It was late in the evening of October 1978 as I disembarked from the bus in Uttarkashi. I shouldered my canvas haversack and inquired of a bystander in the bus stand as to the whereabouts of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM). He pointed to the other side of the river and I began to walk in the direction he indicated. Soon I crossed a bridge and the road began to ascend. It had been a long journey from Bombay and I reveled in the heady scents and sounds of the pine trees clothing the hillside. It had been an even longer haul from the time that I had wanted to do a mountaineering course in 1971. Having just finished High School and not a penny to my name the idea had been promptly shot down by my father. I came from what would demographically be classified as Lower Middle Class and there was just no money for such silly indulgences. I curbed my desire and settled down to wait till I could afford to pay the Rs.300 or so that the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) in Darjeeling was charging at that time.
I moved to Bombay in April 1977 with a job in hand and decided that as soon as I was eligible to avail of paid vacation time, I would fulfill my boyhood dream. This dream had been set in motion when on a brief trip to Darjeeling I had visited the HMI (Himalayan Mountaineering Institute) premises and been intrigued by the display of mountaineering equipment and large blow ups of climbers in action in an environment that was completely alien to me, having lived all my life in the plains. A view of the Kanchenjunga range had further strengthened my resolve. I read Maurice Herzog’s “Annapurna” and Chris Bonnington’s “Everest South West Face” (flipping frequently to the Glossary which this book had thoughtfully provided to explain the new words that I encountered in the course of the narrative : col, arete, carabiner, buttress, abseil, rappel, gully, avalanche etc.)
The cost of the Basic Mountaineering Course had now risen to Rs.450 at NIM. Thanks to my new earning power it was not a sum that was out of reach. I could also afford to travel in air conditioned comfort (a luxury in those days) from Bombay to New Delhi in the Chair Car of the Rajdhani Express! I took an overnight bus from the Interstate Bus Terminus (ISBT) to Rishikesh and then hopped on to a bus bound for Uttarkashi. A landslide had blocked the road some distance before Uttarkashi and my co-passengers and I trekked across the debris of stones and mud to board yet another bus on the other side of the slide. So I was understandably quite relieved when I entered the grounds of NIM and reported to the office which was about to close for the day. I was directed to my accommodation which was a room with bunk beds that I would be sharing with some of the other participants of the course. Fortunately, I had arrived just as they were serving dinner in the mess and I was pleasantly surprised at the quality and quantity of the food that was provided. For the amount of money that I paid for the duration of the course – a whole month – the catering was outstanding and an excellent deal for the price!
I was one of only a handful of civilians admitted to the course. Asit Gokli, training to be a doctor in Mumbai, turned out to be almost a neighbor: he lived in Khar West while I was living as a paying guest in Santa Cruz West back in those days.The rest of the trainees were young officers from various regiments of the Indian Army which set the bar rather high as far as fitness was concerned! Bed tea was served in the rooms at the crack of dawn, there was a roll call fall-in thereafter, followed by a jog up and down the hilly roads of the town. This ensured that we were primed for breakfast with healthy appetites. The steaming parathas and eggs were much appreciated by all. With bellies rather full it was hard not to doze off in the classrooms where the instructors made a gallant effort to expand our intellectual horizons by discussing mountain ranges, glaciers, peaks, avalanches etc. from a theoretical point of view. I boasted a slight advantage here: burdened with a curious mind, I had packed with me a slim paperback called “Encyclopedia of Mountaineering”, authored by Walt Unsworth and published by Penguin Books in 1975. I had picked up a copy from a bookstore in Hong Kong on 22 December 1977 – I know this because I suffered from an eccentric habit in those days of noting down the actual date of purchase on the first page of any book that I bought! Some of the army officers that I shared a room with had a hearty laugh when they saw me burrowing into the book at night. Coupled with the fact that I had been insane enough to actually pay for this course, and was using up valuable vacation time, it proved beyond any doubt that I needed my head examined! Some of them had been ordered by their units to undergo the course while others treated it as a good diversion from the truly inhospitable areas of the India-China border where their regiments were stationed. In spite of our differences we got along rather well, no doubt encouraged by my brief stint at the National Defence Academy near Pune in 1972. Perhaps they viewed me as a brother fallen from grace who had abandoned the military life for the seductive charms of civilian comforts. Once they discovered that I worked as a flight attendant in Air India, they would ply me with questions and queries about the attractive, young, female colleagues I must surely be working alongside and perhaps even having liaisons with! These were young men in their prime brimming over with testosterone who spent months at a time in exclusively male company in remote parts of the country. I could understand their predicament. During the next few weeks we became good friends and would spend the evenings comparing our disparate lives. 2nd Lieut K.K.Nair would regale us with stories from distant Nagaland where he was posted while 2nd Lieut R.N.G. Dastidar would break out into song (his favorite being “Yeh dil na hota bechara” from the film Jewel Thief)
After a couple of days in the campus learning about knots and jogging around the town to tone our bodies we headed to Tekhla to be introduced to the basics of rock climbing. Teetering on the edges of our Bata Hunter boots (the dedicated rock climbing shoes had not been invented then!) we managed to cling to tiny nubbins of granite on the huge boulders that dotted the hillside. Dappled shadows created ever changing patterns as sunlight filtered down through the crowns of the pine trees. We were taught how to ascend a chimney, how to set up a top rope belay, how to rappel (including a stomach rappel which I have never ever used since!)
A week later it was time to head for the mountains. A chartered bus took us to Purola where we bivouacked by the river as the night was clear. The roar of the river was to become a familiar sound over the next few days and indeed came to be an essential component of Himalayan travel since rivers and streams and nalas provide access to the high valleys and plateaus from where rise the majestic peaks we so desire to reach.
The approach walk to our eventual Base Camp on the shores of Ruinsara Tal kept us busy for the next few days. Our packs were heavy (in the region of 25-30 kg) and this ensured that by the time we reached Base Camp we would be fit for the hard work ahead! To make things even more interesting, we had to chaperone four goats who had their own agendas along the trail. Each of us had to take turns in handling one goat and this proved to be the hardest task as the animals had a tendency to suddenly dart up a steep hillside and the hapless handler would be dragged willy nilly panting hard for breath – you cant’s match a mountain goat for fitness and agility!
We spent about ten days at Base Camp, during which time we sat on the grass and listened to lectures about glaciers and moraines and avalanches, hiked up Ski Valley 2 to learn and practice what the course categorized as Snow Craft (this included hacking out ice bollards to use as rappel anchors and trying out the fine art of glissading), and trudged almost all the way up to the Bali Pass in deep snow.
On one of these occasions, the Vice Principal of the institute, a certain Squadron Leader A.K.Bhattacharya, and I fell into a conversation and when he learned that I worked for Air India he brought up two names and inquired if I had come across them. One was Capt.M.S.Kohli and the other was Commander Joginder Singh. I had to admit that I was not acquainted with either. Later I discovered that after his success in leading the first successful Indian expedition to Everest in 1965, Capt.Kohli, who belonged to the Indian Navy, was deputed to Air India where he was given a commercial role. He was instrumental in inducting another naval mountaineer, the above mentioned Commander Joginder Singh, into the airline. In a twist of destiny, in 1982 I happened to work under Capt Kohli in New Delhi in 1982!
While we were having this long conversation it was getting rather cold and I guess I must have been shivering on that rocky slope as I waited my turn to chip away at the ice. The observant Squadron Leader must have filed away this information somewhere in his brain for it was to resurface rather surprisingly in the certificate of completion that I received many weeks later in Mumbai! In the remarks column it was stated – “He finds it difficult to withstand extreme cold”. The report failed to mention that the warm clothing supplied by the institute at that time was woefully inadequate and anyone would have found it “difficult to withstand extreme cold” under those circumstances. As a matter of fact, just before joining the course I had spent a week in Moscow which was already into the first phase of its winter season and had not found it difficult to withstand extreme cold!
However, a solution was in the offing – the hapless goats that we had brought up to Base Camp finally met their end on the eve of the Diwali festival. Light snow was falling the next day as we lined up with our plates outside the kitchen tent and the fresh mutton curry was doled out. It was delicious! And the warmth spread out from my full belly and I was ready to forgive the Squadron Leader his rather uncharitable remark.
Even though I was awarded a B Grade in the course, it opened up my eyes to the possibilities and opportunities that were lying in wait if I could only take advantage of them. The mountains don’t care for human evaluations of skill and competence. As some famous mountaineer once put it : you might be an expert climber, but the mountain does not know that!
Sometimes, what they don’t teach you turns out to be the greatest lesson that you learn, obviously the hard way. When I returned to Bombay at the end of the course I began to find it extremely hard to walk… my right heel was swollen and the pain became increasingly excruciating. When I went to see a doctor he told me that it was a fungus infection gone extreme. It was the result of not airing my damp and cold feet at Base Camp for days on end and not changing my socks! This crucial bit of information had somehow not been imparted during the training. Initially I had thought that the pain was a result of the extremely ill fitting double leather boots (made by a dubious Delhi company called Supreme Mountaineering Industries) that had been issued to me for the course. Needless to say Mycoderm foot powder became a must have for my subsequent Himalayan journeys and the problem has never recurred.