Every summer, when high altitude treks open up (above 13,000 ft), within a couple of weeks, there are reports of mishaps, evacuations, even deaths. It worries us to see so many lives that can be saved being lost because of ignorance (choose to trek at the wrong time or with wrong people) or slow action (not responding to the symptoms).
In this article, we share 5 steps that every trekker can follow to stay safe, no matter with whom and where they are trekking.
Here are 5 steps to ensure you 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 to trek with 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.
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?
From how we see it, 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 choose, 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 before you decided to choose it. 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.
My only request to you at the end of this post, is that you take responsibility of your trek. Don’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.