39 Are Dead in Nepal, But Who Is to Blame?

Rescue team members carry avalanche victims to safety at Thorong La pass area in Nepal, Friday, Oct. 17, 2014.
Rescue team members carry avalanche victims to safety at Thorong La pass area in Nepal, Friday, Oct. 17, 2014.  Nepalese Army / AP

A powerful snowstorm, one that was predicted days in advance, caught hundreds of Himalayan trekkers off guard, killing 39 and leaving at least 19 still missing. Why did so many die? Writer Freddie Wilkinson reports from Nepal, where he has interviewed a number of on-the-ground experts and survivors.

Six days after the remnants of Cyclone Hudhud slammed into the mountains of Nepal, creating a snowstorm with deadly force, most of the search and rescue operations have been suspended, say officials in Kathmandu. "We hope to complete the work in the next day," said Ramesh Dhamala, the president of the Trekking Agencies Association of Nepal (TAAN), on Sunday.

Last week, a ferocious category 4 cyclone swept northwest from the Bay of Bengal into the Himalayan country, causing havoc in the high country, where hundreds of backpackers were caught ill-prepared as they hiked towards the Thurong La, an 17,770 foot pass positioned on the northern arch of the "Annapurna Circuit." The route, which takes two to three weeks to hike, is known for its stunning views and abundance of convivial "teahouse" lodges, and the weather is usually sunny and pleasant in October — often with 60- and 70-degree temperatures. In addition to the deaths, the storm left hundreds of trekkers and porters stranded. It also raised the question: How could so many people be caught off-guard by a storm that had been predicted for days?

The storm's track led it directly into the Annapurna region, Nepal's most popular trekking destination, where the busy post-monsoon season was in full swing. Though some chose to remain in shelter for the duration of the three-day storm event, others tried to push on, possibly on poor advice from some teahouse owners. Dozens became lost and the deaths were due to exposure and avalanches.

Although the high death toll led to immediate comparisons with this spring's catastrophic avalanche on Mt. Everest, in which 16 Nepalese high altitude workers lost their lives, the two tragedies bear little in common. The victims on Everest were professional mountaineers working in a serious, glaciated environment, while last week's fatalities were largely inexperienced, recreational hikers on vacation.

"These trekkers were not prepared with the right knowledge and equipment," said Dhamala, of TAAN. "Those people taking the challenge [of trekking], must take the responsibility," he says, noting that the majority of fatalities were 'independent' trekkers who had forgone hiring a professional guide. "They are not guides," says Dhamala. "We need to change the policy to increase the quality of training for guides, and stop individual trekkers."


But many of the foreign hikers felt abandoned by local authorities. "Not only are they not rescuing anyone, but they continue to send tourists here," an Israeli survivor, Barak Columbus, told Channel 2 News in Jerusalem. "The Nepalese know that there were people missing and killed and they just mislead tourists," he said.

"The Nepal government should have alerted the trekking operators and the agencies that this might affect us," Tej Bahadur Gurung, a tour organizer, told the New York Times.

Still, how could a storm that was forecast for days come as surprise? This video clip, taken the day after the storm, provides crucial context for understanding how so many trekkers could have become lost:

 
[Courtesy of Simrik Airlines]

Taken by a Go Pro camera fixed to the skid of a helicopter flying a search and rescue mission towards the Thorung La, it shows a placid, non-glaciated mountain valley — completely smothered under more than a meter of fresh snow. In fact, the very same attributes that make the Annapurna Circuit such an appealing trek — its moderate grades, and treeless, grassy terrain — would render it devilishly hard to navigate in blizzard conditions. At approximately 1:00, several figures can be seen on either side of the stream drainage.

The aircraft, a high-powered Eurocopter AS350 B3, is owned by Simrik Airlines, a private company that currently fields the most experienced rescue team in Nepal, and was piloted by Captain Siddhartha Gurung. More than 350 people had been evacuated by helicopter as of Monday, and rescue operations were managed by an ad-hoc coalition of government agencies, trade organizations, and private companies.

"The most important thing people [should] understand is that the Nepali government, civil aviation companies, professional organizations like the Nepal Mountaineering Association and TAAN, we are all working together, cooperating," Dhamala says.

What remains unclear is why there weren't more warnings for the trekkers.