Before the panic begins and trekking gets termed as “extremely dangerous”, let’s try to see what exactly happened at the Chandrakhani pass between 11th and 14th March 2016.
A bunch of students (7) from a technology institute in Punjab started trekking with a local friend (from Kullu) to the religious shrine of Bijli Mahadev. It’s still getting contemplated whether they moved from Bijli Mahadev towards Chandrakhani Pass knowingly or by mistake but at least one of them has commented on record, saying that they started moving towards Chandrakhani Pass after reaching Bijli Mahadev. The team was trekking alpine style where they were carrying tents, sleeping bags, and food on their own and were not supported by any set of porters or mules for carrying such things. A little while after starting the trek towards Chandrakhani, they were trapped in severe snowfall that had emerged due to the western disturbances hitting Himalayas (a little later in the season than normal). Due to a complete whiteout, they lost their way and could neither move forward nor trace their route backward. Fortunately, they could call and inform about their situation with a rough idea of their location. They had already attained an altitude of around 11,000 ft and were some distance ahead of the base of Chandrakhani Pass (11975 ft). While they were waiting for the help to arrive, they pitched tents and used the sleeping bags to survive for more than 70 hours after getting lost. They did try to find better sites for themselves and found some caves nearby. Finally after many attempts from the rescue teams comprising of people from ITBP, ABVIMAS, and local police, the group was finally rescued in two parts using a chopper. First 6 people were rescued on 13th March night & others were rescued on 14th morning.
So, what does the story tell us? Should it create panic? or some caution?
Well, I think some caution and learning must be drawn from every incident but there is nothing to really panic about. Trekking is definetely safer than other extreme adventure activities, drive on the highways, and much safer than driving two-wheelers!
However, as I said, some learning must be drawn from this incident as well. I am trying here to highlight some important aspects of this incident:
- Alpine Style – I regard this style of trekking a lot and it is definitely a superior experience compared to an operator organized trek. However, lack of any formal guidelines or instructions issued by relevant authorities in this sphere make this style a bit risky in India. The courage of these students should be recognized and the fact that they did not lose hope while surviving through the toughest 70 hours in the wilderness, is appreciable. Also, since they were carrying their own bags with equipment, they had access to tents and sleeping bags which helped them in keeping themselves warm in the heavy snowfall. So, one can clearly see that problem was not in trekking alpine style, per se, but in missing certain precautions while doing so, like having a local guide who knows the exact trail very well, providing information to local authorities about their exact plan (their initial plan was a trek only till Bijli Mahadev)
- Trek Leader – The students had taken a local friend from Kullu as a guide but this was a mistake because when you are trekking alpine style, it becomes even more important to have an experienced and capable trek leader. Leader should ideally be a certified mountaineer or a highly experienced local guide who has an extensive experience of covering the various routes and trails in the area. A certified mountaineer would know techniques of navigating to safety in emergency scenarios and a local person would be sure of the trails & routes even when there is a white-out due to heavy snow and clouds. Between the two, they missed experienced local guide more because they did not have any accurate maps or GPS devices. I am not sure whether anyone among them was a certified mountaineer or not.
- Planning – One should not plan for less and venture more in the mountains. If they had originally planned for Bijli Mahadev, then a sudden extension of itinerary was risky. Due to this, they ran out of ration and had nothing to eat during the survival hours.
- Weather Conditions – The weather forecasts were available for the Himalayan regions with information of the western disturbances hitting and causing heavy rain, thunderstorm, and snowfall in the upper reaches. But except for rare feeds on AIR & DD, there is no formal way by which the weather forecasts can be downloaded in advance. There are websites like www.accuweather.com that provide information but not very accurately for all regions. IMD does release advisories but they are also not specific to a particular trekking route. It is very difficult to plan with such advisories. What we need is accurate & specific (for various trekking routes) weather forecasts for the trekkers venturing into the Himalayas.
- Maps & Support mechanisms – Clearly in this case, the students did not have any detailed maps with them that could have helped them in finding the way. This is another big problem in India. All that we have available to us, are the satellite maps by Google that do not show mountain villages on the trekking routes, neither do they show the exact trekking trails. Very few people are savvy with GPS devices either. Our government does not allow satellite phones in any of the trekking routes, and the procedure of getting a walkie-talkie on rent is also extremely cumbersome, not to mention how costly it is. Topographical maps are only accessible by defense forces and not available on public portals. Again, there is a dire need to publish reliable maps, equipped with GPS coordinates that can be used by alpine trekkers. Also, the alpine trekkers should try to carry some simple devices like compass, GPS devices, along with maps (as detailed as possible).
Overall, one can say that these guys made some mistake but is that the real issue? To me, the real issue is lack of information in the public domain, especially about alpine style trekking. Alpine style trekking needs to be recognized more and simple set of guidelines must be issued in the public sphere along with permission structures for obtaining supporting tools like weather forecasts, maps, satellite phones on rent, etc. Also, local authorities should establish clear procedures of registration for all such trekking plans in convenient ways, including online forms.
Source: Interviews with local inhabitants of Rumsu village (Kullu) and Published news articles on the internet.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the Bikat Adventures Pvt Ltd.
Name : Ritvij Srivastava
A nature lover, "argumentative" person, I work as a Partner at Bikat Adventures and love to explore. Have Led many trekking expeditions including the Roopkund, Mantalai, Dayara Bugyal, Dharwa top, Har ki Dun, and many others. Been saddling (on my Raleigh bike) for some time now and have claimed Manali Leh Expeditions twice, once unsupported and once as a lead cyclist amongst many other expeditions. Being a certified mountaineer, I feel at home in the Himalayas. These days, I am itching for a challenging expedition... Lets see what comes my way..