With a heavy heart, I’ve been following the recent catastrophe on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. For anyone unfamiliar, 39 people died when cyclone Hudhud moved north from India into Nepal bringing unprecedented levels of snowfall to the Annapurna region. Trekkers and guides were caught in whiteout conditions — some of them while crossing Thorung La Pass at over 17,000 feet. Within 24 hours, avalanches and hypothermia claimed the lives of dozens of people.
This a harrowing situation, and a painful reminder of the hazards of adventure travel. There is no doubt that each and every person affected by the cyclone had set out on the trip of a lifetime during what was expected to be the absolute best month of the year to experience the Himalayas. Most of them (if not all of them) had probably prepared well in advance of departing on their trek — getting in shape, assembling their gear and preparing for a challenging route through alpine terrain. Most of them probably never expected to be confronted with the storm of a century.
When I say most, I mean most trekkers and most guides. I’m dismayed to see today’s news articles casting blame and pointing fingers at the Nepali guides, implying it was they who were primarily at fault in causing this disaster. To be fair, I wasn’t trekking the Annapurna Circuit when this disaster happened so I will never know exactly what transpired, but I’ve completed two long treks through Nepal’s Khumbu Valley to over 18,200 feet (5,500 meters). On both trips, nothing was more important to my guides and Sherpas than making sure my health was intact, conditions were good and the chances of making it to our next campsite were optimal.
But beyond the level of concern a guide has for a traveler’s safety and welfare is something even more important to all of us adventure travelers: our own responsibility for our own safety and welfare. This is a crucial component of adventure travel that cannot be underestimated. Unfortunately, it’s a component that’s easily compromised when the goal is great and the stakes are high. What if I don’t make it? I came half-way around the world to do this trek. I spent thousands of dollars to be here. This is a trip of a lifetime. I have to get there. I have to keep going.
I was confronted with this type of situation just three weeks ago. I rallied a group of eight friends to travel to Borneo and hike to the top of Mount Kinabalu. I planned the whole trip, collected the funds, arranged the guides and made sure all the details were taken care of. On a cloudy Saturday morning we were all transported from Kota Kinabalu to the base of the mountain to start the hike. We were met with decidedly un-tropical conditions — cold wind and dark skies that felt more like hiking in the Rocky Mountains. We pulled out our cold weather gear and started the climb. Almost immediately I didn’t feel well — I had an upset stomach and I felt like a car running on empty. It was a struggle for me just to get to the mid-way point where we would sleep for a few hours and then rise at 2:00 a.m. to hike to the summit for sunrise. I was exhausted and after dinner my heart was racing, likely a side effect of high altitude even though I grew up and have lived most of my life between 6,000 and 8,000 feet above sea level.
The whole situation was unfamiliar to me. I’ve never had altitude sickness. I’m usually the one racing up the trail and pushing to the summit. As I laid in bed that night at the mid-way point I evaluated the situation. I could get up at 2:00 a.m. and push on with the group (who were all feeling fine), but what if something terrible happened? What if I had a heart attack at 12,000 feet, in the dark of night, on the side of a mountain, with no chance of a swift rescue? It didn’t seem rational to go any further, and that’s when all the irrational thoughts came flooding in. How can I come all this way and not go to the summit? I’m the person who planned this damn trip! If I don’t go I’m a quitter. I’ll hate myself. What if I’m the only person who doesn’t get to the summit? What will everyone else think?
What will everyone else think? These are very powerful words. Words that cause people to make very bad decisions. But in this case I decided that it wasn’t everyone else who mattered. Only I mattered in the decision I needed to make, and I decided I wasn’t comfortable going any further up the mountain. I took responsibility for my own health and safety. Even though it was a difficult decision (let’s face it… it sucked), I did find comfort in having the strength to make it and knowing I had done the best thing for ME.
It was a decision I became more comfortable with when we woke up at 2:00 a.m. and I let my group know I wouldn’t be going any further. They dressed for the hike and were only a few steps from the door when torrential rain engulfed our hut. The guides stopped my group and they were forced to wait for the rain to pass. A few groups had already departed before the rain started so we hoped they were able to take shelter somewhere on the mountain. The rain relented around 6:00 a.m. so my group asked the guides if they could make a late attempt to reach the summit. The guides agreed and my group got within a kilometer of the summit but turned back when the sky unleashed once again and conditions became treacherous. By 8:00 a.m., as I was waiting at the hut for my group to return, the view out the window was staggering. The side of the mountain had turned into a raging river with Class III rapids spilling off the rock face. Thankfully and unbelievably, by 9:00 a.m. everyone had returned safely. I’m eternally grateful for this outcome in the midst of a life-threatening situation.
In reflection on the Annapurna events and my own trip up Kinabalu, I ask myself … can a guide force you to summit or to keep climbing in a situation like this? In my opinion, no — unless perhaps a guide is trying to get you to the summit because the potential for safety is better on the other side, which may have been what happened to some on the Annapurna Circuit. But generally speaking, no guide can force you to put one foot in front of the other. That’s entirely your own decision. On my trek up Kinabalu, my guide was completely supportive of my decision to stay behind and never questioned my judgement. On similar treks in Nepal and Peru, my guides did everything in their power (including carrying an exhausted trekker on the back of a porter) to make sure the people in their care were attended to, feeling okay, and transported to a lower altitude when needed.
It’s important to remember that in adventure travel, conditions can change rapidly — that’s part of the reason we call it adventure travel in the first place. It’s an adventure and there is risk involved, sometimes BIG risk. But I have no doubt that in the conditions that befell the people on the Annapurna Circuit, everyone was doing the very best they could in the extreme situation at hand and being in that situation was never the fault of one individual or one group of people.
As adventure travelers, we need to remember that we have a choice about moving ahead with the journeys we plan. When conditions become challenging or when our intuition tells us that the danger of continuing outweighs the disappointment of staying behind, we need to be okay with stopping or changing course. We need to understand before we even set out that not every adventure will end with success. We need to take responsibility for our own health and safety, make our own choices and accept that sometimes it’s in our own best interest to let go of the adventure.