Saturday, December 17, 2011

An Indian veteran recalls his Antarctic experiences

An Indian veteran recalls his Antarctic experiences

Dr. Ravindra can never forget his experience of surviving a seven-day blizzard with only a tent as shelter.

The first Indian expedition to the South Pole successfully reached the Pole last year, almost a century (99 years to be precise) after the Norwegian Roald Amundsen became the first human to reach the southernmost point of the Earth.
The eight-member team left the Indian base station Maitri situated in an ice-free area known as the Schirmacher Oasis on November 13, 2010 and reached the South Pole in nine days on November 22, 2010.
No comparison
“We travelled the entire distance of nearly 2,500 km in special vehicles got from Iceland,” said Dr. Rasik Ravindra, who was the Leader of the team. “We can't compare our journey with Roald Amundsen's and Robert Scott's. Theirs was a heroic effort. They did a hundred years ago something that we can't even dream of.”
Dr. Ravindra is the Director of the Goa-based National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR).
Coming from a veteran like Dr. Ravindra, these words have greater significance and meaning. He has almost lost count of the number of trips made to the icy continent. “I think it is 7 or 8 times,” he said to this Correspondent over phone. There have been 30 Indian expeditions to Antarctica since the first one in 1981.
The journey
Even in the comfort of the special vehicle, the 2,500-long journey was not a joy ride. “The terrain makes it difficult to travel,” he said. After all, the base station is almost at sea level and the South Pole is at an elevation of nearly 2,500 metres. And on the way, one has to cross a plateau that is 3,600 metres above MSL.
But it is not the terrain alone that makes the journey or staying in the continent difficult. Temperatures can dip to a minimum of -55 degree C in summer and to -89 degree C in winter. Add to this the wind factor. If normal wind speed is 22-30 km per hour, it can go beyond 200 kmph as well.
And the result is a blizzard or snow storm, just like sand storms in deserts. “It's due to surface drift,” he stated. A combination of both high wind speed and increase in temperature (warmer temperature) is needed for blizzards.”
Extra-tropical low-pressure systems always move from west to east in the coastal region. The warm and moist air from lower latitudes mixes with dry, cold wind in the higher latitudes. When this happens the temperature increases gradually. When the wind speed goes beyond 40 kmph loose snow gets lifted. The end result is a blizzard.
Blizzards are restricted to coastal regions in the lower latitudes (60 to 70 degree South) and are not seen in higher latitudes (near the Pole).
“It's dangerous and people can get lost in the blizzard,” he said. “We are either in the camp or inside the vehicle [during blizzards], or else… Sometimes yes, we do get trapped… we can't always predict.”
When the temperature increases they know a storm is building up, but are not always lucky to have a good shelter. Being geologists, they are out in the field conducting experiments, collecting data and samples. Mountains are where they work and since these places are 80 km away from the base camps, they are air dropped by helicopters.
Dr. Ravindra can never forget his experience in January 1987. The 5-member team had camped on Humboldt Mountain for field work. And then suddenly the blizzard set in and sustained for seven long days. The four-layered tent was their only shelter.
But three layers of the tent soon got ripped off. And they were left with a single-layered tent! Though the sleeping bags came to their rescue to keep them warm, they could not sleep for 3 to 4 days. “There was so much noise,” he recalled.
“We kept Campa Cola bottles inside our sleeping bags to prevent them from freezing. The Cola and biscuits were our only food,” he said. “But we survived.” The helicopter returned when the blizzard stopped, and to everyone's surprise found them in good health.
Things have changed. “We can now predict blizzards with high levels of certainty,” said E. Kulandaivelu, Director of the Regional Meteorological Centre, Chennai. “We use satellite images, satellite wind data, real-time observation from different observatories located in Antarctica to predict blizzards.” Mr. Kulandaivelu has been to the Antarctic twice (December 1989 to March 1991, and December 1999 to March 2001).
But not every trip ends on a happy note, though. The November 1989-April 1991 expedition was very different. The Indian team lost a couple of lives due to carbon monoxide poisoning in the shelter tent.
Other challenges
But you don't need blizzards to make your trip to Antarctica unique and unforgettable. When temperatures drop below -50 degree C a facemask is used. It has an opening for the eyes and two small holes for the nose. While goggles protect the eyes, there is no such protection for the nostrils.
The air they breathe out is warmer and moisture tends to come out of the nose. “Must wipe the moisture constantly,” he warned. “Else you would have ice crystals hanging from the nose!”
When it is not so cold, and when the facemask is not worn, snow and ice can settle on the nose and even eyelids!
If conducting experiments and collecting data are part of a daily routine, can taking notes be far behind? Unfortunately, taking notes or drawing some features is not possible with a gloved hand. “You have to remove the gloves for a few minutes…and your fingers get numb. You soon wear the gloves and keep your palm under the armpit to warm them,” said Dr. Ravindra.
How does it feel when there is just white all around? “It's like seeing blue all around when you in open sea,” he says. But his memory quickly rewinds and he says, “you can't see any bird, tree or building... you see nothing. There is vastness and emptiness all time around you. The vastness makes you realise how small you are… a speck of dust on Earth.”
The feeling of emptiness is particularly heightened during winter when it is dark 24 hours a day for six months at a stretch. Little wonder that it is mandatory for all participants staying back for the winter session to undergo psychological tests which check for ability to withstand isolation.

100 years — Amundsen's dash to immortality

100 years — Amundsen's dash to immortality

This day (December 14) 100 years ago, Norwegian Roald Amundsen became the first explorer to reach the geographical South Pole — the southernmost tip of the Earth. If his ambition to be the first man to ever set foot on the North Pole was scorched by Robert Peary in 1909, he immortalised himself by being the first to arrive at the South Pole.
“So we arrived and were able to plant our flag at the geographical South Pole. God be thanked!” wrote Amundsen in his diary soon after reaching the Pole.
The British team led by Robert Scott managed to arrive at the South Pole only on January 17, 1912, 33 days after Amundsen had hoisted the Norwegian flag.
Scott's entry in the diary reveals his great disappointment. “The worst has happened… All the daydreams must go…Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority,” the diary entry reads.
While Amundsen and his men safely and victoriously returned to civilisation, Scott and his team, caught in a terrible blizzard — which lasted for five days — were unable to reach even their base camp.
“There has been nothing to eat for the past three days. Now, I am not even able to write. End is not far. For God's sake, take care of our families.” This was Scott's diary entry on March 29, 1912. Their bodies were discovered eight months later.
The reason why Amundsen reached the Pole earlier than Scott is not difficult to figure out. Their goal was the same, but their priorities were vastly different.
Amundsen was focussed, planned meticulously, and was fully geared for the challenge. Unlike Scott, the Norwegian had a team that had no scientists. Instead there were two expert dog-handlers — Helmer Hanssen and Sverre hassel, and one skiing expert (Olav Bjaaland) in his team.
He did not indulge in any scientific work and wasted no time taking a detour to studying Antarctic animals or collecting samples.
Even the choice of animals was strikingly different. Scott took more ponies than dogs, Amundsen had special dogs to pull the sledges.
Worse, Scott sent his dog teams back to the base camps and men pulled their heavy sledges. If Amundsen had no hesitation killing the dogs that had weakened, and eat their meat, Scott believed that using man-harnesses was less cruel than using dogs!
The Norwegians used hermetically sealed cans to store fuel. The British team used washers, which failed in extreme cold. Similarly, Scott's motor sledges failed in the weather.
Even the choice of clothing was different. Living with the Inuits in the Arctic, the Norwegian learnt a great deal on how to handle all kinds of contingencies.
He had seen them eat meat diet. Unaware to themselves, the fresh seal and penguin meat that they ate helped keep vitamin C deficiency at bay.
In the end, the focus and clear priorities meant that Amundsen reached the coveted place weeks before the British team.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

TREKKING TO ROOPKUND - the mysterious lake

I heard of Roopkund in 2002, when, after having returned from the US, I wanted to accompany Vasu for some trekking trip in Himalayas. Since time was short and I doubted my physical preparation for a trekking trip, we decided to go for a driving trip to Himalayas up to Dharchula. Pithoragarh and Dharchula had been in my mind ever since I found out that Kailash Manasarovar yatra passed through these towns. It was also reinforced by many patients who came to AIIMS for their health concerns, and talked about trekking opportunities in those areas. Motor Mama (see my post on Pindari Glacier) and Prakhar also joined us, and we started in our old but faithful Maruti 800. We had reached Gwaldam, a small sleepy town, late in night after leaving Rishikesh early morning and driving through Rudra prayag, Dev Prayag, and Shri Nagar (see post on Hemkund Sahib and Valley of Flowers). Next morning, the caretaker of GMVN guest house told us about the importance of this town as a kind of base for expedition for Roopkund, and the mysterious lake that was full of human skeletons. I had vaguely then thought of doing this trek, but the idea got reinforced after I saw a full documentary on BBC or Discovery channel some time later.
Roopkund (Skeleton Lake), as described by Wikipedia, is a mysterious glacial lake in Uttarakhand state of India famous due to more than five hundred human skeletons found at its edge. The location is uninhabited and is located in Himalaya at an altitude of about 5,029 metres (16,499 feet). In 2004, a team of Indian and European scientists visited the location to gain more information on the skeletons. The team uncovered vital clues including jewellery, skulls, bones and preserved tissue of bodies. Radiocarbon dating of the bones at Oxford University Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit determined the time period to be AD 850 ±30 years. (Ref.: Wikipedia)
Last few years, I thought of trekking to Roopkund seriously; however, found that the usual trekking groups based in Delhi did not organize Roopkund trek routinely. They were willing to customize a group for some of us, but then it would prove to be very costly. It was almost like serendipity, when early this year I googled Roopkund and it gave as the first link! I was surprised that Indiahikes, the organizing group, was based in Bangalore and was arranging many batches every year. Vasu and I booked a date with Indiahikes,, June this year; though I could not go for some personal reasons, Vasu found the trek pretty exciting, and arrangements and team put together by Indiahikes amply satisfactory.
I shifted my booking for October, and also persuaded my colleagues, Dr Shariff and Dr Malini Shariff, also to join. They trek regularly, but we together had not trekked since our Nepal days.
I started physically preparing for the trek seriously two months in advance, knowing well that we would be touching 5,029 metres (16,499 feet). I was not too much bothered about the altitude sickness, as much as about my own strength and stamina. On advice and persuasion of Kush, I joined a gym, and went regularly for 6 weeks for doing cardio and muscle strengthening exercises. But, then Buenos Aires visit was also planned for quite some time just before our trek, and there was a breach in my preparation for 2 weeks.
I started on the night of 30th September by Ranikhet Express for Kathgodam, from where we were to go to Lohajung by SUV, a ride of 10-12 hours. Vasu was a sport to drop me to the station, but the last stretch of station was so crowded that I had to get down before reaching the entrance to station. In hindsight, it appeared a good idea if I had travelled by metro. The station was unusually crowded; everywhere there were groups with backpacks; it looked like all were bent upon going to Uttarakhand for spending their Dussehra vacation. October is a good month to go to hills; by that time there are no clouds or rains, winter has not set in, and peaks offer an amazing view in clear blue sky. The train started late by 1 hour, and at 6 am next morning, we found to our dismay that it was already late by 4 hours due to its preceding train meeting with some accident. After that, the journey was agonizingly slow and painful; I was worried about reaching Lohajung same evening; that would have involved jeep ride during the night, which is not a very good idea considering the shape of roads in higher reaches of Himalayas. After reaching Kathgodam at 11 am, we were further delayed by 1:30 hours because of 3 guys who unnecessarily occupied our cabs and would not budge; their agent had goofed up, and no cab was waiting for them. When they found 5 cabs (organized by Indiahikes for us) waiting to go to Lohajung, they quietly sat inside. It took a bit of argument and some phone calls to and fro Indiahikes that we managed to get them vacate our cabs.
Half of the journey from Kathgodam to Lohajung was on a familiar route. We passed through Bhimtal, Bhowali, Kainchidham (where we stopped for lunch), Almorah, Kausani and Garud. From Garud, we took the diversion to Gwaldam; beyond it was unfamiliar route where I had not ventured before. Our cab driver, Ramesh, was driving non-stop since our lunch at Kainchidham, and politely declined all our suggestions for a tea-stop. Though he was driving skilfully, I was a bit apprehensive about fatigue setting in, and day light fading out. He wanted to reach Deval (18 km before Lohajung, our today’s destination) on time to pick up a group of Nepali workers who were impatiently waiting for him for a ride back to Kathgodam. Dussehra is the biggest festival for Nepali people. As Ramesh would explain later, it happened not very frequently to have return passengers waiting for him ; that would mean a continuous drive of almost 20 hours.
Reaching Lohajung at about 10 pm and dumping our bags at Patwal lodge, we straight away went for dinner as we all were quite famished. Being tired now, I hit the bed soon after. Next morning, I got to meet my group members and staff of Indiahikes. Other than we three senior citizens, all were young guys below 35 years of age. They were all IT professionals, and most of them, expectedly, were from Bangalore. It was not difficult to establish rapport with them, and as I would gradually realize it was the best group I have enjoyed so far in so many of my group treks. They never made me aware of my age, except when they were curious to know it. They would happily include us three in their chit-chat, gossip, antics etc.

Our itinerary over next 5 days would take us to Didina, Bedni Bugyal, Patal Nachauni, Bhagwabassa, and finally to Roopkund, taking us from 8000 ft to 16000 ft. The trek is of moderate difficulty, and needs physical preparation before one undertakes it. But the difficulty is duly compensated by the beautiful and varied landscape throughout the trek: dense forests, waterfalls, hurtling water-streams, vast expanse of undulating meadows (bugyal), the kind you would rarely find elsewhere, and snow covered famous mountains and peaks.
I was expecting a clear sky in the first week of October, and was eagerly looking forward to seeing the majestic mountain range during our trek and stay. Weather gods did not disappoint us. During the entire trek, we had clear blue sky, fantastic view of the mountain range, a night sky that was star-gazer’s delight; had not seen so many stars in the sky since my days in Dharan (Nepal); those who were keen students of stars and planets were thrilled to view milky way through naked eyes. And we were not troubled by rains, hail-storm, (un)welcome snow fall, or extremely cold nights. Vasu had gone there in the month of June this year, and the group encountered all of the above making trek a bit, I should say (tongue in cheek) more exciting; the entire stretch from Patar Nachauni to the Roopkund was covered with snow in the month of June.
After Didina, we passed all the way up through a dense forest of pines, oaks, and rhododendrons. There must be many more kinds of trees, I am sure, but I did not recognize them. Many of the trees were afflicted with parasitic growth and were dying. There were birds chirping all the way, but were difficult to sight. It required patience to spot them. Since I was anxious to make to Bedni Bugyal on time, so did not break my walking rhythm. The dense forest opened suddenly to a vast meadow, the kind you do not see very often.

The first section of meadow was Ali Bugyal followed by Bedni Bugyal. On all sides, it was like a never ending meadow. We were fortunate to have clear visibility to have a fantastic view of mountains all the time till we left for our next camp following day. Group members were clicking shots all the time, and had photo-shoots of themselves against the backdrop of every peak. Theirs will be a portfolio worth admiration against backdrop of picturesque peaks. The peaks visible were: Bunder Punchh, Hathi parvat, Chaukhmaba, Neelkanth, Nanda ghumati, and Trishuli.

If one wishes to camp in upper Himalayas for a longer period doing nothing but just soaking oneself in nature’s bountiful sunshine and unpolluted air under starlit night sky, then, Bedni Bugyal would stand out to be one such great site.
At every camp, we were treated with fresh and hot meals, and in the morning before our departure we were given a small packet for replenishing our energies during the gruelling trek. The cooks and the supporting staff were very courteous and polite, and would insist that we ate properly. If for some reason, we could not get out of our tents, they would serve food inside our tents too, never resenting any of our demands. Group members too made no fuss about the food. But I found our fellow trekkers from Bangalore particularly allergic to potato; they would just not eat it. They said potato was not a part of their usual diet; they found it causing ‘gastric’. But what I found amusing was their relishing packaged potato chips, and ignoring that it was deep fried and laced with hot spices. We in north India can’t imagine our lives without potato. In fact I am a big fan of potato; it contains many essential micronutrients and is an easy source of energy; the only catch is that you should not fry or peel it.
After Bedni Bugyal (11,500 ft), the trek went up and up; the tree line had finished before Ali Bugyal, so the air was thin and low in oxygen making walking up a bit more strenuous than what it had been so far. The landscape had too changed. The chirping of birds had also ceased, but one could see hill crows and soaring birds of prey and vultures in the sky.
The trail to Patal Nachauni (or Ghora Lotani; Ghora is horse, and Lotani is to rest or lie down) passes through a temple and a kund (water pond). As we went up, it became cold and chilly. The camp site, though was secure in fibre huts, was not very exciting; plastic was everywhere. We had retired early in our huts, when to our utmost surprise, the kitchen staff brought food inside the huts. It was a heavenly gesture, as the chilly winds had almost killed the appetite. The sleep and appetite were slowly becoming a problem for many of the group members as we were gaining height; we were already at 12,500 ft.
Our next camp was Bagwabassa at 14,500 ft. One could call it base camp for the Roopkund. The air got thinner, and temperatures really low. Vasu tells me that in the month of June (when Delhi was scorching), the entire trail from Patal Nachauni to Bagwabassa, and Bagwabassa itself were covered with snow. One has to believe since it is so evident from the photographs. When we started from Patal Nachauni, it was foggy and misty; fortunately, there were no rains or any hailstorm. But the mist was giving quite a mystifying look to the entire area, almost making a perfect setting for shooting a suspense thriller. Though the trail to Kalu Vinayak temple is described to be an easy ascent, but each step would make me breathless. And negotiating path with stones and small boulders would leave all joints of lower limb tense and tired. As the name suggests, Kalu Vinayak is Ganesh temple with a black stone idol. Besides being a site for offering prayer for success of the group, the site also offers an ideal place for rest and photographic opportunity. Descent from here to Bagwabassa is gradual, but not easy, since you have to be careful all the time on the stony trail. But the feeling on sighting the camp site is euphoric; you almost feel you would make it now to the top. Just before the green fibre huts for our stay, there were a few stone huts made by locals for the tourists. We did not stay there, but I am sure staying there must be giving a feeling of living in stone age, or being a cave man. With each passing hour, mercury was dropping and we were told it would be sub-zero during the night; but then we would be in comfort of our huts and sleeping bags. Despite being warm inside the hut, it was difficult to have a long stretch of nap; whether it was the excitement and nervousness for next day’s trek or thin air, is difficult to say. In the evening we were fortunate to spot a group of about 7 'bharel' (mountain goats); it is an extremely shy animal and you would see it only from a distance, as we did it in some of our earlier treks.
I had started early for getting to Roopkund; I knew I would be slow and need to stop more often. And in reality, it turned out to be a slower progress. Each step was an effort and would leave me breathless. Dinesh, our ever-smiling and ever-helping trek leader, was constantly guiding me to move forward, and was a constant source of inspiration. I would say he literally held my hand to take me to last stretch of trail. On our way up, we saw Brahm kamal and Neel Kamal in plenty. We also saw a group of partridges (or was it quail). How did I feel on reaching the top? To be honest, it was a sense of relief of having finished climbing. The sense of accomplishment came later, and sank in much later. I was happy that I could do it, and fulfil a long cherished desire.

It is said that it is meaningless if you do not climb up to Junargali, which is the end of the pass, and from there you get unobtrusive view of the peaks. But I was satisfied with whatever I could achieve. I did not forget that climbing up is only half the trek; one also needs to get down safely and reach the camp on time. We were to head to Bedni Bugyal, a trek of more than 15 km on a zigzag stone and boulder trail.
I was helped immensely by the team of Indiahikes. It has put up a great team at Lohajung, and each member of the team helps to get you to finish the trek successfully. I was also fortunate to be part of a group where each member clicked well with other members. I would love to do another trek with Indiahike and the same group members.
Going to mountains has always been a humbling experience for me. We are always talking about the fragile eco-system and environment, but when you see nature at close quarters, you realize the might of nature too. One feels so small and insignificant before the hurtling and gurgling rivers and huge waterfalls, and mighty and grand mountains. I always believe in and owe our existence to the benevolence of nature; and would dread its fury. Going to mountains is to express my reverence to the omnipotent nature.
Right now, my Mama, 82 (Motor Mama, as we address him), is raring to go all the way up to Lohajung in his Nano car to camp at Bedni Bugyal. Don’t be surprised; he has already been up to Badrinath shrine twice in last two years in his Nano.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


I first came to know of Sardar Fauza Singh in June of 2004 while I had just begun my job in the National Health Services as consultant in Leicester, England in 2004, while watching a BBC programme. I wrote the following piece then to share with my friends. I thought to share it with the web community now.


June 2004

What is common between Mr George Chambers and Sardar Fauza Singh, well, both are nonagenarians.
As you are probably aware, I have been appointed as Consultant in Adult Psychiatry at the NHS. That effectively means that I should normally be seeing people between the ages of 16-65 years, though, sometimes I may continue to see a patient beyond 65 too if he/she were receiving care from our services earlier also, and the reasons of consultations have not changed. I have enjoyed looking after elderly people at AIIMS, New Delhi. They have many interesting stories to tell and enrich you with their vast experiences. And they come with less complicated personal problems. Looking after them would have been ideal here, as adult psychiatry at general hospital setting is much different here as compared to India. You are saddled with so much personality disorder patients, and you keep on struggling with their unchanging life styles, and recurrent problems at all the fronts, personal, social, relationships, and repeated suicidal attempts and drug and alcohol problems. And if it is anti-social personality, then it is icing on the cake. Most of the times they are unemployed, but are well looked after by the government-provided monetary benefits.
A few days ago, I was on emergency call duty. I was assured by my other colleagues and friends that there was nothing to worry about this since as a consultant, one hardly gets a call to see the patients in emergency. Mostly, junior doctors are able to handle it, or may take your advice on the phone. Well, true to Murphy’s law, call came in the afternoon from the Surgery ward of this hospital asking me to see a 92-year old patient who was threatening to commit suicide. I wondered why this call came to me, should have gone to the Old-age Psychiatric Unit. I did not know where to protest, so I went. I went to the surgical ward, and found Mr Chambers sitting on a chair chatting with his friend. He appeared to be not more than 70-75, had full growth of white hair, erect spine, and shook hands with a firm grip, and greeted me with a smile and clear loud voice. He had survived surgeries for prostate cancer, colon cancer and a few others. Lately he had had a few fainting episodes which resulted into his current admission, and that was worrying him. Surgery team had not taken this into account while drafting after-discharge care plan. He had lost his wife a few years ago, and was leaving alone in his bungalow with part-time support from the social worker. His concern was that if he fainted at home, and no medical help was available on time, he would die unattended. It was a reasonable concern. So when surgery team asked him casually in the morning if he was looking forward to going home, he replied he would shoot himself after reaching home. Then the surgery team decided to send for a psychiatrist. I found him a very reasonable person, full in command and well articulate. I assured him that I would recommend his case for him to shift to an old age home with all the facilities. When I was about to leave, he asked me if I was from India, and on my affirmative reply, he told me that he spent 4 years in India during the WW II. I had stood up to leave, but I sat down again. And he narrated some of his experiences while living in Lutyen’s Delhi. His memory was sharp, and he could remember the ‘Viceroy’s Palace, Queens way and Kings way, Jahanpanabad, Tughalak Fort, ChandniChowk, Delhi summer with mosquitoes and malaria, and of course delicious mangoes. His journeyes to Shimla, Dehradun, Massourie, etc etc. Lastly he said that the biggest mistake British did was to segregate India into two. I had come to see him quite reluctantly, but I left very satisfied.

Sardar Fauza Singh is a 93-year old gentleman living in England for last 50 years. He too served in Royal Army. I saw him only on the BBC, being interviewed before his participation in the London marathon. Participating in marathons is his way of life. Has gone all over the world for such meets. His bone scanning was done some time earlier, the age of his right leg came to be 35 years, and that of left 50 years.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

CENTENARIAN Fauza Singh does it once again : with a marathan

(Pictures and text from the Toronto Star)

TORONTO—Fauja Singh secured a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records on Sunday at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. The 100-year-old accomplished an amazing feat, becoming the oldest person ever to complete a full-distance 42-kilometre marathon. It took Singh over eight hours to cross the finish line — more than six hours after Kenya’s Kenneth Mungara won the event for the fourth straight year — and he was the last competitor to complete the course. But his time wasn’t nearly remarkable as the accomplishment itself. “Beating his original prediction, he’s overjoyed,” said coach and translator Harmander Singh. “Earlier, just before we came around the (final) corner, he said, ‘Achieving this will be like getting married again.’ “He’s absolutely overjoyed, he’s achieved his life-long wish.” Although event workers dismantled the barricades along the finish line and took down sponsor banners even as Singh made his way up the final few hundred metres of the race, a throng of media, family, friends and supporters were there when Singh made marathon history. And Singh, who only speaks Punjabi, also surprised himself. Through his interpreter, he said he had set a goal of finishing the race in about nine hours. “He said he achieved this through the help of God but even God must be getting fed up of helping him,” Harmander Singh said, drawing chuckles from assembled media after the race. Sunday’s run was Fauja Singh’s eighth marathon — he ran his first at the tender age of 89 — and wasn’t the first time he set a record. In the 2003 Toronto event, he set the mark in the 90-plus category, finishing the race in five hours 40 minutes and one second. And on Thursday in Toronto, Singh — whose first name means soldier — broke world records for runners older than 100 in eight different distances ranging from 100 metres to 5,000 metres. Singh, a five-foot-eight, 115-pound British citizen and vegetarian, looked tired and spent following the race and organizers gingerly assisted him to the post-event news conference. After receiving gentle massages to his legs and calf muscles as well as cups of water from members of his entourage, Singh leaned back on a couch and spoke little to start the news conference. But a short time into it, he began looking remarkably relaxed and fresh with his hands clasped behind his head. Then, he abruptly sat up straight and with a smile, motioned for the microphone, obviously getting his second wind.
“He says he’s recovered now so he’s going to talk,” his translator said, again drawing laughter.
Affectionately dubbed the Turbaned Tornado, Singh began running roughly 20 years ago after losing his wife and child. The five-foot-eight centenarian said he’s happy to see more minorities taking part in such marathon events and is hopeful his next project will be participating in the torch relay for the 2012 London Summer Games.
Singh carried the torch during the relay for the 2004 Athens Games.
Race director Alan Brookes struggled to find the right words to describe Singh’s remarkable accomplishment. “I’m speechless,” he said. “Fauja Singh is a remarkable human being.”
A 100-year-old man began Thursday with a sprint and ended with eight world records.
Fauja Singh ran through eight track events in succession at Birchmount Stadium in Scarborough as part of a charity event, Sikhs in the City.
Running — and smashing records — gave Singh some focus following the death of his wife and son. He became suicidal after watching a piece of sheet metal decapitate his son. Then he moved to England to be near his other son.
And then he just felt like running and setting records.
“I am but a simple man,” Singh the competitor, a Sikh with a long white beard who only speaks Punjabi, said in a translated statement. “I give it my best shot and it happens that the results are better than others.”
He’s already set three records for men over 90 — one for 10,000 metres, which he completed in 64 minutes in the Lahore Marathon in 2005; and two in Toronto, for a half-marathon in 2004 (2 hours 29 minutes 59 seconds) and a full marathon in 2003 (5 hours 40 minutes 1 second).
“I always wanted to be the oldest marathon runner and said to myself that if an opportunity presented itself, I will not turn it down,” said Singh.
He chose Toronto because it is where he had his best showings before. Plus, the people “seem more accommodating of other cultures than some other parts of the world where the Sikh appearance is wrongly prejudged.”
Singh wants to raise money for local charities, including Guru Gobind Singh Children’s Foundation, which is run by children and youth to help other kids meet basic needs.
But still. 100.
“In the Punjabi language, there is no such word as impossible,” said Singh the trainer.
At an age where having a healthy mind is itself a feat of strength, Singh the competitor is in remarkable — borderline miraculous — physical shape.
His trainer points to a bone density test done last year when the runner was 99. Singh’s left leg was found to have a density of a 35-year-old; his right leg had that of a 25-year-old.
Times to beat

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


(photo courtesy: Ashit Swain)
(Group photo and text from The Hindu dt 12/11/2010)

Cooking was toughest: Indian South Pole expedition team

The Hindu Rasik Ravindra, Director, National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (third left) along with team members of the first Indian Scientific Expedition. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar
It was not the bone-chilling minus 54 degrees Celsius, the difficult terrain or even the cold gusts blowing at 150 km/hour, but lighting a stove and cooking that posed the biggest challenge to the eight-member team of India’s maiden expedition to the South Pole.

The team led by National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research director Rasik Ravindra traversed the shortest path to reach the southernmost tip in just eight days.

Speaking about his experiences during the expedition, Mr. Ravindra said: “The toughest challenge was to cook, as in temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius it was difficult to light the stove.”

“We were carrying ready-to-eat meals with us but we had to put them in boiling water for cooking, and boiling water in this temperature was tough,” the 62-year-old Ravindra said.

The team said there were some depressing moments during the expedition but their determination and team spirit carried them through successfully.

“When we started, we were worried about the low temperature, high altitude and shortage of oxygen at that altitude. Many times our vehicles developed some problems, we faced a lot of problem melting ice into water and cooking,” said Pradip Malhotra, expedition doctor.

The team, consisting of a geologist, glaciologist, geophysicist and a meteorologist as well as vehicle engineers, had left Maitri, India’s second permanent research station on the Antarctica, on Nov 13.

“It was a gratifying experience and a lifetime opportunity. Once you reach there, you will realise the importance of basic things like fire, water and warmth. Despite making so much advancement in technology, you still have to depend on nature so much,” said M. Javed Beg, in-charge of logistics during the expedition.

The expedition travelled on four specialised Arctic trucks and each of these vehicles, besides its human baggage, carried special gears, emergency medical kit, frozen food, and navigational and scientific instruments.

The scientists conducted five experiments during the journey.


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