Challenges in a High Altitude Trek

Updated: Jun 18

Since my first experience of a trek in the Himalayas, I have learned that these 10 are the major challenges one can face while trekking in the wilderness. To understand it better, I will categorize these into Natural & Self-made challenges.

Mist covered trail of Hampta Pass

You might be a beginner or a well trained experienced trekker, but make sure that you take these challenges into consideration because any small mistake will prove to be costly out in the wild. Having prepared for these challenges before-hand can give you the best experience of trekking in the Himalayas.

Natural Challenges


These are the obstacles that are beyond our control. Those challenges which can't be foreseen and occur due to Natural disturbances fall under this category. However, these challenges can not be prevented, you can always be better prepared on how to handle it. Here I will list the few Natural Challenges one can face during a trek in the high altitude.


1. Change in Weather Conditions


The weather in the Himalayas is fairly unpredictable. This is due to the extreme altitude and high mountain ranges. Hence, being in the high altitudes you should be prepared for the change in weather conditions at any point in time. However, the weather pattern depends on the terrain and the altitude you are in. The weather conditions that can affect the trek would be,

  • Extreme Rains

  • Snow blizzard

A backpack cover protects your backpack from the rains

Effects

In my experience, Rains haven't been a whole of a disaster during a trek. Treks like Valley of Flowers, Hampta Pass, Bhrigu Lake are the ones that are more prone to heavy rainfall during the trek since they are done in the monsoon season. However, if you have the right gear, the rains don't pose a very serious condition or hinder the completion of the trek. If we have extreme rainfall, it is advisable to stay put in the campsite and call in for a buffer day which would give a break to everyone.


On the other hand, snow blizzard or a snowstorm can change the course of action. Snowstorms are more likely during the winter season treks. During such an event, it always depends on the adversity of the storm and the time period. If the storm is intense, there are chances that going further up in altitude can be a mistake. Especially if the weather seems to be getting worse even if you had taken a buffer day and rested. The decisions that you take in such situations matter. However desperate you are to complete the trek, you should not put your staff, trek mates, and yourselves into a much worse situation.

The above video was shot by me in my last batch of Kedarkantha during March. We were stuck in this 5-hour snowstorm which only kept getting worse every hour. Luckily, we had reached the campsite when the storm had started. The next day, I had to take the trekkers back to the base camp and couldn't complete the trek. Looking at the team's condition, staff support, and the weather in itself, I had to call for this decision.


How to be prepared?


With regard to weather conditions, you can't be much prepared to overcome Nature. But you can have the following things in mind to help during such a change in the weather condition:

  • Have an extra day (buffer day) in the itinerary to accommodate for a plan change due to weather

  • Proper winter gear; Carry ponchos and backpack cover always

  • Avoid trekking during the extreme winter and monsoon season to avoid snowstorms and rains

  • Respect the mountain rules about time; Generally, the weather in the mountain doesn't change much till 12 in the noon. Plan the day itinerary to reach the campsite by 1 if possible to be on the safer side.

2. River or Stream Crossings


Most of the time, the river crossing during a trek might not be a major concern but during the monsoons, they pose a challenge. Some of these rivers or naalas (a stream of water flowing in the trail or a road) seem to have a stronger current due to the monsoon rains. You ought to be careful while crossing them. Pay additional care to your belongings while crossing. Remember that if you lose something essential on the trail, you will not be able to get help from others too. This will only spoil your entire experience of the trek.


Here is a footage of a few river crossing sections from my experience.

These sections are the highlights of the trek. And like I had mentioned, this experience will be the best if you are responsible and careful. You must adhere to the rules of the mountains and be extra cautious of your belongings and surroundings at any time.

3. Landslides and Avalanches


This is more dangerous than the previously discussed challenges. Landslide or Avalanche is associated with the altitude and terrain. A landslide is caused due to heavy rains, earthquakes in an unstable slope of a mountain. Due to these external factors, the rocks and the debris start to roll down the slope with a high velocity. The same applies to the snow. When a thick slab of snow starts to slide down a steep slope, it's known as an avalanche.

On the way to Joshimat (Valley of Flowers trek)

You can generally find such rockfalls and landslides in the hilly areas. It often occurs in the monsoons. Treks like Gaumukh Tapovan, Kedartaal are places where you are more prone to encounter Landslides during the trail. If you are planning to go on such treks, it is better to have additional knowledge of the rescue drills associated with Landslides. In any such situation, these drills can come handy in helping yourselves and your trek-mates. Techniques like self-arrest can be very useful during such times. When you go for a mountaineering course, these rescue drills are a part of the course. Click here to check out the detailed steps on how to prepare yourselves for a Landslide situation.


Luckily, I have never undergone a landslide hazard experience so far in any trek. In the picture, is a rockfall incident that happened near Joshimath, while on our way back from the trek. This boulder had almost taken 6 hours to get cleared off after detonating it a couple of times.

Explaining the techniques of snow climbing and safety measures at Rupin Pass trek

In the case of Avalanche prone zones, it is always safer to trek with local experts who have prior experience and knowledge on how to handle an avalanche situation. However, there are certain basic things that you can be educated about before indulging in high-risk zones. Below is a PDF for details on how to prepare yourselves pre and post avalanche scenario.

Avalanche_InfoSheet_061418
.pdf
Download PDF • 564KB

4. Wild Animals


Like being anywhere in the wilderness, along with the ecosystem, we need to co-exist with the wild animals during the activity. Similarly in the Himalayas, there is a wide range of animal life living in the trails of the treks. Here are a few animals which have successfully managed to exist in the ecosystem in spite of a large number of trekkers and mountaineers posing a danger to them:

  • Snow Leopards

  • Himalayan Wild Yak

  • Himalayan Thar / Wild Goat

  • Himalayan Black Bear

  • Marmots

  • Himalayan Monal

  • Vultures

  • Himalayan Wolf

These species are found at certain altitudes and I have spotted the most common ones like Himalayan Thar, Monal, Marmots, Yaks, and Vultures. The rest are quite hard to spot and take a picture of. Wildlife photographers spend months in search of these species and to capture the moment.

However special the moment would be, it's also safer to not spot any of these wild animals which pose a threat to us. Here are a few pointers to keep yourselves safe in the wilderness from the wild animals:

  • Stay Calm - This applies to all the challenges that you might face

  • Trek in Groups

  • Avoid trekking at night

  • Sleep inside the tents (especially if the campsite is near a forest)

  • Always carry flashlights

  • Avoid having meat in your meals or any pungent food

  • Study about the ecosystem before heading to the trek

  • Keep your tentmates informed if you head out in the night

5. Challenging Terrains


In some treks, you might face a challenging slope on the trail. It could be a pass, a ridge, a scree section, or crevices (generally found on expeditions). These sections can be tricky to pass-through if you do not have the right guidance or experience of your own.

Let's take the example of Buran Ghati trek. For those who aren't aware of this trek, Buran Pass connects the Pabbar Valley of Shimla to the Kinnaur Valley. This pass is at an altitude of 15000ft (4572m) above the sea level. If you do this trek in the pre-monsoon season (May- June), you have an added experience of rappelling down the entire pass. Of course, when done under technical supervision, this would be the best experience one can get from a trek.


Here is a short video of a trekker from my batch getting through the pass using the #rappelling technique.

This section could be the main reason why trekkers love this trek. Regardless of the intense altitude, extreme weather conditions, and toe freezing cold, trekkers love the adrenaline rush which keeps them going for more. It would be in the best interest of everyone to gain knowledge about the challenges they would be facing before signing up.


If one doesn't get the prior preparation about the trek, he/she might end up with these following additional challenges too:


Self-inflicted or Self-made challenges


The challenges one faces during a trek due to his/her mistakes or improper planning falls under this category. These generally are incurred by beginners. With experience, a trekker must learn from their mistakes. That's exactly how I did too. But a few challenges can be very serious where no mistakes are allowed.

Briefing trekkers at the start of the day

1. Mountain Sickness


The foremost and dangerous challenge any trekker can face in the wilderness is getting any of this illness:

  • AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness)

  • HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema)

  • HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema)

These are the illness that a human body is prone to when it is not acclimatized to the change in the altitude once the body is at high altitude. These sicknesses can be deadly if not treated properly. Hence proper care and attention should be given to the details of what precautions one can take to avoid getting mountain sicknesses. A few of them are:

  • Drink sufficient water or fluids

  • No smoking or consuming alcohol at High Altitude

  • If possible cover an altitude gain of 1000ft per day

  • Proper layering

  • The pace of trekking should be constant

  • Rest properly at each campsite

  • High-calorie diet

  • Don't hide any symptoms

The sooner any mountain sickness is diagnosed, it is better for the trekker to decide to go further up in altitude or not. Time is of the essence in such situations because if a decision is not taken, mountain sicknesses can be fatal. Check out my blog about Wildnerness Medicine for additional details.

2. Injuries


Over at high altitude getting yourselves injured is not good news. It also depends on the level and intensity of the injury. However, any injury will spoil the entire experience of the trek. So it's of the utmost priority that you should be aware of your surroundings and not get carried away. In order to avoid getting injured, you must:

A displaced middle finger of a trekker from my batch
  • follow the instructions given by the mountain staff at any time

  • only help others if you know that you are safe

  • be with the group instead of exploring

  • use the safety equipment carefully

If one trekker gets injured, it changes the whole dynamics of the team. So it's always advisable to be safe and adventurous enough in a wilderness setting.


It is a picture of a trekker from my batch who had lost control during the slide and had broken his middle finger and bruised his arms and legs. Luckily it was the last day of the trek and he could recover after the first aid given by me. But if the same injury had occurred on the initial days of the trek, it would have been hard for him to continue.

3. Proper usage of the Gears


There are many pieces of equipment and gears that will be used in a #Highaltitude trek. Each gear has a correct way of usage. If this information is not known then that piece of equipment would not be of proper help. The major gears that trekkers use in an incorrect way are:

Giving instructions on Trek Pole usage
  • Trek Pole

  • Backpack

  • Spikes and Gaiters (during snow treks)

  • Sunglasses

  • Trekking shoes

  • Sleeping bags

  • Layering

I have met many trekkers who spend a big budget at Decathlon for their trek but fail to use the gear in the way it is meant to be. It is the trekker's responsibility to learn this before heading out to a trek if they want to have a good experience.


4. Physical Fitness


Another important factor that people skip is getting physically fit to endure the tiring routine of a trek. Be it a day hike or a multi-day trek, it is mandatory that prior to the start, you get into any kind of physical fitness routine. It could be cycling, yoga, or even swimming. It is not necessary that you have to do it in a gym.


A short clip of me and my trekkers at Chandratal.

Trekkers who fail to prepare themselves physically, face these issues during the trek:

  • Breathlessness

  • Exhaustion or Fatigue

  • Delaying the group by taking unnecessary halts

  • Prone to Mountain sicknesses

  • Unable to complete the trek

Better be physically prepared because the mountains go harsh on the ones who aren't ready!

5. Eco-friendly trekking


The most ignored challenge in the mountains is the concept of "Green Trekking". The ecosystem in the mountains is very fragile. Every piece of garbage lying on the trail and at the campsites of any trek does not have a safe exit strategy. Every single piece contributes to the imbalance in the ecosystem. Remember that we co-exist with the other species of the wild when we are trekking. So it is our responsibility to trek without leaving any carbon footprints on the trails. Since there is no organization extensively working for cleaning the trails, it is also our duty to get back the other waste that doesn't belong in the mountains back to the cities where it can be handled in the correct manner.

There is no concrete solution to handle the garbage in the mountains but at least we can stop creating more be responsible. This can only help us because we leave the cities and go to the mountains to breathe the clean air, refresh ourselves in the trash-free zone. But even today we can find that the most popular treks have a huge amount of waste on the trails which greet you while you hike. It is not the sight that we desired in the first place. For a more detailed article on how a few NGOs are handling this situation click here.

Take these #10Challenges to prepare yourselves for any trek if you want to enjoy the whole activity. Being responsible only gives you more to have fun. Being safe and educated in the wilderness, makes you the leader. The leader who everyone else looks upon...


#trek #himalayas #ecofriendly #beresponsible

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