Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

An early morning in Munsyari, while waiting for the morning taxi to the plains, an elderly gentleman from Kolkata and I got talking.

It was cold.

The hot tea was fantastic.

He worked at the Directorate General of Shipping. During my days as employed journalist, shipping had been one of my beats.

We had a nice conversation.

Against my protests, he paid for my tea. Pointing heavenward he quipped, “ why make a fuss about payment? We are all heading to the same place.’’ Dawn in Munsyari, as the rising sun graces the slopes of the Panchchuli peaks, ` heaven’ isn’t a misplaced reference. A cup of tea and that sight – it is very satisfying. Earlier on realizing that I was still bachelor and no more employed journalist, the man had said, “ the outdoor bug is such – neither can you leave it; nor will it let you go.’’ There is a whole universe in such simple conversations inspired by the outdoors. That’s what the outdoors is even if it makes no sense to settled society and its commerce. You know this well, unless you are businessman committed to sell or someone for who the outdoors is business. Without defined product to sell, there is no business model even in the outdoors. I too was in Munsyari having finished work on an outdoor course promising specifics. Such is the powerful drive all around towards manufacturing deliverables. Expectation has become habit; deliverable, the solution. I have often been asked: what is your goal? It makes me uncomfortable. Does the universe have a goal except to exist? I think there is only the direction set by the values people embrace in life. Goals are like milestones. I can’t recall a single long run I enjoyed focusing on passing milestones.

In the outdoors, the ones who refuse deliverables and yet want life by outdoors, become hermits / ascetics, seekers, wanderers. They may be failures in our eyes. But theirs is honest existence. We can’t comprehend that chemistry. Yet we easily promise specific deliverables from the outdoor experience. Point is – we all know in varying degrees that there is something, maybe a fragment of timeless truth, in the outdoors. To the extent it is thus core to human existence, the outdoors and adventure are like water. We pay for bottled water and municipal tap water. But we resent water’s growing monetization. And, we definitely don’t want somebody pricing the air we breathe. How happy will we be if the outdoors was lost as our shared heritage and instead monetized like bottled water?

In the last couple of years, a few Indian states began formulating guidelines for adventure tourism. That is a fine aspiration. Except, I found the effort lacking soul for the urge is to address the immediate and practical ignoring the profundity of the outdoors. Metaphorically, the focus seemed bottled water; not water. It runs the danger of blessing monetization and in the process, forgetting that the reason people hydrate is water’s presence in our very being. Below is some of what I missed in the conversations about guidelines, I was privy to.

Many of the minds drawing up regulations enjoyed a freer world to grow wise in, at least be wise enough to decide guidelines for future generations. The present world uses the word ` freedom’ more than before. But it isn’t as free. How can you explain freedom to someone trapped by the mobile phone screen and happy for it or blinded by religion and feeling secure for it? Our world is tangled in ego; vanity, competition, community, achievement, possession, insecurity and such. It can’t sense loss of freedom while securing itself. We have been birthing a strange dictatorship of convenience. At the meetings I was lucky to attend, the guideline-makers were introduced as accomplished mountaineers; hikers, river runners etc. I sat in the audience and listened to them hold forth on the pioneering activity they did in their prime, which grants them eminence to recommend now. The tenor I gleaned was how the theatre of these people’s accomplishments is now endangered by too many people going in (which, as function of population and emergent demographics is absolutely right) – some even losing their lives through reckless actions – and therefore, the wise have gathered to save and protect the rest. It is a nice, relevant, responsible story line. Except, if engaging in adventure was prerequisite for the wisdom behind guidelines, then the protection of such access and not its restriction should be the guiding thought guiding the guidelines. And if free access is to be enjoyed without damage to life and environment in times of high population, then the only solution is education. I didn’t find this emphasised adequately.

Personally I believe the above mentioned free access shouldn’t be restricted to landscape. It should include – in fact it is more about – free access to adventure and solitude for the ideas they are. I say this because the same as thought or idea will be progressively misunderstood going ahead. Increasingly, we are caricaturing adventure to make sense to a large population; its crowding, its sedentary ways, its huge need for jobs and we are forcing adventure to suck up to action crazed-media (everyone’s bio-data looks sexier with a dash of adventure, isn’t it?). As the trend plays out, we will have adventure enshrined as packaged lifestyle or spectacle. This regime is what makes guidelines like the ones being currently imagined, acceptable even as they fail to articulate and support real adventure. We will have guidelines and no proper appreciation for the instinct they seek to address. Any policy / set of guidelines that fails to acknowledge adventure as human instinct, has got it wrong.

We are a society that lauds life and the act of staying alive. Strangely, the daily drowning and devaluing of life by more numbers of people added is not a blotch on life’s aesthetics. With its casual approach to population control, India is all about adding people and no bother about how they live or what life is. One gentleman associated with framing guidelines told me, “ you can’t blame society for being interested in guidelines for adventure. After all, society has to save lives.’’ How this equation works or should work in the context of adventure – this, needs to be discussed by those loving adventure and engaged in it. The question is not one of being above law, pretending to be tough, rubbishing insurance or discounting the importance of search and rescue. It is one of properly appreciating what adventure is and why you are in that space. Personally, I accept all adventure entails risk. That’s why I choose what adventure I would like to be on. It is only rarely that people die instantly, painlessly. I don’t like pain. So, most of my adventures are tame affairs. The key to safe adventure is self awareness. I accept my timidity. If self awareness is key, then it also means that the best guidelines you can have for adventure activity would be education, good training, adequate access to practise what you learnt and sufficient self awareness through both to avoid being abjectly foolish. That said, despite best practices, you can still lose your life. Life and death are two sides of the adventure-coin. How can we learn to accept the coin and not a side? You have to ask the question – what is the purpose of a policy for adventure; is it to prevent deaths or is it to encourage responsible adventure? This debate should engage any group deliberating adventure related policy because it ensures that the policy is not partial to one side of the coin. Unfortunately, this debate doesn’t engage. I felt the guidelines / policies spare society the need to comprehend why adventure and the instinct for adventure, exists. A major lacuna is that aside from the cerebrally dull celebration of adventure as spectacle by the media (and the perpetuation of this trait by media crazed adventure enthusiasts), there is no other sensitization happening. Life’s hijack by a society becoming duller and duller by the day is not life’s fault. It is our fault; we are dull society.

All outdoor adventure has a setting – the environment. Damage to environment is inexcusable in the context of being outdoors. At least one instance of shameful environmental damage at altitude by a commercial operator with subsequent penalties imposed and thereafter a ban, reportedly happened in the recent past. Other unspoken instances exist. Controlling environmental degradation – this can be taught and learnt. But reality is – in India adventure is clad in machismo and competition. Amid set notions of how the adventurer looks and behaves and what training for adventure is, learning about the environment seems tame, effeminate. The winner stands on the summit; the loser cares for the environment – that is the imagery. Can we change this? Worse, all acts designed to change things have media built in. This reduces the effort to publicity stunt and sponsorship tactics. We need to do things because it is important to do it and not because it looks good on media. I sensed some concern for environment and practically nothing about the two sided adventure-coin in the background conversation around guidelines. At least one discussion on guidelines I witnessed was dominated by talk on resorts and home stays for tourists, pilgrimage facility for pilgrims and aircraft / helicopters for the clients of tourism. It was the deep end of the business hug.

(……to be continued)

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

There have been accidents – entailing loss of life – which led to the guidelines in question being sought and framed. Some of these mishaps happened in situations that people bought into; in other words – commercial contracts. In India (as elsewhere in the case of any industry), there is a need to monitor commercial adventure activity wherein clients pay money anticipating promised deliverables. This is the realm of adventure tour operators and those offering specific services (like thrill sports) on a commercial basis. Interestingly, in some cases, the title for guidelines being worked on, call the exercise as guidelines for adventure tourism and not adventure tour operators. This distinction is critical as it distinguishes between people (especially people trained in adventure activity) venturing out to do something on their own (accepting the risks that go alongside not to mention awareness of their own limits) and clients going with commercial operators. I recall asking a person well entrenched in the guideline process about this lack of clear distinction and he said, “ don’t worry, nothing will change for clubs and individuals.’’ If so, why aren’t they changing the title appropriately? Why aren’t references clear and explicit?

Let me explain why the distinction matters. As training outfit and context that people come back to repeatedly, clubs play a bigger role in familiarizing people with outdoor skills and ethics than one month-in-a-life at mountaineering institute does. Trained individuals also choose to go by themselves, assuming full onus themselves, because everyone can’t afford commercial operators and the growing overhead costs of adventure. Today commercial outdoor adventure is expensive or deliberately priced low to attract people. Low price sometimes raises cost in terms of rectifying the environmental damage caused as outdoor destinations can’t handle volume based-tourism. I won’t say that clubs and trained individuals are flawless. In a rather shameful development, some clubs have grown very close to commercial operators, quickly outsourcing outdoor competence when the idea of being club is to learn to do things oneself. However in principle, the flow of clubs and trained individuals is the bed rock of the whole edifice that the guidelines seek to protect / administer. That being so this segment should be least bureaucratic to avail and most affordable. It can be disciplined and managed through penalty (fines and de-recognition of clubs) for wrong doing, in this case mainly environmental damage for risk to one’s life is already accepted in the non commercial nature of the understanding. For all its flaws, these non commercial options are important. Without this flow, superstructures built upon the instinct to adventure – from amateur mountaineering expeditions to commercial trips – would be shaky. Even overseas, it has been observed that when it comes to training guides, while guiding brings prudence to the outdoors, the regime of restricted access ultimately affects the quality of manpower turning up to train. No set of guidelines should therefore end up with the legacy of having nudged everything into either a bureaucratically administered space or a commercial space. It defeats the purpose. Since being in the outdoors is a must for the committed what we have to then master is the art of reducing human impact. The strongest focus of any guidelines / policy for adventure / outdoors should be on managing this human impact and in this, the authors must acknowledge the merit of proper education. I couldn’t sense this among guiding principles for policy / guidelines. Indeed, one of the strangest aspects of the current interest in policy is that the rush for guidelines is without any prior statement of what the outdoors means to us. Without such statement, guidelines will meander for want of vision.

One of the reasons inspiring structure for outdoor / adventure pursuits, is the question – what happens should something go wrong in adventure activity? India lacks prompt emergency medical facilities and search and rescue infrastructure as found in developed countries. Although this is being addressed slowly, instead of seeing that as separate responsibility, instead of seeing it as a service expected of any modern society, we choose to build restrictions to adventure. After all, less people doing crazy things, means less people to rescue. However, you don’t find the same being done to pilgrimage. In 2013, more people died in one season of cramped pilgrimage in Uttarakhand, than probably everyone who died mountaineering in the Indian Himalaya. Yet when it comes to ease of accusing somebody of irresponsibility, the adventurer is quickly picked on. Our society is shallow in its understanding of how risk is managed in adventure activity. As they say at climbing clubs: more people die crossing the road than they do climbing mountains. Of course, this is because fewer people climb mountains. But it is also true that in any risk prone-adventure activity, the more you become conscious of risk, the more you are careful. That said, in India, we may teach the hard skills for adventure, well. But thanks to machismo, competition and the urge to prove, we don’t teach people to be comfortable accepting their limits, we don’t create social environments suited to accept limits. We are bad teachers. We are particularly bad at creating healthy learning environments because we don’t understand (or wish to understand) adventure except as proof of manhood. Knowing how uncontrollable things can get, we therefore choose the easier option in policy making for adventure – restrict. The resultant perspective of adventure as something exotic and domain of the special or something avoidable and hence to be restricted, coupled with legitimate concern for the environment is the main energy shaping current official approach. It is a sad predicament.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Lost in the process is a valuable angle – technical qualifications, permits, fees and such matter. But what matters more is ease of embarking on adventure as only practice makes perfect. We should not also trivialize the intellectual side of adventure; basically the attempt to comprehend, introspect and be self aware. It is media’s choice to rubbish the intellect and showcase the action. But even the most mindless adventurer, somebody who seems all action and no thought – processes his / her experience. We need an adventure policy that supports adventure and unashamedly says that since adventuring is human instinct society will stay prepared with commensurate emergency medical and search and rescue facilities. At this point, the inadequacy of these emergency services is thrown at the adventurer. But is that his or her responsibility? Isn’t growing that competence the onus of those concerned with it? Notwithstanding this shortfall, outdoors people / those liking adventure have begun taking expensive first aid courses designed to support patients ahead of formal medical attention. When they are doing their bit, isn’t it time, the other half – those specialized in emergency medical services and search and rescue – did their share? Can’t we look upon all this as normal service in modern society, and not something special?

Any person / persons drawing up guidelines, policy and such should be aware of the tendency to shape environment to their professional advantage. This is important in the Indian context because most of us, thanks to severe rat race brought on by high population, corporate life and persistent feudal attitudes (don’t forget our capacity for manufacturing caste hierarchy in everything) that value personal power over professionalism, hate not being on top of the heap. We have to matter, by hook or crook. If we don’t matter, we have failed. That’s the Indian credo. Fuelling this further, is compulsion for livelihood (including outdoor activity / industry as livelihood); the race grows stiffer and stiffer with every passing year. Evolving guidelines for adventure tourism or adventure tour operators (it is still unclear to me which one, the current effort is focused on) is a new development. The people engaged in it seem a younger lot. But unless they are conscious of the well entrenched Indian drift, there is no guarantee that the guidelines they author will be free of establishing the authors themselves as indispensable to the process. For example, adventure tour operators would be happy if everyone accessed the outdoors through them. But is that how it should be? Event organizers would love all adventure to be spectacle, competition in arena and embrace by media circus. Is that how it should be? Outdoor educators and first aid tutors would be happy if we all got wrapped up in a dozen mandatory certifications, ideally expensive to obtain. Is that how it should be? Uniquely – and it is a trademark of our times – everything is business model first and only after that, sensible to life.

The onus for responsible adventure eventually lay with the practitioner. Awareness (self and surroundings), education, concern for environment, technical training, practice – these, among other attributes are critical. Unfortunately our educational system (including outdoor / adventure institutes), which should be delivering these attributes, is busy spawning its own bureaucracy and certificates for apartness. Curriculum is taught in the same Indian rat race style. Achievement, not maturity, enjoys premium. The notion that techniques required for safe adventure can be learnt and sharpened through continued practise is sacrificed at the altar of creating reasons for grades and such. Poor quality of education is then balanced by bureaucratic controls over access to the field. Few things have been more puzzling to me than the Indian system of teaching mountaineering over a month long-course and then concluding for a lifetime, based on grades earned, how that person should adventure. If a month long-course can conclude for eternity what you are, why should you believe in practice makes perfect or experience as teacher? Such shortcomings should be set right before we imagine guidelines. But we consider ourselves too perfect for introspection. We are however perfect enough to recommend guidelines.


(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)