This is the final article of a three-part series written by Arjun Majumdar about safety on high altitude treks. Read the previous post here.
In my last post I expressed my anxiety and frustration at how loosely trekkers in our country take preparing for a trek. Lack of preparation has become an epidemic. As more and more unprepared trekkers are getting to high altitudes the risks are enormous. Naturally, safety on treks comes into question.
Even Indiahikes cannot insure a trekker’s life unless safety is seen as a two way process. Trekkers play as big a role in safety as the organisation.
Before I get into some of the new safety protocols Indiahikes has brought in, I want to share some background.
Indiahikes has always been at the forefront in bringing in new safety practices into Indian trekking. Microspikes for walking on snow was introduced by Indiahikes. Emergency bottled oxygen on all treks was made mandatory by Indiahikes. So was using pulse oxymeters to test pulse and oxygen saturation levels. Radio as safety communication device was introduced in treks by Indiahikes. Though not every organisation follow these systems, I am happy to see many of our competing organisations adopting these practices (fairly quickly, I must admit!).
As I write this post, I am aware even these new practices that I am going to talk about will be adopted by other organisations, perhaps in record time. Why then do I talk about these new protocols openly in a post like this?
By discussing these new safety protocols I have three purposes in mind: One, I get quick feedback on how some of these protocols are looked at. For me, this is the fastest way to reach out to trekkers. Two, many of our trekkers are in the dark about these protocols. I don’t like that. I feel it is unwise for anyone to trek unless they know what safety practices are in place. Finally, Indiahikes is the leading trek organisation in India. What we do becomes the industry standard. While we usually go about our work quietly, sometimes, on topics as serious as this, it is important for people to know what the industry leader is doing.
I know many of these safety protocols are hard pills to swallow. Yet, I firmly believe, for the sake of future of trekking in India, these steps are very much required.
Here then are the new safety protocols that Indiahikes is bringing in.
Pre-Trek Safety Checks
1. Eligibility Criteria for Treks
This is something new that we are bringing in. Every trek will require a minimum fitness criteria for registration. By the time a trek starts, participants are expected to reach a fitness criteria unique to each trek. Proof of performance is shared by using fitness apps. Sufficient time is given for preparation. If, within the last ten days, a candidate is not able to meet our fitness expectations, then he is dropped from the trek group and his money refunded.
What do we expect out of this? We expect trekkers to prepare for a trek. Lack of preparation is inexcusable. It not only affects safety of a trek for the entire team, it also spirals out on the overall enjoyment of the trek.
2. BMI cutoffs for treks
Our statistics show overweight trekkers are becoming a big safety concern. While I do not want to get into personal lifestyle we do notice overweight trekkers do not prepare enough for a trek.
We have now introduced BMI cutoffs in our registration process. Our BMI cut off is 28 for an easy trek, 27 for a moderate trek and 26 for a difficult trek. Those who fall between 25 and the BMI cut off will have to show us proof of fitness performance.
Our logic: Anyone above a BMI of 25 is considered overweight (though above 23 in Indian conditions is more appropriate). We have kept a wide cut off margin keeping in mind Indian lifestyle conditions. But really, we cannot be harbouring trekkers who are unprepared and overweight. It puts the entire team’s safety at risk.
Some trekkers feel BMI check is not a fair system, that many folks with high muscle mass can have high BMI. Then some trekkers who have high BMI but otherwise trek well also feel this is not very fair. My response to this is we deal with thousands of trekkers. We need to put in a system that will screen thousands. BMI is a globally accepted norm for those overweight. Frankly, our worry is not high BMI. Our worry is proof of performance. If you have high BMI but confident of your performance, then you have nothing to worry about. Just send us proof of performance and we should be ok.
3. Extra acclimatisation day
Indiahikes has now added an extra acclimatisation day on all treks. Treks that were 6 days long will now take 7 days. The acclimatisation day is meant to give rest and more oxygenation time. We have seen adequate rest goes a long way in ensuring successful completion of a trek. On some treks the acclimatisation day is a short trek to another camp, generally less than 3 hours without much altitude gain. For instance on the Roopkund trek, an extra day has been added at Bedni Bugyal, with a short climb to Bedni Top and back.
We have not raised our trek fee to accommodate the acclimatisation day. An extra day on a trek usually means an increase in trek fee by around Rs 2,500. Indiahikes will absorb this cost for the moment.
On-Trek Safety Checks
1. On-arrival health check
This is another system that has been brought in. Every trekker’s health is checked on arrival at the base camp. Parameters that we check are their personal medical records, Blood Pressure and BMI. BP is something we take a very close look at. Trekkers with high BP worry us.
Trekkers who report a systolic reading of 160 or diastolic reading of 100 (or above) are at grave risk. Usually, trekkers with such high readings recover after a night’s sleep. However, in some cases they do not recover. Unfortunately, such trekkers will not be allowed to trek. This process is already operational.
Reasoning: Medically, anyone with high BP must not be allowed to do strenuous activity like a trek. The risk of stroke or a heart failure is very high. Outside that, we have noticed trekkers with high blood pressure often find a trek very grueling. They get dizzy, nauseated and usually hyperventilate. This is not OK at high altitudes.
2. Health Card
Trekkers are issued health cards after their primary health check is done. The health card records all critical physiological parameters of a trekker as he progresses through the trek. It is recorded everyday. The health card is also a self diagnostic tool that allows a trekker to see how he is doing.
Our belief is that a trekker who is in a position to monitor his own parameters is in a position to take a lot of safety calls. A knowledgeable trekker is far less a safety hazard than someone who is ignorant. The health card also helps the trek leader monitor a trekker without relying on intuition or judgement. As a side benefit the health card helps us gather valuable data about trekker physiology spread over various terrains, in different weather situations.
3. Daily BP reading and cutoff
Every trekker’s BP reading is monitored daily. Systolic reading above 160 and Diastolic reading above 100 are our cutoffs. Any readings above our cut offs will mean descent to the base camp. I have already explained the rationale earlier.
4. Daily oxygen saturation and pulse readings (thrice a day)
Oxygen saturation shows the amount of oxygen in your blood. As you climb higher the oxygen saturation percentage in your blood reduces. Only when your body acclimatises to the lower levels of oxygen, the oxygen saturation level in your blood increases. This is normal. It is not a cause for worry. However, there is a point beyond which the oxygen saturation in your blood must not fall. At very low oxygen saturation levels your vital organs start to malfunction. A trek can suddenly become a death trap.
Similarly, your pulse. Your heart must not beat above a certain rate per minute. A high pulse rate indicates an overworked heart which is pushing itself to oxygenate the blood. While a higher pulse rate at altitudes is expected, a pulse rate above 140 is not acceptable. An overworked heart can collapse. Trekkers with such pulse rates will be sent down.
Your oxygen saturation and pulse readings are taken thrice daily, once on arrival at camp, again in the evening and before your trek starts the next morning. There are cutoffs for both oxygen saturation and pulse readings. These cutoffs change as you go higher. They are mentioned in your health card.
Anyone whose readings are beyond our cutoff limits is first treated. In most cases trekkers respond to treatment and recover. If readings still go outside cutoff limits, especially the following morning, the trekker is descended to base camp.
Our attempt is always to treat a problem before it takes any larger, unexpected shape. In almost 80% of the cases, if treated early, a trekker can successfully complete the trek. These new protocols help us tackle problems sooner so that trekkers do not lose out on a great trek.
5. Turn Around Time at every camp
Trekkers are expected to reach camp within an average trekking time. A grace period of ‘plus 60 minutes’ is added to the average trekking time. If trekkers do not reach camp within the grace period, it means he/she is not physically ready for the challenges of a trek. These trekkers are turned around from the trek and sent back to the base camp.
Note: When we calculate an average trekking time, we factor an average trekker’s speed that includes breaks for rest, food and photography. A plus one hour over this is ample time to get to camp.
Reasoning: We have found extremely slow trekkers a bane on treks. A co-guide and sometimes a trek leader accompanies them. Extremely slow trekkers not only hog resources meant for the team, they also come at a big safety risk. On summit and pass days they stall the entire team. Often at 15,000 feet team members are freezing in the cold waiting for a slow member to catch up or move ahead of them. Worse, the technical team is stuck with the slow member.
Extremely slow trekkers are also hazards to themselves. Being slow, they reach camp late, which does not allow them enough rest or acclimatisation time. Also, prolonged exposure to the cold air of high altitudes also makes them susceptible to hypothermia. On a high altitude trek these spell future trouble.
6. More Oxygen Cylinders
Two oxygen cylinders accompany every team. On longer treks there are now three (treks that are more than 4 days long). These cylinders are heavy duty and take care of most medical emergencies. Oxygen lasts for 2 hours in an emergency. Treks that have fixed camps have additional cylinders installed at every camp.
At high altitude, the biggest risk is the low availability of oxygen, more than the risks of falling or getting lost. An increase in the number of bottles that are carried on a trek brings more safety.
7. Stretchers accompany the team on every trek
This is a mandatory evacuation device. Though it is rarely used, a stretcher must be present on all treks. On treks with fixed camps, stretchers are available at every camp. On this note, I must add on some sections of a trek evacuation by stretchers is not possible — especially on narrow, slippery or landslide prone trails. In such cases evacuation is done manually.
8. HAM kit
A High Altitude Medical kit (HAM) accompanies trekkers in every team. These kits contain all emergency medication required for high altitude treks. Some of these medicines can save your life. There are 3 such kits with the team. A kit with the trek leader, two others are with the guide and co-guide.
Radios are very big safety devices on a trek. They help establish communication in regions where no other system works. Hand held radios accompany the team on treks. Only on treks in Kashmir and Sikkim radios are not allowed (border areas).
1. Technical team on all snowy slopes
A technical team, specialists in snow craft, is present on all slopes where there is a pass crossing or a summit to climb. The ratio of technical team to trekkers is 1:10. They keep trekkers safe and guide them through technical sections of a trek. In an event of an emergency they can reach any trekker in a flash. Our technical team comprises of advanced level mountaineers.
2. Microspikes on all snow treks
Microspikes are snow traction devices that are attached to trekking shoes. With microspikes on, walking on snow, even on an incline is a breeze. With microspikes trekkers feel there is super glue under their feet. This makes walking on snow extremely safe. After introduction of microspikes slippages on snow have virtually stopped overnight.
Trek Leaders and Safety
Everyone knows Indiahikes has great trek leaders. Some of them have fan following in thousands. More than their popularity, they bring in incredible safety to a trek as well.
Indiahikes trek leaders undergo extensive and continuous training to upgrade their knowledge. Trek leaders in training have to undergo basic life support training (BLS). To become a trek leader at Indiahikes it takes at least 4-6 months. Trek leaders in training go through two stages of trial by fire before moving ahead. At each stage there are rigorous examinations to clear.
Indiahikes also has special association with NOLS (National Outdoors Leadership School, US). NOLS now conducts their very exhaustive Wilderness First Responder training exclusively for leaders of Indiahikes. The training is done on campus at Indiahikes.
What it means is this: Indiahikes trek leaders are rare people. They have been carefully chosen, specially groomed, and rigorously trained. They know safety protocols like the back of their hand. Often people ask me why don’t we grow Indiahikes at a faster pace. This is the reason. Grooming trek leaders takes time. We can always increase the intake of trekkers, but we will not be able to increase the number of trek leaders at the same pace. We do not hire from other organisations either. They simply don’t measure up to our standards.
Mountain Staff and Safety
If Indiahikes trek leaders are stars, then our mountain staff members are no less. Our mountain staff are not part-time or seasonal folks. They are permanent employees at Indiahikes. Most of them have done their courses in mountaineering. They have also done a course in Basic Life Support (BLS).
Our mountain staff members have been working with us for many years. They bring in tremendous experience. This experience has been distilled down to minute safety processes, which our mountain staff carry out with effortless ease. Simply put, a mountain staff member who works at Indiahikes can not only save lives, but can single handedly run the whole trek on his own — that’s their level of competence.
Having explained all the processes Indiahikes has put in place, I still maintain that safety on treks is a two way process. Trekkers put in their effort to prepare for the trek, Indiahikes ensures that on slope their safety is taken care of. To ensure safety, we may sometimes have to swallow a bitter pill — like returning from a trek. Yet, this gives us freedom to come back to the mountains again and again.
At the end of the day we live by our ideology. I am not very sure if you are aware of it :
If for some reason you have to return from a trek, you can come back and do the trek again. For this you do not have to pay us any money.
There’s another one.
If you have liked a trek and want to do it again, come back and do it. For that you do not have to pay us any money either.
Why do we have such an ideology? We don’t have a ready answer. We are trekkers. And this is how trekking must be. Our ideology helps us to take bold steps such as these about safety in Indian trekking. It helps us to take safety calls on trekkers knowing trekkers can always come back and trek again.
I would like your thoughts on the new safety protocols at Indiahikes. If you think some of these points need discussions, let me know. Put them down in the comment box below.