Thursday, March 29, 2018

Skiing in Gulmarg

So I had time on my hands and I was itching to do something new. PADI certification has been on mind for some time but I wanted to be back in mountains. The two options open to me were Chadar trek in Ladakh or Skiing (Auli or Gulmarg).

Chadar dates weren't working with my schedule and hence, skiing was the only viable option. The FB recommendations were in favour of Gulmarg and a friend was able to help me with the logistics (instructor, hotel, airport transfers etc). All I had to do was book my flight tickets and reach Srinagar.

I landed in Srinagar at around 3 pm and had the vehicle waiting for me - along with my instructor. It took us 75 minutes to reach Gulmarg. While Srinagar was all brown, Gulmarg was all white - it was like entering heaven!

View from my hotel room
The hotel chosen by my instructor J turned out be great in terms of everything - its location is very close to baby slopes & the cable car (Gondola), and it is just 15-20 minutes by walk from the market. The rooms have floor heating and modern bathrooms - I had never stayed in such luxury in mountains :)

The proximity to market meant that I had my dinner (every evening) at a small joint owned by a friend of my instructor - it allowed me to have amazing Wazwan cuisine at reasonable prices and gave me opportunities to meet travelers from other parts of India.

Day 1 - J picked me up at sharp 10 am, in his car, and we drove to the rental shop next to baby slopes. It was less than a km, so walking was also an option. Once there, I was fitted with ski boots first. Next, skis were chosen basis my height and a pair of skiing poles were also provided. Having used mountaineering boots before, I was hoping ski boots wont be that bad - but I was wrong - they were actually stiffer and heavier than mountaineering boots. Even now I can't figure out how all the instructors walk in those boots so easily.
Working on my posture

J, then went on to provide me with some theory and did some demonstrations before making me wear my skis and start the downhill practice on baby slopes. While he was at it, a skier crashed into me at full speed causing me serious pain in left  hand and shoulder. The pain subsided but the fear of me crashing into someone else took its place and didn't leave me till the 6th day.

Anyway, I finally got my boots into the skis and started downhill - man it was scary...when I watched the videos later I realized that I was extremely slow but to me it felt as if  was going to fly off the face of the mountain. I just couldn't get to break using snow plough, I kept turning to one side and, as you probably guessed, the only way I could stop myself was by falling!

Once down the slope, I had to pick up the skis and walk back up while wearing those 2 ton boots. There was a tow bar that I could have used but since I had almost zero control over my skis - that wasn't about to happen today. By 2 pm, I was wiped out - thanks to walking uphill in boots and carrying the skis - so we called it a day.

enjoying the snowfall
Day 2-  I woke up to nice gentle snowfall - it was beautiful - falling so silently. J was back at sharp 10 am and I was back on the baby slopes - falling, cursing, getting admonished - but having fun thanks to the snowfall. J felt that I should  use tow bar today but I would fall within seconds of grabbing the bar - so he decided to hang with me the first 10 ft and then he would let go. Somehow that helped me get through the rest of journey to top without falling a lot (I fell only twice ). However once up, I wasn't able to get out of the way of the track as I would let go of the tow bar either a bit too soon or at a wrong angle..so the bar would be gone and I would start sliding back. Thankfully there were many people willing to help and they would grab my ski pole and pull me up and out of the way.

The snowfall continued through out the day and slowly it picked up intensity and by around 3 pm, my outer layer was soaking wet - thanks to waterproofing, the water didn't get inside but the chill most certainly did. The visibility had also reduced, so we wrapped up at 3 pm and headed straight to the market for some hot Kahwa.

Day 3, Sunday - snowfall had given way to a bright and totally white morning. Sun was out and temperature was positive again. Previous day's down jacket gave way to simple fleece and I started for the baby slopes fearing the tow bar but excited about another day of learning. My excitement was short lived as Sunday meant hordes of skiers at baby slopes - the wait for tow bar was 15-20  minutes. 2 minutes to come down the slope and 20 minutes to go back up. After about 2 hours of this, J decided to move to phase 1 slopes. I protested that I wasn't ready but since he felt otherwise, I found myself walking to the Gondola with skis on my shoulder.
Long queue for tow bar/ ski lift

This Gondola (cable car) is in two phases - first one takes you to Kongdori Station at 10,500 ft (Gulmarg is about 8,500) and second one takes you from Kongdori to Phase 2 (14000 ft). Phase 2 is only for professional skiers and ski patrols. Most folks go only for the breathtaking views. From Kongdori one can also take a chair car to about 12000 ft - but again that is not for beginners.

The Gondola to Phase-1 takes about 9 minutes and costs INR 740 for a round trip. Skiers, however, pay the same amount for a day pass - that allows multiple trips one way (Gulmarg to Kongdori) but return back to Gulmarg has to be by skiing only. A short video of the gondola ride below:


J had planned only one run for me today so he took a single one way ticket for half the amount and we were at Phase-1 groomed slopes by 1 pm. The whole run is about 6.5 km long and would take J only 5-6 minutes. Me...well I took good part of an hour that day. I was slow, I would stop for rest, I would curse and scream - but I didn't fall - not even once. How? J kept skiing in front me, BACKWARDS, the whole way to ensure that I don't fall. On steep portions he would actually hold me at the knees to break my speed. I was still not doing great at snowplough.

The worst part of this run was that it was long and the best part was that it was long. Confused? Long meant tiring but it also meant that it allowed me time to correct my posture and my technique. On baby slopes, J would ask me to correct something but by the time I could even understand what he wanted me to correct, the run would be over. Here, I could observe the mistake and correct. We were back at Gulmarg station by 2 pm and I was relieved that J had planned only one run for today.

Day 4 - it was just 10:30 am and I was already at Kongdori station -  man it would be a long day today!!!! The first run was bad - the icy slopes meant less friction and I just kept sliding and falling. At one point I just wanted to bawl, take off my skis and walk down the rest of the way - but I didn't. Not because I got some latent courage but because I knew walking 4 km in those ski boots will be far worse than skiing! So, I stayed at it, and finished the run in about 30 minutes. The moment we reached Gulmarg station, we were back in the line for Gondola - J felt that 9 minutes of ride was rest enough :(

Second run was better than first one and third one even more so. After third we took a lunch break and I did 3 more runs after that. My skiing time had reduced to 18-20 minutes by now. On an average, there was 9 minutes of cable car ride, 5-7 minutes at each station to get on/off the cable car and 20 minutes of actual skiing. So one run, end-to-end was about 40-45 minutes. Most people do 4-5 runs but thanks to "No Rest" policy of J, we could get 6 in by 3:00 pm.

Day 5 was more or less a repeat of the Day 4 with one exception - first run wasn't as terrible as the previous day - it wasn't great but not that bad either.

At phase 2 - 14000 ft
Day 6 - The day started with a long wait at Gondola counter for tickets - for some reason ticket counter wasn't operational. We managed to reach Kongdori station by 11 am and then took the second Gondola to phase 2. It was my last day in Gulmarg and I wanted to check out the views at 14000 ft. And they were indeed worth it.  After spending 15 minutes at at the windy phase 2, we came down to Phase 1 and started skiing around noon.

Today being the last day of training, I wanted to get as many runs in as possible - so we decided to forgo lunch break and do 4 runs fast. Since the first run of the day was at noon - slopes weren't icy at all - I had a good first run which built my confidence and by third run, I finally started to have fun also because I managed all steep (per my definition) portions without any help.  A short video of last day skiing below:

As I finished the fourth run I started to feel sad - a new feeling for me because usually I would be relieved that I survived the day . But today I had so much fun that I didn't want it to get over. Sadly, all good things must come to an end - and so did this ski vacation.

But the last day was so great that I promised to be back next year and listen to J constantly telling me to let go of my fear. Hopefully I will get to do one run at chair car level next year - if not I will be happy skiing at phase 1 slopes :)






Monday, October 30, 2017

Rupin Pass Trek - Part II - Crossing the Pass

Day 4
Jhaka (8,700 ft) to Dhanderas Thatch (11,680 ft)

Today was supposed to be a long arduous day both in terms of distance (~12 km) and the altitude gain. So we started at sharp 8 am with an aim to reach the campsite by 4 pm. The trek leaders were concerned about the pace of a few slow hikers and hence we were given instructions to take less halts and walk together.

On way to river crossing
The weather was getting a bit warm but since the first 2 hours were through a forest, it was a very pleasant hike till the river crossing. By the time we reached the river, I had started to feel cold whenever in shade...the temperatures were finally falling. The river crossing was a bit hairy as we had to walk on a narrow path on the mountain side replete with loose rocks and dirt till we found a makeshift bridge to cross the river. Out local guide took each hiker one by one over that wooden plank bridge.

Soon after, we encountered some wooden logs and he picked up a big one in hope that others will pick a few too - idea was to build a bonfire at the campsite. Surprisingly those already carrying 15+ kilo backpacks decided to add more weight on their shoulders and soon we had enough wood for building a fire in the evening.
Huddled together for warmth :)

The trail after the river crossing was a bit more open and hence a bit warm again but never too hot for discomfort. The altitude gain wasn't felt as the long distance meant that slope gradient was not high. We walked for another 2 hours and finally  reached the lunch point by the river side. It is a beautiful spot - we could even see the waterfall in the distance (the site of next day's camp). The breeze was fairly cold now and sun wasn't that strong even though it was almost 1 pm. Huddled up together for warmth, we enjoyed the lunch of chapati & subzi and continued to wait for the rest of the group to join us.

I was feeling quite cold and needed to get moving. Though the rest of the group reached within 20 minutes of our arrival. I knew that they will want a longer break and the pace will continue to be slow. So, I requested the trek leader to allow me to go ahead with the porters - he finally relented and at 1 pm we were on last leg of the hike for the day with UK and 2 more hikers.

The porters were carrying 30-40 kilos of load and walking much faster than some of us carrying just a day pack. The wind had picked up speed, sun had vanished behind the clouds and proximity of trail to the water made it even colder. I was now feeling cold in my fleece and rain jacket - thankfully the continuous walking kept me warm enough. The trail had big stones and boulders but was still mostly flat. After about 90-100 minutes of this flat hike, we reached the ascent portion - porters decided to take a rest before tackling this climb and other 3 hikers were busy taking pictures. Since I was still feeling cold, I decided to continue with the climb, albeit slowly.

Because of rocky terrain, the trail wasn't very well marked - especially in the portion where it cuts across the side of the mountain. Again loose rocks and dirt made it a bit scary - I was cursing myself for not carrying a trekking pole today. Thankfully the porters caught up with me soon enough and got me back on the portion that was less rocky. Soon the trail turned green with grass and as I walked up to the campsite, it continued to become more beautiful.

The campsite was a marked area next to the flowing stream - we could see many more tents a bit up ahead. It was a little after 3 pm and the weather had become very cold for the thin protection I had on. The moment porters erected the kitchen tent, I sought shelter inside it and a few minutes later we were greeted by a shower of ice pellets. The ice pellet shower didn't last long and some of our tents arrived -  I got help from another hiker to erect a tent or two. The intention was to keep moving to get warm and also because weather was getting cold, I was in need of a shelter (I had to leave the warm confines of kitchen tent as more staff had arrived and they needed the space).

Hikers and Staff erecting tents
As soon as we finished one tent and started working on another one, other hikers started to arrive and they too joined us in the bid to get tents set up. Within 15 minutes or so, all the tents were up with help from the porters and kitchen staff. We were asked to change into warm clothes but my off-loaded bag hadn't arrived and I continued to hide in my tent. To be honest I was now missing the home stay :) and continued to do so till my bag arrived!
Bonfire at the camp site

The cold evening was perfect for a bonfire and around 6:30 pm or so, we all gathered around the fire - singing songs, cracking jokes and simply having fun. After soup, while some of us went back to our tents, few folks hung outside to enjoy the beautiful sky lit with billions of stars.

The day could have been shorter if I could have walked at my pace (the way I did post lunch) but I had also enjoyed the leisurely hike pre-lunch. But now I was feeling a bit tired and decided to retire soon after the dinner - the most sumptuous meal of any day complete with a hot dessert!

Day 5 - Dhanderas thatch (11,680 ft) to UpperWaterfall camp (13,120 ft)

The hike for the day was short (3 hours) but that also meant that it was mostly ascent with fewer flat patches in between. The morning was fairly cold and while we were ready for the 8:30 am departure, no one was in a hurry. We waited for the sun to hit our campsite and then started dismantling the tents. Today's plan was for - staff and porters and hikers - all to walk together.

Finally we took off at 9:45 am, and within minutes the ascent was upon us. Compared to what I have experienced on other hikes, it wasn't hard or long enough. Within 20 minutes we reached a stream crossing (now a waterfall actually) and UK was the first one to attempt it with help from our local guide...and he slipped on the ice covered rocks - thankfully he didn't get fully drenched or suffered any major injuries. I am always scared of slipping on ice and was very nervous but then our guide got a brilliant idea of flipping the rocks upside down - thereby exposing the non-icy portion to us. Thanks to his idea and his hand-holding (literal), we all crossed this waterfall/stream - one by one.

After the crossing, we took a short break till everyone caught up with us and in another 20 minutes we encountered a wider steam-crossing. Thankfully the water was running at speed, sun was out and there was no ice on the stones laid out to make the crossing easier. We took another rest after this before starting for the final ascent. Because of the frequent breaks, the climb didn't feel that hard - we finally got to the "top" of the waterfall - though the place where water starts to fall was a bit farther from camp site and we saw it only in the evening.

Campsite of Upper waterfall
Despite numerous breaks, we were at the camp site by 12:30 pm and got busy with setting up tents. This campsite was also next  to a stream and thanks to the wind, it had started to get colder by now. So we all wore thermal base layers and I decided to rest up a bit till lunch was served. Since we were at high altitude today, sleeping isn't a good option - it can reduce the oxygen intake and exacerbate altitude related issues.

Waterfall
After lunch, I just couldn't stay awake and dozed off in the sitting position till someone informed me that tea is ready. After tea, we went for an acclimatization hike to the waterfall. We got an amazing view of the valley from there - it was a prefect place for a photo shoot and that is exactly what happened :)

Post walk, we had soup outside the dining tent - It was now getting quite cold and foggy...we could barely see a few meters because of lack of light and the fog. Thankfully, we were served an early dinner (7 pm) because next day we were to cross the pass and hence the planned start time was 5:30 am.

After another great dinner, as soon as we retired, it started raining - atleast that is what it sounded like to me. But then I heard someone screaming - it is snowing!!!! Yes, we got snowfall that night...some folks were so elated that they decided to hang outside to enjoy same and take pictures.

I stepped out a couple of times to get the snow off my tent balcony but thankfully it was not that heavy a snowfall, so I slept off after some time without the fear of tent collapsing on me due to weight of the accumulated snow.






Day 6 - Upper Waterfall (13,120 ft) to Rupin Pass (15,250 ft) to Ronti Gad (13,420 ft)

I woke up at 3:30 am so that I could use the toilet tent without interruptions and was ready before 5 am but the tea wasn't. I approached the kitchen tent to find our lunches being packed and tea getting  ready. We got the tea at 5:20 am along with the breakfast, so definitely 5:30 am departure was ruled out. Also most folks weren't ready even at 5:45 am - infact one person arrived at 6 am for breakfast because he was sleeping!!!! I got quite pissed at that time - it was to be a long day anyway and it would be tougher to climb in melting snow. Only thing that I didn't like this whole week was how most  hikers took the start time as a suggestion and how the trek leader didn't take any action to change this behaviour.

First  halt of the day
Finally, we started at about 6:15 am - it was a tough climb due to cold and altitude and snow wasn't helping matters. Despite finger numbing cold, I had opted to hike without thermal base layer (as advised by trek leader). I had a fleece, a down jacket and rain jacket on top. Bottoms were hiking pants and rain pants and my body wasn't feeling very cold except for hands and feet -  two pairs of merino wool socks were not able to keep my feet warm. On hands I had merino inners with waterproof insulated gloves on top and even then my fingers were numb.

We progressed slowly with our local guide leading the way. At about 7 am, first ascent was over and sun had caught up with us. The sun warmed us up immediately and I had to take off my fleece top and also remove one pair of socks. We took a break here - waiting for everyone to catch up. For once, I didn't mind waiting - previous night's snowfall had changed the whole landscape - it was even more beautiful and I liked watching snow sparkle under the morning sun.

Sun and snow the whole way. 

After this long break, we continued towards the pass. The trail now was mostly flat with a bit up and down. The only issue was that it was either rocky or had big boulders - neither are easy to navigate with snow. We had a few smaller breaks on the way but only for others to catch up - we didn't really take or need a long rest anywhere.

Whole group at Rupin Pass
Then we reached the final ascent - this was the toughest part of the trek for me. It wasn't as difficult as some other treks but it wasn't easy either, primarily because of the melting snow. Had we started at 4:30 am, this part would have been much easier - but at 9:30 am, it was a tough climb. At a few places, the ground was so slippery that even with both hands and feet on the ground, I found myself slipping downwards. Thankfully the assistant guide helped us in these situations by literally holding our hands and helping us through the rough patches. AA, UK and I reached the pass at 10 am along with 2 others.

It felt great to be done with the climb but the wait in subzero temperatures with wind chill and sun hiding behind the clouds wasn't easy either. Last hiker arrived at 10:45 am after which our guides and trek leaders did a small Puja before we commenced the descent. The descent in initial part was a bit treacherous (again because of snow) and I took a short fall while another hiker took a full tumble. I only received one bruise on my elbow but my understanding is that his whole back was bruised. Fortunately, no major injuries so we continued walking.

The weather had turned cold again and it showered ice pellets on us the whole way to Ronti Gand - lunch break wasn't a great one either as chapatis were kind of frozen. Plus I had started to get a strong headache due to one hour wait at the top in cold & windy conditions. At one point my headache was so bad that I lost my footing - AA offered me some paracetamol and thanks to same I was able to reach the campsite by 2:05 pm.

While I wasn't physically tired, my headache was killing me...so I asked staff to help me erect a tent and just crawled inside it. After a while UK got me a sleeping bag and someone else gave me his water (I had run out of same). Everyone was in the camp by 3:30 pm, good 30 min before the ETA that our trek leader had in mind.

I felt better after changing into warmer clothes for the evening and getting couple of cups of hot tea inside me. And I was back to my normal self after soul filling soup :) We were served another great meal tonight - it was our last dinner together as a whole group. Today was the first day that I  felt actually tired but I found myself unable to sleep - I was a bit saddened at the thought that the trek was over and that tomorrow we will be back in civilization!

Day 7 - Ronti Gad (13,420 ft) to Sangla (8,800 ft)

The final day of the trek had arrived, it was all descent and hence we were all taking it easy in the morning. We took group photos, enjoyed the special breakfast of puri-chhole, had a round of debriefing and started for Sangla at about 10 am.
Last Group Photo @Ronti Gad

The walk was quite easy except in a couple of places where the rain had made the ground quite muddy and hence slippery. Our assistant guide again helped us through these two rough patches. About an hour into the hike, we all got cell-phone signals and people got busy on phones - to manage this we were given a "phone break" :)

We resumed the hike on the trail that went through villages, next to apple orchards and finally we reached a river crossing at about 1:30 pm - other side of the river was Sangla. Once everyone arrived, we crossed the bridge and after a few minutes of uphill climb, we reached the car park where the cars to drop us to Shimla would arrive.

As we waited for the vehicles, we bid our goodbyes to the staff, exchanged phone numbers and made promises to stay in touch. The vehicles arrived shortly - total 4, so 5  in each vehicle - a comfortable arrangement. We took the vehicles to "Himalayan Dhaba" - a lunch point picked by TTH and immediately after lunch we boarded our respective vehicles to Shimla (at about 3 pm). Some of us were staying in Shimla for a day - we met there again and enjoyed some more time together but others had plans to proceed to onward destinations soon after reaching Shimla - so we bid our goodbyes after a dinner at one of the dhabas en-route.

Thus ended a wonderful week in the Himalayas - yes there were really cold nights and some tough climbs and occasional irritating moments but there were also wonderful people (both hikers and staff), good food and great scenery that made this trek really special for me. Sometimes things just align right for a wonderful experience and for me this hike had perfect alignment of all variables!!!!













Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Why I Hike!

My family, my friends, my colleagues and even my doctor and my physiotherapist often wonder why I choose to hike despite Fibromyalgia. The training before a big trek is hard enough and the treks I undertake are never easy and after every trek my pain goes up significantly. While I have answered this question in parts, I felt it is time to pen it down in its entirety.

1st reason and this is the most obvious – I hike because I love mountains and the proximity that I seek with them cannot be achieved by going to a hill station and staying in resorts. I love the way rivers gush at speed through the narrow valleys, I marvel at the towering white beauties and the way their peaks look like molten gold when bathed in the rays of the early morning sun. The closer you get to nature, the farther you will be from comforts. So I give up soft bed, hot water and attached western toilets – because that is the only way to experience the true beauty of the Himalayan landscape.

Yes, tents are not the most convenient but they are the best if you love the sound of a river flowing by, birds chirping in the morning and sun waking you up while lighting up the mountain tops. The best part, though, is the view of the Milky Way on a moonless night - this view is possible only at a campsite far away from light pollution of the habitation. The billions of stars shining down at you is an unparalleled experience!

2.  I enjoy the company of fellow hikers – after spending many years in corporate world, it’s refreshing to be in an environment that is not competitive. We all carry similar gear, wear similar clothes and have to eat the same food :) - all that is distinctive is our back grounds and our personalities. The variety of humanity that one comes across during treks is incomparable to any other activity. And the best part is that everyone is willing to help – be it sharing the name of a lodge they loved or a side day trek they enjoyed or even some medicine that another hiker is in need of. I have never seen one hiker refusing help to another.

3. It puts things in perspective – Nepal or any other hilly region that you may choose to trek in the Himalayan belt are rich in natural beauty but not in material comforts. People there do very hard work for minimal wages – it’s a harsh terrain that doesn’t lend itself to even vegetation after a certain altitude. Humans carry 30-60 kilos of load just to earn a living. The kids have to walk many kilometers to attend school and one has to fetch water from a source when plumbing becomes scarce. And yet, I don’t find them complaining – I chat with porters & kitchen staff a lot and I never find them grumpy or upset.

On a recent hike, our main chef went hungry for lunch as food got over before he could reach the lunch spot. When he reached the destination for the day, he handed me the apple he had in his backpack because he knew I was hungry. I didn’t know he had an apple and he was hungrier than me – he still chose to give me same!!! When I see the hardships the locals face, I realize I how lucky I am and when I notice their response to those hardships, I know I have a long way to go in learning the equanimity that they exhibit so effortlessly every day!

4. No worrying about tomorrow – The itinerary would outline the tough days and easy days (in terms of distance or terrain) but weather can change those definitions for you. An easy day can feel hard because of the relentless rain or the scorching heat or fresh snow. On the other hand a tough day may not feel that bad because you got the perfect weather for the climb.

The key is not to think about what tomorrow will bring your way, the only way to enjoy the hike is staying in today – soak in that sunshine while it lasts, enjoy the hot meal till you have gas for the stove, play in the fresh snow without worrying how hard will it make your climb next morning once it starts to melt.

The treks always remind me how to enjoy the moment, live in the present and leave the tomorrow to tomorrow!
5. You start getting an idea of what Lord Krishna meant when he said, “कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन। मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि॥
Karmanye Vadhikaraste, Ma phaleshou kada chana – You have the right to perform your actions, but you are not entitled to the fruits of the actions.
Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangostva Akarmani – Do not let the fruit be the purpose of your actions, and therefore you won’t be attached to not doing your duty.

Yes, we always start with an objective of reaching a base camp, or crossing a pass or summiting a peak but honestly getting there is not in our hands. It is said that you don’t climb mountains, they let you climb them. So if it’s not in the scheme you won’t get to that pass or see the top of that mountain. However, you won’t get there at all if you don’t put any effort – so you walk every day for hours – in rain and in sunshine and in snowfall – all the while knowing that there is no guarantee that you will reach the point you intended to when you started this journey. 


On a trek, one starts to understand how attachment to the end result can be source of unnecessary grief and heartache. In all the hikes I have undertaken, there has been at least one person who didn’t make it to the top and it has been me couple of times. But that doesn’t dissuade me from planning my next hike because I am content in the knowledge that I put in my best efforts even though I “failed”. 


Despite my love for mountains and other reasons that make me hike, there are times when bad weather or extreme cold or plain fatigue make me question my sanity. But thankfully those moments don't last long enough :) and I am back in the mountains before the memory of the last visit fades!

Monday, October 23, 2017

Rupin Pass Trek, Part I - The Treknic

In September this year, I landed in Leh with an aim to climb Stok Kangri. Given I had turned back from 5900 m at Island Peak, I badly wanted to summit this 6000 m peak. But as luck would have it, I couldn't even start the hike to base camp - I developed a bad tooth ache which on closer inspection (in Bangalore) turned out to be fractures in both roots of that tooth.

While I was still waiting for the dental surgery, AA asked me if I would be up for a hike in October and without even thinking I said yes - and within hours I had made the payment to the organizing agency (TTH) and booked flight tickets & hotel stays for both of us.

The hike was to begin about 2 weeks after my dental surgery and I was convinced that I had ample time to get fit for it. Well...that didn't happen because my surgery site hadn't fully closed the day I flew to DED. AA was worried that I might quit in between - AGAIN! And to be honest I was worried about it too...but then I decided to not think along those lines and leave it to mother nature instead.

I had booked AA on same flight from DEL to DED as mine and another fellow hiker (UK) met us at DED airport, so we 3 cabbed it together to the city. As per the plan, we were to get aboard a vehicle for Dhaula at 6:30 am next day from the Dehradun Railway Station.  However both AA & UK overslept - thankfully I decided to check on them at about 5:40 am (despite the resistance they exhibited previous night when I suggested that I give them a wake-up knock).

Anyway, we did manage to reach the station a few minutes before time and within 15 minutes, the first Tempo Traveller was full, so we started for Dhaula a few minutes before 7 am. The second vehicle decided to wait for a guy whose train was many hours late.

In the TT,  was a Bangalore couple living less than a mile from my place (S2), two ex-army guys from Singapore (J & H), a young chap from Assam with two sets of names (AS), two guys from Chennai (A & K) and a girl from Kolkata (KS). Overall the journey was uneventful - we made a few stops for breakfast and lunch etc and finally reached the destination at 16:30. AA, however, did manage to soak the empty seat next to him - with water (we all assumed for our mental peace!)

The camp site was next to a small village, so was a bit cramped. It also had copious amounts of stinging nettle all over - some of it touched me over the trousers and managed to cause localized swelling and pain. After tea and biscuits and a quick introduction to our trek leader, some of us settled into the tents and waited for the second bus.

The second bus arrived a little after 7 pm and soon after we were given a briefing by the trek leader and guide staff. The briefing included the usual - everyone's introduction & trek experience, the route information along with altitudes, AMS, daily routine etc. After a sumptuous dinner, I decided to retire early (as compared to others - though 9:30 pm bed time is late for a hiking trip).

Day 1 - Dhaula (5500 ft) to Sewa (6300 ft)

First group photo - @ Dhaula
Today was the first day of the hike and it was expected to be easy especially because we weren't that high in terms of altitude and the gain was minimal as well. The weather was quite hot for 5500 ft and month of october - thanks to the bright and almost scorching sun. The breakfast was porridge (dalia) and cornflakes (with sweetened milk), the lunch (3 chapati and pickle) was packed and handed to us in aluminium foil and some biscuits, chocolate & candy were provided as snacks.

Waiting for the mules
We started at 9 am and by 11 am we were all feeling tired due to heat and accompanied loss of water. Around that time we also hit the ascent portion of the hike - it came upon us suddenly and felt kind of relentless - more so  because of the sun. Till the ascent I was quite slow in my progress but during the ascent ordering of hikers changed. However, the faster of us had to always wait for the rest of the group to catch up - so it felt as if we were walking less and waiting more. We reached Sewa village around 1 pm but our mules (carrying tents, offloaded bags and supplies) were far behind - so we all waited around in a hut (meant for storing fodder) a bit before the campsite.

While waiting some of us started stretching and noticing that AS starting doing push-ups. Soon it turned into a competition - H (one of two Singapore guys) did 60 in 42 seconds, AA did 60 in 44 seconds and AS did 40 in 45 seconds. AA's performance was even more impressive given his age group!!!

Setting up tents at Sewa campsite
The mules arrived around 3 pm and soon all of us got busy pitching the tents - the kitchen staff focused on getting tea and snacks ready for us and we hikers started erecting the tents with help from the trek leaders and guides. This site was even smaller than Dhaula but felt cleaner as it was in front of a temple. It was also close to a few houses - resulting in our toilets being the regular squatting kinds (instead of the tent covered pit latrines that are the norm at camp sites)

Due to excessive sweating, I was desperate for a shower and proximity to the houses allowed me to explore its feasibility. In search for a loo before the camp site was set up, I had chanced upon a clean bathroom of a house - so I went there again and persuaded the lady of the house to allow me to bathe in exchange for money. She agreed - even provided me with hot water :)

Enjoying Soup in the nippy weather
My evening became even better as hot pakoras were served along with the tea - hot  bath, hot tea, hot pakora on a chilly evening - what more could I ask for!!! Some of us were disappointed with the plain chapati and pickle lunch but the pakoras managed to calm down all the ruffled feathers!

We hung outside our tents, sang songs and enjoyed the evening till it became completely dark - the dinner was served again around 8 pm (late in my opinion) and while having same, the astro hobbyists in our group pointed to us the constellations and stars visible that night. Sated with good food, we all retired by 9 pm. Thus ended the day 1 of the Rupin Pass Trek.

Day 2 Sewa (6300 ft) to Bhauta  (~7300 ft)

First photo op for the day
Bhauta Village wasn't listed in the original itinerary sent by TTH, this change was informed after we reached Dedradun. Our local guide hailed from this village and hence the plan was to do a homestay at his house. We left Sewa at around 8:30 am after breakfast & after dismantling our respective tents. The day that had started cool, soon began to heat up. The initial few minutes were easy and took us to Rupin river where we all had a leisurely photo-shoot :)

Bridge between UK & HP
A few minutes later, we crossed a small bridge over Rupin river and were informed that we are now in Himachal Pradesh. The trail then started to ascend through the forest and after about 45 minutes opened up to a motor-able road. Till the road, we didn't feel the heat much as forest cover was sufficient to block the sun.

We stopped just after forest trail ended, for instant noodles and tea. The previous day there was to be a "Maggie point" en route but same was closed - so folks were thrilled to be able to partake those today.

Waterfall along the way
The weather was quite hot  by now and route was a bit boring (mildly ascending road) but soon we encountered a nice waterfall - the mist from the fall was cool and again we all spent significant amount of time trying to get closer to water and taking pictures

Our lunch point was also close to another waterfall - we had our lunch of parathas & potato subzi in the shade of a big tree near the fall and continued to rest a bit. One of us decided to climb up the water fall but instead landed in the water below - drenching himself from head to toe. Thankfully he was backpacking and had access to dry
Lunch halt for the day
clothes - so he was able to save the situation.

After the lunch, the road became narrower and soon after we started another ascent to the village. The ascent wasn't  really tough - it was the heat that was making it so. We reached the village around 13:30 and decided to have another Maggie/ Tea break. The home stay was less than 10 min away so no one was in a hurry to get there anyway.

Enjoying the evening sun at Bhauta homestay
Our final approach to home stay was short and under the shade. The arrangement there was 4 rooms - now we were 20 of us - 14 men, 2 couples and 2  women. One lady among the two couples insisted they want to be together for the night, so KS and I decided to spend the night outside on the two single beds. This way 2 couples could get a room and 14 men somehow adjusted in the 3 remaining rooms. Even in my earlier hiking  experiences, I have found that men are able to adjust better than us women!

Before dinner, we decided to play a card game called Bluff in one of the rooms. Some folks were new to it but soon they got the hang of it and we had a fun time.

The foyer didn't have any glass over the windows but since weather wasn't truly cold, I wasn't worried. However what I hadn't signed up for was the torchlight in my eyes whenever someone decided to use the loo and with 18 folks inside the 4 rooms, even if everyone uses the restroom once, there wouldn't be any sleep for the ones sleeping in the foyer. And that is exactly what happened, so I gave up all attempts at sleeping around 4 am and decided to make use of time for my morning routine (there was only one toilet for about 30 of us, including staff)

Day 3 - Bhauta (~7300 ft) to Jhaka (8700 ft)

In original itinerary,  Sewa to Jhaka was to be done in one day, but since the hike was broken across two days - both days were fairly short and easy. We started at about 9 and and after just 15 minutes halted at Jiskoon village for some shopping - some folks needed rain ponchos, some needed a backpack, some even needed shoes (the soles of ones they had were coming off). No one was in a hurry due to short route and another home stay for the day (no tents to be erected means cooking can begin as soon as staff reaches the location). Our assistant guide hails from Jhaka so this stay was at his house.
Another Maggie Point!!!!

A few minutes after leaving Jiskoon, was a water source where again we were provided with a leisurely photo opportunity. The trail across this water source, was hard ascent for about 20 minutes and we again halted for maggie/tea break - this was getting too much for me because honestly so far the hike time had been lesser than halt time.

 After this halt, we continued with the ascent and reached Jhaka home stay well before lunch. Here also we were given 4 rooms and even though the same lady insisted that she wants to be with her partner, I was adamant that I need my sleep before the 12 km hike the following day.

While this ensured that all women get one room, she chose to sleep in foyer with her partner (and they faced the same issue of flashlights that I had encountered the previous night)

Soup time at Jhaka
After hot lunch and tea, the group went for a short walk which I skipped as I was tired due to lack of sleep. I used the time to clean myself up (managed to get a bit of hot water for same) and rest up.

After the soup, some of us again played Bluff till dinner time - the dinner time had a pleasant surprise for us in the form of Jalebis!!! Hot crisp Jalebis on a cold evening - man this was luxury - I have never been spoilt like this on other hikes :)

On this sweet note ended the three easy days of  this hike - which I choose to call "Treknic" (trek+picnic). While it had been fun, I was more excited for the upcoming 3 days where we would walk for long hours, establish camps in open and enjoy the raw natural beauty of the Himalayas (as against the cosy homestays in the inhabited villages)


Sunday, June 18, 2017

7 lessons I learnt from a failed mountain climb

So, I failed...I didn't even come close...

Last month I flew to Kathmandu, my fourth trip to that country, with an aim to climb a 6189 m high mountain - Imja Tse aka Island Peak. All excited and well prepared for the climb - or atleast I thought so at that time.

After my inability to climb Cho La and Kongma La last year, I had prepared hard for this climb. Every weekend I was in town, I would go hiking to Nandi hills and climb 2000 stone steps - two to three times. Two times if I was carrying my 9 kilo backpack and three times if I was carrying only my day pack. I continued my Insanity workouts and increased the weights of the dumbbells I use for my strength training days. I worked out every single day and I had every intention to make it to the top.

So, what went wrong? Many things...

Lesson one: Research well and prepare & plan accordingly

I didn't do enough research on how hard this undertaking would be. Only after I landed in Kathmandu and met with the owner of the climbing company, did I realize that climb is going to include a 200 m headwall at 80 degrees incline. Over the course of days, as I met many climbers who had attempted or summited Island Peak, I also came to know that amateur climbers like me take 2-4 hours just to climb this wall.

Had I known these facts upfront, I might have considered less technical (albeit higher) Mera Peak for my first climbing expedition.

Moral of the story: Do your best to know what you are getting yourself into. New exercise or new hobby or new job...whatever you do...do your research first. The last thing you want is to get completely blindsided and end up injuring yourself…or realizing that you have chosen the wrong peak for your first attempt.


Lesson two: Change plans when circumstances change

I had done 4 extremely high-altitude hikes and on all of these I crossed 14,000 ft and on two of these went beyond 16000 ft. And my experience had led me to believe that altitude gets to me around 16000 ft. However, this time while hiking to the base camp, I got severe headache at Dingboche (14,500 ft.) itself. But I, incorrectly, assumed it was just sinus headache (as it responded to sinus medication) and continued to Chukhung the next day that lies at ~15,500 ft.

In hindsight, I should have started a course of Diamox AND stayed another night at Dingboche to acclimatize better. An acclimatization walk to nearby Nagarjuna Peak the next day would have helped me acclimatize even better.

Moral of the story: Make corrections and adjustments along the way. Even with good research, you will encounter problems along the way. Whether you anticipated them or not, these require you to make adjustments. Ignoring them won't help and circumvention is rarely possible.

Lesson three: Listen to others but also to your own "gut"

1000 ft climb to Chukhung was fairly flat but I was breathless the whole way. Once we got there, we went for an acclimatization hike to about 16,100 ft. After this short hike, which was tough for me, as I was having trouble breathing, my previous night's headache returned with a vengeance.

I contemplated starting Diamox - but the climbing Sherpa felt that it wouldn't help much as we were already above 4000 m. Another climber said it would take 24 hours to have effect and hence I should start it right away. My climbing partner suggested to wait the night and take it next day if I still had the headache. I was super confused with these conflicting suggestions but somewhere I knew that if I didn't start Diamox now, I wouldn't reach even the base camp of the Island Peak. So I started the medication right away.

Yes, it did take 48 hours to fully kick in and yes starting the course at Dingboche (4410 m) would have been better but I am glad that I started it when I did.

Moral of the story: Experiential wisdom matters the most. You will meet many experienced folks in your journey to the top (mountain or otherwise) who will share their true experiences with best of the intentions. But all may not apply to you.

I had seen a fellow hiker take Diamox when he was turning blue (he had decided to run at 14000 ft.) and I had noticed that the medicine started its work after a few minutes. Hence, my decision to take Diamox, even though it was a bit late, was the right one. It was based on my own experience and it worked out fine for me.

Lesson four: Be merciless in seeking information

The itinerary from Chukhung to base camp to high camp to summit and back to Chukhung wasn't really detailed out to us. Like, I didn't know the altitude of base camp or high camp. I had read about them on the internet but the climbing company and the operator in Chukhung were very vague about the exact details.

Had I known that high camp was just 200 m higher than base camp, I wouldn't have chosen to include that in itinerary. I had read online and in paper maps that high camp is at about 5500 m (as against 5100 m altitude of base camp). And at that attitude it means that I would shave off 2-2.5 hours off the summit bid. And hence, I agreed for same even though it meant limited water, bad food and cramped accommodations and overall tired body due to lack of rest.

But it took us only one hour from base camp to high camp because staff established high camp at 5300 m. Given summit day would have been 15 hours long, this wasn't a significant saving. At the high camp, we had two tents - one for staff and one for climbers. It was snowing all the time - so climbers were all cooped up in one tent with all the gear. If we were at base camp, we could have sat in the dining tent on comfortable plastic chairs.

Plus, there was no water source, so we were on limited water supply and finally at 1 am, instead of hot breakfast we got frozen bread and jam as the stove wasn't working. At base camp, this wouldn't have happened.

Lack of rest and no breakfast (I couldn't eat that bread) was one key reason that I didn't make it to the summit

Moral of the story: If you feel something isn't transparent, it is probably true.  We weren't informed about the height or challenges of high camp and I was very uncomfortable with lack of information from the time we left Chukhung. It's not that I fear new experiences but this team was doing this daily and knew everything to minute detail but inspite of questioning many times, they chose to not share all details with us.

I should have persisted in seeking information and might have avoided the very uncomfortable and expensive night at high camp.

Lesson five: Know your limitations and don't take foolish risks

We started at 2 am (delayed start due to stove issues) for the summit bid and reached the crampon point, that lies at about 5900 m, by 5:30 am. It wasn't bad at all as it even included 10 minute delay due to my fellow climber misplacing his merino wool socks.

At crampon point, as we pulled on the harnesses and tied our crampons, my fingers went numb with the lack of activity (and my gloves weren't good enough for these low temperatures). Plus, I was really tired by now as the climb to this point was very steep - made tougher by the snow on the rocky trail.  Lack of breakfast further aggravated matters. But I felt that I would be able to complete the glacier walk even if the wall would prove too tough for me.

However, half way into the walk, I realized this wasn't same as walking on HMI glacier - the slope was atleast 45 degrees and some places even more. Fresh snow, finger hurting cold and blisters on my feet - all were making this "walk" very hard on me. But I was trying even though I was literally screaming at each step I took. Finally, I reached a point when I knew that even if I reached the wall, I wouldn't have the energy to climb it and infact, it is possible that I might not have the energy to go down either.

Months of prep, many days of hiking and then turning back less than 250 m from the summit?...Add to it the guilt of taking the chance away from my climbing partner (as we had only one Sherpa amongst two of us). All this played on my mind as I asked myself if it would be worth it to make it to the top but require a rescue team or helicopter team to bring me down? The answer was a big resounding "NO".

I was already tired and could endanger my fellow climber if I made a mistake while crossing a crevasse or slipped on the high incline slopes. Thus, with heavy heart, I informed my Sherpa and my fellow climber that I need to turn back. It wasn't an easy decision and it wasn't made lightly (though it may appear so to my climbing partner) but I knew that it was the right one.

As we started the descent back to high camp, I realized how treacherous the route was (while going up it was all dark and we could only see a few feet ahead of us with help of our headlamps). I found the descent tough even though we had turned back without summiting. Had I pushed further on the glacier, probability is fairly high that I would have made some dangerous mistake during the descent.

Moral of the story: Take risks but not the ones that you would regret. Once we reached the base camp, my fellow climber was quite sick with headache and tiredness. I realized then that he had serious headache even at the crampon point but he had continued to push because he termed it as cold related headache even though it was due to altitude. In hindsight, my decision to turn back was good for him too - who knows what would have happened to him had we continued to climb up.

Lesson six: Do it for the journey

I love having a bed, running water, plumbing and Netflix. And I certainly had moments of “I wish I was home” while on this adventure, but looking back, I’m so glad I did it.

Anything I do - be it part of being start-up or hiking in the cold desert landscape of the Himalayas, I ask myself one question: Does this have the potential to be a great journey? If the answer is YES, then I take the risk and roll the dice.

Moral of the story: Don't be afraid to do something that scares you. Adventure is out there, and great journeys are waiting to be experienced. So get off your couch and start your company or open that café or climb that mountain...whatever it is that you have put on hold because of your fears

Lesson seven: Failures don't break you...they actually help make you!

"what if I had pushed a bit more?" or "what if I had better gloves?" or "what if I had known about high camp being actually a hindrance?"  All these questions haunt me even now and sometimes keep me awake at night. Sometimes I even wonder if I have the mental stamina for such an undertaking.

But one thing I am sure of is that I did the best I could with what I had and where I was.  Yeah, I am bummed that I didn't summit the Island Peak. I am sad that I didn't get to cross crevasses or try my hand at ascending an 200 m mountain wall. The blisters still hurt and my nose is still a bit sun-burnt.

But I am also glad that I made this attempt - now I have a better understanding of my physical and mental limits, my gear's challenges and most importantly a good idea of what all I need to fix for a much higher chance of success the next time.

Yes there would a be a next time :) even though I vividly recall telling myself and my fellow climber and my Sherpa (at the time I decided to turn back) that I am never coming back - to this mountain or to any other one...Ever!!!

Moral of the story: Failure doesn't mean that you won't reach your goal - you will just be a bit late. I failed and learned many lessons from it. And even though, at that time, I felt that I am not going to climb ever again, the reality is that I have signed up for another climb already. Yes, it is not as technical as Island Peak and not as high as Mera Peak but it will be a good learning ground before I attempt Mera Peak or Island Peak (again).

Monday, May 1, 2017

Top of Mt Vesuvius to the Naples Underground

Having spent all of our second day amidst the marvelous ruins of Pompeii, we decided to visit Mt. Vesuvius the very next day - after all how often does one get to climb to the crater of a volcano that erupted in 1944  and is long overdue for its next eruption?

Since the eruption in 79 AD, that led to the burying and destruction of the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as several other settlements; Vesuvius has erupted many times since and is the only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted within the last hundred years. Today, it is regarded as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.

Just like to Pompeii, we took a commuter train to Ercolano Scavi from Naples Garibaldi station - it took us only 20 min to get there. As soon as we stepped out of the station, we saw a bus ready to leave for the base of the Mt Vesuvius. I immediately bought the last set of tickets and boarded the Vesuvioexpress bus - cost was 10 euros return fare and 10 euros for entry. 

The Crater
The bus ride was about 35 minutes and it felt unwieldy on the narrow wavy roads to the top. Once there, we were given 1 hour 45 minutes to hike to the top & back down and return to the bus. Honestly, that is enough time to get to the crater, click pictures and come back down. A fit person can climb in 20 minutes and a slow one would need about 40 minutes one way. 

View from  the top
So we started a slow ascent to the top - the path has loose dirt and the area is very windy - soon everything was covered in a fine layer of dust. I wished I had some scarf or bandana to cover my mouth. It also started to get colder as we ascended the mountain - at the top it was fairly windy.

We spent about 10-15 minutes clicking pictures and soaking in the views. The hike down was easy on lungs but tough on knees as it was difficult to get grip on the loose dust that was all over the place. 

We reached the parking with 10 minutes to spare but the bus wasn't around. I decided to enjoy some local wine while waiting - it was made from the grapes grown in the region and waited for the bus. The ride back to station was pretty uneventful and the train back to Naples pretty empty.

We had decided to have lunch in Naples...but since we were late for lunch (it was past 4 pm), Sorbillo wasn't an option. Hence, we decided to try another pizzeria called Di Matteo. It is famous for its fried pizza and for the fact that Bill Clinton ate there in 1994. We had a capricciosa pizza and really liked it. The 4 euro bottle of white wine that we ordered along with it also turned out to be nice. 

136 steps
After the pizza we decided to take a tour of Underground Naples (Napoli Sotterranea). Infact, we wanted to take the 4 pm tour but missed it by just 5 minutes and post our late lunch had to wait for an hour for the last tour of the day that starts at 6 pm. And the wait was really worth it! The history of this maze underneath the city, the exploration through narrow passages in candle light - everything was so new and different and amazing.
The underground felt like a different world (its 2400 years old), unexplored, isolated by time, but deeply connected with the world above.  Every historic epic, from the foundation of Neopolis, to the bombs of WWII, has left its mark on the stone walls forty meters below ground.
Hypogeum Gardens






The tour started with going down 136 steps - short and comfortable. We visited few of the cavities excavated in the Greek era; and walked around the cisterns responsible for the water supply of Naples for approximately 23 centuries. We then moved on to the air raid shelters from the Second World War, the War Museum and the Hypogeum Gardens (a vegetable garden that grows with help of artificial lights but without any watering as the humidity is very high)

The candle lit tour of cisterns
I would highly recommend this if one has about 90 minutes to spare and it costs only 10 euros. One can feel a bit cold due to high humidity and lack of sun, so its better to carry a light jacket. Some passageways are very narrow - should skip that portion if one is claustrophobic but that is the best part (with candle lights and all).

There is another company that runs similar activity just opposite this one (called Naples Underground) - not sure how good are they but since their English guide had taken the day off, Napoli Sotterranea was our default option and we had a good time.

We skipped the last 30 minutes of tour to Roman Theater and Summa Cavea and a little past 7 pm, decided to walk back to the hotel. And as luck would have it we walked past the famous Sorbillo that had just opened for dinner and there was no queue!!!! In the blink of an eye, I took hold of my partner's hand and literally dragged him across the street to the entrance of pizzeria. Before he could even figure out what was going on, we were in our seats.

To me it was fate - crossing the famous pizzeria, that has long queues all the time, at the precise moment when not a single person was waiting!!! Universe didn't want us to leave Naples without tasting another great pizza. Hence, we just went in, got seated within a minute and quickly ordered a marinara pizza.

And it indeed was the best pizza we had in town. We weren't really hungry as it was just 7:30 pm and we had a really late lunch around 4:30 pm. Despite that we polished off almost whole of the pizza between two of us. And the moment we stepped out, we were greeted by a long queue of people dying to get inside. Some of them even thanked us for leaving the restaurant!!!!

On this flavorful note, ended the day that took us to top of a dangerous volcano and 40 meters below the city to a 2400 years old world!



Sunday, April 30, 2017

A day exploring Scavi di Pompei

While Naples on its own turned out to be a delight, the key reason for me to visit Naples was to explore the neighbouring ruins of Pompeii. Pompeii was lost in the 79 AD volcanic eruption of Mt Vesuvius, that claimed not just Pompeii but also the settlements of Herculaneum, Oplontis and Stabiae.

This vibrant city was lost for 1500 years and was unearthed in 1599 when digging of an underground channel to divert the river Sarno ran into ancient walls covered with paintings and inscriptions. However, intentional excavations only began in 1748 and honestly haven't ended. It has been a popular tourist destination for over 250 years now and attracts millions of visitors every year.

Scavi di Pompei lie just 45 minutes from the modern city of Naples. The metro took us back to Garbaldi station where we walked over to the Circumvesuviana platforms to board the train for Pompeii. Circumvesuviana trains are not part of the national Trenitalia network, so they have their own ticketing system. Tickets are inexpensive on this line and don’t require advance purchase or reservations, and the trains are all slow, regional trains.

The train to Sorrento, that would take us to Pompeii, runs every 30 minutes, so if you  miss one - there would be a long wait for  the next. The ride to Pompei Scavi-Villa dei Misteri was about 40 minutes long and since we had started after peak hour, we didn't find the train too crowded or uncomfortable.

It is a very short walk from the station to the entrance of the Pompeii site. There are two platforms at the Pompeii station, one for each direction of trains. The Pompei Scavi station is very small, though there is a bar and an information desk as well as restrooms available. There are a number of sit-down restaurants nearby to cater to the Pompeii tourists, though most are rather overpriced.

As soon as we got off the train, we came across a tour agency that runs guided tours in English (and other languages) for the excavation site. I decided to sign us up for same as I was advised by a friend to take a guided tour if possible. Luckily for us, the tour was about to commence in 5 minutes - so we quickly paid up 12 Euros per head and joined the group. The guide led us to the ticketing counter of the ruins where we paid another 13 Euros to gain access to the site. Within minutes, we were at the site.

The tour lasted for 2 hours and in that window, our guide could only take us through handful of the excavated structures. The ruins are spread over a huge area, there is a lot to look at and it can take all day to see everything. This is a walking site only and walking the old Roman stone roads can be quite exhausting. Even with cool weather, we were always looking for shade, not sure how bad it would be to see in summer. The old roads are uneven and have grooves in them where the carts ran, and the rocks are smooth and may be covered with fine sand. One needs good comfortable, footwear, sunscreen and hats.

After the tour, the group was left at the Forum - the exit closest to Forum leads to the train station. However, we chose to spend a few more hours at the site instead of heading back to Naples or visit Mt. Vesuvius. It was too early for the former and there simply wasn't enough time to do justice to the volcanic mountain that day. So we took out the map provided to us at the time of buying the ticket and continued to enjoy the ruins. In hindsight, I should have planned the visit better by doing some research online - it is just not possible to see everything in one day even if one has the energy to walk that much. It would have been better to select the sights upfront and map them out before landing at the archaeological site.

Below are some pictures that would provide some flavour of what to expect at Pompeii:

Quadrangle as we enter the site. The face is modern art and not a relic.

Small Theatre. Some of us stood in the middle and voiced a few words. Acoustics are amazing 

Larger Theatre -Theatre built in the hollow of a hill for acoustic advantage; it seated 5,000

A street in Pompeii. This runs north to south and would carry all waste water to river.  The sidewalks are higher than the modern sidewalk because the streets had water and waste flowing through them - they didn't have drains apparently

The big stones were used to cross the streets filled with waste water. The track marks show that one needed to use special local transport for goods. They would need to leave their own wagons outside the city

Thermopolium - literally "a place where (something) hot is sold. They could be simply take-away places or could have rooms in the back for service.

A large house. This one is Casa del Menandro

The two portions show that there was an existing city over which Naples was built. Which presumably had also vanished due to a former eruption of Mt Vesuvius

The wall below the brick is original, above is restored. One can find it happen vertically as well 

A common bath. Two levels- lower level for hot water

One of the 46 fountains used by regular folks for drinking water. Richer folks had water in their homes 

Mosaic on the streets.

Mosaic in the houses

The Amphitheatre of Pompeii is the oldest surviving Roman amphitheater and yes it's older than the Colosseum.  It was completed in 80 BC, measures 135 x 104 metres and could hold about 20,000 people. It was used for gladiator battles, other sports and spectacles involving wild animals.