A trek is not just a geographical displacement; it is always a change in consciousness. Here is where it started, in Dhulikhel, just outside the main urban area of Kathmandu, in the early morning haze.
The discussion of this haze, as part of a massive bank of pollution from the North Indian plain and how it had invaded the air space all the way to the border with China, and how you had to climb to about 3800m to get completely out of the sea of particles, was part of the discovery.
Knowing that we would walk over the site of the destruction of Langtang village in the 2015 earthquake, we reminisced about another disaster in recent years, the October 2014 snowstorm on the Annapurna range. In the peak trekking season, when the monsoon is over and the weather is usually dry and sunny but not yet too cold, trekkers flock to the Annapurna circuit, with its high pass, the Thorung La (5415m). The snowstorm was caused by a tropical cyclone which formed in the Andaman Sea and progressed over the Bay of Bengal gaining in intensity. It moved in a north westerly direction towards Nepal. It was recognised and expected in India, but there does not seem to have been any early warning system in Nepal for trekkers in the way of the storm.
I used to check satellite photos of the Indian subcontinent published by the meteorological office in Britain. I distinctly remember observing the very pronounced depression (Cyclone Hudud) and seeing it track into India. It was clear that it would go on towards Nepal and only be drained of its energy on the sheer walls of the Himalayas, but at what cost?
Sitting in a comfortable room (at that moment I was working in Cajamarca, Peru) I could have sent a message to Nepal. I could see the storm making its unexpected journey to the mountains. I did recall that there can be very late storms in October or November. I remembered that the Arabian Sea or the Bay of Bengal can produce these spontaneous tempests at almost any time in the year, certainly outside the monsoon. Probably one assumed there could be a warning from the Nepali authorities.
Unlike an earthquake, you can predict the weather at least three days in advance with some certainty, but there was no awareness nor communication with the Annapurna area, and the trekkers became trapped in conditions which saw almost two metres of snow arrive suddenly at a time of year when this is not at all expected. At least 43 people died.
Madhu and Bishnu have a nephew, Anish, who was a porter on the Annapurna trek during the storm. Somehow he got over the Thorung La, arriving at Muktinath with his group very late at 9.00 pm. But one of the porters did not survive. The intensity of the storm was local. Canadian friends of Madhu and Bishnu were in Langtang at the time, where the only signs of the storm were snow flurries and wind.
Another area that has seen avalanches after unseasonal snow is the upper part of the Annapurna Base Camp trek. On an earlier trek here, we came across a former trekking guide sitting on a wall, crutches beside him, with a tin for donations. Both his legs had been amputated below the knee after he had been trapped in such an avalanche. The cause was an unseasonal November snowfall resulting from one of those sudden storms funnelling up from the Bay of Bengal. Madhu mentioned that in the last month there had again been fatalities on the ABC trek, again due to the unforeseen instantaneous avalanches from above the sheer enclosing cliffs on the trail.
Risk management is a concept used to control the effects of unfortunate events. In the context of these disasters, some measures can certainly be applied to mitigate earthquakes, and the sudden onslaught of bad weather. But a more insidious danger is breathing polluted air, especially for the developing brains of young children, and for the accumulated effect on adult lungs.
We started the trek in Dhulikhel, where a series of hotels has been built on a ridge facing the long mountain chain of the Himalayas, to celebrate one of the greatest views in the world. But now, in the viewing season after the monsoon, the air is never as clear as it used to be, the local Kathmandu valley pollution being amplified by the North Indian pollution. The mountains often remain obscured. Nepal is at the mercy of its larger neighbour in this respect, and this is now being recognised and documented.
At present the pot cannot call the kettle black, unless Kathmandu becomes irreproachable and stainless in the matter of its air purity.