I spent a month in Sonamarg, Kashmir, India becoming a (Basic) Mountaineer. The national institute certifying me so was the Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering and Winter Sports (JIM & WS). Established in 1983, it was part of the Indian Governments efforts to step up its game in the mountaineering field given that mostly European countries were reaching the summits of India’s and the World’s Highest peaks in the Karakoram and the Himalayan Ranges. The other renowned national institutes were Nehru Insitute of Mountaineering (NIM) and Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI).
Planning this for about 4–5 months, I was really stoked to get the course kicked off. The course was my first milestone in the gap year and I did it because I have always been attracted to the Himalayas. When I heard the news of the unrest in the Kashmir Valley over protests and calls for “freedom(azaadi)” from India, I was devastated. Do I still go through with the course and take a chance?
Before I made a decision, I expected an email from JIM&WS confirming that the course was still on or the fact that the media had exaggerated the Kashmir situation and that tourists would not be impacted as much. Nothing. Strike 1.
I called them up and asked for the contact details of another individual taking the course and I got it. It was the first and only glimpse of hope I needed to go ahead with the course. After speaking to the guy who would be taking the course with me, there was no looking back. We were to meet with the other folks at the Srinagar International Airport on 31 July 2016.
Week 1 — Camp and Training.
When I met a bunch of people at the airport, I was anxious. There were about 18 people there from all over the country (India) each with a different personality. How would I fit in? How would they be? These questions bombarded me.
I was traveling alone and that gave me an inclination to socialize. Due to the curfew we didn’t have many options in terms of food and ended up stuffing our faces with the crap they had available (Bread and Cheese). The airport didn’t have a “waiting area” or a “Lounge” so we were out on the airport lawn. The vehicles would move only in the evening so we all got a ride from the Airport to the Tourist Reception Center (TRC) in Srinagar where we got to eat some Aloo Paratha, Apples and Tea.
We got our ride to the JIM & WS camp and reached there on the 1st of August, 2016 at 1 AM. The people I met at the airport were all in a tent and were also made part of the same group. Group 3 and Tent 3 were born.
We were going to be together for the next month and getting through the course together both inside and outside the tent. The group became a small family and one of the smartest, most open minded and diverse in the entire batch of 81 people. I was really fortunate to be a part of the group! :) ❤
Like a flower, the diverse personalities of the people began to flower on the days we spent together. Some folks were really open and mingled with everyone, the rest of them took their own time but really came into their own towards the end of the course.
We started off as strangers in a conflict zone and left as family. As Brigadier Ajay Abbey of the High Altitude Warfare School of the Indian army said during our graduation, it is “The brotherhood of the rope”. (The camaraderie of the people you shared a rope with during a climb or a glacier march)
We were issued individual and group equipment, a track suit and a ruck sack to carry all the equipment on Day 1. We were allowed to wear our own clothes or “Civilian Dress” on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Physical Training was an integral part of the program and we were made to run about 4–5 Kms every day along with stretches, push ups and squats
I volunteered to be the “Food Member” read Complaint Box because people get really emotional about food and I got complaints like, “Did you see the size of the apples they served today?”. People forgot that I was responsible for Food Quality and Feedback and I was not crapping out the raw materials from by behind. But it was a fun experience in hindsight and I am glad I did it :)
We learned about mountain terminology, different equipment and the importance of taking care of them and keeping them safely, introduction to base making and bouldering, how to coil a rope, different kinds of knots (twist on a rope that does not need support) and hitches (twist on a rope that needs support), zip line and cross a river during Week 1.
Week 2 / 3 — Anchoring, Rain, Rocks and Ice!
The term Anchor in Mountaineering refers to the any natural or artificial object to which we are attached to while we get read to ascend or descend a rock face or a glacier.
I gradually found my anchor during Week 2. Thanks to a few bouts of rain, the instructors were unable to take us out of the tents, so they made the most of the opportunity and took a bunch of theory classes on Staying Fit in the Mountains, Shelters, Himalayan Range, Mountain Hazards, Cold Injuries and CPR / BLS (Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation and Basic Life Support) and AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness)
We started off our Rock Climbing classes which I was miserable at. My fingers do not have the required strength to pull my weight up a rock face, nor did my mind have the belief that I could climb them. The first few times I failed, I was really beating myself up and was upset. Then I realized that I was not there to become a master climber. I was there to clear my mind, meet great people and spent some time in the mountains. ALL of my objectives were being met. Why was I upset?
We were lucky because we got to train at the HAWS (High Altitude Warfare School) Training Area, HAWS is one of the best high altitude warfare training institute in the world. It is operated by the Indian Army.
I accepted the fact that I cannot be good at everything and made peace with being abysmal at Rock Craft.
After about 5–6 Days of Rock Craft, and a test in which I fared respectable marks, we were slated to being Ice Craft and were issued a fresh set of equipment including Crampons, Ice Axe and other Ice Equipment like Ice Pitons etc. I was excited for it!
We learned how to climb various kinds of slope gradients, how to rescue someone from a crevasse and how to arrest a fall when someone on the rope is unstable or has fallen down. The trek up to the glacier was a long and arduous one, so we were not going for Physical Training in the morning which was a welcome change. :D
The excitement was short lived because we also had to do “Glacier Marching” like the Army did which made absolutely no sense to me at all considering the fact that we were civilians and not Armed Forces Personnel. Guess I am missing something?
The trek up to the glacier was a really beautiful one, but the so called glaciers or ice patches where we trained were full of dirt and mud due to the movement of people and animals in the area.
A pleasant surprise for us there was the fact that we got to witness a small packed avalanche. Yes, an avalanche. Unfortunately I do not have any pictures to show you but safe to say, it was something truly spectacular!
Week 4 — Tests, Trek and “Survival”!
No doubt, we were counting down the days for when this hellish training would get over. But, we were way way better off because we got through it. By Day 21, we were awestruck by the fact that the days had actually flown by.
It was the last day of Ice Craft. As we trekked down, I slowed down. I put my palms in the crystal clear streams and shed a tear or two. There was no way I could stop them. It marked the last day of our training in the wilderness. I took a mental picture of the landscape. It was going to be my “Happy” place.
They took us for “Survival” camp where we had to cook and make a shelter which was absolutely useless because we learned nothing. The upside was that we got to take some great photographs and it was pretty much a leisure day for the instructors! Haha.
Cooking some delicious food which was way way better than what we got at camp! Slurrrp!
The other day we had our “Endurance Run” of about 6.5 Kms where I came 43/81. Not bad considering the fact that the longest I had ran before that was for 3.5 Kms in the plans and the Endurance run was at an altitude of 9000 feet. I had completed another objective, learning to run!
One of the days, they took us to “Happy Valley” trek. The route was filled with scree and loose sand which made it quite a task to go up and climb down. We didn’t reach Happy Valley, but I was just happy that it got over :P
After the trek, they took us to HAWS for an equipment demo, some munchies and a brief Q&A with a HAWS Captain who’s name I do not remember.
The rest of the days we had our written and oral exams. I was one of the folks who had a fully written notebook and the rest of the guys took full advantage of the fact! But, after the tests we realized that maybe we had studied a bit too much?
Hoping for an “Alpha” Grade. Whee!
On our graduation day, we got small badges to signify the fact that we would not be getting our certificates immediately. What made the event special was the fact that Brigadier Abbey of HAWS was there and was handing them out and also made a really cool speech.
First published on Medium.