The ridge was around fifteen feet long and ten feet wide. It straddled the surrounding features without providing any clear view to the top. One could peer over the edge and see a long drop, nearly three thousand feet into the gorge where a turbulent stream thundered down. In its wake were broken trees and stones, requiring careful consideration by intrepid outdoor enthusiasts. The two hikers had donned their warmest jackets and sat with cups of tea at the edge. The adrenaline from their scramble up the gorge was wearing off, and they could feel pain in their calves and hamstrings. But, they were keenly aware that the throbbing in their head was more worrisome. The cold, inhospitable gorge barely had any trees or grass. Its walls were muddy cliffs, and its floor was rocky and uneven. At this point, their team had been alone on the feature for about four hours. The guide and two local porters had set up a kitchen tent and were busy cooking a meal.
The hikers had done this a few times before. Long hikes that had midway camps. On most occasions, they had discussed what they would do the next day. But today, they sat mute and irresolute. The cold and the altitude had ushered in a strange silence. Across the horizon, the setting sun caused the birch trees to cast long, wispy shadows. As the sky began to deposit snow pellets that bounced off the flaps of their tent, they retreated inside and began to take stock of their situation. There was contemplation about abandoning the exercise. There were disagreements. One of the two hikers insisted that they hold the camp for a couple of days and wait for the weather to clear. He had seen some silhouettes clambering up on the ridge. Perhaps the other groups would be better equipped and could clamber together to the next camp. In any case, they had provisions for five days, so they had nothing to worry about. The second hiker kept a more withdrawn mood and was not entirely convinced that the weather would improve. He brought forth various arguments, mainly about the history of the ridge. In previous years, people had been stranded there and required rescue from the forest department. While discussing the pros and cons, they heard loud crashing sounds as the snowfall intensified and flattened the tents of the new arrivals.
The hikers headed out to evaluate further. The first hiker furiously shook the tent’s flaps to remove snow, while the other traced a path to the kitchen tent. A hot meal of vegetable stew was almost ready. Once the hikers were settled in, they tried to deliberate further. The guide offered them a generous swig of some potent local liquor. As they downed their glasses, a warm current shot through and provided them temporary warmth. The guide began a long monologue and explained how the weather in the mountains was unpredictable as always. He droned on about his stationery store in the village and the challenge of finding a suitable bachelor for his unmarried daughter in these remote regions. The porters expressed no opinion and kept stirring the stew. They played cards to pass the time. At some point, the guide asked for extra money in case they canceled the hike since it would affect his business.
As boundaries between the personal and the professional started blurring, the guide insisted that fine young hikers such as them could be a good match for his daughter and invited them to his village to meet the council. Perhaps, they could also loan him some money to expand his stationery store. He talked of god and karma and how each man had to rely on his fellow man in these harsh times. The hikers laughed off the guide’s proposals as he digressed and tried to bring his focus back to the matter at hand. With no resolution in sight, they withdrew politely to their tents and braced themselves for the long night.
Matters came to a pass on the second morning. The first hiker displayed the initial symptoms of edema and had difficulties walking and speaking. His incoherence was a matter of concern since help was a long way off. The guide did not take the situation seriously and explained how tea and prolonged rest at the camp were the right cure. However, the second hiker insisted that hospitalization and oxygen were necessary. As the afternoon sun came up, the second hiker spoke to the new arrivals on the ridge. Most of them were dog-tired and did not have much help to offer. They were waiting on the ridge for the weather to clear. Some of them were stretching aggressively to regain their vigor. Not a single person had the confidence to proceed to a higher camp. But then again, no one was willing to admit that they had thrown in the towel. The second hiker conveyed his decision to abandon camp and proceed to base. The porters assisted the unwell hiker on the descent, while the second hiker went around announcing to the new arrivals why staying on camp was futile. The guide led them back to base reluctantly and kept trying to capture their interest for an alternative hike that was simpler and not as prone to the vagaries of the weather. The second hiker paid no heed to his words and informed him that the hiking season was at an end for both of them.
It has been six years since this climb concluded abruptly. The two hikers reached base and read reports about how not a single person on that hike made it to any camp higher than the ridge in that season. They had not kept in touch with the guide and were reluctant to engage him for any other journeys. Instead of remote mountain ridges, they preferred visiting crowded beaches and never went hiking together ever since.
It’s never simple to determine the point when things come to a pass. We don’t always encounter a dead end on the road, where there is no option but to turn back. Quitting then is a firm choice preceded by moments of absolute clarity. Sometimes it begins as a feeling in the gut, catalyzed by the slightest iota of doubt. Other times it is like a flashing neon light. Life then can also be seen as a series of moments where we quit. The college we withdrew an application from, the job we walked away from, the relationship that ended, the friendship that faded. For quitting is growth. For better or worse, it clears the space for whatever comes next.
Author: Mukul Kashyap
[Content Specialist; University of Delhi; Mountain Biking and Trekking]
Illustration/Image/Graphics: Deeksha Bhardwaj