07 May What it takes to be a Trek Leader in the Himalaya
How the right skills at the right time can save a life and reduce environmental impact
Adventure tourism is a growing industry in Uttarakhand. Along with generous commissions for the tour operators, it provides local and rural youth with job opportunities. Becoming guides, cooks or porters allows them continue to be based in their hometowns and villages, reducing the exodus to the cities.
As this type of opportunity booms amongst the Uttarakhandi youth, the growing numbers of travellers to the Western Himalaya are increasingly putting pressure on the ecology and landscape of the area.
Government courses are available and that too only to learn mountaineering and these only cover the technical aspects of being outdoors. Back in 2012, at the Hanifl Centre we believed that there was an urgent need to develop & promote responsible tourism, and that it could only happen simultaneously through capacity building of the local populace.
Hanifl Centre´s Trek Leader Course pioneering experiment started in 2012. Besides the hard skills in the use of ropes, knots and other hardware, we placed “soft skills” at the core of the training. We thought that Leave No Trace© (LNT) Ethics, teamwork, understanding environmental issues, learning wilderness first aid, knowing how to cook and keeping personal hygiene standards during long treks were as important as knowing how to tie knots, do rappelling, zip lines etc. We thought that if we combined hard skills and soft skills, we could train mountain youth to value their environment and consequently act with a more eco-friendly and professional approach to their livelihoods.
Today, we look back at more than 50 young men and women who have graduated over the last four editions of this course, and attained Hanifl Centre´s Diploma in Outdoor and Environmental Education. Andrew Hepworth, Head of Woodstock School’s Outdoor Education department commented that “Some of these graduates now lead Woodstock School´s Activity Week´s treks, and its inspiring to see them applying LNT principles, managing the expedition kitchens and campsites as they pay attention to environmental issues (ie: looking after waste)”. Such issues were highlighted during the Trek Leader Course and are now a priority for the graduates.
As participants are evaluated on the basis of their performance and the manner in which they handle themselves individually and as team members, instructors closely follow their progress and continually offer feedback. This year´s edition was particularly challenging, as the group of 17 participants and three instructors spent their 11 nights out under unexpected wet and cold weather for the month of March here in the Garhwal Himalaya.
K. Krishnan Kutty, Executive Director of Hanifl Centre is thrilled with the response since the inception of the course. It has been his long-time dream to be able to offer a course that is taught in Hindi and covers the soft and hard skills of being a Trek Leader. He says, “the government run mountaineering courses teach you skills needed to climb a mountain. The Trek leader Course teaches you the skills to be able to get to the base of the mountain in a safe and healthy way”.
Himanshu Kumar (22) from Munsiary, recalls learning to keep warm and dry as the most valuable lesson, and feeling warm and sheltered around a fire at night with the group as the most simple and beautiful reward. Whilst camping at Kanda, in the middle of the jungle, territory of bears and leopards, Himanshu couldn’t help thinking of what would happen if… but as days went by, he realized his growing confidence and belonging to the wilderness. “Being able to set up a proper camp and manage a group confidently, with a calm cool attitude, that is the best. Instructors in this course explain each situation, so you understand why and so remember it”.
Himanchu´s village, Munsiary, has a fair amount of trekkers going through. “Often these groups will hire guides, and none of whom will have first aid skills or other basic knowledge like about open defecation and that it is best to dig a “cat hole” at least 200 meters away from camp. We need a lot of marketing to get clients, but we also need more training for everyone that wants to work in this field- and when there is work, we can distribute the treks amongst us confidently.”
Raghuveer Singh (21), also from Munsiary, was experiencing trekking for the first time in his life, yet he graduated hoping to find his place in the local trekking scene back at home. “I have seen and heard about trekking all my life, and so I have also heard about all the accidents that happen and how sometimes guides cant do much because they only know to lead the trek. Every guide should have this education, then you are a useful resource if something goes wrong, and you might even avoid a tragedy.” Now that he is familiar with basic protocols for first aid, Raghuveer, who found the wilderness first aid section of the course the most thrilling, hopes to specialize further in this aspect of the outdoor industry.
Both Himanchu and Raghuveer agreed that being out in remote areas, without cell phone signal to keep in touch with friends and family for so many days was a personal challenge. But they both agree that they experienced something unique in exchange. “When we had pitched our tents, made ourselves warm and comfortable, and were cooking dinner together around the fire under the open sky- we felt there was no other place we would rather be”, says Himanchu.
Jitendra Singh (36) is an experienced trek leader from Dharchula. He has been taking groups out for the past 18 years and has had previous training experiences. What can an experienced and local guide like me possibly learn that he doesn’t already know was his initial question. “In 1998 during a long trek on the Mt. Kailash route in China, one of our clients suffered hypothermia. None of the guides knew what to do, after sometime he died. I didn’t know any first aid back then. It is really important to take responsibility for the people we take out, anything can happen”. New to formal Wilderness First Aid (WFA) protocols, Jitendra enjoyed understanding how to tackle health conditions and injuries professionally. “It was so interesting to see how whilst many things are out of our control in the outdoors, we also have power in preventing and reducing risks”.
Trek leading doesn’t know the boundaries of age if the mind and body are young. Diwakar Singh (66) is a graduate of this year’s course. A former army soldier, he reflects about his skilled medical training in the army, and the theoretical lessons on rope systems and climbing. “You weren´t always explained why, so there are things you just know but don’t understand. I enjoyed putting to practice everything we learned in class, climbing, rappelling, rope management, etc…
I decided to go into trekking after the army because there are work opportunities locally, and I can stay home with my family. I am a lot more skilled now, as I am confident to take groups out; even if the weather changes I am able to identify a sheltered camping spot, make people dress appropriately or cook them a hot breakfast after a cold night”.
Hanifl Centre´s Trek Leader Course typically runs in the months of February and March. You can find the course curriculum on our website, as well as our contact details should you want to take part or make an enquiry about sending participants.