On the Annapurna tragedy or Why the government of Nepal is full of it

Unfortunately a couple of weeks ago a bad snowstorm cost the lives of around 40 trekkers in Nepal in the area of the Annapurna peak – the world’s tenth highest. I was there some three years ago. The tragedy happened on the Annapurna Circuit Trek that goes around the mountain. The trail includes a pass at about 5000 masl – where the tragedy happened. I did the Annapurna base camp trek – that climbs to the base camp at 4200 masl and takes shorter time.

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Nepal is by far one of the best countries in the world for trekking. The landscapes are absolutely fantastic, it has some of the best bits of the Himalayas and it is quite affordable. However, it was easy to see right away how disorganized everything was.

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Now the Nepali government very obviously failed to warn trekkers, guides, hut keepers or national park guards (if there are any on the mountain itself) of the coming storm. Simply because the government of Nepal does not care about these things. Now they are blaming it on the backpackers who went there without a (proper) guide and want to restrict budget tourism:

It is better to have less tourists who pay more than thousands who come but flout rules,” said the tourism ministry’s joint secretary, Mohan Krishna Sapkota“. (Reuters)

Here is how trekking works in Nepal (or at least how it worked in 2011, I doubt that much has changed). It is pretty cheap – food and accommodation go for next to nothing. Plenty of backpackers visit to go trekking, spend time in monasteries or simply smoke weed and hang out. It is pretty close to India, another major destination and Nepal’s visa regime is easy: visas are sold at the border (literally at a kiosk, like newspapers or chewing gum), 25-100 USD depending on how long you want to stay. Compared to an average price of 3 USD per night for budget accommodation, the government seems to pocket a pretty substantial “tourist tax”. There are of course the serious climbers who climb Everest and the like – this is expensive business and the sherpas there are some of the toughest guys in the world, so that is a different story! Most backpackers and other visitors who come to Nepal to enjoy the landscapes have a few areas to choose from for trekking – the most popular ones are Everest Base Camp and the two treks in the Annapurna region. Of course, these areas are protected in national parks and the government collects fees for entering the national park (separate fees for the different national parks). I remember paying 50 USD for permits and it did not seem easy to sneak in without paying the fees, despite what Mr Mohan Krishna Sapkota might be suggesting in the article (the link above).

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Trekking in Nepal is relatively easy. There is no need for camping gear – you sleep in the villages on the lower slopes and in huts on the higher parts. There are plenty of blankets usually although bringing a sleeping bag is a good idea, at least for hygienic purposes. Trekkers pay a small fee (something like 1 USD) per night for the accommodation but the unwritten rule is that they need to take their meals at the place where they sleep. Meal prices vary depending on the altitude (the higher the altitude, the longer and more difficult it is to carry all the stuff to the hut). So a dal bhat (rice with lentils and vegetables) can cost 1 USD in the low parts, where there is a road less than a day away and the vegetables come directly from the garden, and up to 5-6 USD at the highest points, where everything needs to be carried up the mountain for up to four-five days. Warm clothes are of course essential – it is cold at high altitude at any time of the year, especially at night. The major concern is altitude sickness which is best avoided by progressing slowly – gaining little altitude each day.

Guides and porters are abundant. Every agency in Kathmandu or anywhere will be happy to organize any trek. How well prepared they are? That’s a different story. Two Dutch girls complained to me that their guide had tried his charms on them every night on the trek. They also had two porters because they were carrying their full bags, everything they had with them travelling including lipstick and what-not, instead of leaving it behind in a hotel in the town. When I was trekking, there was a big Ukrainian group trekking behind or ahead of me most of the days. They had 25 porters (to carry all the beer and vodka) and 5 guides. These are the “tourists who pay more”. One day one of their guides – a petite Nepali girl – caught up with me. She was probably about an hour behind the whole group and was trying to catch up with them but that did not stop her from slowing down to talk to me. I asked her how often she guided tourists up the mountains and she said: “This is my first time in the mountain. The Ukrainians went to my uncle who is a travel agent and wanted 5 guides and 25 porters so he called all of his cousins, nephews and nieces to go with them”. This is how organized guiding in Nepal is. There are indeed some very good agencies (many run by westerners) but those are quite pricey. Otherwise you never know what your guide might be like. There is a great risk involved as well – your guide might get sick (altitude sickness) and not tell you because he won’t want to lose the money until things get really serious. Besides, I saw a 15 year old boy who was carrying his body weight of tourist backpacks at 4000 meters above sea level! So, in short, most of the time guides are not (physically or otherwise) prepared for the job and can actually be a nuisance, not to mention ruin a trip (if they get sick or behave inappropriately). The truth is also that most guides and porters get paid next to nothing and the travel agent who is sitting in his office keeps most of the money. So much for hiring a porter “in order to support the poor and disadvantaged people in one of the poorest countries in the world” (as the Lonely Planet suggests).

I went without a guide or porter. My backpack weighed 8 kilos including the two jackets and the sleeping bag. I had the freedom to go at my own pace, stop and spend a couple of extra days at any place I liked. And there are many places to admire in the Himalayas. Finding the way is elementary – most of the time the path follows a valley surrounded by ridges soaring up above the valley. Getting lost would be quite an achievement. The paths are in very good condition.

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In a mountain weather is always a factor and a guide can be very useful, but in the case of Nepal, unfortunately, a guide can also be quite useless or even make things more complicated for an experienced trekker when a situation arises (you might end up taking care of your guide rather than him taking care of you). What happened in Nepal on October 13 was that the same government that collects in fees as much as trekkers spend on food and accommodation for 2 weeks on the mountain, now simply failed to keep track of who is on the mountain and to warn anyone on the trek about a coming storm that the rest of the world knew about. The same people also failed for many years to organize the tourist industry, tour agencies, make sure that guides are trained and certified. The authorities have resigned from their obligations. There is not even anything like proper insurance for trekkers. Since most normal travel insurance does not cover this kind of “sport” or even just being at higher altitude, the only way to be “insured” when trekking (even if you have some kind of insurance that covers specifically trekking at high altitude) is to deposit thousands of dollars with the rescue service, so in case you need a helicopter lift, they would provide it with the money you have deposited.

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As other people in the article above have suggested, the government will not restrict backpackers’ access to the mountains because this is steady income (in terms of visa and national park fees) for the authorities, who will probably continue doing nothing about the problem. There are simple ways to ensure safety. In New Zealand and Iceland you need to register at each hut and say where you are going to spend the next night so you can be expected there. There is communication between the huts, guides and authorities. In New Zealand a guide is not compulsory but before you set off they check your backpack to make sure you have all the necessary equipment, waterproof bags etc. There is nothing of that in Nepal.

I have wanted to go back to Nepal and spend a few months trekking. Anyone with outdoor experience who has warm clothes and knows about altitude sickness (including periodic breathing) can do this without a guide. Blaming the backpackers for not surviving a deadly storm without any warning is extremely arrogant!

Hawley said she doubted the government would restrict budget tourists.

“They don’t want to shoot themselves in the foot,” said Hawley, after whom the government recently named a mountain – Peak Hawley – and opened it up to foreign climbers.

“I will not be surprised if this tragic incident is quickly forgotten.”

Here are some photo albums from 2011 when I visited Nepal:

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150590317720165.678435.592105164&type=1&l=f0ad74a921

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150596093690165.678868.592105164&type=1&l=5983d5a841

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150596803395165.678889.592105164&type=1&l=a8b2a1ec6f

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