Writer Lewis Waller shares his experience of the beautiful, but deadly, heights of Thorong-La Pass in Nepal, which recently claimed the lives of 39 trekkers.
Five months ago I was stood at the pinnacle of one of earth’s highest treks. At 5416 meters, the Thorong-La Pass on Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit is the climax of a nine day uphill struggle, before an enchantingly scenic five day descent. It took me five hours of trudging through icy snow to reach the pass. Due to the low oxygen levels at that dizzying height, it felt like every ounce of energy had been sapped from my bones. The reward? 360 degrees of captivatingly beautiful white mountains; the tallest and most majestic in the world.
It’s a tough two weeks. But with an abundance of tea-house accommodation, you can take as long as you need, all in relative comfort. With paths, signs and locals almost always within view, it can be considered a very safe environment, which is why a wide range of tourists are attracted to the trek. This is also why I was so shocked and saddened last week by the news that an unprecedented blizzard had hit the Annapurna region, killing at least 39 people in a flurry of avalanches and white-outs. People at the higher points on the circuit were caught completely off-guard when a storm closed in on the worlds 10th tallest mountain, resulting in the rescue of around 400 people.
It’s been a devastatingly disastrous year for Nepal, a country steeped in poverty in the midst of one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth. In April, an avalanche on Everest killed 16 Sherpas who were preparing the mountain for the upcoming climbing season. It was the most fatal day in Everest’s history, and the climbing season was cancelled in protest of how little the Sherpas – who take the brunt of the risk – earn.
In the days and reports that followed the disaster, my position turned from that of shock and sadness to one of concern for the livelihoods of locals, some of whom I’d met, that rely absolutely and unitarily on tourism. Paul Sheridan, a British survivor of the disaster, was quoted by the media as saying that he and others were ‘herded to their deaths’ and the guides were not prepared for the conditions. In an interview with the BBC, Sheridan went on further to say that he felt the guides could have prevented the tragedy.
It’s not for me to criticize this, nor anyone. While I have the utmost sympathy for what must have been a traumatic experience for Mr Sheridan, the truth is that you visit a region like the Himalayas with the tacit acceptance of some inherent risk. It’s a small risk; you’re more likely to pop your clogs in a road accident on the way. The majority of incidents on the circuit involve young trekkers straying from the safety of the path. But to put the brunt of the blame on locals will have worrying repercussions for the livelihoods of those in a country where 40% live under the poverty line.
Many people, myself included, choose to complete the circuit with no guide in order to save money, showing just how safe the trek is. But there were many moments when I looked over the edge and realised I was a step or two away from death. In 2010, 53 people died on mountains in the UK. Yes, mountains are dangerous, but statistically, trekking in Nepal is not. The Nepalese have been quick to introduce measures in case of future disasters: hiring trained guides and GPS units will now be compulsory.
Trekking has its risks, but what doesn’t? What I’m trying to say is: Nepal is incredible. Go there.
All photos credited to Krista Dayman, Toronto ([email protected])