When Asier, a 30-year-old Spanish Paramedic, visited India for the first time for a Himalayan trek, he had no idea that he would play a huge role in saving a fellow trekker’s life.
In the first week of May 2019, Asier was a part of the Indiahikes trek to Gaumukh Tapovan, led by Trek Leader Afreen. On the fifth day of the trek, the team halted at Bhojbasa (12,450 ft) and couldn’t proceed to Gangotri due to heavy rains. This turned out to be lucky for a trekker with another team, Shreya (name changed).
When descending to Bhojbasa, Shreya was caught in the middle of a sudden landslide in a rockfall zone. A rock struck her head and injured her badly.
Over the next 8 hours, in the midst of torrential rain at high altitudes, Asier and Afreen, along with Shreya’s team leader, were able to provide her with basic first aid before evacuating her to Dehradun (256 km away) for emergency medical care.
Here’s what they had to share about the incident.
What happened on that day
The Indiahikes team was huddled in their tents at Bhojbasa campsite. The rain was heavy and incessant, worsening every second. Afreen was unsure of leading her trekkers to Gangotri as scheduled. It would not be safe to traverse the tricky terrain in a downpour. They waited for the rain to stop.
Around lunch time, Afreen heard about the other group’s trekker’s accident.
“Shreya was injured around 9.30 am, when her group was descending towards Bhojbasa. The incident occurred in a place colloquially known as Kaccha Dhani, or loose rock area. The heavy rain caused a landslide, and a falling rock hit her head,” Afreen recalls. Landslides on this trail are frequent when it rains continuously.
Indiahikes kitchen staff Munna, who was descending to Bhojbasa with another Indiahikes team, crossed the site of the accident. He joined the rescue team. He carried Shreya on his back halfway, and porters joined to take her to Bhojbasa campsite. They reached around 1.30 pm and took Shreya to the Forest Department hut. All this through torrential rain.
The rain had drenched the entire rescue team. The risk of hypothermia was high, adding to the severity of Shreya’s head injury. She needed warm clothes immediately.
Afreen rushed to trekkers’ tents, asking for extra warm clothes, thermals, and gloves. Asier too volunteered to help.
Administering first aid to the injured trekker
When Asier entered the hut, the sight of an unconscious girl lying down with a head injury was a sign of concern.
He quickly checked her vitals. “Shreya was lying unconscious, and wasn’t able to follow any verbal instructions. I doubted if she was even breathing. I immediately checked her blood oxygen saturation with an oximeter and made a neurological examination,” Asier shares with us later.
Her oxygen saturation was extremely low, at 75%. It should have been 90-95%.
The rescue team provided her with supplemental oxygen. Asier also bandaged her head injury. She had already bled severely.
This was just momentary first aid for stabilisation. Asier realised the only way to save her was to evacuate her immediately to a hospital where she could get medical assistance. “She had a brain injury, she needed an urgent evacuation. It was a critical situation. More time in the mountains, with worsening weather conditions, could have been dangerous for her life,” he says.
Evacuation to Dehradun
With time running out, the team had to evacuate Shreya quickly to the base camp, and then further to Dehradun to a hospital.
But there was a catch — the porters were hesitant to carry her. “The porters were reluctant because there was a similar incident with another group a few days ago. The group had refused to pay the porters. It is not an easy job for them as well to descend in such bad weather conditions,” shares Afreen.
After a lot of coaxing and convincing, the porters finally agreed to carry Shreya down. “I gave them the Indiahikes stretcher,”Afreen recalls.
Since the girl had bled a lot, and it was a head injury, Asier went along with the girl to basecamp then, Gangotri, Uttarkashi and finally to Dehradun that night. After emergency care, she was treated for her injuries and recovered.
The rest of the Indiahikes team at Bhojbasa Campsite remained there, and decided to return without trekking to Gangotri. The rain continued with no sign of clear weather. And Afreen took a call that day to assure the safety of her trekkers, of the team.
Response time was important
Asier opines that it was the response time that stood out in the whole incident.
The incident occurred at 9:30 am. She was brought to Bhojbasa campsite by the leaders at around 1:30 pm, then evacuated to Gangotri at 5 pm. Because helicopter rescue was not possible in bad weather, she was transported by ambulance to Uttarkashi. From Uttarkashi, the girl was transferred to Dehradun.
“In case of an emergency, the reaction of the first responder is critical, and also the time consumed in descending. After advocating required first aid and oxygen supply, the injured should be taken to the hospital at the earliest to avoid any risk to life,”Asier says.
Lessons from the incident
It was Asier’s first time in India. He was eager to trek in the Himalayas. He has trekked extensively in Spain, Argentina (Patagonia) and Chile.
Even for a frequent trekker like Asier, it was the first such incident he had encountered. He calls it a great learning experience.
“In such situations, one must evaluate the breathing first. Then check for heartbeat and neurological status – whether the person is conscious, and opening their eyes. The first responder should also look for open wounds. However, if our response and knowledge are not enough, an urgent rescue should always be the priority.”
He emphasises that agencies that conduct Himalayan treks should be equipped with immobilization equipment. “They should have enough oxygen to support at least a 4-hour-rescue in case of an emergency like this. It would be useful to have a well coordinated evacuation protocol,” he says.
Asier shares that Indiahikes has good safety precautions related to altitude problems. “All the Trek Leaders check blood oxygen levels twice every day (before and after the walk). They know how to manage these kind of problems. But, in the mountains, one can face other problems such as trauma accidents. Precaution and the Trek Leaders are the best ones to prevent and respond,” he says.
Is Gaumukh Tapovan an accident-prone trail?
“Gaumukh Tapovan is a very tricky trail, but not accident prone,” says Dushyant Sharma, who heads the Trek Leaders team at Indiahikes. He has led trekkers on this trail several times. “The trail that starts after Bhojbasa has many tricky spots. You require certain expertise and alertness to trek through here.”
We have labelled the Gaumukh Tapovan trek moderate-difficult for this very reason. We screen the fitness of trekkers before approving them for the trek. “The increasing altitude adds to the difficulty of the terrain. The base camp itself is at a height of 10,000ft. Though it’s a comfortable climb, there are some tricky sections accompanied by the high altitude,” says Dushyant.
When the climb starts from Bhojbasa, it becomes tough as there are many, kaccha dhang sections (loose rock). The boulders and rocks can slip at any time. Rain makes it all the more difficult. There is also a river crossing, and Indiahikes fixes a zip line to cross the river.
“As an organization that always emphasizes on safety, we are initiating safety briefings to trekkers. The Trek Leader sensitizes the trekkers about all possible danger, and incident points where there have been accidents before. Such critical spots are highlighted before the trek starts, so trekkers are alert,” Dushyant adds.
Why safety is our priority
Indiahikes has always been on the forefront when it comes to safety measures, especially on high altitude treks. Yet, incidents like these often compel us to ask ourselves — can our preparedness tackle such situations? Then we think about how our staff and equipment were of great assistance in major mishaps like this.
Our Trek Leaders have been of help to trekkers from other groups on many occasions. We have many Munna’s and Khadak Singh’s who are always ready to help. And on a lucky day, we have professionals like Asier trekking with us, who went all the way to the hospital to assure the girl’s safety.
A major takeaway from this incident is that on Himalayan treks, accidents and injuries can happen at any time. There have been several similar incidents in the past year alone. If you’re not prepared well, it could cost you a lot of money, and sometimes even your life.
Which is why we made trek insurance mandatory on any trek. It is just one more way we are making your trek safe.
If you are trekking with any organization, we highly recommend you consider reading up about the trek, get to know about all the safety measures and first aid. And be prepared to help yourself and fellow trekkers in case of accidents.