Death in the mountains
- Individual trekkers, not just govt and trekking agencies, could do better
Oct 19, 2014-
The fallout from the blizzard and avalanche that hit Western Nepal last week has been grim—at least 39 people, Nepalis and foreigners, are dead and dozens are still unaccounted for. The valiant efforts of the Nepal Army’s Alpine Rescue Team have rescued nearly 300 trekkers on the popular Annapurna Circuit’s districts of Manang and Mustang in the last four days. Dozens reportedly remain stranded and many others are missing, including locals and yak herders besides trekkers.
But unlike the avalanche on Everest earlier this year in April that killed 16 Nepali mountaineers, this blizzard was no ‘freak occurrence’; it was a near certainty, predicted by meteorologists everywhere, including in Nepal and India. The storm was an effect of Cyclone Hudhud—a category-4 cyclone with winds in the 217-250 kmph range. Given that extreme weather events in the Bay of Bengal routinely affect weather patterns in Nepal, meteorologists had been sounding the alarm over Cyclone Hudhud at least a week in advance. A number of trekking agencies, mostly foreign, had reportedly even warned their clients of a possible blizzard days before the event. And the Annapurna Circuit is no backwater; it is a teeming tourist trail with phones and internet connectivity almost every step of the way, except for high areas like Thorung Phedi, where there is a communication blindspot.
So, the question is, why did so many die in a storm that had been predicted? A blizzard at that altitude—above 4,000 metres—can be lethal. Despite foreknowledge of a possible blizzard in Western Nepal, no real efforts seem to have been made by the Home Ministry to warn trekkers of impending danger. Autumn is peak trekking season, coming directly after the monsoon rains have subsided and before the unforgiving winter has set in. Clear blue Autumn skies could have misled trekkers and guides into a false sense of complacency, leading them to disregard any forecasts. Already, a few survivors have confirmed this hypothesis. And up in the Himalayas, the line between life and death is exceedingly thin, as a group of Israeli trekkers discovered when they decided to take shelter in a tea-shop while 40-50 others ventured into the blizzard. The ones who stayed behind made it, the fate of the others is uncertain.
The culpability for this disaster, in some ways, is collective, though some are more to blame than others. Meteorologists might have had warning but this was not communicated effectively to trekkers, neither by the government nor trekking agencies, both of whom have an abiding responsibility to trekkers. The government’s pledge to build weather early warning centres in the wake of the disaster feels too little, too late. But the onus also lies partially on the trekkers themselves. It is common knowledge that the Himalayas are unforgiving and Nepal is a country whose resources are stretched. In a world of constant weather forecasts and internet satellite maps, everyone can benefit from being a little vigilant.
Published: 20-10-2014 09:08