It was a horrifying time initially for 75 trainees of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, held up at 14,600 feet high Chaurikhang base camp at Kanchenjunga mountain ranges when the 21-day nationwide lockdown was imposed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
They were to finish their training two days after the lockdown was declared on March 24 and return to their respective places with the certificates, but little did they know they will be in a real life 'HMI 21 Days Big Boss Challenge'.
Safely brought back to Darjeeling where Asia's first mountaineering training centre is located, the 75 trainees, including two women, hailing from different parts of the country, are living up to the challenge by example.
"With the help of Sikkim and West Bengal governments we could bring back the trainees to the institute safely but the biggest task for me was to keep them safe and engaged during the lockdown," group captain and principal of HMI Jai Kishan told PTI from Darjeeling.
"So we thought of this Big Boss Challenge. Everybody is aware of the popular show on TV and we gave it a twist at HMI, well aware that it would cost us Rs 15 lakh extra as we are not charging a penny extra for them."
The 75 trainees include 53 in Basic Mountaineering Course and 22, including two women, in Search and Rescue Course which began on March 10 as they are having an extended stay under the unforeseen circumstances.
Kishan said the trainees begin their day with a two-hour yoga, pranayam, meditation session followed by the singing of National Anthem. Then, they go to breakfast table without stepping out of their Laxman Rekha (circles marked all over the institute with a two-metre distance to maintain social distancing).
"We know very well that they never had any contact with outside people and they are all fit and fine. And the institute is totally shut to the outside world. But we are still maintaining social distancing and proper hygiene," he said.
"We have reduced staff strength to minimum after the lockdown announcement, so I conduct the yoga, pranayam and meditation sessions, while Indian Navy's Dharmender look after physical training."
After breakfast, there's santisation programme which the trainees do themselves in their respective rooms before they break for lunch, ensuring that they do not cross their 'Laxman Rekha'.
"The afternoon session is interactive where they have talks, discussions, debates, dance competitions. We have a big lobby where we do this maintaining social distancing," Kishan said.
The trainees also took part in competitions to choose Best Fitness, Best Zumba Dancer, Best Gardener, Best Cleaning Guy and Best Story Teller.
"So there is an added incentive. We will give them goodies and HMI souvenirs after normalcy restores," he said.
The HMI has also engaged their respective families online by offering Lockdown Challenges through which they can win vacation at the scenic location on the fringes of the Darjeeling town.
"They are coming up with various creative videos including that of yoga, physical fitness, essays, painting. It has generated huge response and everyone is happy and they are not missing their families in such trying times," Kishan said.
"The person who uploads the best video or picture will get an opportunity to stay 5 nights and 4 days at the HMI. The runner-up will get to stay 3 nights and 2 days, while the third prize will be HMI tracksuit. Everyone will be given certificates from HMI," he concluded.
After the first ascent of Mt. Everest by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillay in 1953, then Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru and West Bengal Chief Minister of that time Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy decided to set up HMI in 1955.
Norgay and Major Nandu Jayal were its first director of field training and principal respectively.
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