Scaling new peaks

Shyam G. Menon | Updated on December 23, 2011 Published on December 22, 2011


It was July 2009; an evening. A cup of black tea warmed my hand. I was tired; mind blank, incredibly peaceful.


Thousands of miles away, the American economy was in bad shape. The crises at Lehman Brothers and Merril Lynch had happened. ‘Sub-prime' was known globally. In the mountains, post-summit socialising is often the ice-breaker that should have happened earlier but didn't, because people were competing with self, with others and if nothing else, fearing failure. This was post-summit on Stok Kangri, Ladakh's most popular peak. With fortunes played out, everyone talked.

One of the successful climbers, an Englishman, turned out to be an ex-banking professional who had worked in the US. As the sub-prime crisis peaked, he lost his job. He then became banking consultant to the shipping industry. That proved worse. Eventually, he packed his bags and decided to climb! I don't know if the vertical journeys were surrogates of ascents missed elsewhere or a means to acknowledge limits. We had a great conversation, discussing the state of the global economy till his beer and my black tea got over.

Bankers, I suspect, love Stok Kangri. In 2011, when I headed for the top a second time, I met three bankers from Mumbai. Stok Kangri, climbed by many every year, is a money spinner for Indian authorities. The base camp becomes a tent-city. We aptly titled one of the bankers ‘mayor', monitoring local GDP, infrastructure and funding. It was an interesting study — their mix of B-school drive and career in finance against the million-year-old stillness of the mountain. Inflation was hurting, but economic slowdown and rupee depreciation were yet two to three months off. Our bankers bagged the summit; almost, to be precise.


Two months later, I was at Vasisht. We had just climbed a peak in Himachal Pradesh. And with me was an old friend in climbing; yet again, a banking professional, from Mumbai, who saw climbs as problem-solving. The idea of math and rock intertwined has been around since the American mathematician John Gill became a rock climber. Also present was another friend, a computer engineer who was into climbing. The conversation that morning during breakfast was regarding boredom at work. People had boxed themselves into a corner with everything clad in business models. Making a business of something is like quantum physics in reverse. It freezes dynamic ideas to make money. Dismantling monotony becomes a market decision, and not natural instinct. “Sorry to interrupt but I want to say something,” a Brit-accent said from the next table. According to him, a lot of things in Europe were so because those at the helm were the finance-sort. “That's the case at least in the UK, where I come from. Look at Germany — they have engineers.” It cut ice; it didn't cut ice. There is creativity in finance too. So, what's actually troubling us? Why this déjà vu?

I thought of 2009. At Stok Kangri then, was also a former British sport climbing team member. Middle-aged, she had come to the peak after her ailing husband said she shouldn't deny herself life because his movements were restricted. Life is for living. “I don't understand why people spend a lifetime paying mortgages just so they own prime real estate,” she said. “How does that help you live?”

At the terrace cafe in Vasisht, the Englishman, a construction industry person, argued his reasons for boredom. Nearby, a French chef on vacation quietly buttered his toast. Others read, chatted or simply looked at the spreading sunshine. In the mountains, the morning sun has primeval warmth. It reminds you of the planet before rat race and insecurity. Our conversation sounded irrelevant and human at once.

(The author is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

Published on December 22, 2011
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