Precautions and Planning on Pin Parvati Pass Trek
The Pin Parvati Pass trek is a brilliant crossover trail from the lush Kullu valley to Spiti’s arid expanse. As opposed to most Indian Himalayan trails that have been traversed by shepherds for centuries, the Pin Parvati pass was initially crossed by British explorers from Spiti in the late 1800s and from Kullu in the early 1900s.
The purpose of this article is not to encourage people to choose the Pin Parvati trail over any other but to ensure our readers are provided with accurate information that enables them to make an informed decision.
At the outset, the possibility of adventure includes with it the presence of risk. If you take away the element of risk and the unknown, there is no adventure. In fact, the whole point of indulging in outdoor exploration and adventure sports is to escape the comfort of predictability, have new experiences and come back safely. On the other hand, even the most cautious person will agree that safety is not the avoidance of risk, but risk assessment and management aided by accurate information and skill acquisition. If safety means to avoid all risk, it would render us unable to perform tasks we consider essential to our daily lives. Don’t drive. Don’t take a flight. Don’t travel in public transport. Road Traffic Accidents are in the top ten leading cause of deaths in India.
The point is that safety cannot be guranteed but precautions and planning can help reduce the risk significantly. However, precaution would not mean you stop exploring.
So let us talk about the precautions and planning now.
First of all, it is important to note that the Pin Parvati Pass trek is meant only for seasoned hikers. It is rated 6 on our difficulty scale. Breaking it down, that means it should be attempted only by people who have previously hiked to an altitude of 4000 - 4500m on glaciated terrain, and have at least 10-12 quality Himalayan trekking days (this does not include day hikes, or longer hikes in other mountain ranges). A Basic Mountaineering Course from one of mountaineering institutes is recommended, though not mandatory. The requisite skills include knowing How to use basic mountaineering equipment like gaiters & micro spikes, How to cross large water streams and acclimatization procedures. This trail is not for beginners who are not used to balancing on narrow and precarious trails.
So let us talk about each of the concerns around the Pin Parvati Pass trail below -
Tricky Sections - On the third and fourth days of the trail (as it is traditionally done), there are two sections with high exposure and a close to zero margin of error. The first involves scrambling over two stretches of around 10-15m and 50-60 degrees slope, where a slip or misstep will result in falling into the furious Parvati river below. The second involves crossing two boulder bridges, one over a subsidiary stream and the other over the Parvati itself. The boulders are steep and featureless enough to require the use of hands as well, with minimal footholds on partial sections of the boulders. All these sections are negotiated with ropes and the assistance of guides and support staff, which mitigates the disastrous results of a potential fall.
As mentioned above, this is not a trail for beginners who cannot deal with mild exposure and short stretches of sub-vertical scrambling. This should not be your second or third hike in the Indian Himalaya. Work up to it.
Belayed crossing across tricky boulder bridges
Tough Terrain - A couple of sections around 100 m long each have been washed away by landslides around 7-8 years ago. These sections are also prone to further landslides and rockfall. Any guide or leader worth his salt is well versed in the techniques to employ while crossing landslide and rockfall prone areas. For the uninitiated, this involves crossing these sections one at a time, with ‘watchmen’ positioned at vantage points to warn off any activity or falling rocks. Helmets are a bonus, though not often carried by non-climbing expeditions. The trail also involves crossing multiple rivers and glacial streams.
Rockfall and landslides hazards are encountered on much ‘easier’ trails like the descent towards Spiti from Hampta Pass. In peak season, there are more than a hundred people crossing the Hampta Pass every day. This leads to a much higher risk of being hit by falling rocks as compared to Pin Parvati, since the odds that there will be another party on the trail on the same day as you are very low.
Roped crossing across the Pin river
Glacier Crossing and Crevasses - One of the highlights of the Pin Parvati trail is that unlike other crossover trails to Spiti like the Bhaba Pass or the Hampta Pass, it is a permanently glaciated pass. For experienced hikers, the presence of a glacier is an allure rather than a deterrant. Walking on giant glaciers surrounded by 18000 ft peaks is an amazing and humbling experience, not a death trap. Professional guides and leaders are well educated in executing glacier crossings and negotiating crevasses. The entire team is roped up throughout the glacier crossing, and our leaders are trained in rescue procedures from NIM, with an intensive focus on crevasse rescue systems and equipped with appropriate equipment. Reiterating, this is a trail only for experienced hikers, not beginners.
Roped up on the Pin Parvati glacier
Impossible Evacuation - The length of the Pin Parvati trail traverses more than a 100 km, climbing to an altitude of 17400 ft. This means after the third or fourth day, there is no possibility of rapid evacuation in case of critical illnesses like AMS. A walk out from the middle of the trail involves walking straight for close to 40 - 50 hours. This is an issue pertinent not just to the Pin Parvati Pass trail, but any pass crossing over 5000 m involving more than a weeks hike.
In fact, with satellite phones prohibited for public use, a lack of adventure insurance providers and poor air ambulance services, wilderness evacuation has been a matter of concern throughout the Indian Himalaya for decades.
Till this year, public use of satellite phones was prohibited in India as a matter of policy. This has changed recently, with BSNL coming out with a satellite phone available for use by commercial operators, which we are investing in.
We have also launched an insurance plan that covers adventure activities, with our insurance partner Religare, that provides cover for AMS as well (which is generally excluded by most adventure insurance providers). With this policy, the emergency evacuation expenses under the condition of AMS would be covered.
Coupled with our rescue partners, East West Rescue, this ensures air evacuation for severe cases of AMS, and other extreme situations that may require rapid evacuation. We also carry gamow bags, an inflatable hyperbaric bag that simulates descents of upto 5000 ft, on the Pin Parvati Pass trek.
If you do choose to go on this trail, or any other trail, make sure your tour operator offers adventure insurance with evacuation, and employs suitably qualified guides and leaders. There is no trail that is absolutely ‘safe’, not even the one leading to the grocery shop next to your house. The ecology and environment of the mountains is always changing. A ‘safe’ trail could easily become ‘unsafe’ in a matter of minutes. On overcrowded and popular trails, it is easy to build an illusion of safety due to numbers. On remote trails, you stay on your feet. If anything, avoid overcrowded trails and choose rarely accessed ones like the Pin Parvati Pass. Make sure you have access to accurate information. Most importantly, learn to assess and manage risk, or go with someone who knows.
“The word adventure has gotten overused. For me, when everything goes wrong – that’s when adventure starts.” - Yvon Chouninard