They say life begins after forty. For Duke Ninan it took a little longer. To be precise, in 2011, at 55, his life took a new turn.
Duke was on his morning walk when he saw an advertisement of a motorcycle. “It was a Hero Honda Hunk. I bought it. And I wanted to ride it somewhere. So up I went from Kochi across the country, a distance of 11,233 km,” he says.
Now after two motorcycle rides across India, first on his ‘Hunk’, and then on a Royal Enfield Desert Storm, Duke is all set to conquer Mount Everest. If he accomplishes his feat, in April 2014, he will become one of the oldest Indians, and the first Malayali, to conquer the mountain, at the age of 58.
“I have always had a passion for adventure, but it was in hibernation for a long time,” he says. “Now, with my elder son married and the younger one studying in Dubai, I felt I have fulfilled my responsibilities to my family and am now free as a bird.”
Duke has just returned from a training camp at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), in Darjeeling, West Bengal, and is now enjoying his short stay at his home in Kochi before he sets off to Nepal in January for further training.
Duke knows that climbing the highest mountain in the world is going to be the ultimate test of his physical and mental abilities. But he is confident. “The training I had at the Rathong Glacier, the highest training glacier in Asia, was excellent,” he says. “At 15,720 feet above sea level, I did exceptionally well. This means I am well prepared for Everest.”
The HMI does not admit people over 40 years of age. But seeing Duke’s enthusiasm, the Principal Colonel Rana took him in. And at the end of the camp Duke emerged as one of the best trainees in a batch of 150. “Even the instructors appreciated my performance,” he says. “They said it was exceptional for a man above fifty.”
The day at the institute began at 5 a.m. The routine consisted of endurance tests, rock climbing and training in using ice-axe and other mountaineering equipment. “The equipment alone weighs over 18 kg,” he says. “It is all about enduring hostile weather. Every moment you can expect an avalanche or a snowstorm. Going up slopes, which have a lot of snow, is dangerous.” Duke remembered how he helped two young fellow trainee girls who took ill at the glacier. “We had to swiftly bring them back to a lower altitude,” he says. “I was happy to give a helping hand.”
But Duke also needs a helping hand. “The entire expedition comes to `20 lakh,” he says. “I am looking out for sponsors.”
Born in Malaysia and educated in Punjab, Duke started his career as a schoolteacher in Wylie Memorial School, Ludhiana. He also worked as the principal of the school for ten years, before returning to Kerala where he joined St Mary’s Residential School, Tiruvalla, as chief warden and vice-principal.
“After the Everest expedition, I am planning another motorcycle ride,” says Duke. “I will go around the world on a Harley Davidson.” The 59 day-ride is already well laid out in his dairy.
“I am a busy man right now,” he says, with a smile.