Last week, the cyclone Hudhud hit the coastal areas in eastern India, with its tail end resulting in a blizzard that wreaked havoc in Nepal's most popular trekking area, the Annapurnas. It also caused avalanches in Naar Phu and Dhaulagiri that claimed lives of mountaineers, and also resulted in heavy snowfall in other trekking areas - Dolpo, Manaslu, Langtang and the Everest Region.
The first reaction has been of horror, but now the blame game has started, as the media sensationalism starts, as is usual. But lets not delve on that - this will help no one.
Of course, the travellers who are considering coming to Nepal for their lifetime dream of trekking in the foothills of the highest ranges in the world are concerned, and safety is a genuine worry - specially when you hear of a disaster such as this - that too amidst all the horror stories that are selectively picked up by the media.
So, are the mountains safe?
Mountains are never fully safe. They have a power that we need to respect, and from time to time, they remind us of just that! In the myriad small valleys in these ranges, there are micro-climactic conditions that are not always understood nor researched fully, so conditions can change, and this can result in a tilt in the safety level. Add to this the effects of climate change which can cause sudden crazy weather.
Safety is a result of the procedure and decisions one makes after measuring acceptable risk - looking at the chances of an incident happening, versus the severity of that incident. If you look at trekking in the mountains of Nepal, in well trodden trails such as the Annapurnas, between reasonably well stocked lodges less than a days trek, during seasons of good weather, this risk has always been tilted towards acceptable, which is why so many trekkers flock to this region year after year, over 100,000 in any given year is a high figure.
While there exists outfitters, leaders and crew that are committed and highly trained, they are few and far between in Nepal; and while it is growing constantly, price undercutting (through competition within Nepal across very limited 'popular' treks and also demands from the market - cheap is never cheap enough for many travellers) has led to many shortcuts being employed (undertrained and ill-equipped leaders and crew is the first trade-off, as it is a big part of the cost!). This is not helping the system.
The authorities in Nepal are rarely proactive, very good at chaos management, but as soon as good times return, slow at creating systems that ensure implementation of even the easiest visible learnings from the last chaos!
But lets not draw conclusions just yet. Even with all these conditions, trekking in Nepal (and specially in the popular areas) still in every way, has an acceptable risk level. We just need to make better informed choices based on this level of acceptable risk.
1. BE AWARE of where you are trekking. Nepal has three very distinct geographic zones, one low altitude (Chitwan, Bardia, Lumbini are the popular examples), one mid-hills (Pokhara, Kathmandu, Bandipur would be the more popular examples here) and the high altitude areas (above 3000 m - examples can be Jomsom, Muktinath, Manang, Namche Bazaar, Gosainkunda, Kyanjin Gompa, etc).
2. KNOW which altitude you are going to. Not all treks go into very high altitude areas - e.g the Poon Hill Trek which is incredibly popular, goes only a little above 3000 m - the Muktinath Trail reaches only 3008 m etc. This can have an impact on acceptable risk - specially with relation to snowfall, avalanche etc.
3. If you are booking through an outfitter - ASK the right questions - on guides, on equipment, on altitude, on safety. If you are booking just a guide by yourself, again ask the right questions on equipment, experience, safety etc. If you are going out by yourself, do not do it blind, be aware of what you are getting into, and prepare yourself carefully.
4. PRICE is not always proportional to safety. Its procedure, so the more QUESTIONS you ask, or the more information you get, the better.
5. Check WEATHER forecasts regularly. There is a surprising level of connectivity in the Nepal Himalayas, and while making that quick status update, take time to just also check the weather. While they might not always be accurate, they are a very useful indicator.
6. When on a trek, specially high altitude treks, do add a few PADDING days on your trip on a whole - this can help you go faster or slower, depending on a particular situation.
REMEMBER : as a travellers, you do have a responsibility towards other travellers too. Your actions will determine how safe other travellers will be. If you help create a demand for the right level of safety with the right procedures, the market will respond with a higher level of safety.
More importantly, there is NO NEED FOR PANIC. Trekking in Nepal is not suddenly more dangerous or more risky than it was earlier. In fact in general, it is safer today - because of accessibility and connectivity! We just need to use these advancements to our advantage, and utilise the information we have to make more informed choices and decisions, prior to coming out, and while on the journey.
We should not shy away from mountains, but respect it and the power it has. Given that respect, and utilisation of everything at our disposal to make informed choices, one can still enjoy it to the maximum possible.