May 6, 2016 Shaunak Kar

Hangin’ on To My Bones: Tales from Ombattu Gudda

Its been 10 hours since we started from Gundya and at this point I’ve got my index and ring finger dug in to a vertical crack to my right and my feet are flat on a 100 ft, nearly vertical(70-80 degree), rock wall. There’s no room for my toes to hold me up so I’m relying completely on my good ol’ boots and some good ol’ friction. I glance below through my arms and legs to see how bad the situation really is. One wrong move and I would fall through atleast a hundred meters before I even come close to anything to break my fall. 

You Had My Curiosity, Now You Have My Attention

Ombattu Gudda or OG has fascinated trek enthusiasts forever. Every blog on the internet proceeds with a word of caution and as if that wasn’t enough, there are news articles reporting the death of a couple of folks on the trek. Almost everybody has got lost on the trail(or the lack of it) even with GPS and maps from ASI(No. 48 P/9/NW). All of this added on heavily to the intrigue associated with OG and I fell prey to it as well.

I dragged along a couple of my mates, Finny and Aseem,who didn’t really need any convincing and we were off to catch the 11:45 from Mysore to Sakleshpur on Friday, 1st March. On the train we(Aseem and I) barely managed to get any sleep, spending most of the time trying to get the right position for the butt and the feet, without success, on the upper bunk of the Unreserved Section while Finny slept like a baby somehow.

We reached Sakleshpur at 3:30 AM walked 20 minutes to the bus-stand and got a Mangalore bound KSRTC Sarige immediately. The next hour took us to Gundya, broke our backs and gave us some much needed sleep at the same time!

We recharged with chai, some omlettes, water and prepped up for the next couple of days at a snack shop. At 0530 Hrs, still dead dark, we set sail into the Western Ghats- on towards Ombattu Gudda a compass in hand and a shoddy li’l rough sketch of the terrain.

[If you are still planning for an OG trek. Carry a GPS and you’ll be safe but without it, you’re in for an adventure that you may or may not like (; ]

We turned our torches out to avoid being spotted and stopped by the villagers and the Forest Department as we started through the Addole Village.[Yes, Trekking is banned in OG. Also, nobody has been there in a over a year] We couldn’t outsmart the dogs though as they kept charging at Finny as we passed through. He Kept Calm and Walked on.

There are two legs to the trek- One till the waterfall and the other one, beyond it.

The Psy-bliss Up To The Fall

The walk up to the fall was beautiful, calm and peaceful through the wonderfully virgin and intriguingly dense Evergreens or Sholas. The trail is basically a jeep track that hasn’t been used in ages. Now its covered with a dense layer of dry leaves and completely marred with elephant poop and the intermittent leopard (or some other big cat) poop. There are big trees knocked down on the trail and bamboos shoots trampled over so it goes without saying that this region sees bucket loads of elephant action.

We heard a elephant calf cry out, probably for its mother, from very close and the chill that we felt was a shiver-me-timbers moment and add to that a distinct growl that we heard thrice. The growl just killed it, one of those nut-sinking moments that makes you want to vaporise into thin air. We’d later realise that it was the wind howling but only after we’d heard it a few times. Those five still seconds of my life, I valued the most.

The Spider’s Web

There were moments when I felt like I was on a Psychedelic trip(maybe I was but then again..), sunshine through the leaves reflecting off the red big armed spider’s web; butterflies gliding, yes gliding  and not fluttering because their wings were so bloody “expansive”. There was a moment when I stepped on to a layer of dry leaves and made that leaf-crack sound under my boots- it made at-least a good forty butterflies lift off from the (live)branches and leaves and float around us. I took a moment there to simply appreciate the beauty of it all . This happened twice here onwards, once with dragonflies! Bummer right?!

I think we reached the stream, a big 100 ft wide one,  around 1030hrs and took some time off. We basked in the sun, took our shirts off to dry and  dipped our feet in water as the black and orange striped tetras swam around them. It was beautiful.

So how did we go from this to hanging off a cliff for our lives?

I had one golden rule set in my mind- When in doubt, go North. So we went northwards most of the time and at any bifurcation or diversion we’d always take the northbound . So we followed the river downstream which surprisingly was towards the north. Upon following the river blindly towards the north we hit what seemed to be an old trail that head north. We set foot on that trail and followed it till we hit another stream/river that led to our checkpoint.

The Waterfall and The Countless Cliffs

Thanks to a blog that I was following I kinda had the idea that there was no way we could get lost beyond this. Ombattu Gudda was “Dead North” of the falls. We could’ve gone either left, right or up the falls to find our way to OG. The path that we took, was the one that makes sure you dont lose your way-Straight Up the Falls.

I honestly thought the struggle was over and probably was right about the struggle to not get lost.  But I was very wrong when I realised what lay ahead of us. There were falls and there were cliffs all through the way interjected by small stretches of slippery rocky river bed. The numerous cliffs were 20 ft high at the least and some went right upto 20-30 metres high. They had a steep incline which implied that you had to use all four limbs to drag you and your bag’s weight through. Some of the rock faces were at 50 degrees others were at 60 to 70 for most of the climb till the last one hour. The last hour was an 80, definitely!

The stream flows between two ridges so there are times when the channel of water flow gets really narrow and there are hardly any dry grooves to put your fingers and shoes in. In such cases we had to go around the water fall by pulling ourselves up, with the help of trees and stems, from the stream bed across the vertical hill wall on either sides of the stream to the hill side and crawl around the fall. The slopes were dead vertical and we were resting our feet on the base of the trees to get grip and to push us forward. A step anywhere else meant the loose soil, leaves and gravel would give way, and splash you gorgeously onto the rocks under. I slipped once under such circumstances and the only thing that helped was spreading my arms and legs wide to increase friction. Any movement meant that I’d go down straight so I somehow directed my inevitable fall to hit the only tree that was within my reach, about a feet or two towards my right, as I lay spread eagled on the slope. Phew!

This went on and on forever-climbing short cliffs, walking on the bed, climbing the cliffs again, climbing around them and then I spotted this yellow backdrop behind the high trees that shone bright under the sun at around 4:30 PM and this was the first time we had seen anything beyond dense vegetation and water. With our spirits high we moved forward as we hopped, skipped and jumped like kids at the local fair and moments later I saw what would be the most ridiculous climb I’ve ever had to do. I stared blank at the stretch of it.

 

The Reichenbach Cliffs

 

The Reichenbach Cliffs

There were three distinguishable section to it, each 20m-30m high and only one climbable route up. Right through the middle there was this protruding channel that was a feet wide at a near vertical incline and had a few projections that would give you a good support under your big toe. We climbed it like you’d climb a ladder- w.r.t hand grip etc. Steadily and Slowly we paced up the ridiculous Reichenbach Ladder(yes I made it up) to the last cliff which had

After what I had done, this last patch seemed to be do-able because from the feet wide platform I was standing upon after the second cliff, this was some 15m high.It was only after I was hanging midway through it in a very precarious pose did I realise how completely nutmegged I was. Although my hands were grooved inside this inch wide crack that ran along the cliff, my feet were nowhere. Till here I had calculated my climb and I was supposed to be in this position for barely a second but that wasn’t supposed to be. I sent a word down to Finny and Aseem not to follow me up, luckily they hadn’t started this climb yet.

Bit of trick photography here.

This was actually  40-50 degree climb

near the start

It was do-or-nothing situation. I had no grip to go upwards and no way to go back down. My only hope was a sideways shift on an 80 degree cliff where I had, what looked like an OK-ish foothold a bit above my waist height. The problem here being that our body cramps up when its over worked and water deficient. I was simply swimming in a pool of lactic acid and adrenalin there after walking and climbing 20 Ks. Getting my feet above my waist brought up the most painful cramps ever. I tried three times before I figured out a way. I put my foot up and bent my waist away from cliff to reduce the bend around it and relieved myself of the cramp. A tug and a pull later I was up the deadliest cliff climb ever.

Here onwards it got even more ridiculous. Apparently we were in some sort of landslide zone- a U shaped region. Everything was loose-the soil, the rocks the half dead trees and up ahead(imagine the bottom curve of the letter U) a vertical wall of loose soil roots and rocks- it simply cannot be climbed. We were at the very border of the forests and the grasslands(the peak region- relatively flat and very green) We knew just one thing, if we manage to go beyond this soup bowl of a region we’re done and we’d have made it. I was right at the back here trying to recover from the near death experience of climbing the last cliff. Aseem made a risky call(everything here had truckloads of risk associated so what the heck!) of going for the vertical wall and he fell twice sending big chunks of rocks free falling down the slope. Finny moved towards the edges (imagine along one of the stems of U) tried to grasp on to the dry roots at the edge and the whole things came off and he rolled straight onto me. I somehow pushed him towards the slope to help him get more grip and thankfully that helped. At my eye level I could see a few feet of thorny bushes and beyond that, safety. A call had to be made, Aseem had given up completely after his attempts and was having ridiculous thoughts of camping on the slope. Finny was barely able to not roll down the slope so I just stopped thinking and took in a deep breath.

My left hand gripped a seemingly stable stem, multiple thorns pierced straight through. I tried pushing myself up with my right hand thrusting down into the ground and the roots nearly came off. The thorns that has already dug in, tore into my left palm. Another deep breath and a push from down under(Finny had finally managed to get some grip) I surged forward. A branch end poked into my cheeks another scraped my eyelid but once I broke through that, we were good I could stand on two feet after almost a couple of arduous hours.

It was after dark already at around 6:30 PM so I took out my torch(dumb decision to not carry a headlamp) and stuffed it between my teeth and after a few cautious steps, that led me into clear grasslands, I made a mad dash for the peak.

Finny dragged Aseem up the grasslands as they joined in a bit later. We pitched up the tents poured some milk and cornflakes and had the best sleep ever to wake up to a brilliant, brilliant view. I’d never forget the sight of it.

The next day was very straight forward. We had to follow a jeep track to Lakshmi Tea Estate and there onwards to Hosakere, a small village. Terrain was absolutely easy, it being a jeep track and all. We got in to Hosakere four hours after we had started and we slept like never before under the shed at the local school as we waited for the 1:30 bus.

A 180 from the top of the range. OG is the hilltop slightly right off centre.

 

Looking Back

As I sat there at Hosakere I realised that each of us had pushed beyond what we had previously achieved for different reasons. Yes, it could’ve gone bad easily, but it didn’t. Some people reading this would curse us for having taken seemingly rash/stupid decisions and for the risks that we took and for not giving up to nature. The point being, I wasn’t fighting nature at all- I was merely embracing what it put forth and luckily I did A-OK.

I stared down my arms, scarred by bruises from the climb, and I was teleported to the time when I was hanging onto my life off the cliff. I laughed to myself.

Aseem is still calls me effing crazy and goes off on a foul-mouthed rant every time I mention OG. Finny experienced a very different dimension to life-he’s enlightened I’d say. Me? Well, as I look back upon it, I’m happy to be breathing, feeling more alive that ever.

And so the question remains, will I go for it again?

I just smile.

 

Walk On.

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As in muckyfinger.blogspot.com

PS: Apologies for the word-count!

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Shaunak Kar
Shaunak Kar pilgrim on a mountain

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