Nepal is a popular tourist destination mostly for trekking and mountain climbing. But the previous years’ mountaineering disasters might have tainted its image.
Thousands of trekkers and mountaineers visit Nepal every year to enjoy the breathtaking mountain ranges. But 2014 might have just changed that. The year marked the deadliest and saddest one so far for mountaineering in Nepal. First in April, an avalanche on Mount Everest killed 16 Nepalese guides, which led to authorities suspending all attempts to scale the peak. Then later in October, hundreds of trekkers were on the Annapurna Circuit when blizzards in Mustang and Manang districts wrecked havoc in the area.
According to Pemba Gyalje, former president of Nepal National Mountain Guides Association, the incidents garnered a lot of negative publicity nationally and internationally due to the government’s lapse in controlling the situation properly post the disasters. “I think the government failed to tackle the issues effectively immediately after the accidents,” he said explaining that though efforts were made to compensate the victims’ families, for many it was too little too late.
Gyalje also mentioned that though it’s still a bit early to say if there will be fewer trekkers and expeditions this year because of the previous years’ tragedies, the repercussions of 2014 might definitely hit this season hard. And the fact that 38 years old Pasang Sherpa, who climbed Mount Everest in 2013, has not yet been contacted to lead any expedition might stand testimony to Gyalje’s concerns.
The climbing season of April to June is an opportunity for many Sherpas like Pasang to make enough money to sustain their families for a year. But with expeditions yet to be confirmed, many Sherpas might be rendered jobless this year and Nepal could probably lose out on a lot of revenue as well.
Cheddar Sherpa, who scaled Mount Everest nine years ago but has been guiding tourists for almost 16 long years, has gone to his village to tend to the family’s small patch of land where the locals have been growing herbs. “He’s not going to be climbing this year. Things are just too uncertain,” said his wife, Lhamu Sherpa explaining that her husband had thought of taking a break after being caught in the Everest avalanche last year but hadn’t decided on anything till he wasn’t contacted for expeditions this year.
Not being booked for any expedition forced Cheddar to look for another source of income, and thus the decision to leave his wife behind again and head in a different direction this time: to Sankhuwasabha in Eastern Nepal. Lhamu recalled how her husband along with her cousins had left for Everest last year but only her husband returned from the trip. “My husband survived but many of our friends did not. He (Cheddar) came back with bodies of loved ones,” she said. This is the first time in many, many years that she won’t be lighting oil lamps every day for three months and praying for her husband’s safe return.
“When my husband left home at the start of the climbing season I wouldn’t know if I would ever see him alive again. I used to be so very scared,” said a somewhat relieved Lhamu. But the couple has other worries this year. Like in many Sherpa’s cases, the family is too dependent on Cheddar’s income and now that expeditions are uncertain, their major source of income seems to have been snatched away.
The fear that the situation might prove to be the same with trekkers at Annapurna looms large among the locals and authorities alike. According to Baburam Bhandari, the Chief District Officer at Mustang, they are well aware that the past year disaster might prove to be disastrous for tourism as well and are planning to do all they can to ensure all safety measures are taken into consideration so that such incidents can be avoided in the future.
The incident at Annapurna Circuit in October was touted as Nepal’s worst trekking disaster. According to initial reports at that time, at least 39 trekkers and their guides died in the subsequent avalanches or while on their way down as they were unable to see the paths clearly in the snowstorm. Many of those who survived suffered from frostbite and underwent amputations.
Unlike the Everest avalanche, this was a meteorological event with plenty of lead-time. Cyclone Hudhud, a hurricane in the Bay of Bengal, led to a storm that dumped six feet snow in the mountains in just three days. That the hurricane would probably cross Annapurna had been predicted by several weather forecasts. Why the government failed to heed to the warnings is unsolved and unfortunately, a neglected issue.
However, the government and local authorities seem to have been jostled into action post the disaster. “We are planning to construct eight shelters along the Annapurna Circuit. But the weather is not good right now. We’ll start the works once the snow melts,” said Bhandari explaining that if everything goes as planned then the works should begin in April this year. Bhandari mentioned that the Department of Tourism, Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), and the District Development Committee are working together to bring this to fruition.
“This shows how serious we are about the issue,” he said. But if the Chief District Officer at Manang, Devendra Lamichhane’s concerns are anything to go by, building tin sheds as per the plan might not be much of a solution. “We need stronger shelters and for that we need slates and stones,” explained Lamichhane. According to him, a lot of manpower is needed to ferry the raw materials to that height and at the moment it all boils down to the government’s budget or the lack thereof.
Mountaineering tourism is one of the major economic drivers in Nepal. The tourism industry, the largest industry in Nepal, accounts for four percent of the nation’s Gross National Product (GNP). According to World Travel and Tourism Council, travel and tourism generated more than half a million jobs in the country the previous year and resulted in $420 million in revenue. If the issue isn’t sorted out, and sorted out soon, the financial ramifications might be too high.
But the issues are nowhere close to being solved. Safety matters aside, there is also a lot of confusion this year regarding if those who had to quit the expedition last year will be allowed to continue individually or as parts of different groups since continuing in the same group as before would be impossible. To address this issue, the Mountaineering Expedition Regulation is currently under revision after which it will be reviewed and passed on to the cabinet. And as with all bureaucratic procedures, this might take some time.
According to Gyalje, this is perhaps the reason why expeditions haven’t been confirmed yet. Initially, the foreign climbers demanded that their climbing permit should remain valid for the next couple of years and the government had acceded to that demand. But now it has hit a roadblock unable to take a final call on other issues. However, Gyalje believes that this is just a temporary setback and meanwhile Nepal needs to prepare itself for another mountaineering season by bettering its safety provisions.
“Accidents can happen at the mountains where weather changes in the blink of an eye but necessary precautions can and need to be taken to lessen the damages resulting from it,” he said adding that though the Nepal government is accountable to a large extent, the responsibility also falls on the shoulders of the local bodies and international community and it’s only when the three join hands that the situation will improve.
“This issue is of paramount importance to our nation as a whole because the stakes are too high,” said Gyalje. But Lhamu has a slightly different and personal concern too and she echoes the voices of many other Sherpas’ families. “The Sherpas put in a lot of effort and risk their lives to earn for themselves and their country. If they are involved in accidents, the government should look after them if they survive it, and their families should they meet with a fatal one, and not blame them instead,” she said.
“It’s not just about nature’s wrath and tourism but human sentiments too,” she added and maybe keeping that in mind could well be the starting point to repairing the damages that sadly can’t be undone.