Trekking in Himalayas: Accidents and Lessons

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  ⇓⇓⇓

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.

Shikari Devi Shrine
Shikari Devi Shrine

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 3000m MSL 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 Himalaya. Fed on a diet of photo stories that flood our social media timelines, motivated by those poorly researched articles on Tripotos and ScoopWhoops, 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 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…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 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 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 oopmphing over the photographs. “

“There is no doubt that mountains are a dangerous place for all of us. But its 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”, says Anshul Soni, a good friend and a seasoned trekker.

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. “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.”

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 and 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.”

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.

Here is a small compilation of tips that I hope helps others while venturing in 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 Alpimism.

Remember this. Whether you succeed or fail, always remember this.

Winter Treks: 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 bit heavy for your pocket but it is life saver at high altitudes. Never make silly trade offs like using a smart phone 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? Ask these questions rather than inquiring about the make of camera and availability of alcohol.

Beware 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 met the challenge. Without this understanding, such a victory will feed contempt for easy routes on forgiving mountains. Contempt leads to casual attitude, which results in carelessness and ultimate failure on a grand scale.

Inform 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 is no such thing as old, rash trekkers.

Suggested Reading: Mistakes and Lessons | Trekking Essentials | Gear Checklist | Trekking and Hydration

I'm greatly indebted to Inditramp for his invaluable inputs and his experienced advice that has helped me to write this post.

5 thoughts on “Trekking in Himalayas: Accidents and Lessons

  1. Dont bring Ego to Mountains: One must also never bring his “Man Ego” to mountains which is fatal enough to turn your pleasure into stupidity. More importantly, try to avoid going with a group which has a tendency to exhibit such behavior just for fun.

    Also, when you are new to a region, one should always take a guide or a reliable local guy who knows the alternate escape route or know-how when things go wrong.

    I have personally tried to take care of these two things apart from what Tarun sir mentioned above and so have tried my best to minimise my risks in the mountains.

    My condolences to students from NITH. RIP Akshay and Navneet

  2. Sorry for your lose. I recently learned how fragile we could be in the presence of nature when my family and I were caught in heavy snowfall in Shimla recently, but the serverity was still manageable since we’re still in the developed town. I knew it’s tougher to handle something like this in the remote trekking places. I agree with you, poor research could lead to unexpected problems, and informations on the internet had to be taken carefully.

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