Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Short Trip to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling



The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, conveniently attached to the Darjeeling Zoo, was established by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1953, and partially run by the world-famous Tenzing Norgay, one of the original summiters of Mt Everest. It's a good day out if you're in Darjeeling and at a loss as to what to do with yourself.

I grew up fascinated by mountaineering stories, lore, and books - I must have read Into Thin Air five or six times when it first came out, I lapped up articles on Mallory, Conrad Anker, I read Outside Magazine obsessively and wished for the day I too could wander around in the Himalayas. Summiting Everest wasn't something that ever appealed to me - paying $50,000 for the privilege of facing death struck me as a bit wrong-headed - but I loved to read about it. Visiting the Himalayas and trekking in Sikkim was certainly the quiet culmination of a personal dream for me, and Tenzing Norgay must take at least some of the credit for that. (I had a pet hermit crab called Tenzing when I was six years old. I'm not sure if I should be embarrassed by this).



Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summited the mountain in 1953 and interest in Himalayan mountaineering began to surge soon after, especially in India. As the museum at the Institute explains, mountaineering prior to this time wasn't really something Indians did, except when in the company of (occasional) convoys of slightly daft Western adventurers. Norgay's achievement made the public realize that they could do this stuff too, and furthermore, the best mountaineering on the planet happened to be in their own backyard. Norgay became the first field director for the HMI: he'd keep the post up until his death.

The HMI is still going strong, and maintains a training center up on the way to the Goecha La in Sikkim, along the same trek I did. I remember noting with pleasure that a lot of young women were part of the training camps ranks, when I passed them up or down the mountain. Sir Edmund Hillary—who, I should add, had many wonderful traits, I should write about him sometime—took a dim view of women in mountaineering, but Norgay's institute has got past the mental hump. (And Sherpa women are tough as nails, as they would be).



The actual Institute is certainly worth a visit. The museum attache to the Institute is rather violently circa-1975, but I happen to find that sort of thing appealing. There's a scale model of the Himalayas with little light-up push buttons, displays of climbing gear that belonged to famous people—including Norgay, naturally—a number of maps, explanations of the chronology of professional mountaineering in India, displays of artifacts and clothing from the Himalayas best-known cultural groups, and dusty, taxidermized Local Wildlife. You can't take photos inside. I tried.



Padma Bhushan Tenzing (his full name) died in May of 1986, and was cremated in a traditional Buddhist ceremony outside the museum, attended by Sir Edmund Hillary, who according to a New York Times article on the event, "stayed on long after Tenzing's eldest son Norbu, a student at a New York state business college, ignited the sandalwood pyre, sending billowing white smoke into the mountain mists."



A large and triumphant statue of the man himself stands nearby.

There's a small cafe and people dressed up in traditional Himalayan garb ambling around the court-yard if you're in the mood for a photo op, though they're thankfully not particularly pushy. You can walk around the Institute's facilities if you'd like- a series of classrooms and some animal skulls and a display of climbing knots, nothing particularly exciting, though it's nice to know it's a living institution.

Any aficionado of mountaineering should pay their respects here.

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