By Karn Kowshik for BigRush
Does taking an art class make one a better painter? Can one ‘learn’ how to write a novel? These are questions that can be endlessly debated. As a climber, my question is whether a mountaineering course makes one a better mountaineer? Or is climbing an art that can only be improved by spending time in the mountains?
India has four government-run mountaineering institutes, and in October 2010, I completed the Advance Mountaineering Course (AMC) from the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) in Darjeeling. The training zone was the Kangchendzonga National Park in western Sikkim (an area restricted to outsiders), with mountains constantly looming above. The instructors were friendly, helpful, knowledgeable and hugely accomplished. The course director, Kusang Sherpa, had climbed Mt Everest five times and held the record as the only man to have scaled the peak from all sides.
In order to take the AMC, I needed to have scored an A grade at the Basic course offered by any of the four mountaineering schools – Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) in Uttarkashi, HMI in Darjeeling, Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports (ABVIMAS) in Manali, Jawarhar Institute of Mountaineering (JIM) in Pahalgam – in India.
The basic course was a punishment fest, where trainees were always attempting challenges above their physical and mental levels. To my luck, my basic course was populated by jawans from different mountain regiments, and this, of course made it even harder for us civvies!
The AMC, held over a period of 28 days, was quite another story. The course began within the institute, with morning physical training (PT) and 20 minutes of uphill jogging. The first week is spent in rock craft and lectures.
The second week saw us move to the training area in Sikkim, starting with a three-day approach trek. It commenced from Yuksom (4000 ft), went to Bakhim (9000 ft), then upward to Dzongri (13000 ft), and finally concluded at Chowri Khang base camp (14500 ft). This was a killer trek and if one can complete this trek with ease, one can probably survive any trek in the world!
While the first few weeks were spent fine-tuning skills that were taught in basic, the focus was on ice climbing. One learned how to drive ice screws (or tubular ice pitons) and fix ropes – invaluable to leading on the mountains.
The course taught one to establish higher camps with load ferries – all sorts of unwieldy luggage was carried to the next camp at 15000 ft where we stayed for a week. I got to carry a large iron stove that dug into my tail bone. A couple of my friends shared a 35 kilo gas cylinder!
To be completely honest, the course was not particularly challenging, probably because all of us were stronger as compared to when we undertook the basic training course. Knowing what to expect, most of us had trained accordingly. Perhaps it was because the whole mindset had changed.
In HMI, the attitude seems to be, ‘“Having been through the basic course, if you are still foolish enough to come back for more, you obviously enjoy the mountains and have what it takes to be here! So let us enjoy it together.” For instance, instead of the instructors leading at a fixed pace, trainees led themselves, with the instructors following us at a comfortable distance.
An important aspect of the AMC was the ‘Expedition Planning’ class. The days of merely packing a rucksack full of gear and heading out into the hills were well behind us. There are a lot of government permissions that need to be obtained before an expedition, and this class taught just that. In fact, the course required that an actual expedition proposal be submitted for grading.
This course is best suited for those who intend to make climbing a career option as it provides the necessary qualifications to lead an Indian expedition into the Himalayas. Learning the nuances of an expedition (climbing with porters, cooks and HAPS – High Altitude Porters) and expedition planning are essential for those who want to pursue climbing commercially. I also believe that the course is perhaps best for those who want to challenge the boundaries of physical fitness.
The course at HMI was often criticised as a ‘porter’s course’ with many believing it focused too much on physical fitness. As an aspiring alpinist, I actually think this is why the course was great. If you want to be successful the mountains, you need to be strong, and HMI made sure of just that!
What bothered me was that the course focused only on expedition-style climbing, and ignored many developments in the climbing world. Most of the action in the mountaineering world was in the alpine climbing style, and this was not taken care of in the AMC. The Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) does, however, run a separate alpine course.
The course costs Rs 7500, and one spent a month in the mountains with all equipment provided. Where else in the world do you get this opportunity for this price? This course definitely gave me the tools I needed, and with some training and practice, I see myself up on high peaks in the not-too-distant future.
The best part of this course, I have to say, was something that is absolutely invaluable – friends. They say the bond that people form in the mountains is unlike any other. One learns to trust friends with one’s life, and one sees individuals for what they really are – strengths, insecurities, fear, courage, all laid bare.
Whether it was rescuing an injured girl and putting up a brave face, or drinking smuggled chang up at High Base Camp, the friends I made are for life. And to me, this is what climbing is about – having fun and doing what one likes.
Karn Kowshik is an aspiring writer, mountain biker and mountaineer, and runs a small adventure outfit. He doesn’t aspire to scale the biggest mountains in the world, but wants to climb in the purest style possible.