Saturday, 30 May 2015

Basic Mountaineering Course, or How I Became a B Grade Climber!

Below the Bali Pass

I was pinned down by the weight of my backpack, sprawled in an inelegant heap on the trail, my nose inches away from the clear running water that washed over the black rock. Each time that I tried to get up, my feet, clad in soft canvas boots with the brand name "Hunter", would slip on the slithery surface and I would collapse into another embarrasing position. I could hear peals of laughter over the gentle trilling of the stream. My three companions - 2nd Lieut. Tapas Bandopadhyay, 2nd Lieut. K. K. Nair and 2nd Lieut. R. N. Ghosh Dastidar - finally took pity on my poor civilian soul and hauled me to my feet.

L to R : 2nd Lieut. Tapas Bandopadhyay, B Grade Climber, 2nd Lieut. K.K.Nair

I sat down on a convenient boulder to get my wind back. We were on the "approach march" to our Base Camp at Ruinsara Tal which would serve as the hub for the Snow & Ice Craft component of the Basic Mountaineering Course that I had signed up for. It was October 1978 and the culmination of a small goal I had set for myself more than 5 years earlier.

While in university in Calcutta I had borrowed Maurice Herzog's "Annapurna" - the classic tale of the first ascent of an 8000 meter peak in 1950 - from the Alliance Francaise. Even through the mutating filters of translation, the story was a gripping one of exploration, mystery and high adventure ending in a resounding triumph tinged with the tragedy of Maurice losing his fingers and toes to frostbite.

Like all impoverished students who could not afford to buy any books, I also enrolled in the British Council Library where I picked up the hard copy edition of Chris Bonnington's "Everest South West Face". The lavish colour illustrations brought an alien world to life for me as I constantly referred to the glossary of climbing jargon appended at the end to guide me through the vocabulary of this exotic world.

A visit to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling had further piqued my interest. But the mundane pursuits of attaining a Bachelor of Arts degree and the subsequent job hunting in the real world ensured that my little dream simmered on the back burner for a couple of years. For the record, I did put in a feeble request to my father to pay for the course in Basic Mountaineering.

"What?!" was his incredulous response. "You want Rs. 300 to learn to climb hills? You must be out of your mind!" I dropped the subject.

Finally the opportunity presented itself in 1978 when, after a year of what was known then as being "gainfully employed", I became eligible for my very first month of paid leave. I dashed off an application to the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi for the Basic Mountaineering Course in Oct - Nov of that year. Pat came the reply : "Sorry, but the course is fully booked. You will be placed on a waiting list." I sighed and prayed.

The answer to my prayers came in the guise of severe floods in Garhwal, especially in the Gangotri area where the course was traditionally held. Cancellations flooded in and I received a telegram informing me that a slot was available and could I please send a Money Order for Rs. 450/- to confirm my seat in the course.

A couple of weeks later I was on the bus from Rishikesh to Uttarkashi. There was a trudge across a landslide to another bus a little distance before Uttarkashi as the road had been washed away. Late in the evening I walked up to the Institute's campus, the fragrance of pine resin from the trees in the compound welcoming me with their delicious aroma.

There was a different kind of welcome waiting for me that night in the dormitory that I had been assigned to. My companions were all young officers from the Army who had either been co-opted to "volunteer" for the course or who had chosen it as a temporary respite from their regular duties on certain troubled borders of the country.

After they had got over their initial shock ("You must be nuts to actually pay for a month of hardship!", they all agreed), we moved on to topics more interesting to them. Once they learned that I worked for Air India, the national airline, they plied me with questions about the pretty stewardesses they had seen on publicity hoardings and magazine advertisements. Their fevered young hormones painted a picture of nubile maidens wafting through the pressurized passenger cabins of the Boeing 707s named after Himalayan peaks.

"Bed Tea" at dawn was delivered at the door to coax us to rub the sleep from our eyes, banish all the dreams, and head out the door for the morning assembly and ritual attendance. We were divided into "ropes" of eight trainees headed by a Rope Instructor and promptly made to jog down to the town and back through the morning chill. As my breath condensed in the cold air on the uphill grind back to the Institute premises, it took my mind back six years to the brief weeks I had spent at the National Defence Academy in Khadakvasla as a cadet.

A few days after learning the difference between a bowline and a bowline on the bight, we were transported to Tekhla, where some basic rock climbing skills were imparted to us. One of those - "stomach rappeling" - was something I never subsequently had to use ever!

2nd Lieut Bandopadhyay demonstrating "stomach rappelling"
Instructor Tashi Chewang (second from left in check shirt) poses with trainees at Tekhla

Our stomachs were well served, I must admit. The catering was lavish, considering the paltry sum that I had paid.

To ensure that we had an adequate supply of animal protein at our Base Camp the trainees were entrusted with a couple of goats to chaperone. To shepherd a recalcitrant beast up mountain trails for a couple of days is no mean task and there were countless instances when the hapless trainee assigned to the animal had to scramble breathlessly in pursuit of the fleet footed creature who would suddenly decide to race up a steep slope in search of some luscious tit bits.

Capt. J. J. Lall (left) and I with our Diwali dinner

The ten days that we spent camped at Ruinsara Tal were memorable. Though located at a modest altitude of around 11,000 feet, it proved high enough to plague a young trainee from Gujarat with the symptoms of acute mountain sickness. He had to be sent down the very next day.

Sketch map of area around Ruinsara Tal ( courtesy Himalayan Journal Vol 41,1983-1984)

We spent hours collecting juniper bushes for the daily campfires, sat shivering outdoors as soft snowflakes fell while the Officer-in-charge-Training, Sqn. Ldr. A.K.Bhattacharya, gave us a discourse on the nature and perils of glaciers, and stood in a long queue to have the delicious mutton curry ladled into our plates on the day of the festival of Diwali.

Base Camp at Ruinsara Tal

While one of us was assigned to dig a large snow bollard as an anchor, the rest stood around in the cold wind watching. The Squadron Leader took this opportunity to ask me if I knew Capt. M.S. Kohli. Kohli, an ex naval officer, had shot to national prominence in 1965 when he led the Indian expedition to Everest which put 9 climbers on the summit, a record which stood unbroken for many years. He had subsequently joined Air India in the Commercial department. I said, "No, I haven't met him. I work for a different department."

My teeth might have been chattering with the cold while I spoke and this would later lead to a remark in the certificate which was mailed to me a couple of weeks later - "He finds it difficult to withstand extreme cold". I had just returned after a week in Moscow before joining the course and perhaps the good Squadron Leader might have taken into account the poor quality of the cold weather clothing that was issued to us as part of our mountaineering kit! In 1978, the canvas air mattresses that we slept on were a challenge to inflate, the "down" sleeping bags felt as if they were stuffed with chicken feathers, the heavy leather boots manufactured by an outfit in Delhi near Kashmiri Gate twisted my feet almost out of shape and the cotton anoraks which were supposed to repel both wind and rain/snow had become porous after years of being laundered.

The highlight of our stint at Ruinsara Tal was the en masse attempt up Ski Valley II to reach the Bali Pass which leads to Yamunotri. Due to the heavy snow accumulation, we had to stop short of the pass. Looking back across the valley we were rewarded with a grand view of the Swargarohini peaks.

While the course was a lot of fun where I made friends with some great young army officers, the B Grade that I attained closed the door effectively to any ambition I might have had to pursue the Advanced Course in Mountaineering. Later, I was to realize that this was a blessing in disguise. Due to the bureaucratic and expensive nature of Indian mountaineering all those years ago, I was compelled to explore climbing as a personal and fun activity with a group of close friends rather than a glory seeking mass enterprise. I like to think that in a modest way I've had my fair share of mountain adventures and I shall always credit the course at NIM for giving me confidence to widen my horizons in the hills.

Like everything else in life, there is always a silver lining to any setback. The trick is to recognize it!

The Accidental B Grade Climber

The lapel-pin ice axe awarded to me on graduation from the Basic Mountaineering Course. Scrubbed and polished with Brasso after 37 years!


  1. Dear Aloke, you make B grade the new Platinum Standard thereby relegating Phi Beta Kappa into non - existence !
    What matters to us is your creative writing skills that you liberally inject with subtle dosages of humour.
    May your writing bank of Mountain - tales never run dry.

    1. Anil, thank you for your kind and generous remarks. As with everything else in life, one has to constantly juggle grades to stay on an even keel!

  2. A-dog, you have never been an "inelegant heap".

    1. Jeffrey, thank you for your compassionate comment. Hope all is well in your world!

  3. Great things you’ve always shared with us. Just keep writing this kind of posts.The time which was wasted in traveling for tuition now it can be used for studies.Thanks bamboo sheet sets