Hazards can be exciting challenges and a lot of fun!

It was in a Wodehouse that I first came across the word ‘repose’ and I still remember how I immediately liked the word. Some words spark off an affinity for them in me. They just sound right, have a ring to them or make so much meaning in the context in which they are being used that they assume a dimension far, far bigger than just their dictionary meaning. Just look at what I read in that Wodehouse where the ‘Inimitable Jeeves’ quotes H.W. Longfellow after pulling off some formidable feat:

Something attempted, something done,

Has earned a night’s repose.

(Lines from the poem ‘The Village Blacksmith’ by H. W. Longfellow)

Little did I know then how one day I will, to my utter delight, stumble upon a completely new angle to the word ‘repose’ when reading about… antlions! And how that had a direct connection to some features encountered while hiking and rock climbing!

Read on…!

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When I started rock climbing (waaay back in the 1980s), one hazard that I became very wary of was ‘scree’. The word refers to an ‘accumulation of loose stones or rock debris lying on a slope or the base of a cliff’. Scree is a regular feature encountered in the in the Western Ghats, the mountain range that runs parallel to the western coast of India (a.k.a. the Sahyadri mountain range). Imagine climbing a pinnacle and encountering a patch of scree close to its top. You can’t put in the usual protection gear to make yourself safe in that rubble, and the slope is ready to destabilize the moment you start crawling up on it. There are ‘scree experts’ among rock climbers in the Sahyadri who don’t blink an eye after encountering scree slopes. There is even a story of someone who had used a ‘peg’ almost like an ice axe (not downed one!) to nip across a patch of scree. (And, since we are parenthetically speaking about the spiritual stuff then I might as well quote a dictionary: ‘nip (verb): to drink (spirits), especially habitually in small amounts’. See what I mean by the special charm of words?!)

Another word that leaped at me from mountaineering books was ‘talus’ – ‘a sloping mass of rocky fragments at the base of a cliff’. Many a hiking route in the Himalaya traverses such debris when contouring around a mountain slope. It takes patience and attentiveness to walk across the accumulation of rocks that have fitted in to form a sort of massive three dimensional jigsaw puzzle. The trail that one has been walking on metamorphoses into staggered tell-tale signs of scuff marks where boots of previous hikers have stepped on and brushed against passing stones. And yet each step is a decision where one needs to carefully decide which stone to step on and in which direction should one’s body exert its weight and so on. Some rocks wobble, others see-saw and a few that have been waiting for the last tap topple over under a boot. I personally find this terrain fascinating! It is but one stage removed from scrambling.

Every time I walk, hop, skip and jump across a patch of talus I look up and wonder if some part of the crag above would choose that moment to part from the main bulk and crash down to splinter into fragments that would add to the jumble around me… and would that then set the talus into motion as the added mass makes the jigsaw puzzle slide down in order to find a new equilibrium. Frightening thoughts!

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Antlions? They are insects that occur in most parts of the world, with a predominant presence in warmer regions. They are known for their larvae that are fierce predators. The larva of one species that is prolific in the Sahyadri digs the famous pit-trap, a conical pit in dry sand. The larva hides at the bottom of the funnel (at its vertex, so to say) waiting for a passing insect – quite often an ant – to tip over into the pit and trundle down into its massive pincer-like jaws! If the prey tries to clamber up the disturbed scree of loose sand the antlion flings pellets of sand on it to make it slither down! The video clips on the internet that depict this macabre struggle are quite something and I feel compelled to state here that they are not for the faint hearted…

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The antlion has hit upon the benefits of a hazard: the ‘angle of repose’. This is the angle at which granular material settles in a slope to be just about stable, where the force of gravity is balanced by the friction between the components of the granular material. This delicate balance can get disturbed with the slightest force that can destabilise the slope. Which is what happens with an unfortunate ant that steps into the pit. In case the force of gravity is not stronger than the friction between the ant and the grains of sand, the antlion shoots sand at the insect thereby starting a dangerous slide of granules where the ant cannot find firm footing easily.

With hikers and mountaineers, if the angle of repose is very steep then the force they exert while stepping on to the slope can well trigger a slide – I have actually had it happen to me once just above a steep drop of about 35 ft. and it was all I could do to rapidly yet gingerly traverse across as the whole slope of rubble littered with fallen branches and twigs started sliding with a grating noise over the underlying rock. No wonder then that the angle of repose is also known as ‘avalanche angle’!

Now all that makes me wonder … when, at times, I experience a falling sensation while asleep (called ‘sleep start’ or ‘hypnic jerk’) … can one say that there is a subconscious angle of repose that gets disturbed?

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