Climbing equipment lay neatly arranged on the grass in the compound of the cheap lodge that we were staying in. There were ropes, carabiners, down jackets, down sleeping bags, tents, ice axes, rock pitons, ice screws, gaiters, boots, jumars, crampons. The tall Polish climbers, sunburnt and with skin peeling off their noses after weeks at high altitude, kept a watchful eye on everything as a motley crowd of would be customers milled around in the morning sun, occasionally glancing up to admire the fluted summit of Machapuchare which hovered like a guardian deity over Pokhara in Nepal.
It was June 1979 and I was among the curious shoppers. The big names in outdoor equipment (Camp, Petzl, The North Face, Karrimor, Wild Country, Edelrid, Mountain Hardwear etc.were conspicuous by their absence.
Everyone knew that the Poles were one of the toughest breed of climbers who at that time were putting up some of the hardest and most desperate routes in the Himalaya, the Hindu Kush and the Karakorum. Their equipment may not exude the glamour and stylized logos of the affluent West but if they were good enough for the Poles they would be more than adequate for me and my friends from Ahmedabad who had just completed their very first Himalayan trek to the Annapurna Sanctuary!
Base Camp in the Annapurna Sanctuary. May 1979. Tents hired from the Gujarat Mountaineering Institute at Mount Abu in Rajasthan draped with plastic sheets bought in the bazaars of Pokhara, Nepal.
I ended up buying a climbing rope which was far superior to the industrial nylon ropes from Todi & Co which my friends in Bombay were using for the occasional rock climbing jaunts in the Sahyadri ranges.
Lack of reliable, certified and affordable climbing equipment was only one of the many hurdles that a wannabe mountaineer had to surmount if he or she wanted to climb in the Himalaya.
Bajraman Tamang (left) and I in Nepal, 1979. Wooden ice axe,white windcheater and Bajraman’s orange pants hired from Gujarat Institute of Mountaineering. My sunglasses bought in Pokhara!
For most Indians growing up like me in the 1960s and early seventies, mountaineering was a glamorous, exotic and expensive pursuit best left to those fortunate souls sponsored by the Army, Navy or Air Force. I could not persuade my father to part with the princely sum of Rs. 300/- to pay for a Basic Mountaineering Course at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling!
All the Indian Everest expeditions from 1960 onwards were led by and composed of Defence personnel, financed by the government. Big and remote peaks like Mamostong Kangri were climbed by the ITBP. A big part of the real climbing was done by mountain people like the Sherpas of Darjeeling who bore the real brunt of the ascents.
Civilian climbing was left to the privileged class who attended expensive public schools like The Doon School, a legacy of the British Raj days. The Saheb / Porter / Sherpa / High Altitude Porter relationship existed in the accepted social structure of those days while the military approached mountain climbing as logistics “projects” for the glory of the nation and the regiment.
Small inroads began to be made in the mid and late seventies when mountaineering clubs from Bombay and Calcutta began to climb the easier and more accessible peaks with members drawn from a broader segment of the civilian population. They too struggled with paucity of finances and lack of equipment.
Complicating matters further was the extremely bureaucratic regime which governed climbing permits and the difficulty of access to peaks inside the magic Inner Line – these issues still persist today.
The availability of reliable large scale topographic maps of the Himalayan regions was restricted to the privileged few, the rest of us had to make do with sketch maps from previous expedition reports. The age of Google Earth was still decades away and so was cellphone coverage. Walkie talkies and radio equipment, rescue services and communications were unheard of for small parties who ventured into the mountains on their own. These individuals were considered an aberration and had to accept the risks they were taking.
Mountaineering, which should ideally embody the Freedom of the Hills, was bogged down in a culture of bureaucracy and progress held back by circumstances and a conservative mind set which addressed the issue of risk in a very different fashion from that of Western climbers and for a very good reason : people climbing in the western countries generally had spent a long apprenticeship, graduating from regular rock climbing on their local crags to snow and ice and mixed climbing in the Alps where they honed their technical skills before venturing out to what was referred to then as the Greater Ranges – the Andes, the Hindu Kush, the Karakorum and the Himalaya. They were capable of carrying heavy loads and independent movement on very steep ground and pursued climbing as a year round hobby. Their levels of fitness too were above the average Indian civilian climber. I remember once in 1989 I had a hard time just trying to keep pace with an Australian climber as we hurried back to Base Camp over the moraine of the Brahmmah glacier in Kishtwar.
The adventure scenario in India has changed a lot over the last twenty years. While “soft adventure” packages like trekking to popular destinations have taken on a full blown commercial garb with guides, prepared tented campsites, cooks and support staff, small groups of individual trekkers undertaking challenging treks in remote valleys of the Himalaya is still rare.
Guided mountain climbing has also taken off, with ascents of peaks like Stok Kangri being offered regularly by operators and a lot of Indians are also signing up to climb to the summits of exotic mountains all over the world including of course Everest. But I cannot think of a single headline grabbing mountaineering route pioneered by Indian climbers. One does not even read of the existing harder routes in the Indian Himalaya being climbed a second or third time by Indians.
Why is that so?
Keeping in mind that any adventure or extreme sport is generally pursued by the average citizen only when the social and economic milieu in which that person lives reaches a certain level of affluence, the time has certainly arrived in the India of the twenty first century for exciting alpine ascents by Indians with talent, commitment and a passion for climbing. This would of course mean eschewing the standard routes on the standard mountains and looking for lines of ascent which would set a new benchmark. Or climbing obscure peaks of lesser height but greater technical difficulty. Or even doing a regular route in fine lightweight fashion or perhaps solo.
Only once you see this happening on a regular scale by amateur civilian climbers can you say that Indian climbers have truly arrived.
The North Face of Changabang – no Indian ascent of this, even by the military/ITBP!!
With the current demographic of India where an overwhelming proportion of the population is young and where people are striking out on unconventional career paths, there must be some youngsters who are capable of blazing bold and new trails in Indian mountaineering.
Equipment, disposable income, mind set – these key factors have changed and there is no reason why the standard of mountain climbing should stagnate.
Aloke Surin, a veteran climber, blogs at The Accidental Climber. His journey to the Chango Glacier (Tango in Chango, Himalayan Journal 1996) is one of my favorite Himalayan Stories. Ironically, the veteran of numerous Himalayan climbs has settled down in Richmond, probably the flattest place in all of Canada.
Why is he known as the Accidental Climber? Well, you will have to ask him 🙂