Saturday, November 03, 2001

Extracts from Bill Aitken's writings

Riding the ranges- Travels on my motorcycle.

The next best thing to sex.

  • Motorbike riding, unlike many human activities is exactly, what it claims to be. It involves cocking one’s leg over the frame of a bicycle, but instead of gyrating the drive chain by the effort of calf muscles, your knees reassuringly cling to a petrol tank which fuels the operation.
  • Half way between a car and bicycle the motorbike continues to be something of a social hybrid. Perceived to be a poor man’s mode of locomotion, the image of the motorcyclist has always been slightly suspect in the eyes of the establishment and its undeniable potential to further individual waywardness has done little to mitigate society’s reservations about the machine.
  • The most common misconception about two wheelers is their supposedly dangerous status. This is a superstition of the kind that believes alcohol (an inert chemical) is evil. Obviously the evil arises when humans abuse the bottle. So, too does danger arise when the rider happens to be a dangerous driver. The motorbike is neutral and its performance depends entirely on the time and care invested in its maintenance by the owner.
  • Unlike a car where greater stability releases a mite of smugness at one’s progress, the two-wheel traveler is literally on his toes every second of the drive. At the end of a ride your arms ache and your buttocks feel like refrigerated meat. Don’t even think about your kidneys if you have forgotten to wrap a long cummerbund round to prevent your innards rattling. Sometimes your hands are like lumps of ice or, alternatively, your leg gets burned on the exhaust pipe. In the sun, the helmet saps your morale and in the rain your eyes feel like shrapnel is attacking them. Take the occasional toss when overtaking buses drive you into a ditch and, to dirt and grease of topsiding add mayhem and disgust.
  • But none of these gratuitous flips can outweigh the exhilaration and ecstasy of a well-tuned bike banking into a corner. With every fibre alive and pumping, you open up perfect chord, at one with the machine. The world moves and you are momentarily part of the cosmos, fully aware for eternity of that curve, of what life is all about and completely certain of its rightness. So the price you pay for exposure and discomfort on a motorbike is more than balanced by the poetry you discover and a sensation that sometimes feels like the next best thing to sex.
  • To stay alive demands full alertness and my motorbike rides around India have, above all, stimulated that rare faculty. The reason one wants to share the pleasure of those rides is to underline how easy it is for the ordinary Indian, in a country, which boasts the world’s highest population of two wheel vehicles, to get up and go discover his very own India, as marvelous as Pandit Nehru’s literary journey.
  • The first rule governing motorcycling ought to be obvious. Choose your bike to match your physique. In other words, be able to handle it so that the bile knows who’s master. Choosing a bike is a bit like getting married and I suspect more men stay with their bikes than with their wives these days. (Motoring by bike must be the only situation where bigamy arouses no censure).
  • I don’t treat my bike as anything but an equal partner on our expeditions. I depend entirely upon her and consider her feelings before taking on particularly rough terrain. I depend so much on my bike that I would not deny the charge of being fixated. The intense relationship you share with a bike after an excruciating challenge is a bonding experience. You sense the bike is sentient and appreciates your affection for her. After all, you couldn’t have done it without each other.
  • It is vital to note that while revelations come in the hush of a cave and scientific codes are cracked in a dream, penetrating thoughts are only admissible on long hauls on traffic free roads. For in-town riding, the quickest way to an accident would be to plunge into a reflective mood. It’s only when you are touring far from population centers that your autopilot switches on to let the mind range free. Your body remains alert and your eyes keep straying to the rear-view mirror but that laid-back entity, the mind, is undisturbed by your outer motions. It gazes like the Upanishadic bird on the overview of any problem, calm and presiding, an uncanny presence to have arisen from steady beat of a well-balanced ordinary-production bike.
  • Drinking and driving may not be an ideal combination, but certainly after a hard day’s drive, a nightcap of locally distilled spirits is of vital pick-me-up value. I remember returning from Kashmir after a day’s marathon run pulling up, stiff and shattered, outside a dhaba near Chandigarh. Painfully climbing off the bike I ordered tea and biscuits. But Sardarji, the proprietor, took one look at my condition and said scornfully, “ You don’t need chai-biskoot, you need rum-murgi”.
  • Intoxication, it should not be forgotten, is the object of life, to drink in the beauty of the land and its people. In spite of the obvious backwardness and grimly primitive living standards, India at heart, is perhaps the world’s richest country. If it seems a weird conclusion to reach, and defies all the accepted economic parameters, I can only contend that the world appears a much more joyous place when viewed from the saddle of a motorbike. Seeing the great ranges in profile I was immeasurably enriched. For a small investment I received manifold returns. If some risk was demanded, this was acceptable. After all, risk is God’s choicest gift to two wheelers.

  • 99% of mountaineering narratives lie when they make out their expeditions were performed in a haze of euphoric enjoyment. They know this is what the untried public wants to hear. After all, the topping out on Everest is supposed to be manly and noble. But most of the time life above 10,000 ft is sheer misery. The glory of being in the high Himalaya is an exalted myth.

  • Relaxation is one of life's choisest gifts but u can only experience its plentitude after an exciting stretch of tension

  • The most valuable lessons are to be extracted from the toughest situations. My quest was to sample the elements and, all too often, an easy outing strengthens the illusion that man's creative urge will enable him to subdue the apparently inert opposition of supposedly blind nature.

  • My findings went counter to the projection of the political school with their bright predictions of ultimate planetary harmony. How does one convince people in an age of Hindu revivalism that Indian civillization, for example, owes one percent to the philosophy of Shanakaracharya and 99 percent to the accident of the monsoon?

  • When soaring free in the hills the rider realizes how chained we are to the illusions of our lesser selves. To get astride a powered steed is to overcome mankind’s worst affliction, a sense of inadequacy that gives rise to popular need for netas, saviours and lotteries. Our miseries are self- induced, our free-ranging minds bartered for an urban conformity that encourages us to believe rather than think, and follow rather than discover for ourselves

  • We need to travel slowly, not because rushing is bad for the health but because contentment only comes from a mood of introspection. The excitement of fast riding is real because we are aware that death is a fraction away but it is the fullness of life that meaningful motion seeks. Sometimes while riding the great ranges of India I have had to clutch my heart at the blinding wonder and felt a ripple of bliss at the orgy of beauty suddenly revealed.

  • Life is a cyclical process and you can spot the youthfulness of Himalayan granite in the cragginess of the spires just as you can sense the hoariness of the peninsular shield in its compacted layers of granite, a mere 2000 million years older! The crest of Sahyadri once lay where the Laccadive corals stand, the truth of geology mocking both the cant of religion and the claptrap of politics. I rode to exult in the raw beauty of these inspiring indicators of the earth’s molten matrix.

  • Human beings need inspiration almost as desperately as respiration and simply to be on the mountain road on a bike is to trigger felicity. We lift our eyes to the great ranges because their help is immediate. They dispel the disillusionment that attaches to the bittersweet taste of worldly success, so soon to turn sour. The ranges beckon because they help answer the human longing to discover meaning in the fragmentation all around us. Their steadfastness is sufficient to echo a witnessing spirit that reminds us of primary loyalty to the underlying flame within.

  • A good trek is not measured just by the physical coordinates of the cool heights attained and scenic ridges traversed. Perhaps more crucial is the inner satisfaction that derives from walking with companions who stay agreeable under testing conditions and whose sympathies remain as a warm afterglow.

The Nanda Devi Affair - Bill Aitken

It is only when you top sixty and find your knees beginning to protest
against the gradient that you begin to appreciate the rewards that can come from the least challenging of mountain trails. Widely regarded as beginners country, the Kumaun treks to Pindari and Milam can be rediscovered as pleasurable outings for oldies provided you are more concerned with honouring the central place of Nanda Devi in the scheme of things than your own reputation as a seasoned hard-man.


Travelling slow and in comparative comfort has the great advantage over vertical expeditions strivings of not feeling bound by the hand of clock or resentful of middling weather. The very state of beatitude we seek in turning again to mountains can be compromised by the lure of impressive toppings out that may look better in the record book than they feel in our immortal seam of recollection.


Too much challenge can be just as dispiriting as too little. We need above all explore those areas dear to each individual and traditionally the expedition is expected to serve a common aim; which too often translates as shared misery.


By joining an expedition you are perhaps moving further from your aim of discovering your true being. A poor pilgrim wandering tried trails may get nearer that ineffable experience the trained mountaineer expects to find by virtue of going where no foot has trod before.


The week's trek to Milam proves ideal for old bones to overcome modest challenges. It provides a glimpse of the bliss that awaits any who join with the Gori Ganga to force a passage through the Himalaya.

The Mountaineer who helped discover (and best described) the ravishing realm of the Goddess
(Nandadevi) was Eric Shipton, perhaps the perfect choice since his romantic inclinations were miles away from the military manoeuvres school. Shipton's oneness with the Godness made him an odd man out and it was inevitable that his philosophy of an "overriding passion" as the motive force for mountaineering would be ruthlessly ignored by the English climbing establishment when they came to choose a winning leader for the 1953 Everest expedition. When peaks have to be conquered for prestige and funds poured in to guarantee the flutter of a flag from the summit it is only proper that corporals who aspire to be sergeants and
brigadiers smitten with the passion for full command should be recruited before poets and mountain mystics. It is coincidence that Nanda Devi has never hosted the conquerors of Everest- Hunt, Hilary and Tenzing - but in beckoning back Shipton and Ang Tharkey the Goddess proved that she could recognize her own.


Winter in the hills is a visibly quiet time. The days though cold are magnificiently sereneand viewing the snows now is to experience the distinct sensation of nature aslumber. A somnolent azure lies about the winter snow-line where the cold air traps the wood smoke of the village fires. The flattened cling of this heavenly shade lazily gives way to the deeper blue of the winter sky caused by the sun's southmost journeying. Unlike the plains where the cosmic junction at the turning back of the sun makes little impact, in the Himalayas one is aware of the solstitial reversal process. Southwestwards the sunset becomes more hauntingly beautiful than in the monsoon when the bruised texture of the clouds had caught scarlet inspiration. The January twilight horizon is the most moving of natural spectacles when the sky changes dramatically from the fury of red to the promise of gold then briefly yields to the poignancy of green that brings tears to the eternal witness in man.

October is the best trekking season when the golden days yield the full fragrance of harvested sap. The sky is a celestial blue and the air perfectly attuned to vigorous marches. Sun dappled trees and the roar of rushing water coursing off the mountainside stimulate the taste of salt on one’s lips while the sifting wind soothes any regret at the sweat. It is good to be alive in high Garhwal in October as the crickets fill the clear air with a deafening drone of plentitude. The intensity of the sky with few puffed clouds abroad by early afternoon contrasts with the map-like spread of fields below. Crops of ripening red buckwheat shock the eye as do the yellow stalks of scarlet coxcomb. The multihued greens of the jungles begin to enclose one’s progress and range from the deep chrome of oak and dark viridian of spruce to the fresh gloss of chestnut and maple.

Savage encounters (like Joe Tasker’s on Dunagiri) might be thought to have imprinted a conviction of immortality forever on the survivor’s forehead but no theory fits when the human vessel insists it is too small and any overflowing is mistaken as a leak that needs constant replenishment. Like greatness sainthood is thrust on the climber who desides his mountain is worth dying for, and who can judge that such singular (seemingly suicidal) devotion in surrendering the gift of individuality (and causing unbearable grief to companions) is not a valid way for some? ‘ Better die trying to wake than live in sleep’.

In my benign walks around the sanctuary meadows, viewing the peaks and considering some of the achievements of the, studying the religious feelings of local people and noting the glories in the rare beauty of the forests and the riotous sexuality of the flowers, I followed my inmost instinct to worship.

As a male writer I make no apology for viewing the mountain Goddess as a village woman for that in fact is the way hill theology pictures Nanda Devi. Mountaineers married to the craft have perhaps realized that it is more pleasurable to learn the many moods of feminine unpredictability from the stern lessons of the Alps and Himalayas rather than have the same gripe voiced daily down the years from a contracted rope-mate over breakfast table. To find the real woman of one’s choice is indeed a mountaineering task since achieving the impossible is what climbing is all about.



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