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Notes From A Backcountry Wanderer

Notes From A Backcountry Wanderer

Mountaineer Karn Kowshik gives voice to the concerns of the outdoor community, while recognising everyone’s right to experience the joys of the wild.

The outdoor community faces stiff challenges in the form of expensive permits and red tape. Photo: Angel Robledo.

There are many reasons I go out into the wilderness. Of course, there is the challenge of climbing mountains, but it’s more than that. For me, looking down from a mountain top, or a high pass, is a spiritual activity. And as Indians, we are blessed with many, many wild places where we can experience this.


This June, I was leading a small group of four people on an easy, beautiful hike from the Kullu valley to the Parvati Valley, over the 3,500 m. Chandrakheni Pass. We carried all our food, fuel and shelter for this four-day hike in our backpacks. The walking was pretty easy, but with our heavy packs, we struggled through the beautiful rhododendron and oak forests. Within the first few hours, I’d seen a couple of different woodpeckers, a vulture or two up high, and a few less exciting species. When the snow melts, a forest is never quiet. It is peaceful, but it is waking up.

Suddenly, instead of the chirps of birds and cicadas, I began to hear something electronic. It got louder. A Bollywood song? Unmistakable! As I turned a corner, I saw a group of 40 to 50 people trickling downhill. They were a happy group, but loud, shouting and singing at the top of their voices, and all munching on Kurkure or the like. Amongst them, I counted at least three different speakers blaring music, and numerous phones.

A little further up the trail, I reached their camp. It was filthy. Toilet paper everywhere (yes, used), large, overflowing pits filled with plastic waste (yes, more chips packets), food scraps all around, and flex banners announcing the campsite. Once this was one of my favourite treks, easy, with great forests, and beautiful views. This time, I was sharing the trail with about 200 to 300 messy, loud, inconsiderate people, and I’d begun to hate it.

I tried talking to them, but one young man snapped, “It’s my right to be here!” I gave him the usual spiel about respecting the birds and animals living here, but he was correct, legally speaking. He had a right to be there.

A few years ago, I was on a climb in the Bara Shigri glacier in Lahaul. The setting was very different, the terrain glaciated, and the walking much harder. This time, I was part of a group of 50 climbers, and we branched out to climb different mountains. My team and I climbed through an Ice Fall at 5,000 m. to reach an extremely remote place, one that few humans have been to.

Yet, we knew we weren’t the first people to reach there. How? We found the one undeniable proof of human presence – garbage. There was a large dump of non-biodegradeable garbage that expeditioners normally carry – juice packets, biscuit and chocolate wrappers, food tins, abandoned shoes and for some reason, men’s underwear.

Neither of these instances are rare, this happens to me on any trek that others visit regularly. On some popular trekking routes (like Roopkund or Stok Kangri), private trekking outfits have set up fixed camps, and handle thousands of clients every season. Anecdotally, I draw a direct co-relation between how many people go on a trek and how dirty it is.

Everyone has a right to recreate in the wilderness, but installing checks and balances to ensure they aren’t exploited is crucial. Photo: Angel Robledo.


I go out into the wilderness to recreate, and I guide other people who want to visit the wilderness for the same reason. In both of these cases, despite being in the backcountry, I was prevented from enjoying the wilds because of the ignorance and (from what I see as) selfishness of others.

Yet, in some parts of India, there is a completely different reason that stops me, and others, from experiencing the wilds. For instance, if I want to climb a mountain in the Garhwal, I must pay around Rs. 15,000 to different government agencies before I get a permit. For a bunch of broke alpine climbers (who I’m unfortunate enough to call my friends!) it’s enough to be prohibitive. If we’re climbing with foreigners, our team can pay anywhere upwards of USD 750. It’s not cheap.

Other outdoor sports people face different problems. My friends in Pune, a group of mountain bikers who are pushing the limits of the sport, often run afoul of trail walkers who believe the bikers zipping around them are dangerous, while the cyclists claim that they, too, have a “right” to be there.

In Manali, a group of local rock climbers worked very hard to stop boulders in Solang Nallah from being destroyed for road work – with limited success. A group of climbers petitioned local and Border Roads officials, but the climbing site was designated as a ‘dumping zone’, and most of the rocks are now unclimbable. It’s so sad that these folks live in Manali, surrounded by the best rock in the country, and have to watch it be destroyed for a road.

Climbers in Bangalore are having problems too. Currently, rock climbing at Ramnagara, one of the oldest climbing sites in the country has been banned. Sohan Pavluri, a friend and local climber, told me, “The government just doesn’t know what to do with (the climbers). There is policy in place for permits for rafting in Karnataka, but they have no clear rules for us.” He’s right, rock climbing, in India, is a relatively new sport. “We can get permits,” he says, “but it’s hard. You have to go on a weekday, 80 km. away from the city, follow a long procedure, and even then, the permits are not honoured.”

Ramnagara is a vulture sanctuary. Readers of Sanctuary will (or should) know why this is important. We should keep people away from there, that’s a no brainer. Yet, climbers have been climbing there for years, and it’s an important part of India’s climbing history. Sohan said, “We understand its importance. We never climb where vultures are, and it’s easy to tell because you can see their droppings on the wall.” (How many city folk can tell where vultures are just by looking at a cliff?)  So, what do climbers do when they’re stopped? (Hint: it has something to do with avoiding forest guards) Sohan adds that senior climbers are in talks with officials to find a solution for Karnataka.

The case of Ramnagara illustrates exactly what the problem is, and possibly points to a solution as well.

Stok Kangri is one of the most popular climbs in India, and draws amateurs from around the world. This is what you see at base camp. Photo: Karn Kowshik.


The problem is this: We all have a fundamental right to go anywhere in the country, and by extension, we have a right to our wilderness areas. Moving away from the legality of it all, the wilderness that I, and so many others like me, love so much, is a part of our being. Yet, it is evident that increasing human interference in any area is harmful to the ecology of that area.

The government responds in the only way it knows how, by clamping down completely on the use of wilderness areas (why they don’t clamp down on illegal mining instead is not even a question I dare ask).

We, the community of outdoor recreationists, need to find a way to co-exist with the wild. Like my friend Jeremy Higle of the International Mountain Leadership Institute once said to me, “Educate, so you don’t have to legislate.”

Ravi Kumar, who heads the India branch of the National Outdoor Leadership School, the world’s largest outdoor education organisation, seems to believe in education too. He should know, he’s been working in the outdoors for 47 years and counting. “The biggest issue is that awareness, among the general public, is missing. The bureaucracy does not know what is needed, and it is up to us to train and create awareness.” Ravi doesn’t believe that more associations are needed, “We cannot be activists,” he says, “We need to act in a proactive and educative way.”

He says there is no bridge between the users and the legislators, and this needs to be built. The solution, he says should be one that does not discourage users, and takes into account those who are responsible for the safety of the users by installing checks and balances.

Karn Kowshik is a journalist-turned -professional mountaineer, and is the founder of Geck & Co Adventurers.

Camped on a high ridge under CB 13, a magnificent peak in Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Angel Robledo.


1) The Kareri Lake Trail - Start from Ghera (near Mcloedganj) and walk to the beautiful Kareri lake. In good weather, this trek can be extended – climb over Minkiani Pass to reach the beautiful village of Brehi in Chamba.

2) Indrahara Pass – The perfect beginner’s trek! Start walking from Bhagsunag and hike over Indrahara pass into Chamba. Pre-season, this is a very challenging and fun trek (the highlight, sleep in caves!).

3) Animal Pass – This rarely done, and easy hike explores the Tosh valley – expect to see lots of Gaddi shepherds. Extend the trek into Lahual by crossing the Sara Umga La (challenging).

4) Hampta Pass – If you’re into bouldering, take a crash pad along. Walk from the Kullu valley into the Chandra valley in Lahaul. The excellent bouldering is a bonus.

5) Patalsu Peak – An excellent 4,000 m. peak near Manali, easily done in two days (one day for the fitness freaks!).

6) The Markha valley – Despite being an extremely popular trekkers’ choice, the Markha valley is clean and very beautiful.

7) Parang La – This high altitude trek isn’t the perfect beginner’s trek, but for those with basic experience, it’s a great trans-Himalayan hike.

8) Munsiari to Milam – This trek is challenging, but good for beginners. Long days, difficult terrain, but the views of peaks like Nanda Devi make all  worth it.

9) Chopta & Chandrashila – Do this trek pre-season, when it’s still snow covered. Start from Sari village, walk up to the Deoriyatal (with amazing views of the Chaukhamba Massif) and follow a ridge to Chopta. Expect serenity!

10) The snow leopard trail – Experience winter in Ladakh, and hope the snow leopard reveals itself. Challenging weather conditions, but easy walking.

Take an experienced guide. Start from Zingchen and explore the Rumbak valley, where snow leopards are populous. In the two years since I started active management of the area with the help of a small team of local villagers, we have cleaned the trash, restored the forests and wildlife, created jobs, trained local youth, documented the flora and fauna, developed nature trails and walks, created interpretation materials and are now welcoming visitors.


Author: Karn Kowshik, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 10, October 2015.


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