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Earth

Jul 16, 2018

Running the High Road: The Advent of Distance Running in Ladakh

Very few places on Earth can produce athletes with the physical capacity of Ladakhis.

WRITTEN BY

Siddharth Seshan

Coupled with great ambition, they hold unrivalled potential. There is something brewing in the North of India.

Sidharth Singh is a documentary filmmaker and sports broadcaster. This article compliments Sidharth’s film about Ladakhi athletes, which you can find at the bottom of this article. 

I was in the broadcast control room at the Mumbai Marathon in January 2017, overseeing the full technical rehearsal, when I noticed the South African graphics operators struggling with two names on the Indian Women’s Top 10 list. The names didn’t sound Indian, they said, and were sure there had been a mistake. I looked at the list and couldn’t contain my smile. Though the names were Tibetan in origin, they belonged to two young Indian athletes from Ladakh, Jigmet Dolma and Tseten Dolkar. I had been waiting for this day since 2014 when Nepalese ultrarunner Mira Rai burst onto the international skyrunning scene and I knew that it was just a matter of time before the mountain folk of India would do the same. The Ladakhis announced their arrival on the distance running stage with Jigmet securing a podium finish in Mumbai last year.

Jigmet is second from the right. Picture courtesy of Ladakh marathon archives

The youngest of three daughters born to Tsering Dolma, a subsistence farmer from Igoo village near Leh, Jigmet showed signs of athletic brilliance from a young age. When she wasn’t helping her parents in the fields or selling vegetables in the market, she took part in school athletics competitions, winning most of them. In 2012, she got an opportunity to run a half marathon for the first time, at the inaugural edition of the Ladakh Marathon, a landmark event in Ladakh’s sporting history. Subsequently, the promoters of the event, Rimo Expeditions, began taking the top Ladakhi runners down to Delhi and Mumbai to participate in other marathons and get professional training. By 2017, Jigmet had secured podium finishes at marathons across the country and stacked up career earnings of more than five lakh rupees, a huge amount for the daughter of a poor farmer, who used to get laughed at for running around aimlessly. When she returned to Leh from Mumbai last year, all her family and friends came to receive her at the airport. She shares half her winnings with her family and even helped her older sisters set up a roadside restaurant in Karu, on the Leh Manali highway. This is a small example of how the power of sport could be harnessed for social transformation among remote mountain communities.

Picture courtesy of Ladakh marathon archives

The founder of Ladakh Marathon, Chewang Motup Goba, is an unassuming gamechanger. An experienced mountaineer himself, Motup is a man who has always dreamed big. In 1983, at the age of 18, he attempted a solo ascent of Everest along the sidelines of an IMF expedition. Though he didn’t make it to the summit, this audacious attempt was representative of the die hard spirit of the Ladakhis. By the turn of the century however, all that Motup saw among the youth of Ladakh was a spirit of rebellion and decadence. This was most evident in the long winter months, when the region remains cut off from the rest of the world. Youngsters had taken to smoking, gambling, playing snooker and largely spending their time indoors in dingy spaces. The only outdoor sporting activity available during the brutal Trans-Himalayan winter was a primitive form of ice hockey that the locals played on frozen lakes, wearing old cricket pads. Through a friend in Canada, Motup contacted the National Hockey League Players Association, a body that promotes ice hockey around the world. The NHLPA sent 50 professional ice hockey kits to Ladakh and triggered the now famous Ladakh ice hockey story. Motup says, “My idea in life is that if someone is good at sports, he can survive in any condition. Most of our youth are not exposed to good education and cannot compete with people from other parts of the country, but being born at this altitude, with our god gifted big lungs and hearts, we have a natural potential to be good at endurance sports.”

Picture courtesy of Ladakh marathon archives

In August 2010, Ladakh was devastated by a flash flood that caused unprecedented damage to life, property and public morale. To inspire the youth and send a strong message to the world that Ladakh was up and running after the disaster, Motup decided to start the Ladakh Marathon and Khardung La Challenge Ultra. The idea of organising an international running event in Ladakh however, had been brewing in Motup’s mind for a long time.

In 1987, the Sports Authority of India launched a programme called the Special Area Games to scout for talent among remote tribal, rural and coastal communities for achieving excellence in sports. Rigzen Angmo, then a teenager from Skarbuchan village, was picked up under this scheme to run middle and long distance races. By the mid 90’s Angmo had won the Rath Marathon in Delhi and continued securing podium finishes across Asia with victories in Bangkok, Kuala Lampur and Kathmandu. She was counted among the top female marathon athletes in India at the time. Angmo’s misfortune was being a Ladakhi athlete in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Kashmiri dominated state sports federation never selected her to run for the state team and therefore she never had the opportunity to represent India at international events like the Olympics. When the Special Area Games were scrapped, Angmo was lucky to find herself a job with the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) where she currently serves as a Lieutenant Colonel. The irony is that while Rigzen Angmo’s athletic celebrity vanished into oblivion, it was her sporting talent that eventually provided her a livelihood.

This was the precedent Motup had in mind when he instituted the Ladakh Marathon. He knew that in order for Ladakhis to cut through the red tape of India’s sports federations, he had to put systems in place that would ensure that talent like Angmo didn’t fade into obscurity. Which is why he made the effort to engage Hugh Jones, Secretary of the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races (AIMS) to personally measure and certify the courses for both the marathon and the ultra. In doing so, Motup became one of the few private promoters in India to get an AIMS certification for his event. The certification brings the race into the fold of the timing-based system of qualification to run international marathons. Future athletes from Ladakh will thus be able to bypass the selection politics of sports federations to some extent.

Picture courtesy of Ladakh marathon archives

The icing on the cake is that both the Ladakh Marathon (3500m) and Khardung La Challenge Ultra (5370m), are currently the highest altitude AIMS certified distance races on earth, making them very attractive for international runners. The 2017 edition saw a participation of 6000 people from more than 35 countries, across 4 race categories. The Khardung La Challenge was capped at 150 participants and had 78 finishers, a big jump from the previous year. The gruelling 72k race across the world’s highest, all-weather vehicle accessible pass, has so far been dominated by young Ladakhi athletes from the Ladakh Scouts, a decorated infantry regiment of the Indian Army that specialises in high altitude mountain warfare.

In 2017, Shabbir Hussain of the Scouts broke his own course record finishing the 72k race in 6 hours and 23 minutes. Hussain and his compatriots Rigzen Norbu, Tsering Stobgais and Tsewang Tokdan have won all the previous editions among them. Most had never heard of an ultramarathon before they ran the Khardung La Challenge, happening in their own backyard. The marathon has become a successful recruiting ground for the Ladakh Scouts who have enlisted a number of local athletes in the recent past, based on their performance at the event. This prospect of job security has helped the event gain popularity within the Ladakhi community, that has now begun supporting the idea of sport as a means to livelihood. Seeing the potential of their athletes at high altitude ultras, the Scouts are now taking a keen interest in training them to compete internationally. And the best place for them to do so, is another world-class high altitude race that happens in Ladakh. One that has developed a cult following as ‘the cruellest foot race on earth’, known simply as La Ultra – The High.

Founded by the maverick Dr. Rajat Chauhan, who calls himself a ‘student of pain and running’, La Ultra is the holy grail of skyrunning in the Indian Himalayas. Writing for the Mint newspaper in August 2017, Dr. Chauhan says, “The flagship category at La Ultra is 333km that has to be covered in 72 hours, then there is 222km and 111km to be covered in 48 and 20 hours, respectively. As much as people get carried away by these numbers, it’s not the distance that is the deal here. It’s the conditions—altitude, the extreme temperature variations and weather—that participants are expected to run in. At the highest points, the oxygen level is as low as 60% of what we breathe at the plains. The temperatures can vary from 40°C to -10°C within a matter of hours. There could be a snowstorm followed by a dust storm. In this run, you can have frost-bite while having a heat-stroke.”

Picture courtesy of Ladakh marathon archives

Started in 2010, La Ultra was largely perceived as a race for international runners with people from 22 countries having run so far. But the 8th edition in 2017, signalled a turning point when it saw a major increase in participation among Indians, with close to 35 of them running across the 3 categories. It came as no surprise then to see the same boys from Ladakh Scouts, Stobgais, Norbu and Hussain smash the course record in the 111k category by more than 2 hours. The Ladakhis have begun taking control of their turf. With the right training and infrastructure in place, these athletes have the potential to do extremely well on the international skyrunning circuit.

Empirical evidence of this long held theory arrived in February 2018 when Dr. Aashish Contractor, Head of Department Rehab Medicine and Sports Medicene at Sir H. N. Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre, Mumbai, conducted some tests on Ladakhi athletes. In a Facebook post he wrote, “Tested the VO2 Max of talented runners from Ladakh. Happy to report that they have world class values of more than 70 ml/kg/min of oxygen carrying capacity. This is the gold standard marker of their cardiorespiratory capacity, an indicator of success at endurance events like the marathon. With the right training and support these runners should make us proud at international sporting events. And who knows, maybe this will unlock a pool of talent, just as was done in East Africa (Kenya and Ethiopia), a few decades ago.”

Savio D’Souza, a former national marathon champion and popular running coach in Mumbai, has taken some of these Ladakhi athletes under his wing. He believes they have the right combination of ambition, discipline and physical capacity to make it to the top. He says, “The Sports Authority of India talks of working at the grassroots, well, this is where the grassroots is, in places like Ladakh. They need to take charge of these athletes and train them professionally.”

The Indian authorities need not look far for further evidence of Ladakhi potential. A glance across the Himalayas into China would be an eye opener. In 2017, the breakout stars at the 13th National Games held in Tanjin, in north east China were Topgyal, a marathon runner who represented China at Rio 2016; and Cheoying Kyi, a race walk silver medalist from London 2012. Both of them are of Tibetan origin and come from the same genetic stock as the Ladakhis. As usual, the Chinese are ahead of the game. Even the Nepalese have managed to identify and tap into the tremendous endurance potential of their mountain communities and fielded a men’s and women’s team at the Trail World Championships in May 2018. With two world-class distance running events taking place annually in Ladakh, a symbiotic feeder system, from a common talent pool could be created and nurtured to perform on the international stage. This requires participation from all stakeholders within sports federations, the government, the private sector and most importantly, the people of Ladakh themselves.

Running The High Road from Harvest Pictures on Vimeo.

Sidharth Singh is a documentary filmmaker and sports broadcaster. He runs Harvest Pictures, a film production house based in Mumbai.

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Events

Jan 29, 2019

What is the Future of Adventure Travel in India?

The Adventure Tour Operators Association of India (ATOAI) recently held its 14th annual convention in a remote valley in (south) eastern India, we were there to listen and learn.

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WRITTEN BY

Supriya Vohra

ATOAI is a representative body of adventure tour operators of India. It acts as a mediator between the government and tour operators, recommending the government on best practices for conducting adventure tourism in the country. In September last year, it led a risk mitigation committee to suggest changes to preserve India’s outdoor heritage in a better way. It also published a handbook of guideline on best practices for adventure tour operators to follow.

The ATOAI event was held in Araku Valley, situated in the Eastern Ghats of India, in Andhra Pradesh, is known for its deep forests, ancient caves, coffee beans and most recently, hot air balloons. The region held its first ballooning festival, coinciding with the convention.

The Outdoor Journal attended some heated panel discussions during the convention and spoke to a number of established tour operators. Here is what we gleaned;

Adventure Travel is Gaining Prominence in India

“Adventure tourism is $0.5 trillion, and it is growing at a rate of 18% per year.”

In a presentation during the convention, Ashish Gupta, consulting CEO of Federation of Associations in Indian Tourism and Hospitality (FAITH) explained that the travel industry today is a $3 trillion direct business globally. That makes it one-tenth of the world economy. That also makes it bigger than the agricultural and manufacturing industries. “Out of this,” he said, “adventure tourism is $0.5 trillion, and it is growing at a rate of 18% per year.” The 2017 reports from ATTA suggest a growing trend as well.

In India, the adventure travel industry is gaining prominence. The ministry of tourism declared 2018 as the “year of adventure”. Adventure Travel and Trade Association (ATTA), a global body of adventure tour operators brought their annual AdventureNext event to India for the first time last December. The upcoming Pacific Asia Travel Association event in Uttarakhand in February has “adventure” as its theme. Needless to say, government bodies of the country are recognising the industry’s potential.

However, ironically enough, the same state government also banned camping in certain regions of Uttarakhand, citing mass tourism as the problem, and rafting camps are no longer permitted along the Ganges. 2018 also witnessed a number of deaths, right from the forests of south India to the high passes of the Indian Himalaya. At least 40 were cited during presentations.

Some of the teething issues that came into the limelight were mass tourism, lack of entry barriers into the profession of adventure tourism, lack of access control into the outdoor spaces, an inability to cater to independent travellers, lack of women in the industry, lack of communication and general education about the outdoors to a growing young population, price wars…

Read about a Ban on Rafting and the Poor Governance in Uttarakhand here.

Lack of entry barriers into the profession, a.k.a, “anyone can become an adventure tour operator”

“Currently there are no entry barriers. and that is our biggest problem”

Tourism is an unorganised sector in India. All one needs to start an outfit is a certificate of incorporation from the Registrar of Companies, Ministry of Corporate Affairs. Although the Ministry of Tourism and ATOAI have a screening process for recognising adventure outfits (ATOAI has a rigorous screening process for its “active” membership), one does not necessarily need to be recognised by either to run an adventure tour company.

A state government can, however, take measures to regulate the functioning of tourism in its region.

“Tourism is a state subject. So even the central ministry cannot force the state government to have checks and balances in place,” says Akshay Kumar of Mercury Himalayan Exploration, an adventure tour operator that has been in the business for over 35 years. “Currently there are no entry barriers. and that is our biggest problem. We need to feel proud of the sport we are in. My point is any company can’t get up and say I want to start an adventure company. You can’t be a banker one day and go on a couple of hikes and say let’s start a trekking company. That is something that needs to stop, and that is something that can only be controlled by a state government. All we are asking the state governments is to only allow companies that have qualifications, and who have, some level of financial backing to invest in the right equipment.”

“You need to have some kind of a pre-qualification for you take people into India’s national heritage,” fumed Vaibhav Kala, who runs Aquaterra. “That’s the way we all view it. And that PQ is important because it basically it is giving you parameters and guidelines. There are so many people dying in the outdoors, nobody talks about it.”

In 2018 alone, at least 40 deaths were recorded by the media, a presentation explained. The deaths ranged from trekking in South India all the way up to Himalaya, and tour operators say that most were preventable, if the right precautions were taken.

Click the image to read Vaibhav Kala’s article.

Defining Mass Tourism in the adventure industry

Mass tourism is often accused of lowering the quality of experience, degrading the environment, and a general lack of safety protocols. The guide-to-client ratio is skewed, and leave-no-trace-principles are not followed. Vaibhav Kala is one of the most vocal voices against mass tourism in adventure travel in India.

“You have these conveyor belt sort of operations,” he scoffs. “Take the Chadar trek for example—Jan 1st to 12th, 12th to 24th and so on…I remember taking note of one company running 1441 trekkers…it has become a circus. And then there is a lack of consequence. When is it going to end!?”

How does one define mass tourism? Is there a particular limit in the number of people occupying a space beyond which it becomes a problem?

“I don’t think there is a magic number,” says Kala. “But once tourism starts degrading a place, it is mass tourism. Back-to-back departures is one sure shot way of degrading a place.”

“There shouldn’t be any fixed camps,” says Ravi Kumar of NOLS. “You pack it in, and pack it out.”

One of the suggestions given was to regulate the areas by creating entry barriers and a set of mandatory guidelines. “We can have entry check points, where a minimum protocol needs to be followed, for example hiring a local guide, a certain client-to-guide ratio etc” said Kala.

“You don’t let just anyone enter the Taj Mahal, why should you do that for your outdoor heritage?” he asked.

Read Uttarakhand Trekking Ban: The Adventure Tourism Industry Reacts here.

The Independent Adventure Traveller

Last year, ATOAI released a handbook defining a set of best practice guidelines for each adventure sport in the country. However, it does not take into account a growing crop of independent outdoor travellers and clubs, that often take groups of people outdoors.

Sohan Pavuluri of Gipfel Climbing Equipment pointed this out at a panel discussion on risk mitigation. “The ATOAI guidelines do not have anything defined for independent outdoor travellers, putting them further in a grey area. They need to have guidelines for them.”

Huw Kingston

Huw Kingston, travel writer and adventurer based in Australia has been travelling independently for over 35 years. He first came to India in 1984 at the age of 22, travelling around Zanskar. His last adventure visit was in 2008, also in the Himalayas. When asked about his views on independent vs organised travel in India, he said, “Organised travel takes a lot of focus in India. Now thats one side of the travel industry. And the other side is the independent travellers, who come with their skis and kayaks and they just do things. They are still tourists and are still contributing to the country in which they are travelling, but they don’t need a big infrastructure of the tents and porters. I think ATOAI needs to recognise that more independent adventurers exist, and add some sort of measurement for independent travellers contributing to the economy.”

Lack of Women in the Adventure Travel Industry

“It is a male-dominated space,”

In a panel on women in adventure travel, senior police official Radhika GR, who has climbed six of the seven summits, including Everest spoke candidly about her experience as a female mountaineer. “It is a male-dominated space,” she said to the audience. “Once in Nepal, I had my period, and I just couldn’t ask anyone for a sanitary pad! Finally, I came across a woman in a small cafe and she helped me.”

The Panel on Women in Adventure Travel

There is a distinct lack of women guides and tour operators in the country today. Bohemian Adventures is a four-year-old adventure tour operator based in Uttarakhand. It is run by three enterprising women – Guneet Puri, Anusha Subramaniam and Shashi Bahuguna. It caters to a “one and all” policy and takes a number of women solo trekkers, senior citizens, and persons with disability on their journeys. At the panel discussion, they spoke about how they were not taken seriously as a company, because they were women. “People used to ask us to join them when we would want to collaborate. Clients would offer to drive OUR vehicles in the mountains because we are women,” said Shashi.

“We have a number of good, strong women, successfully completing their course at Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. Do you know what they do after it? They go back home. Because they don’t know there are opportunities. Why can’t tour operators hire them?!” exclaimed Guneet.

Environmental Degradation

When Vinayak Koul of Snowlion Expeditions led a trek up to Stok Kangri in Ladakh last summer, he was in for a lot of work. He was leading a journey, part of a clean-up drive under Ministry of Tourism’s Adopt a Heritage program. “We pushed to adopt outdoor spaces as our natural heritage and led two clean-up drives, one to Stok Kangri and the other to a source of the Ganges. I led the Stok Kangri trek.”

He came back with 2,100 kilos of garbage, mostly plastic and tin. “We were shocked to see so much garbage. And will be doing more clean-up drives. Our mountains do not deserve this.

Huw Kingston has passionately campaigned against the plastic bottle in his journeys and managed to make the Australian town of Bundadoon bottled water free. He said that people are refusing to visit the most desirable places because of garbage pollution. And it’s a global problem. One of the ways to mitigate this, as was suggested during the panel discussion, was to keep small group sizes, so that lesser impact is created. Another suggestion revolved around creating barriers at entry points to a space, and education.

The Budget Traveller

An important, growing market in India is that of the young 20-30-year-old budget traveller. This traveller has not been exposed to the outdoors much but is enamoured by mountains and rivers thanks to social media. H/She has a budgeted disposable income to travel but is not educated enough to do it independently. This is where the new crop of tour operators come in.

Ashish Bhangdiya is a 26-year-old entrepreneur based in Pune. He gave up his profession as a charted accountant to start an adventure aggregator company, that brings together adventure travel outfits in India on one platform. “Honestly speaking, I did not know about many of these tour operators before coming to the convention. I only knew Aquaterra, and I have been trekking regularly with IndiaHikes, Trek the Himalaya, and other operators in Pune,” he said.

“Before going for any trek, I make it a point to check a YouTube video of IndiaHikes. It gives me a complete picture, and get me excited as well,” he said.

“Honestly speaking, as an adventure aggregator, I would like to know more about the price breakdown. How do you expect me to compare a INR 10k trek experience of one tour operator to a INR 45K trekking experience of another tour operator, when both treks are the same?” he asks.

“Its 2019, there is no way that you can be selling a trek for INR 8 to 9000 when your forest fee is about INR 2400 per person,” says Vaibhav Kala. “There are also safety protocols to follow.”

“We often get young college grads in our journeys,” says Guneet Puri of Bohemian Adventures. “And honestly they don’t mind slumming it.”

“There is definitely a lack of awareness amongst the youth,”

“We remove the frills, and we try to bring it down to their budget as much as possible. But we can never compete with the single digit margins,” says Anusha. “The highest cost goes to ponies and porters, and we don’t usually encourage our travellers to carry their own bags, because they usually don’t know enough and then we end up carrying their luggage in the end,” says Guneet.

“We can never compromise on safety, on the client-to-guide ratio, and have to maintain a small group size. These things cost money,” says Shashi.

Dilshad Master Kumar

“There is definitely a lack of awareness amongst the youth,” says Dilshad Master Kumar of MHE. Dilshad comes from a media and entertainment background, who ran her own digital marketing agency and helped launch and manage television channels such as Star TV, National Geographic and UTV. She joined MHE full time as Director five years ago.

“And there are a lot of companies that have cropped up in the last five to seven years that are very very high on technology and they are using their back-end tech to run their business and the older, more entrenched players in the business are feeling the pinch. Because they are not being able to cope with the technology, cope with the new social media spaces, and thats telling on business results. That is something that has to be looked into,” she said.

MHE runs a blog called MHEStories.com, with sections such as “Bust the Myth”, “Expert Opinions” and other explainers on outdoors. “We need more such entrenched players to come out and educate the masses in this manner,” she said.

So, What is Adventure? And What is the Future of Adventure Travel in India?

“We probably need an act. An Adventure Travel Act in the country.”

Andreas Hilmar is a German travel agent who has been bringing groups of German-speaking travellers to India for the last 15 years. “My groups like visiting Sikkim, we do Ladakh, Assam, Nagaland, travel by the Ganga river. So from our point of view, and a number of travel agents in Europe, adventure tourism is not just sport adventure. We see adventure as going to areas to understand the culture, travel overland, or go on the river where there is not so much and takes long, or even to take trains in India. So this is for us an adventure of a lifetime because you get to see the culture of a place and its people,” he said.

“The industry is going to keep growing. We need to find more places,” says Pradeep Murthy of Muddy Boots, based in Kerala.  “And the same places will not work. Creating a database of places that are less explored, advising the govt to incentivise lesser known places. Shutting down areas, and allow them to recover and then alternately open other places, these are things that have a potential to work.”

“I think finally the ministry is seeing the value that adventure tourism brings to the table,” says Akshay Kumar. “There is data to prove that for example in adventure travel, 60% of the income is retained within the country as compared to only 20% in leisure travel. Adventure travel retains a lot more income within the community and within the country. And I think the government is seeing the value and supporting our endeavours in a big way, which is a great sign.”

“Signs for India are great, but it is also deemed to be a country where there are 15000 adventure tour operators and only like 40-70 odd active companies recognised by the Government of India,” says Vaibhav Kala. “That is not good. That is a very poor signature for India, a supposedly big market. Its a big market because there are many small players, seasonal players. I was over the Parang la in July and this company behind us, and this guy just died on day 3. The guy was tired, there was no back up. And who is going to be responsible for his death? No one! And nothing is going to be done about it. And that pisses me off! They would say he died of a cardiac arrest. Yes his heart did stop, at the end of the day our hearts stop and we all die. But someone has to say that is not good enough. He was near collapse the day before. We probably need an act. An Adventure Travel Act in the country.”

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