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How Pune became a mountaineering hub

Pune’s university and oldest mountaineering club are coming together to nurture the city’s vibrant mountain climbing culture

Purva Shinde Singh at Mt Everest base camp in 2016.
Purva Shinde Singh at Mt Everest base camp in 2016. (Purva Shinde Singh)

Before covid-19, Harsheet Patel would scale a couple of mountain peaks spread across the Sahyadri mountain range every quarter. It had become a routine since he started trekking eight years ago. Patel, 36, says the mountains “call out” to him. The Pune resident is among the several mountaineering enthusiasts who intends to take it up as a profession. Hailing from eastern Maharashtra, Patel was curious about the sport but never had the opportunity or any guidance. That changed once he moved to Pune a decade ago.

Pune is surrounded on three sides by the Western Ghats, a training ground for people who want to take up mountaineering as a profession or pursue it as a serious hobby. “The mountain climbing culture is big here (in the city), and the best part is the professionals are helpful, accessible and supportive,” says Patel, whose dream is to climb the 8,611m K2 mountain, the second highest peak after Mt Everest, on the Pakistan-China border.

Tapping into this enthusiasm, the Savitribai Phule Pune University (formerly University of Pune) has announced that it will be launching certificate and diploma courses in mountaineering by February. The courses will be conducted by Pune’s oldest mountaineering club training institute, Guardian Giripremi Institute of Mountaineering (GGIM), which will offer technical expertise in terms of creating the curriculum and the experts. There is no age bar to apply, and the diploma course will carry credit points, making it attractive for students.

The GGIM has been conducting its own mountaineering courses for five years, the only one to do so in a non Himalayan state. Umesh Zirpe, the founder of GGIM and a professional mountaineer, believes that the university will provide academic backing and make the sport mainstream. “Since the education policy is changing, and life skills are gaining more importance, we thought this was the right time to do it. It’s the need of today’s times. Mountaineering is not just about climbing the Himalayan peaks, it also teaches people about disaster management, improving their productivity, resource management, etc.,” says Zirpe, who has successfully climbed Mt Everest and Kangchenjunga, and leads expeditions for 8,000ers (peaks above 8,000m).

To ensure students get practical training in high-altitude conditions, the GGIM is looking to tie up with Uttarakhand’s Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM). “The plan is that towards the last leg of the course, mountaineering course students can come to our institute to get exposure to snow and ice,” says NIM principal Amit Bisht.

Deepak Mane, Pune University’s director, sports, and head of the physical education department, says they have been receiving queries from amateurs as well as regular climbers.

Peaked interest

Most of the applications at NIM, which is in the processing of increasing its capacity to 225 students (from 170 at present), are from West Bengal, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka. According to Zirpe, Maharashtra, particularly Pune, ranks second in the number of trained mountaineers after West Bengal, which has the maximum number of mountaineering clubs.

According to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation’s list of affiliated clubs, Maharashtra has 12 mountaineering clubs—six in Mumbai, five in Pune and one in Aurangabad. West Bengal has 69 clubs.

Anecdotally, Bhushan Harshe, head of operations at the GGIM, has noticed a spike in interest in the city, and the state, over the last couple of years. Its registrations for rock climbing and other courses stands testimony to this trend. In 2015, when the institute was set up, they had only 40 people in the open category (other than courses for the 10-16 age group). In 2019, the figure was over 100. “The number of courses has also increased. Earlier, we did only two courses, which we increased to five in 2019,” says Harshe.

Of those who take the courses, 40% take up mountaineering seriously. Nearly half of those who apply for the courses already have their own companies in adventure sports and do the training to get certification.

Bhushan Harshe from GGIM at Kunchenjunga peak along with other mountaineers from Giripremi mountaineering club in 2019.
Bhushan Harshe from GGIM at Kunchenjunga peak along with other mountaineers from Giripremi mountaineering club in 2019. (Bhushan Harshe)

The turning point, however, came in 2012, when Giripremi club arranged an expedition to Mt Everest. Led by Zirpe, it was the club’s first expedition of this scale—out of the 13 climbers, eight summited the peak in one day—and it received support from Pune and the entire state Besides financial aid from the state government and Pune municipal corporation, it received donation from 25,000 people. Over the next seven years, the club’s mountaineers climbed seven of the 14 highest mountains in the world without casualties. Zirpe believes this has helped promote mountaineering in Pune.

Professional mountaineer Bhagwan Chawale, founder of the three-year-old The Alpinist club, says Pune has become the central place for mountaineering because it has good groups that have been active for years. “Pune has an advantage because if you travel about 30km in any direction besides east, you will come across the Sahyadri mountain range. We are lucky to have this kind of physiography. None of the other states has it,” says Chawale.

A thriving community

“You will find people with varied experiences in mountain climbing in the city. You have beginners, who do the trekking of different forts, then there are people with advanced experience who climb different mountain ranges in the Sahyadri, and then there are professional mountaineers, who have summited Mt Everest and other Himalayan peaks,” says Purva Shinda Singh, 40, a Pune-based architect and mountaineer.

After finishing her basic training with GGIM, Singh completed high-altitude training at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute three years ago. In 2018, Singh scaled the 6,189m Island peak (Imja Tse) in eastern Nepal.

For Singh, the Western Ghats are a great training ground for the Himalaya. For instance, the Katraj-Sinhagad trek is great for endurance building, others for honing rock-climbing skills.

Singh is an active member of the Giripremi club, which has 125 active mountain climbing members of which nearly half are women. The current president of the club is a 78-year-old woman Ushaprabha Page, who retired from All India Radio Pune. “We hope we can do an Himalayan expedition sometime this year,” she says.

Mountaineering may bring up the image of the Himalaya and snow-clad mountains but, says Harsha, “It’s the art of climbing mountains, which can be a small hillock or the Himalayas. But a mountaineer is one who keeps challenging own limits while climbing the mountain,” he says.

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