Thursday, October 30, 2014

Himalaya Fall 2014: Final Numbers from Blizzard in Nepal are Sobering

It has been a little more than two weeks since the incredibly strong blizzard – spurred on by cyclone Hudhud in the Indian Ocean – hit Nepal, creating a tragic scene in the Himalaya as a result. Now that things have finally calmed down there, and mostly returned to normal, we're beginning to get a better understanding of the scope of what happened, and just how deadly the storm truly was.

According to official reports, 43 people lost their lives in the blizzard, most of whom were Nepali, although there were also casualties from Canada, Israel, India, Japan, Poland, and Slovakia as well. In the days that followed the storm, more than 70 helicopter flights were made, carrying  514 people out of the the mountains. This is, by far, the largest search and rescue operation ever conducted in Nepal, with evacuations on a massive scale. To make matters worse, there are still some Nepali's that are believed to be missing, which means the number of dead could still go up from here.

As mentioned previously, Nepal's government has vowed to make changes that will improve the safety of foreigners visiting the Himalaya. New regulations governing how trekkers travel in the mountains are expected to be announced before the start of the spring season in April, with the possible requirement of hiring a local guide, and carrying a GPS tracker, as part of the discussion. Officials have also indicated that they are seeking ways of improving weather forecasting, and more efficient means of sharing those forecasts to remote regions.

All of these suggestions sound like good ones, but the problem is that we've heard this kind of rhetoric out of Nepal before. There have been announcements in the past stating that trekkers would be required to hire local guides, but those rules have not been enforced, and many travelers still hike the Himalaya independently. There is little indication that things will be different this time, in part because Nepal's track record has been so spotty over the years.

Case in point, last year it was announced that the Nepali government would have a more active presence in Everest Base Camp following the much-publisized dispute between three high profile climbers from Europe, and an angry mob of Sherpas back in the spring of 2012. There were suppose to be more liaison officers in BC, and even a number of military and police officers as well. When the tragic avalanche hit the mountain on April 18 of this year, claiming the lives of 16 men, there were almost no government officials in Base Camp at all. Witnesses to the accident have since said that having liaison officers there could have facilitated rescue operations, but instead they were hindered by the lack of an official government presence on the mountain.

Every expedition to Everest is also suppose to be accompanied by their own assigned liaison officer, but many of those officials never make it to the mountain either. The funding to support that infrastructure isn't always there, despite the fact that mountaineers pay a fee that is suppose to specifically pay for the expenses of those officers.

Despite the ongoing problems with dealing with the Nepali government, there were other factors at play that helped create this tragedy as well. The ferocity of the snow storm so early in the fall caught many people off guard, and they simply weren't prepared to deal with it. The fall is typically a great time to be in the Himalaya, but this storm was just completely unexpected.

It also doesn't help that many trekkers show up completely unprepared for their journey. They often lack the proper gear, and level of fitness, for a challenging  hike, and have no idea what kind of weather to expect. I've witnessed this first hand while in Nepal, as people that I trekked with brought sleeping bags that weren't rated properly for the temperature, didn't have proper clothing, or even a hat. As a result, they ended up suffering along the way, even when conditions were relatively good.

Clearly, there is room for improvement all around. Trekkers need to be more knowledgeable and prepared for what they are in for, and pack for adverse conditions. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Tourism in Nepal needs to continue to seek ways to improve safety for travelers, and actually enforce those regulations strictly.

Nepal is an amazing, wonderful country, with great culture and some of the most stunning landscapes on the planet. I would certainly encourage any traveler to visit if they have desire. But when you go, make sure you're fully prepared for the experience. In the long run, it'll make it that much better for you.

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