Back in 2003, Nitin Gera was in excellent shape. A national-level badminton player in school, Nitin would run marathons regularly. However, as luck would have it, that would soon change due to an ankle-damaging motorcycle accident. With ligaments shattered and tendons damaged, he had to undergo full reconstructive ankle surgery and have a rod implanted in his ankle. While the surgery went well, his ankle would never again be the same.
He wasn’t about to give up though as he continued to run marathons over the years and play sports. However, the weakened ankle degraded rapidly and it got to a point where he was forced to limp for the crippling pain.
In October 2014, the Delhi-based Nitin visited his doctor who looked at an X-ray of his ankle and expressed surprise that Nitin could still walk considering the debilitating condition of the joint as he was diagnosed with post-traumatic osteoarthritis. That accident over a decade ago had resulted in nearly all of his cartilage being worn off from one side of the ankle joint.
The solution to his predicament was the fusing of the ankle with four screws across the joint. While this would remove the pain, it would also severely restrict the range of motion, and more importantly this surgery was something he had to go through, sooner or later.
Pushing the limits
“It was being forced to give up that I haven’t yet been able to digest. I feel if you give up physically or mentally, it becomes a problem not only in the area you’ve given up but in all aspects of your life,” Nitin says. He decided that since surgery was the only option, he wanted to test himself as much as he could before the unavoidable knocked on his door.
“Everyone knows the physical benefits of exercising but I think the mental benefits are far more. There is always a certain positivity to people who stay fit and active. They have higher energy levels and you can see them always motivated and always willing to do something new,” he says.
Cut to the present, and a 39-year-old Nitin has managed to stave off that dreadful “second” surgery and is back from a solo mountain biking in the harsh Ladakh winter. It was bitterly cold as he cycled over 200km between -5°C to -15°C temperatures in the inhospitable climate. This trip was a long time in the making, but started 10 years ago when he first visited Ladakh.
Nitin would travel to Ladakh often sometimes on a motorcycle, sometimes by car but always during summers. An engineer by profession, Nitin is also a passionate photographer. His fascination with winter, and ice in particular, began in 2014 when he was working on a photography assignment. The subject he chose was ‘Ice’ and he travelled to Ladakh and Iceland. In his travels, he discovered the joy of travelling in the cold.
During one of his earlier visits to Ladakh as a tourist, Nitin had seen a couple of children trudge through the snow with a plain cycle. The sight of them hauling drinking water from a frozen river had struck a chord with him. “If these kids, living in such hostile conditions, can do this every day, what would it [cycling there] be like for me with arthritis?” he wondered.
And so he began to plan the cycling trip in earnest but came across several challenges. No one he knew had attempted such a trip and what’s more even the locals move down to the plains during winter months, making finding a place to stay a big challenge. More personally, the cold would work its way into his arthritic joints and stiffen them. A lack of water supply, heating and food would only make it worse but Nitin is not one to be deterred by challenges. “I believe in pushing myself. You need to keep pushing because the more you do, the more you learn about yourself,” he says.
Training on wheels
Unable to run or play badminton because of his condition, Nitin had turned to cycling. It was a mode of exercise that was less stressful on his ankles. However, cycling the airy heights of Ladakh would require more than riding around the wide roads of Delhi. Initially, he planned to train in the hills of Shimla but job constraints required him to devise a unique way to train for the high altitude.
He switched to cycling indoors on a stationary cycle, turning the incline level and resistance to the maximum to match the challenges he anticipated. To simulate the reduced amount of oxygen at higher altitudes, he also started wearing a mask while training.
Another vital part of his journey was getting to know his cycle better. Every night, he would undertake self-taught lessons, watch YouTube videos, pick a section of the cycle, take it apart and learn to repair it. Along with several spares, Nitin managed to import a pair of studded tyres at substantial expense since he would be cycling on snow and ice.
Job done, checked off his bucket list
Nitin had three goals for his adventure - to brave the icy winter of Ladakh, to cycle on a frozen river or lake and, travel across the some of the highest motorable mountain passes in the world.
More than physical exertion – at one point he had to walk with his cycle through a snowstorm to find shelter, the mental toll the trip took on him was tremendous. “I had to remind myself that this can’t stop me from following my passion,” says Gera. “It’s just like in the song ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going.’”
By the end of his adventure, Nitin had cycled down the Chang La pass at an altitude of 5360m to travel 25-26 km downhill on the frozen Indus River, and across the frozen expanse of the Pangong Tso lake. Along with seeing the unearthly beauty of the landscape around him, Nitin was personally pleased with the way his ankle, even without any support, and body had stood up to the adverse conditions.
“Believe in yourself. Everyone has the capacity to achieve more than what they think they can. It’s just about believing in yourself and you can do it. You will face pain but at the end, I think it is all worth it,” Nitin concludes with an inspiring message.