Safer HimalayasMeasures must be put in place to ensure the safety of visitors and local guides in the mountains of Nepal
April 18, 2014 started out as just a regular day for Abiral Rai, a young mountain guide. But it became a time of unexpected horror when he bore witness to an avalanche that swept through the Everest region. In this avalanche, 16 mountain guides lost their lives.
Unexpected accidents and deaths are common in the mountains of Nepal. Since 2000, about 110 people from Nepal and foreign countries have lost their lives in avalanches. In 2015 alone, an avalanche triggered by a 7.8 Richter scale earthquake claimed the lives of 19 Nepali and foreign climbers in the Everest region.
Mountaineering and trekking in the Himalayas are popular tourist activities in Nepal. Each year, almost 100,000 tourists take part in mountain expeditions. Mountain tourism has helped generate huge revenue and has diversified local livelihoods in Nepal. Given the importance of tourism in our economy, it is essential that measures are put in place to ensure the safety of visitors and local guides. So what needs to be done?
To start, we must understand the nature of the problem. There is no getting away from the fact that the region which lies in a seismically active zone with steep slopes is highly vulnerable to hazards such as earthquakes, avalanches, snow storms and glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF). The possible impacts of climate change with increasing atmospheric temperatures could speed up the melting of snow and increase the possibility of avalanches (indeed more scientific investigation is necessary to understand the relationship between climate change and mountain disasters).
While natural causes make the region extremely vulnerable to mountain accidents, human error, poor judgement and absence of appropriate technologies also play a significant part in this vulnerability—and these are things that the relevant authorities can do something about.
In 1996, eight climbers lost their lives in the Everest region when they exceeded the turnabout time of 2 PM. They were caught by an unexpected storm, ran out of oxygen and suffered from deep exhaustion. The team members also did not have radios to communicate with each other. Again, in mid-October, 2014, avalanches and blizzards triggered by the cyclonic storm Hudhud killed 43 trekkers on the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri mountain circuits. Most of these trekkers did not receive weather forecast warnings prior to their travel and were caught in the storm. Many lives would have been saved if these trekkers had received timely information.
Local guides and high altitude workers/staffs are at greater risks than others. These guides and workers are responsible for ensuring the safety of mountain travellers. Yet, the risks involved in their jobs are often overlooked. They are the ones who carry heavy loads, fix dangerous paths and even perform search and rescue operations in precarious locations. They have limited bottled oxygen and sophisticated medicines. Even though mountaineering is a perilous job, these guides and workers carry on with their work to sustain a living. Guides like Abiral Rai hold the belief that mountain jobs have not received sufficient attention from the government and are now demanding better policies and regulations involving safety, insurance, and compensation.
Necessary preventive and precautionary actions must be undertaken for the safety of visitors and guides alike. As per Mountaineering Expedition Rules (2002), expedition teams can now have two satellite phones, 12 walkie-talkies and two wireless sets for communication upon approval from the Nepal government. A more accurate and prompt weather forecasting system needs to be developed for travellers at high altitudes and information regarding the weather should be easily accessible.
The local community could also be engaged in retrieving and disseminating weather information to local tourists by establishing a communication chain. Local people who have access to the internet could pass the message via mobile or satellite phone and alert the trekkers. The government should implement strict rules for turnabout time to prevent unfortunate events. Mountain climbers should be made aware of the significance of turnabout time. Similarly, avalanche movements should be monitored and more research should be carried out in the mountain environment. Trails should be clearly marked at regular intervals in order to guide travellers to safe destinations. Some trekkers also died due to carbon monoxide poisoning because of the use of stoves inside their tents at the time of the Hudhud mishaps. Such errors could be avoided through knowledge sharing and through the adoption of precautionary measures.
Some mountaineers lost their lives due to altitude sickness and deep exhaustion because they did not listen to their guides’ suggestions to descend to lower camps. Those on expeditions should be instructed to strictly follow their guide’s counsels during their journey so as to save their own lives and the lives of their guides. What’s more, the guides and high altitude workers/staffs need to have satisfactory insurance and health facilities in order to secure their livelihood. The government body should ensure that guides have proper insurance before they embark on expeditions.
Ensuring the safety of the visitors and local guides should be considered a responsibility that is shared by the Nepali government, mountain agencies, business companies and civil society. We do not possess the power to control natural hazards, but the concerned stakeholders could protect tourists and guides through effective regulations and facilities.
Shrestha is a research officer at the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition-Nepal (ISET-Nepal)