It was in 1953 that the great mountaineer Edmund Hillary climbed to the summit of Mt Everest with Tenzing Norgay and created history. He described his passion in these words: “Nobody climbs mountains for scientific reasons. Science is used to raise money for the expeditions, but you really climb for the hell of it.”
It’s not easy. Those of you who have gone even for simple day hikes in the Himalayas would agree that going uphill requires stamina. But there is something called skill too, and having it makes the climb that much easier. Luckily for us, India has several government-funded mountaineering schools that impart knowledge of such skills at nominal costs that are hard to match elsewhere in the world. Most of these institutes feature Basic Mountaineering Course, Advanced Mountaineering Course, Search & Rescue and Method of Instruction courses.
BMC is the necessary first step for those keen on learning to climb. Starting with theory, the course moves on to teach the basics of rock, ice and snow craft, besides familiarising you with equipment and rescue techniques. To qualify, you’ll need more than a passing interest in the outdoors, basic fitness levels (ya, stub out that spliff now), and a willingness to take on long hours, rigorous discipline and 20-30 kilos on your back.
Still game for the obstacle course? Let’s start with schools then.
The well-known ones
– Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), Uttarkashi
– Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute Mountaineering and Allied Sports (ABVIMAS), Manali
– Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), Darjeeling
– Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering (JIM), Pahalgam
– Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering (IISM), Gulmarg
– National Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports (NIMAS), Dirang
– Sonam Gyatso Mountaineering Institute (SGMI), Gangtok
Not all of these have an active online presence – SGMI, for instance, is over 50 years old but relatively off the radar for most beginners – so it’s best you call and confirm the application deadlines and procedures. Often, it involves filling a form along with medical reports and posting the documents across to the institute.
So, which one should you head to?
Of the institutes listed above, NIM is considered the most reputed and, consequently, has a waiting list running up to 2-3 years. But what you need to remember is that the differences are marginal.
Shikha Tripathi, a journalist, climber and traveller from Uttarakhand, decided to experiment with different institutes for each of the three courses she has done. She completed her BMC from NIM, her AMC from JIM and an advanced course from National Outdoor Leadership School, for which she was awarded a scholarship.
“NIM was great to get my basics right. I wanted to go to HMI in Darjeeling for my advanced level, but opted for JIM despite its mediocre reputation because I wanted to climb in Ladakh! Being a reputed army institute, NIM has pretty strict protocols. JIM is also an army institute but lacks the kind of discipline NIM expects of its students. NOLS, on the other hand, has a very methodical approach and the learning is very situational. By far it’s been my best learning experience.” Shikha now combines her passion for extreme sports with her writing skills and has completed a number of treks including Everest Base Camp and Zanskar Chadar Trek.
Ranbir Acharya, a young climber from Himachal Pradesh, is the co-owner of Himalayan Brothers Adventure where he leads groups on treks of varying difficulty levels. The company has gathered an impressive clientele since it was started by Ranbir’s elder brother Brighu Acharya, who did a mountaineering course 10 years ago and which, as he says, changed his life and inspired him to start the adventure company.
Ranbir completed his BMC and AMC from ABVIMAS Manali in 2015. His home has always been in the Himalayas, but he still feels that the courses are advantageous for locals and non-paharis alike. “I think everyone should do at least a Basic course to improve their confidence levels and decision making, and to remove any fears. After this, any adventure activity you take up becomes easier.” He was satisfied with his time at ABVIMAS which, being sponsored by state government instead of the Central Government like the other institutes, charges a higher fee (to give you an idea, 14k as opposed to the 4k at NIM). But he feels the location – stone’s throw away from high peaks and glaciers – and the presence of experienced faculty more than justifies it.
Know what to expect
Both Ranbir and Shikha agree that these courses require severe commitment. “Often people leave within the first few days – because they are unable to do the exercises or obstacle course due to a lack of stamina. So it works like a test” says Ranbir. He recommends at least a month of active preparation through cycling or running before you take on the course.
In the end, it is your own will power that will determine your success or failure. But in the beginning, a good school will be the launchpad that directs your progress. While selecting a course, it is important to check parameters like infrastructure, faculty, course fee and location. And by location, we don’t mean the proximity of the institute to your garden door.
As Dr Seuss would say, “Your mountain is waiting, so… get on your way!”