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A Student In The Mountains

Being in the mountains is enchanting. And then being there with 125 odd men who have willingly left their homes, kids, wives, and jobs behind, for a month, unpaid, to be in the lap of nature, untouched, unreachable, to porter a daily 35 kilos load, be beat by the sun, be shivered by the cold of the snow and ice, and be marred by the challenges of the rocky, icy, mountains is simply assuring. Assurance that what you’re doing is right, it’s good, it’s great, and it’s definitely a way of life.

In 2016, I had my first encounter with trekking, and it was an immediate connection. I knew I wanted to do this more, and take it up seriously in life. After a detailed search, I was convinced that I wish to learn mountaineering as a discipline, and Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), Uttarkashi, was to be my temple of education. Later that year, while trekking up to Dzongri on the Kanchenjunga Goeche La trek, I met with the instructor of HMI, Darjeeling, who was leading his batch of Basic Mountaineering Course (BMC) to the same camp. He approved my selected institute as the best for BMC amongst the seven offering the same in India. That was promising. Then, it was a two year wait before I could get in. Finally, in 2017 November I received my call for admission for the 2018 September batch, and I put everything on the backseat to make it happen.

Excited and nervous, I had very little idea of what to expect. Having spoken with a few, and having heard couple of tough stories about the program and its difficulties, one thing was for sure, BMC won’t be as fun as trekking in general is. It’s mountaineering we are talking about here, where your chances of survival are as good as you are, where the mountains are there to test you, weather always changes for the worse and be life threatening, tackling everyday something new which is also your first, and your physical + mental being is stiff from over-thinking and lack of usual practice. Yet, I was as excited as a kid going to Disneyland. With the Indian Sommelier Championship and its work just before the course, I was exhausted, and had trained very little as compared to what was suggested, actually none to be honest, and too much junk food and booze was floating in my system. All in all, I was a mess.

NIM was comforting. We were welcomed and my group was fun. It is essential that your group, aka rope, comprises of nice people as they are your family for the next month. ‘Cheetahs’ were tight and everyone commended us for our kinship. The very first day we were issued a 25 kilo rucksack with equipments and we were to carry it each day. We had PT each morning, lectures, movie sessions, and more. And while at the NIM campus, rock climbing was our focus. Tekhla rock-climbing site was 9 kms from NIM and we walked two hours each day with the packs to reach there. It was a sight in its own to see 125 men walking through the city to get there each morning. The first day was tough but then it became our second nature. Where we would beg for a rest break in the first couple of days, by the end of it, we would run to compete who finishes first. We were getting mountain-ready. Attending lectures, dining together, sneaking tea for each other to the room, sharing utilities, copying notes, teaching each other, sharing life stories, and managing to wear a smile even at its toughest beating, we brave hearted men were doing just fine.

After ten days of being at the camp, came the day that we left for the mountains. We were to be lost in the wilderness now, as a giant family of 150. The Cheetahs always stuck together. Our first camp, Tela, was a three hours walk up, but it wasn’t easy by any measure. It was a steep climb and of course with 25 kilos on your back, it wasn’t to be a cakewalk any way. We suffered, but we reached our camp. Rope 1 & 2 were split to share tents with our rope and Cheetahs (Rope 2) were not to spend their first night in tents together. Tela was crazy, we had to sit in the whole of next day as it rained like mad. We slept at leisure and studied a bit, and notoriously prayed that it rained again tomorrow. And come next morning, with all packed and ready to leave, the clouds decided to prove that they were there to topple over our plans and fail our planning. It rained more, and this time hellishly. Getting out of the tents, even to pee, was a challenge in its own. We sat in all day, ate in, and just slept. The Cheetahs were not to unite just yet. Day 2 of Tela was a wash away.

Day 3, while it continued raining, we were asked to pack and move. It was pouring and we could feel the pearl of water slipping through our layer even before we had left. It was to be the toughest day of climbing too. As we left, luckily, the few hours were a constant descend, and each person had the same thought that on our way back, we would be climbing this stretch and it will be testing. Crossing a few bridges and slushy patches, some slipping and be rescued from being completely washed away in that monstrously ferocious river flowing besides us, it was beautiful with a caution sign. We were wet, cold, uncomfortable, and heavy, it wasn’t a condition in which any of us had been before, yet the camaraderie of the group, the support of men not friends yet, and the zeal to beat the conditions and be victorious kept us pushing. By the end of the second hour we were all drained and drenched. Gasping of air, irritated with the rains, tired and hungry, we begged for rest breaks, but we were allowed only 5 minutes break every one hour of walking, which definitely wasn’t enough. It was a near vertical, steep ascend, and after the first few hours of rain, water was pouring down like a small distributary of a river on our path. With over 150 men walking the same path, it had become a slushy walk, slippery and tormenting. Our breakfasts and lunches were in rain, slurping those cold hard pooris in an aluminium mess tin while the rain poured wasn’t anyone’s idea of lunch. And this was the day we all knew we had earned our breads, yet, the mountains sees it all differently. This became a ten hour climb with the final few being just inhuman. Our trainers won’t let us stop, they passed derogatory comments if we did, we were shouted at, but it was the fear that we may be sent to base if we were too slow that kept us going. With shoes filled with water and our feet swollen, each step was difficult in its own, even more since the path was rocky and would poke us to pain and cause blisters. We were drained and ready to give up, yet we pushes us all like a team and we all reached our wet camps. We were asked to stay outside our tents and not get in. With tents allocated on first-come basis, Cheetahs remained divided. Dinner was served with rains still pouring and we were to eat out, barred from returning to our cozy tents. Imagine dining at a restaurant, the fire alarm goes off, the sprinklers go full monty on you, and you’re still asked to sit and finish your meal. Would that be a happy experience?

Next morning we were to head to our base camp. We learnt it wasn’t a long walk, nor the basecamp as wet as our current camp, Gujjar Hut, was. The biggest decision was if we were to wear new, dry, fresh clothes or save a set, and wear our wet ones. Now at -5C, right out of your cozy sleeping bag, no one’s idea is to put on cold, wet, uncomfy, muddy clothes, but hey, it is the mountains my friend, and guess who wins each time? We struggled at that two hour trek too. But the sight of a misty foggy campsite, our home for the next ten days was heavenly. The Cheetahs were finally to be united. And when the fog cleared, we viewed our glacier training site, our advanced basecamp, our final destination of summit camp 1, and the peaks of Draupadi Ka Danda 1 (DKD1), DKD2, John Lee, peaks. This was the sight we were to wake up too each day, needless to say, a pretty one at that.

Basecamp was a different experience. We would walk 2 hours each day, majority of it on scree, to reach our glacier training site. It wasn’t easy. For one, it was snowing all the time. Then, the cold was at times unbearable. And finally, the walk had become predictable and boring. As much as one may see clips of men climbing in ice and find it wow-ing, it isn’t as easy and pretty. We are in ice, it is freezing cold, in about 10 minutes your gloves are wet and start to freeze, physically it isn’t comfy, and in cold your mind starts to slack too. I found it to be the most testing part of the program. Getting tired was just so easy, and forget not it was all technical stuff we were doing. Wearing those heavy snowboots isn’t fun. The only good part is that you aren’t carrying them anymore. Crampons on those boots and walking on boulders is pure irritating. Yet, ice training, for me, was the most fun and the most memorable part of the program. It was gratifying. Those freaking ice pitons didn’t become pally with me at all.

Each evening as we returned to the camp and too shelter in our tents, we would crib, bitch, joke, and study. We were also thrown in the open for two hours each day for games, where some men would play volleyball, some played cricket, and most just wandered. It was irritating for those didn’t want to do any of those, may wish to study, or just fart and sleep in their bags. I wanted to study and practice knots. And post that, each evening we had lectures, and a dreaded post-dinner movie session.

One thing that differentiated The Cheetahs from the other ropes was the discipline we had, the unsaid rules, and an unsaid understanding of minding each other’s comfort. But the biggest one of ‘em all was the ease of communication and speaking it out loud what we had to say. It kept things in balance. Yes there were disagreements and quarrels still, but the following morning the air of awkwardness and discomfort was gone.

Moving to the advance basecamp, we were greeted with fresh snowfall each day. It was cold and we moved stiffly. Our eyes were glued to the peaks and the dreamy eyes slept each night with the promise of reaching the Summit Camp 1, our highest point. Some played ball and rest froze to stiffness here too. It was a pretty camp nonetheless. The day of our height gain, we left at 5AM, scrambled through the boulders to touch the snow, put on our crampons in the blue Arctic light, and, hereon, our path had us knee-deep in snow. Each foot forward was first dug in snow and then to put the next one down was a lift out from the previous one and then be dug in again. It was a tedious process just to continue walking. The sun was away and our breathes were frozen. There were crevasses everywhere. All of our physical, mental, and technical training was to come to prove here. There were times when falling was just so easy. At a particular stretch, there was a human traffic jam. We were to climb a vertical wall with crevasses on either sides. It wasn’t a pretty sight. We climbed up to see a sheer sheet of snow and ice, a white frozen ocean, peaks were distinctly visible, the clouds were blue, and the sun shining bright, thawing us off of our freeze finally. With the cold and the altitude, we were struggling to breathe. Yet, The Cheetahs, namesake for speed and walking in a group, were the first complete group to reach the summit. We were just a happy bunch, excited, and thrilled, with a thought somewhere in our numb heads that this was it, it was all over after this moment of celebration.

As we took each step back to our camp, slipping like butter on a hot pan, in complete whiteout, we felt brave, accomplished, and victorious. Each step was taking us away from what we had dreamt of each day for two years, closer to our institute and homes, closer to a first point of cellular network where were would tell our families that we accomplished what we had set out for. It was a happy yet a sad realisation, with no chance of recovery. After two days we reached our basecamp and we were to stay there for another two. Now we just lazed in the sun and spoke of our dreams of the future, promises of climbing peaks together, of acing the examination the next day, and staying as fit as we were then. It was an experience of its own, listening to music and glancing the peaks were were standing atop just a couple of days ago. Examination was to follow the next day and our rope was supremely prepared, thanks to our enthusiasm or being the most accomplished in our batch. Come the exam day, we had GPS locations to spot, track, an reach at, which we did and happily so. While running back from the last GPS point to our instructors to report, another realisation set in. In city conditions, we crib for the perfect attire, right shoes, a good playlist, and nice weather before venturing out for a run. And here we were, in high altitude, in beaten trekking shoes, no music whatsoever, sun blazing on top of us, still recovering from the fatigue of the past few weeks, yet running in comfort, just because of the men around us, the joy of competing, the feel of the moment, the mountain mindset, and the happiness of our souls for doing what we all were there to do. To do what that makes us happy fills us with an energy unbeatable, untameable, and undecipherable, making the pursuit of happiness joyous and easy in its own.

We trekked down the Tela camp and then to NIM. Back at the campus, after sharing a month together, we were to part ways in a few days, that we did. And now when I look back at this beautiful experience and what has it imparted, I could write a book on it. We human are a crazy bunch, we do crazy things. But craziness is sane and commendable if done in right company. BMC 254 batch was a crazy bunch and we made each other look better. It has taught me to be a team player, to be open and giving, respecting space, both, the one we are in and those of others, regarding a person’s background and stories, sharing, and being progressive. But the most of all, about self. I had never imagined carrying 25 kgs on my back and being OK with it. I had looked down upon self, my mental and physical abilities, and my capabilities. There’s so much we can do, if only we accept that we can in the first place. The camaraderie, the open vulnerability of all and our regard towards it, our conscious efforts towards maintaining harmony in a diverse group, pushing and motivating unknown men, all in the name of a common goal, the sense to prevail and be victorious in conditions set against us, and regard for those who enabled us to do so, all this and more. The empathy was commendable. BMC wasn’t just about learning mountaineering and being in a better state than at the start of it. Along with mountains, we learnt a lot more, about self, and others.

Each time I think of BMC, the hardship we faced appears as a fond memory and laughable. I wear a giant smile while narrating tales from our journey. The pals I’ve made is one, but the beautiful human I’ve encountered and their richness I’ve imbibed is unparalleled. I’m sure in different walks of life we may all rate our selves as average or second to some, but at BMC, The Cheetahs were numero uno, and that in itself is a sentiment we may not have had otherwise, individually, and collectively. I’ve returned with a bigger heart, filled with humility, gratitude, and respect. From approaching mountains for excitement, now having befriended them, I’ll approach them for a kinship unprecedented. They’re now my pals and I shall meet them for reunions time to time. That to do that is a beautiful thought in itself.

To crazy men of Rose 2, The Cheetahs – Lt Cdr Dinesh (Mr. D), Naman (Chillu), Yudhveer (Kullu), Nitesh (Muthbhediya), Anoj, and Beta Atul. Thanks for making it a pleasant experience and memory.

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