Since the April 2015 earthquake our Langtang Ri Trekking agency here in Kathmandu has received many emails from people all over the world inquiring whether it is once again safe to trek in Nepal.
For intending trekkers we always point out that there are a number of safety and risk factors that need to be appreciated and planned for before venturing into the remote and high altitude trekking trails of the Himalaya Mountains. With over 25 years of experience guiding clients through every valley and along every trekking trail in Nepal we know what can go wrong and we know how to plan for and minimise the risks. Normally we tell clients there are three main sets of risks, but since April 2015 we’ve also had to add earthquake factors to the list. So here is our list of risks:
- Earthquake Issues
- Altitude Sickness
- Health Risks
- Unaccompanied Trekking Risks
Earthquake Issues and Risks
Yes, there was an Earthquake and a number of after-shocks in Nepal in April and May 2015. So what is the risk of another major earthquake occurring in 2016 and the near future – seismologists suggest the risk is very small. A major earthquake event in Nepal occurs about every 80 to 100 years – as recorded in the historic records of Nepal’s kings and princes that go back in time nearly a thousand years. So the risk of injury, or worse, in 2016 from another major earthquake hitting Nepal is so slight it should probably be the least of your concerns about safe trekking in Nepal.
Yes, there was damage to trekking infrastructure and accommodation from the 2015 earthquake. However, the main damage was focused on regions directly to the north and somewhat to the west and east of Kathmandu. So some of these regions are still recovering and all the facilities that trekkers may expect are not yet back to pre-earthquake conditions. The Langtang Valley was the hardest hit region and currently remains closed to trekking. We also suggest clients avoid other regions to the north and east of Kathmandu, such as the upper-Helambu and Rasuwa regions until repairs to trekking trails, accommodation, water, fuel and power infrastructure are further progressed.
However, the most popular trekking regions of Nepal suffered very little damage from the 2015 earthquake. The Annapurna Base Camp and Annapurna Circuit trails are located well to the west of the earthquake epicenter and so very little damage of any significance occurred on these famous trails. All the bridges are undamaged and damage to buildings was minimal. Treks on these Annapurna trails have continued throughout 2015 with no impact on the safety or comfort of visitors.
Further to the west the trekking regions of Upper Mustang, Mount Dhaulagiri and Dolpo were even less affected and have continued to welcome visitors just as in previous years.
To the east of Kathmandu the Mount Everest region and Sagarmatha National Park remain the premier trekking destination in Nepal. While some damage to buildings occurred in this region the implications for trekking are minimal. Repairs were swift and all trekking trails are open and there is, as always, an abundance of good accommodation available all along the main trails to Gokyo Lakes and Everest Base Camp. So trekking in the Everest region has been interrupted far more by inaccurate journalist reporting than it ever was by the earthquake itself.
So in summary, Langtang Ri just recommends intending trekkers discuss their itinerary plans with us before locking anything in and avoid trekking in the earthquake affected regions to the north of Kathmandu at least for 2016. But we will monitor this situation and the reconstruction progress. All other regions of Nepal are completely open and ready for visitors right now. Our advice is that 2015 earthquake issues should probably be the least of your safety concerns provided you head for the right regions of Nepal.
Altitude Sickness Risks
There are plenty of websites, blogs and YouTube videos around that clearly spell out the dangers of altitude sickness when trekking the Himalaya Mountains. So we won’t repeat the basic explanation of symptoms and responses here. However, a key altitude sickness risk factor we keep seeing again and again every year is unaccompanied trekking – or trekking without a trained local guide.
Nepali trekking guides must complete a designated training program and be certified before they are permitted to lead trekking groups. A key component of the training is on the topic of physical and medical safety, in particular how to recognise, minimise and respond to symptoms of altitude sickness.
Few international trekking visitors to Nepal have every trekked at altitudes as high as is commonly encountered in Nepal. So few visitors have any real knowledge or experience of altitude sickness and how to plan a trekking itinerary or monitor their personal physiology to minimise the risks – and the risk can very serious. So altitude sickness is not something to be blasé about.
Every year our guides find solo and small-group trekkers who are suffering varying stages of altitude sickness but choose to “battle bravely on” at huge risk to themselves and their trek companions. Just because you don’t understand something does not mean it can’t kill you – in Nepal such attitudes can end badly.
So Langtang Ri always strongly advises trekkers to trek with a properly trained and certified guide to accompany them. And utilising porters to help lighten the pack load is also highly recommended – the less you puff and strain the higher you can safely go.
So the number-one way to minimise the risks of altitude sickness is to trek with a guide. Your guide will always be alert to the early warning signs and know exactly how to help you if they arise. If you trek on your own, you are on your own – period.
Other Health Risks
Altitude sickness aside, there are lots of other ill-health ways for a trek to go badly – take the wrong clothing, make a few blisters, sprain an ankle, pull a muscle, drink some bad water, suffer dehydration, get a little too cold are just a few options to contemplate.
When you are five or seven days walk from the nearest road or air transport even an issue as “minor” as blistered feet can become serious. If you are new to trekking the trails of Nepal’s high Himalaya you may be expecting trekking to be something similar to the camping you did as a kid, only this time you’ll get to stay each night in nice warm tea houses, “right”. Not quite.
If you are trekking without a guide, what is your plan if any of these “minor” health issues arise? How will you know what water is safe to drink and how best to treat at-risk water? When you reach a village how will you know which tea house has the best hygiene and safest food? If you trek on your own, how will you get back to Lukla airport or descend from Upper Mustang if you pull a hamstring or roll an ankle? You may have been wise and purchased travel insurance, but when you are on your own in a remote trekking village your policy number will do little for you. On your own is on your own.
Once again, the Langtang Ri advice is to trek with a trained and certified guide. He or she has done the first-aid training and cared for the welfare of injured or incapacitated clients (ever tried trekking with Delhi-belly?) many times over more treks than you will ever do. The professionalism and care of a trained guide can turn a walk in the mountains into a safe, enjoyable and memorable Himalayan experience.
Unaccompanied Trekking Risks
If you decide to trek the high-volume trails of Everest or Annapurna without a guide you really should not get lost – but sadly every year some still manage it. But it is very common for unaccompanied trekkers to make other simple mistakes such as:
- not carrying appropriate wet or cold weather clothing
- carry too much weight of unessential “stuff”
- walking too fast and gaining altitude too fast
- not reading maps properly and setting off for a village with insufficient daylight left
- not planning ahead and finding only bad or no accommodation available in a village
- taking the trekking advice of people who know even less than you do.
What you don’t know can hurt you. As a result there are a number of regions in Nepal, such as Dolpo, Upper Mustang and Kanchenjunga where trekkers are not allowed to trek without an accompanying certified guide. The risks multiply if you head into the more remote regions of Nepal – but even on the trails of Everest bad and stupid things happen. But such issues could have been easily avoided with some experienced and professional advice.
How to Trek Safely in Nepal
So you should have spotted our message by now – stay safe by trekking with a trained and certified guide. Trekking agencies and their trained office and field personnel have a wealth of experience on how to help Himalayan visitors enjoy every moment of their journey and return home safely to tell their friends all about it.
But you should still buy your travel insurance too – just in case. If altitude sickness or disaster does strike it will be your professional and experienced guide that will know exactly who to call to get you to safety. Do you know the cell phone number for a high altitude helicopter rescue? Well your guide and trekking agency does. And your trekking agency also knows just how to deal with your travel insurer too.
Trekking safely in Nepal is the only way with Langtang Ri. Come visit Nepal in 2016 and stay safe.