India’s geological diversity is immense. From abundant forests, to large perennial rivers, to lofty mountains, name it and India has it. Speaking of mountains, India has some of the most prominent mountain ranges in the world, including the Western and Eastern Ghats, the Aravalli, the Vindhya, Satpura, Karakoram, Pir Panjal, and Himalaya. Many flock to these mountains every year, and this creates opportunities to pursue mountaineering. The governing body for mountaineering and other related sports (such as skiing) is the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF). The IMF regulates expeditions to certain peaks, which require technical knowledge that can be learned by undergoing various mountaineering courses.
This leads us to the first question: What are the various mountaineering courses? Here’s a quick overview on each of the mountaineering courses conducted in India:
Basic Mountaineering Course (BMC)
As the name suggests, the Basic Mountaineering course is a primer to mountaineering. It gives both a theoretical as well as practical understanding of mountaineering techniques and use of equipment in different terrain (rock, snow and ice). The course also covers basic methods of rescue and aid, and important skills required in expeditions such as map reading. The course usually lasts 24-28 days, and is fully residential. Each person undergoing the BMC is assessed and graded. Upon completion of the BMC, one can lead commercial trekking groups in high altitude areas (above 2,000 metres). It is also the prerequisite for climbing peaks upto 7,000 meters. Moreover, an ‘A’ grade in the BMC is a prerequisite for undergoing further mountaineering courses.
Advance Mountaineering Course (AMC)
The AMC provides training on planning and executing peak climbing expeditions to the trainees. It also builds upon the basic understanding of mountaineering techniques. Similar to the BMC, the AMC also lasts around a month, from 24-32 days. Upon successful completion of the AMC, one becomes eligible to lead an expedition. In fact, for any commercial expeditions of peaks above 6,000 metres in India, the AMC is a must as per the IMF guidelines, along with a first aid course. Moreover, those who undergo AMC are more likely to be selected for climbing expeditions both within and outside India, as it grants a certain recognition to the person’s mountaineering abilities.
Method of Instruction (MOI)
After completing the BMC and AMC, one can also undergo the MOI course. To apply for the MOI course, an ‘A’ grade in the AMC is a must. The MOI is meant for those who wish to pursue a full time career in mountaineering, and/or become mountaineering instructors. The MOI training is geared towards teaching trainees on how to design training schedules, and develop instructional ability. This course also runs for around 21-28 days.
Search and Rescue (SAR)
As for the MOI, the SAR course can be undertaken after completing the BMC and AMC. Just like the MOI course, an ‘A’ grade in the AMC is a must for the SAR course as well. Mountaineering involves many risks, and rescuing at high altitude in case of accidents is a task that cannot be done very easily. Therefore, the SAR aims to impart training on conducting rescue operations on various terrain, and in different situations. This course is very useful to those who are engaged in mountaineering as a career.
The second question after understanding what courses one can apply for is: Which institutes in India provide these courses? Here’s the lowdown on the major mountaineering institutes in India:
The Government of India has set up institutes in the country which imparts these skills. Currently, there are five mountaineering institutes, open for admission to everyone. As these institutes receive subsidies from the Government, the course fees tend to be very reasonable. However, it is important to note that seats are limited, and they fill up very fast. A potential applicant has to wait for 1-2 years before getting a slot in these institutes.
Here’s a quick overview of each of these institutes. This is based on my understanding and research conducted before pursuing BMC at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. As such, it is subjective. I would encourage everyone to read up and talk to alumni from the institutes to understand and be comfortable before choosing an institute!
Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI)
Institute Location: Darjeeling, West Bengal
Year Established: 1954
Base Camp Location: Chaurikhang, Sikkim
HMI has the badge of being the very first mountaineering institute in India, set up by Tenzing Norgay, after his successful first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953. HMI undertakes Basic and Advance Mountaineering Courses, as well as Method of Instruction.
They offer special batches for ladies in the BMC, and is also among the first institutes to have full time female instructors. HMI receives subsidies from the Ministry of Defence and Youth Affairs, and hence have among the lowest fees of all the institutes. HMI trains its students in the Sikkim Himalayas, which are quite virgin and breathtaking! HMI has one of the most beautiful and challenging areas for ice and snow training, which take place on the Rathong glacier. Moreover, right from the institute itself, you have a view of India’s highest peak, Mt. Kanchenjunga. Being the oldest institute in India, training here makes you a part of a very illustrious list of alumni. Lastly, the facilities at the institute, especially the outdoor climbing wall and a refurbished girl’s hostel are very satisfactory. In fact, a well-equipped gym was inaugurated recently after I left.
What’s not so good?
The Sikkim Himalayas, while beautiful, are also very challenging. The trek to the base camp for HMI is the longest, and probably the most arduous. Many trainees are unable to complete the journey to the base camp, or even if they do, the altitude of the base camp and the weather affect them. To give you an example, of the 73 trainees in my batch, over 20 had to turn back without completing the course. The other aspect is that the rock training takes place at Tenzing rock, which is located in Darjeeling, and is heavily crowded most of the times. It is a little cumbersome to listen to lectures and undergo training in a location right next to a busy street. Another pitfall is that the equipment tends to be overused and sometimes outdated, compared to the other institutes.
Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (HMI)
Institute Location: Uttarkashi, Uttarakhand
Year Established: 1965
Base Camp Location: Draupadi Ka Danda Base Camp, Uttarakhand
NIM is one of the oldest and most reputed mountaineering institute in India, set up in honour of Jawaharlal Nehru. They offer not only Basic and Advance Mountaineering Courses, but also the Method of Instruction and Search and Rescue courses.
They offer special batches for ladies in AMC. NIM receives subsidies from the Ministry of Defence and Youth Affairs, and hence have among the lowest fees of all the institutes. Moreover, for the longest time, NIM was the only mountaineering institute to offer the Search and Rescue (SAR) course. The quality of this course is so good here, that even the instructors of other institutes undergo SAR training here. In terms of the Basic and Advance courses, rock training is supposed to be one of the best here. This is because NIM has access to the Tekhla area, which has different rock faces to practice all the techniques. NIM also provides more up-to-date equipment. Of course, the institute facilities are good, right from the hostels, to the campus.
What’s not so good?
The almost 2-year long waitlists! If you want a spot in NIM, be prepared to have patience. Given its reputation and legacy, the courses get filled up in no time. The glacier which NIM uses to practice is melting rapidly, and therefore, the training area for the BMC has limited ice walls. However, the AMC trainees get to practice at the advance base camp, which has walls and clean ice. Another minor point is that the HMI base camp for BMC has a tin and wood permanent hut for trainees to stay in, while NIM accommodates students in tents.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports (ABVIMAS)
Institute Location: Manali, Himachal Pradesh
Year Established: 1961
Base Camp Location: BakarThach, Himachal Pradesh
ABVIMAS is located in Himachal Pradesh, the most popular state for mountaineering in India. The institute offers not just mountaineering courses, but also skiing and water sports courses.
As ABVIMAS charges a higher fee than the other institutes, it also tries to maintain course quality, by not overcrowding the batches, providing more variety in the food, etc. It also has an easier trek to the base camp, which reduces the course duration compared to the longer hikes in HMI. Moreover, Manali is very well connected and not as remote as some of the other institute locations. ABVIMAS also tends to have slightly shorter waitlists for admission.
What’s not so good?
ABVIMAS is not under the Ministry of Defence, but under the Himachal government, which means that the course is more expensive compared to others like NIM and HMI. The base camp, Bakarthach, is at a lower altitude (~10,800 feet), compared to those of HMI and NIM, which are over 14,000 feet. This means that the trainees do not get to spend as much time at higher altitudes.
Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering and Winter Sports (JIM & WS)
Institute Location: Nunwan (Pahalgam), Jammu and Kashmir
Year Established: 1983
Base Camp Location: Sonmarg, Kashmir
A relatively new institute, JIM & WS offers mountaineering and skiing courses. It is located near some of the most beautiful and untouched Ladakhi mountains. JIM & WS is also run by the Ministry of Defence, similar to NIM and HMI.
Unfortunately, because of the tentative situation in Kashmir, not a lot of people sign up to go to JIM & WS. This means that seats are available easily, compared to the other institutes. This institute offers the shortest course duration for BMC and AMC (24 days) compared to ~28 days for the other institutes, as the base camp is accessible through a largely motorable road. The rock climbing area in JIM & WS is also considered to be one of the best.
What’s not so good?
There is always a risk of courses getting cancelled due to the unrest in the region. Also, one might argue that because the base camp is accessible without a strenuous trek, it does not challenge the trainees enough.
National Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports (NIMAS)
Institute Location: Dirang, Arunachal Pradesh
Year Established: 2013
Base Camp Location: Jithang, Arunachal Pradesh
A relatively new institute, NIMAS has opened up the country to the remote mountains of Arunachal Pradesh. It offers mountaineering, paragliding and rafting courses.
NIMAS is a ‘young’ institute, and therefore does not have long waitlists. Seats are easily available for the sought after mountaineering course. NIMAS also offers the chance to experience the virgin region of Arunachal. The trek through Sela Pass is one of the most beautiful trails in the region. Moreover, the Meerathang Glacier where the trainees practice ice and snow craft, is one of the best glaciers among all the institutes.
What’s not so good?
Similar to ABVIMAS, NIMAS charges higher fees than HMI, NIM and JIM & WS. Also, because it has only been around since 2013, there is still lack of awareness about the institute and instructors compared to the other, older institutes.