Before I begin a warning. Mountaineering is a tough sport. People have died doing that. Take it up only after due consideration. But the lure of the mountains is too strong. People like me cannot ignore it for long. This is the reason why I had been contemplating on taking up mountaineering as a sport for some time. I was a beginner and had little information about this sport. All I possessed, was a deep passion for the mountains and wilderness. A thorough research led me to find the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling, India as the oldest and among the best Mountaineering institutes in the world. I was convinced and thus applied for the basic course in November’12 at HMI. And so began an adventure which would end on a happy as well as on a sad note.
HMI Darjeeling, India
It was on 17th of November last year that I reported at HMI. I was allotted the hostel as well as the other basic necessary items as bed sheets, a spoon and a glass etc. Overall 60 students joined the course. As expected all were from different backgrounds. Almost 40% were the personnel from the defense forces, sent by their respective units, 10 odds were students from Nagaland sponsored by the Assam rifles all fit and fine, as always. Rest were civilians like me. I must admit that I was not at my fittest best at 73 KG’s and with lack of any significant physical activity for the last 8 years, when I had left the Indian Military Academy. Anyhow the course began on the 18th as scheduled. It was to consist of three Major phases and a lighter 4th phase. The 1st Phase was to be completed at HMI and included physical training, yoga, classes on mountaineering etc. The 2nd Phase was to be the toughest one when the course would trek up the mountains to reach the Base Camp at 14,600 feet at Chowri Khang in north Sikkim. The 3rd Phase would involve ice craft, including glacier walk and ice climbing among other things. It also included coming back to HMI. The 4th phase includes written test and outdoor climbing practice and closing ceremony of the course.
It was on the 18th that the phase 1 began with the morning PET. We ran for 5 Km’s criss crossing the hills of Darjeeling. The push ups, sit ups and other exercises were common. I felt great after the morning exercises. It was rejuvenating. The course was then divided into groups or ropes as they say in mountaineering. After breakfast we had to attend different classes on mountain craft, equipments, Himalayas, medical problems at high altitude, the rope knots etc. All these classes were held during the 1st phase in due course. In the evenings we used to watch short movies on mountaineering and rock climbing, I must say highly inspiring.
The mountaineering equipment was issued on the second day. The day followed the same routine with an exception of morning Yoga after jogging. The third day introduced us to the art of rock climbing when we were taken to the rock climbing area of the HMI. Now this craft was out of the world and I thoroughly enjoyed rock climbing and rappelling (including long sling) over a period of next 4 days.
I also did the indoor and outdoor wall climbing in the premises of HMI. It was a liberating experience. You have to overpower your inhibitions and fears alike and once you do that it’s exhilarating and gives a natural boost to your confidence.
Rock Climbing Area, HMI
To prepare us for the tough trek, we were also made to walk for at least 5 km’s with the heavy load of around 25 kg’s. It was excruciating and it continued for 3 days. I now realize that it was the most logical thing to do before advancing on the trek as it psychologically prepared us for what was coming.
Soon enough phase one was over and we packed our equipment, all set to reach the base camp at Chowri Khang, Sikkim. We had all heard about it being the toughest trek in India especially with a back-load of 25 Kg’s. It is said that Everest base camp is slightly easier to reach than the HMI’s base camp. Some of the students were asked to go back as their BP was much above the normal. Anyhow we reached Yoksum in Sikkim by bus, from where we would enter the Kanchendzonga National Park. There we pitched in a tent and rested for the night. Next 3 days were going to be the toughest and most challenging of the life so far.
Day one of the trek involved a distance of 13 Km’s of hilly terrain towards Bakhim at 9000 feet above mean sea level. We had to cross 4 bridges and only then we would reach Bakhim. I huffed and puffed, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind to reach the 4th bridge. Bakhim was just above the hill. With the resolve to reach the base camp, we all started to scale up. Up till now the trek was only moderately difficult with ups, downs and plains. But now the case was different. It was up, up, up and only up with increasing steepness at every step, the shoulders were falling apart and the steps were getting heavier. It was a test of strength and stamina. But the goal was set and I did not have to give in. Extremely tired but highly motivated I reached Bakhim. It took roughly four and half hours to cover the distance. The whole effort was highly satisfying although we all got a taste of what was to come in the next 3 days.
Bakhim, Sikkim, India
At Bakhim we stayed at the Forest Rest House (looked haunted :)) and rested. It was bitterly cold at night and the feather jacket and the sleeping bag were a big support. The next day was also a rest day. Still we were taken further up for acclimatization and brought back. The mess staff was Godsend, always a step ahead and provided us with food and tea at specified times. The ration and other required items had already been sent on yaks and mules. So food was not a problem. At this juncture another fellow student developed sickness and was promptly sent back along with a Sherpa. All the time the instructors repeatedly asked us not to hide any kind of sickness and rightly so.
“Dzongri” or the meeting place of man and the mountain Gods was the next stop for us before the base camp. At 13,300 feet above mean sea level, it was the next challenge. The way was completely steep, the tree line would gradually recede along with the oxygen level and the shoulders were already in pain. To add to it, the weather was cold and damp. All set, we loaded the rucksack at the back and started climbing up the hill which only went from steeper to steepest. Soon enough the thigh muscles were screaming in pain, the shoulders wanted to throw the weight and the lungs gasped for more oxygen. But I moved on. The mind was ruling the body. One step taken is the distance shortened was the mantra. In a state of tiredness but with a strong will power we all continued. On the way we crossed Tsokha and Phedang. The cold was getting intense. The water streams running through the way had completely frozen.
Above the clouds, Dzongari
Facing and braving these extremities, I finally reached the camp at Dzongari. It was two in the afternoon and this was undoubtedly the most arduous and challenging trek of my life so far. Reaching Dzongri was a delight. I had lunch and settled myself at the tent for the permanent camp was already at full capacity. It was freezing cold and strong chilly winds were blowing at their prime. The water we were using was flowing down an icy stream. Later in the afternoon we were taken further up the mountain for acclimatization and there it was, the world’s third highest peak, Kanchenjunga, the nearest that I could see the peak. This was the moment of my life. Up there we had left the clouds below which seemed like a lake. The raw beauty of mountains was at its prime.
The night was freezing. It was dinner time. But somehow I didn’t feel like eating anything. All of us had been warned of the altitude sickness. Appetite loss is also a sign of this. Was altitude sickness getting me? It was only a thought and I brushed it aside.
Next morning was the final leg of the trek to the Base Camp. It was an altitude gaining trek of 13 Km, where we had to cross the Dzongri La mountain pass at 14,500 feet, climb down to walk through Beak Bakri- The garden of poison and trek up further to reach Chowri Khang, the HMI base camp at 14, 600 feet above mean sea level. I could eat only half of the breakfast and started on with the trek. Soon enough the body was tired. The oxygen level was getting down drastically. But we all continued. Mountains after mountains we crossed finally reaching the Dzongri La pass. It was at its highest best given our physical condition. Simply sheer Raw Mountain.
After Dzongari La Pass
Still we continued taking it step by step and reaching the top in time. Getting down was no easy task at all. The pressure on the knees was killing. Finally we got down and then started on to descend another mountain after some distance. It was the narrowest of paths and a small mistake would have taken any of us to sure death in deep gorge sideways. But we managed to reach safely at Beak Bakri and rested for some time. The final approach to base camp turned out to be the toughest of all. It seemed near there, yet so far. The shoulders were giving in, the lungs were not satisfied, and the feet refusing to move, the leg muscles falling apart; yet the base camp was the motivation. I continued. One step at a time and then there it was, the base camp, the destination. I had done it. I was most happy to watch and step in the HMI base camp.
I settled myself in the hut along with other fellow mountain scholars. We were immediately asked to wear the snow boots(3 kg’s in weight) roam around and not sleep. In lunch also I didn’t feel like taking anything but had dal anyway.
It was icy cold and winds were harsh. It went dark very early around 4.30 pm and we all depended on our torches as had been the case during the entire trek. I took light dinner and despite tiredness, the sleep was not comfortable as I was constantly waking up due to suffocation and breathlessness. Somehow the night passed and it was time for us to climb another mountain, where on top of it we had a lecture on surrounding peaks. There the icy winds produced a kind of mild headache which people say is common at high altitudes. Coming back I did Side Rappelling at a rock nearby.
en-route the Glacier
It was amazing. However the concern was the appetite loss along with puking sensation. The personal hygiene had already gone for a toss and the dirty drinking water didn’t help. (At this point I must mention that we were instructed not to take bath since the very beginning so that we become habitual of such situation in the mountains.) The headache had also started to build up.
Anyhow next day the trek to the glacier began which was around 16000 feet. First we climbed a mountain and then trekked further 4 km’s and literally on a bed of ice to reach the Glacier for the ice walking practice. Now at this point of time the unexpected and the unwanted began to take shape. While walking towards the Glacier, I suffered from severe headache, dizziness, dehydration, energy loss and puking sensation. Still I continued. As soon as I reached the Glacier, I just blacked out and fell down.
Ice Climbing Area, HMI
The altitude sickness had completely taken over me. I was sent back to the base camp along with a Sherpa. The medical assistant did a thorough check-up, gave some medicines and suggested me not to push further as it may lead to severe health problems. It was disappointing to have come so far and only 7 more days to go. But as they say mountain will always be there. You can always come back only if you are healthy and fit. I had no choice but to accept the suggestion of the medical assistant to leave the course. It was heart breaking. By evening, 8 more people reported sick. Next day in sick condition we started back through the same difficult route. An instructor and a Sherpa accompanied us. It was a long march of 25 km’s with load, straight to Bakhim with no stoppage at Dzongri. It was an effort of a life time. We had to reach there before sunset and braving all difficulties we managed to do that. All of us were extremely tired and the knees were almost numb. However the only good thing was the increasing Oxygen level as we trekked down. Next day we started the trek to Yoksum and reached there at noon. From there we hired a cab to Darjeeling which dropped us there at seven in the evening. Next day we completed the formalities and made arrangements to come back home.
This was my tryst at HMI. My weight reduced and I lost almost 3 inches of my waistline during the effort which feels awesome. Although it ended on a sad note when owing to sickness, I had to leave the course midway; I learned many lessons of life. Not to give up in adversity, to sustain in difficult situations and a resulting strong will power is what I have gained out of this experience. I have now resolved to go next time and finish off the work that I couldn’t complete this time.