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Disconnect in the Himalayas: What Makes it Difficult to Rescue Mountaineers

Disconnect in the Himalayas: What Makes it Difficult to Rescue Mountaineers

If you are going to orchestrate rescue for a person already condemned as irresponsible, the tenor will show through in every link of the chain from policy interpretation to reporting by media. One wonders if this happened in the case of eight climbers reported missing near Nanda Devi East in late-May 2019.

Who do you call when there is a fire in your neighborhood? Who do you call when there is a medical emergency?

The answers to these questions are obvious. In the first, you would call the fire service. With regards to the second, you would dial an emergency medical assistance number or phone your family doctor. You won’t call the ambulance to fight a fire or the fire brigade to deal with a heart attack for although they may know what to do, it isn’t the best option. This is easily understood in our times of growing urbanization. Each environment therein has its own unique operating ecosystems.

The mountains are what they are because they are distinct from the plains. Some immediate distinctions would be remoteness, verticality, less space to comfortably maneuver, the impact of altitude on human physiology and wind, warmth and wetness altered by the elevation and landscape around. Who do we dial when we have an accident or medical emergency in the high mountains; in particular, one involving extreme sports or exploration?

Currently, in India, the rescue ecosystem for trekking, mountaineering and such is a co-opted zone, featuring officials, institutions and personnel holding other responsibilities as well. It works but it is not as specialized as fire-fighting or emergency medical response in the city although there is every reason for this too, to be specialized. Officials can’t be blamed if they find sport-related high altitude accidents a distraction from their regular responsibilities.

Further, in the mountains, there is plenty of rescue work linked to other emergencies, natural calamity being one, to attend to; they also affect a number of people than a few who got into trouble climbing and trekking. The trouble with the Indian rescue apparatus for extreme sports - in whatever form it operates now - starts in disconnect; settled society has little empathy for these pursuits. They often get labelled as 'irresponsible'. If you are going to orchestrate rescue for a person already condemned as irresponsible, the tenor will show through in every link of the chain from policy interpretation to reporting by media. One wonders if this happened in the case of eight climbers reported missing near Nanda Devi East in late-May 2019.

(Nanda Devi East)

Martin Moran is a British climber and mountain guide, well known in India, including the region around Nanda Devi. His name is spoken of in the Pindar Valley and Johar because his expeditions either passed through these places or men from these villages helped ferry loads on his trips. Indian climbers, now experienced and well-known, have in the past, worked on Moran’s team during their upcoming years.

(Martin Moran)

As the media reports on rescue operation show, all this get easily forgotten. Within days, the expedition was blamed for attempting Peak 6477 as opposed to main objective, Nanda Devi East. The fact that with the onsite permission of the Liaison Officer accompanying them, the team was free to do so, was overlooked. The narrative became they "knowingly" courted risk.

It isn’t that 'why' is irrelevant – the question of why the eight climbers tried Peak 6477 after a season of heavy snowfall will always be there. But such questions are many in mountaineering.

Climbing is an exercise matching one’s skills and judgment against potential risk. Sometimes, a climber misjudges and loses. That there is an element of risk accepted by climber himself is evident in the priorities shaping rescue operations. You are taught in wilderness first aid and emergency medical response courses to make sure that you are not putting yourself in danger while moving in to assist others who are injured.

Speaking from experience, taking on risk while rescuing (like a daring piece of climbing or flying to reach victim) is typically proportionate to evidence of victim being alive or a strong possibility of the same. As those prospects fade, so does the appetite to take on risk while rescuing.

Death is treated as final. Retrieval of bodies from altitude is done without subjecting more lives to extreme risk. Sometimes, bodies are retrieved after much time has lapsed, under conditions that don’t endanger others. It is a moot question if climber operating under such harsh realities is irresponsible or acutely responsible and sensing existence more intensely than many of us.

What should worry amid the lack of natural empathy for these activities are ground level problems in tackling climbing / mountaineering / trekking accidents that have continued for years.

Let’s ask a simple question: what do you do when you are in trouble?

You ask for help.

When there is none nearby, you shout for help.

Neither asking nor shouting, works in the Indian outdoors, especially remote outdoors. That’s because a critical device – the satellite phone – very commonly used in wilderness overseas is highly restricted in India after it got misused by anti-national elements. With a satellite phone, even if you are in a place with no cellphone network, you can inform the outside world of an accident and seek help. In its absence, people have to run down to the nearest settlement or military outpost that may have a satellite phone or find some ridge that gives you enough connectivity to make a call from your cellphone, to report an accident.

In recent years, the number of officially sanctioned satellite phones in remote settlements has risen; some leading adventure tour operators have also procured instruments to use. But these changes are small compared to the scale of people venturing out.

(India Begins 'Very High Risk' Operation to Retrieve Dead Climbers From Nanda Devi Peak)

Quick communication reduces response time and saves lives. Quick communication is also important to piece together rescue teams for accidents at high altitude. In recent news reports of the rescue operations around Nanda Devi East, it was mentioned that paramilitary personnel called in to help would need time to acclimatize before leaving for altitude.

What if we cast the net wider and look for competent civilian mountaineers recently at altitude and acclimatized for the task? Can’t they be co-opted into the team? Acclimatized civilian climbers were present in Pithoragarh (base of rescue operations) but possibly in the interest of not subjecting others to risk, the operation was kept a paramilitary-state disaster response force affair.

One mountaineer I spoke to, explained the potential difficulty in looking around for acclimatized civilian climbers. The stumbling block is yet again, communication.

"To go to an altitude at short notice we need people who are well acclimatized and that includes people currently out climbing somewhere, maybe even people who are climbing in some range not far from the accident spot. I can find who has gone where from a central registry of expeditions. I can find acclimatized, competent climbers. But how do I contact them in remoteness if they don’t have a satellite phone and if I can’t contact them, how do I gather them into a team at short notice?" he asked.

While the situation on the ground right now is not known, till some years ago, even detailed contour maps and GPS devices in the hands of trekking groups, was cause for suspicion for security personnel.

Since national security cannot be questioned, the mountaineering fraternity has to come up with other solutions for quick communication. There are satellite-based emergency beacons which are permitted for use in the event of a serious accident in the Himalaya. But beyond signaling distress and establishing coordinates of the location from where the signal was triggered, they can’t host interactive communication.

The hope is that there will be alternatives in digital era. There is also hope that authorities will lend a compassionate ear and allow improved availability of emergency communication devices – including satellite phone - to climbing expeditions. Will they? As they say, hope is good word.

In the meantime there have been instances reported of foreign expeditions in the Indian Himalaya using satellite phones to communicate during medical emergency. Lives have been saved as a result. But in accordance with law, cases are filed and the device is impounded. To complete a rescue system, besides communication, you need transport facilities to move teams to accident spot and insurance cover to pay for rescue cost.

Whether we reach the above said level or not, a major difference can be made by having the right people manning available rescue systems. You need approachable folks who either understand climbing and such sports or wish to understand it; those who are efficient with emergency response and slow on pronouncing the judgment of practitioner of sport.

Hopefully, at some point in the future, we get there.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist and blogger based in Mumbai. He blogs at www.shyamgopan.com)