Nepal has been on my mind. I’ve been reading the news reports about the 40 bodies now recovered from the deadly snowstorm that struck this country earlier this week. Nepal is in its’ prime trekking season on the Annapurna circuit, which receives over 100,000 hikers a year. It is one of the most popular treks in the country, and for that matter, the world. The hike, located in the northwest region of Nepal, takes up to three weeks to complete and crosses over a the famous 17,769 ft Thorung La Pass. This area surrounding the pass was the hardest hit of the snowstorm, receiving up to six feet of snow and creating white-out conditions.
Back in 2008 I hiked the Annapurna circuit. I hiked it alone, and met a number of friends along the way. It was one of the most spectacular hikes of my life. I was blown away by the beauty of the Annapurna range, and the experience paved the way for other multi-day hiking trips I’ve done around the world. Looking back on this hike that took me fifteen days, I honestly had no idea what I was getting into. I didn’t train. I didn’t worry about altitude sickness. Quite honestly, I decided on a whim to do the hike. I patched together gear and clothes for the trip, buying what I could in Kathmandu, and deciding quickly that I didn’t need what I couldn’t find.
I imagine many of those hiking there recently probably packed better than I did, but nothing could have prepared them for what happened. Even now, I have more wilderness and emergency experience than I did back then, but that’s because I’ve chosen a career as a expedition river guide and tour leader. On trips, it is me and my fellow guides that take care of people-we are the ones that are responsible. It’s a responsibility that I don’t take lightly, case in point because no one can predict when an accident will occur or when a river will hit flood stage. I struggle to think of what I would do in the shoes of those caught in the storm.
My pain this week is two-fold. For one, my heart goes out to those hikers that died. I remember that tea house before Throng La Pass, how small it was inside and how basic of a structure it really was. I remember the altitude, and huddling around the heater, waiting for it to be late enough so I could go to bed and get the heck out of there in the morning. I can only imagine crammed into that tea house, watching the snow pile up, and terrified at what the options lay before me. My thoughts are with their families and loved ones.
Secondly, I’m deeply troubled by how this natural, unpredictable weather occurrence will affect tourism in Nepal, the largest source of foreign revenue in the country.
There’s been substantial criticism of the Nepalese government and hiking agencies for their lack of warning as to how dangerous the Annapurna circuit is. Nepal suffered another disaster earlier this year where 20 people died as a result of an avalanche on Mount Everest.
I disagree with this criticism. No one can predict massive weather changes, or the smallest chance that the stars will align and terrifying x, y or z will happen. We as adventure travelers make decisions when we sign up for a trek, or a whitewater trip, or a biking tour. Just as we never know when we may get into a traffic accident or get hit by a bus, we may experience a freak storm, a rock fall, or another completely unpredictable occurrence. We choose to put ourselves in the situations. We need to take responsibility that though there is an extremely unlikely chance that something terrible will happen, we have taken that risk.
Granted, there are times where guides are ill-equipped and lack the knowledge of how to properly deal with a situation. This sounds like it happened near Thorung La Pass, where a guide made the incorrect choice to try for the pass, when he should’ve chosen to wait. Or perhaps he was pushed into going by the promise of cash by his clients. Who knows. We certainly aren’t in the place to judge right or wrong when not one of us was there to see for ourselves.
As with many accidents worldwide, I foresee the government taking strong action in building new certification standards for their hiking guides, and emergency weather protocol in teahouses. Well, I hope at least this will happen as a result of this incident.
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