I spent the last month at HMI – The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute – which is situated in enchanting Darjeeling. The institute was founded in 1954 after the first ascent to Everest in 1953. Once Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary reached the Everest Heavens, mountaineering was recognized as an organized sport in India and the institute, imparting training in mountaineering, trekking and allied adventure sports, was born! Tenzing became the first Director of Field Training at the institute; as such, the school is a huge part of mountaineering history.
The city of Darjeeling is what I’ll refer to as a giant game of Snakes and Ladders, ie. steep inclines and stairs. Just walking the town you’ll find yourself breathless and will surely have a burning sensation in your calves. HMI is strategically perched 2037m/ 6800ft above sea level. The first day I nearly died carrying my luggage to the institute because of the long, gradual incline to the entrance gates. The location proves that they live up to their goal of turning man (or woman) into a mountaineer.
I unknowingly registered for the all women’s Basic Mountaineering course meaning I spent the last month with 72 other aspiring female mountaineers. Although I was initially shocked by the number of participants in the course, I ended having the most memorable month of my life!
The course is 28 days long and provides basic education in trekking along with theoretical and practical rock craft training in and around the institute; while snow and ice craft training is carried out at the school’s Base Camp in West Skikkim at an altitude of 4450m/ 14600ft.
The first few days we rose early for morning pity (ie. workouts). Running at high altitude is no easy task and considering most of us came from sea level, we found the 4.5km loop pretty tough the first few days – we all panted like dogs. After our morning run and finger push ups we spent the day in class. There we were introduced to mountain equipment, learned about snow and rock terms, avalanches, were taught how to tie knots, and the list goes on. For the duration of the course we had 10 male instructors and 1 female instructor. I think it’s safe to say initially we all thought the instructors were a little nuts and out of sorts. Apparently, they claim that the more time you spend in the mountains, or if you live at high altitude, you’re more likely to suffer from memory loss. Whether or not that’s true I don’t know, but it was the on-going joke that let the instructor’s off-the-hook for their odd behaviour. Speaking of behaviour, I have to talk about Shri Kushang Sherpa.
Kushang was one of our instructors and is also a Director at the institute. He is a five time Everest summiteer and holds the world record for climbing Everest from all three sides including the very challenging Khanshung Face. I spent a lot of time talking with him because he knows mountains and nature better than anyone! At 57, he is beyond an accomplished mountaineer – he’s quite the dancer! Any time you see Kushang you will find him smiling and dancing. Other than mountaineering, he talks about belly dancing a lot and struts his moves just about anywhere. In the mountains, he danced over valleys, up inclines and down glaciers. But watching him on the trek was like watching Michelangelo at work; Kushang leaps up mountains better than a wild blue sheep. He has incredible energy and calves of steel!
Kushang and I getting ready to start the trek!
By the end of the course, we had gotten to know all of our instructors and truly gained a lot of respect for them, their accomplishments and their expertise. Most of them have climbed Everest and many other notable peaks. Overall, they truly love what they do and although they are strict at times, they truly care about our well-being and want us to succeed. I told the Principal during our one-on-one meeting at the end of the course that the instructors are what make HMI one of the top mountaineering institutes in the world. Although at times it felt like were we in a circus since they each of them have crazy unique characteristics, behaviours and attitudes, but the shenanigans are what kept us students entertained and during the trek there was no doubt about their experience and level of fitness.
The best part of the course was the trek and the time spent in the mountains at Base Camp. There we were isolated from the outside world and life was simple and fun. We would wake up early and eat a delicious breakfast, then walk 3-4 hours to the glacier. Once at the glacier, we practiced ice craft or learned mountain search and rescue techniques, then walked the 2-3 hour journey back to BC. Most of the time we had lunch between 4-5pm because of the time it took to get to and from the glacier. Not all the women made it to Base Camp. Although the course was fun it was physically demanding. We did a 23km trial walk to Tiger Hill (a scenic point in Darjeeling) with our rucksacks and equipment before we left for the trek to see if we could handle the load. At that point, some ladies left. Once we reached BC, some of the women fell ill, realized they couldn’t do the training or recognized that mountaineering was not for them, so they left early. The instructors repeatedly reminded us that this was not trekking with an agency; this was training, and we were here to challenge ourselves and learn.
Those of us who managed to pull through had the time of our lives! I’ve never laughed so hard and trust me, it’s painful to laugh like a hyena at high altitude. We cracked jokes at just about anything in order to keep ourselves entertained and warm. We chuckled about how unclean we were (no showers for 2 weeks) and how changing our underwear was overrated by the second day. We took pleasure in doing an instructor runway show – taking turns doing our best impressions of the instructors and memorable students. We made up dances and sang songs. I taught the girls simple kids games such as hot-potato, stella-ella-ola, and got everyone wound up over M.A.S.H. I had purchased a small board game in Nepal called Bagh Chal (Goats and Tigers) which was also a hit in the hut. Ruut (the only other foreigner) and I usually fell asleep by 8pm. We slept close to the hut door and had to develop crazy contraptions in order to keep ourselves warm at night; wearing everything we brought and spooning just wasn’t cutting it.
The best part was the only expectation at BC was to show up and do the task requested. Beyond that, there was no responsibility or accountability so we could be as gross and silly as we wanted. I think everyone’s true colours showed at Base Camp. You could tell that even the instructors felt like they could let go and relish in their passion.
Leaving Base Camp was heart breaking. Although part of you wanted a shower, the other part of you loved the mountain bubble we lived in. We had to leave a few days early since there was a huge celebration happening at HMI. The institute was celebrating the first successful Indian expedition to Everest that took place in 1965. It was the 50th anniversary and we were acknowledging the climbers who were still around to tell the tales of their grand adventure! We got to meet Tenzing’s son and the Governor of West Bengal came to our graduation which was very special and has never occurred at the school previously.
Once we returned to HMI for the remaining few days, things just sort of fell out of order. After our course, the instructors get their long awaited vacation and you could tell they were already checked-out. We did some additional rock training but most of the women were eager to return to their regular lives. Equipment was returned, good-byes were said but we’ll forever hold those 28 days at HMI in our hearts.
Here is a chant I made up and taught the girls:
One Two. One Two
One Two. One Two.
Where do we train? HMI!
Where do we climb? To the sky!
What’s our motto? Teamwork!
Who are we? Mountaineers!
What do we do? Climb Mountains!
One Two. One Two
One Two. One Two.
Me and a few other girls hung out at the institute for a few extra days to do some sightseeing together. Additionally, I needed time to search for a home-stay.
Three days ago, thanks to the recommendation from one of my instructors, I moved down the road (7km) from Darjeeling to a small town called Lebong. I’m staying with a lovely Nepali family in their giant home-stay house that sits in the middle of a quiet tea garden. Their adorable grandmother just joined us from Kathmandu. She is 104! I’ve started to train for my 72km Ultra run which takes place in September. Note that other than morning pity, I have not run since 2014 and running at high altitude up and down steep inclines has been quite the task these last few days. Slowly, muscle memory is starting to kick in but I have to be patient with my breathing. Either way, waking up and running through tea gardens is a joy! I couldn’t have asked for a better place to stay and a better location. The family cooks wonderful vegan friendly meals and caters to all of my requests (as I am the only guest). I plan to stay here for the next 4 weeks – run, write and wrap up book stuff. Since I was offline for nearly two months I have some catching up to do. But I have the perfect quiet hide-away to get everything done.
I reached yet another summit, made fabulous new friends and created fantastic memories.
Thanks HMI and class 308 for making my Basic course experience one I’ll never forget!
~ Jai mata di ~