Nepal’s mountains should be made safer for climbers
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 magnitude 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 to the 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 flooding.
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 .
In 1996, eight climbers lost their lives in the Everest region when they exceeded the turnabout time of 2pm. They were caught by an unexpected storm, ran out of oxygen and suffered deep exhaustion. The team members did not have radios to communicate with each other.
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. Many lives would have been saved if they had received timely weather information.
Local guides and high altitude workers are at greater risk 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. Guides like Abiral Rai believe that mountain jobs have not received sufficient attention from Nepal’s 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 this information should be easily accessible.
The local community could also be engaged in retrieving and disseminating weather information to tourists by establishing a communication chain. The government should implement strict rules on the turnabout time, and mountain climbers should be made aware of its significance.
Some trekkers died due to carbon monoxide poisoning because of the use of stoves inside their tents. Some 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 counsel.
Ensuring the safety of the visitors and guides should be 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.
ANUSTHA SHRESTHA is a research officer at the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition in Nepal .