It's still not safe to travel, but here are some guidelines from the Indian Mountaineering Foundation if you're planning to head to the great outdoors
The covid-19 lockdown since late March has hamstrung commercial trekking and mountaineering activities across the country. With thousands of enthusiasts forced to cancel their summer trekking plans, states like Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim have been hit badly.
Things are beginning to look up, however. Last week, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand released a set of guidelines easing restrictions on tourism and allied activities. Tourists can now enter the two states after getting a negative covid-19 test report from a laboratory certified by the Indian Council of Medical Research. The test should have been conducted a maximum of 72 hours before entering the state. In Himachal Pradesh, tourists are expected to stay in the same hotel for a minimum of five days. In Uttarakhand, the figure is seven days (for all tourists).
"We have started offering day-long treks so the guests can return to their hotels in the evening," says Manu Hiyunri, a Dharamsala-based trek operator. "The five-day hotel booking is a deterrent but we have had quite a few inquiries over the last few days."
In late June, the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF), the apex body for mountaineering activities in India, released a set of guidelines on venturing outdoors safely. Around the same time, the Akhil Maharashtra Giryarohan Mahasangh (AMGM), which oversees hiking and trekking activities in Maharashtra, organized a webinar on "Mountaineering after Lockdown", with a list of speakers that included writers, academics and mountaineers. Both the IMF and AMGM emphasized the need for social distancing, better hygiene and compliance with local laws.
The IMF advisory is written by Anil Gurtoo, director of medicine at Delhi’s Lady Hardinge Medical College and an IMF member. The guidelines, he writes, are based on the evidence so far that covid-19 transmission risks are low in well- ventilated outdoor spaces. The eight-page document is a comprehensive guide on how to prepare, travel, trek and rest in the mountains. He does add, however, that it would be prudent not to venture out for the next three months.
For experts, the main concern is transmission of the virus to communities living in remote areas with few healthcare facilities. Some mountain ranges in the country remain out of bounds. For instance, the district administrations in Nashik, Raigad and Pune have forbidden trekking activities in the Sahyadris within their areas.
Technically, you can still go to the mountains—as long as you minimize the risk of transmission. "There are very few covid-19 cases recorded in the Himalayas so far," said Harish Kapadia, former editor of The Himalayan Journal, at the AMGM webinar. "It would be safe to go to the mountains as long as you take precautions to not infect the villagers." However, it may be extremely difficult to follow the guidelines to the letter.
The full list of guidelines can be accessed on the website of the IMF (Indmount.org). We list some of the things they recommend you keep in mind whenever you decide to head for the mountains.
Planning and preparation
The first thing is to select routes and mountains that aren’t too challenging. This is to avoid accidents and situations that will require outside help. Try to get information on the facilities available en route and follow the local rules on curfew, quarantine and permissions from district and forest officials.
"While outdoor activities are generally safe, problems can arise from crowdedness and the resultant close contacts," the guidelines say. It’s best to travel in small groups. If you are planning bigger groups, the guidelines recommend breaking them up into groups of 10-15.
The IMF also emphasizes physical fitness. It advises those over 50, with one or more chronic health conditions (diabetes, heart or kidney diseases, etc.), to consult their physician before any trek. Those who are above 65 and suffer from chronic conditions must avoid going altogether, it adds.
"Post-lockdown, transport might be an issue," Devidutta Panda, vice-principal of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, said at the AMGM webinar. "Only a fixed number of people would be allowed to travel and hotel accommodation. These too might have higher tariffs than usual."
The guidelines emphasize self-sufficiency: Carry your own food, water, medicines, toiletries and camping gear. Avoid dhabas and restaurants and try not to enter villages.
To avoid transmission in enclosed spaces, the IMF recommends that air-conditioning in vehicles be switched off and windows rolled down. Surfaces should be sanitized regularly and stay in dormitories or other places requiring close contact avoided, it adds.
"Above 3,000m, ascent profiles must deliberately be planned on a conservative side," says the IMF. "No more than 300m (1,000ft) of sleeping height (should be) gained per day." It also recommends a rest day every third day.
"There have been reports of a lot of animals frequenting what used to be tourist spots because very few people have been there all these months," P.K. Ghanekar, a mountaineer and academic at Pune’s Abasaheb Garware College, said at the webinar. "So consult the locals on where you would find these animals and then go."
The IMF prescribes 3Cs to guard against virus transmission: avoid crowds, avoid any close contact and closed spaces.
"Every team member is under (an) ethical obligation to disclose to the leader, under cover of confidentiality, any of the following: travel history, any symptoms suggestive of covid-19, sharing household or close contact with a person with covid-19 in the previous 14 days."
While trekking, it advises maintaining a physical distance of at least 2m at all times. On steeper sections of a hill, the distance should be increased to 6m. This is to avoid the "slipstream effect", with a faster moving human body letting out finer aerosols due to heavy breathing.
"Masks need not be worn while trekking," it adds. "They (can) get wet from the breath vapour and turn ineffective, as also cause a sense of suffocation." Nevertheless, they should be kept accessible and used along with sanitizers at rest points.
"In mountaineering, we share the gear and handholds with others," John Porter, former president of the Alpine Club (UK), said at the webinar. "Unless you are part of the same household, it’s safer to stay away. Or go with those you know."
Camping Do's and Don'ts
Given the need for social distancing, the guidelines recommend keeping a distance between tents, with special consideration for kitchen tents and the water source. Within tents, it recommends a distance of 2m between sleeping bags.
Being small, enclosed and often poorly ventilated, toilet tents pose a risk of transmission. "One toilette tent must be shared by a minimum number of persons that is practically feasible under the given circumstances, say two-three per tent," the IMF says. "Flaps must be kept open when not in use... It must be each user’s responsibility to carry out bleach disinfection of the surfaces after use and do the hand hygiene."
"At times, you might have to stop for rest en route, like at a school, a temple or a hut," said Ghanekar. "It’s best to make sure the place is disinfected. If you sleep, make sure there’s some distance. If the place is small and you have to sleep next to each other, make sure you sleep where your faces aren’t next to each other but up and down."
The guidelines will help minimize the risk of covid-19. But the best option at present, the guidelines suggest, is "watchful waiting"—until the threat of the pandemic lifts.