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Op-Ed

Sep 04, 2018

Mass Trekking in India: A Disease For Which We’ll All Suffer

From unreported deaths, to unsustainable human activity and environmental degradation. India's national heritage is at stake.

WRITTEN BY

Vaibhav Kala

Statistics say that the outdoors is now nearly 70% of all leisure, vacation based travel, globally. This has massive ramifications in a country like India – where guidelines are available, but actual regulation, monitoring and implementation are abysmal.

Cause and effect: a hugely improved economy, increased and better road networks, the aviation revolution, internet and accessibility and a heightened sense of individual self-expression and need for fulfillment, aided by increased economic ability, have helped catapult adventure holidays to the fore. This is especially true for commercial trekking in the high Himalaya, an activity that has grown to four or five times its industry size over the last decade.

India’s adventure travel industry began in the 1980s with a handful of outdoorsmen and women, who launched businesses with minimal resources, in an era when international borders were shut off in terms of importing equipment, and a consumer market that was non-existent. It was an era of telex machines, 286 computers, and faxes were the next big thing (if you had the joy of having international dialing on your landline!).

Then, in the late 1990s, everything changed. India’s economy liberalized, and travel magazines and the internet brought in images of meadows, high passes and camping outdoors. The romance of adventure travel in the Himalaya began to stream into ordinary homes across India via slow-loading HTML pages. With the opening of the Indian economy, this adventure industry began to canter, as our large population of motivated young people began to receive salaries that allowed for a reasonable, if not substantial, disposable income.

Roopkund trail, 2017. Note the number of toilet tents – the smaller, narrow tents in the corners of the image – vs. the number of regular tents.

Then came the big revolution. Multinationals, software companies, startups, IPOs, online shopping and e-commerce… and the true gallop! A new breed of outdoor companies began to be created, and to flourish. With no regulatory barriers to entry, no checks and balances, individuals with no background in the adventure space began launching adventure travel companies. All one needed, all one needs even today from the Government of India to run an adventure outfit in the country, is a certificate of incorporation from the Registrar of Companies, Ministry of Corporate Affairs. That’s it. By law, there is no requirement for permits, no experience, no certifications, no insurance.

So, a couple tents and a website, and anyone or everyone who wants to join the galloping adventure tourism bandwagon, may do so. These new companies, more software savvy and outdoors unaware, began to change the game. Throw in a few exhausted ex-corporate executives, and you had a few more people of means who joined the industry. A real churn began from 2008-10 onwards.

With no ethical understanding of ‘Leave No Trace’ principles, and scant overall outdoor experience, first-time trekkers began to tramp trails high and low.

All of a sudden, internet videos and WordPress blogs posts began to surface spouting tall online claims of “pioneering” and “reinventing trekking in India”. As the large Indian market began to move towards the mountains, these new, online-savvy companies hurtled first-time customers into fragile environments which were completely unprepared for the numbers. The lack of experience and expertise of the organisers also showed. Back to back trekking groups marching into high Himalayan valleys and passes that had perhaps seen only a few dozens human beings a year in throughout history, arrived in conveyor-belt operations. With no ethical understanding of ‘Leave No Trace’ principles, and scant overall outdoor experience, first-time trekkers began to tramp trails high and low. Pushed forward by companies that touted a series of FULL departures – but wait – there’s always room for more! In an unregulated legal environment, more and more mass players started a price war, mixed into this deadly cocktail, the unaware customer. The Indian adventure travel industry is speeding towards an ecosystem of operators and clients least invested in keeping the unique value of the Indian outdoors alive. Value-based pricing has been cast aside. Deceptive, discounted pricing models settle in. All that matters is getting a piece of this giant pie –  a business lesson from the great corporate e-commerce game!

Roopkund trail, 2017

The result? Mass human movement into once-pristine ecological zones. More bums on non-existent toilet seats, more human waste in Himalayan meadows, and more feet repeatedly churning up fragile trails. Illegal fixed camps in Reserved Forests zones and even National Parks (so that these companies could save repeated ferries of supplies and equipment, and thus additional porterage forest fee/charges). Poor guest to guide ratios. A 20-something ‘English-speaking’ guide with little outdoor experience herding groups of 25-30 trekkers (sometimes more) up trails from camp to camp. Campsites getting degraded with these massive numbers, and an unacceptably low ratio of toilet tents to human beings, disincentivizing their clients to use them, and then the outdoors is littered with toilet paper and human feces. (Some campsites like the Stok Kangri base camp and high altitude Roopkund lake) are still bear witness to this ignominy.

Roopkund trail, 2017

The overall economic benefit of this activity is minuscule compared to the damage caused. But what’s worse, fatal accidents began to happen. Inexperienced guides who did not recognize dehydration, exhaustion or onset of Acute Mountain Sickness. Besides a lack of experience, there simply weren’t even enough to monitor the crowds they were expected to handle in the high mountains! And to no surprise, with this came deaths. Due to a simple lack of knowledge, basic leadership and mountain experience, and guide-client monitoring. So many unreported deaths have occurred in the last four years, that it is unbelievable that no steps had been taken to mitigate the risk – and only spoken of now, after trekking has been banned in Uttarakhand.

Some examples of how deaths have been covered.

What will come of it? With this ban, these companies may spread this model to different parts of the Himalaya, or elsewhere in India. Whatever actions are taken, whatever regulations enacted and hopefully enforced, have to be national. This is our national heritage, and its preservation and access must be the responsibility of all users. Every week that passes is another week lost.

So what can we do? Access control is the need of the hour. Registered companies and guides are a must. No operation = No access must be implemented. The privilege of being in the outdoors must come with a price to pay for its upkeep. The sheer number of trekkers and overall human activity must be limited, to avoid an utter destruction of our natural resources.

Roopkund trail, 2017

It really is quite simple. Creating an adventure travel company and a business that takes people outdoors, is not the same as starting a multi-national corporation. It is more about getting back to the basics, about living well, living in tune with nature, and preserving our natural environment and national heritage. That is how it was always supposed to be done. Keep it safe, keep it small, keep it sustainable!

The Adventure Tour Operators Association of India (ATOAI) Risk Mitigation Committee is leading a charge in September to recommend changes at a national level, to better preserve India’s outdoor heritage. We spoke to the Committee Chairman, Vaibhav Kala, whose views are printed above. The author’s opinions are his or her own, and do not necessarily reflect The Outdoor Journal’s views or reporting. The Outdoor Journal supports better practices in wilderness conservation through outdoor recreation.  

As this article is listed under our Op-Ed category, this piece is an *opinion*. As is usual across media, the author’s opinions are his or her own, and do not necessarily reflect  The Outdoor Journal’s views or reporting.

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Op-Ed

Jun 04, 2019

Healing after Howse: How does the climbing world cope with the triple tragedy?

In April, three prominent young alpinists perished in an avalanche on Canada’s Howse Peak. Their deaths prompt another reckoning with mountaineering’s timeless question: is it worth it?

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WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

The physical aftermath of tragedy is procedural. On April 21st, a Parks Canada rescue team located and recovered the bodies of climbers Jess Roskelley, Hansjörg Auer, and David Lama four days after they were reported overdue from an attempt at Banff’s Howse Peak via the technical M16 route. According to the official avalanche report, none of the men were wearing transceivers; use of these devices can greatly expedite recovery operations. In the absence of transceivers, a trained avalanche dog scoured the frozen debris. Roskelley’s phone was salvaged and in the camera roll, a selfie of the climbers, wide grins frozen on fatigued faces, suggests that the trio reached Howse’s summit. Social media the world over shook with an outpouring of sympathy and support.

Read next: Jess Roskelley, David Lama and Hansjörg Auer: How the World Reacted.

Avalanche debris on Howse Peak. Image via Parks Canada.

The emotional aftermath of tragedy is less straightforward. Inevitably, many critiqued the sport of mountaineering and its legacy of tragic accidents. Is it ethical to risk death in pursuit of a snow-capped summit? Why do climbers seek out high-consequence routes? Are elite mountaineers doing wrong by the spouses, children, parents, and friends who await their safe return?

Is it ethical to risk death in pursuit of a snow-capped summit?

Last year, the hit documentary Free Solo thrust these questions, normally the domain of the climbing subculture, into the mainstream as Alex Honnold’s unroped climbs astonished millions of viewers. In the wake of the deaths of Roskelley, Lama, and Auer (aged 36, 28, and 35 respectively), the climbing community once again confronts the unforgiving nature and fatal consequences of their craft.

David Lama in basecamp of Lunag Ri on October 19, 2018. Photo via Red Bull Content Pool.

As generations of mountaineers will attest, the riskiness of a route is part of its allure. Climber Steve House, part of a trio who notched the first ascent of Howse’s M16 route in 1999, wrote the below on Instagram;

 

View this post on Instagram

 

This mountain, Howse Peak is among the most powerful mountains I’ve ever known. She changed many lives this week; in tragic ways. I lost three friends, three brothers. That is the least of it, I’m sure. I knew all three, but I knew @hansjoergauer best of all. He was a both a friend and a God to me. The greatest confusion for me personally in this moment is the role of the route M16. A route I climbed over five days, now so vividly remembered, over 20 years ago. That climb took myself and Scott Backes and Barry Blanchard to the limits of skill, power, judgement, and yes—luck. It challenged our very life-force and we nearly lost. I climbed one of the most difficult and dangerous pitches of my life. Barry was very nearly killed by collapsing snow. Scott held us together as a team far more powerful than it’s parts, then, and forever after. And now that power we knew, has killed. I wish I had words to help the mournful understand who this mountain is. What climbing Howse Peak’s precipitous East Face means. It is simply this: The truest testing place of the most powerful men on their very best days. An arena for those rare and mighty, honed, long-practiced men that are challenged by nothing less than to be locked in struggle to the death with one of the mightiest powers on earth. These men were warriors, Knights, dragon killers seeking fleeting, hot-forged perfection through the dangerous path of alpinism, the creative physical expression of power over the most high, inhospitable, inhuman terrain on earth. To be honest I’m a little afraid to put this out there like that now, in 2019. Seems somewhat out of step with where we are as a society. But damn it, it’s the truth. These were great men. The true 01%. This is something each of them proved with actions over and over again. These men were immeasurable. They were not men, but Gods living among us. And now they’re back with their God. And we are less. Our loss immeasurable. It is with the deepest respect and the biggest ❤️ and wet streams of tears that I, that we, begin to adjust to life among mere mortals, a poorer life, and we begin to say goodbye.

A post shared by Steve House (@stevehouse10) on

House cites a feeling afforded by high-consequence climbing that supersedes normal parameters of reality. It transports the climber to the extremities of human experience.

In an article published in The New York Times following the tragedy, Rock and Ice Magazine editor Francis Sanzaro offered a different perspective:

“I can tell you that standing on a dime-size foothold with no rope, with your fingertips on a sloping edge, in a remote part of the mountains where one mistake means instant death, in no way translates to a heightened experience…If you need to go to the ends of the earth and the edge of your mortality to find some mystical je ne sais quoi, then you need to rethink your strategy. I climb because I love it. So did David, Jess and Hansjörg.”

David Lama scouting Lunag Ri in 2018. Photo via Red Bull Content Pool.

Sanzaro rebukes the “mystical je ne sais quoi” House describes. The rhetoric of the two seasoned mountaineers is at odds; House glorifies the dance with danger, while Sanzaro suggests that risk is overrated. 

Banff-based author Bernadette McDonald is an expert on the psyche of cutting-edge climbers, and she notes the role of luck in even the most seasoned alpinist’s climbs. “If you talk to an alpine climber with a long history in the mountains, it’s extremely rare to find someone who hasn’t had close calls,” she says. “Almost all alpine climbers, if they’re honest, have to give credit to luck at some point.” McDonald believes the climbing community is aware of the risks but was unprepared to lose three luminaries on a peak in the Canadian Rockies. “I think that many people assumed that climbers this skilled and talented could climb their way out of any situation—they climb so quickly, make such informed decisions, etc.—but the objective hazard is simply that. And the East Face of Howse Peak has a reputation that has to be respected,” she says.

Photo (from left to right) of Rosskelley, Auer, and Lama on the summit of Howse Peak, recovered from Roskelley’s cell phone.

Lama, Hansjörg, and Roskelley presumably understood the risks. Perhaps they welcomed them with fervour, as House describes, or with acceptance, as Sanzaro contends. Does that make them selfish? According to McDonald, it does. “Of course climbers are selfish,” she opines. “The most honest among them freely admit it. Top-level climbing performances can inspire us, motivate us and capture our imaginations, but fundamentally, they are not done for the benefit of others.”

“Of course climbers are selfish. The most honest among them freely admit it.”

It’s difficult to measure the overall riskiness of mountaineering, but researchers at the University of Washington studied the fatality rate of climbers on Mt. Everest, a classic mountaineering objective. Based on data from 2,211 Everest climbers from 1990 through 2005, they found that climbers have a 1.5% probability of dying on the mountain. While this figure does not differentiate by ability or experience (i.e. elite vs. amateur) or route difficulty, it offers a crude baseline of the peril of mountaineering. By comparison, in 2017 Americans had a .97% chance of dying from an automobile accident and 0.88% chance of dying from an accidental fall. It would not be far-fetched to claim that professional mountaineers have a similar chance of perishing in a car crash en route to a trailhead as climbing a difficult objective. And it would be ludicrous to denounce every commuter for having the nerve to set foot in an automobile.

The Himalayas are mountaineering’s grandest venue. Photo by Yulia Grigoryants via Creative Commons.

Part of our collective anguish over the triple tragedy has to do with our perceptions of risk. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert is an expert in risk bias and he contends that we overreact to immediate threats and downplay perils that are perceived as “routine”, like car crashes. Additionally, we overreact to dangers that implicate our morals. These factors may account for our perception of mountaineering as an extremely dangerous and potentially foolhardy enterprise. News of three competent athletes brought down by an uncontrollable avalanche is unnerving in a way that car crash statistics will never be. The charismatic nature of a summit push is spectacular, and by extension, the effort gone awry is spectacularly tragic. In mountaineering, we see an expression of a popular moral archetype—the human protagonist doing battle with fierce nature—and thus we may accuse the sport and its participants of ethical impoverishment when those human protagonists perish. But in the end, we cannot fully comprehend, must less control, the decisions made by individuals. As McDonald suggests, “Some [climbers] have a higher risk tolerance than others, but all climbers need to take those risks—manage them, live with them.” Tragedies will always accompany mountaineering, and we must manage and live with them.

 

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