Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Nepal Takes Steps to Improve Safety on Everest

In the wake of last year's disastrous avalanche, the Nepali government is taking steps to improve the safety of climbers on Mt. Everest. Yesterday, officials announced that they would increase the number of doctors stationed in Base Camp and would take charge of organizing helicopter rescues as well, a move that could cut the response time by as much as 30 minutes.

Starting this spring there will be four doctors assigned to EBC on a full-time basis. In year's past, there were generally just two or three doctors on the mountain, which sometimes led to long wait times for climbers seeking medical attention. Doubling the number of doctors in Base Camp will ensure more people will get the attention they need in a timely fashion, and more importantly it could save lives should an emergency situation like the one that occurred last year, when 16 Sherpas were killed in an avalanche, were to happen again.

Perhaps more important is the news that the Nepali government will now coordinate rescue helicopters on Everest. In the past, the individual climbing teams had to arrange those efforts themselves, and often cutting through the bureaucratic red tape could take hours. Under this new plan, officials promise better response times, saying that rescue efforts could be underway in 90 minutes or less.

Obviously, these announcements are timed so that they send a reassuring message to climbers as they prepare to depart for the Himalaya in a few weeks time. While I certainly applaud any efforts to make Everest – and the other major peaks in Nepal – safer, it is also important that we take these kinds of proclamations with a grain of salt. Nepali officials have made promises in the past, but were unable to follow through when the time came. For instance, there are suppose to be specially assigned liaison officers with each team on the mountain, but few of those officers ever make it out of Kathmandu. And following the high-profile brawl between Sherpas and western climbers in 2013, the government promised increased security in BC last year. When the tragic avalanche occurred, that security was not in place. While they couldn't have done anything to prevent the accident, had those officials been on the mountain as promised, they could have coordinated rescue efforts in a more efficient manner.

Adding an extra doctor or two to the medical tent will be a welcome addition to Base Camp, but we'll have to wait to see if those personnel actually arrive there as promised. Similarly, it is one thing to promise improved response times from the rescue helicopters, but it is quite another to actually have it happen. Hopefully these changes will come to fruition in the season ahead, but until Nepal proves that it can back up its promises, we should all be a bit skeptical.

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