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Climbing

Apr 19, 2015

Save lives in the Himalaya – Search And Rescue at NIM

The Outdoor Journal's web reporter enrolled in India's Nehru Institute of Mountaineering Search And Rescue (SAR) 21-day course, critical skills-building program for saving lives on high mountains.

WRITTEN BY

Yogesh Kumar

This is what he learned.

Life and death are closely linked in the mountain world. Most experienced climbers have had a few close calls, and know that saving a life on a climb is of much greater importance than summiting a peak.

However, despite the popularity of high-altitude trekking, mountaineering and climbing in India, only one out of six government-run mountaineering institutes open to civilians in the country teaches critical high-altitude search and rescue skills.

The Nehru Institute of Mountaineering’s (NIM) 21-day course is an exhaustive program that teaches rescue techniques on rock face, cliff face, snow field, post-avalanche, ice, crevasse as well as map reading, GPS handling and more outdoor survival skills.

However, getting into the course is only possible with an ‘A’ grade in the Basic and Advanced Mountaineering courses in any of the institutes. Luckily, our own mountain reporter Yogesh Kumar had his ‘A’, and spent the spring of 2015 learning to become a SAR expert. along with 29 others from 15 states across the country – including two women. Here is the first of his two-part report from NIM.

Day 1:

An exercise routine at 6:30 am kicks off the day that includes downhill running and uphill walking around the NIM campus’ hilly terrain. This sounds more pleasant than it is in reality. After a light breakfast, the NIM stores issue the students gear for the duration of the course: carabiners, ropes, slings, two ice-axes, a down jacket, mountaineering boots, rock climbing shoes and more, filling our packs to the brim and leaving little space for anything personal to be carried up into the Himalayas.

After lunch, a map-reading session was later put to test when trainees were asked to find the NIM institute’s coordinates. Confusion broke loose in the class and a few resorted to their smart phone’s GPS. Each rope team (a group of six students) got a map to revise at night as homework. A basic first-aid lecture at 6pm that evening covered the rudimentary knowledge of stabilizing and evacuating a victim from the danger zone, before the arrival of any professional medical help.

Day 2:

Two more trainees joined the group today, taking the total to 30. The day started with a steep uphill jaunt almost 450 vertical metres uphill from the institute to 1589m, with a fully-loaded pack at 6:30 am. The idea was to identify any issues in the pack and loading, that could otherwise create problems in the high mountains. Today’s classes started with revision of rope knots, radio communication procedures, and how to communicate using a satellite phone. This took up the morning, and a quick lunch later, we had a lecture on CPR (Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation) and general first-aid. The evening was a bit more relaxed with a film on the history of Himalayan mountaineering, and the origin of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF).

NIM courses are fairly tightly regulated, run mostly by the Indian military, and there isn’t much free time outside the tight structure of the classes. But that evening, we got an outing to the Uttarkashi market for two hours, where the students binged on the basic junk food this holy town had on offer, knowing well that we would be at the mercy of the canteen chef once we left for the high Himalayas.

Day 3:

We woke up again bright and early to the infamous NIM instructors’ whistle. A 7-km trek with loaded rucksacks to the nearby Tekhla rock-climbing area roused weary muscles, though light stretching exercises along the way helped tide over the pain. After a quick breakfast at Tekhla, we tackled a couple of boulders and did a single-pitch climb. The idea was to get our hands acquainted with rock with the perspective to learn and practice rescue techniques on rock faces. The rescuer may have to carry out a one-man rescue, or a group rescue, perhaps rig a Tyrolean rescue, or use techniques where the expert has to jumar with the victim’s body tied on an improvised stretcher.

Day 4:

It was helicopter rescue day. The trainees were taken to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) station in Matli,  15 kms from the institute, where an Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopter would come. We pounded the ITBP Commanding Officer (CO) with questions on the life of the para-military force personnel and he patiently helped as much as he could.

Two hours later, the distinctive sound of an incoming helicopter from indicated its arrival from the south-west. The IAF’s ‘Dhruv’ helicopter with three personnel demonstrated rescue techniques: winching up a casualty, their method of conducting high altitude rescues and their individual roles in it. The IAF instructors gave recent examples of rescues conducted during the 2013 floods in Uttarakhand. We returned to the institute and after lunch, sat through a class on how to use GPS device for rescues and how not to get ourselves lost in the wilderness!

The evening turned out to be a cinematic treat from the institute with the screening of Everest – a film about the Everest summit of Jamling Norgay, the son of mountaineering legend Tenzing Norgay.

Day 5:

The walk to Tekhla was not as exhausting as the first time; my body was getting used to the battering of the course. After breakfast, we launched ourselves into what turned out to be to a very tiring day involving numerous rescue techniques on rock faces. This included things like “piggy-back rescue”,  one-man assisted rescue, chimney rescue, unconscious victim rescue among others. The methods were not only applicable in the mountains, but usable anywhere during various emergencies. Back at the institute, there was a lecture on International distress audio and visual signals for victims in the wilderness.

The days’ slogging must have burnt hundreds of calories and my muscles begged for rest. Both these issues were addressed with dinner and an early sleep  to wake up early for yet another walk to the Tekhla rock area.

Day 6:

Our last walk to Tekhla rock area was under a light rain, and after lunch, we ran to cover our rucksacks lest they get drenched in the downpour. We practiced techniques like rescuing an immobile victim from a rock face, and cliff rescues. On returning to the institute, the training focused on tripod rescues (used for confined spaces). Any day when classes ended early meant a dash to the canteen for the momos (Tibetan steamed dumplings at the only private cafe in the NIM campus) and shopping for mementos at NIM’s souvenir store.

Day 7:

Our day’s lesson began with a mock drill of evacuating a casualty from high in the mountain. A situation was given to us along with the co-ordinates which we had to de-plot on the map to find the casualty and bring down to safety. The situation required us to assess the possible reason of the accident and carry first-aid and medicine accordingly. The Institute’s height above sea level is nearly 1200 mtrs and the mock casualty was at 2056 mtrs. The route involved a rigorous trek which turned more difficult due to the overnight rain. A trainee was the dummy victim and the task was to transport the injured person on an improvised stretcher and carried turn by turn by each trainee. There were few slips and falls in carrying the victim down a very narrow steep trail but teamwork got the job done.

Day 8:

In the morning, we left by bus for a 10 km drive to the banks of the Bhagirathi River, to work on rescues across river crossings. After establishing a base and learning to secure and carry the victim through various methods, we jumped into the chilled glacial water, also a part of our training, to get to the other side of the river, secured with a rope.

It was our last day at the institute itself. The next day we were off to the mountains, to learn advance search and rescue in snow and ice, including crevasse rescue, avalanche rescue and medical emergencies among other aspects of this critical training.

The second part of this blog will feature SAR techniques for high-altitude mountaineering!

Featured Image: Aditya Kulkarni

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Adventure Travel

Jul 11, 2018

The Mountain Monks of Montserrat – Exploring History, Legends, and Great Climbing

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Apoorva Prasad, The Outdoor Journal Editor-in-Chief, recounts a climbing trip to Montserrat in 2009, where he followed in the footsteps of the mountain monks of Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey.

A small boy scrambled up the rough rocks, yanking at tough brown shrubs and grabbing the pebbled conglomerate of the rocky Catalan spires. His sure-footed goats had already reached a large clear ledge above. He gasped with the effort and tried not to look down. It was late afternoon and he had to gather his flock and drive them homewards soon. He mantled up to level ground and looked around. There they were, near a large, dark-mouthed cave. He yelled at them, the stupid creatures. He spoke only Catalan, a language native to these wild, mountainous parts between France and Spain. And then, the woman emerged.

She was dark and luminous. She was haloed by light, a strange sort of energy exuding from her, illuminating the entrance to the cave. He felt something touch him, a sort of blessedness. And then he fainted.
So was born the legend of the black Madonna.
Fast forward three hundred years. A large monastery and church stand on that ledge, surrounded by thousand-foot high spires of rock. There are two ways to the monastery – a winding mountain road, or a cable car. Today, like most days, the road is closed due to rockfall. The cable car has limited running hours – and we barely catch the last one up, with the lone operator holding it for us.
Montserrat – Jagged Mountain in English  – is a four-thousand-foot high plateau composed of reddish pebbly sedimentary rock needles that reach up into the sky, with holds that seem like they’ll pop out the moment you pull on them. Pinnacles emerge from the jumbled matrix, cliffs, and aretes that soar over the surrounding countryside.

More than a thousand routes spider the mountain. There are barely enough climbers here. When I was there, it seemed possible to spend a whole day climbing thousand foot classics without ever meeting another party – in near-perfect temps, even in February, the month of my first trip here. This is the warm, beating heart of Catalan mountaineering.

It was a warm late February day, and we had been completely alone so far. The only other people we’d seen was a small group of climbers hiking ahead of us on the trail before they disappeared into the brush as we detoured towards the base of our route. Even though we were barely a 40-minute drive from Barcelona, it felt like wilderness climbing. The overgrown brush covered everything. It is an incredible sensation, to know that there is real adventure all around us, so close to established urban centres. There are ibex and wild boars in the forests in and around the mountain, and we walk carefully to not disturb the peace and natural beauty of this place.

The base of the route appears suddenly from the green brush. Vegetation ends and rock begins. The sensation is familiar and reassuring. The first part is not-yet-vertical, but real climbing nonetheless. I like to lead first pitches, since I haven’t yet had the time to feel scared and I can bluster my way through, while the ground seems reassuringly close – which in reality makes no difference to any real or perceived danger, of course. The route is mostly bolted or marked with old pitons, there is little scope for natural protection.

Climbing slowly, we reached halfway up. I was belaying my partner Gilles, a Franco-Australian climber I had met some years ago in India. The route is considered the area’s classic and most popular climb – the 5.10a+, 11-pitch, 1033 foot (315m) Aresta Ribas. The Aresta – “arete” – first climbed by a certain Ribas in 1979, is the prominent spur of rock on the sunnier, south-facing side of the mountain – perfect for a winter climb. Despite its ranking, there is literally no-one else on the climb. For comparison, a 3-star multi-pitch classic like this one nearly anywhere in the United States or even in the French Alps would literally have a queue of climbing parties on it.

Suddenly, an old man in a blue sweater appeared to my right, climbing in what looked like sneakers. As I watched, their party of three appeared one after the other, traversing to our belay station, moving much faster than us. The leader was a younger man, the only one who spoke English. That was how I met Josep Castellnou, a local who told me stories of this amazing history of Montserrat. Josep, a vet from a nearby town, also managed rocktopo.com – a climbing site extolling the virtues of the natural park of Montserrat, with downloadable guides for each part of the mountain. [Ed: unfortunately the site is no longer online, but some topos are still available elsewhere].

“You are visiting here?” said Josep, casually while on lead. I was well secured in my belay anchors.
“Yes”, I replied, shielding my eyes from the sun while paying out rope to Gilles.

“Good!” he said, smiling. “But you will not know how to find the trail down. We will wait for you!” he exclaimed, before setting off again.

Their party was doing a route just adjacent to ours, and flying on it. I cherished such encounters in the mountains – in every way a normal social interaction, but between two strangers clinging spider-like to a vertiginous mountain wall. These meetings sometimes lead to lifelong friendships, and one can meet again decades later with the same sense of warmth and gratitude.

The climbing was unexpectedly difficult. The holds were rounded cobblestones emerging from a matrix of hard sediment, requiring you to balance your toes on rounded surfaces, with no real edges. I needed to think about footwork before making each move, which meant our progress was very slow. The route was series of spires stacked one upon the other. An immense panorama behind us gave me a massive sense of exposure, a feeling of stomach-churning, calf-tightening vertigo that kicks in when you can only see the air above, below and behind you. Eagles rode rising thermals, balancing motionless with outstretched wings on waves of invisible air. They nested on the cliff walls, and climbers were under strict instructions to leave certain areas and routes alone in this protected Park Natural de la Muntanya de Montserrat.

A young fresh faced Editor-in-Chief, Apoorva Prasad

The climbing took nearly the whole day. We reached the top as the sun began to set. Gilles and I quickly began to coil the ropes and switch out our rock climbing shoes for hiking footwear – wearing rock shoes the whole day is an incredibly painful experience, for those who haven’t yet tried it. Josep and his party were patiently waiting for us at the top, just beyond and below the ‘summit’ of the arete. I was warmly surprised, they must have reached at least an hour before us. They smiled and greeted us again, and rather quickly now, given the fading light, led us towards climber’s left, towards whatever path there was. Within some minutes it became clear to me that we would have never found it on our own, especially in the dark. The trail down was a complex, hours-long scramble over water-worn rock and incredibly dense brush, and not really a proper ‘trail’. If we hadn’t run into Josep’s party, we’d have probably spent the entire night cautiously hunting for the way down, having heard enough stories of climbing parties lost on descents upon being cliffed out, or going over an edge in the haze of fatigue, in darkness.

A little while later Josep pointed out a cave.
“You see these caves? Monks used to live here and meditate. Now climbers use them. They spend the year just living here and climbing”.
So medieval Benedictine monks had faded away, replaced in this new age by climbers, similarly meditating on paths to salvation amongst spires reaching up to the sky. Who were these 21st century rock-climbing monks? I was eager to find out, but tracking these unknown climbing hermits, seekers after greater truths… was not going to be easy or feasible.
The sun had already set below the horizon, we were hiking down in the twilight, and could barely see the trail. Yet I paused to look inside the cave. It was a small nook in the rook, just enough to serve as a passable campsite sheltered from the rain, to lay a sleeping bag on the uneven ground, a mendicant’s bowl on a rock ledge, perhaps a worn book. For a second, I closed my eyes and imagined that life. Then I heard the group outside, patiently waiting for us to follow that hidden trail, and I stepped back into the fading winter light.

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