Keeping Safe in the Himalaya



 'KEEPING SAFE' IN THE HIMALAYA - my initial comments were prepared BEFORE the 2015 earthquakes, so some may think that as a result of such terrible recent events, mundane safety considerations no longer apply.  Quite to opposite!

 I do encourage potential visitors NOT to be put-off visiting Nepal, as tourism will play a vital role in helping the country recover.  JUST that one needs to take extra care, whether travelling by road or trekking in spots prone to landslides.  So please do read what I have to say and encourage others to do likewise. 

Keeping yourself, your travel companions AND the Nepalese you hire SAFE, matters even more.  For any Nepalese person to have survived the earthquake but then die or be seriously injured later this year or in the coming years, due to taking silly risks through inexperience, would be INEXCUSABLE. IT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO KEEP YOURSELF SAFE AND ALL THOSE AROUND YOU (AND THAT INCLUDES THOSE NEPALESE YOU HIRE). 

 Respect mountains and be 'street-wise' in every sense of the world; if that is too much effort, then DON'T go to Nepal - you have no right to endanger others through your own irresponsibility.  But I am sure this does not apply to anyone taking the time to read thus far.  If I am too serious, too bad.

DO NOT END UP CARRYING THE BURDEN OF THE DEATH OF A FATHER OF ANY CHILD IN NEPAL, WHILST WORKING AS A PORTER OR GUIDE DURING YOUR TREK - IT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO KEEP THEM SAFE!  YOU CANNOT ASSUME THEY HAVE MUCH EXPERIENCE,  LET ALONE TRAINING. THE SAME APPLIES TO YOUR CHILDREN OR YOUR GRANDCHILDREN, ESPECIALLY THOSE 'TRAVELLING' IN NEPAL,  WHO CASUALLY DECIDE TO TAKE ON A TREK WELL BEYOND THEIR EXPERIENCE OR CAPABILITIES, WITH INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT; 

HOWEVER FRIENDLY AND RESPECTFUL MOST NEPALESE ARE, THEY ARE UNLIKELY TO BE AS WORLDLY-WISE, AS YOU; THE MAJORITY WILL HAVE HAD LITTLE OR NO TRAINING, SO DO NOT ASSUME THEY HAVE, JUST BECAUSE THEY ARE CALLED A 'GUIDE'.  IT IS ALL VERY WELL BEING SORRY AFTERWARDS.....  EVERYONE VISITING THE HIMALAYA NEEDS TO SHOW GREATER RESPECT FOR THE MOUNTAINS AND THE PEOPLE WHO LIVE IN THEM. 

DOES THE PORTER OR GUIDE HAVE INSURANCE (AND CAN IT BE TRUSTED)?  WHAT WOULD HIS FAMILY DO IF HE IS INJURED AND CANNOT WORK OR DIES?  JUST BECAUSE THE NEPALI OFFERING HIS SERVICES AS A 'GUIDE' SPEAKS A LITTLE ENGLISH DOES NOT MEAN THEY HAVE MUCH IDEA WHAT THEY ARE DOING.  SO IT IS OFTEN A MATTER OF, 'THE BLIND, LEADING THE BLIND' IN NEPAL.  I AGREE, 9 TIMES OUT OF TEN, YOUNG WESTERNERS 'TRAVELLING' IN NEPAL WILL "GET AWAY WITH IT" BUT SOONER, RATHER THAN LATER, THERE WILL BE MORE UNECESSARY DEATHS EITHER OF FOREIGNERS OR NEPALESE.  THE LACK OF UNDERSTANDING OF MOUNTAIN ENVIRONMENTS BY A MAJORITY OF YOUNG PEOPLE (WHETHER OR NOT THERE ARE MOUNTAINS IN THE COUNTRY THEY COME FROM) IS STAGGERING. IT SEEMS THE INTERNET, FAR FROM IMPROVING THE SITUATION, HAS MADE IT WORSE. 

ANYONE PLANNING A TREK IN THE HIMALAYA SHOULD 'TAKE ON BOARD' MY THOUGHTS, BASED UPON CONSIDERABLE EXPERIENCE OFVER A PERIOD OF 35 YEARS.  MOUNTAINS ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD NEED TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY, ESPECIALLY THOSE ON A SCALE GREATER  (I.E. THE HIMALAYA)THAN ELSEWHERE.  SO IF YOU HAVE YOUNGER RELATIVES OR FRIENDS WHO MIGHT UNDERTAKE A TREK ON THE 'SPUR OF THE MOMENT' WHEN IN KATHMANDU OR INDIA,  INSIST THEY TAKE A LOOK AT THE LINK BELOW-   JUST IN CASE YOU FEEL THEY ARE LIKELY TO BE DISMISSIVE OF ADVICE FROM AN 'OLD MAN' LIKE ME, TELL THEM THAT AFTER A RECENT POWER-POINT PRESENTATION TO 6TH FORMERS AT A BRITISH SCHOOL, I WAS DESCRIBED AS 'SICK' (WHICH FOR THOSE UNFAMILIAR WITH THE SLANG USAGE OF THE WORD, IS ACTUALLY RATHER COMPLIMENTARY).  IT IS A WORTH A TRY, AS BOTH THEIR LIVES AND JUST AS  IMPORTANTLY, THE LIVES OF PORTERS AND GUIDES ARE AT STAKE, AS EVENTS IN NEPAL DURING 2014 ILLUSTRATE (which should not be forgotten due to the serious earthquakes in 2015)

I CONSIDER THAT EVERYONE UNDERTAKING A TREK IN THE HIMALAYA SHOULD HAVE RELEVANT FIRST-AID TRAINING.  IT IS UNLIKELY THAT YOUR GUIDE WILL HAVE HAD ANY TRAINING OR CARRY EVEN THE MOST BASIC FIRST-AID KIT (NOT EVEN A PLASTER OR PAAIN-KILER) LET ALONE ANY MEDICAL SUPPLIES OR KNOW HOW TO USE THEM!   YES, MOBILE PHONE USAGE IS WIDESPREAD BUT NOT EVERY PART OF EVERY TREK HAS COVERAGE, NOR WILL HELICOPTERS AUTOMATICALLY COME TO YOUR RESCUE.  IT IS THE TREKKER'S RESPONSIBILITY TO KNOW WHAT THE SITUATION IS.  YOU MAY THINK HELICOPTER RESCUE IS THE NORM IN NEPAL (AS IT IS IN THE UK) BUT MOST OF THE TIME, UNLESS THE TREK HAS BEEN BOOKED THROUGH A COMPANY WITH A RELIABLE AGENT IN KATHMANDU (WHO CAN ACCESS THE THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS IN CASH NECESSARY TO HIRE A RESCUE HELICOPTER, THE 'RESCUE' HELICOPTER WILL NOT TAKE OFF)...... IMAGINE, IN THE UK FRANTICALLY HAVING TO TAKE THOUSANDS OF POUNDS OUT OF A BANK AND DRIVE WITH THIS TO AN AIRFIELD TO HAND OVER TO THE PILOT OF A HELICOPTER TO ENSURE THEY FLY!!


Trekking in the Khumbu Himal

Recently, I read an article which paid tribute to an American plant enthusiast, described as 'The Old Man of the Mountains'.  Perhaps it is time for me to take that title, since I look ten years older than I actually am? I have been building myself up to fully share my thoughts on the terrible events in Nepal last October but needed time to reflect. Lives were lost and other lives are at stake in the future, especially, as attention all too rapidly moves on.  For most part, they will quickly be forgotten.  I have long held strong views about people going up into the Himalaya, ill-prepared, with no respect for the worl'd highest mountain range - often having not even walked in hills in their own country.  Must try and temper blunt self-righteous condemnation of people's conduct as it seldom serves any useful purpose.  Improving the present situation is my objective, not appearing clever or "wise after the event".  Furthermore, I do not wish to appear cruel or disrespectful towards those who lost their lives.  However, I MUST speak up and out.  Attitudes NEED to change.  MOST of the deaths were avoidable.  Blaming local people for what happened is wrong (even IF a few may have made the situation worse) and importantly gets us nowhere.....  So the following is something of a sermon!



A trekking group on a 4000m+ pass - some clearly had found the altitude hard-going

AS I HAVE BEEN COMPOSING THIS ACCOUNT, THE TIME SEEMS RIGHT FOR ME TO TRY AND SPREAD MY ADVICE MORE WIDELY.  AFTER ALL, THERE IS, AS FAR AS I KNOW, NOBODY ALIVE TODAY WHO CAN MATCH MY LEVEL OF EXPERIENCE TRAVELLING ALONG THE HIMALAYA AS A WHOLE, OVER A PERIOD OF 35 YEARS (THOUGH A FEW MAY HAVE VISITED PARTICULAR REGIONS/COUNTRIES MORE OFTEN THAN ME).  SO I INTEND TO PRODUCE A GUIDE TO 'KEEPING SAFE IN THE HIMALAYA' (BY THE 'OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAINS' IN BOOK FORMAT.  NOT TO PUBLISH A PRINTED VERSION BUT TO MAKE THIS AVAILABLE ELECTRONICALLY AS A PDF AND ON A CD - IN RETURN FOR A DONATION TO THE BRITAIN-NEPAL MEDICAL TRUST 

MY TARGET HAD BEEN TO COMPLETE THE FIRST 'EDITION' BY SUMMER 2015 (THEN REGULAR UP-DATES) - BUT THIS HAS NOT BEEN POSSIBLE).   VARIOUS DIFFICULTIES HAVE SET THIS BACK -  I SHALL SEE WHAT I DO IN THE COMING YEARS. WHILST THE ADVICE WILL BE SUITABLE FOR ALL AGES (INCREASING NUMBERS OF RETIRED PEOPLE ARE GOING ON TREKS IN THE HIMALAYA) IT MAY BE WORTHWHILE TO HAVE A SEPARATE 'YOUNG PERSONS GUIDE TO TRAVELLING IN THE HIMALAYA', ALLOWING ME TO PITCH THE CONTENT SLIGHTLY DIFFERENTLY.  WHILST MOSTLY LECTURING TO OLDER PEOPLE (A MAJORITY OF THE MEMBERS OF THE CLUBS AND SOCIETIES I SPEAK TO ARE RETIRED), I HAVE A LITTLE TEACHING EXPERIENCE TO DRAW UPON - PLUS OCCASIONALLY GIVE PRESENTATIONS ABOUT MY TRAVELS IN SCHOOLS.

NEPAL, OCTOBER 2014,

 one report which appeared on-line at that time shows the enormous task faced:

".... A 21-year-old Swede among the many young people who flock to Nepal for holidays, had planned to hike across the Annapurna region later this month [it was on this route that most deaths occurred] - but said she was now debating whether to go ahead. "I didn't even know that trekking was, like, dangerous - I thought it was only dangerous if you go for Everest or something ..."

One might have assumed that coming from a Scandinavian country, this young lady would have understood about snow and the outdoors but clearly not.  I, when escorting a pony-trek in Kashmir in 1987 to see mountain flowers, was stunned to discover that despite the kit-list sent by Raoul Moxley Travel I was working for, two ladies from Switzerland turned up with inadequate water-proofs.  They only had flimsy tops rather like the transparent ones seen on when rain stops play on outside courts at Wimbledon.  The slightest breeze caused problems. It seems, not everyone from a mountainous country lives in the countryside or exhibits any common-sense......  As it turned out, due to late-lying snow, making it unsafe to negotiate a pass, I cut short the planned route, MUCH to the annoyance of the group.  Also on that trek I had to contend with a British school headmaster who kept trying to go off by himself, as he was convinced he could find better flowers than me (even though I had followed this route several times before).  On one occasion I HAD to stop him going up a steep section of snow.  He complained, saying it was "HIS" choice and if anything happened to him, it was his responsibility but I firmly disagreed, stating it was in fact "MY" responsibility to keep him safe - despite being 30 years his junior. Doing the CORRECT thing and keeping travellers safe (whether on foot or horse) seldom brings popularity.  Later on, the errant 'teacher' did admit that the Himalaya turned to be on a different scale to what he had been accustomed to in Europe.  I wonder what he would have made of the 'risk assessments' anyone planning a school trip has to go through these days.

View of high ridge near Mt. Dhaulagiri from a trekking lodge


My thinking has long been that if someone wishes to kill themselves on a mountain that is their decision.  I admire the capabilities of those who have the physical and mental strength to get to the top of high peaks and have always fancied taking in the view on the way up and from 6000m+.   Though never felt 'driven' to go beyond the upper limit of flowering plants (the highest point I have reached is 5300m, nearly 18,000').  Having said that, such individuals who do climb have no right to put other people's lives at risk, either getting to the top or amongst those attempting to rescue them, particularly at lower levels, when no actual climbing is involved.  Mind you, according to Lord Hunt in 'The Ascent of Everest', the nearest any of his team came to death on the 1953 expedition was nearly being swept away whilst bathing at the edge of a fast-flowing glacial river, before they had even reached base-camp. A Liaison Officer for an expedition attempting Nun Kun in Ladakh in 1987, prior to my plant hunting expedition into bordering Zangskar (a documentary aired by the BBC on this Buddhist Kingdom was called 'The Last Place on Earth') was swept away trying to cross such a river.  Deaths can happen in in apparently, less extreme circumstances......

Zangskar where my wife spent part of her honey-moon: what more could any woman want?

Genuine accidents do happen in mountains and those 'competing' at the top-end of their chosen sport, do put their lives on the line.  I spent a night at the home of a leading British mountaineer in the 1980s when invited to accompany an expedition to Kun Lun Shan (NW China) - which had been given permission to climb one of the world's highest un-climbed peaks.  In the end, as often happens, the expedition fell-through but it provided the opportunity to realise how tough it was on the leader to return to the UK to meeting the wives or girlfriends of those who had died in the High Himalaya.  

But lives of local people/trekking staff should not be risked whilst trekking, particularly those of porters, who tend to be disproportionately killed.  IF the responsibility lies with an ill-prepared Western tourist, lacking in respect for any mountain, let alone the Himalaya, this conduct MUST be criticised and the approach behind it challenged.  And one should not forget that the ONLY reason the world heard about what happened in Nepal last October was the large number combined with a high representation of tourists in the death-toll.  One or two Westerners or even several locals dying in Nepal is not normally newsworthy....  The actual number was exaggerated, to sound more dramatic.  Several of the deaths included in the figure were not trekkers at all, nor guides or porters but local yak herders; their lives do count but it is important to be accurate and since when did anyone care about them?   Some of the dead were killed whilst mountaineering below Dhaulagiri, not trekking..... which is another consideration altogether.  Do we normally get to hear about just 2 guides or porters being killed when a group of Westerners attempt to climb a peak in the Nepalese Himalaya?

Before I say too much about what happened in 2014, let us go back 3 decades, to illustrate that deaths of porters and guides have occurred ever since Nepal opened up its borders in the late 1940s and not just during mountaineering expeditions.  Until then, Nepal been a closed country.  Few realise that the Everest Reconnaissance Expeditions of the 1920s and 1930s were from the North, through Tibet.  Everest was first climbed in 1953 (not that hideous word  'Conquered', favoured by those friends of mine, journalists; one NEVER conquers a high mountain, the 'Gods' allow you to get the top and if you are fortunate, back down alive) from the South, through Nepal - a route which had only been accessible for a few years.  The Swiss came awfully close, in 1952, to being the FIRST to climb the world's highest mountain (but NOT the most challenging) which I believe is K2, only just lower than Everest and I would point out, in the Karakoram range, not the Himalaya at all.  I think it is fair to say, that if one wishes to test their mountaineering credentials, they should play their part within a team attempting a difficult route up one of the other 8000m peaks, not be escorted up Everest.

'THE FOUR SHERPA TRUST'

The 'Four Sherpa Trust' was formed in 1985 following the death in an avalanche of four sherpas who were accompanying a trek in the Tilicho Lake area, Annapurna region, by members of the New Plymouth Tramping (backpacking) Club, New Zealand.  On October 9th, 1985, a trekking party of eleven New Zealanders, two Spaniards, nine Sherpas and 22 porters were caught in unseasonal and continuing snowstorms between Tilicho and Meso Kanto passes at nearly 5500m (16,500').  One of the New Zealanders began to suffer symptoms of cerebral oedema (a form of altitude sickness).


Tilicho Lake in 2014

I had been at the other end of the Himalaya that year, firstly escorted a flower-tour in Himachal Pradesh during the summer then leading an autumn plant hunting expedition into Kashmir.   We had just left India (snow typically comes earlier in the West, so best to complete exploration in the mountains by the end of September).  October represents the start of the post-monsoon trekking season in Nepal.  The weather caused problems the full length of the Himalaya that October.  I understand a bus full of European tourists was lost due to an avalanche on the Zoji La (a pass which is the main road route between the Kashmir Valley and Ladakh) around the date that the New Zealanders got into trouble.

In trying to force a route of Meso Kanto to Jomsom to get help four Sherpas were carried away by an avalanche.  With an improvement in the Weather on October 13th, two members of the trekking party and a Sherpa set off back to Manang Village wearing snow shoes made from the cane seats of trekking stools.  They reached Manang three days later and reported the accident to the Himalayan Rescue Association doctor stationed there.  Food was severely rationed and almost exhausted when helicopter contact was finally made with the stranded party on the morning of October 20th (a full WEEK after the small rescue party left - how things have changed).

On their return home the New Zealanders set up the 'Four Sherpa Trust' to honour the memory of the dead Sherpas.  The trust's first project was to raise money to fund a radio system (no mobile, let alone satellite phones in those days) to be run by the Himalayan Rescue Association volunteers, in appreciation for their assistance to the stranded party.  Radios were installed in 1987 in the HRA aid stations at Manang and Pheriche (in the Everest area).  They operated in conjunction with the National Park Service radio network.

Front cover of 'PEOPLE WITHIN A LANDSCAPE' by Bert Willison and Shirley Bourke (1989)

The entire proceeds from the sale of this book have been used to maintain the radios, to assist families of Sherpas killed or injured while climbing or trekking and to help educate their children.

Let us remember:
GYALIEN SHERPA (Junbesi); ANG KAMI (Khumjung); Namgyal (Namche Bazaarand ANG CHERING (Pangboche)


Back cover of 'PEOPLE WITHIN A LANDSCAPE'

I met Bert and Shirley after a lecture I gave on Kashmir during my lecture tour in New Zealand in 1991. John McIntyre, my host during my time in New Plymouth kindly presented me with a copy of the book.  Bert had been the leader of the trek to Kashmir where I 'bumped' into John and received the first of a number of crunching hand-shakes.  It does not pay to offer a limp hand to a former sheep-farmer!  So my lecture had, on that occasion, brought pleasant memories of the Himalaya.  As leader of the 1985 trek Bert naturally felt responsible for the loss of life but the real responsibility lies with one of the participants, who concealed from everyone, especially the leader, the fact that he had been struggling with the altitude for several days.  When he could no longer hide it, my understanding is that they took an extra rest day to help him recover, blissfully unaware of the incoming storm. Had they crossed the pass "out of Tilicho" they may well have avoided all the problems....

An internet search (March 2015) reveals little about the trust these days but the 'Taranaki Daily News'  reporter Matt Rilkoff interviewed Reg Hull in October 2014, one of the New Plymouth trekkers in Bert's party back in 1985.  The freak weather came in suddenly and was eerily similar to the extreme conditions that led to the death of the trekkers in Nepal last October, which was also in the Annapurna region (though slightly to the North).  Reg, now 98 years old, considered it was a great place to go but you wouldn't want to get caught out by the weather - even though the view was marvellous and nearly his last.  Nepalese military helicopters flying at their operational ceiling rescued the trekkers.

Reg's son remembered his father, on his 90th birthday saying that he was grateful to two people in the world, "the pilot that got him back to Greece when his plane was shot up in the war and the helicopter pilot that got him out of the mountains".  The son had visited Nepal with his father and also been caught out by the weather, commenting, "it can change so quickly.  We were camping out in tents and then a blizzard came in and we had to move into the local houses until the bad weather passed.."

One of the quotes in the book, which resonates with me:

"... One of the ways to better understanding may lie up ridges,
along mountain tracks, and through quiet forests,
where minds can rest and prepare for action again. "
(Rewi Alley)

EVENTS OF OCTOBER 2014

I think the most informative method is for me to make a selection of reports posted by journalists on-line during the days after the disaster, commenting upon them and then running through, in chronological order, the personal experience I draw upon, from my first, university expedition back in 1980, up to the present day. By coincidence, my 2013 expedition took my team very close to the pass where many of the deaths occurred the following year and at almost the same date..... 

INADEQUATELY REGISTERED TREKKING AGENTS WITH NO TRAINING

"We take many precautions when we go up the Annapurna circuit - we carry emergency oxygen, masks, medicines, satellite phones, extra jackets, snowboots, goggles - basically whatever we might need in case the weather turns bad," said the director of the Seven Summit Treks Agency in Kathmandu".

IF they do carry emergency oxygen, masks and snow boots, they are one of the very few....  Whilst in the Mustang district in 2013, I observed a number of groups heading down after crossing the Thorong La (the highest point on the circuit) at Muktinath and Jomsom - NONE of them had such equipment.

Selection of business cards for a few of the innumerable trekking agencies which have offices lining the streets of Thamel, Kathmandu or the tourists districts of Pokhara or operate from home - which run into the thousands, rather than just hundreds)

 "...There were no particular requirements to open a trekking agency in Nepal and called for better government regulation. "There are no criteria in place to open a trekking company - anyone can do it, regardless of experience.."  "If you speak enough English and you can convince clients, you are in business..."

This certainly appears to be the case.  Most of those involved in trekking simply begin as assistants to the cook and gradually move up to become sirdars (trek leaders).  I have been told by some that they have received training but I know of examples who lead groups of up to 20 or more, unable to use a compass or read a map.  Familiarity with a route or being able to name the distant mountains is not a lot of use during adverse weather conditions.  Few have any first aid training or carry a First Aid, let alone a Medical Kit (they consider this to be the responsibility of clients) and whilst mobile phones are now common-place, they do not receive signals everywhere.  And in an Emergency, would their command of English be sufficient to be understood.  Certain senior people in Nepal treat those from villages dismissively and could well struggle to understand their Nepali over the phone due to heavy accents.  Most trek leaders have enjoyed little education. 

For some in Nepal, running a trekking agency has been a way to "get rich quick".  I was surprised to be informed last year that a young Kashmiri (who has spent most of his life in Nepal and currently jointly runs a handicraft shop there) had set-up a travel agency for Kashmir (the situation there has improved in recent years - and it is true that if one stays close to the tourists areas, one is as safe as anywhere these days).  I spent time with him towards the end of 2013; no mention was made of his plans.  In light of my experience of Kashmir (I had been there in 2012 an a lot in the 1980s) and the travel/trekking industry, it would seem natural for him to ask for advice (which I would gladly have provided for free, as I owe his family a debt).  He had contacts in China (many Chinese tourists visit Nepal) and was trying (unsuccessfully to persuade groups from China to visit Kashmir).  He has never been to the vast majority of places advertised on the web-site and has NO experience of being an agent or travel guide....

The exception, rather than the rule, experienced and capable guides, led by an educated Nepali, enjoying supper (after the clients had eaten) in a trekking lodge towards the end of the Annapurna Circuit trek (October 2013)


'ILLEGAL' TREKKERS WITH TREKKING PERMITS OR TIMS CARDS

“We had no idea that so many people were trekking there,” said ACAP officer Junu Thapa. “Foreign tourists should register and not venture out on their own with local boys who pretend to be professional guides.” An army official involved in the rescue operation said some trekkers were found off the beaten track with no local guide. “Some backpackers were not carrying proper winter clothes with them and had covered themselves in plastic sheets to stay warm.” 

The Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), a government body that registers the entry and exit of tourists in the north-western ranges of Nepal, said it had records of only 120 tourists on the trekking route when the blizzard hit. But more than 400 people have been brought to safety, and helicopters are scouring the area for more than 60 others rescuers believe may still be up there.

My TIMS card in 2013

Having gone to trouble of obtaining and paying for a trekking permit and Trekkers' Information Management Systems (TIMS) card, it came as a surprise to discover that the authorities had so little idea of the numbers and whereabouts of trekkers on the Annapurna Circuit when bad weather hit.  After all, it these requirements were supposedly mandatory to control illegal trekking operations and ensure the safety and security of trekkers!  In theory, TIMS cards help to store on a database, the whereabouts of tourists - indeed this was the justification for the charge, which was not in place when I first visited Nepal in the 1990s.  When I was in Muktinath in October 2013 (almost a year to the day before the storm hit) I was about to walk-past the check-post where the 'card' and permit needed to be shown until Til Jung pointed it out.  Nobody would have stopped me and I suppose this applies to the young people who suddenly decide to go on a trek, have a guide-book, advising them, so they decide they do not need a guide!  And to be fair, some 'guides' hardly qualify as such.  They might hire a porter who speaks hardly any English (if they did, they would magically become a 'guide'), who are hardly going to make an issue about TIMS cards.  So one does not exactly have to make a special effort to avoid the rules (though it is strongly advised that the circuit is NOT attempted from Muktinath). I presume that there might be a more obvious 'entrance' to pass through the other side?  Though don't expect it is manned first thing in the morning or early evening.  Then there will be agents who book parties who arrive in Kathmandu only just over a day before a connecting internal flight.  So when they take their clients' passports and photos along to the office to get the necessary cards and permits, they find it closed (not knowing which day of the week this is or it turns out to be one of the innumerable religious festivals which last for days, they cannot get the paper-work completed in time.......

My trekking permit in 2013

INADEQUATE CLOTHING AND EQUIPMENT

Keshav Pande of the Trekking Agents Association of Nepal said his group offers low cost clothing and equipment rental for porters and guides but many of them believe they do not need them. Foreign trekkers often hire their own guides directly, rather than through established trekking companies, and are focussed on keeping their costs down. “If the group is organised they have all the equipment but the tourists want cheaper, they get someone from the street [to guide them]. They want cheap, cheap, cheap."

Attired in full waterproofs, walking boots, gloves (also with hat, day-sack, first aid kit, emergency provisions) + my trusty collapsible walking stick I use to avoid falling on slippery tracks and for balance when 'boulder hopping' - a twisted ankle would be a major problem up in the mountains. As I am considerably bigger than local assistants, I quip that they would not wish to have to 'carry' me down - so it is slow but steady for this 'old man of the mountains'.

There is certainly something in locals not wanting or willing to go to the bother of carrying warm or water-proof clothing 'reserve' clothing.  How can a young man accustomed to sub-tropical temperatures be aware of the freezing temperatures they are likely to encounter when camped at higher altitudes.  Even so, despite the best my best efforts, I have not always succeeded.  In 2012 in Kashmir, my guide REFUSED to wear waterproof over-trousers (in case he was seen in them) but did accept the jacket I had also brought with me and declined to put them on even during a torrential downpour.  As we were not camping, the temperatures nowhere near freezing and he could dry off each evening, it was not a problem but on a full trek......  Unlike Nepal, there is little tradition of trekking in India, so suitable outdoor equipment is hard to find.  One year I paid for a set warm and waterproof clothing for my Nepali assistant just in case but we were unlucky weather-wise.  The next year he once-more came to join me in the Indian Himalaya but despite asking him, he had not brought any of it, "because it had not rained last time".  There was road access to the nearby mountains.  It rained heavily the very first day.  I was able to function adequately in my waterproofs, whilst he spent most of the day in the jeep.  I was entitled to be none to impressed - and this was a trek leader with more than  20 years experience.  He had brought sunglasses with him and a colourful pair of shorts and matching top....   Some years later I utilised the services of the son of the sirdar for two treks I had led in the Western Himalaya back in the 1980s.  He was quite experienced though very fashion-conscious, wearing jeans and carrying a large umbrella but had no waterproofs.  As we headed up a ridge, the weather turned, bringing driving rain, forcing us to retreat due to HIS unsuitable attire.  Once again, I was entitled to be none-too-pleased.  It takes me a lot of time, effort and expense to reach higher levels in the Himalaya, so have to lose out because of a refusal to wear suitable clothing is more than just tiresome for me - even though nobody was at serious risk.

Another factor is that Kathmandu (and presumably Pokhara) mostly experience sub-tropical temperatures (and some of the porters come from lower-elevation villages, not accustomed to winter snow).  Even my generation, let alone my sons' were into light-weight footwear (disliking the heavy walking boots, which provide ankle support). Even my own sons have been reluctant to wear waterproofs to school.  My eldest, now working in Japan, was only willing to wear waterproofs on our journeys by bicycle to school, provided they wear taken off BEFORE he was anywhere near his classroom, where someone might see - and this was in primary school!  I gave up once they were at Secondary.  Peer pressure is powerful.  Youngsters would rather get soaked and it does not really matter when you have a warm classroom to dry off in or can change clothes when home is reached - in most cases spoilt by a mother who waits on the "hand and foot".  I recollect in my first year of secondary (1969) a girl in our class who wore a mini-skirt, even during the winter, shivering next to the radiator in the classroom.  Most people in the town where I live do not possess a proper coat.  Many children are driven to school.

WEATHER FORECASTS

Meteorologists had some indication that the effects of Cyclone Hudhud would be felt in Nepal well before the snowstorm hit. Michael Fagin, lead forecaster at Everest Weather.com * said he warned his clients about the possibility of fallout from the cyclone on Oct. 3. His clients, experienced climbers on Nepal’s higher peaks, are outfitted with satellite phones and state-of-the-art gear. But trekkers tackle relatively easier, lower altitudes and are often less experienced and traveling without sophisticated gear.

I have to say that I have NEVER consulted a weather forecast during any of my visits to the Himalaya.  I was not aware that any meaningful forecasts were available.  I certainly have never seen any in newspapers or television offering much worthwhile.  * the Everest weather site is of limited use to ordinary trekkers or would surely be prohibitively expense?  As I learnt from my spell as a junior officer in the University of Southampton Royal Naval Unit, when we had to listening to the Shipping Forecast and report to the captain of our inshore minesweeper during training exercises, the hardest thing to predict is rainfall (and thus snow), which can be localised. Wind speed, direction etc. are fairly predictable, though the impact with always be localised.  As far as I know, those trekking in the Khumbu Himal (Everest region) did not have any major problems during October 2014.

The route down to Muktinath from the Thorung La where the trekkers got into difficulty - NO sign of snow around the same time the year before.(October 2013)...  The area is, most of the time, rather arid; the sun can burn you at these altitudes.  One can understand why, inexperienced travellers might not appreciate the NEED for reserve clothing and equipment.


Below Thorung La, Muktinath side (October 2013) - even the year before the tragic events, one can see there is serious terrain 

 



What matters though, regardless of the forecast, is to ALWAYS carry the necessary clothing and equipment, should adverse conditions appear unexpectedly and to be prepared to TURN BACK.  If this means you miss-out on some of your 'holiday' then too bad.  You MIGHT need to assure your guide and porters (directly) that they will still be paid for the full number of days agreed and IF a change in plans results in them being required for additional days, then tell them they will be paid for them. 


ALL THIS REQUIRES KNOWLEDGE AND EXPERIENCE PLUS A RESPONSIBLE AND CONSIDERATE APPROACH.  CLIENTS IN ORGANISED TREKS, EVEN IF THEY HAVE SPENT THOUSANDS, MUST RESPECT THE JUDGEMENT OF THE LEADER, IF YOU HAVE ONE PROVIDED BY THE COMPANY OR BE ABLE TO ASSESS THE COMPETENCE OF THE SIRDAR, WHO MAY JUST WISH TO 'PLEASE' HIS CLIENTS, WITH DISASTROUS CONSEQUENCES FOR EITHER THEM/AND OR HIS TREKKING STAFF.

EARLY WARNING CENTRES

“I want to assure that the government will make efforts to install early warning centres for weather along the important sectors, mainly in the Himalaya areas and along the rivers” Prime Minister Sushil Koirala said in a statement

But it was unclear whether warnings would have kept trekkers and their guides off the mountains anyway. Many tour operators and guides said they did not usually look to the government for warnings about weather, and described October as the season’s clearest, most ideal month.... a guide working with a group said his brother had called him on Oct. 7 to warn him about rains predicted in the area, but he hesitated, unwilling to call off the trek.

“This is something we usually find out ourselves,” he said about adverse weather. When the storm hit on Tuesday, he was walking about 15 minutes ahead with some in the group, and he watched as an avalanche buried a colleague and two clients.... The Rescue Coordinator for the Himalayan Rescue Association, said that generally, neither foreign trekkers nor their Nepalese guides check weather forecasts before beginning the journey. “They’re planning these trips for months or years,” he said. “They’re not looking at the weather. They’re not looking at the Internet.”

And even if there are signs of bad weather, trekkers tend to push ahead. “Generally, there’s pressure to keep going,” he said. “They don’t want to turn back.”

Who can blame the guides?  Treks run to tight schedules, with return flights to consider.  After all, those Nepalese are just trying to keep the honoured guests in their country happy.  The situation is compounded by a fatalistic approach.  If their gods decide it is their time to die, so be it.

My own experience of changing itineraries on the grounds of safety (on formal treks, working for companies, where I was legally responsible for clients safety and was authorised to send home anyone who jeopardised others safety plus informally with a small group) has shown how difficult this is.   Likely to make the leader VERY unpopular, with complaints far more likely to be being made subsequently, rather than praise given for ensuring their safety.  Clients, despite it often being their first time in the Himalaya, seem to think they know better compared with your 10, 20 or 30 much more extensive visits......

RECRIMINATIONS

 .....had been was trekking with a group of around 100, mainly Israelis and Poles, on Nepal's popular Annapurna circuit route towards the Thorung La Pass when the the tail end of cyclone Hudhud descended on them and plunged them into darkness. They thought they had reached a safe haven when they arrived at a tea house on the 17,769ft pass, but it was packed with fellow trekkers taking shelter "At 2 or 3 in the afternoon, the owner said 'I'm going to lock up the house, everyone has to leave. I know the way up here. It was dangerous because it was 5,400 metres, not a lot of oxygen. He said I will show you the safe way but only if you give me 1,000 rupees (£6.30) each. I know the way out and I'll take everyone.


Apparently, some of the trekkers haggled and said they would pay half upfront and the balance when they reached the safety of Muktinath lower down the mountain where rescue teams would be waiting. He led the group along with one of their original who was hailed for his devotion after he died while saving others on the descent. But according to the Israeli survivors, he had made a deal with the tea shop owner to share the trekkers' escape payments. He died of suffocation and exhaustion in the snow during the descent. According to his employer the 22,500 Nepali rupees (£141) and $100 was recovered from his body which he had earned on his previous trek. "He could be alive. He rescued two Israeli girls and in the course of rescuing others, he lost his life....some people offered him money to rescue them but he died before he could get the money. "Usually [porters] are poor and need money. He wanted to save other people and he wanted to make money...if he was not helping other people he would be alive. He was exhausted.   People saw him under the snow. He told them 'I'm going to die like this'


At one point on their descent, they saw an Indian woman screaming for help but the tea shop owner said her foot "had gone" and that "she's finished". "We carried on down. We stopped and the tea shop owner did not know the way. He told us to turn left and climb. We went on, looked for him and he was gone". By now, the group had dwindled to between 30 and 40 but at 11pm, after nine hours' walking, he collapsed in the snow and could not walk any further. He thought he was going to die, he said. "I was exhausted and had no more power. The wind was still high. I said to my friend 'you have strength, you go on, I'm going to die'. Four of my friends died. They were in their 20s and 30s", he said. After sleeping under a blanket in the snow for three hours and eating a Marathon bar, he found some energy and started walking down to safety at Muktinath.

Despite his own survival, he said he was angry at the loss of his friends and said their lives had been put in jeopardy so the tea shop owner and their porter could make money. "They let us think we had to walk if we wanted to stay alive but everyone who stayed in the tea house is alive. Three Polish guys died [too].


Inevitably, when there is loss of life, recriminations soon follow.  Some individuals are made out to be heroes, others villains.  If the deaths occur on a major climbing expedition books are written, often more than one, supporting one side or the other.  As for journalists, they are looking for stories which they can sell and people will read - the general public are looking mostly for 'bad news'.  Those involved give their (often second-hand) version of events, which portrays them or their friends in a favourable light and do not wish to accept any blame or to blame those who have lost their lives.  Complications arise, as English is neither the first language of the guides or porters (whose command of English may be minimal).  Likewise, none of those killed and few of those rescued spoke English as their first language, probably being on their first visit to Nepal, so not understanding cultural differences.  What we in our country view as 'good manners' or how 'we' would behave may well be different and NOT superior.  Anyone who has walked in the mountains of their own countries (and some of those killed came from countries with no high places) know how easily communication can break-down and misunderstandings occur.

I have had some strong comments to make about my bad experience during my first expedition, 35 years ago.  I remain aggrieved that I was portrayed as the villain, when I consider the leaders to have been negligent - nowadays, criminally so and had I adopted present-day habits, would have sued..... No doubt they would give a conflicting version of events. I am still in touch with and periodically meet one of the team members but was not invited to a recent reunion of members of the 4 university expeditions to the region.  Though as I observed, had things gone satisfactorily or even well, I am unlikely to have followed the path I did and be in a position to offer heart-felt advice.  SO IN A WAY, SHOULD ANY OF WHAT I AM SHARING WITH THE WORLD ABOUT KEEPING SAFE IN THE HIMALAYA, SAVES EVEN ONE LIFE, WE HAVE THEM TO THANK!

  It is up to readers to decide whose version of events makes sense.

HELICOPTER  RESCUES

Helicopter in Khumbu Himal (Everest Region)

The tourism minister said nine helicopters were involved in search and rescue operations alongside teams from the army, police and private trekking agencies. Continuing extreme weather conditions have hampered their work, he said. In some places rescuers were struggling in waist-deep snow drifts. Some of those rescued have been flown to Kathmandu, where they are being treated at the Army hospital.

What many trekkers do not realise is that helicopter rescue is not usually available to them (and well beyond the budget of almost all Nepalese).  Furthermore, unless your trek was booked through and agent who has an office in Kathmandu, with someone able to access THOUSANDS of pounds/dollars to give as a deposit, the helicopter will not fly.  In the UK we have the luxury of volunteer mountain rescue teams and 'Search and Rescue' helicopters (until recently operated by the armed services).  This situation does not exist is most other countries.  When there is a major disaster, the Nepalese government will authorise the use of helicopters without charging for the rescue.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE REMEMBERED IS THAT ALL HELICOPTER FLIGHTS ARE RISKY.


LESSONS TO BE LEARNT

My conclusion is that the majority of fault lies with the inexperienced Foreigners, most of who had no business attempting the Annapurna Circuit at all, let alone of the cheap.  I consider it out-of-order to lay the blame on the shoulders of guides, porters or tea-shop owners (they should have been grateful to find any shelter at such high altitudes at all - such places did not exist in the past) - even if their actions were contributory factors.  I cannot say, who is "telling the truth".  Things are seldom 100% "black and white".  Whilst I am saddened by the loss of life, those from one country in particular have a reputation for "doing things on the cheap", more likely to be found in the Annapurna area, rather than Everest, because it costs less.   As I stated at the start, IF someone choses to take risks and wishes to kill themselves in the mountains, that is their choice but the must NOT involve anyone else.  Why should Nepalese risks their lives rescuing them or Nepalese guides or porters die.  It is the responsibility of every foreign tourist, no matter how young, to keep themselves, their travelling companion and any Nepalese they hire, safe.  And they should not be undertaking the Annapurna Circuit as if it is a lower-level tea-shop walk.

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OTHER  DANGERS  WHEN TRAVELLING IN THE HIMALAYA

ROADS

A typical pass in the Western Himalaya with many hair-pin bends



Typical 'local' bus

It has to be said that travel on roads in the Indian sub-continent is a dangerous business - whether in the mountains or not.  Some drivers seem to have a death-wish.  I was always impressed with how safely the driver hired by 'West Himalayan Holidays' for the two flower holidays I led to Lahoul, in the borderlands of Western Tibet, in the mid-1980s.  Whilst still long and tiring (especially for me, as tour members would frequently point and ask me to identify plants as we sped by), they were reasonably comfortable - which showed that it was possible.

Minor 'accidents' are common

'Local' buses should be avoided if at all possible.  It is worth paying more to negotiate a leg of your trip safely, provided you hire the right sort of driver for a private vehicle.  I tend to go for older drivers - they are still alive. Anyone who has experienced 'Indian' roads will not question my assessment.  I do not drive, so sometimes use the services of taxis from stations.  Many of the drivers in Slough are from the Punjab; I frequently get chatting to them and then ask if they dare drive when they visit their family homes.  Many do not!

The 'crashed' bus in Nepal

In 2013 we were flagged down by Indian motorcyclists who had seen a bus go down a slope to a river.  I composed myself (having received some first aid instruction during a spell as a junior officer in the Royal Naval Reserve and basic training to be a police officer) got the medical kit I take with me on all expeditions from the boot of the car to add to the first aid kit I carry with me at all time, then headed down to the bus by a safe route.  There were numerous Nepalis and some Indian tourists standing watching but not having a clue what to do, beyond carrying off some of the seriously injured in the direction of the nearest village probably 2km away (where by chance a clinic had recently been built).  4 Europeans had been on the bus with a well-spoken Indian guide, sporting a gash in his forehead, busy on a phone calling for a helicopter rescue (a forlorn hope as the weather was cloudy and darkness was approaching).  I bandaged his head, noted 2 of the 4 (all the injured Nepalese had been removed by then) had only minor cuts but were in shock.  I assessed the remaining 2.  One man was clearly in pain, probably with a broken arm but urged that his friend, was more seriously hurt, possibly with internal injuries - which required the attention of a doctor.  I asked the crowd if a doctor was on the way.  I was categorically told no.  They were keen to start carrying (without a stretcher) the injured men.  I strongly opposed this, stating they should not be moved until seen by a doctor;  the man with the arm injury said, "that is the first sensible thing anyone has said".  I then searched through the luggage of the Europeans for first aid supplies, which one of those which shock indicated they had.  If I used up all of mine, I would be obliged to travel back to Pokhara.  Then, the local doctor arrived and took charge.  The local policeman was also there.  As the two friends had now largely recovered from the shock and they had an educated guide with them, I felt I could do no more.

Quite a crowd had quickly accumulated to watch - none with any first aid knowledge

INTERNAL FLIGHTS

Flight from Jomsom to Pokhara

There are also risks attached to internal flights in Nepal.  After a lecture in the UK I spoke to someone with expertise about this, mentioning crashes (and deaths) shortly after take-off from Kathmandu in 2013.  My flight from Pokhara to Kathmandu having been delayed by this crash (they we did not know this at the time). Inexperienced pilot(s) was the most likely cause......  One has to take calculated risks and though the death-toll when a plane crashes might be higher than for a bus (you are more likely to have survivors), I consider that flights (though much more expensive) are probably the best-bet overall - if you can book them.  Certainly shortens journey time.

Boarding the flight from Pokhara to Kathmandu

Welcome aboard a YETI airlines flight










MY OWN EXPERIENCES IN THE HIMALAYA

Kashmir Botanical Expedition (1983)

Since I have already had quite a lot to say about my first expedition in 1980, I shall start with my second, this time as organiser and leader.  This worked out much better - though all team members had spells of ill-health during the 3-month expedition. We did manage, just, to return all together, though our major problems were down to events at the start, which had nothing to do with medical matters.


For months prior to the expedition I had banged on about taking and using money-belts, for security reasons. Unfortunately, just before the train we were on from Delhi to Jammu, was about to leave, two men burst into our compartment, claiming we were in the wrong compartment.  We were hot and tired and not certain ourselves, despite our names being on the list outside.  When they started touching our luggage, it became clear they were up to no good.  I shouted to everyone to keep an eye on their bags.  With the train moving (slowly), they left rapidly, jumping onto the crowded platform.  We looked around.  One of my team announced that their camera-bag was missing.  We could hardly jump off and chase them.  They had done this before.  When reporting the robbery at a police station in Srinagar (there seemed no point missing the bus connection in dusty Jammu), we discovered this was common-place.  As there had been police-officers on the platform at Delhi station, we could be conclude that they "turned a blind eye"........ or perhaps had not noticed?

A couple of hours into the journey, the bomb-shell was dropped.  Not only had the best camera-equipment been stolen but the same person had taken off their money-belt that morning and guess where they had put it?  Inside that camera bag.  He had lost his passport, airline ticket not to mention 1/4 of our funds for the 3-month expedition.  All on his birthday, Welcome to India......



































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