Basic Mountaineering Course experience

As I’m writing this piece, I’m trying to figure out the beginning of this. Getting a seat in Basic Mountaineering Course in any of the Institutes in India is itself a daunting task. They get full; well not just months but an year in advance. I applied in HMI (Himalayan Mountaineering Institute), Darjeeling in November 2016. I got a seat in women only batch of May 2017.

We were more than 60 women in the batch. We belonged to different parts of India and came from different walks of life. We also had one Japanese and one German lady among us. We had three women from Indian army and one from Indian Air Force too. The age group varied from teenagers to 40 years old.

The first morning in HMI, I woke up at 5 by the hustle outside our room. I came out to find girls staring in awe at the mountains far off. From HMI hostel, we could see the mighty Kanchanjunga range .

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Kanchanjunga range seen from HMI, Darjeeling.

After the P.T. on first day, we were divided into 9 different teams/ropes. After all, mountaineering is a team sport. Each team had 6-8 members. Each member led the team for 3 days in the course.

The course was divided into two phases: training in HMI, Darjeeling and training in HMI Base Camp, Sikkim.

During the time in Darjeeling, we had 5 km run every morning followed by P.T. exercises or yoga. Rest of the day was a mix of theory classes and practicals. We learnt knots. We learnt natural rock climbing and rappelling on Tenzing rock. We also had artificial rock climbing practice on indoor and outdoor walls. We received all the mountaineering equipments. After a week, we had our practice trek to Tiger Hill. It was 12 km one way. If clear weather, one can see Sikkim Himalayas, Nepal Himalayas and Bhutan Himalayas all together from Tiger Hill.

One day after Tiger Hill trek, we left for HMI Base camp. We moved to Yaksum, Sikkim by cars. From Yaksum, we began our trek to base camp. First day we entered Kanchanjunga National Park and trekked 14 km to Tshoka. We stayed one day in Tshoka for acclimatisation. From Tshoka we moved to Zongri. That day it rained like cats and dogs. We trekked the 11 km distance completely drenched in rain. Next day it continued raining. We trekked 13 km from Zongri to reach the base camp.

Base camp was a beautiful place. But the idea of spending 10 days in complete isolation with 50 people living in a single hut was something for each one of us. We acclimatised for one day. Then our glacier training began on alternate days. We used to trek two hours one way to reach Rathong glacier. We had ice climbing, rappelling, jumaring, crevasse rescue and anchor base training on glacier. Last day, we had our ice climbing test. Meanwhile, we had our theory lessons in base camp. After glacier training, we had one day of height gain. B C Roy peak of height 17,000 ft was chosen for us. It was a clear day. We started around 6 in the morning from base camp. But as it happens with mountain weather, it turned really bad during the climb. Five of us reached closest to the top. But 150 m away from the summit, we had to turn back due to worsening weather. It was overwhelming to experience what an expedition feels like. One day post the height gain, we left base camp. While returning, we covered the distance from Base camp to Yaksum in 2 days only.

On reaching Darjeeling, we had our graduation on the auspicious date of 29th may, the day Tenzing Norgay conquered Mt Everest and also the birth anniversary of Tenzing Norgay.

Twenty-eight days were amazing learning experience. I got more than I expected, be it the technical knowledge of mountaineering or experience of mountains. But the most amazing part of the journey were the people I met.

Love got a new meaning when I met the young lady who is working hard to save money to get married in Everest Base Camp to the love of her life, a mountaineer.

The army officer, 3 months into her marriage, taught me about leadership and giving your 100% in everything you do.

I have heard people complaining about how they are too old for things. Well, a 29 year old lady, quitting her government job of 7 years, just proved it’s never too late for anything.

I met someone who in spite of being selected for Masters program from London School of Economics, is crazy for Young India Fellowship. 😀

It’s said that mountaineering is like the mother of all sports because in mountains there is no second chance. You make one small mistake and it costs you something. But we are humans and we all make mistakes. I met someone who learned the lesson hard way. He climbed Everest but lost his two fingers due to frost bite because of not being able to see little snow inside his gloves.

I met Sirs who reminded us not to consider ourselves girls but humans first.

I learned there is so much scope to be better than who I was yesterday.

I hope mountains call me again, may be for advanced course. It’s time​ for home now. 😀

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Mountains of Darjeeling covered by clouds 🙂

Things to carry for mountains

If you have trekked in mountains with rucksack on your back, you know the struggle of keeping the weight to minimum, yet having all the necessary stuff. Having done a 7 days trek in Kashmir and basic mountaineering course, here are few things that I learned to keep in mind while packing for mountains.

Bag cover A must to have if you are traveling in rainy season. It’s better to pack all your stuff in a big polythene sheet before putting it inside rucksack.

Poncho/umbrella Again can’t do without in rainy/snowy season. If you go for poncho, make sure it’s of good quality. Umbrella may appear uncomfortable  at first glance but it helps better than poncho if you can walk with it. Choose as per your convenience.

Water Bottle Keep a 650 ml or 1 l bottle as per your need. Alhough water is available in mountains from rivers and streams, it’s better to know your route beforehand and decide accordingly. Some people prefer water bag with sipping pipe since unlike water bottle you don’t need to take it out of rucksack for use.

Sunglasses If you’re going to glacier or high altitude ice areas, keep one or more sunglasses unless you want to suffer from snow blindness for few days.

Sunscreen/buff Personally I rely on buff far more than sunscreen to protect my face from sun. It also saves my face from cold. Some people find it difficult to breathe through buff. You can use masks with openings around nose. Use sunscreen on any exposed area.

Gloves A good pair of gloves to keep your hands warm. Make sure the size fits you well. It’s better to have water proof gloves if you’re expecting rain or ice.

Long socks Help protect against snow, leeches etc.

Foot powder Smelly and sweaty feet is a common condition when traveling long in mountains.

Blister tape No matter how good one’s shoes are, one should always be prepared for blisters.

Wet wipes To save your ass, literally. Keep enough.

Vaseline Good to use on any chaffed area or otherwise too.

Torch Electricity is a luxury in mountains. I prefer head torch since it keeps my hands free. Remember to keep extra batteries as per your need.

Polythene zippers Good to keep things like mobile, money and daily dose of dry fruits.

Toiletries in small sizes.

P.S. I’d keep adding more to the list.

Green Trails internship

Like most of us, I am not living a highly environment conscious life when it comes to my day-to-day activities. But the increasing heat in summers, experiencing water shortage when living in Jamnagar (Gujarat, India) for a year as a kid, the occasional readings and videos about the shrinking glaciers and the hazardous waste being dumped in India by the developed nations, has often brought my attention towards our environment (It also led me to find out about the Masters course in Wildlife and Conservation. Another interesting thing 🙂 ). So when one of my friend sent me a link to Green Trails internship, I explored the idea.

Green Trails internship is a one month internship program in the Himalayas by Indiahikes. Indiahikes is a trek documenting organization. They also organize treks. So what led Indiahikes to the Green Trails project?

Well, trekking in Indian Himalayas was a rare sight in the 1990s. But it has gained significant momentum in the last decade. Nowadays we can identify quite a number of people around us going for treks in the mountains. Why do we go on treks? For the love of nature, the beauty, the serenity that those few days offer us away from the hustle of our city lives. But while we engage ourselves in this fun activity, we often neglect one important aspect of it. The waste we generate on these treks can potentially ruin the beauty and the nature of these places in the mountains in the decades to come.

Folks at Indiahikes realized the gravity of this early on. It led them to start the Green Trails project to make trekking in Himalayas a sustainable pursuit. Read here to know more about the Green Trails project.

The process to become a Green Trails intern is quite simple. First, send an email as mentioned on the website. In response to the email, you receive a questionnaire. It includes questions regarding your basic details as well as your common understanding of the cause. Next step is a Skype interview which informs you more about nature of the work and the project. Once selected, you get to know the location of the internship. It’s usually a remote Himalayan village. Your accommodation and meals are taken care of. If you finish the one month successfully, you get Rs. 2500 per week as stipend. You may also get a chance to go on one of the beautiful Himalayan treks organized by Indiahikes during your stay.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t join the internship due to my recent LASIK eye surgery. But I think one can make anything out of this one month. It can serve as an opportunity to learn about the ground level issues, to contribute by driving a project all alone and to experience the mountains with free food and stay.

Recently I also came across someone who studied environmental studies and made changes in her lifestyle to reduce the wastes that she puts out. Watch it in this video.

It’s a relief to come across people who are still doing whatever small contribution they are able to make towards the greater good. (And then we have world leaders who think Global warming is a myth. Sigh!)

Anyways, still optimistic 🙂

Lessons from the Mountains

Almost six months back, I went on an 8 days 7 nights trek to Kashmir. We were 5 people apart from the trek guides, cooks and few other helping hands. The trek started from Sonmarg, 90 km from Srinagar. We trekked a distance of 10-12 km in the mountains every day and pitched our tents near beautiful lakes every night (That’s why the trek is called Kashmir Great Lakes Trek. It encompasses Nichnai river, Vishnusar lake, Kishansar lake, Gadsar lake, Satsar lake and Gangabal twin lakes). We trekked through mountains of varied texture: some of them covered with grass, few with bare soil – found them the most risky due to insufficient grip while others covered with large boulders – found them safest but strenuous to trek. I was mesmerized by the view of glaciers – mountains covered with vast thick white ice sheets. It led me to venture out to reach the glaciers on two different occasions. I failed in my attempts but that’s when I learned about my fears and the mightiness of mountains. Although I managed a much closer yet so distant view of those glaciers. May be some other time! 🙂

On the first occasion, we reached our destination camp site for the day early in the afternoon. After lunch and a nap, I, along with a fellow trekker, went to see the lake which was few hundred meters away from our camp. The lake was greenish-blue in color. On the left side of the lake stood the giant, partially covered with ice sheet, guarded by one or two mountains in the front. The guard mountain, adjacent to the lake, had a bare texture with few shrubs growing here and there. As I expressed my mind to try going closer to the glacier mountain, I was joined in the pursuit by the fellow trekker. We began our ascent by the side of the lake. There was no clear trail to go up from that side. Half way up the mountain, I realized that I am not completely devoid of acrophobia, especially when there is a lake at the base of the mountain (don’t know swimming yet 😐 ). Anyway there was no going back. When we reached the top of the guard mountain, the sun began to set in. I found out there was still a mountain to cross before we could step on the glacier mountain. We decided to descend to our camp. In the hindsight, I knew ‘Be sure to think about getting down, before climbing up a mountain’.

The second opportunity appeared on the second-last day of the trek. It was a rest day since we had trekked 23 km the previous day. We had our camp set near Gangabal lake. The lake is situated at the base of the magnificent glacier – the harmukh peak. The guide told us that it’s the highest glacier in that region. The peak of the glacier was eclipsed by clouds. I, along with a fellow trekker, decided to trek as close as possible to the glacier. We informed the trek guide about the direction we chose to trek in. We also asked them to look for us after 3 p.m. We started from our camp site a little late around 11 a.m. after the lazy morning. First hurdle on our way was a brook flowing to the lake. The flow was fast and the rocks were slippery. We managed to cross it safely after spending more than 30 minutes looking for an ideal spot to cross it. We trekked for next two hours before we reached a beautiful cliff. The rocks on that cliff made a natural throne like structure. It was an idyllic spot. The large lake looked so tiny from that height. Our tents were difficult to spot. We could see the glacier clearly from that place though we were still one or more mountains away from it. That’s what I experienced; mountains deceive our perception. The peaks always felt so close but were still so far away. We had a granola bar in lunch and decided to return since we were already late. We reached back to the camp at 5 p.m. just before the trek leaders began to look for us.

IMG_20160929_125911.jpgThe Harmukh glacier 🙂

I couldn’t reach the glaciers but those journeys were worth the efforts. 🙂

Mountains are magnificent natural creations but they are harsh too. After all; nature doesn’t bend its rules for anyone.

Adventures are good but we better be sagacious to know when to turn back because it’s always about the journey.

Enjoy trekking 🙂