Facts, Opinions, and Mountains

Of all the things Manmohan Singh, former Prime Minister of India did not said, the only thing that stayed with me was a statement he made in a live interrogation session press conference in the wake of 2G and Coal Scam.

He said, “while opinions are a matter of speculation, facts are sacred. And facts should not be distorted.”

A few years ago I met a 68 years old man who successfully completed Srikhand Mahadev Yatra. Being a trekking novice, it came as a huge surprise to me that he reached 5500 meters without any proper gear or formal training. That’s when I got to know that Srikhand is way above 5500 meters and has to be reached after walking more than 34km. To put this into perspective, 5500 meters means 2.7 kilometers vertically above from Triund.

That reminds of another story, the story of so called highest peak of Himachal. Shila Peak; the only seven thousander peak of Himachal as recorded by the khalasi of Survey of India.

As Harish Kapadia writes in High Himalaya Unknown Valleys , “Shilla was first reported to have been climbed in 1860 by an unnamed Khalasi of the Survey of India, who erected a pole on the top. Shilla remained a dubious altitude record for 47 years till Dr. Longstaff climbed Trisul, 23360 ft. in 1907. First visitors to Spiti had doubts about its height. In 1952 Snelson and de Graff felt that it was a much smaller peak and a higher peak was observed to its NE. The Indian expedition which climbed Shilla in 1966 did not find any survey pole (but who expected it there after 106 years!) and they questioned why the climb done in 1860 was reported after 50 years in 1910. Did the Khalasi really climb it or is it a legend?

But those were times devoid of high-tech that could precisely record heights of Himalayan peaks and such mistakes weren’t uncommon. However, I have been told that till date, HP State Competitive Exams take Shilla as the right answer and if your mark Reo Purgyil as the highest peak, you’re awarded either a zero or a negative.

With the advent of Tripotos and ScoopWhoops, came the creative liberty of assigning any altitude and name to any damn pass and peak. Bada Bhangal became Bada Bangal and Srikhand went a few hundred meters up from 5500 m to 5800 m. At the same time, similar progress was made in the Kinnaur Region and Kinnaur Kailash shivling had already breached the 6000m barrier. With this fresh breath of creative liberty, average height of Himalayas increased by leaps and bounds.

Similarly Roopkund lake has gained height all these years and 5000 seems to be the Instagram approved height of this beautiful lake.

With Facebook and Instagram being the new Himalayan Journals, the Himalaya are undergoing exponential growth and soon we will have mountains going outwards of the stratosphere.

Recently two buses were buried in debris near Mandi in Himachal and 45 people lost their lives. The universally accepted principle of journalism is to under-report casualties until the final confirmation is received. But with smartphones being the new schools of journalism, this principle doesn’t hold water anymore. The moment news of the accident got out, everybody started making their own claims regarding the death count. Some folks simply calculated the number of passengers those two buses could accommodate and reported that as the death count. That too within an hour of those buses being buried under the debris.

Similar traits are observed in the world of ‘pseudo trekking’ these days. Altitudes are escalated as one pleases and Internet being Internet, these exaggerated altitudes are repeated ad-nauseum across websites and blogs. Till date, the highest motorable road of the world is Khardung La. And same goes true for Thamsar being a low altitude pass of Shivalik Himalaya.

If one doesn’t have the means and technology to do so, approximation is a safer way than being idiotically damn sure about random heights and distances.

Here’s why altitudes and distances should be factually reported:

  • False Sense of Achievement: Imagine completing a 4500 meter trek and being told that it was a 6000 barrier you’ve breached. Nobody reaches 6000 meters wearing Jeans and woolen sweaters. And not to mention the false sense of achievement that it brings. Someone who hasn’t really gone beyond 4500m is now getting ready for 5300m assuming that he has already scaled 6000m. Even to think of such an act is scary. That’s an open invitation to fatality.
  • Open Invitation to Accidents: When weekends and leave calendar decide your trek duration and not acclimatization, such exaggerations lead to accidents. We’ve had enough examples of young kids getting stuck on their way to Parashar Lake, Triund and Kheer Ganga. These are well marked trails with hundreds of people walking up and down on any given day. And yet people find themselves in trouble and one big reason of that happening frequently is misinformation being spread on the Internet. For instance: Hike Up to Parashar on a beautiful rainy day. This despite the fact that Baagi Bridge (start of the hike) has been washed away thrice in last four years by flash floods. That region receives significant rainfall making it a must-not-do trek in the rainy season.
  • Everything You Read on Internet is not true: Altitudes and distances are not always exaggerated, sometimes they are under-reported too because of ignorance or stupidity or both. Double check and check again before you make any plans. If you read anything in excess of 14000feet/4000m, double check. Going above 4000m means leaving the tree line and if you’re leaving the tree line you’re parting ways with your closest friend in the mountains: Oxygen. And if you’re not prepared well, both mentally as well as physically, this lack of oxygen and training can lead to fatality.
  • Not All Trekking Agents are Duping You: If a trek agency is selling you a trek for 7 days and a local pahadi friend is claiming to do that in 4, don’t assume that the trek agency is duping you. That’s not the case always. Acclimatization is an important aspect of life in mountains. The pahadi friend probably walks 10km in a day or probably he lives at 2500m while you’ll start from Delhi(216m) or Chandigarh (350m) or Mumbai (14m). Human body and mind needs time to mould itself according to changes that come along increasing altitudes. So, not all trekking agencies are trying to cheat on you. Some of them may be actually wanting to save your life. Not all people behave in the same fashion to changes that are brought upon by altitude gain.
  • Hurts Serious Trekkers: My friend Neeraj Jat, who is a renowned trekker and published author, had been planning to pay his obeisance at the Holy Kinnaur Kailash Shivling since God knows when. However, the 6050 figure was stuck in his mind and that never allowed him to head towards Kinnaur. “Repeated falsehoods are often perceived as truth“, is a scientifically proven study known as Illusory Truth Effect. Recent developments have proven that even if people possess knowledge of the subject matter, it will NOT lead people to dismiss the lie. That’s where it hurts serious trekkers. They just can’t garner courage to attempt a seemingly easier trek because the Internet is full of fake information.

So next time you come across an altitude upwards of 4500 meters or see people wearing jeans or sports shoes claiming to go beyond 5000 meters, be cautious and smart.

Travel Safe. Respect the Mountains. Stick to Facts

2 thoughts on “Facts, Opinions, and Mountains”

  1. gooood dear….ur trekking nd knowledge on mountains was always wonderful…. however i m mighty pleased with ur writing skills in de recent past…there too though u were always good but now u r in a different league nd expressing so beautifully…..all de best….nd yes pls dwell more on thar highest pass of shiwalik…thamsar….i m not able to understand much of that.

  2. Khullar Sahab, Thamsar is a high altitude pass of Bada Bhangal Sub Range of Dhauladhar Himalaya upwards of 4600meters. Although the new breed of Social Media warriors have propagated it as a low altitude pass of Shivalik Himalaya.

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