What makes winter trekking a not-to-miss experience for adventure junkies

In 2010, when Bengaluru-based Sandhya Chandrasekharayya tossed the idea of winter trekking to the locals of Sankri village in Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi district, they were nonplussed. “No one treads this trail off season,” they remarked, pointing to Kedarkantha — a route on which they would graze their sheep and cattle in summer. Sandhya was not the sort to take no for an answer. After all, she had started her trekking organisation, Indiahikes, only a year ago. “The moment I got to know of Kedarkantha, I called out to explorers interested in a four-day winter trek to the 12,500-foot-high peak. Luckily, 18 people joined us, most of them had gone for the Roopkund trek with us that autumn. We gathered at Sankri on Christmas and started the climb the next day,” she shares.

A snow-covered forest enroute Kedarkantha trek
| Photo Credit:
Indiahikes

For Sandhya, her virgin climb to Kedarkantha, in one word, would be “surreal”. “The sceneries were unlike anything we had seen. They changed with the altitude. We met snow somewhere in the middle. The next day, we started again at 4am and were probably half a kilometre from the summit when we saw sunrise. The colours were splendid. We slid down while descending and became kids again. I will never forget that experience,” she says.

Thirteen years on, Kedarkantha remains one of the most popular winter treks offered by Indiahikes. It costs upwards of ₹10,725 approximately. “Around 900 trekkers signed up for Kedarkantha trek this year,” shares Swathi Chatrapathy, chief editor of Indiahikes. While the exact number of trekking companies is hard to ascertain, Internet leads you to nearly 40 of them which offer winter trekking to over 20 destinations across the Himalayas. Thrillophilia, for instance, has listed 31 winter treks on its website. The costliest of these treks is the one to the Everest Base Camp Trek, Nepal, priced upwards of ₹46,950.

A view of the trekking trail through Kuari pass

A view of the trekking trail through Kuari pass
| Photo Credit:
Indiahikes

The treks are rated from easy to difficult on various parameters, ranging between duration and steepness of the climb. However, treks to peaks over 13,000 feet are not recommended during winter. Founder of Himalayan Hikers, Chain Singh Rawat, 43, from Saurgaon, Uttarkashi, suggests six treks offered by his company — Kedarkantha, Dayara Bugyal, Brahmatal, Kuari Pass, Chopta and Tungnath (Chandrshila Trek), and Nag Tibba.

Chain Singh Rawat (with a stick in his hand) and his team of trekkers summit Kedarkantha

Chain Singh Rawat (with a stick in his hand) and his team of trekkers summit Kedarkantha
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Also serving as the secretary of Har ki Dhun Protection and Mountaineering Association, an organisation that undertakes trekking expeditions along with social work in the region, Chain shares, “Harsh weather is the trickiest part in winter. The temperature dips to -10 degrees Celsius at a few places, which is why North-face climbs and peaks above 12,500 feet could be dangerous.”

For mountaineering guide and skiing instructor Anurag Sood, founder of Climb The Himalayas, who has been trekking in winter since 2006, the sole motivation to climb was to carry his skiing equipment to the top and glide down. Soon, he got “hooked to trekking”. Narrating an experience, Anurag mentions the Chadar trek or Zanskar gorge trek — a 105-kilometre trail over the frozen Zanskar river in Ladakh during winter. “I did it thrice — in Feburary 2014, and January 2016 and 2017. The main reason why this 11-to-14-day trek is one of the most cumbersome is the thin ice on the frozen river. There is a risk of falling into the water, which could cause hypothermia and even death,” he says.

Anurag poses with his team of trekkers during the Chadar trek

Anurag poses with his team of trekkers during the Chadar trek
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Because of the dangers involved, the trek is run by locals. “Not every company can offer good gear such as high-altitude tents designed for -20 to -30 degree Celsius. The other problem is experience. Newcomers are at risk on such treks. When people start getting stuck, the administration has to take charge,” says Anurag.

Weather, too, is a challenge. Ravi Ranjan was the slope manager at the Indiahikes base camp in Kotgaon, Uttarakhand, for the Kedarkantha trek on January 22, 2019. The sky was overcast in the morning and they were anticipating snowfall by late afternoon. As there was no network connectivity in the area at the time, they could not track weather updates in real time.

 A view of the tents at the trekking trail where weary trekkers rest and sleep

 A view of the tents at the trekking trail where weary trekkers rest and sleep
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

“There were six trekkers on the trail. It began to snow by 1pm and we felt they would love the experience. However, within a couple of hours, we saw the snowflakes increase to the size of a fist. We knew it was an emergency. We asked all our team members to evacuate. To bring the trekkers down in snow up to the knees was challenging. While all trekkers descended safely, one of our team members, while bringing the trekkers’ backpacks, slipped and fell on broken branches of a tree, one of which pierced through his legs. Reinforcements were sent. After giving first aid, two team members brought him down, carrying him on their shoulders, covering three kilometres in six hours. As all roads were closed, we provided him medical care for three days and then took him to a hospital in Dehradun. He still works with us,” he says. 

Trekker’s diary: A thrilling memory

Though not in winter, Ravi of Indiahikes once found himself stuck in a life-or-death situation while doing a solo trek to Stok Kangri in Leh in September 2017. “The summit was 150 metres away when I had to climb through a wall of loose rocks. After three metres, the loose rocks started were falling off. I was stuck. It was one those moments when life comes like a flashback. The faces of loved ones, the mistakes you have made, and all that. I took a few deep breaths and said to myself: ‘Not today.’ I took my ice axe, cleared all the gravel, found a decent hold, and pushed myself to grab the ice sheet. It is a thrilling memory now.”

While most trekking companies offer food, travel, camping and trekking equipment like gaiters and micro spikes, instructors share a list of must-haves for winter trekking. “Carry a quality windcheater-cum-raincoat because the weather is unpredictable. Sunlight is harsh, so a pair of goggles is needed. A heavy-duty moisturiser will take care of the dry weather and most importantly, a proper pair of waterproof hiking shoes,” says Anurag.

Anurag Sood, founder, Climb the Himalayas, sports the trekking gear

Anurag Sood, founder, Climb the Himalayas, sports the trekking gear
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Winter trekking has only picked up, commercially, about a decade ago and mostly interests the youth, says Chain. “People mostly in the 20-40 age group sign up, but we had two American trekkers aged four and six, accompanied by their parents, on a trek last year. A 75-year-old man from Calcutta, too, had signed up,” he says.

If one is planning an expedition, says Ravi, fitness is paramount and it is better to start with an easy trek in favourable weather. “Treks like Dayara Bugyal, Brahmatal and Kedarkantha are ideal treks to start with. They allow you to understand how altitude impacts your body. If you are able to run five kilometres for three-to-four days under 35 minutes in a week, you could go for an easy-to-moderate trek. For difficult treks like Bali Pass (from Uttarakhand’s Sankri village to Janki Chatti), Lamkhaga Pass (from Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh, to Harshil, Uttarakhand) and Kugti Pass which connects Bharmour region of Chamba valley to that of Chandra-Bhaga (Chenab) river in Lahaul, one should be able to run 10 kilometres in 60 minutes consistently,” he adds. “Mountains look beautiful, but they will test your limits. They will break you down, but they will give you joy.”

Trekking in snow? Read this

Ravi of Indiahikes shares a list of what is a must if you are planning a winter trek:

  • Choose the right organisation. It’s important to understand the credibility of the organisation, its safety practices, and the training its team members have undergone.
  • Choose the right gear. A substandard backpack could ruin an entire expedition and shoes without high-ankle support could twist your ankle.
  • Understand how to keep your body warm and learn about altitude mountain sickness.  Carry medication and ask an expert how to tackle mountain sicknesses. It’s better if someone in the team is experienced or trained in wilderness safety.
  • Have an evacuation plan. Weather in the mountains changes rapidly. Learn and discuss how to handle such situations.
  • Take necessary permissions. Usually all treks within India come under the purview of the Forest Department. Any expedition above the height of 6,000 metres requires permission from the Indian Mountaineering Foundation.

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Spiralling costs and melting snow: What’s the Winter Olympics’ future?

An increasingly hotter planet and rising costs are threatening the future of the Winter Games, as host cities struggle with a lack of investment – and of snow.

On 31 July, the deadline for companies to submit their bid to build Italy’s costly new bobsled track for the 2026 Winter Olympics came and went. 

And not a single construction company came forward.  

The announcement was made by a puzzled SIMICO, the Italian company put in charge of the handling of all Olympics structure, who said that it will now be forced to look on the market for companies able to take on the job.

“It’s not particularly surprising that nobody wants to build a new bobsled track,” said Madeleine Orr, a sport ecologist based in the Institute of Sport Business at Loughborough University London, citing how controversial the project has been since the cities of Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo were awarded the honour – and the burden – of hosting the 2026 Winter Olympics.

“I know that the organisers of the Olympics have been concerned about how climate change is going to impact this event,” she added.

In the last two years, the efforts that the cities have undertaken to prepare hosting the Games have also been criticised by the Italian press as too costly and environmentally unsustainable, with many pointing out that the structures built ad hoc for the event will have no use after the end of it.

The new bobsled track – which will have to be built from scratch after the demolition of the old one – is estimated to cost between €93 million and €120 million, according to Veneto’s president Luca Zaia. It will have to be built fast, as the completed track, which can also be used for the skeleton and luge competitions, must be ready by December 2024 for the first test event ahead of the Olympics.

The changing face of the Winter Olympics

Both the Winter Olympics and the Summer Olympics are facing a few of the same issues when it comes to climate change, Orr told Euronews, “where weird weather patterns, which are becoming the new normal, are increasing.”

“In the past you could expect the winter to be cold and the summer to be hot,” Orr added. “Now we’re seeing warm winters and even hotter summers, and it’s getting to the point where in many cases it’s becoming unsafe to compete in those conditions.”

In the case of winter sports, the impact of climate change is even more dramatic. “It’s getting really hard to maintain the track or bobsled,” Orr said. “Most tracks, all except one in St Moritz, are manmade and use artificial ice and snow, so they are supported by energy systems that can do a good job of keeping them relatively cold. But even with all the technology, if you get a really hot day, it’s going to be very challenging.”

Most of the recent Winter Olympic host sites have had artificial snow – a very common supplement normally used in most ski resorts around the world, Walker Ross, a lecturer in Sport Management & Digital Marketing at the University of Edinburgh, told Euronews.

“Every ski resort you go to has additional artificial snow as they’re trying to remain open for as long as it’s profitable, it’s a very common practice,” he said. “But in Beijing [host of the last Winter Olympics], every single snowflake was artificial. And I hope that’s not going to be the trend going forward.”

But that could in fact be a possible solution, especially as the number of cities that can feasibly host the Winter Olympics is expected to drop dramatically in the near future.

Daniel Scott, a geography professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada, led a 2022 study that found that, if we don’t cut emissions significantly, by the end of the century only one of 21 former Winter Olympics host cities may have the ideal temperatures to hold the Games.

“If you take the projections for the global average rise in temperature that we’re seeing from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, you see that as many as half of those cities which hosted the Winter Olympic in the past will no longer be able to host the event in the future,” Walker Ross said.

These communities won’t have the temperatures to host these kinds of sports, Ross said – though that might not stop them from hosting, as long as they rely on artificial snow. 

The lost legacy of the Games

Countries have always hosted the Olympics – Winter or Summer – for the clear benefits that this traditionally brings, including a boost in tourism, widespread sports enthusiasm, and the opportunity to build key infrastructure that will be used for decades to come. 

That might no longer be happening in the future, as critics in Milan and Cortina d’Ampezza fear.

“Whatever we are building right now or have built might not be usable in the future,” Ross said. “If you go out of your way to build a giant winter sports complex, it might not be climatically viable in the future. If our planet warms up by 1.5C or 3C in the future, that infrastructure, that legacy, that goodwill will be lost in the long term, because we might not be able to enjoy that sport.”

In places like Rio de Janeiro, Ross said, sports venues were built in low-lying regions that are expected to flood from time to time, with these events expected to become more frequent in the future.

“Whatever we thought we were doing by building the Olympics right now, thinking that in 50 years we’ll still be able to remember these great times that we had in our city because we’ll still be able to do X, Y, and Z – that might not be possible if the scenario doesn’t change.”

‘Throwing money at the problem’

Increasing costs and the devastating impact of the climate crisis are problems that have now proven able to make or break sports mega-events.

The Australian state of Victoria recently pulled out of hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2026, saying that the cost was simply too high – leaving the future of the competition in limbo. Adding to the games’ woes, the Canadian province of Alberta cancelled its bid to host the 2030 Commonwealth Games, mentioning its rising costs.

The estimated cost of hosting the games, at C$2.7bn (over €1.8bn), was a burden “too high for the province to bear,” said Tourism and Sports Minister Joseph Schow. The decision leaves the Commonwealth Games with no clear host for 2030.

Saudi Arabia, one of the richest countries in the world with a haunting track record of human rights violations, has secured some of the biggest sports events on the planet in the coming years, as it’s simply one of the few willing hosts who can rely on significantly large pockets.

In 2029, the country will host the Asian Winter Games – despite the fact that snow is rare in Saudi Arabia. 

“The number of communities that have the capacity to host these events and have the climate to host these events is shrinking quite rapidly,” Ross said. “As these communities lack the climate to host this event, you might start turning to anybody who’s going to be willing to give you the money to pull this thing off,” he added.

Orr thinks that, in the case of the Winter Games, “there’s going to have to be a little step back from the really big event, the big spectacle, because many of the places that have a climate that can accommodate this don’t necessarily have enough tourism infrastructure to host something at that calibre.” 

“If we can shift our minds a little bit around what the Olympics looks like for the Winter Games, and make it a slightly smaller event, then all of a sudden it becomes an option to host it in much smaller tourist towns,” Orr said.

But shrinking or cutting these events might not be what the IOC wants, Ross added, both for profits and for the sake of expanding access to sports, the IOC’s mission. “I worry about the kind of future the Olympics will have if it just turns into a question of who has the money to throw at this problem, instead of asking ourselves how to radically rethink what these events look like and where they get hosted.”

What future for the Winter Olympics?

No host city has yet been named for the 2030 Winter Olympics, though the IOC said that Salt Lake City, Barcelona, and Sapporo are all in the running.

But there might not be so many options in the future. The agency said it’s considering rotating the Winter Olympics among an approved pool of climate-reliable hosts, as cities might need to meet new temperature criteria as the impact of the climate crisis continues exacerbating.

The IOC is currently weighing a proposal that would require host cities to have had an average minimum temperature of below 0C for snow competition venues over a 10-year period by the time of holding the Games.

Another solution being investigated by the agency is the option of awarding both the 2030 and the 2034 Games to the same city, but no concrete decisions have yet been taken.

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