Mountaineering is not easy. It requires skills, incredible strength and a wildly determined mind. Akanksha Khanna learnt about all this when she enrolled for a course at Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. She went through a month of gruelling exercises and training at few of the highest points in Uttarkashi. She withstood intense heat and violent hailstorms and emerged successful by the end of it. Read her story here.
Success lies in courage
Early last year while pursuing my MBA in Travel and Tourism, I started to look for ways to be outdoors. I grew up in a family where my father was in the Air Force. I had to constantly travel to different places and developed a love for visiting new places and searched for ways to follow my passion. My search was not successful until I read an article by Kavitha Reddy (Founder of BASECAMP Adventures Pvt Ltd and NIM Alumni) about “Making a profession in the outdoors,” which mentioned institutes that conduct mountaineering courses in India. Following this, I applied to work at Adventure Travel Companies, and got replies that stated that I needed a certificate from one of the mountaineering Institutes.
In December I enrolled myself at The Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, surprising my parents as they presumed I was too delicate for it. After a lot of consultation I pursued my dream and enrolled for BMC 228 May’2013.
Excited and anxious, I read articles and blog posts about different experiences and realized that it wasn’t going to be easy and that I needed to train myself. I began to jog regularly, and eventually started running until I could run for 45 minutes rather than 30. I then ordered my first trekking shoes, Quenchua Forclaz 500 and eagerly waited for my course to begin.
Two months prior to my course I started working with an adventure company, Youreka. As the time drew closer, some people began to encourage me, others gave me words of precaution or jokingly teased me about being unable to complete the course due to my tiny physique. Despite these reactions, I was determined and was pleased that I had the support of my family, although they worried about my safety.
I left to Haridwar on May 21, along with another person I had made friends with on the course. We then bought necessities from the local market and spent a day sightseeing in Rishikesh. On May 22, a group of us for the BMC and AMC took us to a town, where we met instructors who took us to the institute, outside which was a board saying, “Welcome to Nehru Institute of Mountaineering.”
I had a sudden smile on my face. This was the first time until now that I felt a little jittery yet happy. A notice board with our schedule for the next 28 days informed me that I would have to be up at 4 am, and assemble at 5:15. I was astonished. The tight schedule made me feel like I was in military school, and I remember calling home and telling them that I felt like I was in the NDA (National Defence Academy). After being allotted rooms, I socialised with the others. There were people from different ages, states and countries.
On May 23, the first day of our training, I got up at 4 am, and we all went for a run downhill. It was the best jog I had ever had in such green and refreshing surroundings. We were then put into our ropes (groups) for the next 28 days. Our Rope Instructor, Sub. Tejpal Singh Negi, from The Indian Army was a great instructor and person.
The following day was our orientation, including an opening address, administrative talk, campus visit, issue of mountaineering equipment, lecture and a movie on mountaineering. We then went for a walk to the hills, carrying equipment issued to us. I was unsure if I would be able to due to my lack of experience, but fortunately the uphill climb was fun and gave us confidence and an insight of what was ahead of us.
After a few days of theoretical learning, the real excitement began. We were introduced to sports climbing on outdoor and indoor walls. I was new to it and was nervous, but as I began to climb I realised that it was fun and required arm strength and stamina to reach the top. Our instructors were motivating, and I was pleased that I could climb reasonably well. Following this day, our days were packed with activities, lectures, documentaries and movies related to mountaineering.
Any mountaineering course has 3 main crafts – Rock Craft, Ice Craft and Snow Craft. The next five days were scheduled for Rock Craft at Tekhla, NIM’s Rock Climbing area. In these five days, we learnt all about bouldering, rock climbing, anchoring and belaying, long pitch and chimney climbing. Every morning, we would trek for 11 km till Tekhla, with our equipment and the instructors motivated us throughout. We took 3 hours to trek there at first, but as days progressed, we managed to reach there within 2.5 hours.
Then, the rock climbing sessions started with a lecture, demonstration and then practice. I personally loved Rock Craft, and I could climb on like a monkey although it took me longer to rappel down. By now all the rope members had gotten closer and we all shared silly jokes. After our day’s training at Tekhla, we would return to NIM in order to continue with the rest of the day’s schedule.
My sleep cycle was set by now. I would wake up at 4 am and be asleep by 9:30, and get the best sleep of my life. Any free time we had would be used to eat, shower, wash clothes and call home. I felt extremely happy sharing everything with my family.
After 8 days, we headed for further training to the Base Camp. On the morning of the May 31, after visiting the NIM temple, we headed for Bhuki. On reaching Bhuki, we took our rucksacks weighing 18 kg with equipment and belongings and had to halt at 3 camps to reach the Base camp. The camps were Tel Camp, Upper Jungle Camp and Gujjar Hut, and I had heard that the trek to Tel Camp would be the most difficult. Even the instructors said that “Tel Camp pahunchne mein sabka tel nikal jata hai.”
It was a steep uphill 4 ½ hour trek till Tel Camp. The day was bright and sunny. With limited access to water, we were all extremely tired after walking for a while. After 2 hours of walking, we found the only water spring during the trek and drank water like we had never seen any before. We then refilled our bottles and moved ahead, only stopping to eat lunch. I could hear people ask the instructors, “How much more time to reach?” and they would always reply with the same answer every time “hardly any distance left… only 20 more minutes.” Those 20 minutes seemed like hours. Finally, we saw the camp, and despite our exhaustion, we were all happy to reach there.
Our first day camping out, we pitched our tents and had the evening free. We also had a hilarious demonstration on depositing human waste in the mountains by one of the trainees. Our ropes were distributed with our food for the next 3 days, and this repeated until we reached the mountains. At home, I generally wasn’t fond of eating the kind of food that was distributed, but I took myself by surprise at how I hogged the toffees and biscuits we got!
The next day, we left for Upper Jungle Camp, which was a 4 hour trek. The route was extremely beautiful as we walked past numerous waterfalls and streams.
It was a pleasant day. On reaching the camp, we pitched our tents, had lunch and in the evening went for an acclimatisation hill walk.
By 7 pm, it had become pitch dark and we could see a couple of Flying Foxes giving us company as we had dinner. The feeling that we were now away from civilization made me more eager to go further up.
On June 2, early morning we left for Gujjar Hut. It took 7 hours and rained throughout, so we covered ourselves with our rucksacks, ponchos and barsatis, which made our hike difficult. The rain made the path slippery and we had to be careful and follow each other’s footsteps.
After every hour of trekking, we took 5-10 mins to rest. We put our backpacks down, rested, drank water, relieved ourselves, have a quick snack and sometimes massaged each other’s shoulders as they ached with the weight of the bags. This gave us instant energy! The 10 minutes given to us was like heaven and we motivated each other to keep moving forward, until we finally reached a point where we could see a lush fields and the snow line in the backdrop ahead of us!
Gujjar Hut wasn’t too far away now, and we could see the valley surrounded by Rhododendron bushes and the grasslands abundant with Buttercups and Marsh Marigolds. From that very moment, I just couldn’t stop saying “wow” and captured all the beauty I could with my camera.
In the evening we went for an acclimatisation walk till Khera Tal. The walk was again mesmerizing with beautiful meadows all around. Gujjar Hut was the most beautiful camp we stayed at and I wished I could stay there forever.
The next morning we left for Base Camp where we had to be for the next 8 days for Ice Craft. The trek was 2 hours long, and it was a clear and sunny day. As we approached camp, the snow covered peaks became more visible. The instructors told us about the peaks and mountain ranges around Gujjar Hut and Base Camp – Rakhwa Top, Macha Dhar, ChoroKi Dhar, Mt. Jaonli, DKD II, etc.
We then trekked 2 hours everyday to Dokriani Bamak glacier, where the ice wall was for our Ice Craft sessions. As we had to walk over moraines to get to the Glacier we kept our helmets on for safety. We wore our huge heavy Koflach boots and crampons and learnt all about ascending, descending, anchoring , belaying, rappelling, jumaring, crevasse crossing, rescue etc, with the help of an ice axe and ice pittons. Tejpal sir would sometimes yell at us for not anchoring the Ice Axe properly.
The weather constantly changed, and it became chilly and cloudy and even with our gloves and waterproof outers, our hands would go numb while we climbed. Ice Craft was very challenging as we could see the glacier melting and we always had to look out for rocks falling from the ice slopes.
Every time we reached our camp, the humble mess staff would always have our lunch ready. We never had to wait. Even at that height, they made sure that our taste buds were more than satisfied. In the evenings, we were given hot soup, which we all loved and tried to have a second helping. Post lunch, we had lectures, followed by a movie. We followed this schedule for the week.
All of us were even closer now, and had bonded well. In order to skip washing our mess tins with the freezing river water, we made shared one mess tin amongst 5 of us. On June 11, we moved further up to the Advance Base Camp, which took us 3 hours. The tree line had now ended and ABC was surrounded by Mt. Jaonli and DKD II.
We had white outs often and even experienced a hail storm once, which was amazing. We then began our Snow Craft sessions, which we all enjoyed a lot. This was the first time I saw snow and was very excited and it was very thrilling to practice on snow. We learnt ascending, descending, anchoring, belaying, self arrest, team arrest, glissading, etc. I had the time of my life during self arrest and team arrest as we practised falling down in every possible way on the snow slopes.
Once these major crafts were done, we prepared for the last bit of our training; Height Gain. On the morning of June 13, we were all set to leave for our height gain till Camp One, DKD II, at 15,800 ft. We wore our snow boots, harnesses, self anchored our ice axe and left. Unfortunately, our rope instructor, Tejpal sir could not come with us that day as he had sprained his leg badly. We were a bit taken aback but before we left, he motivated us a lot and wished us luck. After crossing the ridge, we reached the glacier and put our helmets and crampons on. As I stepped onto the glacier and looked around, I felt immensely happy about being able to be there at that very moment. I had never thought that I would ever possibly get a chance to walk on a glacier like that. I took as many pictures as I could of the awe-inspiring surroundings and snow fields.
As we walked ahead, slowly and steadily, we motivated each other and there was just one thing on my mind: to reach the top. We all began breathing heavily and our instructors kept motivating our rope.
When we finally reached Camp One, we all were extremely happy. We congratulated each other and took a million pictures. It was a great feeling.
On the descent back, we were roped up and had a lot of fun. Upon reaching ABC, we were welcomed by the mess staff, who offered us toffees and well wishes. How sweet of them! By afternoon, we had to go back to the Base Camp and it began to rain heavily. Our tents were packed and we ate our lunch in the rain. Right then, my poncho tore and I had to somehow manage to wrap one piece around my rucksack and put the other over me. Walking over the moraine wasn’t simple at all. It was slippery and many of us kept slipping and falling. I fell twice. The next day, we had a brief navigation exercise followed by a written exam.
On June 15, we had to reach Tel Camp without any breaks. The trek was 7 hours long and it rained throughout. The walk was strenuous and was the last camp in the mountains. Even in the evening, the rain didn’t give up. It rained until morning, delaying our departure to Bhuki at 7 am. Finally we left despite the rain, and the path was marshy and slippery, which got on my nerves. There was water everywhere and we had no choice but to step into the streams, which got extremely slippery. My Quechua, which was my biggest support, was soaked and couldn’t take the load any more. We were all completely drenched.
On reaching Bhuki, we were unsure of what was in store for us, and our instructors were supportive the whole time. There had been landslides and floods in Uttarkashi and the roads ahead were severely damaged, so we spent the night at a school that day. All 60 of us stayed in a small hall and we changed into the last pair of dry clothes that we had. Conditions worsened and we couldn’t go back the next day either, but I called my family and felt relieved speaking to them and explaining our situation.
The next day, we went to an unexpected halt, 15 km away. We crossed Bhagirathi over the bridge in Bhuki and had to traverse through landslides and caved in roads, wearing our helmets. After 7 hours of walking, we reached Lataa, where we spent the night at another school. Hats off to our instructors who went ahead, did a recce and then guided us forward. This was the first time that NIM had to face such an ordeal. Finally, we spent the night in wet sleeping bags and dripping ceilings. We were then given orders the next day to trek to NIM which was 33 km away, but we were ready to walk it all.
We started our trek the next morning and had to cross 3 villages, going uphill and downhill constantly. Thankfully, it was finally a sunny day. We had to walk past flowing water and muddy areas repeatedly and the walk seemed to never end. After many hills, we hit the road full of landslides and swept off roads.
By now, I had developed washerman’s feet and painful blisters and I was in agony with every step I took. It was already 7 pm and we still had the most difficult stretch of uphill left. It had gotten dark and the path was very narrow, so we used our torches. There were times where we even thought of throwing our rucksacks! After a 2 hour hill climb we finally hit a road. I was so frustrated by now that I broke down in tears, but continued to walk with the encouragement of my instructors. After around 2 km, we finally saw the NIM bus waiting for us, and we were filled with relief and happiness. I felt like I was reborn. We had walked for 14 hours! We all hugged and congratulated each other on reaching NIM safely at 10:30 pm and slept comfortably on bunk beds.
The next couple of days, we waited for the roads to get cleared, had a short graduation ceremony and left to our home towns.
A BIG thank you to the entire staff of NIM – our instructors, porters, mess staff, etc. It would not have been possible without their constant support and encouragement. This has been an incredible journey and an enriching experience for all of us and I will remember every bit of it for the rest of my life!