Saturday, October 24, 2009

79 Rock-Climbing Students on the Wall

(...sung to the tune of 99 Bottles of Beer)  A week here at NIM's Basic Mountaineering course has gone relatively smoothly and we're about to head up into the mountains for 18 days of mountain skills.  The last week has been spent on logistics and basic rock climbing skills, and it's time to find some snow.

All in all, I'm actually pleasantly surprised by the whole system.  I'd heard many things about the army-based teaching system and the comparative isolation of the climbing community and techniques here.  But despite some rather old-school equipment (gear is not only subject to up to 50% import duty, but comparatively very expensive relative to earnings) and techniques (I've never actually done a shoulder-body rappel!) the teaching progression is quite good and remarkably effective for a group of 79 students!

This group is broken into rope teams of 5-7 students, each with an assigned instructor for practice sessions.  So there's a lecture on rappeling, for instance, then I take my 6 ladies (17-40 years of age, 3 different languages) and we practice the skill.  Always with some time constraint, but with the ability to show details and ask questions.  Turns out, this is the first Basic course that has been offered co-ed.  There is always (has been since the founding in 1968, admirably) a women-only course, but just one a year.  So this is an experiment in mixing the Basic course; usually only the very advanced courses like Search and Rescue are mixed.  So far it seems to be going well - my group is usually slower (than the guys or the other women), but the instructors have made the logistics work around this really well.

On the flip side, I've learned things like how to rappel with a rock hammer, normally used to place pitons (amazed picture with one of two foreign students, right), pack with canvas stuff sacks, and sit separately from the students.  I've gotten slightly used to being addressed as "madam" in India, but it's proscribed here by the military setup of the place - students and instructors/staff are very much separated.  They get their cafeteria food (Indian curries and chappatis) by standing in line past a serving window, we get to sit at a table and have it brought to us.  I understand why it works this way, and it does work, it's just tough for someone who never (never?) thinks of herself as better or more worthy of not sitting on the ground than anyone else.

So things are good, and we're headed up into the mountains for 18 days tomorrow.  Porters, canvas tents, afternoon tea, and some time up high!  See you soon...

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Really, this isn't as selfish as it sounds. But rarely do I (do any of us!) get a complete break from others' demands on our attention, time, or schedule. So I've got a week in Rishikesh, in the foothills of the Himalayas that produce the Ganges river, to just read and run and hike and... do whatever then heck I want! When I want to! OK, so I'd love a fresh hummus sandwich with lettuce and tomatos and pickles and onions and mustard (yum!), but you can't have everything.

Rishikesh the tourist town is separate from the actual town, suitably populated by weathered beard-wearing men dressed in the holy color of saffron, variously wandering about, reading languages I can't (yet), and/or asking for money along the well-traveled pedestrian corridors. There are more Hindu temples here than I can pronounce, which means there are as many Indian tourists as foreign ones, all targeted by sellers of an assortment of jewelry, sandalwood, cowboy hats (really!), clothing and blessings - a tikka mark on your forehead, say these words, here's your string bracelet, donation please?

But it's close to the mountains, so there are some beautiful places. A twenty-minute hike reveals two waterfalls, dammed up to make pools to swim in, and just beyond, a valley filled with rice fields and simple houses. Locals as well as tourists come to swim in the falls; I watched three skinny local boys swimming in their underwear once a middle-aged white couple had gotten out, followed by the too-cool boys from Delhi who were still silly once they jumped in and ruined their styled hair. The air was cool in the shade, and the forest green and teeming with butterflies, so different from the dust and smells of the city.

I hiked most of the way to a temple, deciding I didn't need to hike the rest of the way downhill to actually get there. (Who builds a temple halfway down a mountainside, anyway?) Funny how even a simple walk can feel like a story, like you're in a pilgrimage or travel essay if you let it... Two stoned men sitting in the path feeding monkeys ("good monkeys", I was informed) with monkey snacks so I could feel their tapered fingers on mine, then offers of various versions of a smoke. A little further on a couple shyly posing for pictures with their camera and mine, delighted at my offer, likely because they knew I wouldn't disapprove of their intimacy. Reached the top of the hill to find cell towers and a farm but no temple - that was downhill again. Ah, well - maybe next time.

Rafting, reading, and just enjoying my own quiet space here. Next up, headed to the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering to see what I can contribute there. I'm supposed to be helping instruct their basic mountaineering course, starting with walking uphill and ending with ?? but I'm not sure how I'll fit into their military hierarchy, especially as a woman in a relatively conservative region. Huh. Well, some of us are going to learn something, not sure who...

Thursday, October 8, 2009


Hindi for: Finished! I managed to stay healthy, the ribs do seem to be fully healed, and I learned a ton about how to fix and maintain my bike in response to various breaks and failures. Brakes? Who needs 'em? Oh wait - I do, and now I know how to adjust my disc brakes to keep riding the crazy downhills we were sent on. The generosity of two French- and English ex-pats living in Pondicherry kept me in spokes (four broken over nine days!) as I bombed my way down that uneven terrain, and lots of TLC kept the rear shifter working despite needing a new cable. The bike needs a new chain, brake pads, shifter cables, and derailer spring, but it made it. Whew!

The course from Shimla to Manali was largely the same, but with harder climbs and longer days than last year, a challenge to be sure. I felt like a stronger rider this year, though - that hillclimb up Mt Baker and paying attention to my technical riding helped. Around 60 people (mostly Indian) started the race, and only 35 finished! A few downhill accidents early on, but mostly just the daily grind of so much vertical gain and mileage, about 75km and 5,000' of gain per day on surfaces of varying quality, from beautifully smooth tarmac to (mostly) broken tarmac/gravel to these obnoxious cobblestones that slow you down on the descent, let alone an uphill effort!

As with last year, my favorite part of the ride is just getting to know people over 10 days of being tired, happy, hungry, discouraged, relieved, impatient and resigned. You can't fake it for that long, especially working that hard. So a few more friends here, people I'll look forward to meeting up with again, either on a bike or not. And of course, there are the random people you meet along the way - a woman who took care of my cold soggy self by the fire on our one day of rain waiting for the other riders to come, an old village woman delighted to have us take pictures with her flowers, the hoardes of kids endlessly amused by the instant gratification of digital images, and all of the people who made this event happen, many of whom didn't really know what to make of this crazy mud-covered lady riding with a bunch of men.

There were only two women riding, and the sponsored Nepali mountain biker was far stronger than I. So I managed to get second - sweet! We found out later that the organizers had tried to cancel the women's prizes since there were only two of us, and were informed of the error of their ways. So all went as advertised, and the prize money nearly covered my plane ticket over. I would have been happy just to complete the event, but racing for position is a good change for me. I don't think I need to do this event again, especially trying to schedule work around it, but might do more bike touring here in the future.

Back in Delhi, I'm sitting in an "American diner", complete with old CocaCola advertisements, car memorabilia and rock-n-roll playing for ambience. There's Heinz catsup on the table, but menu offerings like "Chips and Salsa - Pringles, Dorritos chips and Potato wedges served with jalapeno salsa" and pomegranate smoothies. Close...