He stood, looking at the mountain beckoning him – the two horn-shaped peaks separated by a low saddle bathed in golden light. He breathed heavily. He and his brother had been walking 25-35 kms every day, perhaps pushed too hard by the tour guide. Nausea coursed through his body even as the magnificent mountain filled him with wonder, but sensibility prevailed. Slowly, he turned and started walking back. Amitava Chattopadhyay had undertaken the treacherous hike to the Manaslu Base Camp at 15,750 feet in Nepal, to prove to himself that while turning 60, he could still do it. If it were not for a speaking engagement he had the day after, he might have trudged on. Continuing meant putting his professional commitment at risk. He returned unsuccessful but unbroken, knowing he would be back with better planning to conquer this mountain of his spirit.
A search on google for – Amitava Chattopadhyay, throws up pages about his professional life. He is a Professor of Marketing and the GlaxoSmithKline Chaired Professor of Corporate Innovation at INSEAD, Singapore, where he currently resides. He is an expert on branding, and his research has appeared in multiple leading journals across the world. Amitava Chattopadhyay holds a PhD from the University of Florida, a PGDM from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and a BSc (Honours) degree from Jadavpur University, India.
But what none of the pages mention is the other life that he leads. Every couple of years, he goes off the grid and finds himself in completely isolated, stunningly beautiful and treacherous paths, trekking across some of the highest peaks and untouched landscapes – simply putting one foot in front of the other.
How does this transition from a suave professor to a free wanderer happen?
Amitava’s first trek was in the 1970s when he was in college. His father was in Tanzania, Africa, on work for a couple of years, and on his visit there, they went hiking up Mt. Kilimanjaro. “It was a 5-day trek, very challenging and exciting. I was able to see the world from a perspective which very few people are able to see.”, reminisced Amitava Chattopadhyay. Back then, cameras were wildly expensive, especially in India. He had carried a basic camera and clicked pictures of the hike as well as the wildlife at the Ngorongoro crater and Lake Manyara. After returning, while visiting a couple of his father’s colleagues in Tanzania, he came across coffee table books with a spread of stunning pictures. In comparison, his own pictures looked grainy and terrible. He was appalled and amazed at the same time. “I guess that was the starting point. It triggered my love of hiking as well as photography,” says Amitava.
But this did not lead to continuous hikes. Basic, regular life called first. He went on to finish university, worked for a few years, then moved on to a MBA, followed by a PhD. Back to back changes and scaling his career graph kept him very busy, as it does to all. Post this long “life-gap”, he undertook his next serious trek when he was 34 – Wapta Icefields, Rockies Canada. Now, Canada doesn’t boast of very high altitude peaks but what it is famous for, is ice. For this hike, Amitava was walking on ice for 4 continuous days. What made it even more challenging were the glacial moraines – a typical feature of the Rockies. These are sharp V-shaped ridges with just a foot or two of space on the top. A wrong step means a steep 20-30 ft. tumble down. To top it, being one of the initial treks, Amitava was carrying an ill-fitted rented backpack weighing 20 kgs. At one point, the tour guide suddenly asked them to run down the incline citing an avalanche. As fear gripped their heart, the group started running down and ended up tumbling to the bottom. While today he can laugh at it, the actual moment was nerve-wracking. “That is why you take up trekking. It is kind of a perverse pleasure of being able to complete the challenge that you take upon yourself. It is tough, it is hairy. Yet you do it. It is about enjoying that.”
There are memories, experiences and the people you meet up there in the solitude. “On the Goechala Pass trek in Sikkim, the moon-bathed peak of Pandim, gleaming silver while camping in the valley beneath; waking up at dawn to cover the tough climb up to Goechala Pass at 16,207 ft. and see the sun stream down and cover the snow-capped Kanchenjunga in golden light – visuals such as these are pretty surreal and they stay with you forever. It turns even the memory of eating half-cooked dal and rice at high-altitude pretty remarkable.” You run into people on the way. Their warmth, their spirit, the shared meals and anecdotes swapped, stay with you. “On this particular trip itself, on our way down, we ran into an army group that had set up camp to scale Pandim. We spent the evening with them around the campfire, enjoying the rum and well-cooked and hot dal-roti. It was the most amazing meal I’ve ever had.”
Amitava’s relationship with trekking has been through ups and downs. There were periods when trekking slowed down to a trickle, like when they were raising kids. But the love has stayed strong. That’s the thing about passions that last. It continues to course within you, energize you and bring you back.
About 6 years back, he contacted a tour guide with an intent to go to the extremely popular Everest Base Camp. Instead, his operator suggested Gokyo Ri, a lesser-known humbler sibling of EBC.
The trek to 17,989 ft. boasts spectacular views of three lakes and the peaks of Cho Oyu, Gyachung Kang, Lhoste and Everest. That decided it and Amitava set off for Gokyo Ri with his son and second brother. He describes the fly in to Lukla as the starting point, which by itself was an exotic experience to begin with. The tiny 10-seater plane lands on the runway starting at the edge of the cliff and ends at the cliff face. A slight error of judgement and you could end up smashing in to the cliff. “Which is exactly what happened.” laughs Amitava. “The plane that landed after us ran right into the cliff face. Fortunately, no one was hurt and we were all able to laugh about it.” A steep 2-day climb over 4,000 ft. took them to Namche Bazaar, which was another revelation. The small town with its un-motorable road was buzzing with bakeries, small cafés, 3-4 storey buildings with glass and the like. “Everything is schlepped by men. Beams, glass panes, groceries – everything. Yaks do it, but men do it just as much or even more”. Spending some time at Namche to acclimatize, they set off from civilization. This trip really got him going.
In 2014, Amitava Chattopadhyay followed this up with the tough circuit of Annapurna – The Annapurna Parikrama – circumnavigation over 14 days by crossing the highest pass of Throng La at 17,769 ft. As if to emphasize the danger, the movie theatre in the town called Manang showed the terrifying movie “Into Thin Air”, where a bunch of people die climbing Everest. The high-altitude trek takes you through a variety of climate zones from lush green meadows and flowing rivers to snow-capped mountains as cold as the arctic. That is why it is voted as one of the best long distance trek in the world. Near the very top, before you enter the pass, practically in the middle of nowhere, is a small bakery serving freshly baked bread and coffee made with beans from Illy! “It is amazing. Every 3 months, the coffee is delivered up to this point. Stuffing our faces with the awesome, hot bread rolls in the extreme cold is another warm memory.” says Amitava.
His choice of profession helps this wanderlust, providing a flexibility that others may not have. Being a professor and an academic, he knows his entire year’s schedule in advance. “I know when I can take off and don’t have to worry about leave. There are not going to be any last minute projects.
Singapore doesn’t have much for trekkers. But, I am entitled to sabbaticals and that helps tremendously.” Last time, he chose to take his sabbatical in South America and planned a hike to Machu Picchu. A luxury trek compared to all the others he has been on, he travelled with his wife, Mahima and youngest brother. Tented accommodation, bathroom tents, and three proper meals a day with a chef serving it with all the accoutrements – definitely the equivalent of a 5-star stay in the world of trekking. “The path is an absolute engineering marvel. You’re walking on blocks of stones dating back at least 500 years.” The 4th day brings you into Machu Picchu. It’s a complete town with homes for people, common areas, markets –and silence. “It’s got a very interesting feeling. I am not religious but the place certainly has a different sensibility,” says Amitava Chattopadhyay. They even ran into a woman hiking up to celebrate her 70th birthday.
“You got to have a passion,” he says strongly. “Trekking puts me in a different tempo. No mental activity. Just the physical act of putting one step in front of the other.” He adds, “You are not going to be working forever. Then, what would you do? When I stop working full time, I may be too old to do high-altitude treks, but can still do day hikes. Plus, photography is something that will always be with me.” Today, he has a high-end Nikon camera with powerful lenses plus a smaller Sony that he carries with him on his hikes.
What else does he carry? “Equipment really matters,” he swears. With experience, he started building a collection. Now, he has a sizeable set that he has invested in and kept together to be picked up at a moment’s notice. 2 pairs of Gore-Tex lined, well-worn Salomon shoes, Gore-Tex lined jacket, layers of warm clothes, super light hiking poles, backpack with a frame to effectively direct the weight to the hip, a hyderation bag that keeps him constantly hydrated and water-proof mitts is what his collection contains. “Follow the 3 keys—the right kit, the right tour operator and the right fitness regimen, oriented to what you’re trying to achieve and you should be set,” advises Amitava Chattopadhyay. He gives an example of walking 8-10 km to his office two weeks before a trek, to get the body used to what is coming up.
So what next, we ask. “Probably the Annapurna base camp next year. Also, the Kailash circumnavigation; I want to see Lake Mansarovar too. The Everest base camp just for the check-mark. And yes, I am thinking of taking the next sabbatical in 2018-19 in South America, exploring the Andes. Then there are the volcanoes in Indonesia, the West Coast Trail in Canada, there are interesting treks in New Zealand too. But I will probably put them off for when I am older, as they are relatively easier,” he trails off with a smile. The bucket list seems to be long, as the mountains are calling and there are miles to go, before he sleeps.
Amitava Chattopadhyay found the mountains. Read up on our Perfect Hiking Locations to Rediscover Yourself!
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