Trekking in Himalaya: A Curious Case of Avoidable Mistakes (and Deaths)

Tourism is easy money. Centre 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 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
  • Delivery of goods/services as promised
  • Most importantly, a grievance redressal channel if anything goes haywire.

While the first three are privatized and given over to the Travel and Tourism Industry, the last two 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 is not just tourist numbers that have increased over the years but it is also the accidents involving tourists have increased manifold. This is not just restricted to overloaded buses falling into rivers or a motorcyclist dying without 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.

  1. Accidents due to an unavoidable cause (pure accidents)
  2. Accidents due to lack of preparation or negligence by the trekker/mountaineer (avoidable accidents)
  3. 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 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 lack of oxygen at the high altitude. He did not have any health problem.

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.”

Perils of Solo Trekking

Supriyo Barman, Panpatia Glacier: IOCL DGM 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 down near Chirbasa on the famous Gangotri -Tapovan Trail. Police reported that he fell in a gorge and died.

On April 26, 2017 67 year old Glenn Bernard Conway died because of High Altitude Sickness enroute 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 becomes 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.

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 health issue though he returned to complete his trek with another group and died enroute.

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. Samuel Antony lost his life on his Harsil- Har Ki Doon expedition on September 14, 2017. 17 year old Lalu Prasad Bhoi died on his way to Beas Kund near Manali on October 23, 2017. 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 enroute Yamunotri on October 10, 2017.

Triund – 2875m

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 recovery operation. The body of Pratap Rathod who hailed from Beed was recovered at around 1 pm today”, reported Mid Day News.

Sheer negligence

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 the 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 Bhawa Pass two days later, he started complaining about uneasiness and collapsed around 5pm. He was taken to a hospital at 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.”

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. A Man lost his life while they pass 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 is yet to trace his body. 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 enroute 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 extreme cold and heavy downpour 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 of the 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.

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 3000m pass/destination.

That 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.

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 Grandslam 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 Degree Celsius. There’s just one difference: the tour organizers are amateur 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 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 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.

Overcrowded Chadar

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 don’t end up with noobs on a winter trek. And noobs is what they got. 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 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 grands 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.

Suggested Reading: Don’t Turn a Difficult Situation into a Survival Situation | How to Train for Hiking | Trekking in Himalaya: Accidents and Lessons

8 thoughts on “Trekking in Himalaya: A Curious Case of Avoidable Mistakes (and Deaths)

  1. Oh my god, THANK YOU for writing this! It’s been on my mind for quite a while too, the lives lost in the mountains due to totally avoidable reasons. Every report I see about another death in the mountains is so very painful. The least we can do is try and raise awareness to begin with.

  2. पिछले साल मैं भी अपने दोस्त को खोया। श्रीखंड यात्रा के दौरान जाना कि कैसे एक लड़के की लाश को भीम बही से नीचे लाने में लोगों ने 40 हजार रूपये मांगे गये जिसके बाद भी 21 दिन बाद मृतक के शरीर को नीचे लाया गया । आशा करता हूँ इस साल और कोई दुर्घटना नहीं घटेगी । दमदार लेख और सभी माउंटेन लवर्स से अनुरोध है कि सैफ चले और चलायें । धन्यवाद गोएल साब इस लेख के लिए ।

  3. Thanks for thinking out loud!!!

    Hope people read this and take into account the Potential Risk that is present and learn to take measures to manage risk well!!!!

  4. Thanks Neelima. It is indeed very difficult to read about another loss of life. Young kids dying on some of the most frequented trails is what pains even more. I hope people pay attention to their physical as well as mental fitness before embarking on any trek.

  5. Rohit, Srikhand terrain is difficult and most of the times rescue teams are policemen who aren’t really trained for this task at all.

  6. Thanks Tarun bhai for bringing this up. I have been discussing this and emphasizing upon the fact for long, only if neo-rich would listen. 🙁

    People are like, I have the money and I can do it. They’ve never once been to the mountains and so don’t even know the perils of it, and to top that, as you’ve rightly stated – the “Book Now” button makes it appear like walking on the marine-drive. And Travel Insurance? What’s that? Unnecessary 1000 bucks expenditure.

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