On a winter trek in Himachal Pradesh (day 2 between Hampta Pass and Shira Gorh) I was wading through a waist deep snow drift. I had added a waypoint in my GPS just before the snowdrift. After two hours of tumbling and breaking trail through fresh snow, I was finally back on firm ground. Elated at having made my way through this tough section, I reached into my jacket for my GPS to set another waypoint. It was then that I realised that I did not have my GPS with me. As it turns out, I had forgotten to zip up my down jacket pocket and the GPS had slipped off in the fluffy snow. Panic! Followed by anger and self deprecation. But all this anger and self criticism failed to conjure a GPS out of thin air. To cut a long story short, that day I traversed the snow drift thrice but was unable find my GPS. All my research, including my tentative route, campsites, waypoints, peaks etc were on this GPS and I had no backup. This mistake meant an end to my trek and a lonely walk back to Sethan, the starting point for this trek. Fortunately, it did not snow and there was no fresh powder to obliterate my tracks. After this trek I had a long talk with myself and decided to invest a few days on a snow orienteering course with a paper map and compass.
If the weather had turned bad that week, this mistake could have had severe and maybe even life threatening complications. So what did I learn after this “failed” trek?
Research, research, research!
If someone has done this route before you (and in all probability, someone must have), ask them for their GPS logs. Store the GPS logs in your GPS and smartphone as a backup.
Secure Electronic Gear
Secure all essential and important electronic gear (smartphones / GPS) with a lanyard and a carabiner to a key hook in your pocket or in your backpack. Invest in a smartphone lanyard case (Buy on Amazon India) if you use your smartphone for navigation.
BACKUP / PLAN ‘B’
Always have a backup for electronic orienteering gear. Which means a) having a compass and topographical maps b) knowing how to use them. You can print out topographical maps by selecting terrain view on Google Maps or using Open Street Maps. Ink your tentative route on these printouts. Keep a copy with someone responsible back home or at base camp.
Learning essential navigation techniques like baseline, aiming off, handrails, backstops and blazing. Here’s someone who does a fine job at explaining these techniques
Topographical maps and compass
Keep your topographical map, compass and a fine tipped permanent ink pen/marker in a ziplock bag (waterproof) secured with a lanyard. You can reuse an old waterproof phone pouch for carrying topographical maps.
Cold and spare batteries
Carry spare batteries for GPS / power banks for smartphones (Buy on Amazon India). Calculate estimated batteries required and add an extra pair, especially on winter treks. Cold tends to drain batteries faster, therefore keep your electronics inside your feather jackets / hard shells.
I came across a German couple in Spiti who had forgotten to pack enough spare batteries for their GPS and were hopelessly lost for the past 48 hours. Fortunately, they had a signalling mirror to catch my attention and I had a pair of spare batteries from my headlamp that I could lend. This mistake could have had serious repercussions for them.
Stop and look back
Stop and look back often on a trek. Keep a log (physical notebook) of all important landmarks and their position. Most beginner trekkers don’t do the often enough, and are confused when their return trail is obliterated by snow / rain. It is good to trust your guide if you have one but that does not absolve you of your responsibility to note landmarks and be able to retrace your steps in an emergency. Especially important if you are trekking alone or if you plan to return via the same route.
What mistakes have you made in the Himalayas? And what lessons have you learnt from them? Let us know in the comments below.