Nepal Trekking Disaster

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 Sherpa’s 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 can’t 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 you’re safer going down and waiting out the weather lower down. Then when it became obvious that staying put wasn’t 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 isn’t 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 it’s 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 isn’t solely dependent on him. After all I’m 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 I’m 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 it’s 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 it’s obvious that they aren’t suitably equipped (e.g. the types who show up in jeans and trainers with no rain gear! :no:) or aren’t 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 it’s obvious they aren’t suitably equipped or fit enough or where the weather conditions just don’t 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”

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3 thoughts on “Nepal Trekking Disaster

  1. I have read that book and have also trekked on part of the Annapurna circuit (but not around the area where this disaster occurred). It’s very beautiful but also remote. There are no roads and it would be difficult to get a rescue party in quickly. The lure of the mountains is very strong for many though. Unfortunately the conditions can change suddenly in any mountain region.
    I felt that our trek was very well organised (by local people), but I don’t know how well regulated it is overall. I hope it doesn’t put people off going to Nepal, because it is a very poor country and they do depend on tourism to make a living, especially in the mountain villages. It is also a very beautiful country and the people we encountered on our trip were delightful.

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    • I’ve trekked in Nepal myself, Everest region rather than Annaupurna. Our group was well orgainsed too, but I’m led to believe by people who go out there more regularly that there are a few cowboy’s running trekking companies.

      Also I wonder if complacency played a role. The guides thought well its never gotten that bad before… Certainly it would not be good for trekking to go away entirely, but a bit of regulation of guides, the trekkers themselves also realising they can’t solely rely on the guide (someone was telling me how a porter in his group got altitude sickness and they had to send him down) and need to keep their wits about them, as you would normally do on any mountain route.

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