"Summit Day" on the Annapurna Circuit, Nepal
Last week in Nepal, avalanches hit Annapurna Circuit of the Himalayas. So far, more than 40 have been confirmed dead, with hundreds more still unaccounted for.
In a statement that will no doubt rouse many budget travelers, Mohan Krishna Sapkota, spokesman of Nepal's Tourism Ministry, claimed those to blame for the death count were “cheaper tourists” who chose not to hire individual guides.
“If they were with the guide then they would have had a much better idea about the weather,” Sapkota reportedly said.
The official's accusations are also somewhat disingenuous because Nepal's own official tourism website doesn't suggest visitors hire a guide for the Annapurna route. The country does require permits for hikers and it collects US$20 for those permits, yet it does not require the retainer of a guide to trek. Many other remote and potentially dangerous tourist destinations, including the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands, do require a guide for access, but even though entry is regulated, Nepal makes no such requirement. In fact, the links on the Nepalese website for the permit rules and prices also bring up error pages.
The trekking industry is furious at the remarks."The government is happy collecting money from trekkers but doing nothing for them. It must now spend the cash for making arrangements for weather forecasts and a quick response for rescue when hikers are in distress," said Keshav Panday, an official of the Trekking Agencies' Association of Nepal, in the .
Despite the minister's complaint, reports in Britain's Independent
suggest that some hikers were actually caught by the avalanches because
they followed the instructions of guides who, as the snows began, suggested they leave the safety of a village to descend—a decision that cost lives. These guides, however, were foreign. Local Nepalese guides, often called Sherpas, are lifelong mountaineers who probably would not have suggested hiking into the snow.
Trekking the Annapurna area is not like climbing Everest. You don't need oxygen or even elaborate camping supplies. Often, it's like a forest walk at altitude, stopping each evening to sleep at "tea houses" run by locals. Because it's so accessible to novices, Annapurna has long been one of the most popular routes in the country. During peak season, it's so crowded with backpackers and young people from around the world that it can look like Fifth Avenue on a Saturday afternoon—some people choose to take other routes in Nepal simply because it's so crowded.
But there is an arduous mountain pass, the Thorong Pass, and that's where the trouble happened. Most people walk the Annapurna circle clockwise simply because this pass is too tricky to handle if you're walking the other way. Even on the safest route, the path can visit higher altitudes, and treacherous terrains that can make things temporarily dicey.
On a Nepalese trek I took once (the Langtang), most of my companions sniffed at hiring a guide. If you had a guide, you were scoffed at as a something akin to a lazy imperialist dilettante. Backpackers want to make their funds stretch so they can visit more places, and besides, it grates many travelers to pay a less wealthy foreigner to serve them. But having an expert along, even if they're less wealthy than you are, can be a smart choice. On my trip, one companion in my group went to sleep complaining of altitude sickness—and she never woke up. That happened not directly because she didn't hire a guide, but because she ignored symptoms that she knew were serious and refused to descend to alleviate them. One could easily argue that had she hired a guide, she would have been escorted to safer ground.
The minister does have one point: In wild places, guides are a smart investment. Those of us who grew up in cities and suburbs don't usually have an accurate appreciation of the dangers and vagaries of wilderness hiking, particularly at high altitude and in places untouched by mobile phone signals. That even goes for the usually mild Annapurna route, where it's not uncommon to see young Australians doing part of the route in jeans and flip-flops.
In a country where $430 is a median per capital income
, hiring a Sherpa costs nearly nothing by Western standards, and spending your money on the services of a local makes a big difference in their lives. A Sherpa guide can cost about $20 to $40 per day, and a porter for your gear can cost about $20 per day.
If Nepalese officials really feel that skinflints are inviting danger by avoiding guides, then it should do what Ecuador and Peru do. It should stimulate the economy, legislate a failsafe, and require the retainer of a guide. But it doesn't.
That leaves tourists with the responsibility in their own hands. Individual hikers can often arrange for a guide in Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu. It's also possible to arrange and entire guided tour, at a higher rate, from home with a company such as G Adventures
If you have ever wanted to mountaineer or trek in the Himalayas, most of the time you don't need a guide. But on the very rare occasions when freak weather hits, having one can mean the difference in knowing what to do and walking directly into danger.
Photo credit: Swati Gunale