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!


  1. Sounds incredible- My jealousy of your travels is beginning to become overwhelming, though, sir-

    On another note, though, I've recently become a huge fan of Indian food. Hmmmm mmmm good, as Campbell's might say-

  2. No jealousy necessary (and did you realize that the word 'lousy' is the tail end of that one? crazy!). just "choose your own adventures", wherever you are.

    I'm loving reading your blog, by the way, I have to catch up on it.

    Oh, and about the food... yeah, my entire life, including just before this 4 month trip to India, I really did not enjoy Indian food. I really do love it now, though, and will seek it out from now on! it was a mysterious transformation that I don't understand (except for that whole "getting sick out of both ends" week I had a while back... that I don't want to know more about).



  3. I too completed this course in oct2004.You 'll find every thing though unless you are in for a wild expedition.

  4. Hi,
    What would you say the broad dates for the course would be? I was planning to apply for it, but I need to make sure the dates don't conflict with my university examination dates :)

  5. Megha, I send you best wishes for your university exams!

    I would recommend contacting HMI directly to find out exact dates. Contact info can be found at:

    In the meantime, another website lists their dates as the following:
    "Basic Courses are organised 6 times a year, during March-April-May, September-October, October-November and November-December.
    Note: May course is reserved for women only."


  6. Thanks!

    From your account, I gauged that the course was throughout the month of may.

    I will call and check with them anyway.

    Thanks :)

  7. Dear Holden,

    First of all, I wanted to say thank you for the posting such a detailed blog about HMI ( I am going on the April 7 - May 4th trip in a couple of weeks and relied on your blog to provide information about it. I live in Washington DC and took a month off of work to go mountaineering. For the past couple months I have been training as hard as I can with running and gaining some lower body strength. I have no experience on a mountain but am very eager to learn.

    I have a few questions that I was wondering you could help me with before I started packing.

    -Did you fly into Bagdogra Airport? If so, how would you recommend getting from the airport to the Institute?
    -Just how cold was it?
    -I have a backpack that I planned on bringing that should be suitable for this. Do you remember what they provided? If I only bring these items on the list will I be OK? Or are they omitting some things (towels, etc)?
    -Here are the items they want us to bring. I made some questions in red. Do you have any specific suggestions with the others? I still need to buy sunglasses and jungle boots. I might have to get the sunglasses with my prescription since contact lenses might be a hassle.
    (a) Light Hat for Trekking
    (b) Scarf Woolen
    (c) Underwear - How many pairs would you recommend?
    (d) Light Weight Rain Coat, Poncho / Umbrella
    (e) Woolen and Cotton socks
    (f) Cotton shirts and trousers
    (g) Jungle Boots/ Trekking Boots (Avoid PVC soles)
    (h) Small Torch with Battery cells
    (i) Writing Material (Ball Point Pen & Diary)
    (j) Toilet Requisites - Would you recommend glasses instead of contact lenses?
    (k) Sun Glasses with Side Cover
    (l) Waterproof Cover for Turbans (for Sikhs only)
    (m) Swimming Trunks (essential for Adventure course trainees)
    (n) Nail and Tin Cutter
    (o) Anti Chap Cream e.g. Vaseline/ Boroline
    (p) Small Lock
    (q) Track Suit
    (r) Repair kit i.e. Needle, Thread & Buttons, etc
    (s) Cap Balaclava (Woolen)
    (t) Pen Knife
    (u) Gloves (Woolen)

    I really appreciate your help with this. Any information you can provide to me is very much appreciated.

    Thanks again,


  8. Hi, QuestionAsker.

    First off, good on ya for heading over there for the course. It's very humbling to see what everyone can accomplish, given the quality of equipment that some the other students have. (One of the girls in my course wore just a pair of knock-off converse for the whole course, except for glacier work (in provided boots)! Bloody feet and all, but no complaining.)

    There are students of varying experience level, from none to lots, when I did it. You will be in fine shape, athletically. The only thing that might be an issue is the altitude, which you can't train for anyway.

    I flew into Bagdogra, and from there you can take a taxi to the town of Siliguri. There you'll be able to get a minivan (filled to capacity, plus a few) up to Darjeeling. The van will drop you at the taxi stand at the bottom of darjeeling (a very steep town, like most hill towns). You might be able to take a taxi to HMI (which is in the Zoo, by the way, you can ask for that if they don't get HMI). If nobody wants to give you a ride up the hill, you'll have to keep asking directions and just find your way. Hopefully you get into Bagdogra in the morning hours. If it's the afternoon, find a hotel in Siliguri to stay in. (There's no good ones there, particularly, I asked lots of tourists, cause I had to stay there after the course.)

    It alternated between shorts weather and snowstorm, while you're up at the base camp. In darjeeling the most people wore was a track suit / sweats. They don't like shorts, though, for whatever reason (something about being proper), so bring a track suit or two.

    Bring your backpack and whatever else you think you might need. Then, when they issue gear, take whatever is issued. Then, after a few hours of looking over what you got, then you can return their stuff, or just leave it in a room until the end of the course (to be checked-in with all the students gear). Bring a small towel for your time in india, though you might not need it on the course. (We got no showers while on the course. There was one day we could go into town, so I got a hotel room and took a shower. Then one day at base camp I snuck off and took a bath in the snowmelt, but no soap.)

    Buy glacier glasses, if you want to protect your eyes. $100 at REI. Glasses get broken but contacts get lost, your call. Maybe both?

    I think I brought 5 pairs of underwear? I don't remember.

    Nail and Tin Cutter = swiss army knife (nail clippers / scissors and tin can opener. I have no idea why they say tin can opener.)

    I'd just go with all smartwool socks, if you like those. If you are only buying new socks, bring an assortment; you'll probably fall in love with one and wear them every day.

    I always use a headlamp. Really helps with the bathroom situation to have your hands free. (Related, you'll need to either bring some TP, or buy some once you get to india (50 cents a roll). You'll need to supply your own for the entire course.)

    Do you mind if I put this as a comment on the blog? (sans names and emails, of course) It could help someone similar to you!


  9. hi Holden
    The picture of the meals served at HMI brought back nostalgic memories.
    Even though nothing seemed perfect at the time of the course, bad food, bad weather conditions, heavy loads to carry, misfit boots, crowded rooms, bad training...on and on goes the complaints. But looking back, I feel those were the happiest times of my life. I found friends who supported and encouraged me at every point in the course. Those times of hardships made for closer bonding because there was always sharing and caring among the course members. When I could not find a foot hold and kept slipping one of the course members offered his palm and I stepped on it to move higher, tea and maggi noodles at the canteen was always sponsored by someone or the other, during the morning 5 kms jogging when I was tired and panting someone always took my hand nd pulled me to run the base camp I slipped and fell into snow upto my thighs and could not move. with every struggle i moved deeper into snow. some of my friends saw me and pulled me out. They lent me their boots and socks because I did not have any...

    People from diverse backgrounds are drawn by the bonds of friendship and the result is a mountaineer.. determined, hardened and disciplined but at the same time compassionate. Ready to climb from peak to peak.

    I completed my adventure, Basic and Advance course from HMI, Darjeeling.


  10. Shikha, thanks for the note! I definitely appreciate the times for what they offered, I hope that I didn't sound too negative!

    I appreciated hearing your story! What do you do now? Are you able to mountaineer at all? Feel free to email me!

    hbonwit @ gm ail . com

  11. You may find following blog on HMI interesting:


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