They never thought disaster awaited them in Himachal hills

Manali, March 14 (IANS) When seven students of an engineering college opted for the hills of Himachal Pradesh for an excursion, little did they realise they were seconds away from a disaster.

After they were marooned more than 78 hours in the icy heights of Kullu district without food and mountaineering apparatus, they were finally evacuated along with a guide from the snow-bound Chanderkhani peak, located at an altitude of 12,000 ft despite hostile weather on Monday.

Their search-and-rescue operation launched on March 11 ended with the airlifting of the remaining two of them by Swiss mountaineering experts of private company Himalayan Heli Adventures Private Ltd., hired by the district administration.

The local administration, which involved over 100 trekkers comprising police, residents and Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel in the operation, said checking perilous excursions in the mountains by the amateurs is turning out to be an uphill task for it.

“It’s something difficult to check the tourists venturing into the isolated, inaccessible pockets of Kullu. Now, we are seriously working to evolve some mechanism to check and, in fact, regulate the trekkers opting for high mountains,” Kullu additional district magistrate Vinay Thakur told IANS.

He said despite the meteorological department’s advisory, the seven students, unfamiliar with the local topography, opted for trekking to a high mountain.

For the engineering students of the Sant Longowal Institute of Engineering and Technology in Punjab’s Longowal town the ordeal began almost when they decided to scale the Chanderkhani peak after paying obeisance at Bijleshwar Mahadev temple, locally known as Bijli Mahadev, located on the hilltop overlooking Kullu town.

“When we were on the way to the Chanderkhani peak, the weather turned hostile and there was heavy snowfall,” said Hitendra Sharma, who was rescued on Monday.

He said mobile phones’ batteries exhausted. “Only one emergency call could be made for some seconds from one of the mobiles. We were literally hanging between life and death.”

He said an alarming message on Whatsapp was also sent.

A frightened Anil Kumar said when the heavy snowfall started, they took shelter in a cave.

“For three days we survived on water. We were not hopeful of getting any immediate help. On the second day, when we saw a chopper circling over the mountain, a ray of hope came that we will survive in this freezing temperature. We all raised an alarm and the rescuers noticed us,” he said.

“On a number of occasions, I thought I would be dead,” he added.

Additional district magistrate Thakur said that a rescuer, who reached the spot by rappelling down a rope from the chopper, physically lifted six students on Sunday evening.

Two of the stranded amateur trekkers who could not be airlifted due to bad weather (on Sunday), were provided food and basic amenities and were evacuated on Monday.

“The weather was hostile in the early morning. At around 7 in the morning there was dispersion of dense clouds. In less than half an hour, both the stranded students were airlifted,” subdivisional magistrate Jyoti Rana told IANS.

“There was some miracle that the clouds started dispersing and we got opportunity to reach out to the survivors,” she said.

The chopper could not land at that place as the area was on a slope, she added.

The condition of all the rescued trekkers, mostly from Punjab, is stable and they are undergoing treatment in the government hospital in Kullu.

Three teams of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police were pressed into search and rescue operation on March 11 after teams from a local mountaineering institute, the police and villagers failed to find them due in the inclement weather.

The picturesque Kullu Valley in the Himalayas, also known as the valley of gods, attracts thousands of backpackers even from abroad.

Police say some never return home — they simply vanish without a trace. So what happened to these people? It is possible they either die in accidents or get killed, say police.

The hills around Kullu are magnificent, but they are also rugged, cold and inhospitable and not a place for an inexperienced or ill-equipped trekker. Some are killed due to high-altitude sickness or slip off the icy tracks or are marooned by blizzards and die a cold death.

The second possibility is that the missing were robbed and killed by local people and their bodies are buried in forests or thrown in streams. Lonely hikers carrying expensive watches, cameras and other accessories become easy prey to jobless local youth.

According to the state tourism department, around 50,000 backpackers pour into the valley every summer. Of them, 10,000-15,000 are from Israel.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at vishal.g@ians.in)

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