In an industry marked by danger, trekkers must consider the safety and environmental credentials of their destination. Marianna Keen explores the gold standards under adoption in Ladakh and exposes its potential to be a sustainable player in the Himalaya.
"It's my job to put them in the zone," says Steve, as his team discuss whether to continue the training exercise over the snow-laden 4,900-metre Shang la (mountain pass) to spend the next night at Matho phu—the highest point of Matho valley. Some students previously mentioned that they valued "consequential learning", and perhaps that stuck in Steve's mind. The experience would surely teach them to come prepared for the unexpected.
Most of the 23 students on the UIAA Mountain Leadership course are locals from Ladakh, whilst some are Sherpas who work in Ladakh for the trekking season—a relatively untapped market. All are existing or aspiring trekking guides and are here to gain improved skills and an accredited qualification that is internationally recognised.
The year is 2019, and it's a promising start to the summer trekking industry in Ladakh, in a time before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the region—and the entire world. It is fortunate that the first internationally accredited mountain leadership course has reached Ladakh now, as the country will soon be shut down due to the pandemic. Lessons learned on this course will provide much food for thought during the global lockdown, enabling the industry to start preparing for a successful future.
Steve Long, Training Panel Chair of the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA), leads the course and has brought a team of four trainers from Cyprus, Nepal and the UK, each "from different backgrounds with different qualities". They hope that by imparting practical skills and environmental awareness to local guides, these mountain professionals will provide better care to their clients as well as to the environment they work in.
A pre-pandemic journey: lessons learned
On a newly whitewashed pasture at 4,300 metres altitude, a horseman enrobed in his red goncha sings melodies from his nearby home of Sku valley as he prepares nineteen pack horses for the challenging day ahead. The blizzard that coated the campsite overnight came as a surprise, and several students on the course are displeased with the decision to forge on. With the snow already at around three inches deep, a mist of flakes continues to shower, presenting a dialectic with usual summer conditions, and reducing one student's agile open sandals to futility.
On the ensuing trek through melting snow and slippery mud, course trainer Andreas Andreou allocates rotating leaders for his team of five, and goes on to learn as much from them as they do from him. They point out the natural remedies used by each local amchi (traditional doctor), elaborate on monuments of mystic rituals and worship according to the traditional Bön religion, and stop to admire the shrine, protector of Matho valley and the village, which is covered in goat horns to remind passers-by of the essential Buddhist doctrine of impermanence. This prompts the group to either absorb themselves in the present moment, or ponder the looming death for us all.
As some of the group wander off, Andreas reminds Lanzes, the current leader, that she needs to be firm and keep the group together. "Men want to show off and often they will be stupid to impress women. Some will also be macho and oppose your authority. You need to be strong and tell them what you say goes," Andreas advises her, and she is visibly empowered. She has proven to be one of the most knowledgeable students and her leadership skills are developing.
All groups traipse on and with increasingly strained breaths from the soaring altitude they reach the tattered prismatic prayer flags at the top of the pass. It reminds me of the similar spiritual marker on Everest, which I've seen in photos. This one feels truly remote, as we had seen no other soul on the entire trek other than the duo of elderly shepherdesses in Shang valley who cracked broad smiles to welcome our visit. There is certainly a unique sense of isolation on this snowy apex at 4,900 metres.
In the white mist, the group meets little scenery bar their trekking companions up the top. Everyone shares cheery congratulations and, after catching their breath, they begin gliding with relief down the other side of the pass. On arrival at the serene camp at Matho phu, the ponies are grazing alongside dzo and yak and our orange tents are already standing, punctuating our resting spots in the sweeping valley peppered in lush green. The incessantly hospitable Stanzin passes me a cup of tea. There is no doubt the mountain workers are keen to give their very best.
In the Buddhist culture mixed with simple lives here in "Little Tibet", people are remarkably warm and kind. Stanzin remarks that he has now learned to take care of the environment as well as the clients, so he is mindful of what he takes up and never leaves rubbish behind. Clients want to feel safe — best achieved through trusting that Ladakh guides have the skills to deal with any situation. This guides course aims to professionalise the trekking industry in the region and beyond. A similar course has already successfully nourished mountain leaders in Nepal for the past years. Steve is visibly thrilled to be rolling out a programme in Ladakh.
There's a divine purity that resides in Ladakh, as though the Buddha nestles in its timeless mountain valleys. But having spent the entire morning walking along the apparently never-ending Matho valley, morale in the group dwindles. The group spent days practising technical skills, but emotional and communicational challenges are now proving taxing. The trek is doing its part in building not only their stamina but also their characters. "The first thing you will see when we're close to Matho village is the monastery, but it's still quite a bit further from there," Tenzin remembers from his previous experience on the trek. This doesn't fill the group with motivation. "It's just around the next corner." That ever so elusive corner.
The group winds on down the valley, following the yellow flowers of the densely branched Caragana Versicolor, past the yak and the lucky sighting of a flock of blue sheep; then the monastery pops into sight. Met with cheers of joy, it is as though the group has reached the end of a pilgrimage. It was certainly an enlightening journey. A shared sense of achievement animates everyone's faces as they pile into the waiting trucks. The three-day trek was a patchwork of practical and mental challenges, from late evening navigation tasks to endeavours to converse with make-believe clients.
Safety skills for preventing incidents are a key part of the Mountain Leadership course, so another excursion for the group is to the snowline up Khardung la—one of the highest motorable passes in the world—to practise in more extreme conditions. At an altitude of approximately 5000 metres, the guides practice proper use of snow boots, crampons and ice axes. Many have had to borrow equipment and are apprehensive, but soon they are comfortable walking attached to a line, belaying from a snow pit, and assessing snow quality and avalanche risks. Their new skills could avoid the need to employ a rescue operation in the future.
Nevertheless, a ropework for emergency procedures fills training days in the dusty Shey mountains. The students teach Steve a thing or two by fashioning an effective—and surprisingly comfortable—stretcher from a backpack. In a remote location or case of severe illness, however, an organised rescue is required, so alongside the 2019 Mountain Leadership course, a Mountain Rescue course was organised in Ladakh—delivered by the Bergrettung team from Lech, Austria.
Taupe gusts of wind burst through gaps in the huge boulders beside which the rescue students have attached a 25-metre zipline that leads up the granite crag. I'm crunching the grit in my teeth whilst well-prepared Ladakhi students wear handkerchiefs over their mouths as they work on releasing the mock patient from the recently lowered stretcher. Manfred Meusburger, head of Bergrettung, Lech, leads the team of four trainers who teach skills from avalanche rescue to river crossings. The surprise simulated rescue exercises inspire smiling faces and chatters of excitement.
"What's really different here is that they are all so enthusiastic and keen to learn… They appreciate it so much here and see the value it adds to their lives," says Manfred. He applies a style that enables students to safely learn from mistakes, remembering how much he learned from this approach when he was a mechanic's apprentice. The tactic works well; members of the team cheerily jump in to help when one mock patient is sliding down the zipline upside down! "They are motivated, communicate so well and show great initiative to do things even when not asked. They could teach so much to our students in Austria," remarks trainer Markus Amann. He is confident that his students will become proficient trekking and rescue guides who will not only save lives, but make visitors feel more secure.
"There was the avalanche in 2018 where ten people died," Rigzin Tsewang tells me. He is a student on the course and Vice President of Ladakh Mountain Guides Association (LMGA), who has long advocated for improved mountain education for the region. "The rescuers just didn't have the skills and knowledge to rescue them. I am confident that now, after the rescue training course with the guys from Bergrettung, we have the skills and knowledge to respond very well to the same kind of situation."
The Himalayan Club identified an intensifying problem in Ladakh, which associated growth in adventure tourism with an increase in accidents. Recent events also showed that current emergency response and rescue attempts were below par, impelling All Ladakh Tour Operators Association (ALTOA) and LMGA to respond by forming a skilled rescue team.
Although guides are experienced in dealing with hypothermia and sprained ankles, "they have little or no knowledge in areas such as carrying a patient with spinal injuries and avoiding avalanche risks," says Tsetan Angchuk, President of ALTOA, during this 2019 course. He is hugely grateful for the arrival of experts from across the world. The need for organised rescue operations has risen—exacerbated by a sharp rise in domestic tourism following the success of the Bollywood film Three Idiots, which includes an iconic finale filmed at Pangong Lake in Ladakh. These Indian tourists take part in the Chadar frozen river trek and the popular summer peak of Stok Kangri (6,154 metres).
In 2018, 3000-odd trekkers went on the Chadar trek—a committing 90-kilometre multi-day journey along a frozen river—and most of these were domestic tourists, says Rigzin. There were many casualties, resulting in five deaths. "The problem in part was administration. When a rescue was required, in addition to employing porters with no rescue skills, they gathered workers from around Leh—those who were waiting around for any type of work and have no experience of the mountains or working in the snow, let alone rescue," says Rigzin. Since the completion of the Mountain Rescue course [in June, 2019], Ladakh Mountain Rescue was formed, providing the region with an expertly trained rescue team.
Early in 2019, three Adventure Sports Cover 360 (ASC 360) rescue posts were established at three camps up Stok Kangri mountain, which will be manned by rescue guides that qualified from the mountain rescue course led by Meusberger. The ASC 360 medical unit also arranged High Altitude Medical and Rescue Centres (HAMRC) at Stok Kangri base camp as well as at the base of the Chadar trek, with paramedics, nurses and qualified high altitude doctors at hand.
Whilst Steve develops trekking guides' skills so they can avoid a rescue scenario, Manfred and his team weave additional leadership skills into the Mountain Rescue course. "Even if you're a good rescuer, if you don't have the leadership skills it's useless," says Rigzin. "However; the hope is that with increased leadership skills, there will be fewer casualties and less need to rescue people."
Back in Leh city, as we walk along the central market, strings of colourful prayer flags billow in the dust and frame the snow-capped mountains. It feels peaceful here, untainted by commercial billboards, and free of litter. "But that's just on the surface," says Rigzin. He explains that the city has struggled following the increase in tourism over the years (before the Covid-19 pandemic), and that the government needs to adapt infrastructure, waste management, sewage systems and regulations to this changing industry.
The majority of tourism is domestic, but there has also been a steady influx of foreign tourists coming for leisure and the annual gruelling, high altitude Ladakh Marathon, established in 2012. Adventure tourists from Europe as well as South East Asia have been particularly attracted to Ladakh's mountainous treks, but these numbers have declined and ALTOA seeks to increase foreign tourism. Sustainability is key, so environmental regulations and conservation training for trekking guides are under discussion. It is now mandatory for all tour operators to list the food they will take up Stok Kangri so that the Wildlife Department can check if they have brought their litter down.
Meanwhile, new routes are being opened up to avoid overcrowding on the popular Chadar and Stok Kangri routes. "Transition takes time. I would say this season is one of transition," Deputy Commissioner of Leh Ms. Avny Lavasa tells me.
Moves towards a prosperous future
The Covid-19 pandemic broke out just months after these important training courses in Ladakh, and this led to a dramatic drop in all travel, and thus visitors to Ladakh. Thanks to the pre-pandemic leadership and rescue courses, the climbing and trekking industry in Ladakh was able to conscientiously prepare for a progressive new course for the future, even while the world travel industry was essentially shut down. Since reopening, more guides have been trained following internationally accredited industry standards, Rigzin tells me.
Low tourism to the busy peak of Stok Kangri has enabled glacial water quality to recover following contamination by visitors. Stok villagers are main stakeholders in the travel industry, so ALTOA is negotiating with them, says Deleks Namgyal, General Secretary of ALTOA. Low visitor numbers have also allowed for the recovery of the natural environment on other routes. The hope is that the newly-trained mountain leaders and rescuers will look after the landscape well into the future.
The Bergrettung team will return to provide more advanced teaching skills so some of the rescue guides can qualify as trainers, while the UIAA Mountain Leadership trainers will also return to provide regulated qualifications for instructors. With its vaccination programme, India has been able to stabilise infections and deaths, leading to an opening of its borders after a 2-year lockdown. On 27 March, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and State Department lowered government Covid-19 travel ratings for India from "level 3: high" to "level 1: low", signalling a chance for the travel industry to recover.
60 airlines from 40 countries have been permitted to fly in and out of India this summer. Since the start of the pandemic, Ladakh has been mostly welcoming domestic guests, Rigzin reports. New measures have been adopted to help to tackle the spread of Covid-19, such as mask wearing and the requirement for guests to show a negative Covid-19 test within 96 hours of arrival.
"In 2020 we had no tourists due to Covid19, and we learnt a lot", Rigzin tells me. "Realising they can't rely on tourism, many people opened new businesses. Many people from the villages realised that local resources are important, not just tourism." Rigzin started selling sea buckthorn, the sweet yet tangy orange berries that flourish in the region over summer. He now has a small business selling this local organic produce. He also focused on climbing endeavours, and helped to organise ice climbing festivals for locals over the winters. This included a women-only festival, which he hopes will help to empower females of all ages. LMGA will also run a women's climbing event over the summer.
Despite tragic consequences throughout the world, the Covid-19 crisis has offered positive glimmers, and in Ladakh it has even helped to set the course towards sustainability. Making a living has been difficult for many, however, and the region looks forward to applying new lessons to busier tourism seasons ahead.
The aim is to be a key destination like Nepal, says Vice President of The Himalayan Club and Advisor to ALTOA, Chewang Motup. Yet, Nepal's shortfalls have also been clearly recognised and lessons learned. High tourist populations undeniably have an impact on the environment and on safety, and controlling this is a huge challenge.
Since Ladakh is a relative infant in the adventure tourism market, it has the opportunity to adopt an approach from the roots up that minimises its impact on the environment. If policies and regulations are effectively applied now, then the industry will have a far greater chance of being sustainable.
The Mountain Leadership and Mountain Rescue courses play a significant part in enabling this serene mountain trekking destination to develop with safety and environmental consciousness at the forefront. The UIAA and Bergrettung courses have raised the bar for the industry in the entire Himalaya region, as well as for Asia as a whole.