The Khumbu Valley, Nepal

The Khumbu Valley, Nepal

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.

The thrill of victory, at the base of Mount Everest

The thrill of victory, at the base of Mount Everest

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 agony of defeat, on the trail to Kinabalu

The agony of defeat, on the trail to Kinabalu

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.

19 comments

  1. Well said. Last year I went to Indonesia’s second tallest volcano which some described even harder than Kilimanjaro. On my first day I had terrible cramps and overall I was not really in a good condition. The day when we were supposed to summit, I only reached two third of the path toward the top because I knew if I pushed myself further I would only cause trouble for others. Some people said it was a stupid decision, but some thought otherwise. For me, I believe it was the right decision to make given the circumstances I was dealing with.

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    1. Bama, what a great comment. Thanks for sharing your experience. You definitely made the right decision even though other people may not have understood the reasons. I’m curious about the volcano you tried to climb. Sounds epic! I’m happy you returned safely and made the best decision for yourself at the time. Thanks for reading my blog! ๐Ÿ™‚

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  2. Personal responsibility in any adventure travel must be a core tenant. So often people are so focused on make “the” trek that they never think or plan for the unknowns. I’m a big believer in the chaos theory. I never set out without a plan and a back up plan. AND I never abdicate my responsibility or safety to anyone else but myself. I would offer its better to work with your guide(s) as a team, relying on their expertise, and knowledge in a given environment โ€” working together โ€” with safety first even when conditions prove difficult and circumstances tiring. Like me they also have love ones they want to see again.

    Great piece, insightful, truthful. Kelly, may I also suggest, please consider submitting this post to the NY Times as a personal insight piece. Stay safe…rite

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    1. Rita! Always great to hear from you. Ah, the chaos theory. Love your comment, and totally agree that people need to work as a team and guides always have invaluable knowledge to share about the surrounding environment. The guides on Kinabalu had an uncanny sense of how the weather would unfold during those morning hours and how extreme it would likely get. They certainly were not the ones hoping or trying to get to the top. So, how the heck do I submit to the NY Times??? Wow, I’m flattered by the suggestion, and tempted by the opportunity! Help me, Rita! Thanks for reading, writing and always having thoughtful things to share. Hope you’re doing well and life is good! xoxo, K.

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  3. It saddens me that the guides are being blamed for the Annapurna deaths. I’m sure they would have done all in their power to try to keep people safe, but the circumstances where clearly extremely unusual. I doubt anyone could have seen it coming.
    And sometimes it really is the right decision to say you can’t continue like you did.
    Alison

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  4. It is important to remember that life can take a turn at any place and moment: it can be on an adventure far away or in one’s hometown. Every year after a tragic accident in the Himalayas, the incident sadly seems to devolve into an angry blame-game.

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    1. Hey Bespoke Traveler! Thanks for your comment — so true! Things happen everywhere, and not just while traveling. I agree, the blame-game is lame and never results in anything but negative feelings which is why I felt compelled to speak out. Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  5. Working in the adventure travel industry, I’m really shocked by the disaster on the Annapurna Circuit. It has been a terrible year for trekking and mountaineering in Nepal, especially with the avalanche on the Khumbu Icefall back in April. And if you look at the wider Himalayan region we’ve also seen extreme flooding in Kashmir. It makes you think about the impact of climate change… rising temperatures mean melting glaciers, erratic weather patterns and stronger tropical storms.

    But yes, to paraphrase an expression from Spiderman, with great risk comes great responsibility. It is so important to know where your limits lie – if we aren’t careful our egos can easily suppress the needs of our bodies. I’m glad you had the wisdom to stay at the halfway hut on Kinabalu.

    I was Bama’s trekking buddy on that Indonesian volcano (Mt. Rinjani) and it was the toughest trip either of us had ever done. I don’t think you could compare it to the EBC trek but those three days were very, very intense! The worst was the second day: it started at 2:00am for a summit ascent, and then a long slog down towards the crater lake before climbing back up the other side of the rim. So you go from 8,500 to 12,200 feet, down to 6,500 and then stopping at 8,500 feet for camp, all in the space of just 15 hours.

    In short, it was painful but extremely rewarding. I think you would enjoy it. ๐Ÿ™‚

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    1. Wow, I had no idea Rinjani was that difficult! I’ve been to Lombok but didn’t climb Rinjani. I did climb Gunung Agung on Bali, but that was a piece of cake compared to all the up and down you described. I think that’s the hardest part of trekking in this region — the slopes (volcanoes) are STEEP and it often feels like climbing a staircase, not hiking a trail. EBC was a nice gradual trail the whole way, with the exception of the uphill to Namche Bazaar. Not that difficult as far as terrain, but the altitude can totally get you if you move too fast. Have you done Sri Pada/Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka? That’s another killer — over 5,000 steps in just a couple of hours to the top.
      Totally agree with your thoughts on climate change. We all need to be more aware of extreme weather. I keep wondering when Singapore is going to succumb to cyclones and super storms like the rest of the region. It’s pretty tame here (although very hot) compared to other places like Philippines, Japan, India, etc.
      Hope you’re enjoying your day, wherever you are in the world! ๐Ÿ™‚

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  6. Hello Kelly.
    Joy here from Tahoe (Martis).
    The lessons we can learn!
    Merle and I did one adventure climb, Mt Ranier. I too felt uncomfortable for the final 300 feet. Merle went up for us both. It was lovely to see that you and your Mother “talk” across the miles. Best to you. Joy

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    1. JOY! It is such a JOY to hear from you! How’s life in Tahoe? I hear fall has been incredible this year. Won’t be long until winter!! Wow, you climbed Ranier?!?! That’s a VERY tough mountain, as you know. J has attempted to climb it (unsuccessfully) a couple times. So wise of you to stop when you felt uncomfortable — exactly the kind of situation where you have to listen to yourself, and only yourself. So awesome that Merle got to the summit for both of you. I’d love to hear the story sometime. I’ll be back in Tahoe in January. Hope I get to see you and all the light you shine into the world. Thanks for saying hello! xo, K. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  7. What an experience, Kelly! I’m so glad that you and your friends are ok. You’re right, it’s hard to be the one that speaks up, but no one but you knows your body and how it feels. Great decision and I applaud you. All the best, Terri

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  8. So many good points and observations here. I, too, have nothing but praise for the guides on my treks and I think my hiking mates and I have made pretty good decisions over the years. The “what will everyone else think” is one piece I have to fight against, along with an innately (insanely?!) competitive spirit that does not want to back down or quit in the face of ANY difficulty! I think wisdom has come with age and experience, though, and just last fall, we turned around in the Rockies when my husband seemed to be uncharacteristically and suddenly affected by the altitude. Mother Nature has powers that I never will, and I’ve learned to respect her!

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