In praise of in-country agents

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I was sat in the lounge of our accommodation in Delhi.  A beer in hand, showered, wearing fresh clothes and generally feeling relaxed, satisfied and at one with the world.  My team and I had just got back from my first of two back to back trips to Stok Kangri and the first trip had been a brilliant expedition.  Nearly all the team had summited and, although they had certainly been challenged and we had shared plenty of highs and lows along the way, the end result had been a fantastic shared adventure.  

Across the lounge sat a couple of people who I soon worked out were British and, like you do, we were soon chatting.  It turned out they had also been to Stok Kangri and were staying here enroute home.  They hadn’t summited and, it turned out, their trip had been fraught with problems.

They had delays on the flights to Leh which put them a day behind and affected their acclimatisation, they hadn’t been very impressed with their local guide who spoke very little English and seemed disinterested in the group, they had wanted to visit the Taj Mahal but, despite trying to organise it while they were in country, it had proved too difficult to work out the logistics in the time they had and, perhaps most disappointing of all, they had been forced to turn back during their summit attempt because they had started out too late and 2 other people in their group were too slow.  Despite their attempts to find a solution their single guide had insisted they all needed to go down.  It was a tale of woe and they weren’t, understandably, very happy about their experience.   

As clients travelling to new and challenging destinations or when working with a company for the first time, you don’t always know what you don’t know.  As I listened to their story I wondered, for example, why their leader hadn’t helped them rearrange their flights for the next morning and changed their route slightly to try and compensate for the flight delays? Why hadn’t he or she challenged the guide on the time he said they should leave for their summit attempt?  Why hadn’t the leader been on their summit attempt with them to offer alternative options when the slow clients descended? It isn’t hard to organise an internal trip within India so why had their Taj Mahal plans failed to materialise?  Having a leader travel with them from the UK should have meant they weren’t having to deal with things like this alone.

As I probed a bit deeper the reason soon became clear.  The company they had booked with didn’t provide any kind of UK leader to accompany their groups on Stok Kangri.  Neither did they offer any kind of pre departure training.  In this case the company simply acted as a booking agent and everything in India was managed by a local company.  This meant that, when things went pear shaped, the clients hadn’t really known where to turn because there was no one to turn to.

There has certainly been a rise in companies offering in country only packages and this isn’t an attempt to criticise this way of operating or the quality of support offered by overseas agents and their staff.  For many itineraries this approach may work fine and allows companies to reduce the price for clients because they don’t incur the costs of sending a leader from the UK.  However, I certainly think some itineraries are too complicated or too dangerous to rely on this approach.  Stok Kangri being an example.

The mountain, for one thing, is very challenging for people without the necessary experience.  Does the company have any kind of vetting process to ensure clients are sufficiently experienced?  Have the clients been to altitude before (and so have at least some knowledge of altitude related conditions).  Do they have the skills to operate independently on snow?  If not, sending them unaccompanied is a risky proposition whereas having a leader available can help them understand their limitations. 

Although the Indian guides I’ve worked with are very competent because they come from a reliable in country agent, there can still be language barriers and it is hard for overseas providers working remotely with some local agents to be sure the quality of the staff they use remains high.  A UK leader can smooth the waters, discuss plans with the local guides and, if necessary, override decisions in the best interests of the group.  The local guide may, for example, want the group to leave for the summit at 1am when the UK leader knows they will benefit from having some extra time in hand and so decides they will go at 11.30pm instead.  

It is harder to get evacuated from the Indian Himalayas than it is from some places and so comprehensive provision needs to be made to deal with emergencies.  Does the group carry oxygen and a hyperbaric chamber?  Are altitude drugs available? Is provision made to evacuate casualties by, for example, having an emergency mule they can ride?  Are the local staff trained to deal with altitude issues?

Of course, behind the safety considerations you really can’t beat having a UK leader that knows the mountain well, knows that best place to eat in Leh, understands the bartering system, can solve that transport problem, runs in country training sessions to back up the pre departure training, shows the clients how to use the emergency equipment so they understand what to do if a problem occurs, discusses the equipment they need for the walk in, solves that problem with the crampon that keeps hopping off a clients boot and all the other million little things that go together to make a successful trip.  

You may pay find a Stok Kangri expedition (or any other expedition) at a bargain price but there will be a reason for that.  The question is, is it worth paying less if your trip is then spoilt by problems?  Most of all, is it worth paying less for a reduced safety margin?  I know the answer the Brits I spoke to in Delhi would have given!

Posted by Paul