I made a lot of mistakes and tempted fate when I started chasing my passion for the mountains. Fortunately, I am still alive to tell the tale. However, one of my close friends is not. He succumbed to his injuries while chasing his passion. All we are left with now is deep regret and a void that no one can fill.
We’ve all made mistakes, who doesn’t? Good judgement can only come from making bad decisions and living through them. Yet, the loss of life, particularly when it’s avoidable, haunts you for a long time.
This is what conspired recently:
Trek turns fatal: Bodies of Hamirpur NIT students found in snow in Mandi hills.
— Hindustan Times (@htTweets) January 13, 2017
Akshay and Navneet were probably under 25. They embarked on a trek to Shikari Devi on 5th January. Nobody knew about their whereabouts for the next 6 days.
For locals, all it takes to walk up and down from Janjehli to Shikari Devi is 12 hours. 24 Hours in a difficult scenario.
What went wrong?
The Himalayas witnessed a heavy snowfall from the 6th to the 8th of January. Most north Indian mountain states witnessed an average snowfall of over 1.5 metres at, 3000 m AMSL and above (source: AccuWeather).
Akahay and Navneet were caught in this Himalayan snowstorm. Perhaps they did not expect Shikari Devi to be a difficult trek. Or perhaps they really didn’t know what to do once caught off guard.
I’ve seen it happen frequently in the Himalayas. Fed on a diet of photo stories that flood our social media timelines; motivated by those poorly researched articles on Tripoto, Indiatimes and ScoopWhoop, it turns into a tricky situation when your expectations don’t match the harsh reality of trekking.
This absurdity is even more pronounced when you have Internet at your disposal. An internet riddled with inaccurate (or abstract) information and glamorous photographs glorifying lesser mortals taking on the mighty mountains.
Nevertheless, this accident touched a cord with me. It was personal. It bothered me because I have myself written about two different ways to reach Shikari, and one of them is a winter trek story. Do I share the blame for having shared my trekking experience? I don’t know.
Since time immemorial, people have died scaling these mountains. Herman Buhl. George Mallory, Malli Mastan Babu, the list is endless. And it’s the literature written by these individuals that has inspired me and hundreds like me to take up trekking as a hobby.
Then there’s this another lot of so-called adventures. Manimahesh in April. Bhrigu lake in January. Sach Pass in December. This list too is a long one.
Most of these adventures are inspired by Hindi movies and random fly by night trekking operators mushrooming everywhere.
It looks fun till you really think about it. Focus on the end destination, forget about the process that takes you there, and there you are; another Bear Grylls in the making.
As my friend at Inditramp says,
“The reality is that trekking is not a game. It’s a slog till you get back to the safe harbor. Educating and mentoring should be one of the primary objectives of starting a blog, other than popularity. You can only hope to educate and keep your fingers crossed that one in ten will listen, actually read what has been written rather than oomphing over the photographs. “Inditramp.
“There is no doubt that mountains are a dangerous place for all of us. But it’s how well we receive the mountains matters the most. A mountain may welcome us or deny us. There is a mountain outside which is beyond our control. But the mountain within can always be scaled”,Anshul Soni
It’s not a race guys. You are not fighting for a once-in-four-years Olympic medal.
Harish Kapadia in a telephonic conversation gave a sound advice which I think everyone should pay attention to.
“The Younger generation is in a hurry. Trekking and mountaineering are not to be done in a hurried manner. You have to acclimatize properly. Unfortunately these days treks are not governed by acclimatization but leaves that one can afford. Even if that means pushing your body beyond its limit.”Harish Kapadia
Similar sentiments were echoed by Aloke Surin.
“We are after all frail creatures compared to the forces of nature. The best thing is always to try to avoid getting into a potentially life-threatening situation. Sometimes, though, people get into situations inadvertently, and then it is a severe challenge to come out of it alive.”Aloke Surin
Now these are veterans speaking. I think one should listen to what they’ve got to say.
Navneet was a student in the Institute I used to teach at. Perhaps that’s why this news hit me so hard. It was terrible to hear about his avoidable accident and demise.
Tips for trekking in the Himalayas
Here is a small compilation of tips that I hope help others while venturing into the Himalaya. If it helps avoid even one such needless accident in the future, I’d consider this post to be a success.
Respect for the mountains is a cornerstone of a long and fruitful career — Mark W. Twight, Extreme Alpinist.
Remember this. Whether you succeed or fail, always remember this.
It’s always great to walk on snow, but to trek through a snowstorm isn’t such a good idea. Wait, have patience. Let that snow storm blow over. Not only does it help your orientation, but when the weather clears, the mountains appear closer and more scenic. It’s no fun to photograph yourself throughout and not get to see what lies beyond that mountain range.
Research the Weather
India has been spending enormously on its space program and weather satellites. These days, weather updates are accurate and reliable. Make sure you choose a clear weather window that minimizes your trekking risk.
Invest In Quality Gear
Trekking gear isn’t a luxury, but a survival necessity. A warm and lightweight sleeping bag might be a bit heavy for your pocket, but it is a lifesaver at high altitudes. Never make silly trade-offs like using a smartphone for a torchlight or a laptop bag for a trekking backpack.
Read and Research
Get into the habit of reading. Photographs are not the most accurate medium. Research what it takes to get those cool looking photographs.
What may be the difficulties involved in the trek. Is the trail marked? Is there any water source around? What is the possibility of rainfall/snowfall? Ask these questions rather than inquiring about the make of the camera and availability of alcohol.
Of accidentally succeeding on a route above your ability. Success tends to breed ambition. The next time, a route of similar difficulty and danger may deliver the hard lesson that a single success at a high level may represent luck and not skill.
Learn to recognize
When you lucked out and when you really met the challenge. Without this understanding, such a victory would feed contempt for easy routes on forgiving mountains. Contempt leads to a casual attitude, which results in carelessness and ultimate failure on a grand scale.
There must be someone who should know about your plans. You don’t want to announce it, no problem. But do inform your folks, preferably the first family, so that they know where to go in case you’re caught in a tricky situation.
Respect the routes
You complete and those that turn you back. Always! Think of luck as a finite amount of money in your wallet.
Every time we venture into the mountains and cross that line between bravery and stupidity, we use a bit of that finite commodity. It’s important to realize that one day this finite commodity will run out.
So maximize this finite luck with due diligence and preparation. Remember, there are old trekkers and there are rash trekkers. However, these are no such thing as old, rash trekkers.
Trek with the locals
A local trek team knows the route and terrain inside out. They are usually more experience and know better about how to tackle the tricky part of the route.
While trekking with a local team, you don’t hire a naturalist. Local guides are born naturalist.
Tourism is easy money. Center and State Governments realize this. This is precisely why you see a lot of #IncredibleIndia promotion on their websites. However, these governments (center and state) are also lax to do anything but promotion.
We have emerald lakes, snowy mountains, varied wildlife – come visit us! The expected exalt. However, these pretty brochures never tell us where to park our vehicle or how not to get robbed by the Taxi and Hotel Mafia.
Yes, if you have ever visited a Hill station, you know the mafia that I’m talking about. So when a tourist does arrive at a new place, what are his concerns?
To start with:
- An accessible and safe parking
- Efficient public transportation system
- Availability of clean places to stay
- Easy accessibility of the crucial info
- Delivery of goods/services as promised
- Most importantly, a grievance redress channel if anything goes haywire.
While the first three are privatized and given over to the Travel and Tourism Industry, the last three remain under the aegis of the local authorities. The first three will only perform optimally if the checks and balances by the local authorities are fair and strict.
However, this is not the case. Shimla, Manali, Dharamshala, Nainital, Dehradun, Leh – think of any tourist destination and the loot is evident and there’s no inclination, plan, or action to stop this loot.
The annual report put out by Ministry of Tourism (2016-2017) states that domestic tourist visits in 2015 were 1432 million vs. 1282.8 million in 2014, thereby registering a growth of 11.63% over 2014.
Tourism provides for an estimated 5.31% of Direct Employment and 7.05% of Indirect Employment in India. It contributes to 7% of the state GDP of Himachal Pradesh.
It is not just tourist numbers that have increased over the years, but it is also the accidents involving tourists that have increased manifold.
This is not just restricted to overloaded buses falling into rivers or a motorcyclist dying without a helmet. These accidents also spill over to trekking and mountaineering. Which is the focus of this piece
2018 has barely started and already people have lost their lives to the mountains. Two people have already lost their lives on Chadar Trek, which has become a high altitude picnic spot these days.
Trekking and mountaineering accidents may be broken into three broad categories.
- Accidents due to an unavoidable cause (pure accidents)
- Accidents due to lack of preparation or negligence by the trekker/mountaineer (avoidable accidents)
- Accidents when trekking/mountaineering with an agency
Let’s look at each of these in turn
On November 30, 2017, Yogesh Nayal a 29-yr-old trekker dies after falling into a gorge in Chamoli; 2 other climbers could be rescued only after Indian Army stepped in for rescue operations.
Sunandan Kirtikar, Hampta Pass: Collapsed while trekking at an altitude of 14,000 ft.
Sunandan, who had recently gone for a hike to Pune, enrolled for the trek to Hampta through an online group. While the postmortem report is awaited, the police suspect that Sunandan suffered a heart attack due to a lack of oxygen at the high altitude. He did not have any health problems.
Perils of Solo Trekking
Rachita Gupta, Prabalgad Fort: Had gone for a solo trek and a fall resulted in her death
New Panvel police station senior inspector Maloji Shinde said, “Rachita had climbed to the top as part of a trekking group in September. But she was alone when she returned on November 25. She had booked a flight from Hyderabad to Mumbai. She took a taxi to Thakurwadi village. It takes over three hours to reach the fort.”
Supriyo Barman, Panpatia Glacier: IOCL DGM stranded near Uttarakhand glacier dead
The death of Barman, who was also the leader of the group of trekkers, was revealed by his other team members who along with five porters managed to climb down to the nearest base camp at Madmaheshwar on Friday after trekking for over 30 km.
This particular accident invited criticism from all corners, and the Forest Department is now mulling over banning ‘illegal’ trekking activities in the region altogether. That means one has to go through the painstaking exercise of seeking permits from ‘sarkari babus’ and that task is more difficult than undertaking the trekking expedition. Tourism department to frame guidelines for trekkers.
Perils of High Altitude Climbing
In October 2016, Ariel Frajman – an Israeli trekker, fell near Chirbasa on the famous Gangotri -Tapovan Trail. Police reported that he fell into a gorge and died.
On April 26, 2017, 67-year-old Glenn Bernard Conway died because of High Altitude Sickness en route Sandakphu-Phalut Route in North Sikkim.
All the accidents cited above can be put in the category where accidents were just unavoidable, and it was just bad luck that followed them to the mountains. One really can’t do anything about these accidents except being lucky, which is beyond an individual’s control.
Now comes the second category, where negligence and false bravado become the cause of an accident. Of late such accidents have increased manifolds and because of such incidents, the government is proposing many regulations to ban trekking activities in certain regions.
December 29, 2017: Naresh Kumar, a 32-year-old resident of Baljeet Nagar in West Delhi, who was on a trek from Pandavkholi to Bharatkot in Almora district along with six other friends to celebrate the New Year in the hills, died after he slipped and fell into a 600-metre-deep ditch. His body, which was recovered by a team of the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) after two days of rescue operations.
A trekker from the team told TOI, “We were moving in the forests of Pandavkholi, but we lost our way. We were searching for directions when Naresh slipped and fell into a ditch.”
Unknown trail, with no guide or local expert or maps. Unprepared for an emergency situation.
On the new year eve, 6 trekkers lost their way around Simhachalam hill top in Vishakhapatnam. Here’s how the Deccan Chronicle reported their horror story:
Another trekker, Sandeep, shares, “It was terrifying because darkness was descending and the trekking path was full of bushes. Since we did not carry any food or water, our energy levels were also low.”
“We went unprepared; none of us knew about trekking and this was our first attempt,” says another member, Dinesh, adding, “We did not carry any marker to create landmarks, which would have made our return journey easy. We were left stranded at an animal-prone zone and were unable to find out the route.”
The Indian Navy and the local Police had to launch a joint rescue operation to bring them back. And this particular accident (along with others which are described in this post later) establishes the fact that accidents may happen even at 1500 meters if one isn’t prepared for the trek ahead.
Draupadi Ka Danda avalanche, Uttarakhand
At 8.45 AM on 4 October 2022, a 41 member team of people in 25-35 age group — 34 trainees of the advanced mountaineering course and 7 instructors — were hit by a slab avalanche (at ~ 5151 meters altitude) a few hundred meters below Draupadi Ka Danda (DKD) – 2 peak summit (5670 meters).
The 34 trainees were undergoing a 28-day Advanced Mountaineering Course (AMC) from Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) and climbing DKD-2 was the last leg of their AMC.
27 people died, 12 rescued (by a team of IAF, ITBP, SDRF and NDRF) and bodies of the remaining two could not be found.
The Himalayan mountains have their own way of humbling even the most exceptional climbers.
Among the 41 member team was an Everest summiteer and record-setter mountaineer — Savita Kanswal. Hailing from Lonthru village of Uttarkashi, this exceptional mountaineer set the national record of summiting Mt. Everest (8848 m) on 12 May 2022 and Mt. Makalu (8485 m) on May 28 — in a span of less than 17 days.
The peak was previously climbed by Jammu & Kashmir Mountaineering And Adventure Club in 2019 — after a gap of over 20 years.
The avalanches are classified mainly into two types:
- Loose snow
The slab avalanches are harder to predict and more destructive than the loose snow kind of avalanches. They form in all kinds of snow — wet, powdery, crust or slushy snow.
In slab kind of avalanches, the surface layer slides down and gets separated from the substratum layer.
Wind, load, gravity, and the stability of the bonds between the surface layer (consisting of higher density of snow) and the substratum layer (consisting of lower density of snow) are the factors triggering a slab kind of avalanche.
Sheer negligence and stupidity
Basant Narayanan died on his way to Hampta Pass on September 18, 2017. He once returned to base camp because of a health issue, though he returned to complete his trek with another group and died en route.
A Russian citizen died on his way to Triund on November 13, 2017, while 2 out of 5 students stranded near Malana died on April 7, 2017. On the same day, Dharmendra lost his life on the Churdhar Trail at the border of Shimla – Nahan district.
Swanand Khare died on his way to Dyara Bugyal in Uttarakhand on February 21, 2017. Rescue team walked 27 kilometers to bring back the dead body of Raj Shekhar near Jankichatti en route Yamunotri on October 10, 2017.
8 SLIET students rescued from Chanderkhani pass
Six engineering students were airlifted by the Swiss pilots Himalayan Heli Adventure on Sunday 13 March 2016. The remaining two were rescued on the next day. The group started the hike to Malana village from Rumsu village of Kullu on Thursday 10 March 2016. Before this, they visited Bijli Mahadev temple (2460 m). After visiting the temple, reached Naggar and resumed their hike for Malana village (via Chanderkhani pass at 3,660 meters).
As soon as they reached Chanderkhani pass, it started snowing. They pitched their tent on the meadows. They soon realized that the tent would not be able to withstand the weight of the overbearing snow — it had snowed 2–3 feet already.
Two of them — Anil Kumar and Hitender Sharma — left the tent (in search of a safer place) and they found a cave, located a few meters above the place where they had pitched the tent.
The group survived the three days of snowstorm in that cave by eating boiled snails and drinking snow-melted water.
Accidents were not restricted to the Northern Part of India, but casualties were reported in the Western Ghats region too, which are not as high as Himalaya, but accidents seem to be indispensable to treks irrespective of the trek altitude.
Imran and Pratap died on August 4, 2017, near Amboli Ghat. It took four days to recover their bodies from the valley floor. “As the rain and mist made it difficult to retrieve the bodies, police roped in some trekkers for the recovery operation. The body of Pratap Rathod who hailed from Beed was recovered at around 1 pm today”, reported Mid-Day News.
On July 11, 2017, dead bodies of two trekkers were retrieved from Devkund waterfall after a rigorous rescue operation jointly carried out by National Disaster Response Force and local police. One of them was an Indian Army Lieutenant.
The Raigad police asked the district collector to impose prohibitory orders under section 144 of the Criminal Procedure code (CrPC) which prohibits the assembly of more than four people in the area after four deaths in three weeks.
A month ago, 55 people were stranded at the same spot and police had to carry out a rescue operation that lasted six hours.
A typical case of negligence and false bravado
Balchandra Kulkarni, 53, of Borivli, began his trek from Kafnu in Kinnaur district along with seven trekkers, five porters, a cook and a guide on August 2. After crossing Bhabha Pass two days later, he started complaining about uneasiness and collapsed around 5pm.
He was taken to a hospital in Kaza on August 5, where doctors declared him ‘brought dead’. Doctors found Kulkarni’s lungs had turned black, indicating that his body was not fit for high altitude trekking. He could not endure the physical stress of a steep hike and the low air pressure at such an altitude, and suffered a cardiac arrest.
12 people lost their lives, which could have been saved had the trekkers involved exercised caution.
Lastly, come those accidents which are caused purely because you have hired an incompetent Trek Agency that knows nothing about Medical and High Altitude Emergency situations.
There’s a price war going on in the ‘market’ and that’s what increases the risk manifolds. Trek itineraries are based on ideal weather conditions and once the weather turns inclement, everybody starts running hither thither like a headless chicken.
Padmesh Patil, Stok Kangri: Pune Trekker Gone Missing in Ladakh : Companies blaming each other for insurance as Padmesh had to be airlifted which required money upwards of 8–9 lakhs.
But the agencies that had booked the trek for him are now blaming each other for not getting his insurance done. Shriad Sapkal of Stepin Adventure said,
“We had referred him to Trek The Himalayas in Delhi as we knew him personally and wanted to help out. But it was the responsibility of Trek The Himalayas to get his insurance done. Today, a helicopter was sent, but doctors refused to send him in the helicopter as his situation could have worsened while flying. Hence, we are trying to arrange for an air ambulance. But, it is always better to have insurance.”Shriad Sapkal
But Trek The Himalayas manager Rakesh Pant Blamed Stepin Adventure instead, saying, “Insurance is done by the participant. It is the responsibility of the agency which books the trek to get it done. We got the booking from Stepin Adventure.”
Pune Mirror, 18 August 2017
Negligence on the part of Trek Organizers
Negligence on the part of Trek Organizers. A man lost his life while they passed the buck to each other because they wanted to save money by not insuring the lives of trekkers.
A 20-year-old young boy had gone missing in West Sikkim and the police are yet to trace his body. Bishwadeep Acharya is believed to have lost his way, after which he called up his guide over the phone. However, the agency claimed that the guide went on to search him, but could not trace Acharya at in the given location.
DNA News, 2 January 2015.
Negligence on the part of Trekking Agency
A few days ago, there was a discussion going on regarding Winter Trek to Triund Hill on a Facebook group.
That group has over 400,000 members, and it gets over 1000 posts on a daily basis and of late most of these posts are inquiries about visiting a popular destination. The outcome of that discussion (going by the comments in favor of Triund being an easy trek) was that, Triund is an easy walk. One can do it even in winters, and one really doesn’t need any particular training to summit Triund. A few users even said, “Triund to ladies heels/shorts pahan ke chali jaati hain (sic)”
Though the comment is sexist, but at the same time one should let it sink that there are people actually wearing skirts and shorts on a leech-prone trail.
Dhauladhars are the wettest region of Himachal Pradesh and Triund being located at the heart of this showery blanket, one has to be a fool of the highest order to even think of that. But that’s just me, and what do I know?
If we look at Triund-related accidents in the last decade, we will find that a Russian died en route Triund on November 17, 2017. Two French trekkers went missing from Triund in 2013, and it was after three years that their dead bodies were found in a gorge.
In 2010, two guys went missing in Triund and one of them was later found dead. On 20 June 2015, Aditya Tiwari lost his way near Triund, and he had to spend two nights in freezing temperatures and heavy downpours, which he later described as a near-death experience. He was rescued by a team of Kangra Police after two days.
I can go on and on with this list. These are news reports just from the first two pages of a casual Google search. If we dig deep, and pull out news items from local newspapers too, this list is definitely going to swell enormously.
Looking at the accidents mentioned above (at the risk of sounding sanctimonious and patronizing) some accidents make no sense at all. A 17-year-old kid dying on the Beas Kund trail.
A 48-year man losing his life on Triund trail. A 27-year-old male dying on his way to Indrahar Pass in June when the trail is frequented by hundreds of people.
Lamkhaga October 2021 misadventure
The 17 member team (11 trekkers, most of them from West Bengal, porters+cook, and a guide from an Uttarkashi-based Trekking Agency) started their trek for Lamkhaga pass on 13 October 2021 from Harsil town of Uttarakhand.
On 17 October, at Lamkhaga Pass base camp (4572 meters), they faced an intense snowstorm. The blizzard made it difficult for the guide (and the rest of the team) to advance to the pass summit.
On 20 October, a team of State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA), Uttarakhand – with the help of Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) choppers of Indian Air Force — started rescue operations.
They managed to rescue just 2 members of the team. 11 trekkers died in this brutal incident. The porters managed to cross the pass and reach Chitkul by themselves.
The team planned this event even though bad weather and heavy rains were forecasted for this region.
What does it tell us?
- That our ability to assess risk is extremely poor.
- That mountains are unpredictable even if you’re hiking to a sub 3000 m pass/destination.
- One needs to work real hard on his/her fitness before venturing out in the mountains.
Adventure and accidents go hand in hand, and there’s no denying the fact that accidents can only be minimized. The onus lies as much on the tour operators as on the public.
Trekking isn’t as easy as pressing that ‘Book Now‘ button on a website. The mountains deserve better; they deserve someone who has worked hard on his/her fitness and who knows the risks. Jumping straight out of your cubicle isn’t the right way to do it.
If you are in a group, you should know what to do-who to contact, in case any emergency situation arises.
The Australian Open marks the beginning of the Tennis Season every year. During the first week of January, athletes who have worked hard all year long to be on the Grand Slam stage come together to fight it out.
The stakes are high; the summer heat relentless, and nothing is taken for granted. Even the likes of Nadal and Djokovic aren’t spared, and one is shown the door if he/she isn’t fit for the game.
At the same time, another Championship takes off in a different part of the world. The stakes are equally high here, with temperatures dipping as low as -20 Degrees Celsius. There’s just one difference: the tour organizers are amateurs and so are the participants. They haven’t worked hard to be there.
If you’re training as hard as the players, it makes sense to go all out in the act. But if you’re just beginning or just trying to enjoy your weekend, be cautious. Be extremely cautious.
If your head is paining or your stomach is aching, then these are signals which your body is sending and you must acknowledge them.
Choose your trek operator carefully. With trekking companies mushrooming everywhere, it is highly likely that you might end up with an operator who simply doesn’t know how to respond to an emergency situation. Your operator might as well never tell you why you shouldn’t jump into the icy cold waters of Zanskar. For them, it brings hits to the website, hits brings customers. To hell with hypothermia.
And not that the operator is at fault always. Recently I had a chance to work closely with a travel agency. They had placed proper checks and balances to ensure that they didn’t end up with noobs on a winter trek. And noobs are what they get. 20 noobs in tow, and 18 of them were wearing canvas shoes.
Read that again: Canvas shoes on a winter trek. Despite the fact that the operator had specifically mentioned to bring trekking shoes, sunglasses and warm jackets.
So that’s the kind of mess we have made in the mountains.
We have barely started with 2018 and the mountains have already claimed 5 lives. This year, if we are to believe what we see doing the rounds on Social Media, Chadar Trek has seen unprecedented crowds. So much so that the camping space isn’t enough on the trail.
In the wake of these events, the Leh Administration has released a circular that specifically calls for acclimatization and proper health check-up of Chadar enthusiasts.
The year is 2018 and we, the educated elite of this country who can afford to spend upwards of 30 grand on a trek expedition that isn’t even technically challenging, need the government to tell us to acclimatize before embarking on an expedition.
The same Government who does nothing and gets blamed by us for not doing enough to promote adventure tourism in this country.
The post was originally written by Tarun in 2018. Some events and corroborative details were added later.