Free Press Journal

The mountains have made me realise my dream: Mountaineer Harish Kapadia


Harish (right) climbing in the Alps with two Pakistani mountainners in 2002

Mountaineer Harish Kapadia shares his 50-year-long trekking journey with Vibha Singh 

We don’t stop hiking because we grow old –

We grow old because we stop hiking.” – Finis Mitchel

Trekking is one of the best adventure activities in many terms. It is not just physical exercise, but also a unique learning experience, as mountains teach you a lot about life. By being open and excepting of new experiences, you allow yourselves to enhance your knowledge and understanding of the world and yourself. This is the philosophy that followed by mountaineer, trekker, explorer and writer Harish Kapadia, 72, who was awarded the Piolets D’Or Asia Lifetime Achievement Award in Seoul. Called the “Oscars of Climbing”, the Piolets D’Or is given by the Union of Asian Alpine Associations.

Taking the first step

The Sahyadris – the mountain range close to Mumbai – offers some of the best beginner-friendly trekking experiences in the world. Kapadia began climbing and trekking in his college days with his friends. He has been a regular visitor to the Himalayas since the early 1960s. “My first Himalayan trek was in 1964 to Pindari Glacier in the Kumaon Himalaya. I have never looked back since, still trekking and climbing actively. Perhaps the mountains have made me realise my dreams for life and I just can’t afford to lose a year without visiting them. I have been addicted to them and it feels like this entire lifetime isn’t enough to visit every place in Himalayas.” He completed his basic mountaineering course from Darjeeling’s Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and three years later, he did his advanced course from Uttarkashi’s Nehru Institute of Mountaineering.

Exploring unknown terrain

His main contribution to Himalayan trekking has been to explore unknown areas and, in number of cases, to open climbing possibilities. He has climbed more than 30 Himalayan peaks, many of them first ascents and crossed more than 150 Himalayan passes to explore different valleys particularly to the Siachen glacier and the East Karakoram, and the unknown Arunachal Pradesh. As an expedition leader, he initiated a series of joint expeditions with climbers from the United Kingdom, France, Japan and the United States to explore and climb throughout the Indian Himalaya. Some of his major ascents have been of Devtoli (6788 m), Bandarpunch West (6102 m), Parilungbi (6166 m), in 1995, Lungser Kangri (6666 m) the highest peak of Rupshu in Ladakh. He has led eight international joint expeditions with the British, French and Japanese mountaineers, to high peaks, such as Rimo I (7385 m), Chong Kumdan Kangri I (7071 m), Sudarshan Parvat, Padmanabh (7030 m), and the Panch Chuli and Rangrik Rang groups.

Overcoming setbacks

He continued his passion despite two serious injuries. In 1974 he fell in a crevasse at 6200 m, deep inside the Nanda Devi sanctuary. He was carried by his companions for 13 days to the base camp where a helicopter rescued him. He was operated for a dislocated hip-joint and had to spend two years walking with crutches.

On another expedition while rock climbing at Pachmarhi, Kapadia broke his left heel in seven pieces. He had to undergo another operation, during which a screw was fitted to fix his heel. He was allowed to go on pre-planned expedition to the East Karakoram where he walked with swollen leg, suffered malaria. The screw was removed after a year, when he had fully recovered. But that did not deter him from trekking post-injury, because by then he had been climbing for three decades.

The other major family setback was the loss of his young soldier son to terrorism in Kashmir. It was then he decided to devote his love of peaks to his son and he dedicated his expeditions, books, lectures and libraries in his memory. He has been discussing a proposal for a peace park in the Siachen glacier region and cleaning up the environmental damage there.

Crossing flooded river

Penning experiences

Not only did he plan his treks meticulously keeping in view all the details, but he ensured that he maintain a daily diary of his experiences. These memoirs helped him write 12 books and many articles which have become a standard reference for all novice trekkers. His book “Trek the Sahyadris” has become the resource book for trekkers in the Western Ghats.

Learning lessons

“Every trek or exploration teaches you something new and different, so every expedition is the best, you learn so much, you discover so much more,” says Kapadia. The first thing a person who is planning to start trekking is to maintain a healthy body and exercise regularly. One should begin with small treks, he says, adding “always have a companion who is there to motivate you”. These days many tour operators offer trekking trips, but he advises to plan a trip looking at your interest, strength and weaknesses. Also, it is important to invest in a good pair of shoes which would provide the much-needed grip and padding. Also carry a walking stick with you as it would help lessen the pressure on your weight-bearing joints.

But most important factor while going to Himalayas is acclimatisation to climate of higher terrains. Says Kapadia, “It may be obvious to those of you who have done your research, but if you weren’t previously aware, you need to take days to acclimatise whilst climbing the Himalaya.”

What does this mean? It means that some days you sleep at the same altitude you started at to avoid becoming a casualty of altitude sickness. Once you get yourself above 10,000 feet, it is generally recommended that you only increase altitude by 1,000 feet per day and that you take a day to acclimatize every 3,000 feet and most important stay hydrated.