Let the mountain teach you

SHYAM G. MENON | Updated on December 31, 2011

Teams meet to replenish food and fuel, but otherwise students andteachers work alone through their course. PICTURE: SHYAM G. MENON

In Ranikhet, if you follow a tall man on a unicycle you would reach the India office of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).

Director of the school, N. Ravi Kumar, is a rock climber and mountaineer with keen interest in cycling. Predictably, the modest premises hosting office, hostel, equipment store, merchandise room and director's residence, also has a couple of mountain bikes, a recumbent bike and several unicycles. What NOLS India does not have is the classroom. That is on the move in the Kumaun Himalaya.

NOLS is among the world's biggest outdoor schools. Headquartered in the US, it operates at 15 locations globally, teaching activities ranging from rock climbing to mountaineering, backpacking, kayaking, sailing and rafting. The terrain it works in includes the Rocky Mountains, Alaska, Patagonia and Himalaya. It began offering courses in the Himalaya in 1991, thanks to Krishnan Kutty, the first Indian instructor at NOLS.

About three decades ago, having done his adventure course and basic and advanced mountaineering courses from the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), Darjeeling, and the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) Uttarkasi, Kutty searched for a career in the outdoors. Alongside mountaineering expeditions, he worked at a hotel in Mumbai; ran a farm in Bangalore and sold cars in Muscat. In 1987, after former schoolmates pursuing higher studies in the US sent him a NOLS catalogue, he did a 95-day semester course in the Rocky Mountains. Encouraged, he did an Instructor Course and became one with proficiency in mountaineering, backpacking and caving.

In contrast to the skills-driven teaching at Indian mountaineering institutes, NOLS not only teaches outdoor skills but also keeps the course dynamic with evolving situations used as case studies for exploring leadership. To make this happen, its courses are self-supported. There are no porters.

Teams rendezvous at predetermined points in wilderness to replenish food and fuel, but otherwise a batch of students and the teachers work alone through their course. The only cause for external intervention is an evacuation — somebody falling sick or getting injured. This prompts ownership of the experience and respect for one's decisions and those of others. Further, cooking is considerably important on NOLS courses — you may be a tough climber, but if you can't feed yourself to stay alive in high-altitude conditions how will you climb? This emphasis on self-support and wilderness survival extends into the discussion and documentation of everything they do. It results in best practices to improve outdoor techniques. It is an approach that equally engages and amuses the Indian mountaineering mind, used to the military approach of few questions, expedition and conquest. At NOLS you first learn to be comfortable on the mountain; then you climb.

Eager to run NOLS courses in India, Kutty, who was on an expedition in 1987 to the Himalayan peak Panwali Dwar, near the Pindari Glacier, noticed that the surroundings were excellent for the courses. That was how the first batch of students from the US arrived twenty years ago. The applicants are usually American university students trading a semester of academics for the outdoors (the scores they get at NOLS become part of their university grades) or youngsters doing a ‘gap year' between courses and jobs, to decide what next.

Mountaineering students are usually from the American working class. The high cost keeps Indian students away, but there are scholarships available. Ravi Kumar, a former national champion in sport climbing and a Louis L'Amour fan from Bangalore, was already a seasoned mountaineer when he did a course at NOLS India on scholarship. Then he did the Instructor Course in the US and eventually became the second director of NOLS India when Kutty left (Kutty now heads outdoor education at Mussoorie's Woodstock School).

Currently NOLS India operates four semesters of 80 days each; three 35-day Himalayan backpacking courses, two 40-day mountaineering courses and two Trip Leader India programmes; the latter teaches how to take people into the outdoors. This year they have a Young Leader India course for high school students.

Courses are conducted mainly in the Pindari Glacier region and the Milam Valley. Additionally, NOLS's sister outfit, Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI), offers all its first-aid courses except EMT (Emergency Medical Technician). For Indian students, NOLS India offers every year two scholarships covering 90 per cent of cost. Twenty years after it reached India, the school's Indian chapter recently changed its name to Nanda Devi Outdoor Leadership School. Over time, more Indians have done NOLS courses, including the Instructor Course. They now split their time teaching in the Kumaun Himalaya and other places like Alaska and Patagonia.

Published on November 24, 2011

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