Storm on Annapurna prompts blizzard of promises

Posted by Ed Douglas on 28/10/2014
After the storm: new rules for trekkers in Nepal

The death toll from mid October’s snowstorm in the Annapurna region now stands at 43, after rescue teams recovered the bodies of three Nepalis from the Thorung La last week. In the shadow of Nepal’s worst tourism tragedy, the authorities are promising a radical overhaul of how trekking is practised there. But will anything really change? Ed Douglas reports.

It was, according to the Himalayan Rescue Association, the largest trekking and climbing rescue operation yet conducted in the region. The authorities say 514 people were rescued during 70 helicopter sorties flown to rescue the injured and stranded. That isn’t the kind of record Nepal’s tourism industry was hoping to set.

Even now, two weeks after an unseasonal storm dumped feet of snow on Nepal’s most popular trekking area, it’s possible the death toll will rise again; Nepalis aren’t required to register to work in the region and there may be some locals who have not yet been reported missing.

Although headlines focussed on dead foreign nationals from Canada, Israel, India, Japan, Poland and Slovakia, the majority of those who died were Nepali trekking and expedition workers. Many of them lacked any kind of training and were poorly equipped.

Stung by criticism in the world’s media about its competence, the Nepali government’s response has been to promise an overhaul of regulation and infrastructure. “At present we are seeing that nobody is following the rules,” said Yadav Koirala, joint secretary of disaster management. “There is faulty mechanism at every level.”

Yet there has been no formal investigation to establish what actually happened or any consultation with those in the trekking industry who know what they’re doing. Instead, officials have made a series of policy decisions on the hoof – decisions that could, if implemented, have a dramatic impact on trekking in Nepal without improving safety.

In the immediate aftermath, attention focussed on lack of information about a storm whose track had been predicted for days. Ngamindra Dahal, a climate expert at Kathmandu University, told The Guardian that Nepal’s meteorological office had issued warnings of high winds and heavy rains. “Farmers were told about it. It was in the media. So this was not unexpected.”

At first, Nepal’s chief civil servant blamed inaccurate forecasts. Then Nepal’s natural disasters ministry – the focus for planning for a long anticipated earthquake in the Kathmandu area – said police posts in the Annapurna region were contacted but that the message arrived too late. Finally, prime minister Sushil Koirala promised a system of weather alerts that will reach lodges on the trail as well as police posts.

The self-criticism didn’t end there. Dipak Amatya, who announced an ambitious programme promising scores of new shelters on popular trekking trails, told Reuters: “There is no point blaming the hostile weather for the disaster. I blame our entire mechanism because it is our responsibility to protect tourists and Nepali citizens.”

How that mechanism should be fixed has quickly become a matter of controversy. Without pausing for any kind of enquiry into the tragedy, Mohan Krishna Sapkota, a spokesman from the tourism ministry, blamed poorly equipped tourists who didn’t follow the rules, complaining that many in the Annapurna region didn’t have trekking permits. Several officials expressed surprise at the number of unregistered tourists in the area.

“This will not be tolerated anymore,” Sapkota said. “It is better to have less tourists who pay more. This kind of irresponsible tourism will ruin Nepal’s image.”

Little attention has been paid so far to the problem of mainly young backpackers being ignorant of the potential hazards they face trekking at high altitude. Many of those caught up in the storm reported meeting people in a state of hypothermia because they weren’t properly equipped. No mention has been made so far in Nepal in how to educate tourists who aren’t regular mountain walkers.

The ministry of tourism instead announced that trekkers will now be required to hire properly qualified guides, something the Trekking Agents’ Association of Nepal (TAAN) have been demanding for some time. TAAN’s president Ramesh Dhamala has even said that the ratio of trekkers to guides should be one to one, a demand that has little chance of being taken seriously.

On top of that Dhamala himself acknowledges that “guides are not properly trained and many lack safety ideas on how to respond to such situations.” If trekkers are required to have local guides, where will they come from?

Nepal’s mountaineering guides association has benefitted in recent years from its membership with the IFMGA. Perhaps the time has come for the equivalent mountain walking associations to make similar contacts with Nepal’s trekking association to restore confidence.

TAAN itself must take some responsibility for the creaky reputation of Nepal’s trekking industry. Six years ago, TAAN succeeded in prising the trekking permit scheme away from the government. All trekkers are required to have a trekking permit costing $20. There were more than 130,000 trekkers in the Annapurna region alone last year, generating revenue of $2.6m.

Money raised from the Trekking Information Management System card is split between administration costs, porter training and insurance and improvements in infrastructure, including porter shelters to improve safety in the mountains. Little of this work has yet been done.

Several tourism agencies in Kathmandu have already condemned the ministry’s plans to restrict the number of trekkers by making guides mandatory, and the Himalayan chronicler Liz Hawley said she doubted that the government would follow through. “I will not be surprised if this tragic incident is quickly forgotten.” That will be the most depressing outcome of all.

 


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Anonymous User
29/10/2014
Ed it is a pity that you don't mention the work that the UIAA has been doing over the last few years in partnership with the Nepal Mountaineering Association. Recognising the need for basic skills-based training in Nepal we have been training a team of experienced Nepalese trek leaders to deliver a training qualification for leaders of walking groups. This naturally includes weather and avalanche awareness as well as many other party management skills including navigation in poor visibility. These courses are directed by Nepalese Mountain Guides (IFMGA) but delivered by trek leaders in order to ensure that the syllabus is developed around the needs of the trekking community. These courses have been very well received and contrasts dramatically with the almost entirely classroom-based permit system that still exists in Kathmandu for trek leaders. I am pleased to be able to report also that many graduates from this programme have embarked on personal climbing and mountaineering adventures of their own, which I am certain will enrich the services that they provide to trekking groups.
Steve Long, Chair of UIAA Training Standards Panel.
Anonymous User
31/10/2014
I soloed the circuit and ABC in spring 2012. Weather forecast warnings are necessary. Mandatory GPS rental units as proposed could have value. Mandatory guides would hurt Nepal trekking tourism. Half of the fatalities were guides and porters. I did see that many trekkers were I'll prepared for the unseasonably cold weather, but so were the guides. The porters had the least gear. Perhaps a mandatory video viewing when u purchase your permit would suffice. The wct on Vancouver island has a mandatory training session. Experienced trekkers don't need guides. If the guide gets ill or injured your expensive adventure is over. I'll travel elsewhere if guides are required next spring in nepal.
Anonymous User
01/11/2014
Hi Steve. If I'd known about it, I would have. Maybe we can talk further? Sounds like a positive development. Best, Ed
Anonymous User
02/11/2014
Shame there is no mention of the work the UIAA have been doing or of the aspirations for, and movement towards, membership of UIMLA ( the walking/trekking equivalent of the IFMGA).
Anonymous User
04/11/2014
I have just returned to Australia after a month in Nepal. I will share my observations. My friend and I were attempting to climb Pisang peak when the storm occurred. I had descended to Pisang village due to the onset of Altitude sickness. My friend and our climbing guide were at high camp (5400m) the evening the storm hit. All day the sky was full of greasy cloud that in New Zealand would have had us seeking safe ground, our climbing guide was unconcerned. The storm started at 6.30 in the evening and continued for 32 hours. My friend and guide descended early the next morning and got lost in white out conditions and >100kmh winds. After 8 hours exposed to the full force of the storm and having triggered 1 avalanche my friend had to take control as the guide was panicked at not being able to find base camp and the high camp tent was lost. My friend dug a snow cave - this was viewed as a tomb by the climbing guide and his exact words to my friend were "100% no chance of life". They both survived the night, the storm cleared, but they then had an epic day reclimbing 400m of chest deep snow to regain the correct ridge and descend to base camp and pisang village. Base camp at 4400m was completely flattened. All day they were running the gauntlet of avalanches coming off the higher slopes and falling down through the forest where the descent path passed. Some issues that were highlighted during this event:
1. in the absence of weather forecasts there is a local inability to read weather signs. My friend and I both picked that something unusual was happening but were convinced by locals not to be concerned.
2. Nepalese climbing guides may be able to climb mountains competently but they lack the required skills to survive in the mountains. The guide had a plan A, find base camp or descend to village, there was no plan B. When plan A failed the guide had no other options. In his panicked state he was suggesting to my friend dumping packs to travel light, splitting up, traversing dangerous slopes etc. all would have led to disaster.
3. Trekkers and porters doing this circuit are grossly under prepared in terms of equipment and experience/training. I was video taping avalanches during the height of the blizzard while trekkers and porters passed by wearing plastic bags on their feet and using garbage bags as rain coats. There seems to be a culture whereby trekkers are told the circuit takes 10 days to complete and itineraries are built and airfares are booked accordingly with no fat built in for weather, illness etc. The best thing people could have done when waking up the day of the storm was to stay in their teahouse.
4. There has been a lot of criticism of Nepal some of which is warranted but trekkers also need to take some responsibility for their behaviour. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, you cannot expect a first world response in a situation like this.

Anonymous User
05/11/2014
I was the Australian climber mentioned by the above poster. The fact we could survive in good condition high on an exposed mountainside having lost our tent highlights the importance of having prior mountain survival experience. There are important lessons to be learned here for trekkers and climbers. The weather was diabolical, rapidly turning benign alpine meadows into death zones that required excellent mountain survival skills well beyond the ability of most trekkers (and porters), all of whom should have abandoned their schedule and stayed safely indoors when they awoke to a massive blizzard outside. That's the most important take away lesson for Trekkers and porters. I'm also going to comment on the mountaineering aspect, where staying safely 'indoors' is often not an option. Our climbing sherpa was very experienced in the mountains having summitted everest a bunch of times, amongst many other Himalayan peaks. He was highly technically competent. His decision to urgently evacuate high camp was sound. The issue is with survival training for unusual situations - the sorts rarely encountered in Nepal. The weather in Nepal is generally predictable, and changes relatively slowly. Climbing seasons are well defined. Most routine mountaineering in the Himalaya is undertaken within these paradigms. Typically on the big Himalayan mountains, the popular routes are almost totally 'wired' - guided, routes marked, camps planned, ropes fixed etc.. The training and experience and competence in Nepal reflects this. This is unlike other remote regions such as NZ and Patagonia, where self-sufficiency and self-competence is the norm. On any mountain things can start to go wrong when a few unusual factors start to stack up - protracted blizzard, high wind, poor viz, lost route, avalanche conditions, lost gear, unseen technical terrain, etc. This is what occurred to us in this storm - but it was survivable with the appropriate experience. A broadening of mountain survival training by IFMGA would greatly increase the safety margin for sherpa guides and their clients on all mountains. Places like New Zealand and other coastal mountain ranges where bad weather and high precipitation are routine demand excellent mountain survival skills, and knowledge and application of these skills saved us on this occasion. It would be great to see them rolled out more effectively in guide training in Nepal in the future. And mountaineering clients should also have a think about their own experience. It's not uncommon to see unfit nuf-nufs with an over-developed sense of their own ability lining up to tick big check-book summits in Nepal. Technically easy routes climbed in good weather are not a test of mountaineering ability. That test comes in terrible conditions when it's all gone pear-shaped. Even the best sherpa guides will struggle to save the lives of inexperienced clients - indeed in truly bad conditions they may struggle to save even their own lives. Think about it
Anonymous User
05/11/2014
Hi Ed. I ran out of space to sign off on the previous post - Ross Cayley. Look me up on Linkedin if you want to followup.

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