How’s it to be a woman mountaineering trainee in Kashmir

  • KANIKA GUPTA
  • Publish Date: Jul 16 2018 10:34PM
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  • Updated Date: Jul 16 2018 10:34PM
How’s it to be a woman mountaineering trainee in Kashmir

A mountaineering course is not for the fainthearted, as 80 plus people in my batch would unanimously agree. It is an assessment of your patience, physical endurance, and emotional strength. Many times when you are tested beyond your abilities, you feel an urge to give up and run back to the safety of your homes. But, I always knew what I signed up for and I was ready to take on the challenge. However, my challenge was of a different kind, mostly because I was a woman. 

Our structured mountaineering course at Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering in Pahalgam was designed to help us learn the fundamentals of alpinism and also overcome the barriers of physical and mental restraints. We were a motley group of over 80 people of which only 12 were women. Being a woman in Basic Mountaineering Course (BMC) was a different kind of trial, not the kind you prepare yourself for with rigorous training, but the one that leaves you feeling bittersweet. It may seem counterintuitive, but I have my reasons.

Learning from the best in the business, you sort of prepare yourself for the grind and be ready to accept what is to come your way. However, when you are one woman in eight men, things change. Blame it on the composition of the batch or the chivalry that our men are taught, the course for us was not as drastic as one would expect it to be. I, as a woman, was only challenged by my own limitations. Everything else was either handled by men of the group or by the institute. 

I don't remember a time when the men around me weren’t made to do the extra hard work or were handed the additional load that was to be carted off to a mountain top. From installation of camping tents to carrying buckets of water for mid-afternoon refreshments, our men never rested. Women, on the other hand, handled much less. As if the extra responsibilities weren’t enough, the guys were always one step ahead of us to share our load when we were too tired to walk and even hand-hold us down a mountain slope when we couldn’t hike fast enough. The men never stopped being men, chivalrous and strong, while women were left with fewer responsibilities. 

This one time, I even remember that a menial task such as digging toilet pits was taken off our hands as the shovels were handed to the cooking staff “to finish the job faster.” In moments like these, we often felt despair for not doing our bit. 

While I was truly lucky to be training alongside people who cared enough to make things easier for us, I was a little disappointed in the lack of duties and responsibilities shared with the women. We made little to no contribution in running the campsite, nor did we lug the heavy equipment in our backpacks like the guys. The women of BMC 131 were a privileged lot, and I wasn’t very happy about it. 

I had to demand more responsibilities from the group leader who often chided me for being the group’s weakest one. While I took his opinion in my stride, I could have performed if he placed his trust in me. I still believe that our learning could have been all-encompassing if we were made accountable for more. 

As I complain about the lack of responsibilities, I cannot help but fondly remember how the boys always acted as our pillars of strength. They would often pump us up when we were following behind or give us a hand when we were stuck in a rut. They even let us cut the line in long queue for food. They went out of their ways to help us finish this course safely which is both endearing and limiting in its own peculiar ways. 

Having said that, mountaineering as a sport requires one to be physically and mentally capable of managing themselves. But in a space where help is just an ooh and aah away, it can be an unfavorable learning ground. While the men never shied away from extending a helping hand, the polarized group composition stood in the way of our learning. The course in itself was well-rounded in the sense that it treated all the participants equally and the opportunities for learning remained the same. However, it is the non-delegation of duties and not entrusting women with important tasks that stuck in my craw. 

I always wondered if the instructors or the institute will show the same amount of leniency in a course that is fully composed of women. Would we still be dependent on boys to pitch our tents or dig our toilets? Would we still worry how she will take a 20 kg medical stretcher up a steep slope? Will we still give the heavy items from our backpacks to the guys as we trudge the trail with relative ease? I would have to join an all-women’s Advance Mountaineering Course to answer this question.