Tricks to keeping safe on a Himalayan trek
This blog is a part of our Trekking 101 series, powered by ULTIMATE TREKKER – the Outdoor Leadership Programme for pro trekkers.
Most trekkers don’t realize the importance of safety and lack the know-how to mitigate risks when setting out for a trek. Today we shed light upon the various kinds of hazards and best practices around trekking when it comes to safety.
4Play aims to create awareness about the best practices, specific to the Indian outdoors. And enable you to step out with confidence. By making accessible an ocean of empirical knowledge gathered by the Indian Bear Grylls – Pranav Rawat himself.
Pranav Rawat is a seasoned mountaineer and an ice-climber, with a decade long experience as a summiteer. Pranav is also an UIAA certified Himalayan Mountain Guide and Wilderness First Responder, which makes him an unparalleled expert on climbing and trekking in the Indian Himalayas.
Pranav’s numerous expeditions, long and short, tough and easy, all helped him understand the way mountains can pose challenges and how expertise and training can go a long way in preventing accidents while trekking in the Indian Himalayas. From our collective assemblage of knowledge on mountains and with inputs from Pranav, we have broken down the subject of safety in the following categories:
This is the primary and the most important aspect of safety on treks. Does your trek involve a thoroughly experienced, certified guide? Does he have a proper evacuation plan when things go downhill? These are important safety considerations. As is common knowledge, satellite phones are not permitted in India, so in-case tragedies strike in the form of either avalanches, blizzards or bodily frailties such as Acute Mountain Sickness, your guide must be able to provide first aid, safely bring you down and transfer you to a hospital.
Pranav forewarns, “Since no helicopter rescue facilities are currently available in India, your guide must ensure local contacts are available who can be informed and can then come for rescue. The guide must also have a proper trekking plan, with a detailed route analysis, bypassing risky areas”.
Safety on Indian treks can be assured through proper knowhow and expertise. For example, if attempting the Hampta Pass Trek in early season, is your trekking team capable of negotiating avalanche prone areas? Or if there is a river to be crossed, will your team with the help of your guide be able to do it? Besides these, you yourself must be carrying the right equipment for the kind of terrain and conditions you are likely to encounter while trekking the Indian Himalayas.
“If you are expecting crevasses, do you have ropes for it? Do you have ice axes, crampons and gaiters in-case heading for a winter trek?” asks Pranav. The information of all this, is either provided by your trekking agency or acquired by your own knowledge and experience of trekking in such areas, form an indispensable part of planning and help ensure safety while trekking.
Let’s also look at some common mountain hazards which can prove to be dangerous and sometimes fatal.
This is the rapid falling of snow, ice or rock from a steep mountain side and poses a serious threat on certain treks. Avalanches, responsible for a number of trekking accidents in India, do not occur on all seasons but typically occurs if there is fresh snow in early season.
There are some ways of predicting avalanche prone areas, Pranav tells us. “If the surrounding slopes range from 35 degrees to 65 degrees (and you must know how to measure that), the chances of avalanche are high.”
One can also conduct the shovel tap test in which snow is cut using shovel from 3 directions and the shovel is inserted behind (on the 4th side) and tapped. If this block of snow shifts entirely, then the region is avalanche prone and safety measures while trekking through this region needs to be taken.
“Upon detection, make a loud sound and disturb the snow so that whatever snow movement is likely, happens before you traverse the region. Then, cross the area one at a time. A safe practice to follow, is to not have the team roped up, lest the avalanche sweeps away everyone at once,” advises Pranav.
This is the movement of a mass of debris or rock or earth, down a mountain slope and is usually caused in specific areas or when there is too much rain or snow. For safely traversing landslide prone area, local knowledge is necessary, which forms a part of planning your trek.
Pranav suggests, “If after continuous hours of rain or snow, you find that an area has mud which is loose and unstable or small rocks are falling, be careful and avoid such crossings. If you have no option, cross one at a time and always have a watchman keep an eye out on falling rocks.”
- River crossing
Trekking in the Indian Himalayas, you may be required to cross from one side of the mountain to the other and invariably, which may involve crossing the river in between.
“For this your guide must know the correct way and must have the right equipment,” says Pranav.
Typically, a roped up team mate with two long sticks ventures into the river, sliding his foot gently forward, to check the depth until he has crossed over to the other side, where he ties the rope to a rock, tree or any other stable structure. Then the entire team crosses the river one at a time using this rope. Sometimes when the river is deeper than expected, the lead might have two ropes supporting him.
These are severe snowstorms with very high winds, potentially fatal if trekkers are caught in the crosswinds. Your guide, or if you are venturing out yourself, must have an accurate and updated weather information on the regions you are about to traverse.
“During trekking, if you are caught in a blizzard, use modern navigation tools such as your phone’s GPS to follow the route previously marked, as visibility during blizzard is severely compromised and landmarks may not be visible. If you don’t have GPS routes and are lost, find a safe place which is not landslide or avalanche prone and get stabilized. Do not wander and try to search for the route, you can always do that when the storm subsides,” Pranav advises.
These are very deep cracks on glaciers which pose serious risks of falling to trekkers. Safe ways to traverse glaciers are a must know to ensure safety on treks. One would encounter these while attempting treks like Kalindi Khal, Lamkha Ga, Parang La and Auden’s Col.
“You must be properly trained in crevasse traversing and the guide too must have the right equipment and technical knowhow for crevasse rescue,” warns Pranav.
It is important to note that roping up is necessary for all and that every group must know jumaring and possess a probing stick to detect crevasses when crossing glaciers. However, if you are hiking on glaciers post monsoon, all crevasses will be visible and if there is no snow, it is recommended that your team does not rope up. On bare glaciers, roping up is dangerous because if one trekker slips into a crevasse, all others tied to the rope will fall too and they won’t be able to self-arrest their fall.
Training around mountain best practices through experience in trekking or attending basic and advance mountaineering courses helps a lot in keeping yourself safe. If you haven’t trained yourself, your guide must be properly trained.
Treks like Vasukital trek, Nandanvan trek, Kalindi Khal and Auden’s Col require the knowledge of fixing ropes. If you are not trained to use ropes or crampons, these treks can become very difficult and risky.
“For example in Buranghati trek, it may be required to know descending techniques as well as belaying and rappelling. If you do not know these yourself, your guide can’t belay everyone down, especially if there is a chance of a blizzard. On Gunas Pass, fixed ropes need to be attached and jumaring is necessary and hence the knowledge of using a jumar is required,“ says Pranav.
Guides and their expertise
The next important aspect which will greatly determine the safety on treks is the qualifications and expertise of your guide.
“It is a common misconception that guides having completed Basic, Advance Mountaineering and Method of Instruction courses are adequately trained to lead treks, but this cannot be further from the truth,” warns Pranav.
These courses aren’t dedicated guide courses, not even the Search and Rescue course for that matter. These courses don’t train people on important parameters such as soft skills like communications, resource management, understanding of group expectations and working in teams, which are prerequisites to becoming a good guide. Unfortunately, there aren’t dedicated guiding courses other than those offered by NOLS in India.
Pranav also says that a guide must also be a wilderness medicine expert, should know first aid techniques and evacuation, should have search and rescue knowhow and have a stable, non-panicky mindset in crucial and often life threatening situations.
“Will your guide be able to provide CPR or take the best possible steps in medical exigencies such as hypothermia and Acute Mountain Sickness?” worries Pranav. These are potentially life-saving skills and either you or your guide must possess them. Trekking agencies often allot one guide per 10-15 trekkers which is a dangerous ratio.
“What if one trekker requires immediate evacuation? Will the porter’s skills suffice for the remaining 10? Certainly not. Hence the ideal guide to trekker ratio is 1:4 on moderate treks, 1:3 on difficult treks and 1:5 on easy treks,” tells Pranav. This ratio also helps when there are multiple teams trekking at different paces.
For example, if one group of fast trekkers reaches the camp site first, they can set up tents and start cooking meals while the slowest group or the group with an injured fellow trekker can safely lag behind with another guide. If there is only one trek leader who has ventured ahead with fast trekkers, what will happen if someone falls back or gets ill?
Knowledge of equipment
Another critical facet to safely trekking in the mountains is proper knowledge of equipment. This can include a thorough understanding of clothing, like dressing in layers, carrying wind and waterproof outer shells for snowy or rainy treks etc. Pranav suggests one gets due knowledge on using the right shoes, appropriate shelter systems and sleeping systems (tents and sleeping bags respectively) for the kind of terrain and weather to be expected. Equipping and using miscellaneous, but important equipment such as ice axe, ropes, crampons amongst others is important.
“For example, do you or your guide know what R value mattress one should use when sleeping in the snow or on glaciers?” Pranav asks. The knowledge of equipment is therefore critically important.
Last but not the least is the proper know-how and expertise in navigation. You could get lost or caught in a blizzard. Knowing modern navigation tools helps in ensuring safety. Ideally when setting out for a long and difficult trek, especially one which does not have a route clearly marked or if the route is likely to change with variation in weather, you must be proficient in the art of navigation.
This is also in the interest of mountain self-sufficiency. And if you are not trekking alone but with a group then your guide should have this expertise in modern navigation. It is also useful when you are setting off on a trek, the route of which is not known to you or your guide. While your local guide might be helpful in providing local contacts, if he does not know how to plot a route, trekking becomes difficult, not to mention dangerous. Take the root file from someone who has been there and feed it onto your GPS device or phone. This helps when the conditions are unfavourable and map reading and navigation is not possible.
While taking local guides is a good idea, they might not be technically strong. Let us say for example you or anyone in your group is affected by AMS. Does your trek leader have the knowledge of what to do? What if someone needs immediate evacuation and the group leader has to escort the ill person. How will the remaining group manage? Issues like this also disturb the guide is to trekker ratio and therefore you yourself must be proficient in navigation.
Dealing with injuries, which are far too common, can be another concern area for the untrained trekker. A comprehensive grasp of the techniques of administering first aid, including assessment and approaches to wounds, cuts, muscle spasms, sprains, fractures, snow blindness and infections (diarrhoea, food poisoning, dysentery, fever, cold and various bacterial and fungal infections) as well as altitude illnesses (AMS, HAPE and HACE), proper administration of first aid as well as evacuation techniques should be known by you and your guide.
These are serious matters and best attended by professionally trained people only. Knowing the various aspects of disease and injury constitute an important aspect of safety measures while trekking.
In conclusion, we believe and stress upon the need for planning well in advance before embarking on treks. The importance of training for both you and your guide, as well as knowledge of modern navigation to make trekking in the Himalayas a safe experience, cannot be understated.
Do comment below about your experiences with respect to the above.
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Author: Aditya Pande
A climber hailing from a quaint hill town of Kumaon, Uttaranchal. Focused towards staying healthy and efficient, in the mountains and in the cities.