Shortcut to heaven Usha Subramaniam, ET Bureau 6 Nov, 2008
Fear factored - The combination of trekking and holistic living at the Aurobindo Ashram camp near Nainital was perfect for Usha Subramaniam
Delving back into childhood memories of fairy tales, my mind’s eye spontaneously morphed our camp director into the Pied Piper of Van Niwas. Nirankarji’s delightful energy and sprightliness did what music did to Hamelin’s children, 115 kids happily made the steep uphill trek behind him, quite oblivious to the arduous climb. Contributing equally to the merry mood were the locale and content of the trip, a summer adventure youth camp held in the scenic and serene Van Niwas, Sri Aurobindo Ashram at Bara Pathar in Nainital. It’s no wonder then, at the culmination of the camp, two enthusiastic 12-year olds, Akankshita Dash and Samyukta Sankaran, succinctly gushed, “Shortcut to Heaven!”
The Sri Aurobindo Education Society in New Delhi has been conducting these six-day camps since 1977, in which some 1400 young people from all over India learn basic rock-climbing skills like scrambling, bouldering, rappelling and river crossing under the eagle eye of trained instructors. Yogasana-based exercises, shramdaan and, in the evening, breathing exercises, meditation, talks on right nutrition, and so on, ensure a week-full of balanced activities for the kids — and parents like myself and my friend!
To the uninitiated (and not-so-intrepid souls like yours truly) the prospect of rock climbing can bring on a panic attack sweaty palms, pounding heart et al. But the camp makes you conquer such fears. In any case I found most children to be plucky, lithe, zealous and effortless climbers. As for the few diffident ones, it was touching to see team members rally round to buoy up their morale. This was so contrary to the sneaky one-upmanship visible in present-day city life!
Day One was an unexpected test of strength and stamina, of steel and balance, of co-ordination and resolve! We crawled over jagged terrain, descended narrow rocky crevices and caves, all the while seeking, grasping and levering ourselves using available cracks and niches as handholds and footholds. How we marveled at our thrilling achievement as the day rounded off with a 4.5-km trek to Hanuman Mandir from where Naini Lake can be seen, far below.
The next day saw us carefully heaving ourselves up over large and small rocks using techniques learnt the previous day. Sometimes, facile looking boulders proved more daunting, as just a half- or one-inch toehold was all that was available to haul myseld self up! Though bouldering requires a shorter sequence of movement, a couple of boulders demanded grit and stability of mind and body. Climbing ‘chimneys’, that is, rocks shaped like chimneys for which there is a different technique, was relatively easier...
The early part of the next day was taken up with a brief session on rope knots and hitches, to prepare us for rock climbing. Given the assurance of a safety rope around the waist and patient guidance and encouraging support of instructors, we had to challenge ourselves because rocks were higher and steeper this time round. Gradually, dogged perseverence triumphed over illogical phobias; can-do conviction outweighed nagging anxiety. The children soaked in the glorious view of the surrounding mountain-scape after a spirited 7-km trek up to Dorothy’s Seat (Tiffin Top, in the afternoon. On each trek, Nirankarji and his admirable, outstanding team of instructors cajoled the children into cheerily marching ahead, up the forested paths where oaks, pines, deodars and flowering rhododendrons grew in abundance. Every moment there in the hills, the children were doing things undreamt of in the city...
Waking up at 5.30am, finishing breakfast by 7.30am (all meals were simple and traditional, and entailed that all plates and tumblers be washed by the user after the meal!) no TV and computer games, and a long vigorous walk. They enjoyed every moment of it! Rappelling (as I recalled it from some action film or the other) seemed more dreaded than other camp activities; but I realised that I was wrong. Since the harness and rope provided safety and security, this was a great chance for acrophobes like myself to face it head-on.
Once I got past the first few seconds focusing wholly on the safety rope and harness I tilted my body backwards at 90o degrees to the rock/wall and the rest was easy and tremendous fun. What a limiting and illogical factor fear is, I realised! That afternoon we trekked 9 km to Land’s End and Sri Aurobindo Peak with some tree-climbing included. Gradually growing in stamina and confidence, we campers pushed our endurance levels higher day by day. On the fifth day was an instruction on the Tyroline Traverse technique of River Crossing, which was developed in the Tyrol range of the Alps. I nearly chickened out. Not for me that precarious, upside-down posture high up on a rope! But then, the positive impact of group activity came into play. So, overcoming trepidation, I did do that river-crossing!
At 8am on the day before we left, we trekked all the way up to Naina Peak , soaring 2,622 metres above sea level. It was a rewarding trek, even though snow covered mountains like Nanda Devi and Trishul were not visible that morning. However, that hardly mattered to any of us. The mood was ecstatic since the trip to Nainital was, in young Arpita Singh’s words, “totally incomparable” or, to quote Akankshita and Samyukta “a heavenly treat!” Well, if a 40-something’s mind can unconsciously hark back to a fairy tale character during an adventure camp, you can gauge exactly how hugely invigorating and restorative the camp can be for us urban individuals!