Website- Peak Freak Expeditions

Monday 20 October 2014

Staying Safe in the Himalayas 101

I was recently asked about a quote I made to the Globe and Mail stating that adventure enthusiasts coming to Nepal need to take more responsibility.  Tim and I stand behind that 100%. The Himalayas are some of the most impressive peaks in the world rich in culture and the lure of extreme adventure is on the rise. The risks are definitely underestimated and sadly not known to too many who venture this way. It's no secret Nepal has been experiencing growing pains in tourism and with it being its mainstay everyone wants a piece of it.

When the rescues started on Annapurna this past week, I got news that the helicopter pilots where reporting dead bodies scattered on the routes. I hope it's now safe to say that they've all been recovered by now.  I didn't want to alarm people until there was time for rescues to come in.  I also wanted a better understanding of the situation and what went on. Now stories are coming out of there and are they gut wrenching and disturbing to say the least.  I have been sick to my stomach for the loss of so many lives in one event and so shortly after the Everest disaster that took 16 Sherpa climbing guides lives. Mountain climbers ascending peaks such as Everest are aware and accept the risks and the fact that they may not come back because of the Khumbu icefall's uncontrollable icefall hazards. They survive blizzards at altitude because they are roped in and have tents for shelter, these people had nothing but the clothes they were wearing that day.

Octobers victims were on what they thought was a harmless and relatively safe high altitude walk and the workers were just doing their semi-annual job. I'm spilling my guts in this blog now because I feel it's important information to anyone playing in an uncontrolled mountain environment to take responsibility in their own hands as well as Nepal to avoid this happening again. An uncontrolled environment means there's no one clearing the way to make safe passage, things like blasting potential avalanche hazards, no snow cats pushing snow out of your way, no safety patrol and no one closing the park entrances due to hazardous conditions or making snow pack observations.

Mountains of the Himalayas are remote and hostile environments. To have a teahouse at your disposal when needed is actually quite unique to Nepal's popular trekking and climbing routes, never mind having the privilege of so many people eagerly awaiting to carry your bags for you. Majestic routes are accessible to anyone with two feet and heart beat to gain access up high in the Himalayas by foot into unforgiving territory. When things get bad at altitude, they go really bad fast. At altitude the human body's circulation is affected causing your extremities to get cold quicker than they would at lower elevations. Your energy level drops, you feel like there's cement in your boots and like someone has put a pillow over your face.  In some cases good judgement is impaired, lethargy and confusion comes to the mix. Good leadership and solid decision making makes the difference between life and death and prevention should always be priority.

Questions you should ask yourself when considering a mountain adventure in the Himalayas: 

If something were to go wrong are you prepared to look after yourself? what if something happened to your guide, would you be able to make decision for yourself? Are you comfortable with that? What if you need to help someone else? could you do that and not put your own life at risk?

Then there's the things adventures here should most certainly wonder about: Were the risks explained to me and how would they be managed. Is my leader experienced in this region? Have they been to altitude before?  Do they have rescue protocol, do they share knowledge of what will happen in an emergency, what about avalanche awareness and knowledge in terrain management? Do they have communication equipment? are they checking in to a base to get weather reports? Are they clothed properly for inclement weather? Do they hold local guiding credentials? Professional guides are paid to manage risk and not just host or carry your bag for you. Sadly mistakes can be made right at the beginning of planning your trip in prevention.

Big one..... do you trust their judgement? If not....... you shouldn't be there. 

Local politics can also affect your experience. Nepalese citizens want to take the trekking and climbing industry out of the hands of foreign guide outfitters and that can be good thing, but sadly they are losing ground fast. There are regulations as to who can form a company in Nepal in tourism. Agents are required to be a member of TAAN the trekkers association and hire NMA certified guides and insure them.  However in todays world where online offers are in the hundreds combined with illegal street tour vendors on every corner in Kathmandu and Pokhara, Nepals reputation is being damaged when safety standards are being bypassed.

In Nepal or abroad, it's possible for anyone to take a template for a website off the Internet, add a few photos, append an email address as the contact and attract customers.  There are many companies cropping up in Kathmandu whose owners haven't even been trekking before, never mind addressing safety considerations. Sometimes travel agents or organizers from countries aboard will hire someone from Facebook solicitation or surfing the Internet. More often than not they've never met the people they have engaged in business with. This is risky business.

We are also hearing about people who find a "great deal" surfing or social networks. When, they arrive, the organizer says he now needs twice the amount of money quoted for all kinds of reasons misrepresenting their offer, or changed the proposed itinerary altogether because they didn't ever have the means to secure required park permits, or they quoted too cheap just to get you in their grasp, upon your arrival the plan has been changed altogether. Some people will walk from those situations looking for the price they were quoted elsewhere and dig an even deeper hole with street vending tour guides.

We've witnessed ill prepared guides huddle around the stove all night keeping everyone awake in the lodge because they haven't been provided a sleeping bag by their employer or a proper jacket. The lodge owners shaking their heads not knowing what to do to prevent this.  It's dangerous practice to come here and contribute to this way of doing business and it's harmful to Nepal's tourism industry.

Another sad example of a bad deal. Headlines;  2012'- Everest- Canadian woman dies - reports revealed she booked with an operator who appeared on the scene overnight, no one had heard of them before. She was led to her death while the owner of the company summited and then proceeded to pass her on his way down, she was already in trouble and he made no efforts to turn her around or offer assistance. He walked away as she begged for him to not let her die. It's all good for the operator, he made a lot of money off her and got to the top of Everest for a photo and his name in the summit records and with zero accountability.  The scary part is that he was more than likely up there again in 2013 under a new name with new customers who found him on the Internet featuring his summit photo highlighting " book with me!!! "    

Another scenario we are seeing is people who were lucky to have trekked in good hands previously,  return home with a name and email address of a local trekking guide they met on their trip and who asked for their referrals and business directly to him instead of the agency that would normally employ and insures him.  People think this is a good thing putting money directly into the hands of the guides. But what if something goes wrong? What if something happens to him, he gets hurt or sick? What would his family do if he died and his family was left with nothing because he was not insured?  What if something happens to you? is your guide able to communicate with a helicopter company to get you out? do they have an account with the helicopter company? fly now-pay later relations?  Is he/she trained medically to increase your chances of survival? Is anyone accountable? Is there an office with dispatch personnel to coordinate rescue protocol or communicate with insurance companies, family and doctors? If you're hiring a guide directly, likely not.

Nepal knows they've got to pull the reins in and are going through the motions to make improvements and have been learning some hard lessons. I don't blame Nepal, the industry just blew up too fast. We've been coming here since 1991 and remember well the days of being the only ones on the trail, the only ones on Ama Dablam, summits on Everest when climbers stood alone on top. That's certainly not the case today, those days are gone but could potentially come back if the affects of climate change aren't managed properly and people keep dying here.

This year we were told to get all permits issued before our participants arrived in Nepal to stop the above mentioned situations and to help bring everyone through proper channels by means of using reputable operators and agencies to protect tourists and the industries failing reputation.  Sadly it appears that these new regulations were not put into practice yet in the Annapurna and other remote regions. I'm still fielding emails from people asking for help to locate their loved ones in the area of the recent tragedy. Most missing trekkers families are saying they hired a guide when they got to Pokhara or Kathmandu. They didn't know their itinerary or who they were with. This is why so many are still considered missing,  they have no means to get in touch with family or someone to reach out on their behalf like a reputable operator would.  To note- we track and do regular check-ins.

I'm writing this today because I think it's important that climbers and trekkers need to know what they're up against and I'm NOT writing in the name of competition or to get more business by any means. There's the good- the bad -and the ugly here and anyone venturing into dangerous terrain really needs to do their homework and be diligent in thorough research before committing to a trip in a country where there are so many variables and hazardous situation that you are exposed to.

We state on our webpage "the most important question you can ask is - who doing the guiding? if you are not completely satisfied, keep asking." That's only one part of staying out of trouble.  Weather is out of your control but survival skills and good personal governance is and especially terrain management when trekking, knowing when to stay or go and to ask for credible guidance. Having established trust and respect for when guidance is needed is crucial.

We have an expedition underway right now for the sole purpose of educating responsible and self-reliant climbers and trekkers while enjoying the Sherpa land and the mountains. Here's just some of what we teach on this adventure, it's all relevant to what just happened and Tim is currently using the this recent event as an example to his participants as they move along.

"Developing educated self-reliant climber with the ability to evaluate subjective/objective hazards including:

  • Rock Fall
  • Glacier Conditions
  • Critical decision-making
  • Group experience
  • White out navigation
  • Mountain Weather
  • AMS- Acute mountain sickness: signs, symptoms and treatment
  • Safe travel on trails and routes, including maneuvering around pack animals and porters and rules of the trail in Sherpa land. 
  • Avalanche Awareness and Safety Skills
This is what is being taught on the Avalanche section of this course: 
excerpt from the Canadian Avalanche Association website.

Factors Contributing To Recreational Avalanche IncidentsThere are a number of common mistakes that many backcountry recreationists make that put them at increased risk of being involved in an avalanche accident. These include:
  • Poor trip preparation
  • Lack of knowledge of recognizing avalanche terrain
  • Inability to assess snow stability
  • Unskilled backcountry search and rescue techniques
Increasing Chances of Survival Through Risk Avoidance
  • Designating a leader to help ensure effective decision-making
  • Putting people at front of pack who are skilled at assessing snow stability or selecting routes
  • Ensuring that “back in the pack” people don’t simply follow the track, but pay attention to the terrain or snowpack
  • Don’t fall into the “blue-sky” attitude that draws recreationists to upper slopes where unstable snow can remain days or weeks after a storm
  • Don’t focus on being goal oriented even after learning of unfavorable conditions such as rain, heavy snowfall, drifting snow, 0° C temperatures and poor visibility
  • Knowing when you are tired so that fatigue doesn’t cloud judgment and narrow the margin of safety
  • Recognizing that a sense of “it won’t happen to me” invincibility can be fatal.

Tonight I light a tea candle for all the lives lost this past week.  Tim and team were not affected by this years cyclone, however last year they were and responded accordingly and everyone stayed safe and had a great climb. They stayed put, they let the snow pack settle, they preformed educated observations and solid decisions on terrain management and then they proceeded. Sadly the victims local and foreign in this disaster had no idea what was coming and how exposed to danger they were or what to do.

As someone said to us, I hope they didn't suffer.

Tashi Delek

Peak Freaks- Triple Crown Mountain Course - Everest Training

1 comment:

  1. Well said Becky! A very clear and articulate summary of the problems faced both by Nepal (in trying to control a burgeoning industry) and by Trekkers/ climbers seeking the "ultimate" adventure. It is our wish all those offering adventure tours in Nepal do so responsibly, as you do. People do need to take responsibility for themselves. This is life and death.