What Can We Learn From The Recent Trek Mishaps In The Himalayas?

The past week has been riddled with disturbing news from the mountains.

I’m not referring to the deaths on Mt Everest, although those are worrying too. I’m talking about alarming incidents much closer home.

In the past two weeks alone, two people have passed away, one trekker on the Buran Ghati trek and a porter on the Rupin Pass trek. Another trekker on the same Buran Ghati team is in a critical state. There have been instances of trekkers going missing. There have also been two separate instances — one of a trekker getting injured in a rockfall and another of a trekker getting stuck in a mini avalanche.

The last instance (with the mini avalanche) was of an Indiahikes trekker. The others were with local guides, or other organisations.

This post is not a report of these incidents.

I’m writing this post to figure out why these instances are occurring and how we can trek better and safer.

Before we get into what we can do better, I’ll give you a gist of what has happened. These are the stories as they have come to us. I cannot claim them to be facts because the stories have done many rounds by now, but they are more or less what happened.

At Buran Ghati, a group of 7 trekkers was crossing the pass with a local guide. This was on May 24th, Friday, when there was a big snow storm. Even after the storm passed (which lasted around 3 hours between 9 am and 12 noon), the trekkers were wandering around in a complete whiteout. They couldn’t find their way to the next campsite. All water sources on the way were frozen, their food depleted. Without food and water, two trekkers, affected by severe altitude sickness were on the verge of collapsing (most likely with HACE as I understand from the symptoms). One of them passed away later that night, unable to reach a lower camp, unable to get any help. Another trekker remained critical. The team that started at 4 am was rescued only the next morning at 6 am when army helicopters came.  

A second incident at Buran Ghati, one of our own Indiahikes trekkers, got stuck in a small avalanche. He had to be pulled out of waist-deep snow. He was not injured and could continue trekking.

Below is a video taken on the day of the storm at Buran Ghati, May 24th, Friday. The video was shot by our Trek Leader Syama Krishna.

 

At Rupin Pass, a team of three porters was crossing the pass from the other side (from Sangla to Rupin Pass) when one of them got separated from the two and lost his way. He seems to have passed away with no food, water, amidst extreme bad weather conditions.

Below is a video of a small avalanche occurring on the Rupin Pass trek around the day the porter passed away. The weather was so bad that most waterfalls around the Lower Waterfall campsite had turned into mini avalanches.

 

Snippet from Times Of India

Again at Rupin Pass, 4 trekkers were reported missing after a white out. A rescue team went in search of them. Thankfully they were found.  

At Gaumukh Tapovan, a trekker was struck by a rock. She sustained severe injuries and fell unconscious. She was administered first aid and brought down to Dehradun in an emergency. Thankfully, she survived.

Needless to say, the weather and trail conditions have been notorious to trekkers the past week.

But could we have avoided these incidents? Most of them, yes.

Today, I’m going to put down my learnings from these particular incidents. I hope they help you make your trek safer.

What can you do to have a safe trek?

1. Know whom you’re trekking with

Which organisation are you going with? What is their experience in the mountains? How credible are they? What are your fellow trekkers saying about them? Who are their Trek Leaders? What knowledge do their Trek Leaders have? What equipment are they carrying for your safety? Does their itinerary give you enough acclimatisation? How will they take care of you in emergency situations?

These are all important questions to ask before you choose an organisation.

I often come across talks of “Go with a local guide, they know better.” And I always want to tell these people to stop being foolish. This thread on our Facebook community page will give you an idea of what I mean. Go through the comments too, trekkers are sharing their thoughts from experience.

Please do not assume that guides from around the area are the best to trek with. While they may know mountain routes, most of them are not trained to tackle medical or weather emergencies! If they are, then that’s great! But it’s best you train yourself if you’re relying on a guide.

To stay safe, choose organisations and Trek Leaders who are well-trained and seasoned in the mountains. If the situation arises, they must be able to save your life.

I hate to say it, but if the team of 7 to Buran Ghati had chosen their organisation wisely, they might not have had their misadventure.

2. Completing a trek ‘at any cost’ is foolish

This is a sensitive topic, but a few weeks ago, many organisations ran the Buran Ghati and Rupin Pass treks, while Indiahikes called off a few batches. We shifted our trekkers to other treks or refunded them altogether.

Many trekkers wrote back to us later, pointing and laughing that they completed the trek with other organisations.

I want to tell you honestly, It was not impossible to complete the trek. Heck, any trek can be accomplished at any time of the year! But at what cost? Did we want to risk an avalanche? A rockfall? Double the time required to cross a pass at 15,000 ft because of waist-deep snow? Extend the turn-around time, the trekking hours? Risk notorious post-noon weather in the mountains?

In the mountains, there is a certain risk involved during any season. But what is the extent of risk you want to take? That’s your decision to make.

At Indiahikes, we do choose to err on the side of caution because we strongly believe that completing a trek at any cost is foolish. The trek is always going to be there. If not this year, then next year. But putting your life at risk for the sake of the trek is not wise. Your life is worth much more than a trek.

3. How fit is fit enough?

In my opinion, there are four levels of fitness when you’re on a trek.

Level 0 is not preparing for a trek at all. It’s appalling but it is true that there are umpteen trekkers who go to the mountains with zero preparation. Since we at Indiahikes are extremely strict about fitness, we don’t see too many in this category. But in the mountains, there is a discernible difference between our trekkers and others, especially when others are at Level 0.

Level 1 is being just about fit to manage to complete the trek. You struggle a bit, but not much. You make it to the top (from our experience most trekkers achieve this fitness level).

Level 2 is being fit enough to enjoy your trek. You don’t feel exertion or the need to pay attention to your body. You have enough time to absorb the surroundings and make conversations while trekking (around 10% of our trekkers achieve this).

Level 3 is when you are fit enough to comfortably face bad weather conditions, and trek that extra mile through snow and rain. Most trekkers who achieve this level of fitness are stoic about the weather, they accept it and embrace it (very few trekkers achieve this level of fitness).

Are you at Level 0 or 3?

I notice that if trekkers are going on tough treks like Kedartal, Rupin Pass, Everest Base Camp, etc, they do try and reach Level 3. But most others who are going on easy-moderate treks reach just Level 1.

But I must tell you, such emergencies can occur even on the easiest treks. Why, just earlier this year, trekkers had to be evacuated from easier treks like Brahmatal, Mukta Top and Kedarkantha with bad weather conditions.

So no matter what trek you’re going on, target to be at the peak of your fitness. Aim at Level 3. That way, you’ll at least hit Level 2.

4. Trekking is not a service. YOU play a major role in your trek.

Many trekkers leave the management of a trek completely to the organisation or guide they are going with.

That’s not wise.

What if you get stranded like the 4 trekkers at Rupin Pass did? Perhaps if they had had a GPX file of the trail, who knows? They may not have been lost.

What if you get AMS and your guide doesn’t know what to do? How will you medicate yourself?

Ask yourself how much you know of the trek. Where is it located? What is the trail like? Have you studied the GPX file? How high does it climb? What are the risks of climbing that high? How can you help yourself if you’re hit by AMS? Do you have the required medicines? Which is the closest road head on the trek if you need to evacuate yourself or someone?

Of course, you cannot know everything but put in effort to learn the basics. That alone will take you a long way in keeping yourself safe on a trek.

5. Check what safety equipment you’re trekking with

In the mountains, we notice that many organisations don’t have basic equipment — micro spikes to walk in snow / ice, ropes to secure dangerous traverses, oxygen cylinders for medical emergencies, or even stretchers for evacuation.

Many a time, they hop over to our campsites to borrow stretchers and oxygen cylinders.

But these are all basic things that must be in place, especially if you’re trekking above 11,000 – 12,000 ft. We have a comprehensive list of all the equipment we carry on a trek in this video. Take a look.

In conclusion

These are five learnings I can take away from these episodes. I wish none of them had occurred. 

My only request to you at the end of this mail, is that you take responsibility of your trekDon’t leave it to the organisation or the guide. 

If you’re ever stuck in bad conditions on a trek, I hope you’re the one reaching out to help others and not the one in need of help.

If you have any other observations from these events, drop in your thoughts in the comments below.

Swathi Chatrapathy

Swathi Chatrapathy

Swathi Chatrapathy is the Chief Editor at Indiahikes. She also runs a video series, Trek With Swathi. Before joining Indiahikes, she worked as a reporter and sub-editor at Deccan Chronicle. She holds a Masters in Digital Journalism and continues to contribute to publications such as Deccan Herald. Trekking, to her, is a sport that liberates that mind like nothing else can.Read Swathi's other articles. Watch Swathi's video series here.

38 thoughts on “What Can We Learn From The Recent Trek Mishaps In The Himalayas?

  1. While India Hikes really does a great job of keeping enough days to acclimatise while gaining altitude.

    I have on multiple treks experienced a hurried descent, which in a lot of cases doesn’t match the effort, difficulty and no of hours as mentioned in the trek documentation available on your site.

    Post summit, my recommendation is that Indiahikes introduce an option of descending slower if trekkers require it, we do understand it takes more money to host a group in a camp for an extra day and am sure given the option people would certainly be happy to pay for a less rushed descent.

    I’ve experienced hurried descent on Nag Tibba as well as kedarkantha and I’m glad my knees didn’t get injured, but I had to be extremely careful with my step and that amount vigilance on where you’re stepping hardly leaves any room for enjoying the scenery.

    I hope you understand my concern, not all trekkers are built the same and after a long climb a gradual descent is something everyone should be able to experience, without risking going with local guides, who are often open to listening to you on your chosen speed of trekking.

      1. I’d classify myself as a level 3, escaped Blizzard conditions this January, and descended three days of altitude gain in 6 hours. All I’m saying is, I don’t think the descent part of itineraries are made properly, they’re rushed for a fact.

        And on trails covered with scree you really run a risk of injuring your knee.

        I think indiahikes should relook descent periods.

        1. Commercial trekking agencies design a trek to a cost. Cutting days reduce cost. It is better to cut days on the descent than on the ascent. Ideally there should not be any cut on either side.

  2. Hi
    My suggestions to Indiahikes to enhance safety are:
    1. Focus needs to be on hypothermia/exposure in adverse weather conditions and not only on AMS.
    I personally think the death/ collapse of trekkers in Bhuranghati were not altitude related as they were on their way down after acclamitization.
    2. When a group has less fit partiicipants, they should be allowed to trek only if they engage a personal guide/supporter (much like a porter) . This will reduce the waiting time and break of rythym for other trekkers who are able to keep pace together (more or less). This is especially so above the snowline when waiting long periods for the group to catch up places enormous stress and hypothermia on those ahead.

    1. Hi Chitra, the trekkers who suffered at Buran Ghati did exhibit symptoms of AMS and especially HACE. You must note that they were climbing to 15,000 ft, and the previous camp is at 13,360 ft. If you’re not acclimatised to 15,000 ft, you must not be spending time at that altitude. You’ll find their story here – https://www.telegraphindia.com/states/west-bengal/trekker-recounts-himalayan-horror/cid/1691444

      It is an interview with one of the team members, and he talks about clear symptoms of HACE (Taking off the jacket when it’s extremely cold, not recognising another person, etc).

  3. As far borrowing Oxygen cylinder from IH I endorses it, The incident was occurred with Roopkund Treck. Due to bad weather conditions almost all camps at top three levels were wiped out and all campers there have had to take shelters with forest department huts. One of non commercial organization’s trekking group too was stucked there and one of its member was tumbling with oxygen deficiency and they were not having cylinder with group. luckily IH was there having it therefore the member got treated and later sent back to base camp. Luckily I was at base camp and later after two three days able to complete Treck of course with oxygen cylinder with Treck leader (due to lesson learned)

  4. A very sensible write up. Swathi and India Hikes. I hope awareness and certain maturity in us is created through these recent past incidents..

  5. I am one of the participant of 20th may buran ghati batch from which a participant went under a mini avalanche. In my experience India hikes must improve their system of communication on trek. So that in any case of emergency they can call in emergency services in no time. I really think that communication part was poor in India hikes. Also weather update can be improved and co-ordinated with trek leader on real time basis.

  6. Be safe, trek will remain there(until it is not banned by the local authorities). In Hindi, there is a phrase which I always tell my trekker friends that “Josh ke saath Hosh mat khona!”

  7. Swathi,
    Nice and very informative article. Due care must be taken before embarking upon the trek. Fitness is utmost important element for trekking. Our group leader always say I can arrange any thing and everything for you, however, fitness and self confidence is upto you only. Finally Trekkers salamat to trek 50.

  8. It’s very dificult to avoid natural hazard. You can give them a standard physical excercise chart,as per your standardized Trek.
    Do seriously, to select your guide/except.
    Never believe on his certificate.
    Thanks.

  9. Swathi,
    We undertook Gangotri-Gaumukh-Tapovan trek from 9th May 2019. We could manage till Gaumukh and had to abandon Tapovan due to bad weather and land slides and return to campsite at Bhojwasa. The trek was enjoyed by all. However, while decending to Chirbasa from Bhojwasa one of our members felt uneasiness. Initially it was thought that it might be due to less intakeof food for last two days and severe cd due to snowfall during night. By the time we rea hed Chirbasa the symptoms aggrevated and we decided to shift her to Gangotri. In the meanwhile someone called campleader of IH at Chirbasa and enquired whether they have any doctor there. Fortunately there was one. Both, the camp leader and Dr rushed to our camp and checked her. I wish to thank IH trek leader present at Chirbasa on 13th May and one of the participants Dr. Gautham K from Mangalore (probably) for administering timely medical help/first aid to one of our group members who according to them had developed symptom of HAPE while returning from Bhojwasa on that day. They almost directed us to rush her to Gangotri for further treatment and further down for early relief. She was rushed to Uttarkashi same night. She recovered comfortably after two days of hospitalization. The trek leaders and doctor Gautham deserves kudos for timely help. Please convey the same to them. If you can share contact details of both of them I will like to personally talk to them and thank them for their timely help.
    Regards

    Mohan.

  10. I have trekked once in may and weather conditions were not favorable to complete the trek. So I have booked in June this time in hope for the better.

    That said, I believe difficult conditions can be seen beforehand. This year may was going to be difficult. I don’t know why are you surprised.

    One way to solve this issue is have flexi dates. Do not go ahead with batches unless you are 100% certain it will be easy enough. Have pre or post payment options where you will charge one conditions are safe.

    Also diversify so you have equal no of non himalyan treks. Like Chg Jungle trek. That way even if snow is too high, you will always have treks running.

  11. I think that saying .. Completing a Trek is foolish
    Make sense to me. I haven’t trekked in the North mostly I have done in the south. But still I feel the importance of life than a Trek. Think before you step is the saying .. I feel sorry for family. It’s a lesson for other trekkers. Hills are not calm always they are wild. Your life is at RISK.
    Trek with a Leader who will save your life not with a Guide who will just guide only your way not your life.

  12. So sorry to hear about carelessness/over-confidence/un calculated risk trekkers take at times and put their life at risk.

    Thanks swathi & indiahikes for putting together all the content on safety measures and spreading aware by all means.
    In the article it is mentioned about gpx file. Can you point to some link/source where information about creating gpx file for a particular trek and basic information on using the same is available? That will be helpful.

    Appreciate your efforts towards safe trekking!

  13. Very Apt article Swati.
    No doubt the one must take responsibility for oneself before anything else.
    Being fit is the first and foremost step in that direction.
    Choosing who to trek with, the organisation as well as fellow trekkers comes second.
    In moments of adversity it is the group coordination which makes the crucial difference between life and death.
    The organisation however has a very large role too, that is doing a recce EVERY SEASON before the trek is thrown open.
    Nowadays with iteneraries and bookings being fixed months in advance, somehow I’m not convinced that that is possible.
    In the good old days it was practically impossible to plan for a high altitute trek in early May.
    Most treks like Rupin, Roopkund etc were planned for post rains period.
    If you planned for May , the thumb rule was to limit yourself to 13-14000 ft.
    I don’t see that happening now, we gleefully plan for anything in any season.
    This year it was well known that snowfall has been heavy.
    Yet how many would have thought twice ?
    Even at indiahikes, it must have been a tough call to call off batches. Hopefully the call would have been taken BEFORE any batch hit the slopes, not after the first batch faced the music.
    My point is that when we push the envelope, risk is bound to increase.
    A serious thought need be given by all, participants as well as organisers.

  14. Thank you madam. That was a very detailed and educational mail. I have always liked your candid approach to things.

    Do keep up the good work. Best wishes to your team as well.

  15. I was on trail of rupin pass while I heard and saw the mishaps of rupin valley. Moreover, I discussed with the staff about the potential cause.

    Further, I came across this video :https://youtu.be/R3VMW6fxK6Y
    Bottom line of the vodeo : “without education there is no choice.” – Apa

    My learning through the events:
    There is a need of an education system that educates the locals about the opportunity they poses and the risks associated with it. People should make informed decision.

    P.s.: I met a local who wanted a 9-6 job but is working on the mountains because he doesn’t have a choice.

  16. So sorry to hear about carelessness/over-confidence/un calculated risk trekkers take at times and put their life at risk.

    Thanks swathi & indiahikes for putting together all the content on safety measures and spreading awareness by all means.
    In the article it is mentioned about gpx file. Can you point to some link/source where information about creating gpx file for a particular trek and basic information on using the same is available? That will be helpful.

    Appreciate your efforts towards safe trekking!

    1. Hi Himali, Your comments are right on point! I have a Garmin Oregon 650t. When I was a trek leader here in Ecuador, I would enter significant turns on the route, as waypoints, and then navigate to each one, one-at-a-time. Only it was necessary to have a map with the route highlighted beforehand so the coordinates could be identified so I could enter them as waypoints before the trek began. This was a very tedious task! It was much easier to go on the trek without the GPS preplanning and mark waypoints along the way. The downside of that is that one navigates the route the first time without any GPS assistance. Only the backtrack function is a possible resource. I did use that function once when the trail ran out!!
      How great it would be! if Indiahikes had a library of their routes available to their clients that we could download while preparing for the trek! Or a high def map we could print and enter ourselves or just have available to follow along during the trek! I am a map gek. I once (in a different life) taught map reading and land navigation at the university level. It was great fun, everyone found it both interesting and useful. All the technology is alreay in place. Maybe IH will take the hint?

  17. On snow, when white out is possible, the colored wands that mountaineers use are very helpful, and they are light weight.
    The avalanche looked like a wet snow avalanche caused by liquification of snow, not a fracture on a layer. Is that correct? There are more of those later in the day. And more rock falls, because the freeze-thaw cycle sets them off. so passing dangerous places early is important.
    Unfortunately, some of the people who think you should go on a trek no matter what, die. Truth is, you will probably enjoy more trekking in your life if you do the right thing and do not take that kind of risk.

  18. Thanks for collating all this info and reminding us of what’s important. Having trekked with 2 organisations and with a local guide, I’m convinced that my IH experience was the best one, with the most experienced trek leaders and exhaustive safety prep (unlike no prep in case of local guide and check-the-box arrangements of the other trekking organisation). Looking forward to my next adventure with IH.

  19. Nice & Very detailed article at the right time. The journey is more important than the achievement. by the way, how do we assess our fitness level. Everyone is just believe that they are fit enough (level 3).

  20. The article is great but India hikes too provides bad services to clients. First update your weak points then talk about other mishaps. Organising the large groups to treks is not a responsible way of trekking up to mountains.
    I have seen your camping sites that you’re littering up. Please forward my message to your trekking teams to collect all the litter and drop it in dustbin.

  21. Well written with lot of messages for a safe trek. It’s sadly true that in many treks we find people with very little preparation. A few join as if for a picnic. Respect for nature and discipline are essential for a safe and enjoyable trek.

  22. Very well written article. Thanks a lot Swati and IH teams for the information. I am surprised how some people compromise and put themselves in dangerous conditions just for fun.

  23. My contribution. We were hiking in the high forest when I got separated–then lost! I was only 12 years old I continued my wandering trying to find my group. After several hours, I saw them. They were moving away from me… at about a quarter mile. My little voice could not be heard. Then I remembered the survival tool my leader had all of us wear. A whistle! I started to blow like crazy!! They hear my whistle, stopped, turned around and I was rescued.
    A person’s voice is weak when compared to the great outdoors. And a person’s voice gives out after shouting for a short time. A whistle solves these problems. Since then, I always carry a whistle when hiking or trekking.

    John Caselli Corresponding from near Quito, Ecuador

    1. Hi Swathi & IH Team, nice article towards awareness!
      When it comes to climbing mountains especially “Himalayas” we should be cautious and avoid “don’t care” attitude. I just want to share my experience here, I registered with IH for Rupin Pass around this time (Jun-2017) and it was my first Himalayan trek. For some reason i fell sick at Dhaula, somehow, tried and reached Sewa. Realized something not going well (we have to learn to listen to our body) and decided to walk back. However, very next year i did another Himalayan trek successfully with much confidence.
      so, Swathi’s second point is valid “Completing a trek ‘at any cost’ is foolish”. Not completing the trek in first attempt is not the end of the world. We always can come back with necessary preparations.
      Couple of things to add to your point Swathi,
      a. Trekkers should learn to stay together, at-least minimum two to three.
      b. Trekkers should do some home work on their trek routes and keep their own way of mapping. This would help in case a trekker is lost/disconnected from team and need to find a way out back to the base camps.

      Regards
      Manjunath

  24. Hi Swathi. Very nice article. Especially appreciate the way you articulated about how well a trekker is prepared for the trek. I liked the way you gave levels of 0,1,2 & 3. I have done 4 treks with IH and i have seen fellow trekkers at different level of fitness during these treks. If only, all were at 2 and 3 level then it would be a fantastic experience for the entire group. But sadly most come with 0 and 1 level of prepartion. I have seen that the trek leads and guides energy is mostly devoted to these trekkers as they end up being a liability.
    I also liked your suggestion of having a gpx file of the trek so that it case of emergency it could be really useful to find the way to the nearest camp.

    Thanks swathi & indiahikes for this content

  25. Very informative article Swathi. It narrates the care to be taken & fitness level required for any trek very nicely. I also personally believe that primary responsibility regarding safety lies with the trekker himself. Instead of completing the trek at any cost one must think of his own safety first & listen to the instructions from experienced guides & follow them.

  26. I totally agree with your suggestions and observations. Trekking is never risk free, as most of us are not fit unto the requirement, and not ready to face any untoward situations.
    Recently, we were trekking in lesser Himalayas, and lost in the dense forest. I advised 4-5 people, I was leading, rather they were following me, not to panic. I asked them to sit and relax, meanwhile we did recce of the place, and realised we were near the base camp.
    it was just a mature act that we surpassed panic and reached back.

    gpx file is definitely a great idea.

    Also, organisations must be ready with emergency services, as it is expected out of them. After all they charge for this, and also IT IS A MATTER OF TRUST FOR BEING SAFE.

    Thnxz for share

  27. This year that region as indeed the entire Himalaya has seen unprecedented snow fall. Trekkers and trekking agencies should have taken this into consideration and gone there a little later perhaps. Many new trekkers are very keen to see snow. But few realise how dangerous it can be in real life.

  28. If some people have laughed at you because they could do a xyz trek that you cancelled in you own good judgement, it was their luck. There is a saying – Fools rush in where angels fear to trade’ .

    What happens in mountains happens at sea, forests and deserts too. Foolhardiness has no easy solution.
    I am a wild-lifer who studied the most dangerous animal in India- The Indian Wild Elephant, for many years. I was trained for a year by seniors and friends – to walk in a elephant country and come out alive. Thereafter, during my tenure in the elephant country, I have seen many examples of foolhardiness where people threw caution to the wind played a heavy price with their dear lives. There is little thin line between adventure and bravado.
    I suspect, people living in plains, have little idea about AMS leading to HACE and HAPE. IF you read the book on first Indian Everest expedition, the first thing that hits you is insubordination. People throw caution to wind when the target is in sight. Many mispaps were narrated in that book, that could have been avoided by just listening to the Competent Team Leader.
    The flip side is – how do you judge competency of a Team Leader? I have no answer to that.
    I wish best of luck to you in your Endeavor in setting high standards of mountaineering.

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