The drive from HMI (7000 feet ) to Yuksom (5800 feet ) showed us different landscapes. There were parts which felt like a roller coaster ride where roads were rocky, we crossed the Teesta river as we moved from West Bengal to Sikkim. There is a lot of construction of roads going on, because of which vehicles were stopped at different points for 15 to 30 minutes. We covered a distance of approx 90km in 6 hours with a 1 hour snack break in between.
Amidst fluttering prayer flags, we entered the beautiful mountain kingdom.
We were free to explore the surrounding area after lunch. Yuksom means the meeting place of 3 Lamas. History tells us that 3 Lamas travelling from different places met here and set up a monastery, which exists to date. One can visit the Tourism office, which is a mini museum of sorts. It showcases the flora and fauna of Sikkim, the mountain ranges and details Buddhist philosophy.
Sikkim is probably India’s greenest state. It banned the use of plastic in 1998. It recently banned the use of packaged drinking water and the use of Styrofoam and thermocol disposable plates and cutlery in the entire state in a move to cut down toxic plastic pollution and tackle its ever-increasing garbage problem. They have bins to segregate garbage not just into dry and wet waste, the dry waste is further segregated into plastic, paper, metal and glass.
A key challenge was fitting the equipment given by the institute along with our clothes and food into the backpack. It is best to carry only what is essential as the trek is mostly uphill. With a heavy load, the challenge increases 10x.
The HMI Base camp is situated at 14,600 feet. We gained height gradually over 4 days. This trail is part of the Goecha La trek.
The first day we walked approximately 22kms over 7 hours from Yuksom to Tshoka (situated at 10000ft). We crossed 4 bridges that overlooked gurgling mountain rivers. Every time the sound of flowing water kept getting louder, we knew we were nearing the next bridge, an important milestone. After this is when the tough part of the trail started, the uphill climb with the 15kg backpack! My upper arms started hurting with the load. My respect for Sherpas multiplied a 100 fold. Seeing them run up the trail, I had no reason to complain, so I continued along.
The last 2kms felt like forever and I was walking like a zombie as we neared our campsite!
We were welcomed with hot chai and given time to relax. As tired as I was, I ensured I changed my socks, applied moisturizer and an anti-bacterial talc on my feet. Then for some good stretching for the calves and quads, to keep you going the next day. And then, chill with friends.
To soothe the delicate city nerves, there was network! Mountaineering is an activity that tests not just your physical strength, but mental strength and will as well. My sister has been a strong support all through, not just during the course, but before the course as well. She completed her BMC from NIM in 2004 and pushed me to up my fitness levels, which helped tremendously.
Dinner was generally served at 6 on these days and we were in our sleeping bags by 7p.m. Most of us were fast asleep by 8p.m. Morning tea was typically served at 5.30a.m. We had to be ready to start trekking at 6.45a.m.
Day 2 was an acclimatization walk, where we gained 1000 feet and came back, following the principle of walk high sleep low. I would rate this as one of the most beautiful trails in the world. Rhododendron trees line the path on both sides with wooden logs on the ground. In April, the flowers were in full bloom and it made for a beautiful sight. I had to stop myself from stopping every 100 metres to take a picture!
It is pitch dark. My mind is getting ready to walk into my city bathroom with a jet spray, but what is in front of me is a bottle of water, soap and a shit pit. The light of the head lamp is the only source of light helping me aim right! It has been my quickest download by far!
Day 3 took us from Tshoka to Dzongri (13,200feet), gaining 3000 feet. This trek took me approximately 5 hours, however, I felt stretched more than ever. The first 1000 metres is a gradual ascent. The next 2000 metres is a continuous uphill climb. It felt like a never ending spiral chasm. Madhu and I stuck together for the last leg, pushing each other, counting 50 steps, taking a breath and continuing again. Phew!
We witnessed the landscape change; the height of the trees reduced to shrubs as we climbed higher. Dzongri is where the snowline started. Above this point, there is always snow. There were moments in the thick of the forest, where I felt like I am in the midst of a sacred space, blessed to experience this part of nature. A feeling that cannot be explained in words.
After lunch, we were taken for an acclimatization walk to Dzongri top, about 2kms of walk to gain 1000 feet. As we reached the top, it started snowing as if to celebrate our success. This was the first snowfall of the course and we had a snow party! The view from the top is simply awe-inspiring. All the excitement had to settle, as I struggled to walk downhill on the trail lined with snow. I was told to dig every step with my heel, walk sideways, take random steps, don’t wait too long… As I tried not to fall, I asked myself, do I want to climb mountains!
Day 4 was the final leg to reach Base Camp. We trekked from Dzongri to reach the HMI Basecamp (Chowrikhang) at 14,600 feet. Although we gained approximately 1600 feet in height, it was a distance of approx. 27kms which took me 8 hours!
This was one long long stretch which included descent, then ascent, making the trail longer. Enroute, we experienced the 2nd snowfall of the course. Some of us got stuck as we had to wait for the snowfall to reduce. Over this trail, we saw the landscape change from Green to Brown to White. We walked on flatland, boulders, narrow snow-lined trails to finally make it to the top.
In the last 3kms stretch, students from Advanced Mountaineering Course came down to help us with the bag. While I did not take their help, in hindsight, I recommend you do and enjoy the last leg of the trail and save your legs!
I heaved a sigh of relief and a wave of cheer as I had made it to Basecamp, an important milestone in the course.
Chowrikhang is a settlement of sorts with tin huts, tents, stone rooms, enclosures made with shipping containers with 360° view of mountain peaks. I literally felt like I was at the base or foot of these mountains. The view changed by the hour, mist played hide and seek, the sun cast a halo in the evenings, during the day we could see blue ice on the mountains. It was another world altogether.
This was to be the start of something we all would experience for the first time. I had successfully completed Phase 2 of the basic mountaineering course. As I braced myself to stay in the Tin hut accommodation, with the rest of the group, I looked forward with mixed feelings to the training ahead. I continued to ponder if I want to be a mountaineer. To know about my experience at Base Camp, read Part 3.
Training tips to prepare for BMC
- Try to build your stamina to run 5km uphill continuously in 40 to 50mins.
- Practice going up and down stairs with random steps: jump from 2 or 3 steps. Start with 10 floors, go upto 60 floors.
- Practice walking with weight atleast 2 months before the course. Gradually increase weight from 2kgs to 10kgs every 2 weeks.
- Surprise your body with the workouts, combination of exercises for endurance, strength and flexibility. Mountaineering involves movement that is unplanned, muscles we never knew existed get exercised eg: jumping from a rock, climbing a 90° wall, supporting yourself on a rock with the tips of your toes. Therefore, do a little of everything.
- Rest well, hydrate well, eat well.