Nepal is emerging from the sort of five-month period that would bring any country to its knees. 9236 dead, 600,000 homes destroyed, millions affected, entire towns wiped out in two major earthquakes & subsequent avalanches, political turmoil & violent street protests and a divisive constitution ratified.
So here is my dilemma… I am caught between wanting to feverishly promote Nepal as a go-to location to help the local economy recover, versus feeling dread in encouraging folks to head into a seismically active zone which has major political issues going on too. If people know what’s going on, and have taken the best possible mitigation against the risks, then that’s all anyone can do as informed tourists, and that’s what I want to highlight here.
Nepal is still shaking
The Nepal earthquakes (they had 2 of them) account for 99% of global earthquake deaths in 2015. There has been 395 shakes above 4.0 magnitude in Nepal since the April 25th quake. In fact over 50 of those were above 5.0 magnitude which is the sort of movement that starts to get folks worried. I know because I experienced the big Nepal quake and avalanche which destroyed our base camp killing 19 people and sparing us by luck rather than design. I know because in May when we were preparing to travel to a decimated village in the Kathmandu Valley with relief supplies, a second earthquake hit and I sprinted out of a moving building into a moving street and stood terrified, surfing over and back in the middle of an urban Jenga game. I know because that night a 5.0 aftershock jolted me awake in my tent in an open space in the city and caused minor panic. Imagine 50 of those since April!
I was able to go home in mid May and the shaking I still feel from time to time is just muscle memory playing games with my mind (and it still plays those games every time a bus or the Luas or the Tube rattles past). The folks in Nepal are still experiencing the shakes and feeling the nervousness on a regular basis. Happily the magnitude seems to have dropped off and there has been no big loss-of-life occurrence since May. (Note: Nepal Seismological Centre reports using different methodology, hence lower magnitudes to those published by USGS).
The Fault Line Risk
Usually when a quake happens, the built up energy has a chance to release and to some degree the imminent danger passes. However in Nepal the fault line didn’t release most of its energy this time around. A notable Geophysicist at University of Cambridge studied the April 25th quake and described it “spreading eastward at speeds of about 6,700 mph, traveling a distance of about 87 miles, unzipping the lower edge of the locked portion of the Main Himalayan Thrust fault over which the Himalayas were built.” He also noted that the earthquake “was actually relatively small, and although it was certainly a tragedy, with close to 10,000 people killed, it’s not in the family of the very large earthquakes this area can see”. He contends that the April quake unlocked only a small fraction of the fault. A strip of the fault about 120km wide remains fully locked from one end of the Himalaya to the other over a distance of 2,000km. This long, fully locked western part of the fault “has not ripped since 1505” he added, and he expects that it could release a much more powerful quake than the April quake. “At some point there will be an earthquake there, and it will be quite scary — there is more energy to release, since energy has built up there since the last earthquake”. The area he is referring to is South Western Nepal, a rural area with arguably less transportation and communications links than those areas affected by the April 25th earthquake.
Folks will argue that there is no more/less risk now than there was before, but in my view two major movements along the fault line in the space of 17 days (after a gap of 81 years since the last big movement) yielding only partial release of energy across the fault, changes the perception of risk – and perception dictates attitude.
Nepal Tourist Board Advice
I contacted the Nepal Tourist Board two weeks ago to seek some answers to questions on trekking/climbing which I wanted to include in this article. Here are the answers I received from the NTB which they are happy for me to share here:
PD: Media reports are stating that Everest has been ‘re-opened’ for the first time following the earthquake and are focussing on a Japanese climber Nobukazu Kuriki who is going to attempt the SE Ridge (solo and without supplementary oxygen). It is my personal understanding that Everest was never closed hence it is not being ‘re-opened’. Can you confirm this is the case and are there other Everest expeditions planned for Autumn season in addition to the Japanese attempt?
NTB: Everest was not closed. So far, no other climbers have applied for climbing Everest besides the Japanese climber Nobukazu Kuriki.
PD: Are permits being issued for the Autumn season for climbing on All 8000m peaks in Nepal or just for a subset of the 8000m peaks? (The reports I have are that five teams comprising climbers from Japan, US, Austria, Germany and UK have applied for permits to climb peaks above 8000m including Everest and Manaslu).
NTB: Permits are being issued for all peaks. I have attached the press release issued by Department of Tourism for your reference.
(Note – The press release I received included a list of 14 permit applications of which 10 had been issued for the Autumn season. The permits granted covered Gaugiri (6110m), Aichyn (6055m), Mustang Himal (6195m), Makalu (8468m), Mansail (6242m), Annapurna South (7219m), Annapurna I (8091m), Everest (8848m) and Manuslu (8163m). In the interest of privacy, I will not include permit specifics here beyond the Everest climber who I referenced earlier and whose identity is already in the public domain)
PD: With the Tibetan peaks remaining closed for the Autumn season, are you seeing a much higher influx of climbers to the Nepal peaks, and given the quantity and magnitude of tremors since the April 25th earthquake is there a risk that more people on peaks that may have new avalanche risk could give rise to bigger problems?
NTB: We don’t have much climbing this year. But so far 15 teams have applied for climbing different peaks in Nepal. In fact, Autumn is not good season for climbing. So we are not expecting much now.
PD: I have heard directly from folks in the Manaslu area that the trail to Base Camp of Manaslu is bad and helicopter to Samagaon is only way in. Can you confirm if this is true and are there any other trekking or climbing routes which are either not fully accessible or may not be fully declared safe yet and should therefore be avoided right now?
NTB: The road to Manaslu base camp has been repaired. Trekking trail repairs are going on in different places in Nepal.
PD: The main concern I hear from people planning adventure activity in the mountains in Nepal is that seismologists are saying that the April quake released only a small fraction of the Main Himalayan Thrust fault and that the fully locked western part of the fault which didn’t see any activity this time around is still at very high risk – an event which would lead to a much bigger quake than April 25th. What do I say to trekkers and climbers to reduce their concerns in this regard?
NTB: I do not know much about seismology. But one thing is sure, that precaution is needed in trekking and climbing whether there is earthquake or not.
PD: Are all rural trekking and climbing routes open for business or are some areas still under review or still unsafe? If so can you help me identify which areas are still under review or unsafe so that we can be clear on those open vs those not.
NTB: All areas are now open for trekking and climbing. But some special precaution has to be taken while trekking or climbing in Langtang and Manaslu area. Some of the trekking trails are being repaired. I do believes that it will be in fully operation from October this year.
Trekking & Climbing
So there you have it, all areas are now open for trekking and climbing and Everest is back in business. The headline is positive, but on the ground Langtang is still destroyed and Manaslu still has reports of damage on a number of trails. The Japanese Everest expedition (which is ongoing) triggered the Icefall Doctors to be pressed into action (nothing new there) to find a route through the icefall, and that process was reportedly much more difficult and dangerous than usual due to changed topography post quake. I wish Mr. Kuriki and his Sherpa team the best of luck, but better him than me. I felt the mountains moving back in April, and much has been dislodged and shifted. Add the unknown topography to the difficulty of an Autumn attempt and sprinkle in the known issues in the icefall post quake combined with his plan to go without supplementary oxygen… I hope it does not end in disaster which could set the Everest tourism industry back even further after two horrible years.
Last October a snowstorm in Manang & Mustang claimed the lives of 43 people including 21 trekkers in a weather disaster that was exacerbated by some underlying local and tourist issues. This was, at its core, a freak weather event, but with the effects of 395 shakes and potentially changing weather patterns, the conclusion is that trekkers will need more prep than usual now, including identifying whether their planned routes are ‘really’ as opposed to ‘officially’ re-opened as well as investing suitably in gear & technology so that they can sustain and be reached/found if something happens.
On the political side, the new constitution has finally been ratified but not without major unrest and lots of horrific deaths in the ensuing protests over the past weeks which claimed the lives of 40 people in Nepals southern plains. The protesters argue that the new borders contained in the constitution will discriminate against historically marginalised communities. A recent NPR article said of the recent violence… “For much of August over half of Nepal has been paralyzed by indefinite strikes, called Bandh or “closures.” This is a common terrorist-style tactic used in Nepal since the 1990s. More than 30 people have been killed and hundreds injured. The main roads are blocked by violent strikers, towns are under curfew, vehicles and buildings have been vandalized.” So while the constitution has since been ratified, the quarrels over its validity (which are varied and deep) will doubtless go on for some time, and visitors to Kathmandu are likely to see some protests in action.
This should not put anyone off going to Nepal, but it seems sensible in promoting Nepal to also offer visitors some insight into the current political situation. You don’t have to go far from here to witness unrest and frustration, try Calais, Hungary or Croatia. But knowing these things in advance and planning accordingly will help you steer correctly upon arrival.
The Nepal earthquake narrative moved out of media focus rapidly after the event, and peoples attention shifted to other things. The graph below from The Atlantic Magazine shows the number of worldwide news articles in 65 languages that mentioned Nepal at least twice from February 19 to July 24 2015 and you can see the peaks for Earthquake #1 and Earthquake #2. You can also see how quickly it vanished out of the news, and out of people’s thoughts. This is not surprising and fairly typical of global reaction to events in the second or third world. If however the earthquake had occurred in LA or Vancouver this graph would look substantially different.
The media focus has now shifted to more current events such as the European migrant issue. It is the job of those of us who have an affinity for Nepal to keep the spotlight on its recovery and the challenges ahead. I believe it could take 20 years for Nepal to recover from the earthquake. The hard reality is that Nepal is one of the world’s poorest countries, and two-thirds of the population lives without toilets. Water pipes in major cities are old and crumbling — a situation made worse by the earthquake. Diarrhea remains a major killer of Nepalese children, although the death rate was cut in half between 2000 and 2010. Another big quake would increase the size of the recovery task significantly. Government intransigence and an unwillingness to release relief funds is clearly a big issue, but so too is our short attention span.
Happily there is much to be gleamed from the amazing work going on by small, medium and large organisations from all over the world, not least the Nepal-Ireland Society and the Rolwaling Village project (to name just a few of the many) in driving recovery projects with little or no admin costs to deliver tangible benefits to those on the ground. There is incredible work going on right now to rebuild schools, homes, monasteries, transport links & improve sanitation before the cold winter months arrive. The challenges are many but so too are the numbers of people willing to get stuck in. The resilience of the local population remains astounding, but their patience at the lack of official assistance (especially from government) must surely be at breaking point as the winter months loom large.
I have been to Nepal three times over the past 10 years. I’ve had magical, terrifying & humbling experiences in the mountains and the valleys around Kathmandu. I very much want to return and complete my Seven Summits goal in Nepal at some point, but from a high altitude mountaineering standpoint my perception of the current Everest risk is too high and the financial toll of the past two years too great at this moment in time.
I hope trekkers, climbers and tourists do return to Nepal this Autumn to support the local people (especially in the non-tourism villages and regions) and throw light on the amazing work that is going on to help get the country back on its feet. If you are trekking or climbing in Nepal please do so responsibly and with a greater sense of awareness of the new environment you are now operating in. The risk level has changed, adjust accordingly!
There are many great organisations working on the ground in Nepal, including Unicef, Red Cross, Save the Children, Goal, Concern, Oxfam, US Aid and many many more. I have selected four that I know best.