Boot Camp at 20,000ft
5:30 am Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarkashi, India
“I hope all you gentlemen are ready for a bit of light exercise this morning!” the instructor from the Indian Army’s High Altitude Warfare School booms.
There’s silence in the ranks of the new recruits – sorry, trainees – gathered under the tall pine trees in the grounds of the institute. No one is sure just what the hell was going on. I am not sure how many of us were expecting this when we signed up to do a mountaineering course.
“Are you ready!”
“Yes!” we reply in unison.
“Okay then. See that white temple on the other hill? That is where we are going to run to.”
The temple was a small white speck on the opposite mountain, located at a slightly higher altitude than the institute. We were separated from the other mountain by a wide river valley through which the swirling waters of the mighty Bhagirati River flowed.
“You have to keep up with the instructors. Ready? Go!”
At the order our sleep-numbed bodies exploded into action. The orderly lines of trainees broke up and we poured down the road. Since I had already spent a month here the previous year doing a basic mountaineering course I knew better than to compete this early in the run. The altitude and the inclines have their own special way of dealing with excess enthusiasm.
Down the hill, across the bridge and then up the other side towards the temple we ran. Soon the field spread out and I passed many of the over-enthusiastic guys who were either doubled over or leaning against trees by the side of the road. Panting and wheezing like asthmatics, we somehow made it up the hill to the temple and fell flat on the grass.
“Get up! No resting! Keep moving! Get down for push ups! Down! Up! Down! Up! Down! Stay down…lower! Up! Down…..Okay, get up! Star jumps! Up! Up! Up! Up! Running on the spot! Go! Faster! Faster! Faster! Down again for push ups! Down, up, down, stay there, up…..Prepare for sit ups! Up, down, up….”
This was the first day of a month-long advanced mountaineering course I had signed up for. Since the government-run institute is managed by the Indian Army, what you end up getting alongside technical instruction is a whole lot of fitness training and discipline. The institute’s web site clearly states “The Institute reserves the right to expel any candidate from the course for misconduct or lack of discipline.”
Think of it as Full Metal Jacket in the Himalaya. Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The first week of the course was spent rock climbing and camping out at the crag outside the town of Uttarkashi. We learnt essential skills like multi pitch and aid climbing, bolting, first aid, rescue procedures and plenty of rope work. Of course, during this time we were also subjected to long marches with loaded rucksacks, cross country runs and a whole lot of push ups. None of us ever had any trouble getting to sleep at night during the entire course.
Along with the technical instruction the instructors, all of whom have an impressive list of Himalayan summits to their credit, went out of their way to instil in us a respect for the mountains and their fragile eco-system. A single wayward wrapper spotted along the trail could result in the cancellation of the next day’s supply of sweets and chocolate.
Before long we found ourselves among the real mountains, humping huge rucksacks through verdant Himalayan valleys. As advanced course trainees we were assigned a 19,000 foot mountain, supplied with all the necessary supplies and equipment and expected to plan our own expedition.
Planning the expedition was no mean feat considering our group was made up of a Captain from the infantry, a businessman from Bombay, a Hindi language school teacher, a fighter pilot who flew Russian-made Migs and a college student. Everyone was convinced they knew the best way to skin a cat.
Thankfully once the climb began all differences fell by the wayside and we all pulled together to climb our mountain. We sweated, shivered and climbed together for three weeks.
After three day’s trekking through pristine pine and rhododendron forests we climbed past the tree line and into the high country. We established Advanced Base Camp on the lateral moraine of a glacier at about 13,000 feet above sea level. Here the instructors conducted classes on technical ice climbing, glacier crossing, crevasse rescue and building snow caves. Unfortunately, the early morning exercising didn’t stop here. Doing bare-handed push ups in the snow at 13,000 feet is quite an experience.
Once the actual climbing began the instructors took a step back and let us apply our newly acquired skills. They simply tagged along to watch over us and only intervened if the situation got dangerous.
During the climb we learnt to dread the term “load ferry”. This involved loading our rucksacks with supplies and technical equipment and hauling the load to a cache high up on the mountain. The loads were excruciatingly heavy, the tracks rough and the slopes steep. What was worse, once we had dumped our loads at the assigned location we then had to return to camp the same day, often in the rain. These load ferries reduced grown men to tears, and this time I am not exaggerating.
The reward, though, made all the pain, sweat and shivering seem worthwhile. Standing on the summit of Draupadi Ka Danda on that bright spring morning in a frozen sea of mountains will remain one of my most memorable moments; having my first hot bath in nearly a month would have to rank a close second!