From the Road: Climbing A Mountain In India… Barefoot
Ever had the desire to climb a mountain barefoot? Yea, me neither. But this is the story of why I decided to, the most miserable 12 hours of my life, and why even thinking about the story brings a smile to my face.
In December, 2008 I was working on a documentary project in India. Traveling with my good friends and fellow visual journalists, we made our way to the small city of Tiruvannamalai, about 200km south of Chennai. Each year the city if flooded with Hindu pilgrims for the Karthikai Deepam festival which celebrates the god Shiva’s transformation into the cities largest mountain. Normally a city of 130,000, each December it balloons to over 2 million.
The vast majority of the pilgrims arrive set on walking the cities 14km perimeter after ritualistically shaving their heads and going to the local temple. Some of the more adventurous pilgrims opt to climb Mount Aranachala in hopes of reaching the summit where a vast cauldron of burning butter sits atop the peak for ten days.
Intrigued by the idea of sharing this experience with those who had flocked to the city, as well as the potential for great footage and a memorable experience, myself and fellow adventure junkie Alana Fickes, decided to make the trek.
Backpacks loaded, memory cards cleared, cameras in hand, we excitedly walked to the base of Mount Arunachala. All was going great, and with grins on our face, adrenalin from the excitement and a healthy dose of blind faith we would make it down alive we were promptly stopped and informed of one thing; we had to climb the mountain barefoot and must leave our shoes at the bottom.
Ten minutes later, I was nearly in tears. Growing up in the city, my soft and supple feet could barely make it across my grandmothers gravel driveway let alone a rocky mountain in India whose only train was but a faint suggestion by the bent grass around the jagged boulders. Alana, who had grown up in Hawaii, had feet of steel and happily lead the way as a struggled to tie my socks around the balls of my feet to prevent further cuts. I hid my pain as best I could, with little to no success. She was carrying a backpack twice the size of my I may add.
Eight hours later we were still climbing, and with the fall of night, had even less of an idea where to go. The scattered pilgrims had dissipated, and the terrain had gotten extremely erratic and unpredictable. What had started out innocently enough as a barefoot climb had turned into extreme bouldering in the black of night. It had gotten so steep, that although directly under the summit, the burning cauldron of butter was now out of sight.
We had to make a hard decision, and although I think we both regret it daily, we agreed the smartest thing to do was to turn around and attempt a descent towards the city lights below. As hard as it was to turn around, I was overcome with a sense of relief to no longer be blindly marching into the impossibly black unknown.
Two more hours later, at what must have been 10pm, we seemed to have made little progress and hope was slim we would make it down that night. I remember thinking to myself that sleeping on a rock and waiting to the morning sunlight to help guide us down was starting to sound like a fairly decent option. Not wanting to give up, we kept sluggishly traversing the mountain towards the base, through areas so steep we resorted to sliding down on our butt.
Minutes later, out of the dark of night, an elderly man, wearing only a skirt and a turban, appeared with a small child on his back and motioned to us to follow him. Overcome with a sense of relief and sheer disbelief we followed this mystical man down the remainder of the mountain only to find our shoes had been stolen and the entire stand we left them at disassembled.
At this point we could only laugh or we would have been left crying. A short time later we were back at our hotel where we immediately threw out every piece of sweat drenched, mud covered clothing we had on. I’ve never enjoyed a shower more in my life.
Not having an extra pair of shoes with me, I wore a pair of flimsy hotel slippers for 3 days until our eventual departure from India.
Although right up there with the most miserable days of my life, and despite the blood, sweat and tears of that day, I still easily rank it right up there as also one of my favorite. A once in a lifetime memory, an unforgettable adventure with a best friend, an emotional roller coaster to say the least, and a mystical Hindu man on a holy mountain in a small city in the middle of India made for one of the greatest days of my life.
Six months later, back home in Los Angeles, I was at a party talking to an old college friend, whom upon hearing this story quickly replied with “Ohh yea, I climbed that mountain a couple times, right up to the top. I don’t think you really have to take your shoes off, I kept mine on and nobody ever said anything.”
Safe travels, Jeff
* For more information on “Svara”, the documentary project we were shooting during the trip, please visit http://documentary.brooks.edu/india/