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Trekking: Buried at the Top of the World

Outside magazine, February 1996

Trekking: Buried at the Top of the World

In the wake of Nepal's deadliest disaster, a search for answers
By Adam Horowitz (with Peter Stewart)

It was easily the worst calamity to strike the Himalayas in decades: a series of avalanches and landslides that tore through Nepal's mountains at the height of trekking season and claimed the lives of at least 65 Nepalese villagers, Sherpa guides, and Western hikers, with many more still unaccounted for at press time. In the aftermath, visitors and local tourism officials grappled for answers to two pressing questions: Was this tragedy preventable? And was it a wake-up call for the growing ranks of trekkers, who unlike Himalayan climbers, have until now managed to avoid such large-scale disasters?

First, the facts: On November 10 at least four separate slides, triggered by torrential rain and snow blown ashore from a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal, let loose in the Himalayas. Hardest hit were the Gokyo region near Mount Everest, where 13 Japanese trekkers and 12 Sherpas were buried under eight feet of snow near the village of Pangkha, and the Manang district in western Nepal, where at least 13 died when 17 homes in the village of Bagarchaap were swept away in a landslide. Seven more were killed in an avalanche below Kanchenjunga, the world's third-highest peak. Still, things could have been worse, given that more than 5,700 tourists held trekking permits at the time of the disaster.

"Fall is usually the safest time to travel in Nepal," says Narendra Gurung, travel coordinator for Mountain Travel-Sobek, whose three trekking groups in the Himalayas were helicoptered to safety after the avalanches. "There's been nothing like this for 50 or 60 years."

As is often the case with major disasters, reports of cooperation and heroism flooded the mainstream press: Sherpas leading their clients out of danger by clearing trails with their bare hands, a multinational rescue effort that resulted in the airlifting of more than 500 stranded people. But there was also me-firstism among Westerners and locals alike. According to Australian trekker Rob Prior, one group of Sherpas simply laid down their shovels upon being told there would be no pay for building a helipad needed for an evacuation in Gokyo. Later, shoving matches broke out as avalanche victims--both Westerners and Sherpas--jockeyed for the precious few seats on rescue flights.

In subsequent weeks, the trekking community hotly debated whether Nepal's Department of Meteorology could have put out a warning. The office furnishes most outfitters with their weather forecasts but issued no special report before the storm, even though both the BBC and CNN had been busily churning out bulletins regarding the brewing cyclone. Still, even an accurate report might not have helped--which is why it's back to business as usual for companies leading trips in Nepal.

"We've got trekkers up there for three and four weeks at a time," says Mark Van Alstine, director of American-based outfitter Karakoram Experience. "So there's really not much we can do when a freak storm hits so quickly. It's still the best weather window for trips to Nepal; we'll be running our same program, with even a few more trips, next year."

Filed To: Snow Sports
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