Vishal Thakur, a Chandigarh-based mountaineer who recently returned from a trek to the Black Peak in Uttarakhand, said there is a need to upgrade the rescue operation standards.
When 21 trekkers died in four trekking and mountaineering expeditions in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand last month, it once again shone the spotlight on the adventure sport’s risky and the safeguards that need to be in place. According to experts, such accidents can easily be avoided if better safety protocols are followed.
Lamkhaga Pass trek
Seven people from an 11-member trekking team, mostly from West Bengal, died while two others went missing after trekking to Chitkul in Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh, from Harshil in Uttarakhand.
Uttarkashi Superintendent of Police Manikant Mishra said they identified loopholes in the processing of the trip. Mishra told The Indian Express that the guides and porters the trekking team had with them did not have training. They did not know how to tackle heavy snowfall at high altitude.
He added that they were in the process of formulating detailed Standard Operating Procedures for companies that organised treks in the state. Mishra, however, said it could be likely that the team’s experienced trekkers overestimated their ability.
A rescue operation officer said it seemed that the team was scattered, either in panic or because of the lack of proper guidance, since the seven bodies were recovered from different spots. A team should stay together in the mountains, he said, adding that they should move together using ropes.
Avoiding tragedies with weather forecasting
Mountains are unpredictable and a variety of reasons such as the experience of team members to preparedness and the standard of guides can trigger tragedies.
Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) President Brigadier Ashok Abbey told The Indian Express that despite the improvement in technology and near-accurate weather predictions, alerts come at the last minute sometimes. By this time, the expeditions have already commenced, giving trekkers less time to react.
At Mt Trishul, a strong avalanche hit trained personnel from the Indian Navy. Technically, Mt Trishul is more difficult than Mt Everest, Brigadier Abbey said. A mountaineer is likely to find fixed spots to tie ropes, fix ladders while climbing Mt Everest, but there are no such facilities on Mt Trishul expeditions because few people climb these peaks,” he added.
Brigadier Abbey said though bad weather was being cited as the reason behind the tragedy at Lamkhaga Pass, reports were not conclusive. Permissions for these activities do not guarantee safety, he said. The Lamkhaga Pass trek is a challenging and tedious task and does not fall in the mountaineering category, he added.
The breakdown of communication between the trekkers and their base camps, difficulty in ascertaining the location of lost team members are the major reasons behind such tragedies, experts said.
Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarkashi, Vice-Principal Yogesh Dhumal told The Indian Express satellite phones and GPS tags can minimise the duration taken to conduct search operations and can also alert rescue teams about the hurdles.
Satellite phones, however, are costly and operating them is complicated and involves security issues. GPS-enabled body chips, on the other hand, play a significant role in the rescue of stranded mountaineers by providing their exact locations. The Uttarakhand government is working in this direction, Dhumal adds.
Vishal Thakur, a Chandigarh-based mountaineer who recently returned from a trek to the Black Peak in Uttarakhand, said there is a need to upgrade the rescue operation standards. However, people should not take casually treks that last over four days, he added.
Tour operators’ stand
Adventure Tour Operators’ Association of India President Vishwas Makhija said these incidents were alarming and called for more regulation. He added unregistered companies, along with untrained guides and porters, were putting trekkers’ lives at risk.
Makhija said they have been urging the Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand governments to make strict policies. However, he said this did not absolve the trekkers booking these trips. Many people compromise with safety, equipment, and prefer companies that charge less without checking their credentials to save money. The quality of equipment, sleeping bags, and tents matter a lot, he said.
Association office bearer Vaibhav Kumar said there was also under-reporting of such incidents. The reporting percentage is only 5% for such incidents, he said, and called on the authorities to perform a strict audit.
Institutes such as the Delhi-based Indian Mountaineering Foundation and the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi prepare case studies of these incidents to learn lessons and educate trainees on avoiding such tragedies. Brigadier Abbey said these play a crucial part in formulating strategies.