Fifty Peaks

by Dinesh Desai

Our first challenge came in late October. We were on a three-week tour of Australia and New Zealand and we were at the mercy of the tour schedule. Still, the first week was not going to be a problem, as we would be at Uluru, more commonly known as Ayers Rock, for two days. Uluru is a large sandstone rock formation, in fact the world's largest monolith, and stands 1,142 feet high. A large portion of its bulk is underground. It has a total circumference of almost six miles and the area around it is home to a plethora of springs, waterholes, rock caves and ancient paintings. Australia was in the midst of an extremely wet spring and it was wonderful to be walking around Uluru with flowering trees everywhere. Alas, the park service had closed the trail to the summit due to high winds and I was left to look for an alternate high point.

Uluru, more commonly known as Ayers Rock

What a big loaf of bread.

Our next stop was Alice Springs, approximately 200 miles away. As we motored thru the desert, we looked for wildlife. Would you believe we saw mostly camels? Yes, camels. They were imported many years ago, but they were let loose as they became unnecessary after the building of the railroad and later the highway. Now their descendants, about a million strong, roam the outback. Though the population of "Alice" (Alice Springs' nickname) is only 28,000, it is a major hub. It is located at the geographical center of Australia and is about a thousand miles from the two nearest cities, Adelaide and Darwin.

The most visited landmark in Alice Springs is Anzac (Australia & New Zealand Army Corps) Hill. It is the highest spot in Alice and the lookout offers a panoramic view of the town and the surrounding mountains. The Anzac Hill Memorial was unveiled in 1934. It was dedicated to the members of the armed services who lost their lives during World War I. We visited the Memorial and bagged our high point for the week at the same time.

Anzac (Australia & New Zealand Army Corps) Hill

Anzac Hill Memorial

Our luck continued in New Zealand. A free afternoon gave us enough time to hike to Kea Point, which has majestic views of Mt. Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand. Then we had a free day in Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world. To us, bungee jumping or jet boating doesn't even come close to climbing a high mountain, and 5,735-foot Ben Lomond provided just such an opportunity. Our local guide had suggested the peak but wasn't able to provide any details. The trail began with a gradual ascent and after about an hour, the peak came into view. My heart sank as I studied the towering monster. It was going to take all our resolve and many hours to reach the summit. It was surprisingly warm, and soon I was hiking in my T-shirt. We each had only a quart of water, but I wasn't too worried; I could see several patches of snow in the distance. As we climbed the rocky ridge and crossed a couple of snow fields, the temperature dropped and the wind picked up. We made it to the summit, but couldn't stay long to enjoy the fruits of our labor.

Ben Lomond from a distance

We have to go there?

Dinesh atop Ben Lomond

Phew, we made it.

After graduating with a Master's in Civil Engineering, I worked for a small consulting firm in San Francisco. My first goal was to save enough money to pay back my parents. They had spent their life savings to send me to the U.S. I postponed buying a car, but it was no big deal. I had grown up in a lower middle-class family. Neither my parents nor any of our relatives or friends had a car. And San Francisco did have an excellent public transportation system. One of the benefits of working for the firm was totally unexpected. The boss liked classical music and had the office filled with sounds of a local classical music station, all day long. Never having heard such music previously, I hated it. But I had no choice; I just had to live with it. Then I got used to it and later I couldn't imagine a life without it.

There was another positive development too. I was aware of the racial prejudice in the U.S. There was no Civil Rights Act yet and the South was still segregated. Still, I never felt discriminated against. I had a few white friends and even though I was far from the proverbial tall, dark and handsome man, I didn't have much trouble dating women, all of whom were white, the predominant race in those days. Unlike many immigrants, I was quite comfortable living in a white society. Of course, I was continuously learning the western ways. One holiday season, I bought eggnog from a supermarket. I did not know what it was, but I liked the taste. A week later, at a New Year's Eve party, I spotted a bowl of it and helped myself to it several times during the evening. Later, I wondered why I was feeling tipsy. I never had any alcohol in India and not much in the U.S. either. I didn't know that it was a holiday tradition to add booze to the eggnog. I still remember the hangover I had the next day. Food, however, was a problem. I was used to spicy vegetarian food, and a meat and potato diet was literally hard for me to swallow. There were no Mexican restaurants that I knew of, and the only Indian restaurant was run by an Englishman. Not surprising, as just a few hundred people of Indian origin lived in the Bay Area at the time.

I returned to India in 1965. My plan was to check out the job opportunities. As it happened, I never did look for any. In the first few weeks, I realized that I was a stranger in my own country. My thinking had changed so much that I felt very disconnected, sort of like how one would feel moving from San Francisco or New York to a small town in, say, Indiana. Hinduism is more a way of life than a religion and many of the daily routines no longer made sense to me. I had been exposed to a different culture, religion, and way of life, and my perspective had changed. After a few months of soul searching, I decided on a life in the U.S. Luckily, soon after my return to U.S., I was able to get permanent resident status under the newly enacted 1965 Immigration Act.

For my birthday in 1968, my then-girlfriend Belinda, bless her heart, gave me a book, Anyone Can Make a Million. That was to be the second seminal event of my life. At the time, I lived in Palo Alto and worked for a medium-sized engineering firm in Foster City. Belinda knew I wasn't too happy being an engineer and that I was looking for some other career. The book struck a chord with me. Its author was a physician who had given up his practice and made a fortune trading various financial instruments. His statement "commodity futures represent the quickest possible way to get rich or go bankrupt amongst all forms of market trading" nudged me to look into it further. My liquid assets were maybe a thousand dollars, so going bankrupt wouldn't be a big loss. For the next three years or so, the scenario went as follows: I would make a trade or two and lose most of my money. I would then wait till I had saved enough to trade again. In a few weeks, I would lose it all again. It was quite depressing. I gave up many everyday pleasures to save the money, but all I received in return was a tax deduction. The plus was that the cycle gave me plenty of time to read the few books on the subject and do simulated trading. Meanwhile, Belinda was getting impatient, but I wasn't ready to get married while I struggled to find a career. We parted amicably.

By the end of 1972, I had learned from my mistakes and was well ahead for the year. In 1973, the markets had extremely large moves, albeit with high volatility, and I was able to capitalize on them. There were times when I would make or lose more money in a day than I was making in a year at my job. I had amassed a small fortune and it was time to say goodbye to my engineering career. I consider myself reasonably smart, but it is humbling to realize how luck and timing play such a big role in one's life.

I had planned to trade just my own money to make a living, but that was not to be. A few of my co-workers wanted me to trade their money the way I did mine. They were willing to pay me a percentage of the profits. I hired an assistant, rented office space and began doing business as "Desai & Company". That's how I wound up in the money management business. I was making money beyond my wildest dreams, but it hardly changed my lifestyle. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous? I tried it, but it seemed to revolve around staying up half the night, consuming excessive amounts of alcohol and rich food. I was glad it was Robin Leach and not me who had to pursue that lifestyle. Middle Class and Mundane? Now you are talking. I suppose it has something to do with the fact that I grew up with lower middle-class values, sort of like a depression-era mentality. I enjoy pizza and beer just as much as a dinner at a five-star restaurant. What I prized more about my new career was the game itself. I call it a game, because it is just like a giant poker game, with immense stakes. Commodity trading is inherently different from buying stocks or real estate. Money only changes hands between the traders. It has an economic purpose, but no wealth is created. In order for one person to win, someone else must lose. I couldn't wait to go to "work"; I almost dreaded the weekends. That was true happiness. And I had most of the afternoons free, because the markets closed at 1:00 PM. I also had the satisfaction of making money for my friends and co-workers. They were able to buy houses they couldn't have bought otherwise.

After we returned from Australia, we climbed several relatively easy peaks. The days were getting short and we still had all of spring and summer to climb peaks requiring longer hikes. On an absolutely clear day in January, we hiked to the top of Red Hill in Coyote Hills Regional Park. Even though it stood at an elevation of only 270 feet, our lowest peak by far, the views of the Bay and the mountains beyond were breathtaking. I wondered if the expansive views had anything to do with USGS's decision to put a benchmark on top of this hillock. A month later, we woke up one Sunday to see Mission Peak and other summits across the Bay covered with snow. Our plan was to hike to El Sombroso, in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was higher than Mission Peak, and was on the ridge that bore the brunt of the storms coming from the Pacific. It would have a lot of snow, even on the trails leading to it. In the true spirit of Bay Area residents, read "wimps", we postponed the hike, and instead, opted to climb Allison Peak. We climbed El Sombroso a week later. Though no new snow had fallen during the week, there still was snow on some sections. A biker we met told us that the snow a week before was too deep for him to walk or ride his bike through and had forced him to turn back.

Dinesh walking along a road through patches of snow

Am I glad I wasn't here last week.

Walking along a hilly trail

Unfortunately, these hills don't melt away.

There are three peaks, Mission, Allison and Monument, on a ridge above Fremont and Milpitas. They are all around 2,500 feet, but Allison is the highest. Though an easy forty minutes beyond Mission Peak, it gets hardly any visitors. Mission Peak, on the other hand, gets literally thousands. The day we climbed Allison was no exception. Joy and I were the only ones there, but we could see what looked like a mob on Mission Peak. It is interesting how certain places become so popular whereas others, though just as interesting, remain shunned. There is also the fascination about the tallest or the biggest or something along that line. One needs a permit to hike the ever-popular Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the continental U.S., while White Mountain Peak, another nearby high mountain, just a couple of hundred feet lower, stands like a lonely sentinel.