When around eighty mountaineering enthusiasts returned to Yuksum town in Sikkim, 12 days after they had left for Rathong Glacier on March 14, it had turned into a ghost town. The streets were empty. The shops were shut. Yuksum, at 1750 metres above sea level, was always a sleepy town but on the evening before they left for the climb, shops were open and they had managed to get some momos.
“By the time we returned, tired and exhausted, everything had changed,” says Vikram Malik, Search & Rescue, Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling. Disconnected from the rest of the world, in the icy terrains, at altitudes over 4000 metres, beyond the ambit of cellular networks, they were clueless about what was happening in the rest of the country.
They returned to the picturesque Yuksum, which also happens to be the home town of Bollywood actor Danny Denzongpa, on March 26, each one hoping to return home and having home cooked food. The instructors asked them to cover their faces with bandanas and scarves and maintain a distance from each other, but they did not take it seriously. The advise later became an order. As they approached their reporting area, their Quarter Master Sub. Maj. Devi Singh, an accomplished mountaineer himself, greeted them tersely and directed them to a vacant camping ground. Just a day before, India had entered a 21-day lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus.
In the first week of March, when the fear of coronavirus had still not disrupted life in India and social distancing was yet to be a norm, a group of 21 mountaineers and adventure enthusiasts were gearing up for an elite Search & Rescue course to be conducted by the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) at Darjeeling and Sikkim. They arrived in Darjeeling from various places, putting whatever they heard about covid-19 behind them, for the coveted annual search and rescue course held once the mountain passes open. The courses are booked two years in advance and no one wanted to cancel it.
After two weeks of River and Rock rescue exercise, the team headed for HMI base camp at Chowrikhang at 4300 metres, the base of the 4600 metre high Rathong glacier in Sikkim. From Yuksum, after three days of gruelling climb carrying backpacks they reached Chowrikhang, fully acclimatised. “The barren snow-clad terrain was picturesque in a rugged way,” says Malik. The team was joined by another group of 60 trainees from Basic Mountaineering Course at the base camp, all youngsters.
On March 25, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was announcing the lockdown, the entire group was on its way back, descending to Yuksum. It was only when they reached the town that they got to know. “It was certainly not a welcome we were expecting,” says Malik, who realised that there was no way of getting back home to Gurgaon.
The HMI, which is under defence ministry, secured all permissions to transport the team from Sikkim to the institute in Darjeeling in West Bengal. After a quick lunch, they were ushered into waiting jeeps, four persons in a vehicle to ensure social distancing, with masks. “During the travel of five hours, we realised that under the circumstances getting this movement permit must have been a herculean task,” says Malik.
In the evening when they reached the institute, the corridors had white circles painted one meter apart, there were notices in bold black letters “Isolation Room” on doors and there was a distinct smell of chemicals like they had been freshly fumigated. “Our beds were neatly made, bottles of hand sanitizers and room spray were prominently kept on the table. We heard the word quarantine. We all wondered what was going on, but everyone was calm.”
HMI principal Group Captain Jai Kishan briefed the team on what had transpired in the last two weeks and the new protocol that was in place. They gave an update on social distancing norms and hygiene before they were allotted rooms, four people in each room even though the rooms could accommodate many more. Everyone started calling family and friends. “It was an uneasy night and it was not until late next morning that the new order of civilization sank in,” recalls Malik.
The following day brought more surprises, he says. “With meticulousness of an army drill, the fresh set of rules and regulations were set at the institute. The daily timetable which earlier reflected our climbing and rescue schedule gave way to a new order that took us off guard. Unprepared, unwilling, uninclined, we had no option but to concede.”
Their new routine comprises two hours of morning exercise, yoga and meditation followed by breakfast, self hygiene, room cleaning and medical check-up. Books were issued to those inclined to read, while others devised their own past time. “Suddenly we discovered budding photographers, poets and artists,” says Malik. They took consolation in the fact that while rest of the mountaineering institutes, where courses start late, had cancelled all courses, they could complete their course.
The HMI principal took the initiative to provide the inhabitants of Darjeeling with stitched face masks. Volunteers from amongst the mountaineering group assisted the HMI in-house tailors to cut and sew masks aiming to stitch and provide 15000-20000 masks to the people.
Everyone had changed previous bookings to April 15. The lockdown was extended. “The S&R team is trained never to give up hope, so this time we were ready and took it with practiced stoicism…. Staying in HMI campus, in a way we all feel lucky, it being based in a picturesque hill town of Darjeeling, with pleasant April weather and with free bed and boarding and moreover a daily routine to keep us occupied and sane.”
He acknowledges that there are others stranded somewhere and not “as lucky as we are.”