Interview with Ratan Lal Biswas

Dream Wanderlust

Photographs: Dream Wanderlust
Category: Interview
Date of Publication: Jun 5 , 2015Vol-02 Issue-02

A legacy of 43 years and still counting almost in all variant fields of trekking and mountaineering- Himalayas, Coasts, Jungles, Deserts and Rivers. Let's start with the very first experience of yours which has driven you into this journey?

It was around May 1972, in a normal tour to Kashmir, we walked to Alpathra Lake through Gulmarg and Khilanmarg. Although, it definitely cannot be termed as trek, it was definitely the beginning.

My first formal trek was in Sandakphu, in October 1972. At that point, I was not even aware that this kind of journey is called 'trekking'. The place where I was born and brought up (Titagarh), nobody could ever think that such kind of activity like trekking even exists. One of my acquaintance who was a Beat Officer of Maneybhanjang, insisted me to visit Sandakphu as I liked travelling. Till then travelling meant only taking a usual transport to go anywhere. While, in trekking it largely meant walking. Three of us then arranged for some backpacks and started for Maneybhanjang. Finally, we completed Sandakphu trek successfully.

Ratan Lal Biswas

During my 3rd year of college, in 1973, I met Toni Da at in College Square Area, who had some trekking experience. We went for Gangotri trek and later Pindari Glacier trek. During Pindari trek we met Kanailal Ghosh. That's another interesting story how I met him. While coming down from Zero Point of Pindari Glacier, I walked pretty fast as I was very lean and thin then. To my surprise, an elderly person passed by and went ahead of me. I couldn't tolerate that so I started walking as fast as I can. After reaching Dwali bungalow, I put a chair in front of bungalow and stared pretending as if I have reached much earlier than him although he reached shortly after me. Then the elderly gentleman came to me and said, "Bravo trekker, you meet me after reaching Kolkata." That's how I met Kanai Da. He used to stay in Manoharpukur Road, Kolkata. Thus every Sunday we use to gather in his home. During these gatherings I came to realize that trekking is a very vast entity as is the Himalayas.

Slowly, new ideas started building about exploring new places and new routes. At that time most trekkers went to Garhwal region for trekking. Only a handful of people had explored Nepal and Himachal till then. In 1979, I along with Kanai Da went to Western Nepal to explore more.

Since then you have mostly concentrated on Nepal. Where from your affinity towards adventure came in? Were you involved in any other sports or any sort of wardership to explore something different?

I was active in sports but not professionally. In 1973, we have formed a local club named Titagarh Explorers Club, which was inspired from Explorers Club, Calcutta but it didn't last long. We even tried to keep it alive under the banner of a big club of Barrackpore.

So then slowly you have concentrated on trekking. Is it?

Yah, primarily because of Kanai Da and afterwards I also came in touch with Umaprasad Mukherjee whom we popularly called Sejda.

You have trekking and mountaineering experience of around 40 years. So what kind of changes you felt took place in your planning of journey from trekking to mountaineering?

Initially, we were more into conventional trekking where information were easily available, like Pindari, Panch Kedar, Gosaikund (Nepal), Langtang, Everest Base Camp and so on. The information we gathered were mostly from the guide books written by Sunil Chaudhury and Prodipta Chakraborty, and also books by Sanku Maharaj, Umaprasad Mukherjee. But when we decided to explore out of conventional route, like the remote places in Nepal, we had to depend on books from international authors like Stan Arnington, Stephen Bezruchka, Toro Nakano. These kinds of books helped me to understand and plot Nepal in a better way.

For the next step we thought of going to places which was not even mentioned in any of these guide books. So we started looking for books written by various explorers, for example, Toni Hagen, David Snellgrove, Himalayan Pilgrimage, and so on. Luckily, whichever place I felt I must explore, I had somehow managed to visit it.

How much information you had when you were about to explore Dolpo valley?

There were no maps and very little information was available about the route. Authors like Peter Matthiessen, in his book, mentioned about snow leopard and the people and places. However, the information was inadequate but somehow it gave us a virtual idea of the place.

So let's get back to the same query, what are the differences now?

Well, now there is more information available than then. We have Google map, to begin with, and also many other topographical maps. Moreover, now-a-days many trekkers are exploring new places. Thus we can collect first-hand information about these places through personal contacts. Basically, the means and modes of gathering information have potentially increased now.

As we are well aware that you haven't limited yourself only to the Himalayas, you have trekked in desert and coastal regions too. So how have you managed all these? Like trekking twice a year- once in the Himalayas and once in coastal?

Well, initially we started with Garhwal and then Nepal. Afterwards, we observed Ladakh becoming a popular choice with foreign trekkers, we intended to explore there. Trekking Ladakh we experienced a completely different essence of Trans-Himalaya.

Then I asked myself, why limit ourselves to Himalayas only when we love to explore places. It was during Kolkata Book Fair in 1981 when I and my friend Sujit Das asked ourselves, "Why don't we walk along a coastal plain and let's see how it feels?" We bought all maps of National Atlas emphasizing coastal lines of India from book fair and went to Kanai da's home next Sunday. He not only encouraged our idea but also told a story about his father who went to travel South India in the year 1942 and how he visited all temples across coastal areas by walking. Inspiration was all what we needed and there was no more waiting then. Me, Kanai Da and Biswajit started coastal trek for the first time covering Konark - Chilka region Orissa in 1982.

Which type of trek you like the most - Costal or Himalayan trek?

It will be extremely unfair to give importance to any particular type, both of them are different. But yes, Himalayan treks are more challenging, demanding and adventurous.

Well many people say you could have been a very good mountaineer, then why have you focused mainly on trekking?

There is a significant influence of Kanai da and Umaprasad Mukharjee in my life. Once I read an article where it was stated, "There is a big mountain which we can see, if I ever intended to climb to the apex, I won't be able to see what lies in its foot nor will I ever be able to realize the vibrant nature throughout the trail, various villages and its people we came across on our way till there." So I feel proud to be a trekker as I have seen and felt the most of it.

So when I started trekking I realized what these feelings actually meant and how satisfied I was, which I might have missed otherwise.

In this journey of your passion, whom do you think as your role model?

One or two names does''t complete the list. There are a few individuals like Tilman, Eric Shipton, Franks Smyth. The kind of exploration they did and their thought process was extraordinary. Any individual whom I feel is close to their calibre in recent days is Martin Moran. Reading Sarat Chandra Das's writing and Trans-Himalayan by Sven Hedin equally encourage me.

Technically, you have already accomplished all that can be in trekking. Do you still dream of achieving anything new or is there any wish that is still unfulfilled?

There are many dreams, some of which I have managed to cover but there are more and more which won't be possible considering my present age as I don't possess the kind of fitness it requires to accomplish such treks- like Amphu Lapcha Pass. Although, I couldn't do this trek but I have completed Tashi Lapcha Pass trek which is believed to be one of the toughest pass of Himalayas.

So what are you looking for next?

There are couples of places in West of Nepal, the Api Saipal region for example and few more valleys close to Tibet. The urge to visit these places grew after reading about them. Few years back we attempted Nango La but couldn't cross it due to some reasons but the desire of crossing it became intense after reading one of the quote of Frank Smyth written in his book where he stated that after reaching Nango La the view he has seen was the most memorable among all other places he visited in the Himalayas. Sarat Chandra Das also crossed this pass during his journey to Lhasa.

Well according to you which one is the best among all your ventures?

Actually, this perspective changed with experience. It is not necessary that the best had to be the toughest one in my career. Say for example, Mustang. When I wished to go there, literally I had tried all possible ways and resources I have in Nepal to get the permission to visit the place but it was repeatedly rejected, which was quite frustrating and demoralizing. Finally, I went there after 24 years. Hence, that was the best among all, although hardly there is any as such difficult hurdle in that terrain.

Second would be Dolpo Valley. It is not the Valley which made it so special but the plan which we made to explore that place. It was executed in such a way that even Government authorities couldn't restrict us from reaching there. We actually trekked for only 10 to 12 days in Dolpo second time but we had to trek for 30 days just to reach Dolpo. When everything rolled as per our plan, it gave me an immense pleasure.

You have come across few adverse circumstances during trek, so which among them was the most thrilling one?

Of course, it has to be the one where we got lost in a jungle in Sikkim and literally survived without food for 15 days till we were rescued. It was my closest encounter with death.

Whenever we got into an adverse situation, it was purely either mine or my team's mistake which lead to the circumstances. Nature was never responsible. For example, few unfortunate incidents happened like losing Kanai Da and one porter. We were unable to bring them down as Kanai da fell into acute mountain sickness and the other succumbed to his injury.

Have you ever experienced any sign of acute mountain sickness personally?

No, I have never experienced it so far. Sometimes I have experienced minor celebral edema at high altitude but those were not persistent ones.

In your team many of them have come across acute sickness, can you give us possible circumstances where and how they recovered from it very quickly.

Nirmal Oraon and me together have done around 20 treks. He was very prone to acute sicknesses. He used to fall sick on very 2nd or 3rd day of trek but recovered eventually. So, in general, many can recover from altitude sicknesses if they spend some significant time and by following the norms of altitude acclimatization.

Have you ever used any medicine in these circumstances?

Yes, medicines like "Diamox" can be used but only in extreme conditions.

Now, we would like to know about photography as we are well aware that you are one of the best high altitude photographers. Isn't it quite impractical to carry many lenses to those altitudes as battery drains very quickly in sub-zero temperature? What preventive measures you took to handle such issues?

Well, I was a student of photography at PAD. I have been trained by Jagai da and Benu da (Benu Sen) and others but there are many good photographers in our trekking team as well, whose imagination and creativity were very different. I have mostly learned from them. Kanai da, Suvomoy Mitra, Bibhuti Bhushan Basu (he accompanied me in many coastal treks) and Sankar Bijoy Saha are some of them.

Earlier, I use to carry two cameras so that if one doesn't work, we can manage with the other. Both had different lenses attached as it's very difficult to change lenses while walking in trails. Then they were mostly fixed lens so one of them served the purpose of wide angles whereas the other for normal. Travel photography can be classified among two sorts in general.

  1. Pictures which represents whether an individual (photographer and other team members) went to that particular place.
  2. Pictures which represents the natural ingredients of that particular place.

Somehow, I prefer the second category. In my photography, you might come across many individuals but they are there either to amplify the importance of nature or trail or surroundings or habitat of that location. It gives me immense joy when someone intent to visit a place after seeing my photographs.

One such success was Ladakh. No one used to visit Ladakh except for few foreigners in earlier days. But now the scenario has changed after going through our articles and pictures of Ladakh. Another example is Chadar Trek - the number of trekkers increased in last few years after my pictures got published. People got motivated and felt if Ratan da can go then they can too.

Another is coastal trek. Initially, the idea was not that popular as most of them who tried coastal trek were mostly high altitude trekkers. To change this, whenever I used to get invitations to demonstrate my presentation on various treks, I used to tell the organizer, "If you want my Himalayan venture to be displayed you have to provide me a slot for coastal trek as well or else I won't be doing it." Sometimes in presentation arena people used to ask me "Ratan, is your coastal trek presentation going to start now? If so please call me once you are done with it".

But now coastal trek is much popular and every year many new trekkers get inspiration from our articles and pictures.

What about your writing inspiration?

I usually maintain a small dairy whenever I go out. It's mainly a kind of documentation for my own reference. One of my uncle published the information of my diary as an article in his magazine for the first time.

Thereafter, many individuals insisted me, specially Sambhu Nath Das & Kamala Mukherjee. Kamala Di used to publish a magazine called Himalaya Samikha Parishad. For that she asked for an article on Makalu Base Camp from me. That was my first published write-up in Kolkata. Later, the same article was published in Desh magazine. After that there was no looking back. My articles got published in various languages in various magazines. Later, I published books of all my experiences realizing that it can be beneficial to many other trekkers and mountain loves in many ways.

We would like to know your comments on domestication of trekking. As of today, trekking can be done via an agency or by a group. Hence, some says there isn't any adventure in it at all. However some says at least this makes trekking accessible to common people. What is your opinion about it?

All trekkers are always dependent on others in some way or other, i.e. guide, porters for many reasons, like carrying luggage, guidance of route etc. This trend even existed in early times, long before we started trekking. The difference now is that people are more dependent on others in all aspects. So, achieving goals have become much simpler than before. The sensation of completing an exploration doing most of the activities by self is entirely different which no longer exist now. Therefore, the parameter of "Achievement through Adventure" has shifted towards "Quantum of Achievement".

People are doing trekking and hiking but there is a significant decline in the number of people who are into real adventurous exploration. There are many people who neither came into limelight of media nor they got any mass appreciation but still they have earned some magnificent achievement in their life purely for their personal satisfaction.

Due to the presence of media walking more trails has become more popular than personal satisfaction, which is subsequently influencing them more towards "Quantum of achievement". At times, the thing which hurts me most is that new type of trekking is more like covering the google map than exploring real challenge where uncertainty lies.

What is your take on global warming issue?

Well, the impact of Global warming in human race is not drastic hence its effect on nature will exponentially vary with generation. Over these 43 years of span of my trekking life, there are few noticeable changes observed in desert mountain places like Ladakh, Dolpo. Major source of water in such villages is the snow which accumulates on the mountain top in winter. Snow deposition has gradually decreased over the years. As consequence, the source of water for those villages vanished completely resulting in disappearance of many such beautiful villages across mountains.

There has been some depraved effect on nature as well but mostly they are manmade. In order, to have some mere benefits we have sacrificed some portion of nature. Say, for example, earlier the trail path covering the Annapurna trek was very beautiful. While walking from Dumre to Pokhrah there were many beautiful view points like Ghorepani, Lete but after the construction of motorable roads people/trekkers doesn't visit those lovely places, they go for the Thorang-la instead. Only some foreigners still walk on the old trail to enjoy these places. Lastly, the Garwal disaster is a fine example of impact of global warming.

What ethical values should be present in a trekker or mountaineer?

Mostly all trekkers follow most of the guidelines to be followed on mountains but there are few things which are not being followed, like dumping garbage in the Himalayas.

Another outlook of ethical crisis scenario has been mostly seen in agency driven teams. In such explorations, the bonding between the team mates doesn't develop which is extremely important and is required to overcome risky situations.

What is the impact of trekking and hiking can bring in one's life?

Many people say mountains help in healing souls and bringing calmness. I don't know to what extent that really happens but as of my experience it helps in overcoming any difficult situation. Let me share one of such incident, in the year 1983, the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated, I was in office and throughout India everywhere there were riots. All public transport facilities were shut down and all my colleagues were in severe panic state wondering how they to reach home. Meanwhile, I went downstairs and bought some snacks in case I feel hungry on my way home and started walking towards my home. The distance was near about 19 kms and the situation was severe throughout the road due to riot, but those things hardly bothered me as I have seen and overpowered even harder circumstances.

Would you like to comment anything on change in dynamics in lifestyle and its overall impact on trekking?

Well, there has been significant increase of participation in trekking and hiking but there are lot of challenges people face now-a-days due to professional life. Earlier we used to plan vacation based on area we wish to travel but now-a-days people get limited window of time as leave and that too the time window is decided by the employer. Hence many trekkers couldn't manage to explore where they wish to go and as there's a suitable time to go to every place and if anybody takes risk by not following this then they mostly fall into fatal catastrophic situation.

What is your opinion about the recent disaster that took place around Himalayas?

As said before, disasters we faced happened due to our fault. Similarly, I believe all the similar incidents which unfortunately happened in recent years have something to do with human errors. Somehow at some point of time they have failed to follow or neglected the norms which need to be followed.

What will be your tips to new comers or other trekkers in order to avoid such causalities?

We need to follow certain norms before going for a trek. For example, one must gather sufficient information about the route, places and the routes where snow deposits most- what is the nature of ice formation along the trail, where the possibilities of danger are etc. One also needs to have clear information about weather forecast along the route during the trek schedule.

Another major reason for kind of these catastrophes is the negligence of an individual to carry the basic survival kit. No matter how much money one possess, s/he must carry or keep survival kit with them so that they can confront any adverse circumstances till the rescue team arrives.

One should have adequate knowledge about the trek trail. It should not be limited to the leader only. Each and every individual must have sufficient knowledge about the trek and trail path. Then in any adverse situation he or she can find some way to protect the team or themselves.

Are there any thumb rules or any other way to avoid mountain sickness?

Yeah, certainly we need to follow certain norms and plan our trip accordingly. Like -

  1. The trail should be gradual ascend. One should not attain more than 2000 ft in one day.
  2. One must provide the body adequate water by means drinking more water, coffee, tea, juices or by taking soupy food items.

Another thing which has cost many lives is negligence and hiding of minor sickness for the sake of pride or overconfidence.

Have you ever analysed or identified any age category that are more prone or exposed to disaster?

Earlier there used to be seminars to educate and exchange such opinions and investigate facts related to various accidents but over the years these initiatives faded away due to lack of interest among new generation. These sessions are actually essential because if you see the guy who got lost from Bakhim - why he choose to attempt Goecha La in the month of December? Were they really equipped with the equipment required at that time? Then here is an important norm of trekking followed everywhere that "THE LAST MAN SHOULD NEVER BE ALONE", then how come he disappeared?

Are there any ways to predict the weather?

Certainly! First of all, we must know which is the perfect weather window for a particular trail and if the trail is new then about the region based on yearly weather statistics. For example, we can attempt Ladakh region in July - August. Similarly, October is an appropriate time to attempt Nepal but certainly won't be a suitable time for Garhwal. But we can never be certain that by doing so we can minimize the probability of experiencing adversity.

How important is choosing an appropriate campsite in a trek?

It is one of the most essential factors for being safe. It comes mostly with experience. For example, few years back an incident happened in Kalindi Pass in which trekkers died. They have pitched their camp on the edge of the mountain. That night due to heavy snowfall and due to the inclined surface, snow couldn't remain on the surface of the mountain and hence came down. The trekkers were buried under the snow along with their tents. If they would have placed their tents bit far from the edge of the mountain they would have survived. So we must pitch our tents in a location away from rock fall or avalanche zone.

Any bad habits you identified among trekkers?

There are many such:

  1. Cutting trees or branches unnecessarily just for fun and igniting them to enjoy bonfire.
  2. Inappropriate behaviour with porters and villagers because of they are poor.
  3. Drinking alcohol during trekking, unaware of the fact that it will dehydrate their body and can lead to ACUTE MOUNTAIN SICKNESS.

How to increase the endurance level of an individual before trekking to attain his or her required body fitness?

Well many individual do many kinds of exercises to prepare their body. Some prefers running every day for at least few kilometres. Personally, I got benefitted by swimming at times. I used to swim in Ganges River regularly for around 20 years.

How one can be a writer like you?

If someone wishes to be a writer he or she needs to read a lot. We can get numerous writing about how to go but why we must go to that place is something which you need to read about.

What message do you have for our youth?

Trekking and mountaineering both are extremely necessary and one must do it but along with that they should not run behind the glory of achieving milestone by simply following someone's step. They should experience and keep alive the joy of adventure by exploring. The body which is serving you for 24 hours a day - it's your moral duty to give at least 24 minutes to your body for fitness. It may be anything - yoga, free-hand exercises but it should be done in a regular basis. During treks, carry survival kit with yourself and every individual trekker in the team must have vivid knowledge about the trek- it should not be only limited to team leader. Respect the Himalayas in all respects. Go to Himalaya respecting the exact time.

Interviewed By: Dream Wanderlust

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