Basic Mountaineering Course to learn Mountain Climbing

What Happens in a Basic Mountaineering Course? Mountain Climbing aspirants can learn from my experience.

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing else.” – Helen Keller

The majestic beauty of mountains is a source of joy for almost every nature lover. The natural beauty untouched by the pollution of modern life, brings a new perspective to our lives. In recent years, we have seen with the advent of many trekking companies there are many people who are going for high-altitude treks.

There are many treks or certain parts on a trail that is technical in nature. They require an understanding of mountaineering equipment and survival skills in a high-altitude area. One needs to have basic training in mountaineering to climb difficult peaks. A Basic Mountaineering Course (BMC) serves that purpose very well.

Height-gaining training exercise part of Basic Mountaineering Course
Height-gaining training exercise

I have always loved mountains and trekking always excites me. After doing many small treks in Sahyadri hills of Maharashtra, and a few high-altitude treks in the mighty Himalayas, I thought of taking up my interest in the mountains to the next level.

I enrolled for the 26 days BMC from Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports (ABVIMAS), Manali, Himachal Pradesh in October’2022.

Basic Mountaineering Course for Mountain Climbing

BMC is the very first step to learning mountaineering and becoming a professional mountaineer. BMC provides you the basic knowledge in rock climbing, rock craft, ice craft, survival skills, exposure to glaciers and high Himalayan Ranges, basic first aid, etc.

Basic Mountaineering Course teaches you the basic things that one should be aware of before going on Mountain Climbing missions. You will learn how to understand weather and climate, map-reading, how to pack your bag pack, mountain terminology, how to use mountaineering equipment, how to walk in mountains, and much more.

Mountain Climbing Trainee

Anyone who wants a career in outdoor activities or wants to become a high-altitude trek leader should do higher courses after doing BMC. Anyone who thinks that BMC is just for fun and is just another trek or easy Mountain Climbing, should think again.

Where to do the Basic Mountaineering Course in India?

In India, there are few Government registered mountaineering Institute from where BMC can be done, and they are:

  1. Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), Uttarkashi, Uttrakhand
  2. Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), Darjeeling, West Bengal
  3. Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports (ABVIMAS), Manali, Himachal Pradesh
  4. National Institute of Mountaineering and Adventure Sports (NIMAS), Dirang, Arunachal Pradesh
  5. Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering and Winter Sports, Pahalgam, Jammu

NIM and HMI are the oldest and are considered to be the best mountaineering institutes in India. You may have to wait for 2 years to get a seat there. However, the waiting period is less in other Institutes.

What is the course fee?

The course fee is different in every Institute. However, the fee ranges from INR 18,000 to INR 23,000. Fee for a foreigner is different in every Institute. The fee is subsidized or free for people who come for the course through NCC or the armed forces.

Who can do this course?

Anyone who is physically fit and is in the age group of 16-45 years can opt for this course. Some Institutes have an age limit of 40 years.

How to apply?

Almost all the Institutes accept applications online mode. You can also visit their campus and apply for the course there itself. At the time of applying, you need to produce a medical certificate that proves that you are fit enough to apply for the course.

How to prepare for the course?

Though it is a basic course, Basic Mountaineering Course is very demanding when it comes to physical fitness. Every day of the course will test your strength physically and your ability to take stress mentally.

One must prepare for the course as early as 6 months, if not 6 then at least 3 months. However, the earlier you prepare the better you will perform in the course. HMI provides a twelve-week pre-course workout plan to prepare for the course which is available on their website.

The instructors always watch you during the course and they keep a note on how physically fit you are. There are marks as well on physical fitness. So, you must prepare well before going for the course.

Artificial Wall Climbing
Artificial Wall Climbing

One should be able to run for 5 KMS within 30 minutes to make the stamina strong. Apart from stamina, your core strength is also important. During the course, you will have to carry your bag pack which will be around 15-20 kg, and trek for hours on a vertical slope. You must walk with weights to make your endurance stronger.

Mental Strength for BMC and Mountain Climbing

Lastly, one must keep in mind that physical strength is only 30% and mental strength is 70%. Whatever you prepare, your patience will still be tested. There will be times you would want to just give up and go back home. Whatever may be the situation, just make sure you stay mentally strong and don’t give up.

To share my experience, there were days when I would struggle to wake up, there were times when my whole body used to pain and I just could not climb another rock or walk another mile. I used to question my decision to come for BMC and wanted to quit.

Thankfully, my instructors motivated me and I pushed my limits to the maximum. If I had never been to BMC I would have never known that my body is so strong. I learned that ‘We create our own limits and we are stronger than we think we are’.

What are the things to pack for the course?

All Institutes provide various equipment like – trekking bag, ice axe, snow shoes, jacket, mess tin, sling, carabiners, harness, helmet, windproof suit, rucksack (100L), rain cover for the rucksack, sleeping bag, and liner, carry mat, gaiters, crampons.

Every Institute will provide a list of items one needs to carry with them which can be found on their website. Below are some of the suggestions that one should take care of:

  • Clothes – During your stay on campus you will get time to wash your clothes but at high altitudes, you will hardly get any time to wash your clothes. So, it is advisable to carry extra pair of clothes with you. Be prepared to repeat your clothes. You can carry talcum powder/deodorant/dusting powder to remove bad smells.
  • Shoes – Good trekking shoes (preferably waterproof) are a must. Carry a running shoe for morning/evening PT because running in heavy shoes is not comfortable. Also, carry slippers with you. You can also carry climbing shoes (PA shoes) for rock climbing classes (some Institutes provide them).
  • Food – At the institute, one need not worry about the food. However, during high altitude, you can carry snacks, protein bars, and dry fruits with you.
  • Medicines – Though every institute has a medical store and a doctor. But it is advisable to carry your own basic medicines.
  • Other items which you should carry with you are – a torch, power bank (carry at least 20000 MAH), multi-purpose bandana, detergent, toiletries, tissue papers, polythene bag, and ORS.

However, one must only pack what they need because you will have to carry your luggage. Although they provide an option to use a porter service for carrying luggage, but it will affect Grades. There is also an option to keep excess items on campus before leaving for high-altitude camps.

Basic Mountaineering Course Schedule

Basic Mountaineering Course is a 24-28 days course depending upon the Institute. The course is split into three parts – rock craft, snow craft, and ice craft.

We were a batch of 145 participants. Generally, the batch size is 70-80 participants, ours was an exception. There were people from NCC, BSF, and Himachal Police as well.

The discipline during the course is similar to what we see in the armed forces. Getting late for any activity, even for a minute, was not tolerated and the eventual punishment for getting late was doing push-ups.

Rock Craft (8-10 days) for Mountain Climbing

The first 8-10 days are spent on campus wherein during the initial 1-2 days we are given an introduction to the course and are introduced to our instructors. The participants are given the equipment which they will be using in the entire course, there is an opening address, a visit to the museum, and a movie shown on mountaineering.

Rock Climbing exercise part of Basic Mountaineering Course
Rock Climbing exercise

All the participants are divided into small groups which are called ‘Rope’. Every Rope has a Rope leader. Their responsibility is to manage the equipment given to every Rope and coordinate with the instructors on a daily basis. Every batch also has a Leader or a Senior whose responsibility is to coordinate with all the participants for the daily activities and arrange routine matters of the course.

Rock craft includes the training of rock climbing, rappelling, river crossing, and jumaring. Every Institute takes participants to a natural rock-climbing area that is close to the campus for the above activities.

Daily Routine

My days at ABVIMAS used to start at around 6 AM in the morning and the first thing is to do physical training exercises which include running for 5 Km and cardio exercises for around 1.5 hours which is followed by breakfast.

In ABVIMAS, we used to leave our campus by 8:30 AM for our daily activities. The rock-climbing area was around 30 mins from the campus. Every Rope had an individual instructor for the training. Our training used to get over by 1 – 1:30 PM and we used to reach back to campus by 2:00 PM.

After lunch and some rest, we had a lecture every day from 3:00 PM to 5:00 PM on various topics. Topics included understanding weather and climate, mountain terminology, basic first aid, mountain manners, Avalanches, and understanding the mighty Himalayas.

In the evening, there were again physical training exercises. These were in the form of obstacle course racing where we had to go through several obstacles like climbing a big wall, walking under the mud, etc. Everyone must clear at least three rounds of this training.

River crossing training
River crossing training

After obstacle running, around 7:00 PM we used to have sessions on how to use a rope and tie basic knots. Ropes are the most important thing in mountaineering. Ropes are used every time in mountaineering whether while ascending or descending. We also had two tests as well on how to tie knots.

We used to have our dinner from 8:00 – 9:00 PM and lights were switched off by 10:00 PM.

Physically Challenging

We hardly used to get time for ourselves. Our entire day was physically very challenging. We had to be attentive for every activity as the instructors always keep a watch on every participant. If we skip any activity or do not pay attention it will have an impact on our Grades.

Adam’s Day – Every Institute gives one Adam’s Day during Rock craft training which basically means there are no activities for the day and we are free to do whatever we wish to. We are also allowed to go out of the campus.

We also had a rock-climbing practical test at the end of the rock craft training session where we were told to climb a natural rock patch. The test was not only about climbing the rock patch but the instructors also noted if we are using the correct techniques for climbing or falling as well.

Ice Craft and Snow Craft (12-14 days) for Mountain Climbing

Rock craft training seemed to be difficult but we did not know that a more difficult training was waiting for us and the rock craft training days were actually fun.

Ice and snow craft training happen in high altitude area at around 10,000-11,000 feet. Every Institute change 1-2 basecamps before reaching the final basecamp.

We started from the ABVIMAS campus in Manali to our base camp in Solang Valley (8,500 feet). We walked for around 4 straight hours with a heavy bag pack of around 15-20 Kg. After reaching Solang Valley we were given lectures on how to pitch our tent. We were also taken for an acclimatization walk in nearby places.

Snow Craft Training Basic Mountaineering Course
Snow Craft Training

From Solang Valley, we moved to our final base camp at Bakarthach (10,500 feet) which took us around 5 hours. These two days when we had to trek for hours with such heavyweight were the toughest days of our course.

Base Camp

After reaching the final base camp at Bakarthach, we were awestruck by the beautiful mountains surrounding us. We pitched our tents over there and it was home for us for the next 10 days.

Ice and snow craft training is about learning:

  • How to walk on ice and snow
  • How to climb an ice wall
  • How to arrest yourself if you fall in the snow
  • About glaciers
  • How to rescue your teammate in the event of an accident
  • How to use the equipment used in high altitude treks like ice axe, boots, crampon, etc.

Thankfully there were no physical training exercises and our typical day used to start at 8:00 AM with breakfast. We used to leave by around 8:30 AM from our base camp to reach our training area at around 11,500 feet. Our training used to get over by 2:00 PM and we would reach our base camp all exhausted by around 4:00 PM or sometimes 5:00 PM. We used to have lunch after coming to the base camp.

In the evening we used to have lectures in the open ground every day. Topics included how to wear boots and crampons, how to understand glaciers, how to make a stretcher and do a rescue, how to survive outdoors, etc.

Height-Gaining and Survival Night for Mountain Climbing

After the completion of ice craft and snow craft training, we had the most difficult activity – a height-gaining day. To give us an experience of how it feels in a high-altitude area we walked from our base camp of 10,500 feet to a height of 14,500 feet in four hours.

We were given a particular time to reach the endpoint otherwise it could affect our Grades. One might face health issues during Mountain Climbing by gaining such height in such a short time. There were a few participants who lost consciousness on this day and had to be taken back to low altitude area.

Height Gaining Mountain Climbing Training
Height Gaining Mountain Climbing Training

We also had a survival night activity wherein we were not given our dinner and we were not supposed to sleep in our tents or use sleeping bags. Such are the situations one will face while on Mountain Climbing missions.

Outdoor Sleep

We were told to sleep outdoors below the open sky. We were given some plastic sheets and we had to prepare our own tents using rocks/ trees. For food, we were told to hunt in the jungle but thankfully they gave us some dry fruits and snacks so we managed with it instead of being Bear Grylls. The objective of this activity was to make us learn how to survive with basic amenities in the case of an unfortunate event in the mountains.

Typical high-altitude campsite for trainees
Typical high-altitude campsite for trainees

In the entire course, the survival night was the most memorable and beautiful one. We lit the bonfire and had fun till late at night. We were happy that our painful high-altitude training is over and the next morning, we will be going back to our campus.

At the end of the training, we had a practical test on what we had learned so far. We were asked to identify the mountaineering equipment, explain its use and demonstrate the techniques we learned to climb an ice wall.

Written test (2 days)

After snow and ice craft training, we came back to our campus and were so happy that we have successfully completed the course. We submitted all the equipment which the Institute had provided us. Every Institute has a written test wherein the theoretical knowledge of the participants is tested.

Performance in all the tests decides the Grades we get at the end of the Course. Apart from practical and theoretical tests, Grades also depend on how we behave during the course.

Like a discipline, how much we participate in each activity, and how much physically fit we are. Grade ‘A’ signifies that we can go for Advance Mountaineering Course (‘AMC’), Grade ‘B’ signifies that though one has completed the course but cannot go for AMC, and Grade ‘C’ signifies that one has not passed the Course.

Closing Ceremony

The most exciting part of the course is the closing ceremony and the final address on the last day. Everyone is rewarded with certificates and mountaineering badges. There are special prizes for the best Participant of the batch. Clean Himalaya prize is awarded to the person who helps in keeping the training area always clean. Participants can dance, sing or do any activity after the ceremony ends.

Group photo of a batch of trainees - Basic Mountaineering Course
Group photo of a batch of trainees

The Basic Mountaineering Course is challenging. Testing you at every step. You will feel many a time to give it up and go back home. One has to push onerself and be strong mentally.

You will get so many memories of the early stages of Mountain Climbing to cherish for your lifetime. Wish you all the best for the course. Enjoy every moment of it. It is once in a lifetime experience.

This is a Guest Post, including images by Rahul Jaju. He is a Chartered Accountant by profession and lives in Kolkata. After working for 7 years in a MNC, he took a career break and left his corporate job to travel and explore Life. He is an avid traveller and loves mountains over beaches.