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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

Sep 05, 2019

Everest, The Earthquake, my Husband Norbu Sherpa and Me.

Between waiting her turn for the rescue chopper and summiting in silence one year later, Andrea Sherpa-Zimmermann relies on her husband, a native Sherpa, as her guide on Everest.

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It is 3:45 in the morning, May 21, 2016: a date that will remain in my mind forever.

I am standing on the “top of the world” at 8,848 meters (29,028 ft) with my husband, Norbu Sherpa. We are alone in the full moon: Norbu, me and the Goddess Chomolungma. The stars are lighting up a pure sky. The atmosphere is simply magical. One-and-a-half hours in the silence of the mountain on the top of Mount Everest.

Read next: Exclusive Interview with Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa, of The Ultimate Descent

A stunning sunrise brings us back to reality. Some climbers have started to arrive. We begin our descent with calm and serenity. Each step is controlled and assured. We are in full command of our emotions and abilities. A single step off the path would mean a no-return plummet down a vertical of several thousand meters. Twenty-three hours after our start at 8,300 meters (the last Camp) via the summit, we are back at the Advance Base Camp on the Northside with our heavy loads. A dream had come true.

This personal project – summiting Everest – was supposed to have happened one year earlier. But in 2015, on our way to Everest Base Camp in Tibet, we found ourselves suddenly in a disastrous shadow. Like in a movie, people were screaming, crying, running in all directions. Huge rocks were falling from everywhere and the earth was shaking. Once, twice and then more frequently. We were trapped in a narrow valley with the rocks threatening above our heads. We were lucky to secure ourselves. Many other people are no longer here today to testify to that horrific moment. In the end, we were trapped for four days in the valley: four days of waiting, hoping and agonizing with several hundred other people. Standing, sitting and sleeping in the middle of terraced fields. Hour after hour after hour. Disconnected from the rest of the world. With no material and no food except for the items that people had on them when running for their lives from their house or car.

Like in a nightmare, we were unable to provide any help other than what was possible to do with basically nothing. The dream that I had seriously prepared and trained for during so many months was still in the back of my mind. The days were passing with no updates. We had no idea what was going on. All we knew was that all of the roads were blocked by heavy landslides. Repeat aftershocks compelled us not to take any risks. We were, in fact, supposed to be at Base Camp, above 5,000 meters. But every aftershock reminded us that, in reality, we were just two kilometers away from the epicenter of the tragic earthquake, registering 7.8 on the Richter scale, that dramatically affected Nepal on that day, 25 April 2015…

“A terrible spectacle.”

After four days, we heard the sound of the first helicopter. People jumped up from every side and ran in the direction of the small helipad that was prepared with the help of all of us during those last days. But the pilot could not land. The helipad was too small for his helicopter. The disappointment was legible on our faces. We were worried not only about all the injured people who were just waiting to get rescued but also for one woman who gave birth in the middle of the night in terrible hygiene conditions. A few hours later, a smaller helicopter arrived. The pilot managed to land but had to turn off his machine. Some people were so willing to get out of this trap that they tried, by all means, to get a place inside the helicopter… a terrible spectacle. In the end, the injured people could luckily be rescued back to Kathmandu. Then it was our turn, tourists as we were.

A unique picture that you need to be ready for. Descending from Everest, you can see the shadow of Everest reflecting on the mountains of Nepal. This only lasts a few minutes. So it’s thanks to my husband, who knew about this and told me to just wait.

Finally, we were rescued by helicopter from this disastrous valley. At that moment, our initial expectation of reaching the summit was merely a slight memory. Flying back to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, we could see what it would mean to be in a war-torn country. Everything was destroyed. In the meantime, the image of a couple sitting in the ruins of their kitchen in what used to be their home, making fire out of their house’s destroyed wooden beams, and feeding us two small bowls of rice per day that they cooked on their stove, was stuck in our minds. We could not simply go back home to Switzerland. We decided to stay in Kathmandu and help support earthquake victims however we could. Forty-five days later, thanks to the numerous donations on account of our small charity organisation The Butterfly Help Project, we had distributed more than 31 tons of food supplies, rebuilt three provisional school buildings for more than 500 children and brought clothing to several remote villages. Everest was not a topic anymore. The Mountain was still there, of course, but going to these remote villages where the villagers had lost everything was another new and difficult challenge.

Find out more about The Butterfly Help Project

“I have to be here. This is my job”

However, when something is in your heart, it is impossible to forget so easily. Everest. Simply to hear the word illuminates my eyes. Everest is known as the Goddess of Giving to the Sherpa climbing community. My husband is always so thankful for all that she has given them. Every year, the climbing Sherpas, who are part of the ethnic Sherpa people, put their lives in danger to bring us other climbers to the top of the World just to fulfill a personal and selfish dream. And every year, they go back to work, to risk it all again, because they have to support their families. Once one knows that the income from a two-month Everest expedition can support a family for almost one year, compared to the average Nepalese salary, there is no doubt. They have to go. Again and again. In 2015, shortly before our Tibetan expedition, we went to Everest Base Camp on the Nepali side for an acclimatization trip. It was one year after seracs on the western spur of Mount Everest had collapsed, resulting in an ice avalanche that killed sixteen climbing Sherpas on the Khumbu Icefall. They were carrying loads to Camp I & II. At Base Camp, we encountered one of our good Sherpa friends, Mingma Sherpa. He is married and has four children, the youngest of whom had just been born at that time. I asked him why he was there, after surviving what happened last year, when he had children and a wife waiting for him at home. Was he not scared? With a generous smile on his face, he simply answered “I have to be here. This is my job.”

Andrea and her husband following their successful ascent of Everest.

And that is how it is. The Sherpa families at home are consumed with worry. The Sherpa community sticks strongly together, encouraging one another. They know that it is one of the hardest jobs on earth. They are handling heavy loads in the scientifically speaking, famous “death zone” (above 7,500 meters (24,606 ft)) in order to survive the rest of the year. They cannot complain, otherwise they might not be hired for the job the next year. They have to be strong even if it hurts. The clients have paid, and so the Sherpas have to bring them to the top and back to Base Camp. At least, this is what has happened since the first expedition in history. But we have to keep in mind: it is thanks to them that we can experience such an amazing and great adventure! They are simply “the true heroes of Mount Everest!” As an Everest Summiteer, Sherpas cannot be thanked enough for their hard work, dedication, and humility.

In 2016, when I had decided to listen to my heart again, my motivation had increased tenfold. I was already training the whole year, not only participating in ski mountaineering competitions but also ultra-trail races. For many years, I have competed at a high level and I would consider my fitness level to be good. But I knew from my previous expeditions at 8,000 meters (26,246 ft) that going for these kinds of altitudes is another story. You have to be in perfect shape, not only for yourself but because you depend mainly on others – the Sherpas. For several weeks, you must live in a zone where no human being can survive for long.

To climb Mount Everest, you must thus not only be completely fit, but you must have experience about how your metabolism reacts at such heights. You must be technically independent so that you can react quickly and without a doubt at some tricky passages. You must have good knowledge of how oxygen and mask regulators work. You should also be able to calculate your oxygen according to the hours it might take you for the climb. You cannot just say “I want to fulfil a dream to put on my resume, and anyway I am paying enough money for this challenge.” No! Indeed, we are speaking about a challenge. A Challenge with a capital “C”. A Challenge in the death zone, where every decision is either yes or no, live or die. There can be no hesitation. And the Sherpas are not employees. We talk about a team. A team that must work together in the highest zone of our planet.

When you are sitting at 7,000 meters (22,965 ft) in the dining tent of the climbing Sherpa Team, sharing a tea with them, getting inspired by their positive energy, it is just a fantastic feeling. For some, it was the first time on Everest, as it was for myself. For others, it is like attending the same race, year after year. There is a mixture of respect and excitement around being upon this mountain again. It is the home of the Goddess Chomolungma, no climbing Sherpa will start such an expedition without the traditional Puja – a Buddhist ceremony in which the Sherpa will thank the mountain for letting them pass and come back safely. However, it is also a way in which to apologise for the tracks made on her. To observe them, preparing the tea, setting up the tents, discussing the next days, was as if I was sitting in a tea-room somewhere in a mountain resort, they almost seem to be in communion with the mountain. Some are young, some are older. Whilst they all share the same aim, they also share the same pain. But no one shows it. Their movements are fluid and natural – You might almost forget that you are so high in the altitude… But what is the hard truth?

“The chance to fulfill my dream”

Without discussing the numerous Sherpas who have lost their lives, dedicated to some unprepared and inexperienced clients, how many Sherpas have lost their jobs because of frostbite? Because of not having the financial resources to pay their medical care? Lost the use of or the entirety of their fingers, toes, etc.? Once back home, no one is taking care of them anymore.

I had the chance to fulfill my dream, with my husband by my side. I trained especially hard in order to ensure that we could achieve this goal. Not only to make it to the top, but to make it safely back to Base Camp, and to also recover properly after such an achievement. But one of my main thoughts, my top priorities while preparing for this adventure was not to endanger my husband, who has been on Everest expeditions more than 9 times, due to my lack of physical or technical preparation.

On May 21, 2016, we reached the summit with no overcrowded route (the infamous “traffic jams”), and we took no uncontrolled risks. It was simply a perfect combination of appropriate preparation and years of experience. How does this get achieved? My husband has been for more than a decade the “Sirdar” (i.e. the Head of the climbing Sherpas), leading large-scale expeditions on the highest summits on Earth. He himself has stood seven times on Mount Everest and more than 14 times on other 8,000 meter peaks. Based on his long-term knowledge and skill, he knew exactly which decision to make at which time. Along with his expertise, my fitness level, training, and mental preparation allowed me to experience the highest of the Himalaya summits with him, to see for myself the glorious sunrise on the Goddess Chomolungma, to achieve the holiest of Challenges.

Andrea at Everest Base Camp

Andrea Sherpa-Zimmermann is a co-founder of the trekking and expedition agency Wild Yak Expeditions, and President of the non-governmental charity organization The Butterfly Help Project”.

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