Sahastra Tal Tragedy: Can Trekking At High Altitudes Be Made Safer?

Amid the ongoing furore over trekkers' safety at high altitudes, experts urge the government to enforce the strict implementation of SOPs and allow communication devices like satellite phones
Sahastra Tal, Uttarkashi
Sahastra Tal, UttarkashiArunav Nautiyal

The Sahastra Tal trek, located at 15,000 feet (4,600 metres) in the Garhwal Himalayas, turned tragic when nine trekkers, including a 71-year-old woman, lost their lives.

A group of 22, 18 from Bengaluru and one from Pune, along with three guides, embarked on a trek to the Sahastra Tal summit on May 29, accompanied by guides and porters from Uttarkashi. Their planned return was scheduled for June 7. However, on June 3, they encountered severe weather conditions, including whiteout, heavy hailstorms and dense fog, leading to a loss of direction during their descent. Reports suggest they were left without adequate shelter or provisions, forcing them to endure a night of extreme cold under a boulder.

Reports further suggest that the initial investigation by Uttarkashi police has highlighted alleged lapses by the local tour operator, Himalayan View Adventure Company. The operator reportedly did not conduct comprehensive health assessments of the trekkers and failed to provide guides at the summit.

Refuting the allegations, however, the Sahastra Tal trek guide Rajesh Thakur, who accompanied the group (including the deceased) throughout the trek, told Outlook Traveller that all members were experienced trekkers and had provided their health certificates. He emphasised that the government must enforce adherence to Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs).

Visuals of the rescue operation
Visuals of the rescue operationdm_uttarkashi/X

"Mandatory health checkups should be introduced, with guidelines requiring trekkers to undergo these examinations 36 hours before the trip. People upload their health certificates online, but their credibility is often uncertain. A pre-trip health checkup, similar to the procedure for the Char Dham Yatra, would address this issue," he said.

Organised by Karnataka Climbers and Explorers in collaboration with the Karnataka Mountaineering Association (KMA), this trek formed part of the 'High Altitude Trekking and Training Programme.' Following the tragic deaths, an FIR was lodged at the Maneri police station in Uttarkashi against the local tour operator. The charges include negligence causing death.

The incident underscores the critical need for comprehensive safety measures and preparation for such treks. Here's what experts and officials have to say.

What Needs To Be Done

Pradeep Sangwan of Healing Himalayas said trekking involves a lot of planning, and one must be extra cautious.

"One crucial step is checking the weather before heading out. Sometimes, companies ignore the weather forecast in pursuit of profit and think they can manage despite potential risks. However, finding ways to manage potential mishaps is essential because the number of tourists getting stranded or dying has been increasing lately. This is primarily due to trekkers starting their journeys without taking the necessary precautions." He recommended that a person at the base be equipped with a walkie-talkie to maintain communication.

He further highlighted that the absence of robust measures often results in such incidents in the Himalayan states. "The administration must develop tailored applications for trekkers to avoid unforeseen events. For example, the Himachal Pradesh government introduced an SOS app for trekkers, but its functionality remains questionable or largely unrecognised by the public."

Rakesh Pant of Trek The Himalayas suggests a thorough health checkup. "When planning a trek with us, we assess each participant's fitness level, age, and Body Mass Index (BMI). For individuals over 60, we require a medical certificate from a doctor confirming their suitability for the trek." He added that the tourist guides must have a comprehensive kit when venturing into the mountains. "This includes a reliable walkie-talkie for maintaining communication with base camps. In an emergency, they should be able to call for a backup team from lower camps."

"It's imperative to carry proper oxygen cylinders and an oximeter to address altitude sickness and effectively assist those with asthma symptoms."

Satellite Phones

Regarding the lack of connectivity, guide Thakur said, "Our communication was blocked due to high altitude and worsening weather conditions. We urge the government to permit the use of satellite phones and establish a protocol that no tourist is allowed without one."

Responding to the demand, Colonel Ashvini Pundir, Additional CEO of Adventure Sports, Uttarakhand Tourism, agreed that communication issues exist but underlined that issuing satellite phones involves national security concerns. "Only the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) can carry them. However, implementing satellite phones for everyone would require intervention from the Home Ministry."

He, however, added that people from outside often "flout" the norms, so it is the tour operators' responsibility to ensure guidelines are strictly followed, saying that "responsible tourism is equally important."

Special Task Force And Tourist Information Centres

Healing Himalayas' Sangwan suggested that there is no dedicated task force to rescue trekkers and bring them back to the base. "Each trekking route should have a mechanism, including a tourist information centre staffed by four to five people who can respond immediately in emergencies. Trekkers should contribute to funding these rescue teams, and the forest department should implement a fee for these minimum rescue services," he said.

"Before departing, tourists should sign a document acknowledging these provisions and the conditions they might face in an emergency. This way, information and a disclaimer are provided, ensuring the government can enforce these safety measures.

Experienced Locals

The locals (guides) are very experienced, having been born and raised in the area, and they know how to navigate the terrain, said Sangwan. However, they also need certifications in rescue operations, making an emergency stretcher, and providing first aid. "The local guides should know how to handle situations where someone is in panic, manage basic medical emergencies, and understand what medications to administer."

The Sahastra Tal summit guide, Thakur, with over 13 years of experience in the field, affirmed that they are equipped with training and necessary gear. However, he lamented that adverse weather conditions led to communication disruptions, forcing them to wait an entire night before re-establishing contact with the base camp team.

Adherence To SOPs

The Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) should apply not only to local guides and communities but also to the trekkers themselves. Experts said trekkers are often in a hurry and reluctant to acclimatise properly, pressuring the guides to proceed quickly. "This creates an ecosystem where the needs of the tourist, who ultimately pays, are prioritised over safety. Therefore, ensuring trekkers properly acclimate before continuing their journey is crucial," said Sangwan.

Challenging Conditions

Weather concerns are undeniable, as emphasised by Colonel Pundir, who stressed the importance of being adequately prepared for survival before embarking on expeditions. He underscored the unpredictability of weather conditions. Echoing this sentiment, experts and guides highlight the unforeseeable nature of weather as a potential obstacle. They stress the need for trekkers to acclimatise to new terrains before venturing out.

Are Guidelines In Place?

Environmentalist Anoop Nautiyal said there is a need to integrate the issues of climate and extreme weather events in the pre-work and planning for safe tourism in Uttarakhand. "Guidelines are consistently disregarded. It's imperative to view tourism through the lens of climate change and extreme weather. It's about time the government sheds its lax 'chalta hai' attitude."

He also pointed out the absence SOPs (for trekking) in Uttarakhand, stating, "Based on my findings from multiple reports, it appears that the state lacks any standardised operating procedure for the trekking sector."

Considering the age of certain trekkers at the Sahastra Tal summit, such as two individuals aged 60 and one aged 71, Nautiyal said it's crucial to inquire whether these individuals received medical examinations. Furthermore, he urged the government to address the issue of inadequate satellite phone provision.

Responding to the same, Uttarkashi DM Meharban Singh Bisht said the administration is working on the guidelines and will inform once they are in place.

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