In the wake of one of Nepal’s
worst trekking disasters, the rescue efforts are just beginning. Already,
harrowing stories are emerging. Hundreds of tourists and Nepalis have been
caught up in the recent snow storms and avalanches in the Himalayan
mountains, killing more than 40 and injured nearly 200. One British visitor
spoke of staring into the “frozen face” of a Nepali boy, and both of them
breaking into tears; a trekking group has recounted how a local lodge-owner
took money to lead them to safety, only to abandon them mid-route.
It is a rare exception to one of mountaineering’s less publicised rules of
thumb: that in a crisis like this, whoever has the most cash to pay the
porters usually has the greatest chance of surviving. Alongside that, of
course, such disasters always bring out the best in people, too – so there
are bound to be tales of compassion and camaraderie, even of lives
sacrificed in saving others.
This time of year is Nepal’s peak trekking season, when the weather is usually
fair with clear, sunny skies. It is when conditions are good enough to
tackle tough treks such as the popular “Annapurna circuit”, which offer a
route around the world’s 10th-highest peak. It is a breathtaking trek – but
if bad weather hits, it can all go terribly wrong.
Sometimes, it does not matter how well prepared you are. Even experienced
mountaineers, with the best guides and best gear, can still wind up dead.
That said, the chance of survival is higher if you arrive experienced, well
prepared and well equipped.
But extreme adventure is no longer the domain only of extreme adventurers.
When planning a holiday, climbing the world’s highest peaks is increasingly
seen as fair game. In Europe, some 25,000 people try to scale Mont Blanc
every year – even though it is a very tough and, at times, technical climb,
with the possibility of rapidly changing weather and conditions. Some who
attempt it are professionals; some arrive well trained and accompanied by a
guide; but there are others who simply try to wing it. That has helped make
it one of the most dangerous mountains in the world, claiming more lives
than any other.
Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro, is also receiving more tourists than
ever before: the number has trebled over the past 20 years to around 35,000.
There are so-called “luxury” versions of the climb, in which you are
supported by an army of porters who erect high-oxygen tents for guests and
cook hot and hearty meals. At the other end of the market, there are budget
packages aimed at gap-year students who a few days earlier would have been
sitting on a beach in Zanzibar.
When I made the ascent, it was these young backpackers who were the ones being
carried off the mountain: they might have been fit and strong, but they had
no idea how to ascend a 5,895-metre mountain. One Norwegian student
suffering from altitude sickness and hypothermia was wearing little more
than a cagoule and a pair of Converse trainers, and was mumbling some
nonsense about wanting to buy a Masai cow. His lack of preparation had not
only put his own life at risk, but those of his porters, too.
There are mixed feelings within the mountaineering community about the way the
sport is developing. Everest, once seen as the pinnacle of accomplishment,
is now seen as relatively achievable: more than 600 climbers reached the
summit last year. Sure, you have to be physically fit and mentally tough,
but some believe the greatest barrier today is money rather than preparation.
Even the cost of climbing Everest, however, is far less than it was. And it is
this that ultimately lies behind the increasing popularity of extreme
adventure: it is becoming more affordable. Ambitious commercial trips are
opening up some of the world’s most remote destinations to a wider and
larger market. And notwithstanding disasters such as the one in Nepal,
things are also becoming safer, due to a revolution in the quality of
technical equipment and personal fitness training. Modern weather
forecasting also mitigates many of the risks.
Nor should events in Nepal deter the thousands who travel to the Annapurna and
Everest areas each year. Tourism brings in much-needed revenue, and many in
those areas would lose their livelihoods if we took the country off our
radar. But we must train, we must acclimatise, we must invest in decent
equipment and we must not cut corners. Far too often, I have heard trekkers
talk almost boastfully about how little they have done to ready themselves
for a big summit.
The mountains will always seduce – and for many of us, the element of risk is
part of the allure. We want to push our limits and stretch our imaginations,
and there is little that can surpass the feeling of accomplishment after
reaching a big peak. But in doing so, we must also show our porters and
guides, the groups we travel with, and the mountains themselves, the respect
Michelle Jana Chan writes the ‘Action Packed’ column for Telegraph
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