Danger and beauty in the Himalayas

Dhanbader brought a miraculously small daypack containing all that he would need for our nine day trek to Annapurna Base Camp. He was prepared to carry my backpack, but I had been sure to pack no more than I could carry myself. Half impressed, half lost in comprehending my independence, he allowed me to carry my own luggage. Dhan was my Nepalese guide. He had lost sight in his left eye during an exceptionally bright and treacherous snow trek 22 years ago and had survived many a bigger adventure than me.

As we ascended into the mountains, green valleys and small towns surrounded by little vegetable farms welcomed us. People in colorful clothing and typical Nepalese woolen beanies looked at us without much interest. Local school children swiftly surpassed us. Dhan was having a rather casual stroll up the gigantic mountain range that we call the Himalayas. I felt like I was slowing him down a lot.

Every now and again we stepped aside to allow for a row of donkeys or horses to pass on the narrow path. In the rhododendron forest, with trees distinguished by pink and red flowers, Dhan showed me how to drink nectar from the flowers. “Local medicine”, he explained, “very good for throat”.

After two days of hiking we reached Poon Hill. From this point onwards the trek was already worth it. With its 3.200 meters, Poon Hill can be considered a hill next to the Himalayas, of which many reach up to 8.000 meters. Buddhist prayer flags were playing in the wind. To the Nepalese a beautiful place is a sacred place. Outstretched before us we saw the Annapurna mountain range: our destination. Straight ahead we could see the proud tops of Machhapuchchhre Himal: a 7.000 meter two-topped holy mountain that is nicknamed Fishtail. Those who climb it are said to never return. On the left side behind it we saw Annapurna III, which was the mountain were to hike to and to partly climb to reach Base Camp. 

Over the next three days we did not gain any height. Though we hiked up and down many hundreds of meters every day, we always made it back to around 3.200 meters at night. Every town we passed seemed to have its own beliefs and superstitions. In one town we were not allowed to eat meat, in another it was forbidden to play music and yet another town allowed no fire.

In the evenings Nepalese guides and foreign trekkers mixed for a bit. Stories were shared and laughter was heard. Yet at night we slept in different dorms. During the freezing nights I slept in my sleeping bag and under multiple woolen blankets. I needed badly those blankets badly, including my woolen hat, socks, gloves and jacket. But I noticed that the guides’ dorms at times didn’t offer a single blanket. It disturbed me. But every time I mentioned it or proposed to divide the blankets between us, Dhan avoided the subject. This was uncharacteristic for his normal enthusiasm.

Some time on the fifth day we reached a centimeter of snow. First we were excited, but trekkers who were coming down told us that the snow was “pretty bad up there”. One trekker told us about a group that had lost three of its members in an avalanche. Unsure of what we would find, we continued hiking up through the thin layer of snow, until we reached the town of Deurali. Again situated at 3.200 meters.

In Deurali, horror stories about avalanches kept reaching us. Time-wise we could make it to Machhapuchchhre Base Camp (MBC) at 3.900 meters that day. This would be a two hour hike from Deurali and then another two hours until we would reach Annapurna Base Camp at 4130 meters, our final destination. But because of the accumulating snow and horror stories, we decided to spend the night in Deurali.

It kept on snowing that evening. It was starting to get very cold. A heater was placed under the table in our guest house. With a group of Chinese people and their Nepalese guide, we huddled up around this heater. It was the Chinese guide’s birthday and the Chinese spoiled him and us with food. Apparently food sharing is a traditional birthday thing to do in China. They told us they’d attempted to hike from Deurali to MBC that afternoon, but had been forced to return. A video showed how their sight had suddenly been blocked by a grey cloud coming from the valley at high speed. Another video showed us an avalanche on the other side of the valley. People were screaming in the background. The group had concluded that it was way too dangerous to hike any further. They had decided to descend the next day.

Five trekkers were missing by now, a topic causing grave silence between us whenever it came up. By now we had learned that the track between Deurali and MBC is the biggest avalanche danger zone of Nepal, of which I’d had no idea and neither had my guide book. That evening the guide of the Chinese received a phone call, saying that the people at both Machhapuchchhre and Annapurna base camp were stuck there.

Dhanbader is a combined name of the word ‘strength’ and ‘rice’. Dhan knows the mountains very well. He was not giving up yet and said we’d see what the path would look like in the morning. So the next morning at 6 AM we were ready. Dhan told us that walking in an avalanche danger zone is best done before 8 AM, when the sun hasn’t sufficiently warmed up the snow in order for it to melt and fall down. I wondered whether we shouldn’t consider not walking in an avalanche danger zone at all. But at that time the snowfall returned and even Dhan had to admit defeat.

One centimeter of snow had become twenty centimeters overnight. I felt no disappointment. I was lucky. Those five people who were missing, was someone even looking for them? No helicopter could fly in this weather. As for us: we could neither proceed nor walk down. So we sat around the table again with the Chinese. But this time without the heater. There was tension in the room. I read a book and drank hot chocolate to warm myself up.

Fortunately only a few hours later the snowfall decreased. We seized our chance and began a fast descend. Dhan and I jumped through the fresh snow and surpassed people who were walking very carefully. Only once I fell on the slippery path. Dhan walked back to me and commented worriedly: “also avalanche danger zone”, while pointing at the open areas in between the trees up the mountain slope. I started to recognize them now and realized the danger. He wanted us to get out of there as soon as possible. I noticed that there now was snow on much lower altitudes than the day before. Many hours passed before the snowfall around us turned to rain. Taking few breaks, we continued hiking down in the rain all day. In the evening we reached the first perceived safe town of Chomrong.

We checked into a guest house to find more trekkers there who had stranded in Chomrong on their way up or down. Dhan estimated it wouldn’t be possible to hike up for the next three weeks. On our second day in Chomrong the sky cleared up and three helicopers flew in. They managed to rescue the people who had been stuck in the base camps. Some people were dropped off in Chomrong, others were taken to hospitals in Pokhara and Kathmandu. We learned that the path on which we had walked down only two days before, had been hit by a few avalanches and was no longer accessible. Five people had died in the avalanches. Another person had died from high altitude sickness when she had reached base camp.

Because the rain had stopped, we decided to pack our wet bags and continue our descend. We walked for another eight hours, leaving the sound of helicopters far behind us. This is when Dhan pointed out the difference in rescue operations for tourists and local people. For a tourist a helicopter rescue is always arranged and is often covered by insurance. But the Nepalese guides, sherpas and inhabitants of the mountain villages had no way of affording a helicopter rescue when being hit by an avalanche or getting stuck because of one. Neighboring towns first had to collect money in order to send a search helicopter. The risk that the Nepalese took in the Himalayas was of a different level than my own. I had not been quite aware of that.

Trekking in the Himalayas was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. Yet I learned how ill prepared we can enter some areas as a tourist. We don’t realize how little we know about potential hazards in an area unfamiliar to us. And this was not the last time that I would learn this lesson in Nepal. Increased tourism makes more places easily accessible, which brings new opportunities as well as risks for tourists and local people alike. It is important to be aware of this while enjoying the beauty of our world.

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