Latest news from the Himalaya and Karakoram

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Mountain Company statement on Cyclone Hudhud and its impact on trekking in the Himalaya (October 2014)

Photo: satellite image of Cyclone Hudhud hitting the Himalaya on October 14th
As has now been widely reported in the media Tropical Cyclone Hudhud moved north through India and into the Himalaya on October 14th causing large amounts of snowfall and very high winds. This sadly resulted in at least 39 trekkers dying from avalanches and cold exposure in the Himalayan mountains of Nepal. For more information please take a look at Wikipedia page 2014 Nepal Snowstorm disaster 

Cyclone Hudhud made landfall in Andhra Pradesh (India) in the early hours of October 12th. Luckily on October 11th our support team at The Mountain Company heard about the cyclone being reported in Indian news and then started seriously tracking the cyclone and checking detailed weather forecasts. It became apparent on October 12th Cyclone Hudhud was heading towards the Himalaya and would cause severe weather.

Photo: satellite image of Cyclone Hudhud making landfall in India on October 12th
During this period I was trekking in the Makalu region of Nepal and received this disturbing information from our team by satellite phone. On October 12th I was informed that Cyclone Hudhud was likely to result in large amounts of snow with the following snowfall amounts predicted in Nepal: Manaslu region up to 128cm snow, Annapurna region up to 125cm and Dhaulagiri region up to 109cm. These areas are in the central part of Nepal and include the most popular treks in Nepal.

As The Mountain Company had groups trekking on the Annapurna Circuit, Manaslu Circuit and Dhaulagiri Circuit during this period, we started the process of informing our groups of the approaching cyclone. For our more remote trekking groups where there is no local cell/ mobile phone communications, we send a satellite phone (Thuraya system) so I got in contact with the leaders of these groups. I was supported by our team in Kathmandu who did a great job of communicating weather updates to the groups and discussing future plans. Luckily we knew from reviewing the itineraries that none of our groups were scheduled to cross high passes or camp at extreme altitude above 5,000m on October 14th.

During the storm on October 15th we tried to contact all of our trekking groups in Nepal and Bhutan to find out their situation reports and obtain information on the actual amount of snow that had fallen compared to the weather forecasts. Unfortunately the Thuraya satellite phone system went down for an extended period of time from 7pm on October 14th until noon on October 15th, I assume this was due to congestion on the network as a result of high usage during the storm. This is unusual as Thuraya is no doubt the best satellite system for use in remote Himalayan region and is usually very reliable.

This technical glitch with Thuraya resulted in a short delay in getting information back to Edward manning the hot seat in our office London as by that time the media had already broken the story (eg BBC article: Nepal blizzards and avalanches claim many lives). We decided not to confirm publically that all of our groups were accounted for until we had heard back from all of our leaders that their groups were fine and well. As soon as these confirmations were received Edward and Helen updated The Mountain Company’s Facebook group as well as replying to as many emails as possible and handling a high volume of calls from concerned family and friends. The update reported on our Facebook group on October 15th was as follows:

TMC news from Nepal following the last few days of terrible weather: "all of our groups are fortunately safe". Some groups will have to change their itineraries or descend due to high levels of snow and poor conditions, but the good news is that everyone is ok.

October is the busiest month for trekking in Nepal. Normal conditions experienced at this time of year are sunny and stable weather following the summer monsoon rains. This year the monsoon wound down quite early around September 24th and there was sunny weather for several weeks throughout Nepal and Bhutan.  A cyclone in the post monsoon season is relatively rare however by chance Cyclone Phailin also hit the Himalaya around the same date last year. 

In October 2013 Cyclone Phailin approached the Himalaya towards the east of Nepal and into Bhutan, in fact I was trekking with a group on section One of The Great Himalaya Trail from Kanchenjunga to Makalu Base Camp at the time and we experienced heavy rain (as we were at a lower altitude) however there was over one metre of snowfall at Kanchenjunga Base Camp: to read our trip report on TMC blog.

However the impact on trekking groups from Cyclone Phailin was far less serious to trekkers as the regions in the east of Nepal and Bhutan are less accessible with far fewer numbers compared to the popular Annapurna Circuit. I gather before Cyclone Phailin in 2013 the last significant cyclone to cause similar problems and fatalities with trekkers was back in 1986 so these tropical storms are still relatively rare occurrences in the Himalaya.

Photo: Roland and friend on Thorong La in sunnier weather in 2005
Since getting back to Kathmandu I have read numerous reports of the groups crossing Thorung La pass on Annapurna Circuit during October 14th, I will certainly not speculate on what happened as only the survivors can tell the full story of the sad sequence of events. However it must have been a horrifying experience for those involved to have make a decision whether to stay in the tea shop at summit of Thorung La or descend down to Muktinath in a white out snow storm.

Of course if they stayed at the teashop on Thorung La they might get cold exposure leading to hypothermia especially if inadequately equipped with warm clothes as well as facing the possible risk of getting severe altitude sickness. Also given the amount of snow falling it is likely they might be snowed in for several days and risk descending on heavily snow laden slopes prone to avalanche (or wait for a helicopter rescue). It looks like also there may not have been sufficient space for everyone to stay in the tea shop as you can see from photo below it is a rather small building.

Photo: Thorung La tea shop (where many trekkers took shelter on October 14th)
Photo: Thorung La tea shop (where many trekkers took shelter on October 14th)
The one question everyone is talking about in Kathmandu is why Cyclone Huddud was not picked up by the relevant government authorities in Nepal and severe weather warnings communicated to trekkers planning to cross these high passes on October 14th? Trekkers pay for their trip around the Annapurna Circuit, both for the Annapurna Conservation Area Permit (ACAP) for access to the National Park and also a fee of US$20 paid for the trekking permits (TIMS). I wonder where all of these fees go? I am sure very little is actually used in practice to enhance trekking safety and security...

As discussed in this blog, the weather forecasts on October 12th indicated the cyclone would impact the Himalaya region including Nepal. Hopefully new procedures will be implemented in Nepal as a result from this disaster to prevent future incidents like this one happening again. It would certainly be a good idea to install a radio communication network (or satellite phones) in the high lodges of Nepal for early warning and communication of weather reports to groups before they cross high mountain passes.

Or until this system is in place trekkers should ensure they have some means of communication such as via satellite phone in more remote areas in order in order to access weather forecasts widely available on the internet such as Mountain Forecast for Greater Himalaya with regional forecasts too.

My thoughts are with the family of the trekkers, Nepalese guides and porters that died in the bad weather following cyclone Hudhud and would like to express my deepest sympathy.

If you are booked on trip later in Autumn with us then our current advice is to travel as usual however we will be in touch if there are any changes. Please get in contact with us on email or through our at www.themountaincompany.co.uk if you have any questions or require further information on your upcoming trip.

Roland Hunter

1 comment:

joperdu said...

Carefully put Roland. TMC definitely had some robust and efficient support... and the mountain experience to use the information well.
And I'm sure your sympathies also extend to the families of the local people lost supporting the trekkers. And to those lost in Naar and Phu.
Thanks

The Mountain Company