Almost six months after Defence Minister Rajnath Singh officially launched it in January this year, the ‘Soul of Steel Himalayan Challenge’, one of the toughest high-altitude endurance tests in the world, concluded at Ghamshali in Uttarakhand on 17th June.
Organised jointly by the Joshimat-based Ibex Brigade of the Indian Army in collaboration with Conquer Land Air Water (CLAW) Global, a group of Special Forces veterans, the idea behind the event in the Garhwal Himalayas was to promote adventure sports tourism and thus help boost the economy of the region and check migration.
The level of physical and mental fitness needed for this challenge can be gauged by the fact that of 1401 (including 94 women) highly skilled athletes, adventure sports enthusiasts and armed forces aspirants who applied, only 23 (including two women) passed the gruelling two-stage screening process, and made to undergo a ten week long extensive training in endurance, mountaineering, survival and rescue skills under the joint team of experts from Indian Armed Forces and CLAW Global.
Eighteen of them, including one woman, made it through to the finals and were divided into six three-member squads, which pitted their skills against the unforgiving and hostile terrain, climbing up to 17000 feet and covering a distance of 65 kilometres through glaciers, ice walls, rock faces and snow-capped Himalayan peaks. The weeklong trek spanned the glaciers of Govindghat (5,825ft) to Gamshali (11,033ft) and Bhyundar Khal (16,732ft). It demanded advanced mountaineering, survival, and navigation skills., as well as incredible levels of mental and physical toughness.
Squad No 4, comprising Vishal Banne, Ravi Thakur and Navneet Pandey, emerged as the winner, while Squad 5, with Ankush Mandhotra, Himanshu Kumawat and Tanmay Magarde were declared runners-up. Manoj Rana was declared the best in endurance, while Vishal Banne topped the technique list. Despite a valiant attempt, the solitary woman among them had dropped out at the first check post.
The Minister of State for Defence and Tourism Ajay Bhatt will attend the closing ceremony at Ghamsali on Sunday, 18 June, along with GOC-In-C, Central Command, GOC UB Area, as well as a large number of school students, local villagers, officers & soldiers of Indian Army, ITBP, NDRF and other officials, who will also be witnessing a breathtaking demonstration of Rock Climbing, Mixed Martial arts, and Kalaripayattu, as well as regional folk dances and songs by local villagers. After handing out the awards, the chief guest will officially inaugurate the ‘Human Ability Biome’, which will act as a perennial hub for advanced skill training courses in Land, Air and Water adventure activities, life skill training, environmental conservation, forestry training programs, rehabilitation and research aimed at harnessing the potential of the human mind and body.
The Indian Army’s IBEX Brigade and Surya Command are also actively promoting multiple appropriate activities like Astro-tourism and Stargazing, bike expeditions, car expeditions and cycling expeditions along the NITI Valley to promote tourism in the border areas.
“Remote high-altitude borders are appropriate sites for Astro-tourism and Stargazing because of the reduced light pollution, rarefied and clean atmosphere and magnificent mountainous background,” said Astro tourism company. Starscapes CEO Ramashish Ray.
Separately, CLAW Global is already in talks with stakeholders in Arunachal Pradesh for the 2024 edition of Soul of Steel – Himalayan Challenge in the northeast. As one official put it, “In this challenge, only the toughest competed, few sustained, and the best won, but everyone evolved.”