High above Uttarakhand’s Namik village, the flags of a tiny stone temple fluttered wildly in the wind at 14,000ft. I stopped to take in the blue October skies and to give myself a moment to catch my breath – this was to be the last pass of the trail I had been on for nearly twenty days, with a backpack that weighed over 20kg.  I wasn’t carrying just my regular hiking gear and sleeping bag, I also had parts of my group tent, rations to cook meals, and a bottle full of butane to be shared for cooking.

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Each of our backpacks weighed over 20kg. 

I knew these were the bare essentials I would need to be equipped for any alpine-style adventures, but there was definitely a hint of resentment in me, especially towards the giant 2kg cucumber sitting in my backpack that I wasn’t allowed to get rid of. It was in addition to my rations, and I briefly regretted accepting it from the generous lady tilling her land near Namik. There was nothing I could simply throw away, even if it was biodegradable. This is part of Leave No Trace, the strict policy of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) that I was traversing the Kumaon Himalaya on a 21-day course with. 

Accompanied by my instructors Sid and Felipe, from Alaska and Chile respectively, I also had eight course-mates. We formed a diverse team, each of us with our own reasons for being there, but we all shared a common love for the mountains. Ishani Sawant and Sara Parijat were my two female tent-mates at different points, one a full-time mountaineer based in Pune and the other a college student from Delhi. Ashish Palande, also from Pune, runs outdoor activities for corporates and adventurers. Bhaskar aka ‘Muggy’ runs an adventure outfit in Bangalore, while cousins Debu and Anusuya aspire to run one. Manoj, a techie who quit his job in the UAE, was there on a soul-searching journey, while Soumya Mitra aka ‘SJ’, an accomplished trek leader, was there to hone his skills, and perhaps join NOLS someday as an instructor.

NOLS was founded in 1965 by legendary mountaineer Paul Petzoldt, and in the course of its 52 year-history, it has trained thousands of outdoor enthusiasts around the world, from high school students to NASA astronauts. When I applied for an NOLS scholarship at the beginning of last year, it was completely a shot in the dark. The prestigious school has produced some of the world’s best mountaineers – it’s only natural that outdoor buffs like myself are drawn to it. Its steep fee (starting from $1,600-$1,700) is perhaps the only deterrent, but when I learned about its scholarship scheme, I decided to try my luck.  

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All of us shared a common love for the mountainous terrain. 

With a degree in advanced mountaineering and an unparalleled passion for the outdoors, I was fortunate to be chosen as part of NOLS’ Trip Leader India program, which has its base at Ranikhet in Uttarakhand. TLI takes place in the fall every year, between October and November. The program is India-specific, unlike most of their other courses that are curated for an international audience, especially American university students who can take NOLS semester programs for course credit. 

In the eighties, NOLS helped the forest department of the USA create its Leave No Trace (LNT) policy, a program based on seven principles that are now part of all its courses. Sitting in a circle on the floor of a beautiful forest meadow at about 3,100m with my course-mates and instructors, l learned about these seven pillars on our first layover or ‘static camp’ day where we stayed put: planning ahead and preparing, travelling on durable surfaces, leaving what we find, disposing waste properly, minimising campfire impacts, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors. While these are simple rules at first glance, it is the depth with which they are implemented that makes all the difference.  

There are no ‘formal’ classes here, and all learning is situational and takes place outdoors. On the first night of camping, flummoxed by how we could possibly do the dishes when we didn’t have any detergent, I learned that hot water is enough to clean and sterilise them; we could do without chemicals that seep into the soil. 

It was only after I had to make a second trip to the water source after spilling heated water, that I realised the importance of setting up the stove properly and preserving energy and resources. And only once I got lost on the trail, did I learn the significance of studying maps more closely.

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Contour maps are a handy way to navigate these wild spaces.

My journey took me across the remote trails of the Kumaon Himalaya – trails even I hadn’t heard of, despite growing up in the region. My two instructors had never set foot on this route either. The trail was as new to them as it was to us, and culturally speaking, even more alien. In spite of that, they led us with a confidence that only highly skilled leaders – the kind of leaders they hoped to turn us into – can exude. 

We began our mornings with some brilliant games, thankfully nothing like the awful PT regimes that I was used to from my previous government mountaineering schools. There were simple games to improve our hand-eye coordination, games that focused on our teamwork skills, and fun games too, like Cheers to the Governor, which forced us to clear our fuzzy brains and jump around to beat the cold every morning, without firewood. My favourite game, however, was Farkle, a dice game that teaches risk assessment.

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One of the most interesting lessons we had was learning how to read 3D maps. 

One thing that I did miss about those army-run schools were the piping hot meals served to us, something I longed for at the end of a hard day. However, my backcountry cooking skills were certainly sharpened with the NOLS routine (I even learned how to make pizza without an oven!). We were taught how to ration, and make the most energy-efficient meals.  

On our second layover day, high above Khati village in the Pindari valley, about a week into the trip, I decided to make the most of the break and bathe and wash my essentials. I soon realised what a tedious job it was to fill half a dromedary from the stream and ferry it uphill to my secret grove, and how difficult it was to make do with just 5 litres of water because I didn’t want to make an arduous second trip. Nevertheless, I used my precious water very sparingly, and accomplished the goal.  I’ve never been one to waste water as I grew up in the hills where it is a precious commodity, but a bucket of water is something even I take for granted. 

This exercise forced me to consider how much more we would respect our natural resources if we didn’t have the ease of access we do today – simply turning on a tap for water, or flicking a switch for electricity. What appears to be an impossible task can indeed be made possible, but only if you get out of your comfort zone. 

On a hike to Pangu Top after the second layover, we were rewarded with the most stellar views of Maiktoli, and a superb class on compass bearings. A turn in the weather brought a raging hailstorm, and later, there was snow on our campsite that left my fingers numb. I was in a dilemma about whether to use my limited fuel to heat up water for a bottle to snuggle with. That was when I learned that sleeping bags only maintain body temperatures; they don’t really increase them. Some sit-ups in the tent right before sleeping will warm up the body, and are a great substitute to using fuel!

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The reward at the end of this strenuous hike to Pangu Top were the stellar views.

I also ‘unlearned’ a lot of things. Even common practices considered kosher by seasoned travellers, such as throwing biodegradable fruit skins and seeds along the trail, or pocketing natural memorabilia like pine cones or porcupine quills, violate the LNT policy. Earlier, I might well have tossed away that hefty cucumber I was lugging around, but now I knew better. This thoughtless action would adversely impact the flora and fauna of the region, so I decided against it. We learned to carry every single thing out with us, be it fruit skins, plastic wrappers or disposable sanitary waste.  

In many ways, NOLS programs are radically different from other programs. The ideology is reasoned out, everything is discussed, there is an evaluation instead of an examination, and above all, there are no student-teacher divisions. Everyone sits in a circle, and everybody’s opinion matters. We glided effortlessly from PLEs or Possible Learning Environments (NOLS loves its acronyms) to OHOing, or Officially Hanging Out.

Every single day, we uprooted our temporary homes and walked for miles, set them up again before the day ended, lit our stoves and cooked our meals, and in between, learned invaluable lessons in packing and strapping on our bags right, ‘stormproofing’ or keeping equipment safe for the night, attending nature’s call without giving in to the temptation of toilet paper, and sharpening our navigational skills. 

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I often marvel at all that I got to experience on the TLI course. 

My NOLS backcountry experience changed some things irreversibly for me, even in frontcountry living. My bedside water jug has been replaced with my neon blue NOLS bottle, the seven LNT principles glowing on it. I use toilet paper sparingly, and opt for a bucket bath except for the occasional indulgence of a shower. I put out unnecessary campfires lit by hikers (much to their annoyance), and on cold, clear nights, I pull on the hood of my jacket and go look at the constellations that I learned about from my tent-mates. 

I am often transported back to one night five months ago in Patak, a tiny village where we camped in the verandah of a primary school for a change, instead of pitching tents. I was up in the dead of the night, jubilant, feeling the crisp air on my face and navigating the clear Himalayan night skies with an app on a borrowed phone. I still marvel at all that I wouldn’t have done had it not been for my TLI experience, including bear hugs in sweaty clothes, eating pasta out of a bowl with dal residue in it, or sleeping outdoors in the mountains on a cold November night. Friends you make in backcountry and lessons you learn there are hard to forget, but the relationship you forge with nature stays with you even longer. 

The TLI course certifies you as an LNT practitioner. NOLS also conducts a master LNT course. For more information on how to apply, visit www.nols.edu.