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.
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.
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 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.