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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

Nov 22, 2018

“Today, I’m Thankful For…” the Privilege to Suffer

On Thanksgiving, we ask: what allows us to have the experience of trail-running or mountain-climbing in the first place? The luxuries of time and money not spent on survival.

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WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

As adventure athletes and outdoor enthusiasts, we are intimately familiar with pain. It’s something that many of us choose to live with, and we take it for granted. On Thanksgiving, it’s important to be self aware of this luxury that we are free to enjoy: our own privilege to suffer.

Pain is the fraternal glue that bonds the collective outdoor community together. The elite ultra-marathoner, avid runner, and casual jogger are bound by common experience to the credos of discomfort. It is tacit law that burning quads, blisters, and mind-numbing exhaustion are the domain of the dedicated.

We’re hardwired to minimize effort, right?

We ascend vertically in spite of gravity’s protestations. The mountain biker knows the acute sting of scraped skin or worse following a toss from the saddle. The alpinist has taken whippers, the kayaker endured pounding white water, the backpacker dense mosquito swarms. We do all of it and more for the sake of well-being, pleasure, and connection to the wild places in which we recreate. Be it bicycling or surfing, camping or climbing, skiing or swimming, all outdoor recreation involves a challenge.

We idolize those members of our species who appear to have achieved a transcendent level of pain tolerance. They are the men and women who grace the covers of our adventure magazines. They eat pain for breakfast, run 30 miles, then power-nap while doing pinky push-ups. They are the ultra-marathoners who crunch thousands of vertical feet; the cyclists who pump up and down hills with uninterrupted cadence; the mountaineers who ascend Himalayan peaks in sub-zero temperatures. Their feats are astounding and require an implausible amount of pain and fear management. By all analysis of human behavior—we’re hardwired to minimize effort, right? —performing activities to maximize discomfort seems masochistic. Their successes are incumbent on short-term suffering. But in our fetishization of such successes, we’ve fetishized the suffering.

All too often we neglect in the heroism of our adventure athlete idols and our own Strava-worthy accomplishments the privilege inherent in this form of suffering. Just as the First Thanksgiving wasn’t quite a genial gathering of Pilgrims and Native Americans over turkey and potatoes, our “suffer-fest” celebration necessitates an asterisk. What allows one to have the experience of trail-running or mountain-climbing in the first place? The premium luxuries of time and money.

A decent Ironman bike costs as much as the per capita GDP of a middle-income country.

Statistics compiled by the US Outdoor Industry Organization show that an unsurprising 74% of American outdoor recreators are Caucasian. A sizable 31% of this demographic has a household income of over $100,000 annually, which represents the top 10% of all Americans. In keeping with other measurables (education, housing, employment), outdoor recreation is inequitable. The barriers to entry can be a pair of running shoes or a pricy backcountry skiing setup and a slew of climbing gear. The cost of a decent Ironman bike is as much as the per capita GDP of a reasonably wealthy middle-income country, like Montenegro or Malaysia”. As the result of socioeconomic status, we can spend our free time suffering by choice.

There is another form of suffering, and it is not by choice. An inexcusable portion of the world, due to geographic location or political circumstance, deals with violence, oppression, and illness. For the 43 million Americans receiving federally subsidized food stamps, daily sustenance takes precedence over optimal performance powders and sports gels. For the half million homeless, exposure to the elements is not a rugged escape from urban monotony but an unabating reality. This kind of suffering is not a choice afforded by privilege but allotted due to lack thereof. We can push into a place of deep pain on a punishing climb, but that suffering ends the second we return, wobbly-kneed and woozy, to our cars at the trailhead.

Most of us are aware of such suffering; many of us have lived it or are living it. We can be proud of our athletic achievements, especially in an age where we can shop for groceries from the couch. However, amid the hubbub of fitness fanaticism and athletic adulation, we must remind ourselves of the relatively rare privilege to choose to be hungry, endure physical pain, and put ourselves in harm’s way deliberately and enthusiastically.

A garage full of outdoor toys does not exempt one from the inevitable experiences of pain and suffering. But come tomorrow morning, when we hop on our mountain bikes to do penance for that extra slice of pumpkin pie, let us give thanks for the privilege to recreate and the privilege to suffer.

Want to do more than give thanks? Consider supporting some of our favourite charities: Sierra Club, ATCF, Rewilding Britain / Rewilding Europe, First Descents and Orangutan Foundation

Cover photo by Khamkhor on Unsplash

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