“ Formal training on mountaineering. „
When I was a child, I used to spend rainy weekend afternoons surrounded by my Grandfather's copies of the Guinness Book of World Records, dipping in and out and soaking up human achievement and the extremes of odd behaviour. I knew I was unlikely to ever get a place in the book; I was no athlete, I wasn't likely to become an adventurer, and even if I wanted to sit in a bath of cold baked beans for a year and a day, there would always be someone willing to do it for a year and two days. The type of record that always fascinated me most was the 'firsts' - the first to sail around the world, the first to walk the length of a country, and most impressive of all, the first conquests of the world's great mountain peaks. There would always be someone just waiting to ascend a peak faster, with their eyes closed, with a piano strapped to their backs, but nobody would ever take away the achievement of being the first. And on the list of major human endeavours, who could really challenge the kudos of being the first human beings to stand on the peak of Mount Everest?
It's hardly surprising that when I found the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling listed in my guidebook, it was inevitable that I'd want to go and take a look. I love mountains, I adore the Himalaya but with my dodgy knees, I'll never be more than a novice and, if I'm honest, I'm not good at dealing with scary stuff but that doesn't stop me admiring those who can.
On my pitifully inadequate tourist office map, it wasn't entirely clear where the HMI was located. It seemed to be a blob vaguely in the vicinity of the Darjeeling Zoo and sure enough, when we'd finally found the zoo (it was a bit of a trek - but there's more info in my review of the zoo), it was a very pleasant surprise to find we'd hit the Jackpot! The HMI is actually located inside the grounds of the zoo - or rather, to get to the HMI, you have to walk through the zoo. Your ticket for the zoo includes entrance to the HMI so you can't get into one without paying for the other. This is worth keeping in mind if you want to see both - leave enough time and don't turn up shortly before closing or you are sure to miss one or the other. This joint entrance to two such different attractions is an odd thing to do but I guess it ensures a consistent level of funding for the slightly less 'sexy' attraction of the HMI (in a battle between Red Pandas and old climbing equipment, the furry critters are going to win most people's entrance money).
The entrance to the HMI is up a steep slope which is appropriate, I suppose, for a mountaineering institute and once you are through the gates, it's clear that this is a place dedicated to the pursuit of mountaineering excellence. Several of the walls have large sillhouette paintings of mountaineers dangling off peaks. The primary intent of the HMI is to encourage people to take up mountaineering and to train them to pursue the sport in the safest, most effective and best prepared way. Courses are available year round both to students from India and from outside the country. If you really wanted to, you could go and join a course but I think you'd be very brave and very fit to give it a go. For the tourist, the main attraction is the small museum which covers the history of Himalayan exploration and mountaineering.
I found this museum absolutely fascinating. I enjoy trekking but I do so with my 21st century fabrics and lightweight equipment. If I get in trouble, someone from a mountain rescue organisation will come and find me - probably with a BBC camera crew tucked in the back to record my stupidity and share it with early evening TV viewers. The museum is about real hard-core, life-threatening, no safety-net mountaineering and has exhibits of early mountaineering equipment and lots of photographs of early explorers wearing heavy woolens, massive heavy boots and usually a collar and tie. There are early tents and camping equipment on display, original documents relating to unsuccessful missions, a letter from the Dalai Lama giving permission to tackle Everest, diaries and letters, and all manner of fascinating bits and pieces. There are many flags that have been carried to the summit and plenty of photographs of expeditions, both successful and unsuccessful.
I particularly enjoyed the wall of honour with photographs of the climbers that the Institute considers of particular note. Within these photos were lots of the greatest British climbers, the ones whose names I grew up knowing such as Doug Scott and Chris Bonnington as well as the great Reinhold Messner, the first solo Everest climber to reach the top without oxygen. AWESOME! I was also very moved to discover that George Mallory, the man who when asked why he kept trying to climb Everest, so famously said 'Because it's there' had actually died on the mountain without ever getting to the top, and his body was only recovered in 1999. I should have known that and I was shamed and humbled to realise that the phrase I trot out as an excuse for most of the inexplicable things I do in life, was uttered by someone who sacrificed so much 'because it's there'.
There are plenty of pictures of 'firsts' - the first all women's team, the first woman to climb Everest twice, the first ascents by a variety of different routes. For a 'first-fan' like me, it was extremely interesting. I only wished there was a book I could have bought and taken away to learn more afterwards because the amount of information available was completely overwhelming.
The hero of Himalayan mountaineering and the idol of the HMI is very clearly Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who reached the summit with Sir Edmund Hillary on May 29th 1953, at the rather mature age of 39 and on his 7th expedition. It was reported last year after Hillary's death that he admitted that Tenzing was actually the one who got their first. He became the director of training at the HMI and is honoured at the institute with a training rock called 'Tenzing Rock', a commemorative statue and a memorial on the site of his funeral pyre which was held at the Institute. The museum includes such pieces as the breathing equipment he was wearing when he reached the summit.
I've also discovered after my visit that I missed one of the HMI's key exhibits. Goodness only knows how or why but these guys have Hitler's telescope.
If all this culture and history leads you to work up an appetite, there's a great little café at the HMI. It's intended as the canteen for the mountaineering students but welcomes tourists as well. We tucked away two big bowls of noodles and two plates full of delicious vegetable momos along with two bottles of radioactive orange fizzy pop for a total of about £1.
The HMI has a tiny shop which sadly doesn't sell anything very informative about the institute. As I mentioned before, and as often happens with Indian museums, I'd have loved a book about the place but none were available.
Entrance to both the HMI and Zoo costs just 100 rupees for foreign nationals - that's about £1.30 at current exchange rates. Locals pay 30 Rp. Each attraction alone is well worth more than the cost of both and are highly recommended.