“My life is in you.” I said.
My friend Venkat and I were in a hospital in Leh, seeking help for my sister who had just met with an accident. It was the most dreadful day of my life. 6 days ago, the 5 of us – Gopal, Venkat, my friend Pooja, my sister Kritika and I had landed in Leh, Ladakh for a run. It’s called the world’s highest run and it happens every year at a height of 12000 feet above sea level.
We reached a week before the run to acclimatize and developed fitness to meet our respective goals i.e., 21km for Venkat, 10 for the rest of us. Over the first 5 days, Venkat spent 15 hours to recover from his altitude-sickness (the highest he had been to before that was Kodaikanal – 7200 feet). Once he recovered, the whole group traveled to places such as Pangong and Tsomoriri. We explored the town of Leh, moved between 3 different places of stay and finally felt settled.
We had signed up for a bike trip down Khardungla Pass, on the day before the run. I had made that strange plan to accommodate everybody’s interests.
On the evening before the bike trip, we reviewed our bikes. Next morning we were picked up in a Tata Sumo with our bikes on it. We reached Khardungla Pass at around 10am and spent a few minutes to gear up for the ride. Gopal and Venkat mounted a GoPro over Venkat’s bike with a duct tape!
The rest of us had a cup of tea each, shared mutual excitement and some of Pooja’s apprehensions – she was out of touch with biking. We comforted her but she’s an intelligent woman, and we left it up to her to decide how to deal with it. At around 1030, we started on our bikes, only to be stopped after 5 minutes.
Mountains need a lot of love from the maintenance folks, and that’s what we had to stop for. We thought it would take a maximum of 30 minutes; but we were stranded for over 1.5 hours. This made us bond with the other bikers. Despite our relatively minor adventure compared to the European bikers, who had biked up Khardungla for over 5 hours, some people took pictures with us for ‘our spirit of adventure’.
Finally, the road opened and we began to roll. I must say, I am always scared of going down – a hill, a mountain or in life. So on a steep road with a rugged terrain, I lost my calm. Gopal was behind me but within 15 minutes, the only person behind me was Pooja. And she wasn’t even riding.
I was afraid of the lack of control; I was afraid of the free-fall; and I was afraid of the 15000 feet drop on one side. And then, I was afraid of/for my sister! I watched her roll down at top speed – happy and excited. She screamed with joy and her thrill looked spectacular, except to me. It brought back scenes from a past that I didn’t even try to remember. She is/was clumsy and it wasn’t because of her pronated feet; it’s just who she is. One moment she would be standing in front of you and the next she would disappear. Yeah, funny as it may be, on that mountain road, it froze my brain.
There were countless ways she could fall and that’s when I began to curse myself for that bike ride. With great struggle, I kept my thoughts to myself. My brain exploded but I remained placid for the sake of others. We met once on the way and I hid my fear for her behind my own over-cautious riding style.
At last, when we were 2 minutes away from the foothill, we reconvened to plan for a meal in the town. Pooja was still far behind. So Venkat, Kritika, Gopal and I decided to meet at a restaurant, and wait for her. As we restarted our last leg of the ride, I found something odd about my sister. Unable to pinpoint what it was, we moved on. Venkat and my sister zoomed ahead out of Gopal and my sight.
“Slow down Kavi!” Gopal shouted from behind and I saw a flag ahead. But then, I noticed a bike on the left and someone next to it. From that moment, everything was a blur; because it was my sister lying on the road. I threw my bike on one side and went to hold her. Someone who stood behind me said that she had missed the road bump and toppled over. And to be horror, I realised that the odd thing that I had noticed earlier was that she had no helmet. I trembled and found my sister unconscious with her eyes open. My voice garbled even as I shouted unintelligible words.
Some good tourists offered their Toyota Qualis car to the hospital and I dragged my sister into it. During the car ride, she gained consciousness for a bit but acted woozy. I saw Venkat on the way, who, without too many questions, understood that something was wrong; and followed the car.
Once we reached the hospital, I dragged her through the hallway. We waited for someone to guide us to the doctor. After a few minutes we were summoned by a physician. My sister and I began to walk. 5 steps later, she dug her nails into my arm and fainted. I howled and made most of the hospital attendants rush to our rescue.
And then, a nurse came up to me and spoke to me in Hindi, “Why are YOU crying?”.If only she knew I had no control over myself. My sister was made to relax on a bed and to my relief, woke up in some time. She looked at me and grabbed the bottle of water on her side, “Here, drink some!” At that moment, we cracked up even as tears rolled down my eyes. “Don’t you understand.” I sobbed. “My life is in you.”
In that ward, there were some 8 patients, each on some sort of medical support; and yet, I looked needy. My fear down the hill, my momentary relief towards the end and the accident, had all turned into a cocktail of emotions, that in turn made my vehement disposition quite out of control.
“I am stuck with 3 bikes in the middle of nowhere. What do you want me to do?” I got a text message from Gopal. “Oh my god!” I jumped out of the worry for my sister.
I called him up and realised that I had thrown my bike on him. He stood at the same place where my sister fell; with his, mine and my sister’s bike. And none of us had the Tata Sumo guy’s number, to have him pick up Gopal. I calmed down and called my travel agent. It turned out to be the most useful thing I had done. Tsewang picked up Gopal, came to the hospital, got my sister a consultation and a dressing for the wounds. We weren’t charged anything and at the end of it all, we felt well taken care of.
As we left the hospital, an argument brewed between my sister and Gopal. He didn’t want her to participate in the run anymore, since it was barely 12 hours away. She, on the other hand, emphasized that she would follow the doctor’s advice; who had told her that if she continued to experience body pain in the morning, she should forfeit the run. Gopal didn’t want her to consider that option.
We met Pooja for a late lunch who was surprised by the turn of events. The evening was spent making peace between Gopal and my sister. We slept, nevertheless, and were glad that everyone was safe.
Tsewang picked us up the next morning. He was one of the volunteers of Ladakh Marathon and offered to drive us to the ‘Start Point’. The race was to begin at Shanti Stupa and everyone was asked to assemble at the peak of the monument. To climb 500 steps at 5.30 in the morning, just to begin a 10 kilometer run at 12000 feet; is unpleasant even in thoughts. Worse? When we discovered that the climb was just for people to assemble; the race began at the foothill!
My sister, who had never done anything like that before and had met with an accident less than 24 hours ago, must have been inconsolable after she crawled up those stairs only to find out that she needed to go down. We weren’t there though. She had demanded that at every point, we continued in our own pace. To avoid burdening her with the idea of keeping up with us, we agreed.
The run itself was strenuous. Unlike our previous events, there were few water stops and most of these were not managed and dysfunctional. Add to that, there were kids who took shortcuts, and made it seem like a sham of an organized run. But when you want to run, you just do that. And so did we. The last 3 kilometers out of the 10 were through the town and stoned pathways. I was alright but Gopal had great trouble with his ‘five fingers’ as they are not meant to be used on such a trail.
In all this pain, there was a reward – I recorded my fastest 10km run. I took 1h 10m; Gopal ran for 1h 6m and together, we received Pooja at the line, who finished her first 10km run in 1h 22m.
My heart, however, continued to race up. I didn’t know where or how my sister was. As we waited and talked, I found out that she was without a water bottle. She has an outrageous water intake and gets thirsty every other second in regular life. This was a run, her first, and the water stops were a joke. I had to find her.
I walked up the trail while Gopal and Pooja followed; intermittently trying to discourage me. And then I noticed something bright and orange. I ran hard and met my sister, who walked her last kilometer. After a bad accident, a dry run and 12000 feet of merciless cold, she still had the fire burning. Gopal gave her some water and ran up to find Venkat. I walked with my sister with tears in my eyes and joy in my heart to the finish line.
She completed her first ever 10km run and the world’s highest, under 2 hours. The timing isn’t spectacular; her power is.