How travel healed my business, my career and my soul
At 90kg, I was too unfit for anything more than a brisk walk. Then, I took on Mt Kinabalu
Kinabalu Park, Malaysian Borneo: June 2, 2015, 1.45am
I get out of bed in a dark, dank dormitory room at 3,272 metres above sea, 6.5km from Timpohon Gate, the starting point for the climb to Mount Kinabalu—which at 4,096 metres, is the tallest peak in South East Asia. My 12-year-old daughter, Samara, hasn’t slept a wink from severe altitude sickness; my wife, Renisha, doesn’t want to leave her side. I am losing my nerve. Why not just return to Kota Kinabalu and laze on the beach instead of heading straight into what I know will be a test of all my limits? But my 15-year-old son Ishan refuses to let me bail. “We’ve come this far, Dad,” he says. “You have to do this.”
And for more reasons than I can count, I know he’s right.
In a previous life, I’d been an investment banker in New York and then Singapore. I’d worked at JPMorgan and ran my own hedge fund. My career in finance was high-pressured—there was always a massive target looming and a competition for bonuses. Increasingly, I became haunted by one thought: I was making money, but I wasn’t actually creating anything. What was my legacy going to be?
In 2006, I quit. I partnered with a childhood friend from Mumbai—my hometown—to write the business plan for a live music venue in Lower Parel. We had an idea—and we knew in our guts that it could be big. So, I moved back to Mumbai with my wife and two kids to launch and run blueFROG. We felt that the city would embrace a space like this, where we could focus on talented musicians from India and around the world.
Working at blueFROG was drastically different: it was a start-up, in an industry I knew nothing about, in an environment riddled with bureaucracy. But it was also exhilarating and satisfying to work on a project with a passionate team, committed to the idea of changing the music landscape. It was crazy, full of late nights and long days, cops and robbers, highs and lows. By 2010, The Independent proclaimed blueFROG one of the Top Ten Music Venues in the World; Time Out declared us game-changers, claiming ‘Mumbai’s music scene can be divided into two distinct eras – before blueFROG and after blueFROG’.
We were riding high: Mumbai’s blueFROG grew into a cultural icon, and we decided to spread our wings. In 2011, we set up a Delhi outpost. But it turned out to be too ambitious. We’d taken too large a space; we overestimated the brand’s allure in Delhi and didn’t do enough to localize ourselves; we couldn’t get the backend sorted. We tried fixing the problems, but ended up just draining our finances. A year in, our entire company was under threat. It hit me that I might have little to show for the past seven years of brutal work. Entrepreneurs and business owners know the stress this sort of situation can bring—we had to salvage what was left.
Eventually, blueFROG received funding that altered its ownership structure and tough calls were made: the board closed down the Delhi outlet, and decided to focus on the club part of the brand. But my heart was in the music. It had always been. I decided I had to risk everything once again.
I exited the company I had co-created—and poured my soul into for seven years—with my laptop and a box containing the first bottle of ABSOLUT vodka ever opened at blueFROG Mumbai, photographs of my kids that sat on my desk, and an old pair of shoes I had forgotten I had.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to having any moments of panic. I had quit a great career to create a legacy—and here I was, at 44, starting out again. I knew my next venture would have to be in music, and a few ex-colleagues were keen to join me, but I hadn’t figured the rest out. A friend recommended Tim Harford’s Adapt , where I read that accepting a setback as part of the learning curve is a necessary requirement to succeed. Adapting is essential. I decided I needed to change not only my circumstances, but my reaction to them. I had to focus on creating new goals and milestones, and doing what needed to be done to get me there.
Over dinner with Renisha and the kids one night, we got talking about vacations. A short break seemed like a good idea. We were tossing around names like Thailand and Sri Lanka, when I proposed Malaysia. Renisha, who is originally from Singapore, had had Mount Kinabalu on her to-do list for many years. Our kids who are most often ‘too cool for school’ let slip that the idea of a climb was really exciting. This may not sound like a radical thought, until you consider just how out-of-shape I was. I had run a nightclub for seven years, and with that came, well, lifestyle issues. At 90kg, I was too unfit to do anything more physically challenging than a brisk walk. But Tim Harford’s words were ringing in my head—and I agreed.
I went to bed looking forward to a challenge that had nothing to do with my professional life—but it turned into more work than I had ever imagined. Renisha and I trained together, and a diet began in earnest. Initially, my nutritionist told me not to even think of running for fear of injury. “Just give me 30 minutes walking every day,” she said, concerned I would lose motivation. One round of the Mahalaxmi Race Course became two. We started upping the running quotient and began interval training. We took to yoga and pilates and climbing gentle hills. I dropped 8kg and felt incredible. The key was sticking to the commitment every single day, regardless of everything else that was happening in our lives – something I had never before managed. While we obsessed about training, our super-fit kids looked on in amusement. It was infectious to see the family charged up for the adventure.
Every day, I would wake up with a tangible goal in my head—how many kilometres I would run, how much weight I wanted to lose, what gear I needed to research and buy that day. I had to work on the business plan, find a new office space, meet a landlord, negotiate contracts. I’d return to the documents at night, freshly showered after my exercise routine, my head cleared by the run and the fresh air. I was—for the first time in seven years—eating dinner with Renisha and the kids every night.
I read copious amounts of material online about the climb. Some of it was encouraging; some made me want to cancel. Then came the details: which energy foods to carry, which hiking boots to buy, should we walk with poles or not (yes, absolutely), were gloves essential (mandatory!), what to put in our mountain bags (as little as possible), whether to take a DSLR or use a camera phone (the DSLR won). Every free moment of the day was consumed with worries about the climb instead of anxiety over where my career was heading. In retrospect, I was learning a good lesson: that the successful completion of a goal—professional or personal—requires equal amounts of diligence and paranoia.
On the 30 May, we flew to Kota Kinabalu to begin our adventure.
Ascent from 1,700m to 3,272m
We woke up to a staggeringly sunny morning, which was a relief. There are few things worse than climbing in the rain with moisture-laden clothes. At the Timpohon Gate under a thick canopy of trees, it felt like we were entering a forest for a casual meander. My heart, however, was racing.
Day One was hard. It’s an ascent traversing several climate zones, rare flora and some aggressive squirrels, which could be mistaken for house rats. The target for the day was 6.5km long and 1.5km up. Some call it the stairmaster from hell. Each 0.5km is signposted and each km has a rest hut for the exhausted. Reasonably fit climbers take 4-7 hours, and break the day into two sections.
We started around 9.30am, from Timpohon Gate to the Layang Layang hut, which at the 4km point, marks the first section of day one. We met our guide, Yasiek—rotund, silent and solidly demoralising—who all the way up didn’t utter a word of encouragement. The path winds through the cool and shade of verdant cloud forest. At no point could I get a glimpse of the peak, a thankless slog up the mountain among orchids, ferns, rhododendrons, and trees overcome with moss. In the changing mist and light, through flora that you won’t find anywhere else in the world, Ishan sprinted ahead and finished the 6.5km in 3.5 hours, leaving Renisha, Samara and I to labour up the mountain with our very own prophet of doom.
Most hikers stop at Layang Layang for lunch. When we stopped, I recall telling Renisha and Samara that I had found the path fairly do-able—and then, like a speech bubble from a comic book, I wished that I could have taken it back. The 2.5km path from Layang Layang to Laban Rata, our rest stop, suddenly turned steeper, the landscape changed from lush to sparse, trees lost their leaves and the ground became rocky. I was struggling, Samara was getting cranky and Renisha was suffering in silence. Finally, at around the 4.5km marker the crown of Mt K, invisible all this time came into view, and the majesty of the moment could not be ignored. I whipped out my camera and peered through the viewfinder—and was awestruck by how much further we still had to go. Clouds slipped in overhead, and a grim quality gripped us, I felt like Frodo leaving the Shire, getting his first glimpse of Mordor. Samara suddenly found new legs and bounded ahead. Then at 5 hours and 15 minutes, we tumbled into Laban Rata to be greeted with a spectacular view of the valley below.
Laban Rata is a nicer rest house than I had imagined. We spent the first two hours in the dining room drinking hot chocolate, and tea. We used the passable showers and queued up for dinner. A delicious Malaysian buffet awaited us: noodles, stir-fried meats, rice, vegetables and dessert. Climbers have voracious appetites, and many went for seconds. The atmosphere is charged with positivity. People keep arriving—by nightfall there were 200 of us—and each time the door swung open and new people arrived, the rest of us would cheer loudly to welcome them. We turned in for the night at around 7.30pm—and that’s when Samara felt the effects of the altitude.
1.45am: the alarm goes off
But none of us were asleep anyway. Samara was very ill with altitude sickness and couldn’t continue the climb. I was ready to bail. But Ishan was determined. Somehow, he sensed that I needed this first project I embarked upon with such sincerity after exiting blueFROG to work. Ishan prodded: “Dad, we’ve come this far, we have to do this”. Funnily enough though, I thought I was doing it for him. Renisha was solid in her support and insisted I go. I hauled my aching body up, kissed Samara and Renisha goodbye, and Ishan and I set off. It wouldn’t be the last time that day that his chirpy enthusiasm would keep me going.
So, with trusty old Yasiek, who suffered up the mountain behind us casting his invisible pall of gloom, we climbed. But things were about to get brutal.
The 700 metres past Laban Rata were punishing. Ishan’s compassion and encouragement helped me through this, even though every ounce of my being wanted to be in bed. The eerie environment is captivating. It’s 2.30am, pitch dark, silent and cold. I follow a train of headlamps up crippling inclines through alpine forest, convinced at all times that I should quit. Finally, I exit the forest, and all I can see are the bare rock faces of Mt Kinabalu, and the magic of the climb begins under the night sky. We begin to practically haul ourselves with the help of rope up an unforgiving 30-degree incline toward a summit playing hide and seek under the moonlight.
I was optimistic one minute, and exhausted the next. One moment, climbing under a starry, moonlit sky seemed magical; the next, I was struggling for breath as the air quality tangibly dropped. I couldn’t walk more than 40-50 steps without gasping. It seemed like every ridge I looked at and hoped was the crest of the mountain was just the base of the next ascent. I was ready to call it quits. But Ishan wouldn’t have it. He kept egging me on, resting with me when I needed it, making me feel obligated to press on.
And then, something clicked. I read Christopher McDougall’s Natural Born Heroes which talks of the lost art of the hero – whose key attributes are skill, strength and compassion. With intense preparation, I had hoped for skill and strength; but to overcome this challenge, I would need more. It would come down to not the physical aspects but the emotional. As we’d laboured up the mountain the previous day, we’d been overtaken by agile porters carrying heavy gas cylinders and provisions for the climbers at Laban Rata. Watching their actions, Jedi-esque as they blindly bounced off the earth, was both awe-inspiring and disheartening. They weren’t looking at the path, but ‘feeling’ it. So I reflected on the lost art of the hero, how they embodied it, and as we kept going, the book began coming to life. This mountain peak, I realised, wasn’t my landing spot or final destination. It was meant to be my launching pad.
After that, it was nothing but sheer will. I knew I was going to make it, no matter how bad it got. I had Ishan by my side, Renisha and Samara waiting at Laban Rata and family, friends and colleagues who knew how important this was for me willing me up the mountain from afar. And as I sensed this collective positive energy, I knew I couldn’t avoid the hardship—but I also knew I’d come out on top. We stopped at the Sayat Sayat Hut for water, and kept going. Finally at 5.30am, Yasiek looked at us, and mumbled his first words of encouragement. The summit, he declared, was just over the ridge, about 100 metres away.
Sunlight was prying into the moonlit night, its gentle glow adding to our enthusiasm as we approached the crest. The summit, Low’s Peak (4,096m) sprung into view. The final ascent was comparatively gentle, and as we passed Donkey’s Ears Peak, I turned around seeing the sun to my left, the mountain we had conquered, the clouds below us, and with tears in my eyes, I whispered repeatedly, “It’s so beautiful”.
Melancholy that Renisha and Samara were not part of this magical moment, Ishan and I stopped for a bit, taking in the view, sunrise, an otherworldly experience, the togetherness of father and son, and a combined mission accomplished. On that mountain top, it had all come together for me.
The impact of this adventure on me is palpable. It has made me cognizant that I have to be better prepared for every challenge life presents. I learnt that travel can be a brilliant tool for dealing with change. It’s not about running away, but about finding the space to center yourself. It’s about committing yourself to something new. Both personally and professionally, I returned with a renewed sense of spirit. I can make tough choices, deal with the consequences, and live a life dedicated to the people and things I truly love.
I came home brimming with positive energy. I knew I wanted to create a meaningful legacy. I set up Mach One, a partnership focused on new initiatives for several international brands using technology and music. Very close to my heart, we have designed and executed a music and arts program for Kokuyo Camlin, to expose children to social issues like Women’s Rights, Celebrating Special Needs Children, Diversity of India, Importance of our Forests, amongst others. In this regard, we’ve worked with the children of Teach for India, Magic Bus and other NGOs. We have provided social responsibility learnings to lakhs of children across India and hope to keep it growing through technology and social media.
It’s also altered the way I travel. The focus of my holidays has changed from being a tourist to wanting to feel connected with the earth, its people and the rhythm of the places one goes to. Whether it’s climbing a mountain at 3am or diving with sharks at 5.30am, it is important to resonate with your destination, to experience it as authentically as possible, to allow it to penetrate your soul. That’s what real openness is about when travelling—the ability to let yourself get lost, change your mind, and if you are lucky, awaken yourself.
End note: We climbed Mount Kinabalu between 1-2 June 2015, just two days before the Sabah earthquake severely damaged Donkey’s Ear Peak and claimed the lives of 18 climbers. We are deeply humbled, saddened and grateful to have been lucky enough to leave unharmed.
About The Author : Simran Mulchandani is a Director of Singaporean NGO, Global Mangrove Trust, that has built a peer to peer platform for Mangrove Reforestation. He was a Director at Lykke Corp, a Swiss Fintech company building a marketplace for blockchain assets. Earlier, Simran completed his B.Sc. in Computer Science from Brown University and worked at J.P. Morgan before setting up and running internationally acclaimed live music venture blueFROG. He is a Founder and Director of Business Development at the UN endorsed Project Rangeet, an easy to implement mobile platform that features a Social Emotional and Ecological Knowledge (SEEK) curriculum, with structured lesson plans developed around the Sustainable Development Goals. Through Project Rangeet, Simran hopes to establish a framework in which nature and society are at peace. You can reach out to Simran at firstname.lastname@example.org
A Note From The Team: This fantastic piece was first published in Conde Nast Traveller and has been reproduced here, with permission from the author. You can read the original piece here . Simran will be penning a Part 2 to this piece for Talisman students this coming Monday (22nd March). We are beyond grateful to Simran for sharing this incredible story with us. If you are new here, The Talisman is a weekly newsletter from our team of Stanford professors and graduates. You can learn more about The Talisman at projectmahatma.com/talisman and more about Project Mahatma at projectmahatma.com