“You need a Life….” was all my heart said. One fine morning at 4.00 am, I forced myself out of bed to revive my interest in adventure sports and drove off to attend a Rock Climbing camp. The 2-hour drive to the climbing site was a flashback of 14 years, memories of my 1st Rock Climbing camp at the same place and maybe in the same state of mind too, just running to the rocks during the most challenging phase of my life. But this time little did I know that it would lead to nine amazing treks in four months followed by a 28 days long mountaineering course at Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), a premier mountaineering institute in the country that I dreamt of during my college days.
The decision to go to NIM was quick; thanks to my Best Friend who helped me make it. At 33 years of age and just 30 days before the start of the course I posted my application with a covering letter stating my credentials and requesting for a seat in this year’s batch. The funniest part is I had also mentioned that I may not fall under the regular applicants’ category (age wise) but was determined to do the course. I guess my determination and NIM’s goal to train ordinary people to become mountaineers got me the seat.
In the next few weeks I planned my travel to Uttarkashi, booked my flight tickets, did some shopping and worked on my physical fitness, bettering my fitness levels each week, and set off to Delhi on the ‘D’ day. As per the plan, I was in Delhi for 2 days and along with a co-participant (half my age) who joined me at Delhi, we set off to Rishikesh in an Interstate bus, a 6 and half hour journey that was as comfortable as it possibly could be in a badly managed state bus service.
At 5.30 am we were at the Rishikesh bus stop. We then took an autorikshaw to check-in to a decent hotel, refresh and leave to Uttarkashi late in the evening. Just a few minutes ahead, the auto driver stopped in front of a Tempo Trax and suggested that we should go Uttarkashi right away. Plans changed and we loaded our Rucksacks on to the Tempo Trax and were off to Uttarkashi.
Rishikesh is at an altitude of 356 mts and is the base for most of the trekking activities in the beautiful Garhwal Himalayan range. The city is surrounded by hills on three sides and the holy river Ganga flowing through.
A mere 5-6 hour drive in the mountains and anything in your tummy would come out. Guess we got lucky for the fact that it was early in the morning and our stomachs were empty, as we decided not to eat anything till we reached Uttarkashi. However physically uncomfortable the drive was, what kept me occupied was the beauty of the mountains.
My camera was a little excited looking at the River, Clouds and the Mountains literally in that order. I could not get enough of it all the way even with some irritating co-passengers. By 12-noon we were in the NIM Campus, later in the hostel room, which would be our home till the end of the program.
As I was one of the early ones to report in, I had time to go around the campus, and what can I say - I simply fell in love with well maintained campus with greenery all over, surrounded by mountains all the four sides, the sound of the Bhagirathi river, many species of birds specially the Paradise Flycatcher which really caught my attention every time. NIM has a Himalayan garden with plants grown in high altitude. The training area includes artificial wall climbing zones, volleyball & basketball courts, graduation ground etc. It also has a temple, well-stocked library, café, Internet center, telephone booth, souvenir shop, museum, washer man, tailor, equipment center, medical room, CSD canteen and also houses most of the staff. The campus has guest accommodations for people visiting NIM on expeditions and treks.
Day 1 started with registration, address note by the principal, introduction of the staff, campus information and division of the batch into ropes (teams) and allocation of the hostel rooms as per the ropes. I was in “Rope 1” and the hostel room was called “Panther”. The equipment was issued which included Rucksack with plastic cover, Rock climbing shoes, Mountaineering shoes, Crampons, Gaiters, Long sling, Carabineer, Ropes, Jacket, Mittens, Feather jacket, Sleeping mat, Sleeping bags, Mess tin, Mug, Spoon etc., which all added up to 20-25 kgs to carry for the next 20 days.
The following three days was rigorous physical training, artificial wall climbing, and an initial trek, just preparing all of us to the next level. Every day we had lectures on different aspects of mountaineering and documentaries related to various expeditions. Some of the interesting things I learnt in these sessions were on Climate, Himalayas, Do’s and Don’ts of Mountaineering, Planning, Health, Medical, usage of equipment, knots etc. The daily activities were very well planned which enabled the Trainees to prepare accordingly.
The next level was the Rock Climbing training at Tekala, a 9 km trek from NIM every day for 5 days, with our fully loaded Rucksack starting off at 6 am in the morning was a true exposure to what can be expected out of the program. The Rock Climbing training started with a lecture-cum-demo followed by the practice sessions. Immense knowledge of the instructors, the teaching methodology and the safety at every level of the training is what really separates NIM from any other institute. The instructors were generally very tough on the trainees but they knew to what extent they could stretch and more importantly they knew what they were doing. I simply let myself follow the trainer at every step, may be our rope was a little luckier for the fact that we have the Senior Instructor as our Rope Instructor, the most experienced and the highly regarded person in NIM.
Tekala is one on the most amazing rock climbing area I had ever seen and experienced. Even though the height of the rocky hills was not much, the challenges were many, it has all kind of faces and gave us an opportunity to try all the different holds, techniques and equipments, but my personal favorite was the hip rappelling, the one which kicks the fear factor in its teeth.
The training schedule was on the hostel notice board and we knew what’s coming next, yes the big day, moving to the Base camp for Ice & Snow craft training and gaining height (altitude), this one cannot be taken easy, for the next 17 days we will be in the mountains in some of the toughest conditions both physically and mentally.
The big day finally arrived; all of us were busy taking the one final shower (that only one for the next 17 days) and packing the rucksacks. The challenge was definitely carrying everything we would need but with a least possible weight as it would be a part of our body till we came back to NIM.
Arrival at Bukki in the NIM bus along with the Advance course team at 10.00 am and thinking of the fact that for the next 17 days one cannot think of taking bath, was enough to send shivers down the spine. Bukki, the start point, a dusty terrain that had several landslides, work on the construction of road, NTPC plan to build a power station, there was action all over. Our Trek route for the 3-day was Bukki Bridge – Tela – Jungle Hut – Gurjar Hut – Base camp – Advance camp; it was a long Trek on hill of over 60 degree elevation with a 70 degree walk, that would mean a steep walk and gaining height more quickly.
Our first camp - Tela is at an altitude of 2500 MSL giving us the first sight of snow-covered mountains on one side and a green terrain on the other 3 sides. Here we start off with pitching our tents, and marking our territory….that’s the funniest part of the entire camp, one goes to the pre-defined area with an ice axe, dig a pit and answer nature’s call. Initially it was the most uncomfortable thing, given the fact that it is 17 days to go and one had no choice but to get used to it.
It was one of the relaxed nights at Tela, after a long Trek with a heavy load we had nothing else but just to have dinner and go to bed. But yes, we did a walk-up, as it’s important to gain height and come back and sleep at a lower altitude.
We got introduced to various kinds of trees and plants as our senior instructor was a Flora enthusiast and keenly studied plants in Himalayas, and also got to see and feel an opium plant. The Trees, largely Silver Oak, Pine and Maple, the wild Orchids were in abundance.
NIM followed the “No Trace” policy and is highly environmental coconscious. We had to not only pack the tents but also ensure the entire place been left intact and free from any human trace and overnight camping.
Early next day, we packed up our tents, had a nutritious breakfast and packed lunch. Whether the trainees are on time or not what was admirable was that every single meal was on time and no one had to ever complain about being hungry or had to wait for food, this simply shows how well planned and equipped NIM is to run a Mountaineering course for over 80 trainees per batch for 28 days.
The Trek to Jungle Camp was as tough as it could get. Downhill and uphill every time with those huge rucksacks one could feel the pain all over the body. We reached Jungle Camp just in time, and happy we beat the rain god. Our rituals began with pitching in the Tents, having a good cup of hot Chai, the days’ session - Flora & Fauna, and a walk uphill. Every minute I was hoping to encounter some wild life but had to be satisfied with just the birds. The stay in Jungle Camp was a bit scary as I was freaked out on the possibility of a snake entering the tent. It was raining, cold and in total, the weather was not very favorable. I tried to get as much sleep as I could and waited for the morning to break.
The next day’s Trek was more relaxed, I guess we got used to the load on our backs and the Terrain. The day was bright and as we gained more height the tall trees were replaced by the shrubs and later the carpet of flowers, which felt as if it was laid out for us, Marsh Merry Gold, Lilies, Potentellas, Orchids, Rhododendron, many more, the Lichens hanging from the trees, the clear vast blue sky, the snow covered mountains around, “Is this Heaven”. I wish we could preserve this for generations to come, for our kids to enjoy the nature as much as we do.
I was spell bound, captivated by the beauty of the land, pride of been born in the land of Himalayas. I had read only in books and now it was in front of my eyes and I could see, feel and experience it all by myself for the next 2 glorious weeks.
Gurjar Hut is a tiny settlement of local tribes, mostly shepherds by occupation and is situated at 3500 MSL. We took a long walk to Kheratal (Serpent Lake), which has clear water all year round and never dries. The locals consider it as a holy place and a place of worship. Night was very pleasant, and we slept with the excitement of reaching Base camp the next day.
We are at Base camp now and what more can you ask for? A flat piece of land on top of a hill, drop zone on one side and peak Mechha Dhar, Jaonli, Draupadi-Ka-Danda and the Dokriani Bamak (Glacier) surrounding the other sides.
Amidst the enchanting surrounding, the preparation for the next level of training was on, 8 days of Ice and Snow craft. And with the weather getting colder, it was less sleep, frozen hands, running noses or high altitude sickness all through the way. We got a day off on our first day of Ice craft, thanks to Rain god. Day 2 was soon on its way, the trek from Base camp the Ice craft training area -Dokriani Bamak was across the moraine and nothing could be worse than that. We followed a particular route for the next 5 days and got to do a lot of climbing activities. It was very interesting and very technical. It did take some time to get used to wearing the Mountaineering shoes, the Crampons and the rest of the gear, but at the end it was a feeling of complete satisfaction of learning from the best of the instructors including an Everester; rather one of the only two Indians who have climbed four of the fourteen 8000+ mts peaks.
The Ice craft session would begin at 5.00 am every day at a temperature of 0-6 degrees. It included trekking to the glacier, practice session and trek back by around 2.30 pm, just in time to have lunch and attend theory classes on Map reading, Navigation, Expedition, Medical and various related topics. We had the privilege of having in our midst, Col Balwant S Sandhu Ex Principal of NIM, not only author of the book on Changabang but the first ascender of the peak and a renowned name in Indian Mountaineering and his wife, a pretty lady from Germany.
As we moved to the Snow craft training area, we reached the Advance Camp and had an opportunity to gain more height and experience some good snowfall. Snow craft training was more fun and very relaxed and we were eagerly waiting for the grand finale ascending a peak. We moved back to Base camp after sending off the Advance team to attempt and summit Draupadi-Ka-Danda.
The following day the Advance team summited Draupadi-Ka-Danda and returned to Base camp to receive a heroic welcome, we were proud of them. It was our turn now. We started off early in the morning with a clear focus to summit Mechha Dhar, even though it was not technical, it would be our first opportunity to summit a 5000 Mts peak.
It was an unusually pleasant morning; we packed our Rucksacks with all the required gear and were on our way to the top. A rocky walk, plain land, green grass, carpet of flowers and the snow, that’s how the landscape changed as we climbed up. There was enthusiasm all over, even though a few stayed back in the tents and a few dropped out on the way, most of us determined to make it to the top. The climb was getting harder, but there was light at the end of the tunnel and all that we learnt over the last few weeks would be put to test.
Weather was getting a little cloudy and we had to make it back to the tents before it could get bad. So we were in good speed and were on top of the peak at 11.30 am, cheerful faces, sense of achievement and just being there as a team was all it mattered, we congratulated each other; instructors were very happy, so was our special guest Col Balwant S Sandhu. It was photo time, just capturing the every moment on the top.
Our hearts filled with joy, we descended safely and got a memorable welcome from the Advance team, our VP and the rest of them at Base camp, the “Tilak Ceremony” as I would like to call brought tears, lot of hugs and smiles.
The course would not be complete until we finished our written test and Navigation test. After revision of the notes we started the test, not a difficult one if one has made notes and understood all the points from our theory classes. Later we had a navigation test and map reading, finally ending our course in style.
Time to go back to NIM campus, we are all packed and ready, a long trek back skipping two of the interim camping points, we were in Tela for the second time, this time to say good bye. Tela to Bukki was a cakewalk as we were eager to reach back and have a long nice bath, call the loved ones and talk all about the course over and over again. The last leg of the climb from the bridge to the road was indeed the quickest unlike most of us had feared. We were in the bus right on time and singing our way back to NIM campus.
It was time to chill out, the course was indeed over and we returned the equipment, completed the administration formalities and got ready for the graduation program. We had rehearsals of the program so that we did the right things and all the details are taken care of.
Graduation day arrived; our Chief Guest was none other than Col Balwant S Sandhu, what else could be more rewarding than being greeted by him on your Graduation. It was a moment to be proud of, the sense of achievement, sheer thrill of NIM badge being pinned-up, all came alive and I felt like a school kid walking up to wear that first Medal. It’s been 13 long years since I marched up to receive a Medal that I would be proud of for the rest of my life. My eyes were wet as I marched up and all I could think was “Thank you God”.
The time to say good-bye had come, as the participants packed their bags and loaded on to the bus. There were tears in everyone’s eyes, many of them would be good friends for life, some would come back for the Advance Course and some would just be happy that they did something different.
I am waiting to go back to NIM, next year and may be many years to come…..
- Kavitha Reddy, BMC 193