In the eye of the storm

  • Tragedy on the Annapurna Circuit, the country’s most popular trekking route, could have been avoided
In the eye of the storm

Oct 22, 2014-

They appeared shell shocked and numb as they struggled to come to terms with the loss of a compatriot far from home. I didn’t get the names of the four Polish nationals who lost a friend on Thorong Pass. A relatively experienced group of trekkers, they’d checked the weather report on the internet and while it didn’t promise to be favourable, they never expected the devastation Hudhud’s after-effects would wreak in the Nepali mountains. Lost and battling whirlwind snows, one trekker’s faint GPS signal guided them back to the trail and to safety down the pass. Frostbitten, exhausted, and emotionally drained, their only thought was to get home. Their leader, according to the owner of the tea house in Muktinath where the group was recovering, had been an experienced trekker who’d crossed the Thorong Pass numerous times.

A few teahouses away, three men from Calcutta waited for word of the fourth

member of their group. During the storm high on the pass, some French trekkers had literally dragged the exhausted men and guided them to safety. Army rescuers had recovered the body of their young porter, frozen stiff and wrapped in a green jacket loaned to him by one of the groups. Three days after a blizzard took Nepal’s northwest by storm on October 14, killing at least 40 people across Manang, Mustang, and Dolpo, their friend was flown off the pass and into Muktinath in a body bag. The tragedy has sparked international criticism and finger-pointing at the government and within Nepal’s tourism fraternity.

Few were prepared

I know the Manang and Mustang valleys relatively well, having made numerous treks in the region, including to Nar and Phu and Thorong Pass, where more than 20 people perished. The tragedy and body count on the country’s most popular trekking route could, and should, have been avoided, especially during peak season. The Annapurna Conservation Area Project has numerous check points across the circuit, and there’s a Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA) station in Manang village, the largest settlement before the Thorong Pass, where doctors mainly treat trekkers suffering from high altitude. There are intermittent police check posts along the trail and the Nepal Army has battalions in the district headquarters of Manang and Mustang. The latter has a mountaineering school in Jomsom.

As part of a media team reporting on rescue and recovery operations in the aftermath of the storm, and in conversation with trekkers, Army rescue teams, local villagers, and tourism entrepreneurs, it was clear that few were prepared for the enormity of the storm. Trekkers who raised concerns about pending bad weather, received little or no information that may have altered their decision to follow the crowds on Thorong, many of them inexperienced trekkers on a mountain holiday in Nepal. Communication was zip.

During and after the storm, the Nepal Army took charge of the rescue and recovery operations from their base in Muktinath, trying to recover bodies that had been flung off the main trail and entrenched in dips, and flying out those still stranded in shelters across the pass. On the ground, lack of coordination among government and tourism entities was apparent, as confusion reigned over who was in charge and responsible. As usual, Nepali authorities reacted. As the government scrambled together a rescue monitoring and coordination committee and promised better and timely weather reporting systems, presumably after facing scathing criticism in Parliament over the delayed emergency response, the tourism minister and Members of Parliament from Mustang and neighboring Manang made a flying visit to Muktinath. During a briefing by Army personnel, they appeared to have little grasp of what was going on.

The 13th and 14th of October saw incessant rain in Kathmandu, which normally means snow in the mountains. On 14th noon, a concerned Mustang local in Kathmandu called the Army’s mountaineering school in Jomsom to get an update of the weather and the possibility that trekkers might be caught in extreme conditions on the pass. The Army mobilised its men in Jomsom that same evening. In January, trained Army climbers had rescued several Nepali youths lost in deep snow on the Thorong Pass following change in weather conditions. One of the trekkers succumbed to the cold. It appears lessons have still not been learnt.

Great responsibility

Extreme situations evoke extreme reactions. Tensions and emotions run high. A distraught trekker, rescued by a Nepal Army chopper early in the day, screamed at Army rescuers for not getting her spouse off the pass fast enough. He was among the fitter trekkers who was stranded, neither able to go back to Manang nor proceed on to Muktinath as the pass was completely blocked. He was rescued on a later flight. The woman swore that she’d never return to Nepal.

Yet others like Subrata Dutta, an amateur photographer from Calcutta, cannot ignore the lure of Nepal’s Himalayas. He says he will visit again. His two companions are not so sure. Nepal owes it to Subrata and others like him to make their visit enjoyable as well as safe.

Limbu is a freelance journalist who has trekked widely in Manang and Mustang. She runs a hotel in Jomsom with her husband

Published: 23-10-2014 08:45

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