Himalayan blizzard death toll still rising

Fatal attraction: Nepal has made great efforts to rescue those trapped high in the Himalayas.

At least 39 have died in a freak snowstorm which caught trekkers and their guides unawares. Is the exploitative tourism industry partly to blame for Nepal’s worst mountaineering disaster?

It is meant to be one of the Himalayas’ easier hiking trails. But after the sudden onset of a horrendous snowstorm, a group of 100 frightened trekkers found themselves huddled for warmth in a tiny mountainside teashop 17,000ft above sea level. They faced a terrible dilemma: should they stay and hope for the best or try to descend through the blizzard and risk freezing to death?

The teashop owner said staying was too dangerous and for a price led some trekkers on the treacherous route down. The next morning, those who had stayed were cold and exhausted, but alive.

Many of those who left were not so lucky and are among the 39 trekkers and Nepalese guides whose bodies have so far been discovered. Many more dead are thought to be buried beneath the snow.

While Everest attracts the world’s most accomplished climbers, Annapurna’s 150-mile circuit rarely sees snow and is highly popular with casual trekkers. Most visitors did not carry spare food and supplies and their lack of preparation contributed to this being Nepal’s worst ever trekking disaster.

Yet in an age when severe weather events can be spotted well in advance, many are asking how so many were caught out. The storm is an offshoot of Cyclone Hudhud, which hit India’s east coast last week before moving north. Nepalese authorities insist they broadcast weather warnings on television and radio days earlier.

But experts say that, given weather forecasts are often unreliable, local guides and lodge owners are reluctant to disappoint the tourists who are their only source of income. The Nepalese government wants all visitors to be accompanied by a guide in the future, but according to one trekker, guides were often less well equipped than tourists: ‘There were biting winds and cold so severe it froze your eyelids. But there were people trying to protect their heads with plastic bags and without gloves’.

Mounting concerns

Some say that a major contributor to this disaster has been the exploitative nature of Nepal’s trekking industry. Tourists see the country as a low-cost destination and spend an average of just US$32 a day while there. Many do not use local guides at all. If tourists paid guides and businesses more, the locals could afford to pay greater attention to the safety of their customers when the weather was dangerous.

Yet others argue that this was a freak accident. Nepal does offer tourists a cheap way to see the Himalayas, but this is not necessarily the same as exploitation and the Nepalese are much richer for having so many foreign visitors. Danger is never far away in the Himalayas and unpredictability is part of the appeal. While these deaths are unfortunate, accidents are always going to happen.

You Decide

  1. Should we blame the Annapurna accident on exploitation or should we think of it as an isolated incident?
  2. Would it be better for Nepal if there were more tourists and cheaper prices or fewer tourists paying more money?

Activities

  1. In groups, list five types of people who have been affected by the accident and rank them by how much they are responsible for contributing to it.
  2. Imagine you are a Nepalese tour guide. Write how you might feel after the accident and whether you feel guilty about it or perhaps saw it coming.

Some People Say...

“We are stupid to think nature is ever really safe.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I care about the Himalayas?
It is the highest and one of the most beautiful and daunting mountain ranges in the world. In the 61 years since Edmund Hillary first climbed Mount Everest, it has become increasingly popular with tourists, with around 600,000 visiting Nepal each year. Some complain that trails like Annapurna have become like a ‘Himalayan Disneyland’ for visitors, but this incident is a timely reminder of how dangerous the mountains can be.
Have there been many other accidents?
Last April 16 sherpas — expert local mountain climbers — were killed in an avalanche on Mount Everest. The incident highlighted how those who know the mountain best often take the greatest risks. It was the worst single accident on Mount Everest, but fatal avalanches are not uncommon.

Word Watch

Circuit
Around 400 people have been rescued so far from the route which varies in height between 8,000 feet and 17,000 feet. Thousands of trekkers attempt the circuit every year, and as one blogger puts it, the route is ‘is so well-known it’s as much a cliché as a trek’.
Hudhud
NASA categorised the cyclone as ‘catastrophic’ which is the most destructive category. At least 41 people were killed, not including those who have died in the Himalayas.
Tourists
Another suggested contributing factor is the fact that trekking in the Himalayas is a dream holiday for many, and preparations start months, if not years, in advance. Yet once the trip is arranged, many are reluctant to cancel it on account of adverse weather conditions.
There
This is very low compared to Bhutan, which has similar conditions and trekking options, but visitors spend $200 dollars a day on average.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.