Say “Karwaee” and they wince in pain. Say “Ragdayee” and they tremble. But say “Everest”, and, fatigue forgotten, the penultimate team of 10 of the National Geographic Mission Everest team springs up like war-horses at the sound of a bugle. The hope of making it to the final five, who will accompany the Indo-Nepal army team to the Everest, is what keeps the motley crew from buckling under the rigorous army training at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), Uttarkashi.
Karwaee, to the trainees, means backbreaking exercises. Ragdayee translates to more of the same. And among those responding to the call of the mountains are Lovely Das, a physiotherapist from north Calcutta, and Akshay Randeva, a student of the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta.
Lovely, 32, is the only one of the chosen 10 — downsized from more than 30,000 wannabes from across the country — with “some mountaineering experience”. Akshay, like the rest, is a first-time adventurer.
But the team is as short on mountaineering skills as it is high on enthusiasm. The physiotherapist and MBA student from Calcutta aside, it is a motley mix of a civil engineer, a lecturer, a pilot, an under-graduate student, a journalist, an executive from a multinational company, and a housewife and mother of two.
By the third day of the weeklong session, the trainees know only too well that protests are a waste. Not surprising, given that the participants have risen with the sun, been dunked in bone-chilling waters at 6 am, gone on four-km runs, trekked, lugging heavy backpacks and found their way to their carry-mattresses long after the sun has set on Barnala, some 30 km from NIM.
“It only makes it easier for the instructors to mark you (if you whine),” was the common perception. Day V of training, at a setting straight out of a surrealistic Swiss dream, a six-km walk to the snow line — shouldering rucksacks bulging at their seams with rope, rations and tents — is only the first of the Himalayan tasks greeting the participants to prove their mountain-worthiness.
Once there, wading in shin-deep snow, it was Karwaee time again. Weighed down by several layers of wind-cheating clothes and heavy snowboots, the hopefuls begin by sprinting to a tree some 100 metres away. More punishment is in store for the last three to make it back. A shrill whistle blows and the trio is ordered to break line. “Twenty push-ups,” a voice booms. Then another breakneck run to the tree and back. Twenty more push-ups. Sweating and breathless, at around 4 degrees Celsius in a snowfield, they are ordered back to the file.
“This is like a fairy tale where we have a princess in the Everest. We also have a demon in Major Rana,” smiles Akshay, gulping down lungs-full of air. NIM vice-principal Major Rana — close-cropped hair under indigo cap and Ray Ban — is in charge of “making men of the boys and girls” hoping to take on the Big E.
Sit-ups, stomach crunches, beating a path in dry, loose snow and waiting till sundown before ordering the trainees to cook their dinner — these are just some of his ways of ensuring that only the fittest make it to the mountains. “Nothing less than 100 per cent fitness will do when you are planning to take on the Everest.”