How I came to find myself training to be a mountaineering guide in India.
It has to be one of the proudest institutions I’ve ever beheld. We’re a good hour into the presentation ceremony after a month long mountaineering course in Manali, India, and none of the 150 students have received their certificates.
Upon the stage one of the instructors is accepting his third award of the evening, blindingly illuminated from the poor lighting by an amateur cameramans’ cheap sungun. Some would claim hiring a wannabe media professional to a private triannual event as overkill, but clearly that individual would be mad.
The ceremony is of the utmost importance, why else would we give a standing ovation to a bunch of aging Indian instructors as they settle themselves in the front row? Why else blare screeching traditional music from crackling speakers in the process? Why else would the local MP they’ve invited feel the compulsion to dribble, unintelligibly, for 45 minutes or so as we sit in the dank theatre, waiting? For the free meal? Merely because hyperbolic fanfare is fun? No! For this an esteemed institute, a rite that must be noted.
It’s well known in India as one of the best mountaineering training courses in India; the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports, or in short, ABVIMAS.
The Journey To Manali…
At the launch party that got totally out of hand for the Rickshaw Run, I drunkenly discussed with an Aussie couple I met (Jack and Hannah) their plans to partake in a mountaineering course after the event. Tired of simply travelling between hostels and snapping pictures of impressive architecture I knew nothing of, I decided to join them.
Entering the registration hall the day before the course it became apparent we were to be the only foreigners. Three, out of some 150 students. We shook many a delighted hand, forgot nearly every name, paid four times as much as everyone else to register and left giddy with excitement for the month to come.
Manali is just lovely. Sure, Old Manali is a tad like Little Israel for the lovers of A-grade hash and opium, but its natural beauty is unquestionable. Nestled in the Western Indian Himalaya, it bears stunning views of snow-capped peaks and quaint hillside communities of thatched roofed homes, bordered by apple orchards, delightful stone walls and paths from an age forgotten.
Each morning we’d rise before the sun, freezing. We’d jog through town pass relentless dog barks to the beloved words “chello” and “jaldi” (which both essentially mean “fast”), despite having to stay in a painfully organised snaking line of physically unsound students. Eventually, as is the Indian way, order would falter, and those that could, left their mismatched groupings, referred to as “Ropes”, behind, running through the ranks. Some days I wished I was still in bed, but whenever I was on the return leg, coasting downhill as others struggled up, I’d look up to see sun catching the peaks of mammoth Himalayan mountains and the first rays of the day hurling themselves to the valley below. It’s a phenomenal experience, your flesh is frozen, your heart is pounding and your soul soars.
Getting Stuck In
The instructors would unwarrantedly attempt strict control, as climbing a mountain requires discipline. However, ABVIMAS did not. Scurrying students would be scolded for arriving seconds late to roll call, only to then stand beyond patiently in line for 20 minutes as instructors quietly discussed their next course of action.
I would simply arrive in my own due time, knowing I’d get away with it thanks to their blessed prejudice against their fellow Indian, and mine being an Australian. Others would be doing push ups, where I’d only receive a shake of the head and an empty threat from Verma, an instructor who’d been driven mad by his time in the Indian Navy.
With wonderful wrap around sports glasses and a tracksuit always zipped to the top, Verma was constantly at the heels of those lagging, forcing out extra exercises to people he deemed not putting in the effort. It was as though he was energised by their scorn, and yet, he’d taken us Australians under his wing. He’d happily flail his arm around my neck, look intently into my eyes and say “Verma, bad man. You, good man.” He was mad, but he was on our side, so we loved his ruthlessness. There was hilarity to our immunity.
A brilliant example of ABVIMAS’ reasoning was when we had to pick a leader out of the 80 students enrolled in “Basic Course”. Instead of using rationality and having prospective leaders inform us all of their outdoor knowledge and leadership experience, or waiting until the initial training period separated the most capable students from the pack, the instructors devised another method. A running race. Genius. Yep, to determine who was probably best suited to lead 80 novices throughout a month long course involving rock and ice climbing, hard trekking, rope skills, snow crafts, avalanche and other emergency situation knowledge in remote mountains they’d concluded a 300 metre foot race around the nearest building would do.
Up went the hands and off they went as the rest of us waited in awed anticipation. The victor was a guy in his early 20’s, who always ended up being middle of the pack. Throughout the month he was constantly under threat of being usurped by the bloke who ran second, a determined man in his late 30’s. He must’ve spoken with the instructors for he was rewarded some fabricated position of authority just underneath the other guy. Regardless, we’d gotten our worthy leaders.
Luckily there were other notable figures among us. One being some sort of Microsoft IT consultant named Morkul. Not only did this fully-grown dude bring aftershaves and a man-bag to a mountaineering course, but he referred to them as his “perfumes” and “purse”.
After setting about trying to kill us Aussies with his madly deluded confidence behind the wheel of his sisters’ hatchback, he then set upon himself. I once returned to the rock-climbing wall to find mighty Morkul hanging upside from where he’d linked his carabiner to his leg strap and then missed a hold. He’d smacked his head having forgotten his helmet and as punishment Verma had him wear it wherever he went. But alas, it wasn’t enough. For in a landmark game of volleyball Morkul succumbed to a season-ending ankle sprain. And so it was that that dopey yet wonderfully genuine smile had been defeated by the rigors of ABVIMAS.
Although he wasn’t the only one to pack his bag. A decent percentage of mountaineering hopefuls turned in the towel after 6 days of horrendous light exercise.
The Highs And Lows
I however went above and beyond to prove my dedication to ABVIMAS by enduring my first ever case of food poisoning on the morning of the hike to Base Camp, in which I was almost forced onto a packed local bus with a time bomb for a sphincter. Recovered, I was delighted at the prospect of erecting my tent and establishing camp for the coming fortnight. But as was so often the case, whenever we had to be self-reliant Indian hospitality took over and everything would be done for us. Which you may fancy is brilliant, but you sign up for a month in the mountains to challenge yourself, not be treated as a halfwit by people with less idea than you. To top it off, the tent that was to house the two Australian men was fluorescent pink.
We spent the weeks practicing techniques and exercises with our ice axes and crampons on a face of hardened snow 1000’s of feet above our camp. Things like learning to ski hurriedly down the face using only the heels of your boots and the butt of your axe. Or self-arrests, where you’d simulate sliding out of control down a snow face only to halt yourself by jarringly hammering in your axe. This was good fun as often heavier or less able people shot off uncontrollably through the barrier of human spotters.
We got to ice-climb a glacier and in typical ABVIMAS style, it was a total free-for-all. People running off with your gear, no organisation and faulty equipment, namely a dodgily repaired strap that resulted in my crampon visiting the bottom of a crevasse as I was halfway up the biggest climb of the day. It’s safe to say in moments such as that you can only shake your head and love ABVIMAS with its unrivalled professionalism and safety precautions.
Undoubtedly these days produced awesome experiences. Being woken by the ABVIMAS donkey as it perpetually tries to hide its boner in the ponies around camp brings the physiological message that you’re about to shit your sleeping bag.
Jumping into freezing pre-dawn air, bolting a hundred metres over the crest to your secret spot on Poo Ridge is, oddly enough, a beautiful memory. As you squat ill of stomach the sun suddenly bursts forth through distant blue peaks. You’re flooded with the warmth on your skin as the snow illuminates brilliant orange and a Blue Whistling Thrush swoops to rest on a lone tree. All the while, your bullocks are hanging out, naked to the mountains.
Was It All Worth It?
There is a certain charm to the workings of this mountain institution. Whether it be in the innocent lies that lectures were to be held in English only to have to be stirred back to consciousness at the conclusion of our latest two-hour theory class in Hindi. Or being marked wrong in a knots exam, despite correctly completing it, for failing to understand an arbitrary instruction delivered in a language I knowingly couldn’t understand. Or being tied into groups and told to race directionless through a hilly forest at dusk for no real purpose other than to produce twisted ankles and bloodied knees.
Despite these and many other bafflings of the mind, it is a tremendous organisation. For one thing, it forces the development of a strong degree of patience, an attribute that gears you for the remainder of your life. But above all, the institutes’ greatest achievement is that is enables anyone who has ever dreamt of standing atop a wild mountain, to actively pursue that desire, no matter how incapable they may be in the beginning. To equip one with the tools to succeed, that is truly a wonderful notion.
And so it is that I focus back to my current setting. The MP has finally finished what can only be assumed a quite notable speech, and student names are actually being called. It is only a matter of time before I’ve my badge in one hand and in the other a certificate that reads a grade of “A”. Not for my hard earned efforts, albeit I did actually try, but for simply being a “good man” and an Australian. And therefore the one most likely to have friends who’d also willingly pay 4 times the normal price as well.
Have you been on some random course or taken part in an unusual activity? Share them with us in the comments below.