Saturday, June 21, 2008

HMI - Part I

This is the first of a few segments about my brief stint (1 month) at the Darjeeling based Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI, official website, official website #2). The institute was founded in 1954 by the Prime Minister of India, upon Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary's ascent of Everest (the first in history). (As I stood in front of Norgay's final remains and monument, I was reminded of my time in New Zealand where I was traveling at the time of Edmund Hillary's death, earlier this year. Interesting happenings for someone only moderately interested in the sport of mountaineering.)
I was part of the 28 day, 266th course at HMI,: Basic Mountaineering Course. With an enrollment limit of 60 students, our course naturally had 117 students, for after all, this is India, where any rule can be broken. Safety and student learning thrown aside, a military high school had decided to send an entire class, and allegedly the Principle of HMI could not refuse entry. Despite demanding all entrants be physically fit, few students were turned away throughout the duration of the course for not meeting this criteria.
Over the next 10 days, we attended lectures, did physical training and yoga, and practiced rock climbing skills, before heading higher into the Himalayas (Future Blogpost: HMI - Part II). Our lectures ranged from Mountain First Aid, Map Reading, Knots, History of the Himalayan ranges, and Avalanche Safety, among other topics. Physical Training consisted of a 5 km run alternate mornings with general calisthenics - stretching, push ups, crunches, squats, etc. and yoga on the other mornings. Rock climbing exercises were conducted on natural rock as well as indoor and outdoor artificial surfaces.

The natural rock climbing area in Darjeeling is shown in this movie. Having worked and climbed (on and off) for the past 10 years with those new to the sport, I can not fathom a worse environment for a beginner. Besides getting randomly yelled at (mostly in Hindi, sometimes English) to climb faster or use this or that hold, belay techniques and general safety were sketchy at best. Further, honking jeeps, yelling hawkers selling pakoras, and tourists and schoolchildren interrupted our learning constantly. Miraculously, only one member of my team was seriously injured here (dislocated shoulder), although another left the program because of the "learning" environment at the rock.

The outdoor artificial rock (sport) climbing wall at HMI is one of only two UIAA certified walls in India (the other is at NIM). It's 50 feet tall, 20 feet wide, and overhanging in varying degrees.

Finally, just before leaving Darjeeling for the high mountains, we did a training trek to the nearby Tiger Hill. From here, on a clear day, one can see not only the nearby Himalaya that are visible from HMI (including the third tallest mountain in the world, Kanchenjunga), but also number 1 (Everest), and number 4 (Lhotse). Unfortunately, it was completely cloudy the morning we made the 22 km round trip hike with our laden packs.
(A quiet trek with 116 of my new bestest friends.)

View of Kanchenjunga from Tiger Hill (Same as that from my dormitory at HMI).

Food at HMI was, to say the least, very regular. For breakfast we normally had some white bread toast with some sort of potato subsy (salad/caserole) to go with some tea. A few days at the beginning we got a small egg omelet, before the breakout of bird flu here in Darjeeling.
Lunch and dinner always consisted of at least the following, clockwise from top left: water or tea (chai masala), roti/chapatis (unleavened bread similar to tortillas), chaval (rice) with some dal on top (lentil soup), pinch of salt if you want, potato subsy (salad/caserole), more dal (lentil soup), and if we were lucky, some achar (pickled vegetables for flavoring). On a rare occasion (~5 times in 28 days), there was the option for either paneer (cottage cheese) for vegetarians, or mutton for non-vegetarians (as omnivores are called, in India).

Stay tuned for "HMI - part II" to learn about trekking up to HMI Base Camp, living at 14,600 ft for 2 weeks, exploring Rathong Glacier, and a try for the 17,765 ft. BC Roy peak!