Sunday, February 3, 2013

A Surgeon's Sojourn - into Zanskar Valley, Ladakh

Do professionals need a break?

A recent legal document reminded me of the definition of a professional person – in the eyes of the law - Someone who works in an area where ordinary men do not venture.

Thus, whatever the sphere of life may be, the services of a professional person are always highly sought. In this background, there are a couple colleagues I am aware of, for whom taking a break from his/her highly successful professional life is something they cannot imagine. Will society not be deprived of the services of the professional – for the period of his unavailability?

Well, I belong to the breed of professionals who think it is essential to take a break – indulging in something that borders the wild, allows you to let your hair down (or up as seen in my example further ahead), that disconnects you completely from your existing world. My forays in this context have been in the field of Mountaineering and Hiking.

My exposure to this field began right from my days as a professional ‘in training’ – read medical school… the experiences gained have changed my life to such an extent that I would not hesitate to dedicate a large part of my professional achievements to the lessons learnt during the breaks I took.

Having reasonably settled down in the last (and the longest) phase of my Medical Career since a few years – my Medical Practice – I finally felt it was time to come out of my self-imposed exile from the Mountains.
With this in mind, three of us college friends set off on a venture to experience the harsh environment and physical challenges in the heart of the Zanskar Valley – a trek up a river of ice, on the frozen Zanskar river -  in Ladakh Province at the northern limits of our country. Thanks to our young but supportive families, we set to explore not just the mountains, but new limits to physical endurance and boundaries of our inner self.

As we set off on the venture, the thought did play in our minds -Why would someone ‘taking a break’ give up a life of comforts and take on new challenges and face difficult times?

The obvious answer is “You must be off your rocker...”  However, with our past experience to support us, we went on…

We faced temperatures of upto -30OC on a regular basis, but beyond a point it did not really matter. The presence of a colleague who will support – no matter what – was enough to take on the challenge. 

Ice formed on eyelashes and face of the author - from condensation of body vapour in the breath and discharge from the eyes...

Cut off from all forms of modern communication with the outside world, the entire duration of the venture was a unique experience. Finishing dinner 7PM daily, we had ample time to reflect till 7AM next morning, while we fought off the cold, within our tents and sleeping bags. Though we left behind worried families, without any idea of our progress, it gave each of us an opportunity to introspect and reorganize our priorities, on our roles in the fast paced life and materialistic world.

The group of friends in front of a …frozen waterfall...

Standing water has the least kinetic energy, flowing water some more, while falling water has the most. The ability of the environment to freeze flowing water speaks of it's intensity...

The knowledge that our soldiers, guarding the country a few kilometres away, on the icy tops of the Siachen... at 24,000ft and – 700C...  was enough to make our effort seem insignificant. While our experience made us realize the enormity of their sacrifice, it also gave us the confidence that we low-landers coming from sea level did have it in us to cope with challenges thrown at us from 11,000.


With Sepoy Ravi Pandey at Rohtang La - 18,350ft altitude. He was returning from Siachen after his 5 month stint at 24,000 ft.


                                             Negotiating a rocky mountain stretch
                                                  to bypass a stretch of tricky ice

As in the life of a Surgeon, a Plastic & Cosmetic Surgeon in my case,  there is no end to how much an outcome can be improved, by meticulous planning and attention to the details. These attributes were immensely useful on the mountains as well. While in the former scenario, it had an impact on someone else’s life; here it was our own!
We three pals had been fortunate to have been exposed to the mountains way back in our teens, while we began our stint at Medical School at Pune. Looking at few of our colleagues on the venture, one with a post-polio leg shortening, one with a traumatic ankle deformity and others who were well into their sixth decade – one even hitting the seventh decade of life -  made us value the opportunities that our short life had given us so far!

The rarefied atmosphere and unconventional terrain converted even the daily tasks of life into a huge effort – whether it was performing the morning ablutions, or maintaining body hygiene. Coming out of and re-entering the multi layered sleeping bag to attend nature’s call at night was such a drudgery, we had one colleague even remark – “never again shall i ever complain about making my bed every morning at home”.

...and coming back to the question posed at the professionals need a break – that too indulging in something which involves such hardships? Well, we realized that taking on new challenges and difficulties is a requisite for progress in life... the experience gained and endurance achieved, in solving problems in a field of one’s choice, can be fruitfully used to address issues in daily life, in less pleasant circumstances... as some wise man has said, “The only constant thing in life is Change”. I believe such experiences leave us better placed to bring about this change!

The author at 18,000 ft above sea level...
in the wilderness of the Ladakh province

We returned to the plains, having strengthened old bonds and made newer plans, to return back to the mountains another time!

 for more images on the same, please click on

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