Saturday Features

Up in the air

Bogus rescue operations are casting doubts on Nepal’s ability to attract tourists while keeping them safe and secure

- Rajesh Khanal

May 17, 2018: Swedish mountaineer Carina Ahlqvist, a team member of a research group led by NASA and the European Space Agency to study climate change, was evacuated from Camp II of Mt Makalu (8,485m) after suffering from snow-blindness while attempting to climb the world’s fifth highest peak.

May 19, 2016: Rajib Bhattacharya 43, a climber from Joypurbil in West Bengal’s Howrah district, died at Camp III of Mt Dhaulagiri (8,167m), the seventh highest mountain in the world, after also suffering from snow-blindness.

May 21, 2016: Maria Elizabeth Strydom, an Australian climber, lost her life near Camp IV of Mt Everest after suffering from a stroke.

May 22, 2016: At least two Indian climbers went missing above 8,000 metres on Mt Everest and another sustained frostbite injuries while attempting to summit the world’s highest peak.

From a distance, the Himalayas appear serene but close up, they are unpredictable and unforgiving. Nightmarish scenarios like these are routine at high altitudes. Even though the mountains promise adventure, excitement and lasting fame, there are risks. Death and destruction are often just around the corner.

Home to 14 mountains higher than 8,000 metres, Nepal is no stranger to high altitude crises. It is crucial to remain prepared for the worst, as it is never a matter of ‘if’ but always a matter of ‘when’. Timely evacuations of the sick and injured from desperate situations can save lives. But this requires a certain degree of organisation, like the training of rescue workers and the availability of necessary equipment. Given the number of mountaineers who visit the country every year and the possibilities of things going wrong, more and more organisations have begun to offer emergency rescue operations to climbers. It was hoped that the presence of such organisations would encourage more mountaineers to attempt their climbs under a rubric of safety.

Sadly, an ‘insurance fraud’ scam that came to light recently has raised questions about the intentions of those involved in the rescue business and whether they actually provide the service they claim to. On July 30, a government taskforce formed to investigate the scam on the rescue operations reported that a number of rescues allegedly being conducted on the high mountains were fraudulent. In other words, such rescues had never happened. The taskforce was mandated to carry out an investigation into fake rescue operations conducted by eight trekking companies in collusion with four private hospitals and three helicopter operators.

A panel formed by the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Civil Aviation recommended that those involved in the fake rescues be punished as their actions were aimed at deceiving customers by providing false assurances. The government panel also recommended further investigation into three helicopter operators, four hospitals and eight travel/trekking and rescue companies for filing false high insurance claims.

A lack of regulations along with a lack of enforcement of existing regulations has allowed room for such scams in the high Himalayas. If not curtailed, such malpractices could become a major setback for the travel and tourism industry. The government panel has called to urgently initiate key reforms to ensure the safety, reliability and regularity of services to tourists.

Nepal already faces numerous logistical problems and they are exacerbated by the fact that the government seems uninterested in fixing them, according to Maurizio Folini, Instructor Pilot for sling rescue operations, who has piloted helicopters in numerous rescue operations throughout the country for the last seven years. The veteran Italian helicopter pilot has conducted rescue operations in the mountain ranges of Europe, the Americas as well as other parts of Asia. He was also involved in rescue operations conducted in the aftermath of the April 25 earthquake. Folini, now associated with the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), stressed that improving refueling stations in the mountains could be one immediate measure that brings relief.

A lack of well-equipped hospitals in remote areas, the lack of direct communication systems as well as a dearth of trained rescue professionals are among the fundamental problems that beset Nepal’s mountains. There is an acute shortage of trained manpower especially in terms of performing long-line rescue—a precarious rescue maneuver where the helicopter must descend as low as 20 metres above the ground and hold its position, says Folini. To rectify this, Folini, in association with Kailash Helicopter Services, is providing long-line rescue training to 15 Sherpas from Namche. Helicopter companies are also bringing in choppers equipped with long-line rescue tools. Pratap Jung Pandey, managing director of Kailash Helicopter Services, says that their machines are now able to fly at an altitude of up to 23,000 ft and come equipped with a high strength rope, helmets and hooks.

The government is now preparing a new guideline for rescue operations, which is expected to be implemented within the next week. There are also intimations that rescue operations could be handed over solely to the Nepal Police to conduct under its discretion. “Provided the regulations are properly enforced, the effective implementation of safety norms could help attract more tourists,” Pandey said.

Suman Pandey, chief executive officer of Fishtail Air, said that the present anomalies are an outcome of poor management in the past. “Rather than handing over rescue operations solely to the Nepal Police, the government should come up with necessary measures to correct ongoing wrong practices in this ecosystem,” Pandey said.

Tourism in Nepal is an industry with boundless potential, given our geographical location as well as our considerable natural and cultural wealth. Mountaineering and adventure sports are among the major reasons that tourists visit the country. The development and promotion of new tourist destinations across the country, coupled with locals taking the agency to prime their own villages and towns for tourism, could even help reduce the stark income inequality between regions. The year 2020 has once again been designated ‘Visit Nepal Year’ and two million or so visitors are expected.

It is Nepal’s responsibility to ensure that tourists who visit us are safe and secure.

 

Published: 2018-08-25 08:16:22