To anyone interested in outdoor sports, the Mountaineering courses at Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) are not unheard of. The Basic and the Advanced courses are rigorous 28-30 day courses that cover rock, ice, and snow craft, and equip you with all the essential technical knowledge, fitness, ethics, and know-how needed to jump-start your venture into extreme sports. With the growing population of outdoorsy Indians, more such institutes are coming up across the Himalayas – Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports (Manali), Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering & Winter Sports (Pahalgam), National Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports (Dirang, Arunachal Pradesh), High Altitude Warfare School (Gulmarg) and several others. These institutes are all affiliated to the Indian Mountaineering Federation (IMF), which is the governing body for all mountain sports and expeditions in the country.
As an avid trekker and rock climber, the Basic course is almost essential to solidify my stance in the field. So I finally got to it this summer and headed up to NIM. Although I had heard enough about the course and the regime of these military run institutions, a lot of my batch mates came unaware of what to expect, with inadequate gear or physical training. This gave them trouble later on. So here is my attempt to share what I learnt or wish I’d known before I went for the course.
Prefield preparation: fitness
The course kicks off with physical training, which prepares us for carrying heavy loads and let’s us familiarize ourselves with the rucksack and walking long distances with the weight of heavy equipment on our backs. This equipment issued to us includes: a 95L rucksack, one sleeping bag with a liner, carrimat, a feather jacket, windproofs (upper and lowers), snow boots, gaitors, a helmet, climbing shoes, seat harness, two carabiners (normal and screwgate), long sling, climbing rope, water bottle, and mess tins with a mug and spoon. All of this weighs around 15-20 kgs. Your additional personal belongings would add another few kilograms to it.
One of the most important points to keep in mind is that if you want to breeze through the course and enjoy it, you need to be fit. Although the courses may be open for all, the application forms for these courses mention fitness requirements, which may be things like being able to run 5 kilometers within 30 minutes and carrying at least 15kgs on your shoulders. These requirements are not strictly enforced or checked, so they end up being taken lightly. Candidates show up after having done little or no preparation and this gives them a hard time trying to keep up with everyday activities. The course involves long hours of trekking up steep slopes with that heavy rucksack. If you haven’t built up your endurance and strength, just walking from one camp to another can really drain you. Lack of proper fitness can also hamper your ability to acclimatize and resist any injuries or illnesses. One of the first lessons that was drilled into our minds right from the beginning was that if we wanted to be safe in the mountains, we had to follow three basic rules:
- Don’t fall ill
- Don’t get injured
- Acclimatize properly
Decent fitness should keep you immune to at least two of the above. As for acclimatization, you know the drill. Plenty of fluids, head covered, nose and ears exposed, slow ascent. The hour long class on acclimatization should take care of that.
Block I: Rock training and syncing into the routine
The course is divided into three blocks: rock, ice, and snow craft. Rock craft takes place at the artificial climbing wall and the rock climbing training area at Tekhla, which was about 9kms away from the institute. Here we practice climbing, bouldering, anchoring, belaying, fixed ropes, jumaring, rappelling, etc. During this block, the typical daily schedule goes something like this: fall in at 5:30am, trek to the climbing area, practical training until 4pm, attend demonstrations and lectures, return to the institute and attend more lectures, eat, sleep. This is when you begin to get used to the routine and the trek seems easier every day.
Packing for the move to Base Camp
For the next two blocks, training takes place on the mountain. This is when we move out of the institute and begin the trek to Base Camp. For us, this took about three days, with three camps on the way. Moving to the mountain demands smart packing. Since most of the duration of the course (more than two weeks) is spent up there, the natural instinct is to carry more. But the more you carry, the more weight you’ll have to bear on your shoulders. While walking long distances at high altitudes, every extra ounce is unwanted. So personal belongings to be taken are limited to 2 t-shirts, 2 pants (taking a bath is close to impossible), thermals, woolen cap and socks, waterproof gloves (important for ice craft), fleece jacket, 3-4 pairs of socks, poncho, and other essentials mentioned in their list.
My course was during the summer, so the temperatures didn’t drop below 0 degrees. But the incessant rain and rare sunlight made sure that my shoes and socks were constantly wet, making my feet miserable, perpetually freezing and numb. Waterproof shoes would really have come in handy. Although mountain weather is largely unpredictable, it’s still important to do your research and get an approximation of what the weather might be like so as to be prepared for it.
Block II: Ice training
When the ice training began is when I started to feel like a proper mountaineer. It’s when all the fancy gear comes out, and you’re ready to take on the world dressed in uniformed windproofs, snow shoes, crampons, harness, helmet, and snow goggles, while wielding a large ice axe. This block covers everything from ice climbing to crevasse crossing. It may just be the most thorough block in my opinion, by including crevasse rescue methods and ice piton fixing. We learnt a lot about the equipment we were using and how to set up these systems ourselves.
Block III: Snow training
Snow craft is where the fun awaits. Starting with different methods of walking on snow, we moved on to glissading (how to professionally slide down a snowy slope), self arresting with the ice axe (how to stop sliding after a fall), and snow anchoring (how to stay put). This block also includes the literal highlight of the course: height gain. This is the highest elevation we trek to during the entire course, which, for us, was about 15800 feet. It’s a straight push up the glacier and put all our snow/ice walking and crevasse avoiding training to use. After this, it’s all downhill until graduation day.
Towards the end of the course, I realized that the most important learning my peers and I got from it was the riddance of the fears and anxieties about mountaineering. Thorough preparation by physically and mentally training yourself, proper and smart acclimatization, carrying adequate gear (including basic gear like warm clothes) and the knowledge of how to use it properly, a modest attitude and presence of mind is all you need to avoid the dangers of this high altitude extreme sport. Keep in mind everything that is spoken of in the lectures, be it first aid, mountain ethics, or weather forecasting. The more you know, the more you’re prepared, and the better you can cope with what the mountain has to offer. In the cheeky words of Sir Edmund Hillary, “it is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves…”
Know more about these mountaineering institutes and where to apply for their courses here.