Scared in the Himalayas

A lesson in risk management.

By James Roh

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Half chuckle, half sigh, I turned back.

“Fuck this I don’t want to die out here,” I said out loud, even though no one was around to hear it.

If only I had gotten a piece of chapati bread every time I had said that this week, I thought, I’d have enough food to stay out here a few more days. Although, at this point, I’m not even entirely sure I’d want to.

So I walked away from the bridge. Missing pieces, huge holes, cracked wood, and a bar across the entrance — all signs indicating an unstable bridge that spanned a raging river of snow melt. Realistically, could I make it across? Probably. But the better question was if it was worth it.

Day five of a week-long solo trek through the Indian Himalaya and I was at the end of my rope. Every day had presented challenges — torrential downpour, disappearing trails in the middle of steep scree fields, high altitude, limited food supplies (guidebook said there would be local “stores”), missing bridges, and evidence of recent land slides. On top of that, I was alone and days away from any definitive health care if something did go wrong.

So instead of resting my weary bones in a nearby local village on the other side of that river, I plodded on to the next town a few hours away.

I’ll be honest, it was disheartening. Am I getting more timid as I get older? Was the altitude affecting my judgement? What if I had been with friends? Could I have survived a swim in that river? I’ll probably never know the answer to these questions (except for the last one, which is no) but the exhausting slog that evening gave me plenty of time to reflect on what it means to take chances.

I knew the trek was going to be challenging but that was the point. Aside from rope work, snow travel and communication, this adventure was going to test nearly all of my mountain skills — navigation, physical strength, mental fortitude, high altitude travel, camping, patience, and risk management. Having turned away from that bridge, I know I at least passed the decision making test. Making the safe call in the backcountry may not always be the “right” decision, but it is absolutely never the wrong decision.

At the end of my trek, I mentioned the bridge to a local. Through broken english, she informed me that the bridge is perfectly fine and they cross it all the time. As for the bar across the entrance? That was to keep their pasture animals from getting to the other side.

I still stand by my decision.

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