American Centre, New Delhi.
Soon after a presentation by John Gans, Executive Director of the US-based National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), the floor was opened to a brief question and answer (Q&A) session. The former chief of an Indian mountaineering institute stood up and made an offer for a joint Indo-American mountaineering expedition comprising instructors from India and those from NOLS, to a near 7000m-peak in the Garhwal Himalaya.
Although hiker and at best amateur mountaineer, I was delighted by this gesture. I have always felt that a mix of what the Indian institutes and NOLS offer is ideal recipe for the outdoors. The Indian institutes play a major role in that until recently they were actively supported by government to offer very affordable courses to hundreds of students. In this regard, they have done yeoman service; their alumni are spread all over the country. NOLS in comparison is a big outdoor school worldwide but small in India and, for Indians, expensive. Despite hurting from the cost, I am partial to NOLS for a very simple reason. It took me in and left me free. The Indian institute I went to clapped me with what felt like a life sentence, for the verdict they pronounce at training’s end carries weight in the country’s mountaineering set up and the clubs that are the sport’s foot soldiers.
I grew up at sea level.
When I reached the said institute to do a mountaineering course, I was adept on rock – thanks to being transferred on work to Mumbai, which has a rock climbing scene – but totally new to altitude, snow and ice. I hadn’t previously spent days in such terrain. I wasn’t born in or near snow capped mountains just as those born so in India are typically far from the sea. I was also by then several years into a profession – journalism – and the oldest in my training batch at 33 years of age. I could keep up with the rest, who were in their early twenties. But I didn’t think like them for both generically as a matter of more years lived and specifically in terms of how we are wired, people are different. Within days, at the institute, I felt out of place for being 33. Unexpectedly, I felt similarly for being journalist too. More than once it was hinted to me that a man who thinks and writes has no place in action oriented mountain life. What I sensed at the institute was a regime that searched for the best raw material to groom into a champion. Talent was celebrated. Average competence – improving which should be what teaching is all about – didn’t attract as much. Every day, the trainees obsessed with the grades they may secure. A good score in this course was must for eligibility to the next level of training and the popular perception of outdoors person / mountaineer was as someone holding half a dozen certificates from mountaineering institute.
The insecurity this caused among my batch mates, the awe they had for those who had done many courses and the importance they attached to being in the good books of the instructors survive strong in my memory. Every night in the tent, grade dominated conversation. At my exit interview, I said I was happy to have completed the course without any problems for this was the first time I had been to such altitude and snowy terrain. Weeks later, the certificate mailed home declared: ` B.’ My further progression in training ceased. It mattered because in India, without further progression you don’t go on your own into the mountains on a climbing expedition. Except Himachal Pradesh, most Himalayan states provide bureaucratic access to the mountains for which, certificates and grades are useful. I knew I wouldn’t have chance to revisit the course and improve grade given age, professional career and the fact that between becoming mountaineer and being in the mountains, I would definitely choose the latter. My stint at the institute settled to a regret in the head.
I continued to climb rock. I also went for a couple of non technical mountaineering expeditions. I loved being out but I didn’t like that feeling of subordination to those entitled to lead and supervise for typically their entitlement was based on superior ability to climb with none of the required skill to lead gracefully. Besides as we age, we don’t want to waste our limited energy tackling such irritations. Sometimes you feel it is better to be alone. Now, we all love life and I readily concede the merit of supervision to ensure survival. Indeed, if I was dumped in wilderness beyond my ability to handle and told to survive, I would probably come crawling back seeking a supervisor. My question is – is reduction of student to that state, the purpose of month long-education at institute or should it be: having trained with us for a month, come back for more because as you keep climbing your appetite for knowledge will increase? I missed acceptance of life as bigger teacher at the Indian institute. Replace mountaineering with any normal subject and you will see the difference. Is anyone stopped from higher studies in mathematics or philosophy because they secured low grade at entry level? People improve at their pace, they peak differently and take degrees when they wish. Is physics or history less a subject than mountaineering?
When you raise this question, people say – you don’t play with life in academics. I beg to differ. Serious academic influence is life-changing. Read history – you will see that people were killed for sticking to what they felt was right. They got hanged, shot, burnt at the stake, quartered and what not. A simple thing like planting the sun at the centre of our solar system entailed bloodshed. How is pursuit of knowledge or pursuit of art any less life threatening than what climbers do in high mountains? Yet you don’t take insurance cover to endure college education – do you? And insurers charge you higher premium for insurance in adventure sport. Problem is – in India we are always imagining from the self conferred virtues of settled life. We have sunk into the deep end of the armchair. That very same perspective makes anyone climbing seem as apart from us as an alien, when actually most people can learn to adventure if they are willing to put in the required hard work. It is not a natural gift. It is education, something that can be learnt. In India, we complicate it further adding machismo to the mix; that machismo, which is the legacy of patriarchal society and which requires men to seek definition by clarified sexuality.
Worse, what we miss in this entire debate is – whose life is it to decide what one should do with it? Is my life society’s to guard against all risk or is it mine to live as I please without harming others? Viewed from this perspective, the only reason the authorities can have for giving grades / permits is how well or bad somebody contained the environmental impact of their visit to wilderness. Damage to nature can’t be pardoned because thanks to our population, classical nature (not climate change) is on the retreat. The rest is education and education requires the scope to commit mistakes and learn. The core of training for adventure – risk assessment and how to manage risk – should be seen as enabler. In the Indian context, I urge, our mentality born from rat race should also be seen as risk. In fact, it is a great unspoken risk. It is the mentality to be ahead of the rest or as good as others, which makes us do stupid things in climbing before becoming comfortable with it. It is this mentality, which provides fertile soil for climbing’s bureaucracy to shackle us in grades. Yet grades only fuel the problem. What you need instead is comprehensive awareness. Try what you can and work to do what you wish to do but can’t right now. This cannot be the stuff of a few courses done and grade received for lifetime. It is a matter of living and being often enough in the sort of terrain you wish to be in. It takes time. But how many of us like the slow life? More important – how many teachers tell their students to slow down? And if you slow down, how do you give thundering lifetime-grade right now?
Roughly seven years after my stint at the institute, I resigned my job to spend more time in the outdoors. I worked periodically as an outdoor experiential educator. Extended camp life made me comfortable with the outdoors. During this phase I found a friend in a NOLS instructor assigned to train us. The interaction was useful. Later, I chanced to do a trek with him, in a snowbound area on the Uttarakhand-Himachal Pradesh border. I lacked proper skill on snow. I had always known that they would improve only in proportion to how long I was on such terrain. My friend taught me the fundamentals of handling snow. Critical therein, was making mistakes and failing as integral to learning. There was just me and him in that vast landscape; nobody to laugh at my mistakes. Older and probably less physically fit than I was when I did my mountaineering course, I nevertheless sensed happiness being on snow. In contrast, in the training ambiance of the Indian institute shaped by race for grade, every mistake had felt like subtraction from potential grade. You avoided trying for fear of being ridiculed (something you see at climbing clubs too pointing to the Indian capacity for creating unimaginative, unforgiving learning environments).
Some months after that trek on the Uttarakhand-Himachal Pradesh border, I reached NOLS India in Ranikhet to do a first aid course. The fees burnt a hole in my pocket. But it was a thoroughly enjoyable course for the teaching method was superb. Although there were exams, the learning was far better than anything I had experienced till then in the outdoors. I didn’t feel bad being old; being journalist didn’t seem inappropriate. At the end of the course, I got a first aid certificate valid for two years. NOLS was clear on that – you rust without practice. Couple of years later, I signed up to do the local educator course offered by NOLS India. Slightly less than a month in duration, it was based on backpacking. In accordance with the NOLS credo worldwide – the expedition was self supported. There were no porters; no cooks, no camps already installed and waiting for you in wilderness. It meant pack weight was high as you carried everything you needed for a full ration period, usually ten days (re-rations happened at specific rendezvous points in the field).
I don’t recall the instructors talking of grades. We students did – which I ascribe to our upbringing in Indian rat race. Indians crave grades, distinction and imprisonment in bureaucracy by distinction. We lose sight of enjoying what we are doing. That’s why I find it hard to forget my old mountaineering institute. That `B’ simmers in the head. Both institute and I are at fault; they for rubbing that grade in, I for remembering it like an affront to my manhood. At NOLS, when we eventually got our grades, it was insightful. Where the Indian institute dismissed me in a paragraph, this assessment ran into two pages and the overall grade had to be read in conjunction with specific grades and analyses for various sub categories of performance. In fact, the whole document felt less like performance review and more like an observation of student at given point in time, with suggestions on what to do for the future. You can of course argue that NOLS teaches leadership while the Indian institutes teach hardcore mountaineering skills. For me the question is – of what use is any education, hardcore or soft, if it is meant to fail you?
I am now in my mid-40s and late for accomplishments of the sort valued in the Indian rat race either as mountains climbed or similar summits reached in career. I just walk around in the outdoors enjoying my time away from the rat race, sometimes people. I also enjoy the occasional well supported expedition with frills and bells. Pushed to choose, I would rather continue being in the mountains I love, than be votary for this school of thought or that. Still, I would have loved to be free of compulsory supervision and be trusted to assess risk, growing in climbing at my own pace rather than sentenced for life as unfit to be out on my own. In the end, being out is all about enjoying freedom, enjoying it responsibly and I reiterate – that responsibility is primarily the promise not to damage nature.
Can I have a shot at correcting that `B’ grade from over a decade ago? – I thought.
Somewhere past 44 years of age, I wrote to my mountaineering institute asking if they would let me come back and repeat the old course, now that age seems no barrier in India with people running and cycling well past middle age. I received a terse one line reply that said the institute does not accept under-aged or over-aged candidates. I was dismissed – like that. Another institute, perhaps the less elite of the lot, encouraged me to apply immediately for they had a cut off-age limit of 45 years and not 35 like the others. Although I dislike age as limit, I felt grateful that such an Indian school existed amid blind worship of youth and champions. In all my reading, I have not seen great climbers born anywhere thanks to the grades and certificates they held. They were the product of a freedom they availed, a world that supported it and sometimes, their fight with a world that denied them such freedom. Mid-November 2013, I was happy when that gentleman – former head of an Indian institute – suggested a joint expedition by instructors belonging to the two schools.
I felt hopeful.
This article won’t be complete without mentioning an incident.
It happened before I did my local educator course with NOLS.
At a wedding in Uttarkashi, I met the late C. Norbu.
I had heard much about him from my friends. He was one of the best loved instructors around. I wasn’t lucky to be his student. True to Indian tradition, I showed him all the respect due to an accomplished mountaineer, keeping in mind my lowly position as `B’ grade with a few minor bumps in the Himalaya climbed. Unexpectedly, he brushed it all aside, opened up and even unburdened himself of several regrets in his long career as teacher. As we drew closer in a circle of regret, I shared my personal regret – that ‘B’ grade.
He looked at me with weathered, outdoor eyes.
“Have you been frequenting the mountains after the course?” he asked.
“Every year I am out here in the Himalaya,” I said.
“That’s what matters,” he said, his hand on my shoulder.
Over that day and next, we spent much time talking. Nudged on by him, I even danced for the first time in a baraat, winding its way down a road in Uttarkashi.
Couple of months later, he died in a road accident.
I remember his words.
(The author is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)