To be clear, we are mostly talking about the proliferation of Guided Trekking Companies which has changed the ecological landscape of the Himalayas. This post isn’t an indictment of Guided Trekking culture as a whole. Rather, it comes from a concern many independent Trekkers feel strongly about.
While a majority of people trek independently in the western countries, the same cannot be said for here. In India, trekking is still at an antecedent stage, largely dependent on Trek Operators. The “worry free” wilderness experience these Organizers offer has not necessarily helped in developing a true trekking culture. The clients are relatively inexperienced and require a thorough handholding. A lot of resources are put forth by the Trek Organizers to cater to the creature comforts of the clients.
Out of this niche, a very small fraction of people have learned to trek independently. The numbers are dismal. This dependency works in favor of the Trek Operators. In short, trekking culture in India is mostly guided and unregulated, with serious ecological implications.
A case for Independent Trekking
Trekking independently is not only a lot of fun but is a leisurely pursuit with a very low environmental impact which also contributes towards a healthier lifestyle.
But perhaps most importantly, learning how to trek independently gives you more freedom to plan and explore. “As an independent backpacker, we are adding economic value to the landscape, habitat, and species that inhabit those areas and therefore strengthening the case for their protection. Trekking independently means the acceptance of all responsibilities,” says Veena, a mountaineer, and an outdoor enthusiast.
An independent trekker represents a more empathetic figure, simply because he or she is attempting to accept and adapt to local conditions without the safety net of a guided trip. “when local people see someone hiking independently, carrying their own pack, taking the same dodgy buses and broken down pickup trucks that they do, an affinity is created without a single word being exchanged” states Cam Honan who has extensively trekked around the globe.
A Case against Guided Trekking in India
Guided Trekking Companies are seen with suspicion among the many independent backpackers in India. We contacted a few passionate backpackers in India. We spoke at length about the overt commercialisation of the Himalayan trails in India. This is the most discussed, off the record topic. In the spirit of full disclosure, we admit hearing a lot of flak against the unregulated model of Trek Tourism. Some were very vocal about their distaste for the commercial entities pushing an increasingly high number of inexperienced (unfit) people on treks.
“People who have been trekking for years have suddenly been forced to share the limited resources at campsites, newbie trekkers creating noise in silent & pristine locations, trekking trails full of people, litter thrown around the trek routes & campsites and so on,” speaks Arvind, a trekker from Jaipur.
Arvind is not the only one who echoes this sentiment. Every year we see more and more of Himalayan trails taken over by this Trek Tourism. In order to make treks economically viable, Trek operators pitch fixed camps for the entire season. The loud and noisy ways of the trekkers who trek with them spoil the camping experience for a few backpackers looking for peace and quiet.
“While visiting Chandra Taal on the way back to Pin Parvati, came across a bunch of trekkers from India Hikes made the lake appear like a picnic spot.” fumes Moumita Nandy as she narrates her experience of tolerating a lousy batch of trekkers manned by Indiahikes, a popular Trek Operator.
The contempt for Trek Tourism does not end here. “I get asked for information about new, unexplored trails regularly by Trek Operators. I never divulge any information fearing the worst for those pristine places in the Himalayas, losing out to these money minded goons.” says an experienced traveler who chose to keep his identity anonymous.
So what can be the solutions? “Simple solution can be restricting the number of trekkers allowed on a Himalayan Trail. Correspondingly lay clear guidelines for operation and conduct for every Trek Organizer. Make everyone accountable and responsible.” says Mithun from Hyderabad.
Our list of trekkers quotes (some with expletives) is a big one. We will let them be and move on to our list of treks we lost to Trek Tourism in 2016.
Losing out on the Himalayan Trails to Guided Trek Tourism
In 2016 we saw a spike increase in the presence of Guided trekking groups. The most disturbed were the trails that remained off the radar of the popular trekking agencies. Until now.
We take no pride in listing 5 Himalayan Treks we lost to the bogarting presence of Guided Trekking Companies. Expect a huge increase in human traffic brought forth by these groups.
A favorite weekend destination for Backpackers near Manali has now been identified by Trek Agencies. Experienced backpackers can expect to reach the impressive height of over 4,000 meters on the second day of trek itself.
However, a weekend trek gives a low return of investment for Trek Organizers. Companies look to maximize their earnings by adding more camping days in the itinerary.
In the case of Bhrigu Lake, the organizers found 2 extra camping days that could make the trek more attractive. The trek which starts from Gulaba, no longer requires one to return back to its Base. The trek now extends all the way down to Vashisht Village. The 4-day trek looks more attractive for people who live far away from the Himalayas.
The high altitude alpine meadows of Pandu Ropa and Rola Kholi has suddenly seen an ostentatious increase in trekking activity. With little regulations over how many trekkers are allowed, we fear the worse for the ecology of the land. National Green Tribunal has been bullish over the environmental impact in Rohtang La, near Bhrigu Lake. We hope they bring regulations for the trekking routes around this zone as well.
If there is a trek that has an ecological doom written all over it, it is Buran Ghati.
Trek Organizers have been frantically searching for a money-spinning alternative to Roopkund Trek. The untouched alpine meadows of Pabbar Valley is now under the scanner of Commerical Trekking Companies. It is not difficult to understand why. The mad rush that Roopkund generate needs a successor.
On paper, Buran Ghati has it all. A stunning alpine meadow that rivals the best Himalayas got to offer. A high altitude Glacial lake (Chandarnahan). A riveting snowbound pass crossing experience. With Buran Ghati, the Organizers have hit a jackpot. It has the best of Roopkund and Rupin Pass. You are getting two for the price of one.
Last year, the Organizers worked in addressing the problem of Manpower and Logistics. Getting local porters in this region is very difficult and costly. This year we anticipate Buran Ghati will witness a record inflow of Trek Tourism. A worry for another quiet and pristine location turning into an ecological mess that has become of Roopkund.
Pin Bhaba Pass
Pin Bhaba is one of the most popular trekking destination for independent backpacker.
It runs in a virtually untapped Bhaba Valley of Kinnaur that connects with a barren Spiti Valley.
Experienced Trekkers have an added advantage of extending their trek with other high altitude pass traverse like Pin Parvati, Shakarog la, Kilung La etc.
Barring a few small groups run by local Trek Agencies, the route has remained quiet. In 2016 we saw an entry of some of the big Trekking Players on this route. We anticipate the numbers to significantly increase this year.
Tarsar Marsar Lake
A favorite camping destination of Foreign backpackers in the 1980’s has seen a revival. The hidden lakes of Tarsar, Marsar of Aru Valley in Kashmir are open for trekkers again.
Tarsar Marsar Lake is positioned as a sequel to the Great Lakes Trek near Sonamarg.
The Trek was first introduced for big size trekking groups in 2015. It became an instant hit. In 2016, most trek operators were seen running this trek. In 2017, we expect it to close the gap with its sister trek in Sonamarg. Solo Backpackers, get use to sharing the campsite with the Selfie Crowd.
Deoriatal to Chandrashila Peak
Deoriatal to Chandrashila Peak is a walk over connecting forested ridge of Chopta Valley.
A route only known to the locals and few experienced Backpackers has recently been presented to the public.
The solo trekkers use to trek from Deoriatal to Chopta in a day. This takes away the need for setting a camp in the inner realm of Chopta Forest.
However, the Trek Operators place fixed camps at Rohini Bughyal and Bhrujgali to increase the camping days. Both these camping sites is inside the most secluded (and fragile) zone of the Forest. Strangely, The Forest Department shows no objection to this.
In 2016, this route saw a regular inflow of trek batches throughout the year. We are strictly against the practice of camping at Rohini Bughyal. Making the trek easier for amateur trekkers is no excuse for the ecological mess that comes with it.
Picture Credits: Mohit Kharb for Bhrigu Lake, Srinivas Sudhir for Pin Bhaba Pass