Friday, 17 October 2014

Tragedy in Nepal

Ten years ago this weekend I had just arrived in Kathmandu with my good friend, Tim Scott, where I was to start trekking for the second time amongst the wonderful high peaks and scenery of Nepal.

We joined a party of a dozen international trekkers on a three week hike that would take us across Gokoyo Ri at 5,360 m and through the 5,400 m Cho La pass before trekking to Gorak Shep and ascending the 5,500 m Kala Patar, known as the trekker’s ‘mountain’ overlooking Mt Everest and basecamp.

October in Nepal is a peak season for trekkers to gather and work their way along and up the Himalayan mountain trekking routes. Skies are normally clear by day and the sun often shines before the bitter cold returns at dusk.

But the tragedy that unfolded in Nepal this week was on an altogether unprecedented scale. A series of avalanches followed heavy snowfall and blizzard conditions on Tuesday causing a a nightmare scenario with at least 32 people dead and many more missing.

Most of the fatalities happened as the blizzard reached a point on the Annapurna Circuit 100 miles northwest of the capital, Kathmandu. This too is a well-known trekking route in central Nepal and at about 4,500 m it is close to the circuit’s highest point, the Thorung La pass.

Tourists from countries around the world were caught on the mountain and helicopters saved more than 200 survivors stranded in lodges and huts along the route, according to Nepales authorities.

With snowfall from the storm topping six feet in some places, this is probably the worst disaster in the history of Nepal’s trekking business.

The blizzard was the tail end of cyclone Hudhud, which hit the Indian coast a few days earlier and was reportedly one of the strongest storms on record to affect the region. It made landfall in Andhra Pradesh, India, last Sunday and was the equivalent of a category four hurricane.

Scientists are always reluctant to link any one weather event to climate change but they have pointed out in the past that the Himalayas are especially vulnerable to the increased storm intensity expected to result from climate change.

“Storms in that region are getting stronger,” John Stone, an IPCC lead author and adjunct professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, told the Toronto Star. “It is not inconsistent with what scientists have been saying - by making the atmosphere contain more energy, we have increased the likelihood of more frequent and severe storms.”

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, a regional agency based in Kathmandu that serves eight countries, released a report in May showing that rising temperatures caused Nepal’s glaciers to shrink by almost a quarter between 1977 and 2010 - at an average loss of about 15 square miles per year.

The report also pointed out that Nepal’s average temperature change has been two to eight times greater than the global average and says such changes could bring more intense and frequent floods, avalanches and landslides.

In April this year an avalanche - caused by melting ice from the Khumbu ice fall - killed 16 Nepalese guides near Mt Everest base camp in one of the deadliest disasters in the mountain’s history.

Modern  weather forecasting has reduced the risk of being surprised by a killer storm like the one that struck last weekend but the pronounced warming of the Himalayan climate in recent years has made the icefall more unstable than ever and added to the dangers for both trekkers and mountaineers.

A former British Gurkha officer and avid trekker General Sam Cowan is quoted as saying that “no one should have ventured out to cross Thorung La with the weather as threatening as it was”.

But access to our accustomed news media and forecasts is not always so easy in the high and remote mountains and it is unclear at this stage whether those caught in the storm had the benefit of any warning or not.


All photos: Clive Simpson

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