aNewDomain — The devastating blizzard that hit the Annapurna region early last week was a result of Cyclone Hudhud, a storm that hit the eastern region of India and tore a path of destruction before reaching the Himalayas.
For days there had been warnings of the cyclone but no one could have imagined that the strong winds laden with moisture would precipitate into a sudden, white out blizzard. The blizzard took the lives of 39 trekkers as of October 18 in that region, hundreds of miles north in Nepal.
The Annapurna region isn’t well known to Americans outside mountaineering circles. But in mountaineering circles they know it well. The Himalayas offer huge climbing and hiking opportunities. The three-week long Annapurna circuit trek alone covers 155 miles (248 km) of trails along breathtaking valleys and terraced mountain slopes. In fact, most novice trekkers hiking for the first time in Nepal start with the Annapurna circuit track before going on to more difficult trails like Everest Base Camp, Kanchengjunga, Makalu, Manaslu and Dolpo.
In the fall, after the monsoons, the weather is crisp and dry and the air, finally washed of dust, reveals magnificent views. The fall season is marketed heavily to bring in hikers during that short window before it becomes too cold in the upper reaches.
Image credit: William Ma (View of the Annapurna range from Poon Hill, the blizzard hit the area just behind these mountains, north of the Annapurna ranges.)
The Annapurna circuit trek starts at 2,700 ft. (820 meters), and peaks at 17,550 ft. (5416 m) at Thorung La Pass. Usually in October you can hike in a tee shirt during the day in the lower reaches of the trail when the sun is out, while a warm jacket at night suffices. There’s nonetheless always some snow at the Thorung La Pass and rope, crampons and pick axes are necessary for bad weather.
But when the unseasonable blizzard hit this weekend, many trekkers caught in the area below Thorung La Pass did not survive the intense cold, gale force winds and zero visibility conditions.
Trekking in Nepal began in the 1970s in the fashion of big camping and safari-style expeditions. With a large contingent of porters, cooks and sherpas (the guides), a group would pitch tents in an open area for the night. The dining tent, toilet tent and all other amenities were carried up by porters. All meals were cooked from scratch.
Later simple lodges came up along the trails where trekkers could sleep for the night. Supplies and food found their way on the backs of porters to the lodges and it became another way to see the Nepali countryside. The safari-style tented treks cost a lot to run, most of which was at the traveler’s expense. The lodges and tea houses quickly became a popular option for budget travelers. For centuries the Nepali people in the mountains have used these small tea houses for a rest stop, lunch or night’s sleep. You’ll still see the porter packs stacked outside a tiny tea house where the porters stop for a meal or tea.
The terrible tragedy on Annapurna hits close to home. In May this year, after months of preparation, four friends and I hiked the Everest Base Camp trail. It was sobering to remember the avalanche that had just taken the lives of 16 Sherpas in the Khumbu Icefall just weeks before we went. The weather was nice. The monsoons had not started. And the icy chill in the mountains had eased. I wore a fleece jacket, hiking shoes with no ankle support and thin hiking pants. During the day it was pleasant. At night we were inside a lodge. Our group’s experience ranged from hard-core hikers to never-having-gone-on-a-hike hikers. We were lucky because we had good weather.
The one thing we realized as we struggled up the trail was that our phones did not work. Some of us had switched to an international plan and were technically connected, but service was spotty the farther we went up. During the day when the fast walkers went ahead and left the rest of us to walk slowly, our guides spoke to each other every two hours to check in on their local phones. They also called the head office and contacts to find out about conditions and the likelihood of flights from Lukla to Kathmandu.
We discussed our plans every morning as a group with the guides and mostly deferred to their suggestions. At Namche Bazaar our head guide, Jangbu, took a portion of our group all the way to Base Camp while the rest of us headed back to Lukla. Jangbu and our other guide, Nyingma, spoke every couple of hours. And they didn’t stop communicating in this fashion until we were back in Kathmandu.
Cyclone Hudhud, after making landfall, was forecast earlier to hit western Nepal. The Annapurna region is in north-central Nepal. Since 1977, when Nepal opened its doors to tourism and trekking, there has not been a blizzard in that area.
As the accounts emerge from survivors and criticism for the rescue efforts increases, there is a growing rebuttal from the Nepalese officials about the idea that “cheap tourists” who do not hire guides are responsible for their own safety. More on this later as it’s not necessarily true.
Nepal is seen as a budget traveler’s destination. Usually it’s easy to travel in Nepal — tourists often pick up a la carte choices along the way for lodging, travel, food and guides. Lonely Planet’s website says,
By Western standards Nepal is a cheap place to travel, though prices are creeping up. As a general guide you can live in Nepal for less than $40 a day if you stay in budget accommodation, take the bus, and trek independently. Some of the best-value choices are in the midrange category (slightly more expensive, but well worth it.) Meals are also refreshingly inexpensive, except in Kathmandu where restaurants aimed at foreigners are increasingly charging Western prices. If you go trekking independently, food will be your biggest expense. Beds in lodges are cheap, but the bill for dinner and breakfast will be US$10-$12 — more if you order alcoholic drinks. If you require a porter or guide, bank on another US$13-$20.”
As more scrutiny is directed at how efforts were made by TAAN (Trekking Agencies Association of Nepal) and the Nepalese government to lead rescue efforts in a large area over difficult terrain, the questions begin of how the trekkers were informed or not informed about the storm approaching them. Would shelters where people could have stayed in to sit out the storm helped? How can this be prevented in the future?
Safety in the mountains
There are some checks and balances in place for trekkers. Trekkers in Nepal have to apply for and buy a trekking permit to hike the mountains. There are checkpoints at the head of the trail where hikers have to register as they enter or leave the area. The Trekkers’ Management Information system (TIMS) is in place for trekker safety.
An email to TAAN about using the records to determine which trekkers are still in the mountains has not been answered. This goes back to the claim that “cheap tourists” are responsible for themselves. If there is a record of a person going up the mountain, there should be a way to match records of that same person leaving the area.
Tourism in Nepal hit a rough patch. After a decade-long civil war, Nepal is working to attract more visitors from Asian countries, says a report by the BBC last year. Going forward, a lot will depend on how the trekking organizations reform the system of checks and fail safes that protect visitors. The organizations face deep challenges: it is difficult to manage (in 2013 more than 40,000 trekkers went for the Annapurna Circuit trek) the large number of tourists in a fairly-spread-out area. Infrastructure is developing. And in the mountains, conditions change without warning.
For safety reasons it is recommended to hire a certified guide from a reputable agency and check that porters going through a pass are adequately equipped with down jackets and hiking boots. Solo hikers have gone missing and Aubrey Sacco’s disappearance in Nepal while hiking the Langtang region is one such tragic case. Another recent case involves the disappearance of a UK citizen trekking in the Annapurna area. On our Everest Base Camp trek we saw several flyers for missing people, another sobering reminder of the need to travel safely. In talking to my guide, he told me that unless you’ve walked a particular route often it is difficult to know which turn to take when the road forks.
Nepal is working on a program to track hikers that has yet to be implemented. And there is a movement in the trekking community to ban solo hikes in the mountains.
Would guides have helped the Annapurna trekkers? It’s hard to say until we know more.
Nepal still remains one of the best places to hike, where typically the weather is mild and the well-beaten trails are never too far from a village or town. But it will take some time for travelers to regain confidence and get back up the mountain, not to mention those waiting for the full story about those who lost a dear one, or those who survived, in the recent blizzard.
For aNewDomain.net, I’m Joy Ma.
(Note: Joy wrote the Spectrum Guide to Nepal published in 2000, now a historical snapshot of the country at the time. )