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Sep 19, 2018

Uttarakhand Trekking Ban: The Adventure Tourism Industry Reacts

India's adventure tourism leaders are fighting back against the High Court's blanket ban on alpine trekking in the Uttarakhand.

WRITTEN BY

Davey Braun

Over the course of September, we’ve reported a first-hand account of the environmental and human affliction brought on by mass trekking in India, as well as an analysis of the High Court’s overbroad, knee-jerk ban of trekking in the Uttarakhand region.

In the aftermath of the High Court’s judgment, which threatens thousands of livelihoods, the adventure tourism industry is up-in-arms at the blanket ban on trekking in alpine meadows within the Uttarakhand. Several industry leaders, along with the Adventure Tour Operators Association of India (“ATOAI”), are crying out for a repeal of the ban.

VICTIM TO THE NUMBERS GAME

Mandip Singh Soin

Mandip Singh Soin, Founder and Managing Director of Ibex Expeditions, was one of the first adventure travel experts to launch a company in India in 1979. He was drawn to the Indian Himalaya for their “pristine valleys and unclimbed mountains, all shrouded in Hindu mythology.” When contacted by The Outdoor Journal to comment on the Uttarakhand ban, Mandip shared that over the last decades, he has noticed an upsurge of adventure travel. The result – some companies have “started pandering to the Numbers game and also price wars which can never leave enough resources for environmental clean ups and also compromise safety issues.” According to Mandip, the blanket ban lacks the specificity of an adequate solution.

“The Ruling of the court is typically something that tends to happen when faced with a crisis. It’s easier to place a Ban and give immediate relief to the aggrieved persons rather than spend the time and effort in understanding the ramifications and undertaking a targeted therapy!” Local service providers such as trek operators, cooks, porters and guides are left without work.

Rather than eliminating the few culpable trekking companies that contribute most of the mass trekking harm, the ban puts the kibosh on all adventure travel companies. “What we are now seeing is [an] alarm call to the Trekking industry wherein due to the actions of a few rotten apples, the whole basket may not be considered worthy of serving, at least in the State of Uttarakhand.”

“These trekking routes and bugyals have formed the backbone of the local economy for generations.”

Real, targeted solutions are needed with safety guidelines that clearly identify bad actors. For example, eliminating fixed camps on alpine meadows, limiting carrying loads, reducing group sizes, educating trekkers on how to manage waste, ensuring that all local operators are registered and certified and penalising commercial trekking companies if they violate these standards. According to Mandip, “in the larger picture [the ban] will allow for all trekking operators to be properly registered with the governments and their rules will not be diluted at the state level as compared to regulations for the adventure operators certification by the central government.”

Photo: Paul Hamilton

THE HORRORS OF COMMERCIAL TREKKING

Harish Kapadia

Harish Kapadia, adventure expert, writer and editor of the Himalayan Journal, recognizes that something must be done to curb the environmental damage caused by commercial trekking. When asked to comment, Harish shared his outrage: “The news and pictures of degradation of grassland is shocking and if something drastic is not done, not many pristine areas will be available to trekkers. Photographs of mass camping, hundreds lining up on trail and garbage are horrifying and they are just tip of an iceberg.”

But Harish notes that the undefined nature of the ban will unnecessarily cut off access to many areas. “The court ruling stops camping on all Bugiyals (grazing grounds), but does not define ‘what is a bugiyal’. Almost any open grassland can be termed as such. As most trails are more than a day treks, this will rule out many trails.”

MEASURING THE IMPACT

“The livelihoods of thousands must not be compromised due to the folly of a few.”

In a press release from New Delhi on September 6th, the ATOAI, which is committed to promoting responsible and sustainable tourism, points out that the Court’s judgments lack foundation. “These are not backed by data, scientific research, or instituted studies to determine the impact, benefit or damages; which would lead to a measured debate before reaching a conclusive decision.” And because no mountain in the Uttarakhand can be climbed without camping in a bugyal, this ban puts a complete halt to the sport of mountaineering in the state.

The ATOAI’s leading members shared their views in a recent press release – excerpts below.

Swadesh Kumar

Swadesh Kumar, ATOAI President said, “We support penalising rampant defaulters, however, the livelihoods of thousands must not be compromised due to the folly of a few.”

Vaibhav Kala

Vaibhav Kala, from Aquaterra Adventures calls for operators to focus on the small details, rather than trying to expand as large as possible. “The outdoors is not about making your company a multinational corporation. It is more about Back to Basics, to how it’s always supposed to be done. Safe, Small and Sustainable.”

Akshay Kumar

Akshay Kumar, ATOAI’s former President, said, ”The need of the hour is to make sustainable policies for all adventure sports and fine defaulters. These trekking routes and bugyals have formed the backbone of the local economy for generations. We have to reinstate operations here with maximum regulation to ensure protection of our Himalaya and its treasures. The industry and state government need to join hands to ensure immediate opening of trekking activities.”

DANGERS OF CIRCUMVENTING THE BAN

Dr. Sunil Kaintholas

According to Dr. Sunil Kainthola, Director of the Mountain Shepherds Initiative, who reached out to TOJ in response to its mass trekking coverage, the commercial trekking operations are circumventing the ban by leading trekkers on more dangerous routes. “The same online companies as mentioned in [TOJ’s] article are now offering redesigned trek itineraries some of which include an altitude gain of 1000 meters in a single day in a hypoxic mountain environment. So while the spirit of the High Court order will be honored, the lives of trekkers will be definitely at risk.”

“While the spirit of the High Court order will be honored, the lives of trekkers will be definitely at risk.”

Uttarakhand, once a community-run tourism destination, has now become a global hotspot for adventure sports. The government and judiciary are struggling to find a balance with commercial operation management. High-volume trekking tours are damaging nature, but the solution cannot be to ban all trekking activity. The High Court’s decision has proven shortsighted as it is not based on statistical data, ignores the impact on local communities that rely on tourism, and has resulted in compromising the safety of thousands of trekkers. The ATOAI is seeking to repeal the ban in court later this month. The Outdoor Journal will continue to post updates as the story unfolds.

Cover Photo: High-altitude trekking in a small group of four, with a guide from Lata village in Uttarakhand’s renowned Nanda Devi National Park. © Apoorva Prasad / The Outdoor Journal.

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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

Peter Van Geit

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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