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Opinion & Tip

Failures, mistakes and lessons learnt while trekking in the Indian Himalayas

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There are no failures – just experiences and your reactions to them.

— Tom Krause

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.

 The missing Etrex 20. If someone finds it in the Himalayas, please do let us know :)

The missing Etrex 20. If someone finds it in the Himalayas, please do let us know 🙂

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. 

 Garmin does make a carabiner lanyard for GPS. In hindsight I should have invested in one

Garmin does make a carabiner lanyard for GPS. In hindsight I should have invested in one

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.

 Selecting Terrain view on Google Maps gives you contour lines and elevation profile.

Selecting Terrain view on Google Maps gives you contour lines and elevation profile.

Learn

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.

 A generic waterproof pouch with a lanyard, fits most smartphones. Available on  Amazon India

A generic waterproof pouch with a lanyard, fits most smartphones. Available on Amazon India

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.

 A power bank allows you to recharge your mobile phone in the field.

A power bank allows you to recharge your mobile phone in the field.

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.

 Looking back and making a note of landmarks can help if inclement weather forces you to return back via the same route

Looking back and making a note of landmarks can help if inclement weather forces you to return back 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.

2 Comments

  1. s michael durairaj

    Thanks it was nice reading on the lost GPS. i think it was really very very wise on your part to not foolishl go ahead with the trek. I really appreciate your wisdom in humble returning to the starting point.

    I had gone for my basic mountaineering,before starting for the base camp my canvas shoe which i used for my trek was worn out and didnt have grip. One of the instructors suggested i purchase a new shoe. The low budget approach, i just ignored the idea. we finished out basic training and went upto 16500 feet i think. while returning their was a thirty pr forty kilmeter trek. in the last ten kms it started drizzling, the mud was loose and slippery, my shoe was really not gripping and any angle and pressure i was slipping, at least three places i slipped and fell badly. i was just 500 metres away from the resting places but i was full of mud, i tried washing and removing the dirt but it was their. when i entered the camp everyone was laughing, i was really embrassed, but i was relieved that i wasnt injured. A good canvas shoe would really have helped. it would have cost just Rs 150, less than four dollars, i would have got badly injured. i think taking precaution is always wiset than foolishly venturing out .

    • Dear Michael,
      You are right, at times bravado has to be nipped in the bud, especially in high mountains. Your pertinent story only underlines this fact. Thank you for sharing.

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