A high altitude trek in the Himalayas has become a part of the learning programme at The Valley School, Bangalore, since the year 2000. In the late nineties, it was an optional event every summer where a handful of high school students and one or two adults would participate. Having trekked in the majestic Himalayas since 1986, I had come to realize that the entirety of the experience and the insights that one acquires during these treks cannot easily be expressed through words or photographs (which are anyway available aplenty); the only way to get a feel for the mountains and understand what a trek can do to you is to actually go on one. It was then that we decided to make the Himalayan trek a compulsory part of the class 11 programme and devote a fortnight for this in the academic calendar.
For a teenager, ostensibly the trek as a part of the school curriculum is an ‘excursion’ or an ‘adventure experience’. It is that and much more indeed. It is important to orient students to the basic intent and raise related questions for them to explore. During each year’s orientation programme for class 11, one of us adults states clearly the why and how of the trek. Again, a month or so before the trip, a session orienting their body and mind towards the experience becomes pertinent. One has to keep in mind that a group of forty students will have diverse physical and mental constitutions and temperaments
The broad objectives of such a trip are:
- To experience nature in its pristine form, not merely as a tourist, but while living in it day and night for a week.
- To have first-hand observation and understanding of the culture, lifestyle and values of the mountain people, who are yet to be consumed by the aggressive, fast-paced urban culture, and thus to understand what it might mean to stay connected to nature and not separate oneself from it.
- To understand for oneself how our actual requirements for daily life are quite simple and few, and thus what it means to live in austerity. In the process, to realize how dependent we are on gadgets, cosmetics and entertainment to stimulate our lives.
- To understand the physical and psychological thresholds of endurance, to dispel the illusion that each effort needs to have a goal or an achievement.
- To be an explorer, a wanderer, to be with oneself and remain in solitude for considerable lengths of time.
- To imbibe the majesty of the mountains and feel the growing humility within, soak in the sacred quality of the mystical Himalayas.
Many of these objectives are not tangible, and one might not see an obvious and immediate ‘impact’ on the student or even the accompanying adult at the end of the trek. However, it seems certain that the seeds of sensitivity are sown and may germinate some day. Indeed, students have stated that they have experienced positive changes deep within. It is important to realize that if one ends up ‘teaching’ or articulating all these to a youngster, it could be seen as mere intellectual banter. Instead, it would be worthwhile to posit these as questions and informally engage students in a dialogue. Adults have to play a very gentle role in the process. Apart from being physically fit and capable of taking care of themselves first, as well as ensuring the safety and welfare of students at all times, adults must make an attempt to reach out to them on the personal front without being overbearing. This is certainly a tough challenge, but it is invaluable.
We have been trekking in different belts of the Himalayan ranges, choosing routes which are not popular among tourists but which nevertheless are quaint and offer beautiful views all along the way. Most routes in the Garhwal-Kumaon region are along a river and lead up to a glacier in the higher altitudes, with the mighty peaks in the background. The paths are dotted with temples and rustic villages and seem to emanate a religious aura. Himachal and Kashmir Valleys are known for their picturesque views of snow-lined mountain ranges and alpine vegetation. Leh and Ladakh offer exotic and ethereal views of sandy moraines on dry, cold mountain-scape, as well as striking views of the night sky with its stars and planets that are indescribable. Arunachal Pradesh and the other North Eastern regions overwhelm you with rich biodiversity and forest cover, and the eastern Himalayas in Sikkim offer treks through dense forests of rhododendron to the base of mighty peaks like the Khanchengdzonga with unbelievably close snow-lines. It is difficult to choose from such a rich repertoire, and each one has its own unique fragrance and flavour.
While planning the route, one has to keep in mind that each one in the group must be able to go through the complete experience, even though the levels of exertion and stress may vary from one individual to another. The actual trek from the base camp and back lasts about seven days when done at a leisurely pace, with six to seven hours spent walking every day. Considering the fact that it is a novel experience for most of the students, it is important to locate routes that are at a moderate altitude (11,000 – 13,000 feet MSL recommended), ensure that there is adequate time for acclimatization, that there are trained mountain guides and healthcare professionals within the team, and that there are alternative routes to reach the base camp quickly in case of an emergency.
It is also an interesting exercise to help students pack sensibly for the trek and carry just the right amount of gear. It helps when we remind children about the costumes and the gear that people who live in the mountains use, and that we do not have to pretend to be creatures belonging to another planet! The contrast in lifestyles is strongly felt as children interact with the support team members and guides or the people whom we meet in the villages en route. It is heart-warming to see children connecting with the local folk and also developing a sense of respect and admiration for them spontaneously.
However meticulous one might be in planning a schedule or in deciding a route, the final approval for things to happen must come from the Mountain. It is She who decides if and when you can proceed on your journey. A combination of reverence, caution and humility, together with the wisdom of the local tribes, should be the guiding force for one to proceed on a journey in the mountains. The urge for accomplishment and achievement seems completely out of place, and a sense of fulfilment, gratitude and tranquillity much more appropriate as one traverses gently in the lap of the mountains. And so long as one is willing to listen, the Mountains will surely speak to you!
As a school trip, the Himalayan trek is unique in certain aspects. It is in the unpredictable mountains that we learn to surrender ourselves to the flows and rhythms of nature, and not be anxious about our targets and deadlines. The sense of accomplishment is discarded for a deeper coming-to-terms with oneself and one’s fears. An intimate and immediate relationship with the mountain develops—not mediated by second-hand knowledge from the media or elsewhere. In the extremes of climate, there is hardly the time or the opportunity to be preoccupied with one’s appearance, and that translates into the psychological realm as well. Moreover, as an example, the simple task of washing one’s face in the morning becomes an intense experience of the water, an alertness to its quality rather than an activity of grooming oneself.
Petty comparisons are replaced by a caring for one another. Against the backdrop of the Himalayas, there is a palpable sense of all of us being the same fundamentally. Hence there seems to be a dilution of the strong sense of ‘I’ that we usually carry within us, and with that a relationship beyond the known becomes possible. We find leisure and quietude instead of the usual clutter of numerous distractions, and in turn perceptions are heightened, and we seem to be more receptive to the details and nuances in nature. Whether one is an atheist or a believer, the presence of the mountains inspires respect and reverence in us. The impact lingers long after we return to our daily bustle, and thus the Himalayan trek is not an escape but a rejuvenation. There arises a freshness in us from where new possibilities can emerge.
While every trip has its own learning and impact, a trip to the mountains brings one in touch with the deeper layers of consciousness in a very natural way. It is possible that the innate meditative quality that draws you again and again to the mountains brings you closer to yourself, to others and to something beyond.