thousands will find it resonating with them. On some level, the good karma from having stayed true to myself ends up being a lesson for everyone. So… yeah, a big radical change in having been a character in the book.

Running doesn’t have to be something that breaks you down. Do fish break down when they swim? Do birds break down when they fly? Do deer break down when they run? No, and the same with humans Were you a competitive runner yourself? Well, competitive in the sense, more about selfdiscovery, self-realisation, testing the envelope of possibility within oneself. It’s never been competitive in the sense that times and distances are important, but they become great tools to validate the intensity of our own focus at any endeavour. Races and events become great tests to verify what you’ve discovered in practice. I just run for the joy of it. It’s become a practice. And it’s a practice that brings health and happiness to my life. Instead of races, I see them as events where people can come together and celebrate this

capacity of being human together. So it’s like a great dance, and a celebration of being human. Could you tell us a bit about yourself, growing up… I grew up in Southern California, which is a surfing and skateboarding culture, so I was barefoot a lot. The early skateboarding days, we skateboarded barefoot. Even in my youth, the brand of clothing that was my favourite was ‘Hang Ten’, which is a surfboarding move where your feet are right at the edge, and its symbol was two bare feet. My grandmother had Native American blood, and she was barefoot a lot. Being barefoot wasn’t unusual for me. Throughout my life, I was barefoot a lot. I just didn’t know you could run barefoot. I thought, just like everybody in America, that because the ground’s so hard, and because of the pounding and blah blah blah, you needed shoes. When did you discover the runner in you? In late 2003… I wanted to find a way to run. I thought it would be great to be able to do a marathon before I turned 40. I tried all the different things you’re supposed to buy, including the greatest impact-resistant shoes in the world. Instead of making it easier, it was making it harder. I was ready to give up. Long story short, I came to the realization that barefooting might be viable. The first time I ran barefoot, it was instantaneously obvious – that I’d found the solution. It was so exciting.


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And those were days before the minimals? There weren’t any minimals that time. By the time the book came about, I had run several marathons, including qualifying for the Boston Marathon running a 3hr and 16min marathon. I ran in a lot of tough difficult circumstances, and I did it all barefoot. That taught me a lot about my body and where my limits were. Going the barefoot route helped me become a pretty good athlete for my capacity. A lot of people might ask you about the risks of getting injured by thorns or glass pieces. You run with your eyes open. For example, if you spot dog poop…even if you had shoes, you would run around it. And maybe it isn’t the ideal place to run. Ultimately, people will find that there are many more places where it’s ideal. And you can discover that ability. The reality is barefoot works in a lot more situations than most people are aware of. The race itself that’s described in Born To Run... what was that experience like? Life-changing experience. Most amazing experience ever. And to have it preserved in the book makes it even better. Because it was a magical moment. It felt historical. And it was. And there were only a handful of people watching. The Copper Canyons Ultramarathon has grown into a rather large event. Your thoughts on (winner) Arnulfo Quimare and (runner-up) Scott Jurek? Incredible athletes, both of them. World class level. It was just a great honour to have been there to see that. That moment will never happen again. It can only happen once. Are you worried about the commercialization of the whole running scene around the Copper Canyons and the Tarahumara? I’ve concerns about that. But there are a couple of huge advantages with the place… one is that it’s very hard to get there. The town is benefitting from the race. There’re a lot more locals racing – over 300. I feel I have my own role in ensuring nothing bad happens. It’s not as fearful as it might seem. You’ve started your own brand of footwear now… Yeah, Luna Sandals. Matter of fact, it’s becoming super popular. The sandals that Manuel Luna taught me to make, and I improved upon. In 2011 Luna Sandals sold as many as Vibram Five Fingers sold in 2006. They will be available in India through Runners For Life. Sandals are perfect for the hot weather in India. In a hot climate, to put your feet in boxes is ridiculous. Sandals are as old as humans. This is a way of paying homage to what they’ve (Tarahumara) done to keep this alive. We’ll soon go with a special material

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that’s 80 per cent natural so it’s biodegradable. Going barefoot, do you need to relearn a few things about running? Absolutely. Learning to run barefoot is learning to re-tune into your body’s sophisticated systems. We’re born with some incredible capacities that often get forgotten or misused because of some of the tools we thought we needed. It’s about becoming a lot lighter in your running… When you learn how to run like a human being, remarkably, you get stronger and better with use, rather than breaking down. Running doesn’t have to be something that breaks you down. Do fish break down when they swim? Do birds break down when they fly? Do deer break down when they run? No, and the same with humans. So why are they breaking down so much? Hmm! I wonder if it has anything to do with the shoe! Apart from running, do you do any other kind of training? I do some yoga, some pull-ups. Some swimming and body surfing. A lot of solowheel riding. To me, my running is a practice, it’s a joyful practice. I’m trying to get away from the time-distance-speed lifestyle; not because I think it’s wrong in itself, but that’s the only way a lot of people understand running. The idea that you’d time yourself is new… and people who spend their whole lives timing themselves, there’s the likelihood that they’ll get their ego involved and stop listening to their body, and that process leads to injury. If you spend more time listening to your body, and less on the time, you might find the balance. Running is one of our most fundamental capacities. Learning how to do that well sets you on the road to doing other things well.

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FlyVagamon: Paragliding Festival (23 Feb

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3 Mar, 2013)

The hill country of Vagamon in Idukki District, Kerala, was host to the FlyVagamon paragliding festival from February 23 to March 3. From 2005, when paragliding started here on a modest scale, the event has made Vagamon one of the favourite destinations of paragliding pilots in India. Vinil Thomas, the moving spirit behind FlyVagamon, provides glimpses into the evolution of the event:

‘In 2005, Gopa Varma and I identified the site. Gopa Varma learnt paragliding in Bangkok, and he wanted to try it here. I met him through a common friend in 2004. We consulted an English pilot named Paul James. People were wondering how paragliding could happen in Vagamon. Nobody disturbed us, and the local support was good. Paul James did the first test flight on May 1, 2005.’

‘In 2006, there were 30-35 pilots. It was marketed as a festival. In 2008, we got the ‘most innovative tourism campaign’ award from the state government. We did the event every year until 2009. There were 70 pilots in 2009, including some from the Indian Army. After 2009, nobody was interested, and it stopped for a while.’


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‘Paragliding can be a life-sustaining option for the local pilots, for those who can fly tandem.

‘The shyness of the local pilots has gone. They’ve started mingling with others. Now they’re stars in their villages. They’re motivating lots of other boys. The earlier notion was that paragliding was for crazy people. This time there were over 200 tandem flights; 72 tandems on the final day. People were scrambling to get in queue.’

‘I’m from a small place, but paragliding has given me friends all over the world. It gives me great satisfaction; it gives me a high. The others in my team are John Thomas, Shiju, Salvin, Biju, Clint, Kevin, Jobin. Trainer: Narendra Raman’ Photos courtesy: FlyVagamon Facebook page with permission

Vinil Thomas


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April 2013

Dusty Trails: The Third Issue  

The third issue of Dusty Trails, the indie magazine on extreme adventure.

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