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Because It's There


Submitted by arjyamaj on 2006-10-18

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The call of the mountains has been the deciding factor in the decision to go on a vacation. Till date, the mountains in India have remained primarily a place of tourist interest. Indeed, the majority of revenues collected from tourism come from hill stations and places like Shimla, Darjeeling and Ooty are on the travel list of any passionate tourist.

Most people would prefer visiting mountains in the relatively safe and comfortable environment of a vehicle and brick-and-mortar hotels. But there is another side of the story as well. That side is known as mountaineering. The term invokes visions of intrepid trekkers with rucksacks on their backs battling their way up a steep mountain slope. Sadly, this is only a part of what mountaineering really is. So what is mountaineering?

Contrary to popular belief, mountaineering is neither a sport nor is it recent. The urge to explore has always been one of man’s primary characteristics. During the days of the British Raj, there was a massive drive to survey the till-then-unknown areas of the Himalayas. This resulted in the discovery of various peaks such as Everest and Goodwin-Austin. What it also did was that it invoked a spirit of adventure amongst the British. However, this feeling remained with the British until Independence. Even then, most expeditions to the Himalayan peaks were still the realm of European travellers and adventurers. Indeed, people like George Mallory and Edmund Hillary belonged to this class of explorers.

Gradually, the interest began seeping towards the Indian population. It began with the hiring of Sherpas for various expeditions in the early part of the twentieth century. But it took another good sixty years for plains people to come to terms with the mountains. Today, the Indian Mountaineering Foundation in Delhi recognises over three hundred mountaineering clubs around India of which a large number are centred around Delhi and Kolkata. These mountaineering clubs serve two purposes. One is to arrange expeditions to various peaks in the Himalayas. The other is to conduct camps and other outdoor activities for the young and old alike. Mountaineering is composed of fundamentally three activities- camping, trekking and rock climbing. For more advanced mountaineers, there is the challenge of ice climbing.

A beginner who has even the slightest of inclinations towards these activities invariably starts with camping, either with a mountaineering/ adventure sports club or a school excursion. Often, to make camping more interesting, the organisers include other nature related activities like bird watching, stargazing and identification of flora into the few days of the camping trip. And that is actually, what camping is all about. It is not about merely sleeping in a tent for a few days- there is more to it. It is more about being at one with nature- to appreciate and respect the forces that be in the wilderness. While camping, one gets to learn a lot of small but useful things. These would include classes on first-aid and how certain plants that are available everywhere may be used as a substitute for our day-to-day medicines. The emphasis in camps is more on improvisation than anything else. The problem faced by every camper- whether young or old- is that of getting comfortable with whatever is at hand. For instance, if there is a sudden downpour and you are caught without shelter, what would be the best course of action to keep yourself dry and warm? These kinds of problems often creep up in real life and it has been found that facing such inconveniences while camping gives one a sense of responsibility and that of confidence.

The next stage in mountaineering is trekking. This, due to its highly romanticised approach is easily the most identifiable of all the three activities that make up mountaineering. Trekking, or hiking is simply walking from one place to another while carrying one’s own luggage in a suitable manner. However, as has been said before, it is not just putting a rucksack on one’s shoulders and setting off on a trail, but it is also about relationships and appreciation of nature. While trekking, one comes across a number of people often from a different culture altogether, unless if the trail chosen is really out of the way and beyond all signs of civilisation. For example, a person from Delhi trekking in Sikkim would not only come across the local populace but also other trekkers from all over India and indeed, the world. Often lifetime friendships and bitter rivalries are formed within the few days of a trek. Also, the concept of hospitality changes completely here. It has been noticed that the people of the hills are a lot more welcoming than others, especially in the Northeast. For example, there was a time when the author was at the end of a trek and arrived at his destination too late to get any rooms at the only boarding house. In the falling darkness, the caretaker of the boarding house slept in the kitchen letting the author and his team into his own rooms. The idea of ‘yours’ and ‘mine’ does not really exist here as one finds out that they will do all that is humanely possible to make your stay with them as comfortable as possible. The prime objective of a trek is not just to get from one place to another on foot but it is also about learning and appreciating the local customs and environment.

Rock climbing is the most advanced and challenging aspect of mountaineering, with the possible exception of ice crafting. As the name suggests, it is a battle against gravity. But while rock climbing has become a major sport in the area of adventure sports, there are small details that one must look into. From personal experience, it has been observed that it is the most satisfying of all the three. Nothing is as pleasurable than to gaze up on a daunting rock-face and thinking- “Oh, I can’t climb that…”, and then actually managing to get to the top. It gives the climber a profound sense of confidence whenever a rock is climbed, whether big or small. Most mountaineering trainers say that rock climbing is all in the head. This is because if one person can climb a particular rock face, given similar abilities, so can the next. Most of the time, a person gives up midway on the rock face because he is too scared to continue. Needless to say, a fear of heights does aggravate this fear. But as said before, it’s all in the mind. Once the fear of falling and getting hurt gets over, there is practically nothing that the human body can’t climb, short of a vertical wall. Nowadays, to go rock climbing, one doesn’t have to travel overnight to a suitable site; the rock itself comes to the interested party. The Yuba Bharati Krirangan at the Saltlake Stadium offers the services of an artificial rock-climbing wall to the general public. Complete with instructors and rock climbing gear, it is the only one of its kind in Calcutta. However, before you get ready to go to Saltlake, it would be advisable to find out about their timings.

Mountaineering can be a very satisfying and enjoyable activity. And of course, as with all other pastimes, it can also turn into a very lucrative career option. However, in recent times it has gained a lot of popularity as a sport. But some would feel that turning mountaineering into a full-fledged sport would take some of its charm away. After all, mountaineering is not about who gets to the top first, but who enjoys himself most while getting there. But the question of why do people climb mountains still remains a mystery to most. Some say it’s for the sheer thrill of success, others for a test of courage and ability. But perhaps the best answer to this question came from one George Mallory himself. Just before his fatal expedition in 1923, he was asked as to why he wanted to climb the Everest. His short and simple answer was, “Because it’s there”…

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2 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

 lemontree2
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 2007-05-30
wonderful article, while reading I got the feeling that the author is reading my mind:)
 wpowley
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 2007-08-01
Very nice read.

Something I cherish more and more as I get older, more so than the sense of accomplishment I get from achieving my goals out there, is the feeling of peace that overcomes me after enjoying time out in the wild. We truly find ourselves while overcoming the various challenges we face out there, whether it be by walking an extra mile, trying a more challenging route, or simply camping under the stars. Each new experience brings us closer to what brought us there in the first place...

Thanks,

William

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