Freak weather in Nepal recently led to a rash of deaths on the slopes of the Annapurna circuit, a very popular long distance trek for tourists. Most of the deaths seem to have been due to a combination of exposure and avalanches in the region of the +5,000m Thorung La pass. With nearly 40 or more dead (and that only seems to include the westerners, not locals!) this is one of the worst mountaineering disasters in history. This comes on the back of a pervious accident where an avalanche swept away many Sherpas from the slopes of Everest, leading to the equivalent of industrial action on the slopes of Everest. This tragedy raises many worrying questions.
Firstly, obviously unseasonal weather does tend to hint at climate change as being a factor. While as always, one cant tie climate change to any specific weather event (difference between climate and weather) but inevitably such events are going to become more common. There have been several similar freak weather events in the UK as well over the last twelve months.
Secondly based on survivor accounts it sounds like many were first led up the mountain in fairly appalling conditions. This violates normal mountaineering logic which says in such conditions youre safer going down and waiting out the weather lower down. Then when it became obvious that staying put wasnt an option, they started heading down in conditions neither they nor their guides were equipped to cope with. Indeed some stories tell of guides leaving essential safety gear behind to lighten their loads.
A key factor in the 1996 Everest disaster was the commercial pressure on two competing teams. The guides (both of whom perished) felt that as their clients were paying for the summit, they had an obligation to get them to the top. For example, one of the guides, Rob Hall, had a golden rule about turning around by 2 pm even if within spitting distance of the top (to ensure sufficient time to descend and avoiding the late afternoon thunderstorms that can occur on high mountains). On this one occasion he ignored this rule.
Also the client and guide relationship saw the clients abdicating a lot of their responsibilities onto the guides on the assumption that they were suitably equipped and able to get them down in an emergency. Jon Krakauer, writer of the infamous account of the disaster into thin air noted how one of the guides was not only climbing without oxygen (thus rendering himself too weak to aid clients effectively) but had jettisoned his rucksack too (obviously by climbing without oxygen he had to lighten his load) and thus had no rescue or emergency gear. So we can see similarities here with events in Annapurna.
In the UK there was a period where climbing accidents by university clubs was exceptionally high. The mountain rescue teams, in coalition with the McOS and BMC set a system of training for clubs which sought to redress this. Firstly by providing training in key skills such as navigation, winter climbing, avalanche awareness, etc. But also to help the clubs develop a safety conscious culture.
Having one leader leading a group of barely proficient (and potentially unfit) students up a hill isnt a good idea. The safety of the group is entirely dependent on the skills of the leader (and in Annapurna the experience of guides can be patchy at best). Also, what if the leader is the one who has an accident?
Instead its better to have a group more evenly skilled party, such that the main role of the leader is more organisational (e.g. book the minibus and accommodation, work out the route, etc.) and the party isnt solely dependent on him. After all Im pretty experienced myself but I have been known to explore alternative destinations :DD and its handy to have someone therefore also looking at the map willing to step in and double check what Im doing, or looking out for signs of danger I might have missed.
Crucially by ensuring everyone is suitably equipped and trained it means that if someone becomes separated from the party (fairly easy in a white out), they have a good chance of making it down by themselves safely, without any assistance. And its also important not to let people exceed their own ability. The main job of a party leader in a well-run club is often to say no to people and discourage them from going uphill if its obvious that they arent suitably equipped (e.g. the types who show up in jeans and trainers with no rain gear! :no:) or arent fit or experienced enough to handle the route.
These sorts of rules need to be applied in future to trekking routes such as Annapurna . Many in the mountaineering community are also calling for better communication, in particular of weather reports, standardised training of guides, high altitude shelters and as noted a more safety conscious attitude from the trekkers. This could mean guides having to disappoint clients, by preventing them going further when its obvious they arent suitably equipped or fit enough or where the weather conditions just dont make it safe anymore.
While some will grumble and complain, in the end they paying for safety and need to be realistic about their own abilities. As they say the golden rule of mountaineering is:
going to the top is optional, coming back down is compulsory