The journey from being a person with the phobia of heights to an amateur Mountaineer started on 18th day of the month of October 2019. I was in Darjeeling for the first time in my life and was heading from this well-know place called Chaurasta (came to know name of that place later) to HMI (Himalayan Mountaineering Institute) campus where I had report before evening for the Basic Mountaineering Course I applied for, almost a year ago.
The reporting day was a bit tiresome as there was a long waiting for all applicants reporting at the training office to get hostel slip. Till evening of October 18, we roamed around the campus and adjoining Zoo premises. In evening at 7 we were served with dinner, before which we were announced with next morning schedule, Tea at 5 and precisely at 6 the morning PT. All the trainees were arranged into 10 groups, each group referred to as Rope, from Rope 1 to Rope 10. I was one of the eight members of Rope 6.
The day arrived, morning of October 19th we started with our first session of physical training, started with warm-up stretches followed by a run from HMI campus to Chaurasta via Raj Bhawan (halt for a breather), and back to HMI campus, a total of about 4 to 5 kms. The main aim of morning workout is to test the physical strength and stamina so we can make it successfully to the higher altitudes for further training, and also to test trainees mentally. For me it was the first time I was running on slopes, instructors kept motivating us and tested our will to not give up. Alternate days we ran half the distance followed by a Yoga session. The most enjoyable part in Yoga session was the Laughter exercise.
Training Schedule for BMC
Since we were there for Basic Mountaineering Course we were taught with the basic techniques of climbing on rock and ice, survival in the mountains in harsh conditions of cold and in low Oxygen. The training was designed in such a manner so that every trainee gets through favorable to extreme conditions gradually. During initial days we were checked for our stamina and strength with morning workout for about a week. Alongside we had rock craft training at Tenzing Rock, where we were introduced to climbing and rappelling techniques.
Since I had this fear of heights I had a tough time at Tenzing Rock in the first two sessions. To climb was not difficult but to rappel down was a bit scary for me, I had to look down and face the heights. But thanks to my instructors and my fellow trainees that I was able to get through it, without them, I would have given up. They kept telling me to trust the ropes and follow the right technique. Now that I have completed my training I feel no fear to rappel down. I won’t go into details on techniques here, for which you can enroll for BMC from any of the reputed institutes.
During the initial training at HMI Campus we also did two treks for fitness tests, one was Tiger Hill Trek (about 22 Kms) and second to Pandam Tea Estate (time bound, around 14 kms), failing which would result in disqualification from BMC to proceed further for the training.
After training at campus we headed for the next level of training at HMI Base Camp at Chowrikhang, West Sikkim. First from campus to Yuksum in Sikkim via vehicle, followed by four days trek from Yuksum to Base Camp with overnight halts at Tshoka and Dzongri. Everything I was doing there was for first time in my life. I never did a trek for four days in a row, never had I ever been to such high altitudes, nor had any experience of being in subzero temperatures. On reaching HMI Base Camp we were welcomed with beautiful view of Bikhbari Valley, and panoramic view of peaks like Kabru Dome, Kabru South and Fork peaks in the East, and Mt Frey and Renok in the West.
During our 10 days stay at the Base Camp we had various demo sessions on how to use Ice Axe, how to wear gear for Ice and Snow craft, Crevasse rescue, Jumaring, stretcher making and also learnt techniques on how to climb ice walls wearing crampons. 5 days of Base Camp training were reserved for Glacier where trainees were given practical training of ice climbing, anchor making and crevasse rescue. Sessions at Rathong Glacier were the most important part of BMC training, it is where we get the hands on experience of how to use Ice Axe and Crampons, while on a Glacier or while climbing Ice Walls. We were also briefed about some of the advance techniques of ice climbing and rescue that a BMC A Grade qualifier can learn in Advanced Mountaineering Course.
During these 10 days, a day was reserved for height gain for which all trainees had an experience of making it to a peak. We were roped up in groups of 8, including an instructor. We had the chance to make it to the top of Renok peak, altitude 16,500 ft. I along with 6 others and our instructor climbed the rocky features of Renok peak which had a mix of trekking and quite a bit of rock climbing to reach the top. We successfully made it to the peak and it felt like an achievement to be on top of the mountain. I never even had a thought of being on a peak, to me it was not about being on top of the mountain it was more of gaining a victory over myself, by pushing myself beyond limits, by going farther than I expected.
After 10 days of training at Base Camp we finally headed back to Yuksum from where we had to board motor vehicle to HMI Campus. Again we had a two days trek from Base Camp to Yuksum via overnight stay at Tshoka. After reaching campus we had two days left where we had a cultural program and last day for Graduation Ceremony where we were pinned with HMI Ice Axe badges, the Badge of Honor for successfully completing BMC training.
Stay during BMC Training at HMI
On the very first day we were allotted rooms at the campus. I was in Boys Hostel Room No 4 with 7 fellow trainees. These were Dorm rooms with comfortable beds, quilts and pillows with clean covers. 8 wooden cupboards, for each occupant. While on our way to HMI Base Camp we had overnight stays at Yuksum, Tshoka and Dzongri, in that order. It happened to be Diwali evening during our stay at Yuksum. HMI was kind to allow us to celebrate Diwali with some fire crackers. We stayed in 10 Men Tents during night, each tent accommodating 10-12 trainees.
Next morning we moved to Tshoka where we reached in the noon time, while some reached by evening. We stayed at Tshoka for 2 nights where some of the trainees stayed in the Hut while others in Ridge Tents (A-frame or A-shaped tents). Our final halt was at Dzongri where we again stayed in 10 Men Tents alongside a small water stream which also happened to be the primary source of water for us and for the small number of inhabitants at Dzongri. During our lecture sessions in HMI Campus we were given a demo on how to pitch tents, which we trainees had hands-on of during these overnight stays. We trainees pitched tents ourselves for our stays at Yuksum, Tshoka and Dzongri.
After Dzongri, we set off straight for HMI Base Camp in Chowrikhang at an altitude of 14,600 ft. HMI Base Camp was our home for next 10 days. At base camp we stayed in Tisco Hut, there were two huts, one for boys and other for girls. During all these overnight stays we slept in Sleeping Bags. The stay at base camp had offered us the best view of the valley and surrounding peaks, as I have already mentioned above. Putting it into words will be an injustice to the beauty of that place, I would simply suggest the reader to experience that tranquility.
Food during BMC at HMI
While at HMI Campus, everyday after physical training we were served with simple yet nutritious breakfast, most of the times it was Roti (Chapati), Daal (Lentils), a Sabzi (mostly with Potatoes in them) and Rice, and Eggs. Since the training involved a lot of physical work so our diet primarily had carbs in them. Likewise we were served with nutritious Lunch and Dinner with option of non-veg in Lunch. Tea was served about 4-5 times a day, even outdoors during activities like Rock Climbing at Tenzing Rock, Treks of Tiger Hill and Pandam Tea Estate.
We were at HMI for Basic Mountaineering Course, to become Mountaineers. A Mountaineer when on an expedition along with fellow mountaineers has to look after arrangements for food and shelter for himself along with his fellow mountaineers. We, while on training at HMI, never had to worry about food and shelter, HMI took care of all of it. Even during our overnight stays at Yuksum, Tshoka and Dzongri we had Kitchen staff working , preparing food for us three times a day. Time for our morning Tea was 5 am for which the staff had to wake up at 4. During our overnight stays we were served with good food all the times.
At HMI Base Camp also, the Kitchen staff was there serving us with good food. Additionally, we were given hot water to drink three times a day. In evenings, at 5 pm we were served with hot soup, followed by Tea at 6. On days of Glacier training we were served with Tea and Biscuits right after training session at the glacier itself, for which one or two from kitchen staff had to be there, again a convenience for us, a mountaineer would be doing this on his own. Also, Porridge and Vermicelli was frequently served during breakfast and dinner at base camp. The toughest task after each meal at base camp was washing Mess Tin, for which we had to put our hands in freezing cold water resulting in frozen hands and shivering us.
My Experience of BMC at HMI Darjeeling
After these 28 days of training I can say that I got over my fear of heights. I had difficulty initially to rappel down from Tenzing Rock, but with support from my fellow trainees and instructors, and after doing it for a couple of times I can now do it comfortably. l have learnt rock and ice-craft techniques, I have learnt how to pitch tents, how to gear up for a climb or an expedition, how to survive in extreme conditions in mountains, and above all to be a team player. Beyond this learning, there was an experience that I can’t put in words, experience of staying away and disconnected from your friends and family, staying with complete strangers who eventually become your good friends and the experience of being that close to nature which is tough for survival. It is way more than I can say in words, I suggest anyone who wants to have a close look to the nature or to have some adventure, just signup for BMC course at any of the reputed mountaineering institutes of India and I’m sure you will also have an unforgettable experience.
To me doing Basic Mountaineering Course from HMI Darjeeling is an Adventure of a Lifetime!