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  • Writer's pictureNinja

Scaling New Heights: A Comprehensive Guide to the Basic Mountaineering Course

Updated: Jan 22

BMC 343, HMI Darjeeling

It’s the 5th of February, I’m sitting at home skimming through all of the websites of the mountaineering institutes in India. I know for a fact that HMI is one of the best, so I end up sending them an email for vacancies. They reply back saying there are limited openings in BMC 343 which commences on the 1st of April.

Fast forward to the 31st of March, and there we are – checking in to one of India’s finest institutes for mountaineering on a cold, wet evening.

The institute

For those of you who are unaware about mountaineering courses and institutes etc., here’s a quick break down for you:

  1. BMC – Basic Mountaineering Course, no eligibility criteria, ~ 28 days

  2. AMC – Advance Mountaineering Course, need an “A grade” in BMC, ~ 28 days

  3. MOI – Method of Instruction, need an “A Grade” in AMC, ~ 22 days

  4. S&R – Search & Rescue, need an “A Grade” in AMC, ~ 22 days

Let’s break down the 28 days training into 4 phases, as per the colour of the terrain we’re at;

  1. The green: ~ 6,700 ft to 8,500 ft (the initial prep)

  2. The brown: ~ 8,500 ft to 14,600 ft (trek to the base camp)

  3. The white: ~ 14,600 ft to 16,500 ft (training at the base camp)

  4. The colourless: (the walk back home)

The Green

These are the initial days at the institute which was from the 1st to the 8th of April. It starts with checking-in to your hostel, where you are segregated into rooms (state-wise). Our room no.6 consists of 8 guys from Delhi, Gujarat and Rai Bareilly.

The institute: The HMI campus is beautiful. It’s a small space allocated to the students to walk around freely, but it’s lined with flowers and trees which make up for a pretty sight. The boys hostel has 8 beds in each dorm with a common washroom on every floor, girls hostel has 4 in each with an attached washroom. Our movement is restricted to 2 climbing walls, a restaurant, a museum, an auditorium, a library and a hall / makeshift classroom.

Sunset at the institute

Gadilus (maybe)

Nights of white satin

Sir Tenzing Norgay Sherpa’s statue

Girls left, but the boys are always right :p

The ropes: We are divided into “ropes” – teams of 8-9 individuals with whom we will be spending the rest of our course with, and each rope is assigned an instructor. Simply put: your rope is your family for the rest of the course, and your instructor is the head of the family. I was assigned to Rope 1, which was the best I could have asked for. Our rope consisted of fighters, and not quitters and whiners, and was headed by one of the finest instructors at the institute – Sumendu sir.

Rope 1 with our instructor, Sumendu sir (camera shy: Ali)

The people: It’s a diverse group of 70 people, a mix of men and women, the youngest being 18 years old and the oldest turning 60 during the course itself. People from all over the country, coming together to fulfil their dreams of becoming a mountaineer.

The morning PT & Yoga: Our days usually start around 4-5am with chai, followed by a 6am run + exercise, or a yoga session. The morning PT is my favourite part of the day to be honest, specially the runs – the pace is quite easy and pushing yourself during these runs and exercise sessions only acclimated you more for the upcoming days. Post the morning PT, the days usually consisted of theory classes, basic mountaineering techniques and a few rock climbing sessions.

The food: at the institute is quite average, but no point complaining – since I’ve had much worse. Just happy to get unlimited servings to cover up the calories we burn during the day. Oh, and yes – salt, don’t forget to add salt to your food which literally doubles the star rating.

The climbing: For climbing, we were tried and tested on the indoor Cheema wall at the institute, and the outdoor Tenzing rock which is a short walk from the institute. The trick to rock climbing is to get out of your head and into the game.

To be present in the current moment, shut out the noise, look for gaps and trust your holds, and keep moving upwards.

Belaying next to Umesh sir, the only army instructor in the team

Rock climbing sessions at the Tenzing Rock

The theory classes: The theory classes were great, all the instructors are quite fluent in both English and Hindi. Your only enemy during the theory classes would be sleep.

The auditorium

Bossman taking a theory class

The classroom

The treks: During the first week, we are made to trek to Tiger Hill with our rucksacks. It’s a 22km trek with an easy pace and everyone makes it comfortably. It’s a warm up session for the test, the Pandam Tea Estate trek which is like a qualification round for the remainder of the course.

The Pandam Trek takes place on the 7th of April, and starts at 6:30am. We need to cover the distance of 14kms with a minimum load of 14kg on our backs within 3 hours. Everyone finishes well in time.

Me and Ashu

70 rucksacks

Doggo showing us how it’s done

The Brown

On the 9th of April, we finally moved to Yuksom, Sikkim in rented taxis. Our initial plan is put to a halt since there’s a COVID-19 outbreak within the ranks – 4 of our group members turn out positive in their test reports. That leads to waiting for 2 extra days at Yuksom, and with the entire team getting a rapid test done again for COVID-19.

We’re confined to a tiny space, where we spend time playing catch and doing push-ups, trying to keep the overall morale high. On the evening of the 11th we get our test results which turns out to be negative for the entire group, so we move towards Tshoka on the morning of the 12th of April.

Someone else clicked this picture

Koi khaana de do bhai

Playing catch and doing pushups

Spreading love and COVID

Sunset at Yuksom

Day 1: Yuksom to Tshoka, 16kms (5,840 ft to 10,000 ft)

The first day isn’t easy, but it’s not too hard either. My body feels fresh and fully charged, it takes a while getting used to the load on the back, but once the body warms up it’s an easy walk. The flora is still thick and green, it’s like walking in a jungle more or less. As we keep moving up, the flora starts thinning out and the diversity of the species reduces. I end up taking it too easy on day 1 and reach our destination with the last batch of the day. We get to stay inside an old hut, with an additional day of acclimatization at Tshoka.


Tshoka’s tiny lake

Rivers & valleys

Ali on a bridge

The convoy

The “dreamers”

Sunsets at Tshoka

Bridged valleys

Rope 1: the real OGs

Day 2: Acclimatisation day at Tshoka

Bossman taking an outdoor class

Jhilik doing me a braid

Huts & tents at Tshoka

Day 3: Tshoka to Dzongri, 9 kms (10,000 ft to 13,218 ft)

I decide to start walking with the group in the front, which is usually the same group of guys sticking to the lead instructor for the day.

The pros of walking up front is you get to maintain a steady pace + you get extra breaks, where you can actually take off the load and recover.

It’s hectic staying up front, but it’s good motivation as well. Most of the guys in this group are extremely fit, and it’s a good test just trying to match their pace. The flora thins out, and leaves us only with the silver pine trees and the rhododendrons. We reach Dzongri in good time, and the initial batch is given a tent to pitch and to stay in. It starts snowing as soon as we reach so the 10 of us hurriedly set up our tent for the night. Post lunch, we are taken for a little walk to acclimatise and to learn about the terrain a bit.

Lord Buddha at Dzongri top

Advance party boys

One with room No.6

BMC 343 at Dzongri top

Peeing in sync

view from Dzongri Top, 1.1

view from Dzongri Top, 1.2

view from Dzongri Top, 1.3

Hanging with the advance party

Day 4: Dzongri to HMI Base Camp at Chaurikhang, 13kms (13,218 ft to 14,600 ft)

The third day of the trek is by far the hardest, since the air is thinning out and you can feel the fatigue setting in. The flora has died out more or less, with just brown mountains with tiny green patches all around us. We reached the base camp by lunch, and the first words I said upon reaching were, “guys, if it wasn’t for you, I would have stopped a while ago.” Funnily enough, the guys respond with the same words, that we were just looking at the feet of the guy in front and moving on. There are high-fives all around, while we sit and catch our breath. Our instructor asks us to volunteer to go back down to help the rest of the team with their load, and even though we’re all dead more or less, we decide to go back down. Too much respect for this bunch, seriously.

That’s the entire point of being in the front, you get to make yourself useful in more than one way. Like pitching a tent since you’ve reached early, or going back down to help the others with their load.

Yak’s distant relatives

Morning views

Yak’s distant relatives

Me & Anirudh, walking together on trails & glaciers alike

Our HMI base camp at Chaurikhang with Mt. Frey in the background

The White

We reached the base camp on the 15th of April, and it started to snow in the evening. We woke up the next day to find our hut and the surrounding peaks engulfed in a blanket of white snow.

The base camp: comprised of a few huts and tents. Huts for the men & women, separate huts for the instructors, a hut for medical inspections, a kitchen, a store, and a secret cottage of the caretaker living in a hut which supposedly belonged to Sir Tenzing Norgay Sherpa. There was a huge field where we used to play catch (during which I broke a finger), and in the latter days was occupied by playing football.

Vandana, Chandan, Ali, Sid

Me & Ali

Kiran, Sid, Ali, Ani, Dee

Our toilet

Chandan, Ali, Sid, Dee, Vivek Sir

Our huts

HAPO looking for HACO

View from the base camp

Favourite ❤

Mt Frey

Tisco Hut ❤

Outdoor classes in the snow

AMC’s tents

AMC’s tents at night

night shot, 1.2

Tisco at night

night shot, 1.1

Layer of ice on top of the water cans

Football at the base camp

Clouds drifting in from the valley

The glacier training: The next few days are assigned for glacier training at the Rathong Glacier. It is the most exciting / adrenaline pumping activity we’ve done so far. The days are spent wearing our crampons and using our ice axe to hack away at ice walls, learning different techniques of climbing, belaying, using our Jumar, and trying not to fall flat on our arse. Ice climbing is quite simply a mix of technique & confidence. Just get your technique right and embrace the ice, get your confidence on point and it’s an easy task. It took me a while to fall in love with the ice, but oh boy – can’t wait to go back for more.

A crevasse

A tarn, 1.1

A tarn, 1.2

Chandan, Vanna Ram, Vivek sir, Ali

Ninja & Ali G

“ab neeche kaise aayu”

One with the boss man

Geared up for war on the ice

Rope 1 dropping the coldest album of 2021

The graduation day: On the 21st of April, we have our graduation day at the base camp. The first of its kind, our batch creates history by becoming the first batch to graduate at the base camp with the AMC group as well. Post graduation, I feel super sick and retire to the Tisco Hut. Late in the afternoon, I’m diagnosed with a fever of 102 degrees. A list is made of students who will be sent down first thing the next morning and I’m topping the list. By nightfall, my fever comes down to 99, and my name is taken off the list (luckily), while 6 of our not-so-lucky friends are sent down the next morning.

The strength of our batch is down to 50 people now, the remaining 20 have either been sent back down because of high fever or injuries.

Rope 1 🙂

Our entire batch, me sitting on the far right with the mohawk

BMC 343 and a drone

The blizzard: On the 22nd of April, we walked towards the advanced base camp for a long rappelling session. It’s snowing throughout the walk, which slowly turns into a blizzard. We’re an hour away from the rappelling rock, but our course director decides to turn us back (good call). But hey – there’s a surprise waiting for us, our batch needs to ferry the AMC batch’s load back to the base camp. Still recovering from the fever, I hold on to the rear of a ladder while Ani takes up the front, and we trudge back towards the base camp.

I lost count of the number of times I slipped and fell that day. Slipping and sliding and throwing the ladder down the slopes, we finally make it to base camp. Some people carried gas stoves, gas cylinders, and what nots back to the base camp. Mad respect for them.

This was by far the hardest day of the course, we basically got to experience a walking in a whiteout that day. It was also the most beautiful day of our course, the storm cleared up in the evening to beautiful golden skies and a starry night.

Me & Ani posing before the blizzard struck

Our pretty little hut

Me and Dee

The golden sunset

The summit day, 25th April: The BMC batch got to summit Mt Renok which stands at a height of 16,500 ft. It was a fun day, the climb was easy and also marked somewhat of an end to our course. Apart from the summit, we also got to unfurl a massive Indian flag at the base of the mountain, which seemed to be a greater task than summiting the mountain itself. I would personally have climbed Renok twice, rather than spend time and energy unfurling giant flags for social media validation.

Unfurling a giant Indian flag atop Mt Renok

At the summit

With Umesh sir, Lt. Abhijeet and Vandana

View from the top of Mt. Renok

Coiling a 100mtr rope for the flag

The colourless

On the 26th of April, we start the walk back to Tshoka, a total of 22kms. Walking downhill is the worst, too much pressure on the knees which start to hurt eventually. Also, there’s no real motive or drive that leads me on. This is by far the worst day of the course for me. The rucksack feels heavier, and the body seems tired, but still I try to stick with the group at the front. We make it to Tshoka early in the evening, and everyone gets busy calling up their families and friends.

During the 2 weeks that we were up in the higher mountains, the pandemic went raging across the country with active numbers jumping to 4,00,000 per day. The mood is quite tense.

This picture captures the true essence of the walk back

Tshoka’s tiny lake

On the 27th, we leave Tshoka for Yuksom. The first batch reaches Yuksom around noon, and it’s a full blown party with Coke and chips and high fives flying around. There’s a sense of achievement and relief. Relief that we won’t have to carry that goddamn rucksack anymore. People are still pouring in an hour later, and we have our final lunch at Yuksom and move back to HMI in our rented cabs.

Vivek sir & me

Me with Vanna Ram, Ani & Shivam

The institute makes sure all the students leave the next morning, largely due to the pandemic which is at its full blown capacity outside the gates of the institute. We say our hurried goodbyes, submit our final equipment and head out for a chilled beer.

Wall art of Darjeeling

Final day at Glenary’s

BMC 343 will be remembered as the only course to graduate at 14,600 ft at the base camp, and a course which went through in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although a few of our comrades had to return midway due to contracting the virus, 50 of us were able to complete it. There was a lot of love, and memories that will be shared for years to come. Met a lot of amazing people who were like family.

Sharing a space with 50-odd people for a month isn’t easy you see, especially if people don’t change their socks much (you-know-who-you-are).

The OGs

My favourite picture of our batch and HAPO, at Dzongri top

Thank you BMC 343.

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