Last year, we were faced with a difficult conundrum. Should we, or should we not, continue with the fitness checks?
Our concerns with fitness checks primarily lay in these four areas:
- The staggering volume: Conducting fitness checks for 25,000 trekkers every year was proving to be a mammoth challenge. And these numbers were only increasing with each passing year.
- The unfair responsibility: We strongly believe preparing for a trek is a trekker's responsibility. But somehow, by constantly asking for fitness proof, the responsibility of a trekker’s fitness had unfairly shifted to Indiahikes.
- Dishonest trekkers: A few trekkers who managed to trick the system would take pride in having made it to the trek unprepared. This was demotivating for those trekkers who had diligently prepared for the trek. To top it, the tricksters would slow down the entire group by their unpreparedness!
- A safety concern: Despite all these, we were worried about stopping the fitness checks. What if it resulted in more unfit, unprepared trekkers on a Himalayan trek? That would become a huge safety concern.
So we threw this question open to the trekker’s forum, asking—should we do away with our fitness checks? A vast majority of trekkers protested against it.
Here’s a snippet from their responses:
“No! Please don't. This, in a way, stands for the Indiahikes' purpose of leading treks safely. This is also a motivation for trekkers to get to the level of fitness required to enjoy the trek. I strongly stand by this. People who are passionate about trekking will vouch for it as it is of great significance.” Vindhya Ramsub
“In my view India hikes stands primarily for two things I like. One is safety of trekkers and second is green trails. If safety is as important, the fitness of trekkers is critical. So dropping fitness is like getting away from core of Indiahikes. You should not even think of it. I know you wont drop Green Trails and same case here.” Ramesh Emani
There are 337 replies on this thread, most of them requesting to continue checking fitness approvals. This was quite revealing.
Yet our compulsions were high. Our difficulties in checking fitness were increasing beyond our capabilities. We decided to experiment with an alternate approach for six months.
In October 2022, we stopped fitness checks for easy-moderate treks.
This experiment was specifically for treks that climbed to around 12,000 ft. It was our safest category.
These treks have gradual gradients and easily accessible exits. This provided a safety-net while we experimented with stepping back with fitness checks.
Initially, our teams on the slope reported a negligible difference between the two periods.
But the unfortunate effects started showing up a few months later.
These effects were not in favour of the experiment.
Trek leaders started reporting gross delays in the trek. For example, even on easier treks like the Dayara Bugyal, trekkers who were expected to reach Gui, our first camp, by 11.30 am were reaching only by 1.30 pm.
“This toppled the entire trek plan. Lunch was getting delayed, trekkers were not getting enough rest, and instead of focusing on experiences, our trek leaders were more worried about giving rest and maintaining timings,” says Arjun Majumdar, Founder-CEO, Indiahikes. The entire focus shifted from enjoying the trek to just struggling to stay on time.
“Trekkers who had previously trekked with Indiahikes were unhappy. They blamed the absence of fitness checks on the delays. They were not wrong,” says Nandana Kamasani, Head of Experience Coordination at Indiahikes.
We had feared these consequences.
Six months of experimenting have now come to an end.
3 things we learned from this experiment:
1. Fitness checks are integral to the brand identity of Indiahikes.
During these six months, we had many Indiahikes trekkers musing about how these fitness checks set Indiahikes apart. There’s a strong impression within the trekking community that Indiahikes trekkers always take fitness seriously. This was a strong brand identity for Indiahikes.
But over the course of this experiment, the brand identity took a hit. In the absence of fitness checks, there were groups of trekkers who made it to the mountains without preparing for the trek. This affected the quality of the treks and also their Indiahikes experience. They were beginning to question the values of Indiahikes.
2. Lack of fitness deeply affects the trek experience of the group
We knew about this. But we underestimated how much of the trek would be affected. The growing number of unprepared trekkers in the group started having a domino effect. Trek time, lunch, experiences, and group dynamics took a hit.
3. Fitness checks keep trekkers motivated.
We realised there were many trekkers who were able to stay on track because of the fitness checks. Sending a fitness screenshot was a conversation starter with an expert. It helped them stay motivated to prepare for the trek. It also helped beyond the trek. They continued on their fitness journey and thanked Indiahikes for it.
The most important lesson we learned was that we had to bring back our fitness checks.
Being fit changes the way you trek. It enables you to enjoy the trek. The design of Indiahikes Experience is based on this observation. And over the past six months, we’ve witnessed how deeply fitness (or the lack of it) affects the experience for the entire group.
Even though it is going to be a big organisational challenge, we are reverting back to our stringent fitness checks. We have brought in new IT systems that will help us screen people faster and more accurately.
But the truth is, there is no getting away from what we are known for, what identifies us, and what is good for trekking. It is our fitness check to see if you are prepared for the trek.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this update. Drop a comment below.