An emotional letter by Indiahikes founder to his team after Himachal r...

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An emotional letter by Indiahikes founder to his team after Himachal rescues

Category About Indiahikes

By Arjun Majumdar

Our founder, Arjun Majumdar, wrote this personal letter to the Indiahikes team after last week's devastating floods and consequent rescues in Himachal Pradesh. 

We never publish Arjun's internal letters for trekkers' viewing, but this one is different. It's an intimate view of what Indiahikes went through during those three days of Himachal rains.

Over 150 of our trekkers were stranded on treks. While panicked families called us, Indiahikes turned into a war zone in the office and the mountains.

This is not to show you what happened behind the scenes.

We're sharing this because you'll see where Indiahikes gets its values from in this letter. You’ll get an insight into the leadership style at Indiahikes. You’ll see how a disaster was managed because of the organisation's values, culture, and togetherness.

As much as it was a private email to us, it was an email we wanted to share with you.

Such depth is hard to capture in a simply narrated sequence of events. No writer does it better than Arjun himself.

It's completely unedited and published as is.

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We are only humans.

What happened in Himachal can only be described as unprecedented. The kind of destruction the deluge left behind is incomprehensible.

The first hint that this was something bigger than we imagined was when I heard from Abhishek that the water was flowing close to the Jobri bridge. He and Umesh would go up to check. They were leaving immediately. His voice sounded worried.

I immediately called for an online meeting with Nandana and Nayana and asked them to prepare to bring down trekkers. They did not think the situation was anything extraordinary—that it was just heavy rain.

I shared with them my past experiences dealing with big disasters. In such situations, things look very innocuous initially, but they always snowball into a great calamity. I knew from experience that this was not just the heavy rain we were dealing with.

We had to prepare for the worst. All treks had to stop, and we had to turn around trekkers. As the EC team braced for a torrent of bewildered trekkers, the Indiahikes office realised we were looking at an extraordinary situation.

By Sunday evening, information from our Manali base started getting patchy. Abhishek and Umesh Ji had gone up to Jobri, but there was no further news. Our Beas Kund trekkers were instructed to come down, but we didn’t know how far down they could come.

Brighu trekkers had come down to Manali, which was good news.

There wasn’t any news from our Miyar Valley trekkers.

Our Pin Bhaba Pass trekkers had already taken their buffer day at Mulling. It was pouring. The river had swollen. They couldn’t go ahead. Now they were waiting for another day at Mulling.

With deep anxiety, I went to bed that night. The whole night, I tossed and turned with worry.

Monday morning, we regrouped quickly at the office. It was like a war zone. Anxious parents were beginning to call. The news of the disaster had reached newspapers and social media.

Then started the phone calls. With every call, ten missed calls were waiting to be called back. People wanted to know if their loved ones were okay.

On the other hand, trekkers in the upcoming groups were panicking. They wanted to know if we were calling off the trek.

In Manali, the campus ran out of water. We were collecting rainwater to service the campus. By afternoon, we started to lose our network connectivity with Manali.

The number of calls increased. Callers were now getting increasingly angry and frustrated. People took to social media, demanding information. We had nothing to give except what we had heard last.

One person put up Caroline’s personal information on Reddit with hate messages. Caroline broke down. The EC team was furious at the message. Nandana sent an angry message to the trekker to take down the post or face action. The trekker, thankfully, took down the post.

Everyone at the office was taking calls, but it was insufficient.

Our email inboxes were flooded. More than two hundred emails had to be answered. They were emails pleading for information.

As grim and devastating videos of the cloud bursts started to circulate on social media, the demands on us increased. Callers wanted specific information on where the trekkers were.  

In the evening, we decided to call off the treks starting on July 14 and 15. Then different kinds of calls started to pour in. Trekkers were demanding a refund of their trek fees. They said hotels had refunded their stay expenses; why couldn’t we refund?

The back and forth with ECs over refunds frayed our ECs' nerves.

Meanwhile, there was no news from Manali or any of our treks, except for Pin Bhaba, where Lay told us that things were okay and safe but that we couldn’t move. And, together with the NDRF, they would do something the next day.

I slept very late and fitfully that night. In my dreams, I would see our trekkers struggling to walk in the rain and drowning in streams. I woke up many times.

The rest of the EC team hardly slept. Sandhya had similar horrifying dreams.

On Tuesday, I woke up with tiredness in my mind and body. We were on our phones immediately, constantly messaging each other and coordinating the anxiety of callers. Every minute, a new problem is thrown at us. How do we answer this question? How do we answer that question?

Our regrouping at 10 a.m. had tempers flying around. I was upset that Ravi, who had made intermittent contact with government officials, did not share much of the conversation. These updates would have helped our callers settle.

In our meeting, we decided to update our website and Instagram pages every two hours. We would update with specific information on whatever news we got, irrespective of whether it was directly or indirectly related to our treks. Even if the news did not show much progress, we would still update it.

We also decided to call off our treks until July 17. That would give Himachal Pradesh and us time to recover from the devastation.

Meanwhile, the RO from Kullu informed us that the rains had abated in Manali, and rescue operations were underway. But he had no idea where the rescue was happening or who was being rescued.

Our Manali base camp continued to stay eerily silent. There was no contact.

The timely updates on the website and Instagram helped greatly. Trekkers were thankful that they were getting to know something. The calls continued, but now the panic was less.

Suddenly, at around 4.30 p.m., Nayana's phone crackled to life. It was Manisha calling. We rushed to the phone, and everyone huddled around it. But we couldn’t hear her. In desperation, we tried calling her back several times. Manisha must have sensed it, and she tried calling a few times as well, but the network failed.

And then came this SMS from her:

Everyone safe
Beas got down today, both groups. They dispersed to Old Manali.
Bhrigu also dispersed.
Hampta 8th July group got down. 13 trekkers here. All in good mood. Rest coming down.
7th and 6th July also getting down.

A cheer rang through the office. People were high-fiving each other. Nandana and Nayana rushed into my room with a huge smile. Caroline, who bore the brunt of the Himachal calls, broke down.

It was the news that we wanted to hear.

After the initial euphoria, the content team immediately changed their update messages. The EC team was now calling back some anxious trekkers to share the good news.

A little later, I was alone in my room for a moment. Tears started to stream down my face. I tried to hide, but Nandana, Suhas, and Swathi saw me. They tried to comfort me. How could I share with them that when you leave everything aside, the final responsibility of everyone's lives—our trekkers and our teams—rests on my shoulders? How heavy does that responsibility weigh? And when that responsibility lifts, the tears flow.

I called Sandhya and my family. My voice was not steady. They were ecstatic with the news.

Sandhya came rushing from her home in a few minutes. The moment I saw her, I could not hold myself any longer. I hugged her and broke down.

That evening, we had a samosa party.

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Why a salute is not enough

In a few weeks, I will sit back and analyse whether the extraordinary efforts every team member took to evacuate our trekkers reflected the organisation’s culture or whether they were an instinct.

I am reminded of how the Taj Palace Hotel employees went beyond themselves to protect and evacuate their guests when 26/11 happened. Many of them came under fire and were killed or injured.

This reaction from the hotel staff members was hailed across the media and soon became a case study of Taj’s work culture.

I noticed something similar here. There was no one to guide any of the team members. We had lost the network signal completely. Yet, every team member went beyond themselves to try to bring out our trekkers from our various treks.

Not a single person thought of themselves.

  • What made Abhishek and Umesh rush in the pouring rain to look at the Jobri bridge? And to bring down our trekkers? They only informed me. There was no discussion or permission sought.
  • What made Nithyam, Arjun. Raju Seth, Harshmohan, and the rest of the Beas team carry out such a crazy rescue on an earthmover? What made them set up the TT at night to pass equipment and food? What made Vignesh, Aniketh, and the rest of the team make food for trekkers at night on the river bank?
  • What compelled Umesh, Abhishek, and the Hampta team to cut the tree log to make a bridge? There were others there as well.
  • What made Lay, Sindhu, and Diptharko go to extraordinary lengths to get the Pin Bhaba trekkers out? They could have waited for help.
  • What made Deepak walk 35 km to Udaipur to see if his trekkers would be safe when he could have stayed at Sukto?
  • What made Manisha, Shachi, and Nishant run around and coordinate to support the rescue teams perfectly?
  • What made the other TLs and other teams on the slope take extraordinary steps to keep our trekkers safe?
  • What made our mountain staff on every slope go to such extraordinary physical and mental effort to get our trekkers to safety? They could have simply said it was better to wait.

I have seen organisations for years and studied them in depth. What I witnessed was something else.

I would like to believe it was the organisation’s values and culture that made people take these extraordinary steps. Yet I can never be so sure. I do not want to credit ourselves that much either.

But one thing is certain: The next time I am invited to give a talk, I have an extraordinary story to tell.

I will share a story of courage, bravery, care, and to what lengths one can go to put others before oneself. For such heroes, a salute is not enough.

Arjun Majumdar

Founder, CEO, Indiahikes

About the author

An entrepreneur by profession and a trekker by passion, Arjun started Indiahikes in 2008 with a vision to explore and document new trekking trails. He wanted to solve problems in the mountains and implement sustainable ways of trekking. His biggest dream was and still is that Everyone Must Trek, because Trekking Transforms Lives. Today, Indiahikes takes over 20,000 trekkers in the Himalayas every year and has changed the face of trekking in India.

Arjun is deeply respected for his expertise on trekking trails and entrepreneurship. He has written extensively for Discover India magazine and is a TedX speaker. He frequently talks at institutions about his journey, but his favourite topic is always the impact of trekking on the human mind, body and spirit.

Watch his TEDx talks here -
TEDx Sayajigunj University on how Trekking Impacts The Mind, Body and Spirit
TEDx IIM Bangalore on 3 Unusual Lessons In Entrepreneurship
TEDx IIM Sambalpur on Why Children Must Trek

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