My name is Peter Van Geit, born in Belgium, settled in India in 1998. I worked 20 years as a project manager in CISCO before I quit my job in 2017 and started exploring the Indian Himalayas extensively. Hiking in the Himalayas has traditionally been a challenge due to the lack of properly marked hiking routes, scarcity of detailed topographic maps and a very small independent hiking community. Exception is Ladakh which has had a vibrant international alpine hiking community for the past 2 decades thanks to the availability of topographic hiking maps (Olizane). Most youngsters make their first steps into the Himalayas via organised group hikes. These are generally a bit expensive and take you to a small set of commercialised destinations.
Shepherd descending onto the snow covered glacier below the Chaurasia pass across the Pir Panjal in Chamba
When I started exploring the lesser known corners of the Himalayas 5 years ago there were few resources available to identify possible hiking routes. A handful of hiking blogs where one could download GPS recordings of known routes and tiresome analysis of high resolution satellite maps to spot yet unmapped routes. In recent years myself and a few other explorers digitally mapped (hiking.waymarkedtrails.org) more than 600+ hiking routes across the Western Himalayas totalling 15 thousand kilometres spanning Uttarakhand, Himachal, Ladakh and J&K. This resulted in an extensive network of accurate GPS recorded hiking routes enabling independent hikers to traverse the entire breadth of the Himalayas.
Anyone can download more than 600 hiking routes digitally mapped in Open Street Maps totalling 15 thousand kilometres across the Indian Western Himalayas
To plan long traverses across the Indian Himalayas it’s important to have a clear understanding of the geography of this range. For this purpose myself and a few volunteers digitally mapped the region in extraordinary detail in Open Street Maps (osm.org). Hundreds of major and thousands of smaller valleys totaling more than 60 thousand kilometers of rivers and streams were accurately mapped and named providing a digital blueprint of the topography of the Himalayas. More than 40 thousand interior human settlements (permanent and semi-nomadic) were accurately geolocated and named which provide important pit stops for the independent hiker in terms of food supply and night halt.
Hundreds of major rivers and thousands of smaller streams provide a digital blueprint for the geography of the Western Himalayas
More than 2000 mountain passes, 1500 peaks, 1000 alpine lakes and 800 glaciers have been accurately mapped providing an near infinite set of beautiful alpine destinations for the independent hiking community to explore. Additionally, detailed contours enable the independent hiker with a clear understanding of the topography to navigate the steep terrain. Open Street Maps and contours can be downloaded on your phone enabling the alpine hiker to navigate offline in the most interior regions.
The geography of the Indian Western Himalayas has been mapped in extraordinary detail in Open Street Maps enabling the alpine hiker to plan and navigate across this beautiful range
Aside from detailed maps and well marked (or digitally mapped) hiking routes one needs to acquire a good understanding to safely navigate this high altitude terrain. Most people visit the Himalayas just once or twice a year due to distant travel and scarce holidays. This leaves limited scope to gain sufficient field experience and courses available in the market generally do not focus on alpine style hiking but are more inclined towards mountaineering which is quite different. This basically restrains the independent hiking community from growing in India although the Himalayas have a huge potential for alpine exploration.
Students getting ready for the next field assignment in the forests around the base camp of the Alpine Hiking Bootcamp near Manali
To address this need I started the “Alpine Field Bootcamp” last year in Manali. This one week field course teaches hikers essential skills to explore the Himalayas independently. It consolidates my extensive field experience over the past decade including 300 Himalayan traverses / passes in recent years. Earlier I explored the South Indian jungles for more than a decade gaining valuable wilderness skills as part of the Chennai Trekking Club, a 40 thousand member non profit organisation, which I founded in 2008. Students check into a beautiful basecamp in the woods where I teach important concepts and experience is gained through field assignments in the surrounding forests. The course is organised twice annually in May & September through small batches enabling individual attention. Upon completion you become part of a growing alpine community where independent hikers interact, planning new traverses and sharing field experiences.
Students traversing various Himalayan terrains as part of the assignments of the one week alpine field course
The field bootcamp is tuned towards alpine style exploration covering important topics like understanding Himalayan geography, high altitude terrains, reading topographic maps, planning a Himalayan traverse as per the seasons and weather, fast-hiking and minimalist lightweight gears, learning various techniques to navigate the wilderness, night stay & shelter, managing wildlife encounters, food planning & hydration, digitally mapping new hiking routes, etc. Traditionally hikers carry large 50L / 20kg backpacks and climb just 1 peak or pass during a single visit. I teach students how to fast-hike ultra light by optimising gears, night shelter, food ration and hydration. Going light allows them to cover multiple passes in a continuous traverse within a similar time frame thereby gaining a much richer experience.
Teaching students how to plan a traverse across the high altitude terrain of the Western Himalayas
Organised hikes are usually bound to a limited set of well known tourist destinations which tend to get overcrowded as they gain popularity through social media. Going alpine style gives you the freedom to explore the lesser known regions and indulge in the natural beauty of these untouched locations. On my months-long trans-Himalayan journeys I experience heart warming hospitality in remote settlements and during encounters with mountain tribes and nomadic shepherds. This is a much more fulfilling experience than camping in crowded commercial destinations. Solo journeys to the unknown corners of the Himalayas are like pure meditation for the soul through which one experiences complete inner peacefulness.
Students camping overnight in the wilderness using minimalist gears and natural shelters
Hiking independently is also extremely economical. After an initial investment in your own gears the cost is basically reduced to the expense of a local meal. On my month-long journeys I usually spent around 200 Rs per day. Compare this to an organised 5 day hike to a touristic destination for 20 thousand rupees which is a factor of 100! In 2019 I hiked 120 mountain passes over 4 months with the same 20K budget or just 200 Rs per mountain pass! Alpine style hiking in smaller groups across the Himalayas is also environmentally more sustainable compared to taking thousands of hikers to a few popular commercial destinations through fixed camps.
Planning seasonal Himalayan traverses using topographic maps and digitally mapped hiking routes on mobile
Planning and executing an alpine style trek is a tremendous enriching experience. The sense of achievement is far greater than participating in a pre-organised trek. Pre-trek fitness is essential as you have to rely on yourself both mentally and physically. You learn to differentiate between needs and wants as you are the one carrying all gears. You gain a much deeper understanding of the terrain and topography as you plan your own traverse. You constantly grow through risk analysis and decision making as you encounter unexpected challenges each day. You get to discover your own limits and are surprised by your mental strength to push yourself in case of adversity. Surviving by yourself in the wilderness teaches you skills that benefit you in many other aspects of life.
Camping beneath the milky way using ultra light camping gears after a day of path finding in the wilderness
I guide students in planning their future Himalayan alpine style explorations. One student recently completed a 500 km long Himalayan traverse across 30 mountain passes and 5 districts in Himachal and Uttarakhand (natureboy.in). He explored and digitally mapped several new hiking routes in Open Street Maps for the international outdoor community. We interacted on a near daily basis to plan and dynamically adapt the route as per season and weather conditions, planning night halts and food supply points along the way. He experienced overwhelming hospitality in the lesser known parts of the Himalayas. No better way to learn the art of independent hiking than through planning and navigating your own trans-Himalayan traverse. More details my blog ultrajourneys.org.
Dates for the upcoming alpine field bootcamp in Autumn 2023 near Manali