Saturday, October 18, 2014

Nepal: Both Nepalese and "Cheap Tourists" Are to Blame for High Death Toll [32], Eleven Still Missing

According to the UK-based The Guardian, officials in Nepal have blamed the high death toll from the disaster in the Himalayas this week on budget tourists who tried to save money by not hiring guides to cross a high mountain pass.
At least 32 people were killed when the sudden snowstorm in the country’s Annapurna region trapped hundreds of trekkers at altitudes of more than 5,000 meters (16,500 feet) on Tuesday (October 14).
Rescue efforts were still continuing on Friday afternoon (October 17) with helicopters and soldiers reaching the Throng Pass, where 17 people are now known to have died.
“The army cleared the route at Thorong pass and evacuated 40 trekkers who [were able to] walk to [the nearest road] and rescued six others whose injuries meant they were not in condition to walk." Nepal Army spokesman Niranjan Shrestha said. 
The dead include Canadian, Israeli, Polish, Indian, German and Nepali nationals. A Briton who was trapped for 72 hours on the Thorong pass was among those rescued.
Many trekkers are still stranded in the region, 90 miles northwest of the capital of Kathmandu, officials and trekking company owners said, and some are still missing.
Devendra Lamichhane, a senior official in Manang district, told The Guardian eleven trekkers were unaccounted for.
“It’s still snowing in the higher areas so it’s difficult to find them,” said Lamichhane.
Authorities in the poverty-stricken south Asian state scrambled to rebut widespread criticism over their handling of the disaster.
In comments likely to anger many, Mohan Krishna Sapkota, spokesman of Tourism Ministry, said those who suffered most were “cheaper tourists” who did not want to hire individual guides.
“If they were with the guide then they would have had a much better idea about the weather,” Sapkota said.
The Throng Pass is one of the final stages of the popular “Annapurna Circuit," a two-or- three-week, 200-mile route which circles the famous mountain, the world’s tenth highest.
Nepal’s biggest mountains largely remain the preserve of experienced mountaineers with technical equipment and experience. 
Yet, the trekking industry attracts far more people, with thousands arriving in the Annapurna region every October, when weather conditions are usually favorable for hiking. 
More than 110,000 foreign trekkers visited Annapurna in 2013 a significant rise on the 106,000 in 2012.
Accounts from survivors indicated that guides had encouraged trekkers to attempt the hazardous crossing of the Throng Pass despite their client’s misgivings.
“I heard about the cyclone [from another trekker]who said it meant bad weather. I raised it repeatedly with local guides and hotel staff and all said I shouldn’t worry,” said Paul Sherian, a 49, policeman from South Yorkshire who survived the storm and led a group to safety.
Sheridan, an experienced hillwalker, said many trekkers and local staff were not adequately equipped. Many of the tourists have not ventured into mountain terrain before.
“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. It was an accident waiting to happen,” Sheridan told The Guardian.
Maya Ora, a 21 year-old Israeli who survived the storm, admitted that she and her dozen companions had no previous experience of such terrain and had limited equipment.
Ora owed her survival to her decision to stay in a small cabin at the top of the pass and remembered passing scores of bodies during her descent. 
Alan Hinkes, the first British mountaineer to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000 meter-plus mountains, said the trekking paths like the Annapurna Circuit were normally well-suited even to less experienced hikers, especially during the October peak season.
COMMENT: I climbed and trekked the Himalayas in the 1980s. Having done both technical climbing and trekking coupled with six years in the Marines, I have always had a respect for bad weather.

One observation I can make is that the Nepalese have become lax in their failure to institute regulations on mandating that EVERYONE travel with a licensed guide(s).

Nepal is a very poor country that relies heavily on hard currency that foreigners bring, yet all industries require effective management and regulations. 

“Most of the people who are there are not experienced mountaineers. They’re trekkers, or holidaymakers. You don’t need any massive hill walking experience to go trekking in Nepal. You’re on footpaths between villages.
Most of the time you’re on well-managed trails between villages and tea shops, and it’s fairly dry, lovely weather. But it can be unpredictable anywhere [and] obviously, it’s more severe at 5,000 meters (16,404)."
Trekkers on the Annapurna circuit rely on a system of guest houses less than a day’s walk apart for accommodation and rarely carry their own tents or cooking equipment.
Few have been trained in poor weather navigation, avalanche avoidance or search techniques.
Sapkota of the Tourist Ministry said the “incident has taught us a lesson” and that emergency shelters would be constructed to prevent similar incidents in the future.
The government will also move to restrict individuals trekking “on their own."
“We will strictly record their names and ask them to take all the information about the weather, area and adopt safety measures,” he said.
Much of the criticism of authorities centers on their apparent failure to find ways to inform trekkers of impending bad weather, which was caused by the tail of a cyclone lashing northern India.
Ngamindra Dahal, a climate expert at Kathmandu University, said Nepal’s meteorological office had followed Indian counterparts in issuing warnings of high winds and heavy rains.
“Farmers were told about it. It was in the media. So this was not unexpected. There was a major failure of communication. At least 50% of the blame lies with the authorities,” Dahal said.
Officials could have called lodges and guest houses or ensured trekking group organizers contacted their clients, commentators in Kathmandu said. However Yadav Koirala, head of the Home Ministry’s Natural Disaster Management Division, said efforts had been made to reach trekkers “but far too late.”
Local police officials were contacted and staff at manned entry points on trekking routes into the Annapurna region. But many trekkers were already on the way towards the Throng Pass and unreachable.
Nepal’s prime minister, Sushil Koirala, pledged to set up a weather warning system, and said the loss of life was “extremely tragic at a time when worldwide weather updates are available every second."
The growing mountain sports industry creates much needed jobs and is a key foreign exchange earner.
Sapkota, the Tourism Ministry spokesperson, admitted shortcomings.
“We haven’t had such incident at this place at this time of the year [before]. We were thinking the cyclone might have a minor affect in Nepal,” he told THE GUARDIAN.  
“Some of the media called this a freak storm, but I don’t know if that’s the correct term, because they do happen. Every so often these cyclones hit India where they kill Indian people and it’s buffered up against the Himalayas and turns into snow, and it’s wiped out trekkers, and so it’s news,” he said.
Dahal, the climate specialist, said it was possible that climate change had made the cyclone more powerful but described the disaster as “not natural."
Samten Sherpa of the guiding company Snow Leopard Trek said dozens of foreign trekkers were still stranded at Tilicho Lake, a picturesque hiking destination at 5,000 meters (16,400 feet). 

No one has been able to contact them for two days, and he said only two small, basic hostels were at the lake.
Many more are reported to be stranded on a trail on the nearby peak of Manaslu, which has been promoted as an alternative to the increasingly crowded Annapurna region.
This latest disaster follows the deaths of 16 people on Mount Everest in April, when the world’s highest peak was shut down for the first time.

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