Sunday, November 1, 2009

De-risking Living-on the Edge

We were 17100 Ft, just few meters away from Camp-2, “Avalanche, watch-out” came the call!! We moved quickly towards the end of the avalanche fall-line and switched-on the Avalanche Victim Detector (AVD) to transmission mode, within seconds we were covered by flakes of snow. We were very lucky to be able to move out of the fall-line, else we would be been pounded by heaps of ice blocks and snow with sure casualties.

Every adventurer loves to live-on the edge, but leaving it to luck is something that should never be done in Adventure. An adventure activity comes with its own risks; the assessment of possible risks before taking up the activity enables to de-risk them to a large extent.

Adventure related Risks can be classified as Nature Risk, Navigation Risk, Equipment Risk, Medical Risk and Operational Risk.

Nature Risk, this is perhaps one risk that is almost beyond human control, but studying the specifics of the locations/areas and evaluating the conditions is perhaps the best way to address it. We may never be able to predict Avalanches, Landslides, Floods, Wild Animals, Weather and other Climatic changes accurately, but it is necessary is to be prepared to handle eventualities both technically and professionally.

While returning from Mt Jaonli expedition, right before the junction where Lodgad River merges into River Bhagirathi, the water level had increased substantially. The only crossing option was the log bridge that was swept away by the gushing waters of Lodgad. With no other option left, we risked our lives and crossed over to safety, with the help of a fallen tree.

Navigation Risk, with advanced gadgets like Walky-talkies, GPS and Google maps; today we are able to map the terrains more accurately. Information from these sources helps us in precise navigation and data recording. But what it unique about adventure is the impact of the nature - a change-of-course of a river, a de-route due to landslide, missing a cairn, a crevasse, an avalanche zone can take you miles away from the destination, and also posing new challenges that may not be part of the earlier plan or assessment.

Equipment Risk, quality of equipments used for any adventure activity should be given paramount importance. Deploying UIAA certified equipments that are well maintained and are in a highly usable condition is recommended; never try to save few bucks when it comes to equipments. One risk that you can be in your control to a very large extent is the equipment risk. Ensuring that the personnel managing the activity comply’s with the highest standards on the equipment front is critical. Never forget that a rope snapping, a harness de-buckling, a raft deflating, a carabineer cracking or jamming can cost you life.

Medical Risk, disclosing the correct information about the medical condition and giving a personal declaration is mandatory for any adventure seeker. If you are in a group or part of an organized event informing and updating about your state of health without any hesitation is the only way to address an eventuality.

Even though sever medical conditions like heart attack may be instantaneous, it can be averted if one is able to communicate the state-of-mind and takes help when ever required. Communication without hesitation or ego hassles is the best way for a great adventure trip. You know your body better than anyone else and pushing yourself extensively is not advisable.

On a longer adventure activity one may have a doctor to accompany, but it is not practical or economically viable for shorter events. An easily administrable medical kit, listing out medication that may be allergic and getting a basic medical check-up done before going on an adventure is recommended. If you are going to high altitude areas, having HAP’s (High Altitude Porter), oxygen cylinders, GAMO bag, stretchers, splints, doctor on ground and helicopter rescue option (if possible) is mandatory.

The other situations that may lead to severe are insect bites or snake bites, for which administering a medication can be difficult, trying to travel away from dangerous terrains is the only best option, but also ensuring that someone in the group knows the basics of snake bite administration should never be ruled out.

Operation Risk, primary operational risk is that of the personnel (Guides, Organizers, etc), it’s extremely important to check on the experience, qualification in adventure and certifications of the people whom you are hiring for adventure activity. Even the basic guidelines given by Indian Tourism Ministry is, to go with operators who are certified with state governments or with someone who is certified by recognized Mountaineering institutes in India.

The secondary operational risk is that, even though India has a fairly large number of adventure tourist both local and global there are no specific or structured insurance or rescue options in place, and what ever is available is either too expensive or inadequate or highly unrealistic.

The one time we needed a helicopter was when we were on an all women expedition to Mt White Sail in the Himachal area. Given tha, it was a personal expedition; we did not have INR 2 lac advance deposit towards any possible rescue operation. We are summit camp at appox 18000 ft, our HAP who was helping us in the expedition developed HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema), a life threatening altitude sickness condition. We were left to our will to get him down on a stretcher, even with a thin staff we managed to bring him down safely and later took him to the hospital. Expect for our presence of mind, preparedness both in terms of equipments and personnel, we had everything racing against us.

India is the only place in the world with Snow-Mountains, Rocky hills, Forests, Beaches, Rivers and Desert making it more exciting for an adventure seeker globally. Given this amazing geographic spread India can offer adventure activities all 365-days through the year.

Indian tourism over the last few years with its ‘Incredible India’ campaign has seen a tremendous increase both in revenue and foreign exchange, adventure tourism alone accounts to appox 450 crores. Adventure tourism generates employment particularly in the Himalayan range. Majority of the population in these terrains are dependent on adventure tourism for their livelihood, for many it is probably the only means to make a living and hence, it is both economically and socially important for a country like ours to promote and develop adventure tourism.

We have heard about several adventure activities that has taken lives, the most recent being the death during a bungee jumping activity in Bangalore. But “Drunken driving is no reason to ban cars or to remove pedestrian crossings”, banning or putting restrictions (which are, generally the first reaction) on adventure activities or its operators for any mishaps or accidents are no real solution.

At a policy level, a National & State-wise comprehensive policy that follows global conventional guidelines and mechanism to assess the safety protocols followed by its operators should be put in place to make Adventure Tourism safe and safer on a consistent basis.

Most importantly, at an individual level ensuring that there is no compromise on the quality of equipments or quality of the personnel who are handling it is indeed the first step to towards a safer Adventure Holiday.

A famous mountaineer once said, “Summit is optional, Basecamp is mandatory”, one should always put the safety of self and the group ahead of glories.

- Kavitha Reddy
Co-Founder & Director of BASECAMP Adventures
..........................(Was published in Deccan Herald 01-11-09)