Basic Mountaineering Course at HMI Darjeeling – Part One

Basic mountaineering course to me was a huge learning opportunity. As they say “life is the best teacher” so I chose to go some extra mile to learn as much as possible by signing up for this course. This is a 28-day course through which we get to undergo rigorous training at the end of which we would have learnt basics of rock climbing, ice climbing, various theoretical aspects like mountain hazards, illness, flora and fauna, mountain terminology and other knowledge which a mountaineer should know before going into the wild.

I was waiting for this course since 2 years almost and mine got postponed 2 times because of Covid and this was the 3rd time. This time I was allotted an all-girls batch which was really exciting. I couldn’t believe it until I reached HMI campus that the day had really arrived!

Day1 – Reaching HMI Campus: I landed at Bagdogra airport and with 2 other girls we got a direct cab to HMI Darjeeling which is around 71kms and 2.5-3 hours by road depending on the traffic. The cab charges are somewhere from 2-3k per car. As soon as we reached the institute we stood in a queue to submit our documents which was told to us – Vaccination certificates, Medical fitness certificates, Covid declaration forms and few others.

Once the formalities were done, we were allotted rooms and given bedsheets, pillow covers, a steel glass and a spoon. These things we had to carefully use/keep and had to submit at the end of our course to get clearance. In a room/dorm there are 6 people so we met and got to know each other for the rest of the day.

2nd day on-wards our schedule started which was a combination of both theoretical and practical classes starting from 6am to 8pm. On first day itself we were divided into “ropes” which is basically teams, each team consisting of 5-6 members as in total we were 35 girls. We were addressed by our course instructor who is in-charge of the course and each of the ropes were assigned a rope instructor each.

We were also taken for a round around the campus getting to know everything. HMI was Founded on November 4th, 1954 by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, to commemorate the first successful ascent of Mount Everest by late Tenzing Norgay Sherpa & Sir Edmund Hillary. The campus is inside a Zoo and houses a museum, shop, canteen, hostel, a classroom, a library, an auditorium and few statues of well-known mountaineers.

ISSUE OF EQUIPMENT: This was such an exciting part of our day, when all the 14 equipment’s were issued to us – Rucksack, Mess tin, Sleeping bag, Liner, Down jacket, Wind proof upper and lower, Harness, Rappelling mittens, Carabiners, Sling, Jumar, Helmet, Balaclava, Gaiters and Water bottle.

Apart from this to pack we were told by the instructors to buy a 2m long plastic cover and pack all our things inside it in the rucksack, this would keep our clothes dry and help in case the bag would get wet because of snow during our base camp trek. This cover you can buy in the shop inside the campus, it was indeed very helpful.

Our general timetable used to be like this:

5am – Bed tea – Have to go to canteen to take it if needed

6am – Fall in for PT – Have to run 5km and on alternate days we were made to do one hour yoga post the run

7.30am – Breakfast

8am on-wards our classes start

1pm – Lunch

8pm – Dinner

We also had to undergo medical checkup in-house 2-3 times and there was a medico who was available for us to go if required throughout the course.

The entire BMC can be divided into 3 parts: Rock craft, Snow craft and Glacier training.

First 8 days was ROCK CRAFT TRAINING. We were taken to “Tenzing Rock” for training which is around 2km from the campus. Each rope was given few ropes and other equipment responsibility and we had to carry it in our rucksack till the rock during trainings.

We learnt about different rope knots, rope coiling and harness fitting. In the Tenzing rock we had 4-5 routes for basic course where we were on belay (safety rope) and practiced rock climbing (Chimney climbing too). Also learnt rappelling which seemed scary at the beginning but once you get the hang of it, it’s great fun!

Day4- Today was our Physical fitness trial day and for this we had to trek with our rucksacks to Tiger Hill. This trek is of total 22kms. We all were shown in a class how to pack our rucksacks and we all prepared accordingly. This trial trek was to make ourselves known if we have packed our bags wrongly or the straps are not fitted or if we are not comfortable with anything so that we can resolve these things before our actual fitness test in 2 days.

Our total bag weight must have been somewhere around 15kgs and we left to Tiger Hill around 6.30am in the morning. The entire route is via cement road and we all had worn our high ankle heavy trekking shoes which caused blisters for most of us – for some it helped as it made sure they broke into their new shoes and they would not get blisters again during base-camp trek.

After a day’s break we had our main Physical fitness test on Day 6 – To Pandem Tea Estate. It was informed to us while applying for the course as well on this day that those who fail to complete this trek on communicated time will not be allowed to continue the course so we were really tensed for this from Day1. The trek is total 13kms and we were given 3 hours to complete it, anyone who was reaching even 1-5min after the time were asked to return.

This test was actually introduced just a few years back after the instructors faced a few troubles with the trainees during the base-camp trek which is actually one of the toughest trails. It’s because if people are not able to cope with this trek then they mostly cannot cope with the gruel base-camp trek either and this will cause more logistics trouble to the team. For this trek we had to pack all the equipment’s issued to us along with other things and we had to weigh our bags; minimum weight was to be 12kgs excluding the water bottles. Our bag was to be weighed again after the trek to make sure its the same.

We were advised by one of the instructors not to wear our heavy trekking shoes and wear sports shoes instead which we were using for PT. As this was time based we wouldn’t be able to walk fast enough with trekking shoes and this tip was really our savior. The first thing as soon as we left HMI in the morning everyone was literally running to make sure they reach back in time, seeing this even we had to run holding our heavy bags to make sure we are also not left behind. The trail is also on cement road 30-45min continuous downhill and then 2 hours+ of steep uphill. We hardly took any break in this entire duration as we all wanted to reach HMI in time at any cost. All of us started together but everyone got spread out the entire length of the trail where there was a big gap between us. There were instructors standing at each corner of the road to give us directions and to make sure we were on the right track – also to motivate us 🙂

Finally at the end of this trek out of 35 girls, 5 of them couldn’t qualify this test and had to return.

Day7 – Today was our last day of Rock craft at Tenzing rock and we had to do long face rappel i.e, rappel down a huge rock and had to jump at a cliff part of it to avoid the rock face and land appropriately. This was so much scary and fun at the same time! Apart from this we also learnt different other kinds of rappelling and practiced them.

We were given extra one hour free today to buy and pack only the necessary things in our rucksack as we had to leave for base camp the next day. Our base camp is located at Sikkim and that is where the remaining of the training – Snow craft and glacier training and all the practical applications of what we learnt in our theory classes would take place. We were both excited and scared at the same time as we had heard the difficulties of the trek + heavy backpack of 18kgs + High-altitude region.

I will continue the remaining of my training experience in my next blog so stay tuned 🙂

Do let me know in the comment section if you liked the blog and would like to know more or anything in particular about BMC at HMI Darjeeling.

Head to my Instagram @rashtravelmusings to see more of BMC added in my highlights.

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