Review: HMI Darjeeling’s Basic Mountaineering Course (India)

Olly gaspar

By Olly Gaspar, full-time traveler & adventure photographer for 6 years with 700+ published travel guides. I visit every place I write about & share real tips from what I learn.

A detailed breakdown of my experience on the Basic Mountaineering Course (BMC) at HMI Darjeeling, the most renowned Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in India.

After years of hiking and trekking around the world, I was longing for the opportunity to embark on some more technical mountaineering ascents. However, growing up in Australia, a mostly flat nation with only one notable peak, didn’t offer many opportunities to hone my technical mountain skills.

So, I began researching the best ways to acquire those skills and quickly found that a Basic Mountaineering Course (BMC) would be the best place to start. I’d done some trekking in the Himalayas before, including Nepal’s famous Three Passes Trek, so I knew that basic mountaineering adventure courses in the Himalayas would be right up my alley.

After a recommendation from a friend, I ended up enrolling in the BMC at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) in Darjeeling, West Bengal– a school with an international reputation and as one of India’s premier mountaineering institutes.

This article is aimed at informing those interested in enrolling at HMI, or those curious about Himalayan mountaineering schools in India. I’ve included tonnes of information about the BMC course and the institute, as well as a detailed day-by-day breakdown of my experience with an honest review of the course at the bottom of this post.

About HMI Darjeeling (Himalayan Mountaineering Institute)

HMI Darjeeling is one of the oldest and longest-running mountaineering institutes in the world. It was founded by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s first Prime Minister) and Tenzing Norgay in 1954, just one year after Sir Edmund Hillary and Norgay made the first successful ascent of Mount Everest (8,848 m).

HMI’s most popular course is the BMC, which attracts a long waiting list for Indians (more on this later), but they also offer the Advanced Mountaineering Course, Search and Rescue, Method of Instruction Course, and various special courses like the adventure courses (trekking and summits).

The institute is strangely located within the Darjeeling Zoological Park, meaning trainees and visitors must walk through the zoo to get to the institute’s entrance gates. You’ll find the entrance to this zoo on Lebong Cart Rd, a short walk from Chowrasta and Chauk Bazar, Darjeeling.

HMI is a government-run facility (jointly by the Government of India and the Government of West Bengal). It’s headed by the Defence Minister and the Chief Minister of West Bengal. As a result, the organization is much more militaristic, hierarchal, and bureaucratic than western climbing schools.

Tenzing Norgay: HMI Darjeeling is well-known in India and the global mountaineering world for being founded by Sherpa Tenzing Norgay (along with Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to summit Everest). Norgay served as the institute’s first Director of Field Training and largely shaped the early course structures. Today, there is a memorial outside the HMI museum dedicated to Norgay.

About the Basic Mountaineering Course

The Basic Mountaineering Course (BMC) in India is a 28-day course designed to take beginner mountaineers (men & women) and provide them with all of the skills necessary to embark on expeditions up to 7,000 meters.

The course is split into theoretical (classroom lectures) and practical components covering topics such as the use of mountaineering equipment and technical clothing, rock craft, ice craft (glacier training), snow craft, etc.

The BMC is split up with an initial 8 days spent at the Himalayan Institute in Darjeeling, followed by a 4-day trek from Yoksum to HMI Base Camp at Chaurikhang, West Sikkim (4500 m). Then, trainees spend 10 days at the camp for field training and height gain, followed by a 2-day descent trek and 2-3 days of written tests, formalities, and graduation once back at HMI.

All mountaineering institutes in India offer a standardized course program for the BMC. This means that candidates looking to progress to the Advance course can do so at other schools as well. However, only candidates with a graduating score of A or above are permitted to progress to further mountaineering training in India.

Course schedules run during March, April, May, September, October, and November.

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Glacier Climbing at Rathong Glacier

Indian climbing regulations: The BMC is a very popular course in India with a long waiting list. The reason is that its completion is a preliminary requirement for Indian citizens wanting to embark on an above 7,000-meter expedition in the Indian Himalayas. Strangely, the Indian government does not have any formal training restrictions for foreign nationals on any expedition. However, it may help if mountaineers apply for climbing permits themselves with the intent to climb alpine style.

Enrollment Process

The enrollment process for the BMC at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute varies greatly depending on whether you are a foreigner or an Indian national.

Unfortunately, I can’t comment much on the Indian process. However, after speaking to people on my course, they’ve told me that in order for Indians to apply, they must put their names down and wait for up to two years. There are also Indian military slots and sponsorship slots from programs like the cadets. If you’re an Indian reader, I recommend contacting HMI directly.

For non-Indians, there are foreigner slots available. These are separate from the regular waiting list slots for Indians and allow people from other nations to enroll as late as a few months in advance. However, foreigners (and Indians who want to pay full price for the early enrollment) have to pay the full course fees, which is roughly $1,060 USD curently, up about $65 since I did the course. Waiting list candidates pay a fraction of this, currently Rs 20,497 for Indians.

Both Indians and foreigners will need to complete the enrollment form, as well as a very lengthy and thorough medical assessment form. The medical requires everything from an ECG to chest X-rays, which was frustrating for me as somebody who lives on the road.

In order to complete your enrollment, you’ll also need to forward 10% of the course fees as a deposit after emailing a copy of your Application Form and Medical Form to the HMI staff.

What to Expect From a Mountaineering Course at HMI Darjeeling

Before I dive into my day-by-day recap, here’s a bit of information about the facilities at HMI Darjeeling.

The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (Campus)

The first thing you’ll notice about the HIM campus is that it is quite big, with several wings and facilities. Below I’ve included a small list of these facilities, as well as some photos beneath.

  • Javal Hall (auditorium) – a large lecture theatre hall capable of accommodating more than 225 students at a time. Used for lectures and training presentations.
  • PTI Hall – a regular classroom with folding table desks where HMI instructors deliver smaller lectures and classes.
  • Library – a well-stocked library containing loads of mountaineering and travel books.
  • Gym – small strength and fitness gym with a few weight machines and treadmills. Unfortunately, this was closed during my course.
  • Indoor Rock Climbing Hall – basic indoor sports climbing wall.
  • Outdoor Rock Climbing Wall – impressive 50′ x 20′ sport climbing wall with traditional lead, top rope, and speed climbing sections.
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Late Tenzing Norgay Sherpa Monument
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Outdoor Sports Climbing Wall

Lodging (Hostel)

True to Indian customs, the HMI campus hostel is split up into two wings– one for males and one for females. This means that couple enrollees will be separated.

The hostels are 3 stories high, with several rooms on each floor accommodating up to eight students in bunkbed-style dorms. There are also large metal lockers for each student in the room.

On each hostel floor is a bathroom with mostly Asian (squatter) toilets and a couple of showers. The hot water geezers only turn on in the morning.

Food (Dining Hall)

Trainees receive three meals a day (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), served in a large, open dining hall.

These meals are mostly rice and dal-based and are quite basic in terms of variety. Honestly, eating the same food for every meal was one of the most difficult parts for me on this course. At first, I thought it was me who needed to adjust to an Indian diet, but in the end, it seemed that the majority of the Indian candidates were also longing for variety.

The bonus here is that you are able to walk up and get as many servings as you want, assuming you finish your plate. Oh, and there are many, many “tea breaks” for chai and biscuits throughout the course, both on campus and at HMI Base Camp.

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Food at HMI Darjeeling Campus


Apart from a basic list of essential items like sports shoes for PT, trekking boots, gloves, and base layers, HMI provides all necessary mountaineering equipment and technical clothing required for the expedition to West Sikkim.

A basic list of the gear provided includes:

  • Backpack (large 80L hiking backpack)
  • Sleeping mat
  • Sleeping bag
  • Mess tin
  • Down jacket
  • Balaclava
  • Rain jacket & pants
  • Climbing harness
  • Jumar, figure-8 descender, carabiners, piece rope
  • Ice Axe
  • Crampons

The overall quality of the equipment is good enough for the BMC. However, in terms of international mountaineering standards, the equipment is well– let’s just say I wouldn’t climb any serious peak with this gear.

Therefore, if you have your own equipment such as Gore-Tex shells or technical gear like an ice axe or crampons, I highly recommend bringing it for the course.

HMI Base Camp

The HMI Base Camp is located at Chaurikhang, West Sikkim at 4,500 meters. The camp is positioned on a grassy hill just above the Rathong River and is surrounded by beautiful peaks including Rathong, the Kabru Mountains, Mount Frey, and Kokthang.

The facilities at Base Camp are quite impressive, offering a hut for accommodation (expedition tents for the Advanced course trainees), equipment rooms, toilets (squatter drop toilets), dedicated training areas, a medical office, and a full kitchen.

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HMI Base Camp at sunrise beneath Mount Frey (6010 m)
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Hut accommodation for BMC candidates
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Rathong Moraine – 2.5-hour daily trek to the glacier training area
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Rathong Glacier training area

HMI Museum, Darjeeling Zoo, and Treetop Rope Course

As mentioned earlier, the HMI campus sits within the Darjeeling Zoo. In fact, the institute earns some money from tourists who visit HMI to tour the grounds. While initially, this made me feel a little strange since there’d be random families asking me for selfies, I quickly got over it.

Something else I didn’t expect was that we were not allowed to leave the gates once we’d received our hostel slips, even to tour the zoo. Therefore, if it’s your kind of thing, I’d dedicate some time to check it out before or after the course.

On the other hand, the HMI Museum, which I highly recommend, is within the walls of the institute, meaning candidates can visit during downtime. This museum features some historical items including Tenzing Norgay’s Everest summit jacket and axe. This is also the oldest mountaineering museum in India.

Additionally, just outside the museum is a souvenir shop and a small cafeteria serving basic meals like momos or sandwiches, which were a great treat when we had the chance to visit.

The Treetop Course is a new addition inside the HMI Darjeeling grounds but is off-limits to candidates and really not worth the time in my opinion.

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Museum pieces from the first Everest summit

Getting to Darjeeling

The easiest way to get to Darjeeling is to fly to the nearby domestic airport of Bagdogra. There are several flight routes connecting to Bagdogra via large Indian transit hubs like Delhi and Kolkata. Domestic flights in India, including routes to Bagdogra, are quite affordable, especially if you compare prices across airlines using tools like Skyscanner, Google Flights, or CheapOAir.

From Bagdogra airport, it is very easy to arrange a taxi to Darjeeling on arrival. Simply walk past the baggage collection area and immediately before reaching the exit, turn left down the narrow hallway to a small taxi office. The official price for a taxi to Darjeeling is 1,500 INR (approximately $18 USD), which is very fair for the long and very winding 3-4 hour drive.

Just be prepared, Darjeeling’s second name is the Queen of Hills, and this is no exaggeration.

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Mount Kanchenjunga (8,586 m) seen from the HMI Campus in Darjeeling

Alternative Transport Options to Darjeeling

Alternatively, travelers can opt for slightly cheaper but much longer overland journeys to Darjeeling from cities across India.

If you use RedBus, you’ll find an extensive network of inter-city buses running to the nearby city of Siliguri at affordable rates. From Siliguri, you’ll need to take a taxi or shared Jeep to Darjeeling, which is easy to find at the arrival bus station and costs roughly 1500 rupees, and takes 3-4 hours.

There’s also a train station in Siliguri, meaning you can use RedBus again to book train tickets from nearby cities including Kolkata.

Tip: In my opinion, sleeper buses in India are much more comfortable and more convenient than trains.

Where to Stay in Darjeeling Before & After the Course

Darjeeling is one of the most magical places in India. If you’re making the trip out to train at HMI Darjeeling, I highly recommend spending at least a few days on either side to explore the area. Below is a quick list of the three best accommodation options in Darjeeling.

  • Cedar Inn – Cedar Inn is Darjeeling’s best accommodation option featuring beautifully designed timber rooms, high-speed WiFi, onsite Terrace Cafe, and bar, as well as incredible views over Mount Kanchenjunga (the world’s third tallest mountain). Great for families and offers free shuttle services from the airport.
  • Hideout Backpackers Hostel – The best backpacker hostel in Darjeeling and is very close to the main attractions and restaurants. This one is a little difficult to find, but once you arrive, you’ll be treated to great views from the rooftop cafe, as well as clean rooms and a great vibe for meeting other travelers.
  • Mayfair Darjeeling – The best bang-for-buck option– a 5-star hotel in an excellent valley-view location for an unbeatable price. Mayfair offers a spa, gym, outdoor garden, and large, beautifully decorated rooms. From here, you’ve got less than a 15-minute walk to Observatory Hill Viewpoint!

My Experience of the Basic Mountaineering Course at HMI

In this section, I’ll provide a quick day-by-day recap of my experience in the Basic Mountaineering Course to help you understand what to expect. Of course, the BMC structure will likely not be exactly the same as you’ll experience as some outdoor activities like rock climbing are weather dependent.

However, this will give you a good idea of what it’s like undertaking the course at HMI Darjeeling, especially as a foreigner.

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BMC 352 graduating class at Rathong Glacier

Day 0: Initiation and Checking into the HMI Hostel

We reached HMI Darjeeling just after midday on the scheduled arrival day. Upon arrival, we were greeted by administrative staff who then guided us through the introduction process.

This was quite straightforward, with just a few forms and documents to sign, as well as a brief medical report check. We were also offered the option to purchase insurance for 1000 Indian rupees which would cover us for the entire course. Shortly after, we were handed our Hostel Slip, which we passed to the quartermaster, who then assigned us our hostel rooms.

After quickly settling in, we were given a quick introduction in the Javal Hall (large auditorium), followed by our first dinner together. This was a good opportunity to meet the other trainees and get settled in for the course.

Day 1: Getting Settled into the HMI Campus

The first day at HMI was all about getting prepared.

The day started at 6:50 am with the assignment of ropes, which are essentially small groups of 5-6 people that we’d stay in for the remainder of the course. Interestingly, the instructors split the 63 trainees up by region, and then assigned ropes in a way that would mix people from different states of India (as well as one foreigner per rope).

First PT Session

Shortly after, we began our first PT (physical training) session. This involved a morning jog through the Darjeeling Zoo and around the soon-to-be familiar loop down Mall Road to Chowrasta that we’d run for the next week.

The first section of this easy 5-km jog involves a slight incline but I was surprised that the instructors really kept a very slow pace, to begin with (roughly 7.5-minute kilometers). Additionally, the jog was broken up with a short PT session at a nearby courtyard involving basic bodyweight exercises and stretches.

While this was not overly demanding by any means, I believe that this 1 hour PT session is structured to help trainees acclimatize to the 2000-meter altitude at the campus.

Campus Orientation

After a quick shower and Indian breakfast, we lined up (HMI calls it “Fall-In”) in the courtyard in lines of ropes. This process involved the assignment of an alternating Rope Leader, which we would take turns being every two days.

The responsibility of the Rope Leader was to ensure that all other rope members were present when called. This would be a common occurrence for the next week following each break or meal.

Shortly after, the instructors walked us around the campus and introduced us to all of the facilities including:

  • Indoor Rock Climbing Hall
  • Library
  • PTI Lecture Hall
  • Outdoor Rock Climbing Area
  • HMI Museum
  • Tenzing Norgay Sherpa Plarque
  • Equipment Wing
  • Medical Wing

First Lectures

Next up, we were treated to a decent lunch followed by our first lecture on mountain equipment.

Final on-site Medicals

I was quite surprised at just how thorough HMI was with its medical inspections. Not only were we required to undergo some pretty thorough reports before arriving, but we were also inspected on day one by the onsite medical team.

This involved a quick checkup on our vitals, including blood pressure and heart rate, as well as weight and height reporting and a quick chat with the medical officer.

Receiving Our Mountaineering Equipment

After a quick chai tea break (get used to these), we were then instructed to report to the Equipment Wing to receive our assigned equipment. This equipment included:

  • Rucksack
  • Waterproof Jacket and Pants
  • Massive Down Jacket
  • Sleeping Bag & liner
  • Mess Tin
  • Harness & Hardware (Jumar, carabiners, etc)
  • Woolen balaclava
  • Water bottle
  • Rappelling jacket

If we had brought some of our own equipment, including drink bottles, harnesses, etc, we were told that we didn’t need to rent this and that we could use our own.

Evening Lecture

To wrap up the day we attended a 45-minute lecture on mountain manners and other formalities expected of us.

Day 2: Climbing Ropes & Knots

Just like on day 1, the second day started with a PT session commencing at 6:50 am. Again, we ran the same loop but this time at a gradually faster pace. I still found this to be very easy and was a little surprised at just how little physical effort was expected of us.

Following PT, we had roughly one hour to have a quick shower and eat breakfast together before fall in.

Morning Lecture: Rope

The first lecture of the day was held in the auditorium and contained useful information about rope use in mountaineering.

Practical: Learning Knots & Mountaineering Rope Use

After a quick tea break, we were asked to report to the Outdoor Climbing Area for a rope and knot learning session. I really enjoyed this session as we learned many different types of knots that we’d use every day for the rest of the course.

Some of the main knots and hitches used in the BMC at HMI Darjeeling include:

  • Guideman knot
  • MIddleman Knot
  • Figure of eight
  • Bowline (various methods)
  • Bowline on the bite
  • Reef knot, fisherman’s knot, sheet bend
  • Clove hitch

There were plenty of instructors present who were able to teach each of us the correct methods of tying these knots and hitches, as well as the practice of coiling rope.

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Knot lecture at the Outdoor Wall

Further Lectures

After lunch, we attended more lectures in the PTI hall. These were classes on the Himalayas and an introduction to rock climbing. We also finished up the day by watching an inspirational Everest movie.

Day 3: First Day at Tenzing Rock

Again, the day started with a progressively more difficult PT session. However, while the pace was faster than the previous days, it was easily managed and you will likely still find it too easy if you hold a decent level of fitness.

Rock Climbing at HMI Darjeeling Tenzing Rock

Day three was an exciting day as we were finally able to practice some rock craft. The main training ground for all rock work at HMI Darjeeling is a large boulder outcrop located less than two kilometers from the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute campus and is known as Tenzing Rock.

This is a perfect rock for training as it features several grades of rock climbing pitches, space for rappelling, and even a decent chimney area. The first day at the rock involved basic rock climbing and belaying practice which again was quite straightforward and very easy for those with previous climbing experience.

However, on this particular day, the rock was quite wet which meant slippery conditions. We climbed until roughly 12:00 pm, whereby after which we made the walk back up to the HMI campus for lunch.

Afternoon Mountaineering Lectures

Following a hearty lunch, we attended the now-familiar afternoon lectures. This time the topics covered areas of mountaineering terms, as well as mountaineering hazards.

Day 4: More Rock Craft & HMI Lectures

Unlike the previous days, the morning PT session on day four was followed by a 30-minute guided yoga session. While it wasn’t the best yoga session I’ve ever done, I was happy that the institute was including yoga in its course program.

Next, we headed back to Tenzing Rock for more climbing, belaying, and practical lessons on rock anchoring.

The afternoon included lectures on mountain clothing and environmental management in the mountains.

Day 5: First “Hike” and Rappelling at Tenzing Rock

On Day 5 we were instructed not to undergo morning PT. Instead, we were told to prepare a 15-kilogram rucksack for a 10-kilometer training hike around Darjeeling and down to Tenzing Rock.

The purpose of this was to prepare trainees for an upcoming fitness test before heading to the HMI base camp.

In all honesty, I felt a longing for some nature trails at this stage and would have preferred the hike to feature some of the beautiful hiking trails in Darjeeling. Instead, we marched in a long loop that finished at Tenzing Rock.

Rappelling Practice

After spending the past two days at the rock, we had completed all of the climbing routes, as well as the anchor fixing training and chimney route. So, the next two days were dedicated to rappelling practice.

We were taught direct rappelling techniques without hardware such as stomach rappelling, shoulder rappelling, and side rappelling, as well as indirect rappelling using the figure eight descenders.

Similarly to the previous days, the time at the rock finished at 12:00 pm so we could make it back to the HMI campus by 1 pm for our lunch.

Afternoon lectures

Afternoon lectures on day five featured classes on tents in mountaineering and a basic first aid course.

Day 6: Day at Tenzing Rock

We kicked off the sixth day with a regular PT session followed by another yoga class. This time, I was much more impressed with the yoga flows and instruction. After this, we headed back to Tenzing Rock and completed another rappelling and climbing session.

It was quite inspiring to see so many trainees gain so much confidence with climbing, belaying, and rappelling so quickly.

The afternoon lectures included a class led by the on-site medical officer on high altitude sicknesses including AMS, HAPE, and HACE. The final class was a very informative one about map reading.

Day 7: Tenzing Rock and Indoor Climbing

Originally, day 7 was reserved for a physical fitness hiking test. However, due to a landslide on the way to base camp, our trek, and consequently the test, was pushed back by two days.

Instead of the test (which was held on day 9), we kicked off the day with another PT lesson followed by rappelling sessions at Tenzing Rock.

This time, we got to try out long-line rappelling on the steep face, which was much more exhilarating.

Afterward, we returned to the HMI campus to do some indoor rock climbing followed by a short movie and an afternoon of free time on campus.

Day 8: Jumar Practice & Stretcher Training

The day started off with a light jog, followed by a 30-minute yoga session. At this point, everybody in the course was getting much fitter and more used to the altitude.

Jumar Ascending on Tenzing Rock

Due to the fact that our glacier training at base camp was pushed back by two days, the instructors brought us back to Tenzing Rock for a day of Jumar ascending. This lesson is usually reserved for Base Camp, however, the teams did well to set up a decent ascent practice on the steep side of the short face.

Jumars are the main tool for most mountaineers looking to climb on expeditions with a Sherpa or guide. As a result, we really tried to take it all in and learn as much as possible.

Rope Stretcher Making

Following another decent lunch in the mess hall, the course was brought up to the courtyard opposite the HMI museum. Here, we were taught how to make an improvised rope stretcher from a 50-meter rope.

Our Rope instructor also took some time to give us one-on-one training on some of the main knots that we were struggling with.

Day 9: Pandem Trekking Test (fitness Test)

Before the BMC course heads out to the base camp for field and glacier training, passing a basic fitness test is required. Originally, this test was meant to happen on day 7. However, due to the pushed-back departure date, our course group underwent this test on day 9.

The test involved a simple 14-kilometer trek carrying a minimum of 15 kilograms of gear. The passing time was under 3 hours, which we were made to agree on. If we weren’t able to complete the trek within this time frame, we’d be asked to leave the course. In fact, we even had to sign a waiver before the test to accept this condition.

While this seems harsh at first, it does have logistical merit. The coming days of trekking to the glacier would be much harsher, and any individuals who weren’t able to complete this basic trek would experience major issues down the line.

The trek forms a long loop starting with a gradual descent down to the nearby Darjeeling tea plantations before climbing a rather steep, switchback road back to Chowrasta, with a final stretch to the HMI Darjeeling campus. The view on the way was quite refreshing after spending so much time at the Darjeeling campus. Sweeping valleys of tea trees merged into rolling hills of Middle Himalayan jungle landscapes. In the distance, small glimpses of snow-capped peaks penetrated the thick morning fog.

In the end, I was able to complete the trek in two hours and three minutes with a decent level of fitness but little altitude exposure over the past few months. While so far the PT had been much too easy, this trek was quite difficult, especially for us who set the pace quite high.

Unfortunately, several trainees from my course were unable to complete this test within the required time restraints. As a result, they were asked to leave the following day. One of those was my friend Madhu, who wrote a fun story about her experience.

Tips for the Pandem Test: The first 7 kilometers of the Pandem test involves a gradual decline down to the valley of tea plantations. I recommend setting a decent pace and taking advantage of this section by alternating between a slow jog and a downhill powerwalk. However, the last 5 kilometers involve an increasingly steeper ascent, with about 500 meters of elevation gain. Try to set a slow steady pace for this uphill stretch and just keep walking and you’ll make it within 3 hours.

Avalanche Lecture

After an easy day hanging out at the campus following the Pandem test, our instructors gave us an informative lecture on avalanche safety and rescue. This was one of my favorite lectures so far, with tonnes of useful information for staying safe in avalanche-prone areas, and gave us the opportunity to try tracker beacons.

Day 10: Preparing for Sikkim

On Day 10 we received good news from our instructors, the landslides had been cleared and we were off to Basecamp tomorrow! 

But first, we set off on the final PT session, an easy and very familiar loop to Chowrasta and back to the HMI campus. 

Following the PT we had a fall-in order and the instructors gave us a thorough rundown of how and what to pack for the upcoming expedition. 

Then, we had the rest of the day off. So, we packed our bags, toured the Darjeeling Zoo (which was actually slightly depressing), and spent some quality time with the crew, some of whom were, unfortunately, leaving the next day due to a failed Pandem test time. 

Day 11: Journey to Yuksom

The air was filled with excitement on day 11. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t eager to get out of the HMI campus. Don’t get me wrong, the place is great, but spending 10 straight days in the same hostel, eating the same food, and being unable to leave was kind of getting to me. 

Following the morning fall-in, we loaded our backpacks onto the Tata 4×4 “Jeeps”. There were four foreigners in our course, of which I was one. Our instructors told us all to ride in the same car, as we required a special passport screening at the border of Sikkim.

In total, we crammed eight passengers into the 5-seater 4×4, with an additional 200 kilograms or so worth of backpack weight on the roof racks.

I’ve been down some sketchy roads in my life, but I’d have to say the road from Darjeeling to Yuksom has to be up there with some of the worst. 

The journey of 93 kilometers was meant to take us 6 hours but ended up dragging out to around 10 due to multiple landslides that needed to be cleared for the HMI Darjeeling convoy to pass.

The fact that our driver had a habit of speeding up around corners made the experience even more nail-biting. 

However, in the end, we arrived at the top of Yuksom, where several A-frame tents and hot dal waited for us. Yuksom is a small village on the edge of Kanchenjunga National Park and the former capital of the kingdom of Sikkim.

This was a good place to stock up on some trail snacks and enjoy civilization before departing for Base Camp.

Now, it was time to relax after the long journey and prepare for the long trek to HMI Basecamp at Chaurikhang and Rathong Glacier over the coming days.

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Rainy afternoon at Yuksom

Day 12: Trek from Yuksom to Tshoka

After a rather uncomfortable night’s sleep in a wet, soggy tent, we fell in at 7 am and prepared for the long, 16-kilometer trek from Yuksom to Tshoka. 

Unfortunately for us, the monsoon was dragging out this year, which meant a long, arduous journey through dense jungle with enduring rainfall beating down on us for the majority of the day. 

Truthfully, this was a challenging trek of closer to 19 kilometers as recorded on my Garmin watch. The incline for the day, including the undulating sections, added up to a total of 1,550 meters, which a lot of trainees struggled with.

The trek itself involved several undulating sections on a wet, muddy trail. Furthermore, the trail was in poor shape. There were at least three serious landslides that had all but washed away the trail. As a result, HMI’s beasts of burden couldn’t accompany us on the trek. Instead, we all pitched in and carried an extra 2 kg of potatoes and Maggi noodles to help with food supplies on the way to HMI Darjeeling’s base camp beside the glacier.

I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a welcome relief to arrive at Tshoka (3,000 meters) where we were greeted with dry cabin rooms and to our surprise, even some cardboard-thin mattresses.

The trek from Yuksom to Tshoka took us 8 wet hours. Unfortunately, the rain had penetrated our rucksack covers, resulting in the majority of our gear being soaked (including my passport) I highly recommend anyone doing a mountaineering course in India, especially in the wet altitude regions, purchase an internal plastic bag liner or dry bag for their gear.

Day 13: Acclimatization in Tshoka

The original plan for Day 13 was to stay in Tshoka and complete an acclimatization hike to help us get used to the rapidly increasing altitude. However, the morale was low in our class, with many people facing the grim reality of soaked boots, down jackets, and base layers.

To add to this, it took some members much longer to arrive in Tshoka, with a few making it in well after nightfall. 

So, our instructors decided to schedule day 13 as a rest day at the village. Luckily for us, Mother Nature gifted us a few bright hours of sunlight which did wonders for our wet gear and equipment. Fortunately, I was able to dry the majority of my gear by wearing wet clothes in the sun and using the wise strategy taught to me by my mate Ryan of wearing socks in my wet boots and wringing them out every 10 minutes or so to absorb the water.

Other than the day-long battle against moisture, we enjoyed the peaceful vibes of Tshoka, which contained a beautiful tarn wrapped in prayer flags, as well as a small monastery and grazing yaks.

Birthday cake at tshokaBirthday cake at tshokaBirthday cake at tshoka
Birthday celebrations at Tshoka

Day 14: Tshoka to Dzongri

Following a successful rest day in Tshoka, it was time to continue the trek to Dzongri, a small settlement at an altitude of 3,940 meters. At a time schedule of 5, 6, and 7 (5 am for tea, 6 am for breakfast, and 7 am for departure) we headed off on the steep climb.

The ascent began immediately and continued through the beautiful silver pine and rhododendron forest. If it wasn’t for the fair weather, this trek would have surpassed the previous haul in terms of difficulty. We gained a total of 1,058 meters in elevation gain over just 7.1 kilometers.

The highest point was at the 5.5-kilometer mark, a 4,030-meter ridge marked by cairns and colorful prayer flags. We sat here for a moment to rest following the stew climb, before descending another 100 meters or so to Dzongri. 

Dzongri is a beautiful little village sitting beside a gentle stream and comprising a few huts and a small merchant stall offering snacks and other rarities in these wild regions. 

We purchased some chocolates, scoffed down our well-earned dal lunch, and then following not more than 15 minutes of rest, we departed for an acclimatization hike to a high viewpoint above Dzongri at 4,155 meters (Dzongri Top).

This was a gentle walk without any load and led us to what we were told was a magnificent view of Kanchenjunga and surrounding peaks. Unfortunately, the clouds weren’t offering us any views, but it was still a nice way to wrap up a long day of hiking. 

The accommodation at Dzongri was large A-frame tents shared by 6-7 HMI trainees. 

Goechala Trek: The first few days of the trip to the Indian Himalayan Mountaineering Institutes’ base camp follows the trekking route called the Goachala Trek. While nowhere near as popular as trails in Ladakh or Uttarakhand, this trek is arguably just as beautiful, finishing with amazing views of Mount Kanchenjunga.

Day 15: Dzongri to HMI Base Camp

Finally, it was time to embark on the final ascent to the HMI Base Camp (4,500 m). Just as the day before, we packed up our gear and began trekking at 7 am. 

The trek was approximately 10.5 kilometers and involved a steady, gentle incline towards Dzongri La, a pass situated just 100 meters lower than the Himalayan Mountaineering Institutes’ famous base camp. From this pass, we descended gently into the Rathong glacial valley below to approximately 4,000 meters, crossed the Rathong River, and began the gentle climb back up the ridge to base camp.

At this stage, we were kicking ourselves for the luck we brought. Yet again the day was foggy and not a single peak managed to penetrate the thick clouds. Apparently, Kangchenjunga (8,586 m), the world’s third tallest mountain, is normally visible from the Dzongri La section on a clear day.

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Dzongri La (Dzongri Pass)
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Dropping into the Rathong Valley

However, we were still able to make it to base camp by 1:30 pm, which was acceptable considering the many mandatory breaks we were forced to endure.

The rest of the afternoon was spent getting accustomed to our new home for the week ahead. We sat outside waiting for the clouds to clear to witness the famous Himalayan view but again, had no luck on this front.

Our assigned accommodation was in “Tisco Hut”, a wide dorm-style hut with a single bunk bed row spanning roughly 15 meters across. In this hut, just over 50 men were able to secure a spot for their mattress, which would be our “bed” for the next week. 

Expedition tents at hmi base campExpedition tents at hmi base campExpedition tents at hmi base camp
Foggy arrival at HMI Base Camp

Day 16: First Day at HMI Base Camp

After a surprisingly sound sleep, we were woken up at 4 am by enthusiastic coursemates who apparently have no concept of silence while others sleep.

I’m talking loud chatting, dramatic yawning, and even music playing while four dozen other people were trying to sleep… Besides the rude awakening, the first day at HMI Base Camp was quite enjoyable.

We began the day with a short hike to a viewpoint above the base camp, where we had a lecture on surrounding peaks. Unfortunately, the clouds were still too stubborn to part, and we were left questioning whether or not these peaks existed or not.

After returning to base camp, our instructors assigned us “central equipment”, including ropes, carabiners, and pitons, as well as 6,000-meter snow boots, an ice axe, and crampons.

The rest of the afternoon was spent getting accustomed to the gear, with a theory lecture on glacier climbing and using our new boots. 

Yak at hmi base campYak at hmi base campYak at hmi base camp
Mess bowl washing station at HMI Base Camp

The same hindering landslides that challenged us on the journey from Yuksom to Thoka also meant that mules and yaks were unable to make the same journey. The result was limited food rations for the trek from Yuksom and at base camp. Needless to say, we were all very sick of dal and rice, which was the only thing we ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily.

Day 17: First Glacier Training Day

After over two weeks, it was finally time to train on the Rathong Glacier. Today also marked the first day of the official end of the Monsoon, and it did so in fashion, with the clouds clearing during our morning chai to finally reveal the beautiful surrounding Sikkim peaks.

Visible were the icy peaks of the Kabru mountain group including Rathong (6,678 m) and Kokthang (6,148 m), as well as Mount Frey (6,010 m) and BC Roy (5,480 m).

After breakfast, we hiked for 2.5 hours along the sandy moraine to reach the Rathong Glacier, where we donned our harnesses and strapped on our crampons.

Next, we teamed up in our ropes and practiced several glacial traverse techniques including ascending and descending with various methods of ice axe and crampon techniques.

In total we spent roughly 3 hours at the glacier before turning back, arriving at HMI Basecamp at 2:30 pm. 

After lunch, we all crammed into the tiny mess hut and were given a thorough lecture on glaciers.

Day 18: Ice Climbing on Rathong Glacier

Just like the morning prior, the clouds conformed to their seasonal October shift that marked the end of Sikkim’s seasonal monsoon and awarded us with a spectacularly clear mountain morning.

After breakfast, we once again set off for the glacier training area, this time with more confidence in the use of technical ice climbing equipment. 

The 2-hour walk out to the glacier is one I certainly didn’t mind repeating. The winding labyrinth through the Rathong moraine is spectacularly beautiful, with the Kabru peaks and the three Forked Peaks staring down on us from their high perch.

Below are some mountain shots I captured on the way.

Dog at rathong glacial moraineDog at rathong glacial moraineDog at rathong glacial moraine
The dog that followed us from Yoksum came to the glacier

All photographs on this blog post are taken by me and available for purchase as fine art prints or for commercial licensing. Please contact me for more information or read about how to use my images for free.

Today’s lesson involved double ice axe climbing, this time up a 20-meter ice wall while belayed on a top rope. The purpose of this glacier training was to get more experience and confidence using our crampon front points to balance on a vertical ice face.

After a few hours of training, we returned to HMI Basecamp content with a solid day of Himalayan mountaineering training. After lunch, our instructors told us that we had the remainder of the day off, and we hung out around the camp and enjoyed being in one of the most beautiful regions on earth.

Day 19: Aid Climbing and River Crossing Practice

Today marked the fifth day of living at 4,500 meters, and our bodies were finally getting more adjusted to the altitude. After another magnificent, cloudless morning, we fell in and separated in ropes at three different stations around camp.

Throughout the day, we rotated between these stations, which involved training specific river crossing techniques including travel traverse and suspension traverse, as well as climbing rock faces with the use of double Jumar (chest and foot jumar), and a very informative map reading activity. In all honesty, this was my personal favorite day of the HMI basic mountaineering course so far, with fabulous weather and fun, informative training activities. 

In the afternoon, all trainees reported for a late afternoon demonstration on rope fixing and ascending on a fixed rope, which would prepare us for the next day’s glacier training session. 

Day 20: Bad Weather in Sikkim

Unfortunately, our clear weather luck had run out on day 20.

Rain poured from midnight and well into the day. The result was a postponed day of glacier training. Instead, we practiced one of the most essential skills in mountaineering- patience. We hung out at HMI Base Camp, played cards, and prayed for good weather in the coming days.

Luckily the clouds began to clear in the late afternoon, which meant our instructors could host a demonstration on ice axe self-arrest techniques on the grassy slopes near advanced mountaineering course tents.

Day 21: Jumar Ascent on Rathong Glacier

The poor weather persisted through the night and into the early morning. Nerves were high as our instructors postponed the daily fall-in by an hour to keep an eye on weather conditions. However, in the end, we decided to push on to the glacier in the rain as otherwise, we would have missed out on one of the most essential mountaineering skills for future expeditions- ascending on a fixed line using a jumar and crampons. 

The weather worsened as we approached the glacier, but we pushed through and were able to get a few solid hours of jumar training under our belt. As we returned to base camp, the sun poked through the fog, signifying the start of a lovely rest of the afternoon in which we were offered a lecture on crevasse rescue.

Day 22: Final Glacier Training Day

After a week at HMI base camp, the final glacier training day was finally upon us.

Following an early start, we made the final trek over the golden hills, through the boulders and dark earth of the moraine, and onto the glacier. Today, our instructors set up several training stations, including a crevasse rescue exercise using C-pulley and Z-pulley systems, an ice piton fixing station, and two glacier climbing exercises using jumars and ice axes.

At the conclusion of the drills, we all took some celebratory photos together on Rathong Glacier, before turning back and trekking back to base camp through the rain. Once we arrived, we fell in and were prepped for the following day, where we were to climb a nearby rocky peak called Renok (Black Peak).

Day 23: Height Gain on Renok Peak

The mountains gifted us with a beautiful clear morning on our final full day at HMI base camp, where we were set to climb a nearby rocky peak called “Black Peak” or “Renok Peak”.

The trek began on the opposite end of the camp from the now very familiar route to the glacier. The trail bent around some sweeping hills and undulated lightly through a beautiful clear valley, with the Fork Peaks, Kapru Dome, and Kapru South in full view for the majority of the morning.

After about an hour and a half, we began a short-lived but steep ascent before arriving at a boulder field. Here, we strapped into our harnesses and roped up in groups of 5 to make the light scramble to the summit. Disappointingly for me, this was quite an easy climb that required very little technical effort. However, it was clear that this was the first time several people on our course were exposed to scrambling on semi-exposed rock.

As a result, the climb took much longer than it should have. At the summit, we were told the altitude of this peak pushed beyond 5,000 meters. Conversely, a quick map search confirmed my Garmin’s altimeter’s reading of just below 4,800 meters. Disappointingly, we were told that if we wanted to climb Frey Peak or anything above 5,500 meters, we would have to return for the advanced mountaineering course at HMI. 

Summit of renok peakSummit of renok peakSummit of renok peak
Clouded summit at Renok Peak

This was contradictory to what I’d been told by HMI staff when I signed up. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining but this is good to know for those of you interested in getting a climb in for “height gain” day.

That afternoon, we fell in for the last afternoon session and returned our central equipment and glacier training gear including snow boots, crampons, and ice axes. Our instructors also briefed us on the coming trek back to Yuksom which would begin early the following day.

Day 24: The Sikkim Descent: HMI Base Camp to Tshoka

We awoke on the morning of day 24 at 4:30 am to pack our bags and fall in for the final time at HMI Base camp.

Today, we had a long trek ahead, this time again with heavy loads but the distance would be doubled from the route up as our goal was Tshoka, 1,500 meters lower.

We internalized our goodbyes to the silver peaks and corrugated iron huts that had been our home for the past week and began the rolling descent down the Rathong Valley towards Dzongri La (Dzongri Pass)

Wild yak in west sikkimWild yak in west sikkimWild yak in west sikkim
A Wild Yak – Chaurikhang translates to “Roaming Place of Wild Yaks”

It took us one day to cover the distance we did in two the week prior and arrived at Tshoka at around 3:30 pm.

Day 25: Tshoka to Himalayan Mountaineering Institute

The final descent from Tshoka back to Yuksom involved a knee-burning 1,500-meter total elevation drop over the wet and muddy 15-kilometer path through the Sikkim foothills. We set a decent pace from the onset but unfortunately, our instructors committed to overly-frequent rest stops to wait for the group to catch up as one, which put a hamper on the overall enjoyment of the trek for me.

I’m never in the rush to finish a trek, but constantly stopping every 10 minutes for a break really breaks up the flow of the hike and is one thing I struggled with.

Nevertheless, this region, while wet, muddy, and leech-filled is undeniably beautiful. Dense rainforest covers the majority of the path, frequently crossing pure streams sourced from megalithic waterfalls draping the ever-rising slopes. 

We arrived at Yuksom at roughly 3:00 pm, polished off a quick meal of rice and dal, and set off for HMI in our jeep convoy.

Again, as foreigners we stopped at the border checkpoint out of Sikkim to stamp our passports, arriving at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute Campus by 6:30 pm.

Day 26: HMI Sports Climbing Competition

To most accustomed to the comforts of regular life, the bunk beds at HMI are far from what we’d call luxury. But, after spending close to a fortnight sleeping on a few planks of wood lined by a 5 mm thin yoga mat in a narrow, tunneled hut shared by over 50 men at altitude– the first night back at HMI felt irrationally lavish. 

Waking up from a long, uninterrupted sleep, we ate breakfast and fell in at the courtyard. Our instructors prepared us for the coming two final days, which would involve a sports climbing competition, returning our equipment, and the final graduation.

The first thing in store for us was the sports climbing competition. We were hoping that this would be held on the big outdoor wall, but it ended up being a simple, timed route on the indoor wall. We’d only get one chance to reach the top, following the marked route, and the fastest person to complete it would win. To my surprise, only four people managed to complete the route from the entire batch.

Then, once everyone had climbed, we gathered our equipment, including all the trekking gear, harness sets, and rented clothing, and returned it to the Equipment Room in a rope-wise manner.