Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A Matter of Life and Luck

This is the story of how stupid and yet how lucky and propitious can a person get. If I'm here writing this story, it is due to sheer luck I had accumulated. I'm not sure whom should I be thanking but I presume that everyone one of you have mattered for me to be alive and share this story, accept my wholehearted thanks. Among many lessons I learnt after this incident, the most important one, trust me, Nothing Is Larger Than Life.


The Trek
After cancelling the hike to the magnficient Cerro de la Silla at the last moment, Keno and myself decided that we should go elsewhere. I was very much lured by Pico Cuauhtémoc in Cerro de las Mitras for the challenge and adventure it had in store. It is the highest peak among the Mitras range with an altitude of over 2000 meters above sea level.

We packed our bags with breads, oat biscuits, Gatorades, water bottles and met Keno at a garage on Gonzalitos at 6 in the morning and our hike started at 6:15. It was still dark when we reached the trailhead. Keno was the only person with the flash light and we followed his footsteps. By the time we reached stone bed, the first resting point, Ajit was panting and we were dubious that he would make it. The screes after the stone bed made our lives harder, but it was not too bothering since we had done it before. We passed through the caves, walked along the rocky walls, made many class 4 climbs. Lokesh hurt his knee at one point and gave up. Ajit and Deepa passed at the same point. Shyam and Keno climbed a bit more, till 15 feet class 4 climb and halted their journey. I had crossed all the barriers, vertical climbs, scary ridges and was heading thirstily towards the summit. At the summit were the Holy Cross supported by stones, a tin box containing crumpled notebook to scribble and a book of prayer. I guess many people feel religious after taking such a risk. I scribbled few words, clicked few photographs and without wasting much time there, I started tracing my way back. I confess that I was a tad scared while crossing the ridge and descending that 15 feet class-4 rock, for any mistake there would land me into a wild, rocky abyss of 500 meters. I was almost done with rockier part and was about to enter the forest.

The Great Fall
As I entered the forest following the obscure arrow marks, the most unexpected, unwanted and unforeseen thing happened. I lost my way. Picture this, a vertical gradient containing slippery screes, populated densely with the thorniest cactuses, lonely as a cloud, I was lost in awe. I climbed down a bit, then I climbed up with a hope that I could trace back but to my dismay I couldn't. Then I followed my instincts, I thought I'll descend this mountain somehow, whether the route is right or wrong, I'll just descend!!!

The wicked and pernicious forest deviated me away from the right path. I was screaming my throat out with a hope that the others can hear me, it only made me more thirsty and tired. At one point, as I stepped on the loose screes I lost control and before even I could comprehend what was happening, I was being thrown in the air. Like a ball thrown from mountain top, I was being tossed and turned by the steep gradient of the mountain. The cactuses and stray twigs scratched my hands, but I didn't realize the slightest pain, I was having an adrenaline rush, I was scared, I was panting. I was rolling down and down and down, like in a trailer of an action movie. I paused at one point, while I was groping for a support and hanged on to some bushes, but they uprooted and I continued my gravity fall. Even though my mind was out of control, just like my body, I quickly hoped that there were no rocks on the way which could potentially crumble my bones off because of the momentum I gained.

I think I had fell about 40-50m with one or two pauses, before I stopped clinging on to a rock. I relaxed for a while. I thought, foolishly, that this descent would take me down faster than my teammates and I should continue this, for I was not fatally hurt too. As I thought so and had a glimpse below, a sudden sense of fear ran through my nerves and my eyes witnessed the most incredible vista. It was a merciless 500 meter vertical, raw and rocky fall. That piece of rock which I was clinging to, was the last of mother nature's hand that could have saved me. It was a miracle of miracles. I was still vehemently panting and terrible scared. I thanked all the Gods I could for such a salvage and consciously stopped myself from panicking.

I pondered over what to do next, I searched for some kind of support there. There were few rocks and bushes. After the deracination of few bushes during the fall, I had lost hope on any of them being able to save me, I chose rocks instead. As I tested the strength of them, one of the rock was shaking and it broke and the fragment flew in the air. I was aware that they were shale rocks and are very brittle, I tested every rock thoroughly before making my way towards the left where I found a platform 1.5 feet wide, protruding from a rock.

It was a platform that I had not expected to spend 23 long and miserable hours on. It was made of loose soil, housing few cactuses and plants. The gigantic rock from which the platform had projected out, served as a support for me, so did few of the plants around. I secured myself a safe standing position and shouted for help. For first 10 minutes, I was in despair for not having received any response for my SOS. Shyam was the first to hear me and his response was like a light at the end of tunnel. "I'm loooooooossssssstttttttt. I'm in a dangerous positionnnnnnn, I can't moveeeeeeeeee. Call for chopperrrrrrrrrr", I screamed with all the might. It was about 1PM in the noon,

The Eternal Wait

I think they were hearing my words but their response was too feeble for me hear, but I was a lot assuaged and pacified by the very fact of hearing them. I stood there and kept repeating the same phrase until their voice was clear. I had clearly realized the sad, but true fact, that I was left with only two options either Life or Death and if I had to opt for Life, I just had to hold on. I didn't panic, its hard to believe that in such a state I didn't panic, but I didn't. The weather was cold, the mists started spreading in the valley and all I could see was a gigantic, opaque, gray, spatial cover of mist. My fear factor reduced for I could not feel the depth anymore. Their voice started becoming clearer and within few minutes, I could sense that Ajit's position was just under me but I could not see him. He raised my spirits. Within few minutes I could hear everybody's voice from my lower left side but nobody were to be seen.

Keno called up rescue at 2PM and it took nearly an hour or so for him to do so. He had to get the number, reach the right people and convey the message. Civil Proteccion, was unable to airlift me due to bad weather and visibility and hence the rescue operation had to be carried out without an aid of chopper. Keno turned out to be the God, the Hero, the Star of the whole episode. He was more tensed than I was thinking of the highly likely dire consequences. Though I didn't see him from my death bed, I'm sure that this fair skinned guy would have turned red like apple. He made 3-4 trips to the cave that we passed in the morning, which is almost half the way back and he spent the whole night with rescue team looking for me. He has got such courage and endurance that would envy even the rescue team.

While Keno went to the caves to fetch the rescue team, Ajit, Deepa, Shyam and Lokesh kept pinging me every now and then to make sure that I was not falling asleep or not losing hope. By then I was very much calm and relaxed, with utmost care I had rested my bottom on the uneven platform. I held tightly the two plants which served as my securing handle for all the time I spent there. For an impatient guy like me, sitting there for such long duration without doing anything was almost impossible and my darling camera was bored too. So I got her out, loaded her with macro lens and shot those beautiful red-eyed flies which were my only faunal companions. Did some telephotography too, capturing rhthymically patterned buildings of Monterrey, once the cloud cover was lifted. The tender glow of evening was very pleasing and I was getting poetic. At the same time I was annoyed by the fact that the sky was crystal clear and Proteccion Civil were not even thinking of doing an airlift.

I heard few voices from down under, without stretching my body, I tried to have a glimpse of who they were. I sighed with relief to see radiant orange attire of the rescue team. It was 8PM when they started ascending in search of me. Keno shouted "We are climbing now maaaan. It may take two hours man for us to find you". He also asked me to flash the light when I hear their screams. In the meantime, others had left for the cave for an overnight stay, with one of the guides. Next two hours were dark and lonely. I was feeling thirsty, I was hungry, the birds were reaching home, the nightfall had spread all over, I was feeling cold. I was begging all the heavens that it should not rain and there are no scorpions or snakes around. Though I would love to find and photograph them at other times, but with my life sustaining on a 1.5 feet wide space those were the last things I wanted to see.

I screamed "Hellooooooooooooooooooooooo, Holaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa, Can you hear meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee????, Ajitaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa, Shyaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaam". But received no response. The whole city, now fully lit, was looking like a gigantic colorful embroidered carpet. The dim opalescence of the moon was being obscured every now and then by passing clouds. I was silent, calm and cold. At about 11PM I heard the first scream from the forest above. I started flashing the light. In about an hour, the voice started approaching closer though I could not make any sense out of it, I kept flashing the light. I had a moment of self-gratitude for being a photophile, had I not got my camera, they wouldn't find me till morning. At about 12AM I started seeing their flash lights around me, but not exactly on me, for I was being blocked by a huge rock.

Desperation during night
The rescue team was just above me, I could hear them talk. After a few moments, they left back one guy named Angel. But in that situation, I felt, he didn't live up to his name. He made me more angry and desperate than pacifying me. Unfortunately he knew only basic English.

Angel: I go down, you and me both go up.
Me: Fine, but when? Cuando?
Angel: Avrita (now)
Me: OK then come
Angel: Wait. Take it easy man, calm down.
Me: Gimme some water. Quiero agua por favour.
Angel: No tengo agua. Sorry

He was flashing his lights around me and I guided him where exactly I was
Me: OK! Are you coming?
Angel: Yes
Me: Then come.
Angel: Wait. Rappel no long. I call my friend
Me: Cuando?
Angel: Avrita. Take it easy man.
Me: OK. Ropa por favour, mui freo (Some clothes please, I'm feeling cold)
Angel: Si. Take it easy man.
Me: I can't freaking take it easy, I'm shivering here.
Angel: Hold on.

Then he calls his friend and he arrives. Not sure how helpful he was.
Me: Hellooooooooooooooooooooooooo. Are you comin or not?
Angel: Yes I come. You and I go up with me.
Me: OK but come.
Angel: Hold on.
Me: OK

This sort of conversation continued for nearly 2 hours and at about 2AM after I told him I was going to die there not because of thirst or hunger but because of cold, he managed to provide me with a silver space rescue blanket and a florescent lamp. He tied them to a series of rappelling wrap and threw them at me. I covered myself with that which gave me a great relief from the cold mountain winds which were piercing my skin since the nightfall. Then he threw the rappelling wrap again and asked me to secure my body, hands and legs with that so that in case I fall asleep it prevents me from sudden death. He bugged me for next 10 minutes to make sure that I'm secured and I confirmed him. I don't know how the next couple of hours passed by. I was in deep sleep. I guess I slept for about 3-4 hours.

The Freaky Morning

When I woke up it was 6AM and it was still dark. There was a thick clouding in the valley. I managed to sleep more in bits and pieces. At about 8AM, the sun was out of his home in the east. The scenery in front of me was the most picturesque one. The golden clouds veiled the whole city and looked like an infinite bed of soft cotton. My mind was allured by the dangerous idea of jumping into that but instead I chose to do some photography. A fluttering humming bird also stopped by to see me, but unfortunately I had just changed the telephoto lens so I could just manage a silhouette of the bird. My mind was rambling around innumerable sundries. I also got weird and funny ideas of making a parachute out of the silver rescue blanket and jumping down. I tried to do some mediation, planned to hymn "Gayatri Mantra" 108 times, but stopped at 27.

As I started thinking about my plight, I started feeling hungry. Hungry like a dog. I searched in my pockets and found the wrappers of oat biscuits and chocolates which I remembered eating 24 hours back. I found few tiny remnants of oats which would not even fill ants. Meticulously I put them all in my mouth. I licked the melted, sticky bit of chocolate on the inner walls of Hershey's wrapper. Just like Tom Hanks does it in Cast Away, I collected few dew drops and licked them. Though they neither satiated my hunger nor quenched my thirst.


The valley gradually was covered by mist as the time passed by. I got the shock of my life at about 10AM. As I packed my camera, since I had nothing else to photograph, I tried to untangle myself from the rappelling wrap which I had secured myself with. I just pulled the wrap a little hard and I was freaked out to see that the other end, which I assumed Angel had tied to something, fell into my hand!!! In other words, I was snoring and sleeping on a 1.5 feet wide precipice at an altitude of 500 meters without bare minimum protection. I thanked all the heavens!!!

The Salvage
At 12:30PM I saw the "11th hour Samaritan", actually "23rd hour Samaritan", rappelling down towards me. Dressed in red uniform, clad with helmet and gloves, Fernando asked me to cover my head to protect from possible rolling stones and not to move. He gave me a bottle of water which brought back some energy in me. I was impressed by the way he prepared a make-shift harness using "the" wraps, which had saved me from falling last night!!! He told me that he had devised a different rappelling system, I just have to keep stepping up as the other rescue members pull the rappel.

That was the most difficult rappelling I've done till date. I didn't have gloves, the way up was totally thorny and stony due to cactuses and screes. I had to pass through the wild cactuses and I was bruised badly on legs and hands. It was about 40 meters climb and we both rappelled in tandem on a double rappel. As the other team members saw my face, they shouted "Pinche Cabrrrrooooon" in chorus. I was thanking each of them wearing a smile of gladness. They said "You're the luckiest person on this earth" and handed over me some canned tuna fish and lots of water. They asked me to get barrels of beers for them and I gladly agreed. I was saved!!! I was salvaged!!! It was indeed "A Matter Of Life And Luck"

Trek down
They tried for a chopper after rescuing me but their efforts were in vain and hence we had to trek back all the way. We climbed down few Class-4 rocks and reached the place where my team members waited the previous day. One of them showed me the actual location where I was and I got a chill in my spine when I saw that. It was indeed a 500 meter, terribly rocky descent. I thought to myself, nobody on this planet could get as lucky as me. And they also told me that this is the first time they did a rescue operation as difficult and risky as this one.

It took about 3 hours to trek down. As we reached the stone bed, the last resting point I was having a low blood pressure, my hands and face were numb with lack of blood circulation. Even the camera bag had became heavy, I handed over to one of the rescue members and had a slow gait. My legs were becoming heavier with every step. I kept thinking that I'm gonna fall but finally I saw the the Dodge Ram's of the Proteccion Civil. I went near that and collapsed with control on the ground. There were more men from rescue team and someone handed over a plate full of spaghetti and beef and a bottle of Gatorade.

Keno's smiling face was the first I saw. He came to me and said "You're a stupid son of a b#^%h!!!". He called others, Shyam, Deepa, Ajit and Lokesh in turn came and wished me. I hogged some spaghetti, guzzled down bottles of Gatorade and lied down. I was shivering and shaking like a wet dog. I breathed deep, tried to relax but still kept shivering. There arrived another Dodge Ram of director of Proteccion Civil. He said "You're very lucky. We've been doing this for many many years but not all rescue operations have happy ending".

Becoming Famous
After this incident we were interviewed by TV Azteca, we were on the news channels, we were on the internet. I got titles like "Gabe Walker", "Cliff Hanger", "The Saviour", "The Lucky Bastard". Some of my colleagues made cartoons out of me and some made parody of some songs. Most of them listened to my awful story and were glad that I'm back. All my teammates got became famous too for they were on TV. The news also was so distorted that they said Shyam Krishnasway, age 30 was the one who got lost. There were also discussions about making us pay for such operations and the total cost they incurred for such an operation is around 2000 dollars.

Here is the news coverage:



Here is the cartoon


Thanks to...
Keno for everything he did on that day.
Keno's parents for all their support in getting the Proteccion Civil to work.
Ajit, Shyam, Lokesh and Deepa for pinging me all through my stay on my death bed and stopping me from falling asleep.
Proteccion Civil and all the members of rescue team for saving me.
Angel for providing me with blanket in the night.
Fernando for coming to me and saving me.
Alberto for helping in getting the contact of Proteccion Civil.
Izkalli, Llerena, Ernesto, Tomas, Cynthia for their support and inquiry.
Everybody for their wishes and blessings which have saved me from the catastrophe.

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