My piece for the Daily Beast.
My piece in the Nepali Times.
Last week, trekking the Annapurna circuit with my nine-year-old son, Lucas, we hit a deserted, particularly tough patch of trail that had been partially swept away by a landslide. Single file, one foot in front of the other, five of us gingerly and slowly made our way across a six-inch-wide uneven slanted ledge, a sheer cliff up to our left and a sheer precipice to our right. The previous day’s rain had soaked the shale underfoot and it moved slightly with our weight. Our guide shouldered Lucas’ daypack and held his hand tightly instructing him not to look down the hill but just to focus on his feet. I struggled not to let my son see my intense fear of heights. Later, we both agreed it was just part of the incredible and inspiring week we had spent hiking.
This is not an unusual occurrence in Nepal, a land where mountains are steep and unstable, and weather patterns can transform a landscape in a split second. Everyday, newspapers print stories of roads wiped away by landslides, of villages marooned by snow falls or Monsoon-swollen raging rivers swallowing homes and fields. “In Nepal,” my friend Kunda Dixit warned me on this trek, “everything is further and more difficult than it seems.”
This week, at the height of the region’s trekking season, a perfect storm hit Nepal killing at least 24 foreign trekkers as well as seriously wounding Nepal’s tourism industry. Two days after cyclone Hudhud made landfall in Eastern India, it tore into Nepal. Lucas and I had just returned to Kathmandu when the storms started. In the Valley, torrential rain fell unabated for two days accompanied by ear-splitting thunder. Flights were cancelled or rerouted, almost all airports were closed.
The weather in the mountains was even more vicious and unpredictable especially in the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), a favorite for trekkers who call it the Annapurna Circuit, an area that encompasses 7629sq kms. Blizzards and avalanches in Manang, near Thorong La Pass(5416m)and at Dhaulagiri Base Camp killed the trekkers most of them foreigners. But in this vast isolated area frequented by a huge number of tourists, it is unclear who is still missing.
One man slipped off a muddy path and fell into a river. He has not been found. We know about him because he was with many other trekkers. What about the more isolated areas of Manaslu and Langtang and the Tsum Valley? Even before Hudhud hit, the weather during our seven-day trek brought rain every afternoon turning into hail and snow at higher altitudes. Many of the smaller, narrower and desolate trails, like the ones we took, had landslides and were already water logged. We were four and had a guide as well as two porters (they moved way faster than we did) so we had safety in numbers as well as knowledge of the area. The only road to the northern part of the Annapurna Circuit takes you to Jomson. A good chunk of it is dirt and last month it was closed for a week because of rock fall. You can fly to Jomson, but only subject to the unbendable Nepali mountain rule: weather permitting. Even in good weather, flights cannot land in Jomson after 10am because of high winds. Fall and break a bone and you have two options: a helicopter or a multiple hour trip lugged in a stretcher to a road or an airstrip.
We met a group of three soloing young Americans from Colorado. They had no phones, an incorrect map (trekking map quality is poor in Nepal) and understandably a desire to get off the very beaten track and lose the hordes of other tourists. They had not registered at the US Embassy and their families did not know where they were going. Then there were the young Nepali tourists, climbing up the mountains in sneakers, without winter gear and most importantly not carrying any water. The Indian religious pilgrims that flock to the shrine in Muktinath near Thorong La Pass are also not prepared for winter. The women wear silk saris and thin shoes and ride up to the shrine on mules. And sometimes even if you are an expert mountaineer, the mountains can still claim you. Many years ago, Kunda’s brother, Kanak Dixit, had crossed the Thorong La Pass and was walking solo down past Manang when he slipped on the muddy trail and fell hundreds of feet down a cliff. He lay there badly injured for 48 hours before his brother found him. Kanak was helicoptered out and spent months in hospital. He still treks every year in all seasons.
It is a pristine Kathmandu afternoon today, a side-effect of a perfect storm. In front of me, the dark green of the valley’s hills melts into the emerald rice paddies, many flattened by the storm. My week in the high mountains taught me respect and made me fall in love. In the high mountains, I know the clouds and the evening cold will have already moved in. I hope the injured have been found.
Tragedies have a way of temporarily opening up windows on worlds we never knew, giving us a peek into how people we never thought of live and die. If we are lucky we will remember a face or a story, or the color of the sky or a smell that triggers good or bad. And sometimes it is the most seemingly banal detail that can set an event into perspective.
Everest has been my teacher this year. We all know Everest, The myth. The mountain. If you live in Kathmandu, you are never allowed to forget. It is on many of my son’s t-shirts, it is the “Top of the World” coffee shop where fellow school mothers come for the wi-fi and a catch-up, it is there at “Le Sherpa” restaurant or at the “Sherpa Adventure Gear” store. It follows you in the fish-eye photo prints that line the streets of Thamel and the ubiquitous highly imaginative oil on canvas paintings that have a tiny yak crossing a rope bridge in the shadow of the world’s highest mountain.
The Sherpas call the mountain Sagarmatha and this year they believe the goddess that lives there is angry. An ice Avalanche on April 18 on Mt. Everest killed 16 Nepalese high altitude climbers, most of them Sherpas, made international news for more than a week and opened a window on the dangerous work conditions, low pay, miserly injury insurance and death benefits of the Nepalese who make it possible for all the foreign climbers to get up the mountains. Within days, as tension mounted at Everest Base Camp (EBC) between sherpas, the climbing season on Everest ended before it really began. Though the disappointment of foreign climbers was widely read on blogs, very little was heard from the vast majority of Sherpas up on the mountain.
My assignment for National Geographic was to find survivors of the avalanche in Kathmandu and tell their story. As a story goes, it was straight forward reporting. I tracked down two survivors in two hospitals. I had no child-care that day so my nine-year-old followed me into the ICU and sat next to Kaji Sherpa, at one point holding his hand and asking his own questions. I did phone interviews later at home with other Sherpas in town and international expeditions owners. I went to the expeditions website and read climber blogs.
Neither Kaji Sherpa nor Ang Kami Sherpa had a formal education. But this job, as one of the luggers of heavy gear up to Camp 1 and 2, was the only option in their desperately poor villages to finance an education for their children and a better future for the extended family. On Everest, Sherpas work as guides that assist the climbers to summit but the majority set the ropes, lay the ladders across the dangerous crevasses of the Khumbu Icefall, lug up tents, cooking gas, oxygen, food even the toilets for the clients. Then at the end of the season, they bring everything back down including in some cases the client’s excrement. One climbing company advertises that it provides two Sherpas per climber to summit the mountain. When I asked a Sherpa friend why two were needed, he explained that one was there to push and the other to pull and if needed to carry extra oxygen. While foreign climbers who summit write books and go on talking circuits, little is known about the much larger number of Sherpas who go to the top over and over again. There are Sherpas that have summited Everest ten times or more, families where four and five brothers have all been to the top, others where three generations have gone all the way up.
Communication, or rather lack of, with EBC is what made this story frustrating. I was forced to rely on climber blogs and people in Kathmandu relating to me wildly different versions of tensions and arguments. EBC, has excellent internet connection though as yet no 3G so I couldn’t call Sherpas there to hear their perspectives and as of today many are still at EBC closing camp. The elusive and
rarified world of climbers came in snippets of life through posted pictures and diary-like entries. On expedition websites, I learned that a foreign climber enjoys carpeted toilets, hot showers, movies, happy hours and for some even sushi appetizers at EBC.
But I didn’t quite understand the logistics of what it means to climb Everest until the camp started to be dismantled. While Sherpas will stay behind to pack camp, scores of climbers and western guides hiked days to Lukla, the closest airport, a single strip of tarmac sandwiched between a precipice and a mountainside and dubbed by some ‘the world’s most
dangerous airport.’ Then for several days, bad weather stopped the 19-seater flights, duffel bags backed up stacked high against the walls and in any available space. The departure area looked more like Heathrow during Easter weekend than a single room on a village hilltop. Usually there are only a couple of flights a day that land and take-off before the winds pick up mid-morning. Yesterday, four Nepalese airlines scheduled 18 flights to Lukla.
Some agencies chartered. Though there were many Sherpas trying to get to Kathmandu as well, foreign climbers were given priority.
While their clients were heading to hotels in Kathmandu, eight international teams were figuring out how to rescue tons of equipment that had been pre-positioned in Camp 1 and Camp 2 above the Khumbu Icefall that was now deemed impassable. Alpine Ascents had in addition to regular gear, the added tonnage for Discovery Channel’s planned “Live” jump off of Everest. As non-emergency evacuation helicopter flights are not allowed above EBC, they had to get a special government permit to charter a B3 helicopter for a total of 20 flights that inserted team Sherpas to pack, repack and move the gear. No doubt an expensive venture for an already hurting industry.
This week at a condolence ceremony in Kathmandu for the 16 dead, their families asked for better death and injury benefits. Kaji Sherpa hopes to be able to make the trip home to his village in Solu Khumbu soon and to see his wife and three children. He never wants to climb Everest again.
Nowadays, the hi-end Yak&Yeti hotel is home to many of the teams. Banners welcoming Everest expeditions still line the brick walls in the parking lot. And the duffel bags from the Lukla airport are heaped in matching pyramids in the elegant lobby. There is talk of book deals from climbers and guides. But sadly none of them are Sherpas.
With only days left in the narrow starting window for the Everest climbing season in Nepal, a small group of Sherpas at Base Camp have been intimidating other Sherpas and trying to force them to leave the camp, expedition leaders, company owners and climbing clients report. It is unclear what this group wants to achieve but their techniques, threatening violence and “repercussions”, are described as mirroring techniques used by Maoist cadres during Nepal’s ten-year civil war.
This added upheaval comes as several more expedition companies, including International Mountain Guides, have announced that, after consulting with their Sherpa teams, they are pulling out for the season, even as discussions with the Nepal government and Sherpas continue regarding demands for higher death and disability benefits as well as insurance.
The climbing world here in Nepal is in turmoil. It has been almost a week since an ice avalanche broke off the mountain, killing 16 sherpa high-altitude climbers on the Khumbu Icefall, the highest number of deaths in a single day on Everest. Buddhist funeral rituals and cremations have taken place in isolated mountain villages and in Kathmandu. Grief is still raw among the tightly knit Sherpa community, the group that takes the greatest risks on the mountain, as it struggles to come to terms with the death of loved ones. The unfolding anger and tension at Base Camp shed light on a critical turning-point for the local climbing industry, which has been for decades the main income earner for extended families across the desperately poor Solu Khumbu region. International climbers will not get refunds as their fees have already gone to the costs of preparing the expeditions, buying food and equipment, and hiring sherpas. The decision on sherpa salaries will be made individually by the companies employing them. But stakeholders are already raising the question of what will happen next year?
At Everest Base Camp, many are asking whether the mountain is even climbable this season. By this time last year, international climbers were already staying at Camp 2 to acclimate. The sherpas known as “icefall doctors”, who set the ropes up the Khumbu Icefall, could in theory reset it on top of the old route that was hit by the ice avalanche. There is enough time to make it work, but they have said that the route remains unstable and dangerous. Setting a different route along the more central one used in the 1990s would require more time and equipment, neither of which they have. The extensive melting of the Khumbu Icefall, due to climate change, has made this central route more fragile and dangerous. The companies that have pulled out are, for the most part, old-time experts on the mountain who provided the core sherpa workforce that in previous seasons worked together to provide ropes, climbs and rescues. The weather is also a wild card.
Everest will be summited this year, but in a big blow to Nepal’s mountaineering image, it may solely be scaled from China. Guy Cotter, CEO of Adventure Consultancies, like many other high-end companies, says he will definitely return to Nepal next year. Everest business funds his company’s other climbs and his staff spend six months a year organizing the season. But he foresees that the fees will increase and the client numbers decrease, and so fewer sherpas will be hired and international clients will be more tempted to cross the border to China.
The image of Nepal, “birthplace of the Buddha and home to the world’s highest mountain”, may be damaged as well. The iconic trek to Everest ‘s peak on the Nepal side is one of the most spectacular in the world. By contrast, the trek on the China side is through an arid austere part of Tibet. But in China, the climb is government-organized and bureaucratically much simpler and faster than in Nepal. If climbers head to China, the sherpas lose critical money-earning potential that has helped communities put their children in schools and start small businesses, a step beyond their traditional potato and barley fields. Though the government of Nepal‘s direct income from Everest tourism is only about $4 million a year, the actual benefit to the Sherpa community is closer to $12 million. The goal of many of these high-altitude Sherpa climbers is to make sure their children can get an education and find other careers away from the slopes of Mt. Everest.
If the threats at base camp escalate, then the Sherpas’ quasi-mythical reputation – a positive stereotype of hard-working, trusted mountaineers that has been used by almost every climbing company and written about extensively in climbers blogs – will have to battle, like the rest of Nepal, with the dark underbelly of a country still grappling with the consequences of a decade of civil war.
I learned a new expression this week: Controlled Flight into Terrain or CFIT meant to describe a plane crash where a pilot unintentionally flies into the ground or a mountain. For anyone who flies around Nepal, this is a stark reminder of the risks. The day I read about CFIT on Twitter, a Nepal Airlines Canadian-built Twin Otter, the war horse of all planes, one of the few able to navigate Nepal’s uncompromising and unforgiving mountains and its short airstrips, crashed into a fog enshrouded mountain side, killing all 18 people on board. The flight bound for Jumla in the high Himalayas took off in dense fog and then asked to be rerouted before contact broke.
Traveling around Nepal is surreally beautiful but far from simple.
There are few paved roads and the dirt ones, mostly carved out of perpendicular mountain sides next to 1000 meter plunges are listed on maps as “fair weather” which means they are impassable for four or more months during the monsoons or by the frequent landslide. Many of the remote and desperately poor communities are only easily reachable by plane and on dirt airstrips that require STOL or short take offs and landings. But snow, fog and rain make navigating mountains treacherous so much so that airports, including Kathmandu’s, regularly close down for hours.
This is the land of the Twin Otter. Maybe this crash was an anomaly?. Kunda Dixit, a renowned journalist and flying aficionado burst my bubble. Sixteen of Nepal’s fleet of 25 Twin Otters have crashed. According to Dixit, Nepal Airlines has now lost 70 percent of its 12 Twin Otters to crashes and has only one still airworthy. Even more heart stopping, Dixit’s article in the Nepali Times pointed out that of all crashes since 1955, about 90 percent were due to CFIT.
The reasons are multifaceted. Cut throat competition in the airline business and thin profit margins coupled with political and local corruption has decimated safety nets. The government, struggling after a decade of a vicious Maoist revolt, has shown itself too weak to implement reform in that sector. Many of the smaller planes, such as the one that just crashed, are not provided with weather radar or de-icing. Flying has become a booming business and some pilots are careless and not as well trained as the veterans. Flight dispatchers should also be held responsible but the biggest pressure is on the pilots to fly regardless of bad weather and cash incentives are given for successful landings at destination. Last year a plane crashed at Jomson, when the captain refused to heed instructions not to land in a tail wind.
Late last year, the European Commission blacklisted all Nepali planes from European airspace. Some might think this move irrelevant since no Nepali airline flies that far. But more to the point, they advised Europeans not to fly in Nepal. We have also been advised not to fly on any plane except for Buddha Air which has my eight-year-old son teasing me at take-off that this may be the fastest way to get to Nirvana.
So what are people to do, stick to the roads? Nepal has one of the highest accident rates in the world. Despite a plethora of signs saying “Dead Slow”, “Sharp Bend,” “Push Horn” and “Accident Prone Area,” trucks, buses and taxi jeeps are overloaded, have non working signals, don’t use headlights and their drivers rarely slow down when they see you coming in the other direction on a road barely the width of a lane and a bit (with a precipice on one side).
Truck windshields are an artistic collection of colored stickers, plastic multi-colored flowers, and religious paintings leaving two small slits through which to see the road. Breakdowns are marked by a few tree branches stuck in the back of the vehicle held immobile by a rock behind a wheel gathered from the nearby recent landslide.
After driving 1000 kms from Kathmandu to Western Nepal, I quickly learned to give up my American road etiquette. Asking “how far” provides useless information. The key is “how long does it take to get there.” The only paved road snaking uphill almost 2000 meters into remote districts of western Nepal is a 134km stretch or a six-hour drive.
It is marked by 18 roadside rock shrines, engraved with the date and location where a vehicle plunged into the abyss. It is so steep here, that the wreckage remains untouched. Even the country’s vast population of stray dogs participates in making driving challenging. They curl up and sleep in the middle of the road and like everyone else on the road, they do not give way. In fact, they don’t even wake up.
My Nepali friends shrug their shoulders at the dangers. It all boils down to Karma, they say. If it is your time, it is your time. I have yet to reach that zen acceptance.
I thought I’d alternate risk. I flew back to Kathmandu on Buddha Air.
As any tour company will tell you, Nepal is the land of the Gods. It is the birthplace of Buddha and home to a vast pantheon of Hindu deities. The power of these gods is taken seriously. Even the secular government has decreed that certain sacred peaks cannot be summited as that might anger the god who lives there. Yet dumping garbage in the country’s national parks and in the conservancy areas apparently does not bother these divine beings. Nepal’s holiest River, the Bagmati that flows into the Ganges, is fetid and dead. Garbage and in particular plastics, are not only a health hazard but fast becoming the biggest threat to future tourism in this country.
“If it continues at this pace, in 10 to 15 years, it will be impossible to trek in Nepal,” warns Jerome Edou, owner of Basecamp Trek, a travel agency, and also senior advisor to an NGO Plastic Free Himalayas. www.plasticfreehimalaya.org
In 2013, over 800,000 tourists came to Nepal. The vast majority of these were trekkers as well as Indian pilgrims going to the holy site of Muktinath among others. If each drinks two bottles of water a day, and uses plastic bags for every purchase, the mountains become home to millions of plastic bottles every year. As the joke goes: What is Nepal’s national flower? The blue plastic bag.”
Waste management is a critical problem throughout Nepal especially in the Kathmandu Valley with its booming population, polluted rivers and lack of a system to dispose of non- biodegradable garbage. But Edou says cleaning the mountains first can set an example and build a system for cleaning up the entire country. A plastic water bottle takes 450 years while a plastic bag takes 100 years to decompose.
Local mountain communities have tried on their own to ban plastics but the government’s lack of policy and legislation make it a sisyphian struggle. In Chhomrung, in the Annapurna Sanctuary, one of Nepal’s most visited trekking areas, Hem Bahadur, a lodge owner, followed by a dozen others, banned plastic bottles 13 years ago. But how can villages of a few dozen households deal on their own with the garbage detritus of tens of thousands of trekkers and religious pilgrims?
There is no ability to reuse or recycle plastics in the mountains. It is dumped in makeshift sites or burned, releasing dioxin, a carcinogen.
Lo Manthang, a stunning medieval village, is the capital of Upper Mustang District, and has been proposed by the Nepal government as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1992, when Upper Mustang opened up to tourists, plastic bags and bottles were removed from trekker bags at checkpoints. But the Maoist insurgency and lack of government leadership, stalled the anti-plastic movement. Until recently, the garbage of tens of thousands of tourists was just piled up on the town’s outskirts. The town understood that it was an eyesore and moved it one kilometer away from the main tourist route. Out of sight. Out of mind.
“It could be so simple,” Edou stressed. “Just don’t buy plastic bottles along the way. Use filtered water.” For Edou, there is only one solution in the mountains: a ban on all plastic bags and bottles. But to do this successfully, the government must promote clean environment in schools, encourage local businesses to produce alternatives and above all require lodges to provide filtered water. There must be a code of conduct for trekkers.
In Nepal, the mountains are a symbol of national pride. Thirty years ago, the mountains were all plastic free. Critics insist there is a lack of political will. Plastic bags are made in Nepal. And plastic bottles are a booming business here as well.
In Nepal, much of everyday life is about access to clean water. Municipal water supplies are inconsistent and unreliable. The history of bottled water in Nepal dates back to 1992 when there was only one brand on the market. There are over 55 now but studies and testing of water quality show that more than 50 percent of mineral water brands do not match World Heath Organization drinking water standards.
The simplest and less expensive alternative, says Edou, is an EPA-approved gravity filter that is already used in some villages. To change a way of life is always difficult. But the alternative spells ecological disaster.