This is the second part in a three series article that Arjun Majumdar, founder of Indiahikes, writes about safety, preparation and protocols in high altitude trekking. Read the first in the series here.
I hate to say this but treks in our country are becoming increasingly unsafe. I’ll put an organization’s perspective on this. So please put up with this long post.
Sudha is 37, assistant manager at an MNC in Bangalore. At 5’ 6” she is tall and well built. She signed up for the Deoriatal trek at the insistence of her husband who was a keen trekker. For her preparation she walked around her neighbourhood for about ten days before the trek.
Deoriatal is not a difficult trek, so with a bit of huff and puff Sudha got herself to camp every day. She was always the last to arrive. On most days she would be about an hour behind the team. For the trek leader this was a matter of concern though not overtly so. Deoriatal was not a trek where he couldn’t handle slow trekkers.
On the day the team attempted the Chandrashila summit, Sudha was at the head of the pack. But by the time everyone reached the summit Sudha had slipped behind. It took her more than an hour and half to get to the summit, as usual accompanied by the co-guide. While the trek leader could hardly conceal his concern, Sudha was jubilant. Tears of accomplishment ran down her cheeks. She knelt down at the shrine on the summit sobbing her heart out. Everyone at the summit cheered.
The trek changed Sudha completely. When she returned to work she was flying two feet off the ground. The trek made her lose a few kilos as well. She felt renewed — more at ease with her body.
She told her trek stories to all and sundry. Her colleagues loved listening to her. None of them knew anything about trekking. Listening to Sudha and looking at her pictures brought about an interest in them.
When the next trekking season started we could see registrations for the Deoriatal trek from folks at her company. Sudha had recommended the trek strongly.
Sudha’s colleagues who got on the trek were very much like her. Middle aged, overweight, and with very little preparation. They struggled through the trek. It wasn’t surprising when one of her colleagues collapsed on arrival at the final camp. It didn’t take long for the trek leader to revive him, though things could have been dangerously close.
Most readers readily identify with Sudha’s story. They often see lots of Sudhas on treks. My next story is perhaps more chilling.
On a recent high altitude trek in Spiti, the trek leader noticed that within the group there were many experienced trekkers. What surprised (or has stopped surprising) him was that most of them were largely overweight. When he checked on their preparation he discovered they had done very little. In fact almost all of them confessed that their busy work life did not give them much preparation time. It was a story he had heard before.
As the trek progressed, trekkers managed to put up with the rigorous trek. They completed the trek in time. No one really fell sick or had to be sent down. The trek ended well. Trekkers were ecstatic as expected. Yet, the trek leader thought it important enough to bring it to our notice during our team meeting. He knew these experienced trekkers were loyal fans of Indiahikes. They also had a large circle of trekking friends. A couple of them were bloggers. The trek leader had seen enough to know the circle of bad influence this was spreading. The message that was being sent out was simple: It was OK not to prepare for a trek.
Gone are the days when trekking meant extensive preparation for a month or two. Or how people walked long distances with loaded rucksacks in preparation for a trek. Even during the early days of Indiahikes trekkers moved in a pack with the trek leader. Now there is a guide, a trek leader and co-guide with the group — each one of them shepherding a bunch of trekkers. Somehow trekkers feel this is OK. In fact, I often get angry outbursts from trekkers. They demand that we have more support staff for trekkers. This is turning alarming.
I admit Indiahikes has made things easy for trekkers. A lot of risks of high altitude trekking have greatly reduced. High tech safety equipment has brought down slips and falls to a minimum. Trained trek leaders, support staff, health checks, fixed camps, multiple groups and easier routes have taken off safety responsibility from the trekker. Frankly, it has become very easy to do high altitude treks. You get on the trekking conveyor belt, sooner or later, you exit as well.
This, in short, is the problem with modern day trekking. In India trekking has made a quiet turn. What was an adventure sport a few years ago is now a leisure sport. More and more trekkers are getting on very high altitudes with very little preparation. A cautious approach to high altitude trekking has gone flying out the window. This not only puts trekkers at great risk, but also the organisation.
This is what we notice:
- People with very little idea about the trek, the camps, altitudes and distances are stepping into very high altitude zones of 15 and 16 thousand feet.
- Trekkers with almost negligible knowledge about risks, especially altitude sickness, are happily climbing to these altitudes.
- Trekkers who are overweight have increased in numbers. Around 30% of trekkers in a group have high BMI — between 25 and 30 (normal is between 18 and 25). BMI is body mass index.
- In our regular trekking groups, 4-5 trekkers have high Blood Pressure. Their BP readings are a lot more than is acceptable.
- Treks that used to take 5 hours to complete now take 6-7 hours. An 8 km regular trek is considered long. Trekkers’ endurance has greatly reduced.
- People who are slow are now incredibly slow — often an hour or two behind the group. They hog all the resources — because someone has to be with them. Often they are unwell, so the trek leader has to tag along too.
- In a group, 10-15 % are affected by noticeable altitude sickness that requires treatment. In a trekking season Indiahikes carries out 5-6 evacuations that could have gone horribly wrong if not for timely steps taken. A similar number of evacuations is carried out by Indiahikes for other trekking organisations.
- Trekkers come badly prepared with their gear. Their shoes are amiss; warm clothes inadequate. At the last moment they are running around base camps gathering things. Most claim they have not read emails sent to them by Indiahikes.
- Experienced trekkers prepare the least for a trek. They use their past experience of “successfully” doing a trek to gauge their fitness. They set a wrong example, which starts a chain of unprepared trekkers.
So what are the risks:
Despite the comforting presence of Indiahikes, the danger of high altitude trekking does not go away.
- Unfit trekkers are very prone to heart attacks. A trek to high altitudes mean that you need to climb continuously for long. This increases your blood pressure and your heart pounds. If you have not prepared for the trek then the stress on your heart is a lot higher, in fact many degrees higher. The heart can collapse and you can die. Age has nothing to do with it. Last year a 32 year old trekker died on one of our easy treks, even before he reached the first camp.
- Altitude sickness can happen on any trek, even on our moderate treks. On every trek we have affected trekkers. Strangely, almost 80 % of our affected trekkers are overweight. Evacuating an unfit trekker is difficult. Evacuating an overweight trekker is excruciatingly difficult. Vital time is lost. This can be critical.
- Altitude sickness can be treated. Unfortunately, under prepared trekkers do not know what medications to take when there is an emergency. In most cases we have noticed trekkers usually don’t know they are affected. Denial, under reporting has resulted in deaths on our treks.
- The quality of trek suffers. Unprepared trekkers like Sudha often complete a trek. The question is always about the quality. How well you do the trek is as important as completion. Given sufficient time and resources most people can complete a trek. Completion of a trek comes at a great personal stress and a strain on the organisation. Getting to a camp an hour or two behind everyone is not ok. The slow trekkers do not get sufficient rest or acclimatisation time, thereby starting a chain of unexpected events.
- From an organisational point of view, more and more resources are now being used by unprepared trekkers. This has become a vicious cycle. As more facilities are provided, the greater are the numbers of underprepared trekkers. This puts an enormous strain on the organisation. Increasing staff count does not increase safety.
What trekkers don’t understand is that despite the comforting presence of Indiahikes, the danger of high altitude trekking does not go away. An increasing number of trekkers are getting frighteningly close to being whisked away to another world. Safety evacuations have increased (safety evacuations happen when someone is sent down before a bad situation can take place).
Our trek leaders are strained by these events — physically and mentally. Trek leaders sometimes descend through the night to bring down trekkers to safety. It takes a big toll on their health. Leading a group after an evacuation is extremely difficult on the body. The rest of the trekking group’s safety is compromised too. On many treks there are now two trek leaders, often in the form of a leader under training.
Our statistics reveal that in most evacuation cases trekkers were inadequately prepared for the trek. This is turning into an epidemic. As trekking grows in popularity the spread of this disease is increasing in geometric progression. Nowhere in the world do trekkers take the sport as casually as in India.
Trekkers need to take safety on treks more seriously. Not doing so can result in a catastrophic disaster. Trekkers always imagine that such events can never happen to them. They think that once they are registered with Indiahikes they are taken care of. I’m afraid that is not so. The mountains spare no one. High altitude trekking comes with risks that not even an organisation like Indiahikes can insure against.
In my next post I’ll talk about steps Indiahikes has taken to tackle this epidemic problem. Indiahikes has put in numerous processes that addresses the issue in a multi-pronged manner. Meanwhile, I would like your thoughts as well. Perhaps in your thoughts I can find a suggestion that can be used. Put them in the comments box below.
This is the second of a three-part series written by Arjun Majumdar about safety on a high altitude trek. Read the next post here.