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Environment

Sep 13, 2018

Adventure Tourism in India Leading to Deaths and Massive Environmental Degradation

Litigation against mass trekking operations has led to a ban on nearly all mountain tourism in Uttarakhand, leaving 100,000 jobless and an industry without a future. But this doesn't solve the problem or punish those responsible.

WRITTEN BY

The Outdoor Journal

Trekking and outdoor recreation in India need quality standards, regulation and oversight, not bans.

In a recent hearing at Nainital, Uttarakhand’s High Court banned overnight treks at alpine meadows across the state, one of India’s most important Himalayan destinations, and limited tourism to 200 visitors at a given time, citing ecosystem preservation as its rationale. The ban is an overactive reflex to recent trekking accidents that have resulted in deaths, as well as a mounting degradation of the Himalayan ecosystem due to mismanaged waste.

The impact of this ban is massive. An average 200,000 trekkers visit Uttarakhand each year. Some of India’s iconic Himalayan peaks are in this state, many of which have seen world-famous ascents, such as the epic ‘Meru Sharksfin’ climb in 2011 by American climbers Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk. Dozens of trails, treks and natural sites are renowned internationally, and have been the subject of books and documentaries. This includes the mysterious Roopkund glacial lake, now a critically degraded high-altitude trek, linked to the initial litigation. Over 2,000 adventure companies cater to this visitor demand by employing guides, porters, cooks and other staff while contributing to local hotels, transportation and village tourism. Now, all of the sudden, these people who depend on mountain tourism are out of work – with no attempt made to solve the actual problem of poorly managed mountain tourism.

Ambitious but Inexperienced Indians Re-Discover the Outdoors

Now, all of the sudden, these people who depend on mountain tourism are out of work.

The Indian Himalayas, as well as the lower, southern ranges and forests, have always been stepped in history and legend. With the opening of India’s economy from the late 1990s onwards, a new generation finally started having the financial ability to explore these mountain regions recreationally. Constantly growing numbers of young Indians are keen on getting into the outdoors for the first time. These young enthusiasts, so eager to capture an adventurous looking selfie for their Instagram feeds, are not adequately educated, prepared or aware of environmental issues. According to Vaibhav Kala, Founder of Aquaterra Adventures and Committee Chairman of The Adventure Tour Operators Association of India, “with no ethical understanding of ‘Leave No Trace’ principles, and scant overall outdoor experience, first-time trekkers began to tramp trails high and low.” When deciding which operator to book with, low-priced tours look appealing to them because they are ignorant of environmental logistics. They’re not able to recognize a poorly run tour with improper carrying capacities within ecological sensitive zones, unsanitary toilet ratios and hazardous waste management.

Akshay Kumar, CEO of Mercury Himalayan Expeditions for over 20 years and a previous president of ATOAI, has also been outspoken about the dangers of mass trekking in India. “Unfortunately with the boom in the domestic adventure travel market, India has witnessed an uncontrolled growth that has reached dangerous proportions. Mass trekking, overcrowded trekking routes, piles of garbage on the trail, low-cost camping and complete disregard for safety and environment, eventually leading to accidents, deaths and destruction of our Himalaya”, he said in a recent LinkedIn post.

The influx of nascent trekkers has led to recent deaths over the 2017 and 2018 climbing seasons. In hindsight, many of these tragedies appear preventable due to treatable issues such as poor health monitoring under extreme conditions and general inexperience.  Vipin Sharma, founder of Red Chilli Adventures, who has been guiding treks for over 20 years, can spot this inexperience from a mile away. “Before these companies entertaining mass tourism came into the picture, we never heard of anyone dying while trekking. It is ‘soft’ adventure; you don’t expect people to die. It’s not the same as serious mountaineering. The reason why it happens is because the companies don’t pay attention to safety standards and sanitation, and target people who have never trekked before who end up showing off and taking pictures,” said Sharma in an interview with The Outdoor Journal.

Shady Operators Take Advantage of the Ill-Prepared

At the same time, due to weak regulations and poor governance, several blameworthy operators are taking advantage of the situation by running poorly managed, poorly executed trips in large numbers with zero regards to safety standards or the environment. These few culpable trip-runners are creating havoc for the good actors that promote responsible tourism; as well as for their clients, who are dying. In addition, the environment suffers under the weight of mass traffic and tourism into its pristine ecological zones.

“Only one forest guard sits at the head of the trail and collects money for camping, and keeps no check on what people are doing.”

Over the past two decades, Sharma has noticed how the influx of mass tourism degrades the camping grounds. “With fixed camping, you’ve got lots of people in one place. It’s only the people who move, while the tents and food rations stay in one place. If anyone gets a chance to look around these tents in the camping area, it’s all filthy and full of human waste and garbage. Traditionally, not more than five to ten people move from one place to another, with their stuff AND garbage, and camp only for a night,” says Sharma.

First-time trekkers might not realize the increased danger these imprudent operators pose. Budget tours offer inexperienced guides, with fewer guides per trekker. They lack proper safety equipment and training. The quality of food is questionable. And the low ratio of toilets to guests poses health concerns and ecological damage.

In addition to safety concerns, the reckless operators are harming the mountain ecology. Fixed camps damage the ecosystem. And poor human waste and garbage disposal is deleterious to the overall environment and impacts any future trekking experiences.

Impact of the Ban – Overbroad

Due to a lack of action by India’s government, the judiciary stepped in to impose a blanket ban on all adventure activities above the treeline. On the heels of an Uttarakhand rafting ban due to mass tourism concerns, the judgement is partly in response to a public interest litigation (“PIL”) filed by a local society, registered in one of the worst-affected regions, against the State of Uttarakhand. The litigation sought the removal of permanent cement structures and the cessation of commercial grazing, but not a complete ban on overnight treks.

The overbroad ban renders all those involved in adventure tourism and mountaineering expeditions immediately jobless. The high court offered no timeframe for baseline standards to lift the ban. Thus, the livelihoods of over 100,000 people depending on mountain tourism have no timeline for recovery. It also doesn’t do anything to address the core problem – some operators simply began to promote treks in neighbouring regions that the Uttarakhand court has no jurisdiction over (80% of the Himalaya are in India, spanning 12 states).

According to the Adventure Tour Operators Association of India (“ATOAI”), the capricious judgments that arrest overnight trekking activities “are not only affecting the socio-economic health of people of Uttarakhand but also to the reputation of tourism of the state of Uttarakhand.”

Trekking in the Uttarakhand provides a deep cultural and spiritual connection for Indian people.

The ATOAI also feels that the court’s orders are going to thwart future generations of climbers, in a state known for one of India’s top mountaineering schools, and for raising the most Everesters in the world. “What are we going to tell the youth and future climbers of our country who graduate from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi, Uttarakhand? That you can learn to climb but you can never climb at home, that your state does not permit this sport?”, the ATOAI asked rhetorically in a Press Release.

Read Next on TOJ: A Woman’s Account of a Mountaineering School in Kashmir

Trekking in the Uttarakhand provides a deep cultural and spiritual connection for Indian people. Every 12 years, thousands of pilgrims attempt the 280 km trek across Uttarakhand, passing through the alpine meadows and performing ritual ceremonies. Although it’s considered to be one of the toughest pilgrimages in the world, this year, over 10,000 devotees made the attempt.

Responsible Tourism is Needed

The High Court’s blanket ban is too broad – it will force tour operators, workers, hoteliers and villages to migrate, without addressing the core problem of mass trekking operations in a growing economy by unscrupulous actors. Instead, Uttarakhand’s state government should be given the reigns to manage the situation correctly by permitting responsible tour operators and disabling bad actors. Certainly regulation, along with regular education and training can reduce the degradation to the alpine meadows associated with tourism.

“What we need is a policy of “leave no trace behind.” There should be a cap on the number of people allowed on each trail and fixed camping shouldn’t be permitted. Additionally, we need stronger monitoring. Right now, there is only one forest guard who sits at the head of the trail and collects money for camping, and afterwards keeps no check on what people are doing. We need well-defined rules and strong monitoring to ensure that the rules are being followed. That’s the only way we can keep our mountains beautiful,” shares Vipin, who takes less than ten people on each trek and never camps for more than a night.

From unreported deaths, to unsustainable human activity and environmental degradation. India’s national heritage is at stake. Read all of Vaibhav Kala’s opinion piece by clicking the image. Committee Chairman of Adventure Tour Operators Association of India and founder of Aquaterra Adventures, ranked as one of the world’s best adventure travel companies by National Geographic.

Further, in addition to regulations at the government level, change can come about with personal choices. Kumar points out the need for “Regulations, control and above all to create awareness with the consumers that it is their responsibility to choose well when selecting a route, activity or operator.”

The Uttarakhand government is now preparing to appeal against the state High Court’s judgment in India’s Federal Supreme Court. Thousands of people are depending on the Supreme Court to recognize the arbitrary and capricious nature of the blanket ban and overturn the ruling. For more updates, check in with The Outdoor Journal.

Written by The Outdoor Journal’s Dave Braun, with additional reporting by Jahnvi Pananchikal and editing by Apoorva Prasad.

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Expeditions

Jul 29, 2019

Trans Himalaya 2019: Breathless in the Himalaya

In an unprecedented Himalayan snowfall, ultra-runner Peter Van Geit breaks out his ice axe to access undocumented passes in the High Himalayas.

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WRITTEN BY

Davey Braun

Last month, The Outdoor Journal received the first contact from Peter Van Geit on his 2,500 km self-supported journey across 100+ Himalayan high passes in Himachal, Ladakh, and Uttarakhand, accompanied by filmmaker Neil D’Souza. In his latest update, Peter navigates unpassable verticle cliffs and holy glacial lakes along his spellbinding adventure.

After completing the entire length of Uttarakhand in 17 passes, I entered the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh. I had been doing 600-700 km ultra runs through this beautiful state in previous years on lesser-traveled roads in remote valleys. This time I was targetting several passes across the high mountains in three major sections: the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) a wildlife sanctuary and protected biosphere, the Dhauladhar range separating the Kangra plains and Chamba valley, and the Pir Panjal range separating Chamba from Lahaul. As of mid-July, I completed 45 high altitude passes touching 4,600 meters and heavy snow due to unprecedented snowfall this winter.

Shepherds from Barmour descending from the snow-covered Chaurasi pass at 4700m in Chamba valley on their way to graze their herds in the high altitude meadows around the Chaurasi Ka Dal lake.
Panoramic view from the Gaj pass at 4100m from the Dhauladhar high range onto the snow-covered Lam Dal Lake in the upper range of the Chamba valley. Late summer after the snow melts tens of thousands of pilgrims visit this holy lake.

Climbing above 4,000 meters in early summer meant cutting through steep, frozen snow gullies with my ice axe, opening several passes not yet traversed by anyone or following the fresh trail of the shepherds who had just migrated across some passes. With the Northeast monsoon setting in soon, I’ll be moving next to the high altitude deserts of Lahaul and Zanskar to complete several 5,000-meter plus passes and come back down to Garhwal in Uttarakhand in September once the rains in the lower Himalayas subside.

Read next on TOJ: Alpine-Style, Ultra-Challenge in the Himalayan High Passes

GHNP is cornered between the high ranges of the Parvati National Park and Kinnaur. Three major rivers flow through this national reserve: the Tirthan, Sainj and Jiwa Nala separated by sharp, steep rising ridges. With no accurate trail info available on the Internet (no blog references meant few people or none have hiked here) I explored all three valleys using a very rough PDF sketch map made available by the tourism office and crossed over through three steep passes. The park has some of the steepest and most inaccessible rock cliffs I have encountered. Losing the trail here meant getting stuck inside near-vertical cliffs.

Sharing a cup of tea beneath the onset of the monsoon clouds with these shepherds while climbing up to the Waru pass at 3870m while crossing over the Dhauladhar range from Chamba valley to the Kangra plains.
Hospitality in the mountains. Night stay and dinner with these two shepherds on a ridge above the Jalsu pass in the Dhauladhar range of Himachal. Beautiful views on the snow-covered Mani Mahesh in the background, one of the seven Holi shrines of lord Shiva.

Once the snow melts on the higher ranges, many young men in Uttarakhand and Himachal go out in search for the “Jungli Nalla”, a high altitude medicinal root which is smuggled across the border from Tibet into China. One kilogram fetches 20 thousand rupees ($300 USD). Spending one and a half months in the mountains provides sufficient income for the rest of the year. While hiking deep inside the GHNP, I came across several villagers digging for both roots as well as large, beautiful rock quartz crystals.

Dhauladhar is a 4,000-meter plus mountain range which rises up steeply from the Kangra plains between Dharamsala and Palampur. Several passes cross over to the beautiful Chamba valley fed by the Ravi river which flows down from the high ranges separating Kullu-Chamba-Lahaul districts. There are several high altitude glacial lakes in the Dhauladhar which are considered holy and visited during an annual late summer pilgrimage by the local people. Most of the lakes were still covered under a thick sheet of frozen snow when I passed by.

Woman carrying home firewood from the forest in Lug valley in Himachal Pradesh for cooking purposes. With no road access or electricity in many remote hamlets, people rely on natural resources for home building and cooking.
Two Gurjar (mountain tribe) from Mumbardar in Chamba valley of Himachal were grazing their buffaloes in the alpine meadows above the clouds and upon seeing me passing by immediately invited me over for dinner and a night stay in their mud home.

I crossed five passes in the Dhauladhar: Baleni, Minkiani, Indrahar, Waru and Gaj pass between 3,800 to 4,300 meters coming across heavy snow at the North facing (less exposure to the sun) Chamba side. The most adventurous was Waru at 3,870 meters, a lesser-known pass used only by shepherds (which means undocumented) where I lost the trail several times. Trying to get back on track, I had to scramble through dense forest and climb down through several side gullies which had cut deeply into the valley slope resulting in several “free solo” moments while climbing down 100-meter plus vertical drops. I survived several breathless and adrenaline rushing moments here until I set a foothold on firm ground again.

One of the near-vertical rock descents into a snow-covered gully which deeply cut inside the main valley while navigating my way “off-trail” to the Waru pass across the Pir Panjal in Himachal.

The Pir Panjal is a high range of 5,000meter peaks separating the Chenab river valley (geopolitically split across Pangi and Lahaul districts) and Chamba valley. Shepherds from Chamba annually migrate with large herds of 300 to 1,000 sheep and goats across several very steep 4,500 meter passes to graze the high altitude meadows of Pangi and Lahaul which produces better quality milk and meat. They return home only five months later at the end of the summer before the passes close again.

Camping below the stardust of the milky way while camping at Trakdi along the Manji Khad stream inside the beautiful Dhauladhar mountains near Dharamsala in Himachal.

I crossed the Marhu, Darati and Chaurasi passes touching 4,200 to 4,600 meters, all undocumented, following the footsteps of the Gaddis or shepherds who had just crossed over. The most adventurous and scary one is Darati, which is a sheer vertical 1,000-meter rockface that seems impossible to climb at first sight. From steep snow-covered ridges on top of the pass to a labyrinth of narrow passages through steep rock faces, one can only imagine how shepherds traverse these with 500 sheep. About 5% of the sheep do not make it alive to the other side.

Shepherds from Chamba Valley, Himachal at the base of the Darati pass waiting to cross over the steep snow-covered pass in early July across the Pir Panjal range into the high altitude meadows of Lahaul.
Women at Kalprai village in Chamba valley harvesting wheat on the rooftops of the mud separating the grains from the stem by hitting with large sticks while rhythmically rotating in a circle.

I experienced one of the most spellbinding moments in my entire journey so far while I was about to climb up the Chaurasi pass. At exactly the same moment, a massive herd of more than a thousand sheep and goats descended down the snow-covered pass displaying their natural skill to traverse these very steep slopes. They were guided by ten shepherds from Barmour district in Chamba on their way to the fairytale Chaurasi ki dal glacial lake surrounded by lush green meadows dotted with alpine flowers of all colors of the rainbow.

One thousand sheep descending from the snow-covered Chaurasi pass (4700m) in the Chamba valley in Himachal on their way from the plains to graze the high altitude meadows. They will only return home 5 months later at the onset of winter.

The most memorable moments in these remote valleys of the Himalayas have been my encounters and night stays with the Gujjars, or mountain tribes. Small, remote hamlets far beyond the last villages deep inside the forest, completely disconnected from civilization. These tribals live with their cattle in large beautiful rock and mud shelters built with huge pine tree trunks. They graze their buffaloes, horses, and sheep in the meadows which stay together with them under the same roof. Each and every encounter along my way with these native people has been one of heartwarming hospitality. After a full energy-draining pass crossing, ending up around a warm fire in a mud home eating freshly cooked food with these families who consider you as one of their own is beyond words.

Unseen hospitality with the Gujjars or mountain tribes in Chamba, Himachal who live disconnected from society deep inside the forests in mud homes grazing their cattle in high altitude meadows.
Overnight stay and dinner with the mountain tribes at Rali Dhar in Chamba, Himachal. The lady of the home is preparing yummy rottis (flat breads) on the fire with buffalo milk. They stay under one roof with their cattle.

Peter will continue to share his field notes with the hope of inspiring others to explore these beautiful locations. You can read more about Peter’s experiences and motivations in his interview here – Alpine-Style, Ultra-Challenge in the Himalayan High Passes. Stay tuned on The Outdoor Journal for Peter’s next update along his 2,500 km journey.

To follow Peter’s expedition, visit his blog.
Facebook: @PeterVanGeit
Instagram: @petervangeit
Chennai Trekking Club

For more Neil Productions, visit: http://neil.dj/
Facebook: @neilb4me

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