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Saturday, 3 October 2015

Key findings of The Mountain Co's post-earthquake recce trek to Everest region in September 2015

On September 15th I flew into Lukla with one of The Mountain Co guides, Pasang “Zarok” Sherpa, to carry out a post-earthquake recce trek in the Everest region of Nepal. As I am sure you aware on April 25th and May 12th 2015 there were two large earthquakes in Nepal and since then many aftershocks have caused damage in several trekking regions including Everest.

Photo: Roland at Everest Base Camp on September 24th
As part of our own internal risk assessment at The Mountain Co we decided to visually inspect the trail to Everest Base Camp and Gokyo and also the lodges before our groups arrive to Nepal for the Autumn season. I am writing this blog article to share my findings with anyone interested in coming to Nepal this Autumn season as there seems to be a lack of current information on the condition of Upper Khumbu/ Everest region. Hopefully our key findings in this article will be helpful and give confidence to trekkers considering coming out to Nepal to support the recovery of post earthquake tourism. During this recce trek I used social media to record our findings and to post photos, please take a look at The Mountain Company Facebook group.

Our comprehensive recce trek took 15 days and my route followed the classic Everest Base Camp trail through Namche Bazaar, Tengboche/ Deboche, Pangboche, Pheriche, Lobuche and up to Gorakshep for Everest Base Camp and Kalapatar. I also walked up to Thame from Namche Bazaar and up to Ama Dablam Base Camp from Pangboche. After Everest Base Camp we walked the low trail into Gokyo via Phortse and Na then climbed Gokyo Ri. After Gokyo we walked down valley through Machermo and Dole over Mong La to spend one night in Khumjung before walking back down to Lukla. To see our route please take a look at our GPS map on Spot Adventures website.

As a basis for planning this recce trek inspection I used the report from Miyamoto (earthquake and structural engineers) “Damage assessment of Everest region in Nepal” dated July 15th 2015. We decided to carry out this trek in late September as at this time of year the monsoon rains start to decrease. After an earthquake there will always be an increased risk of landslides especially during the monsoon due to the ground being loosened by the shaking and vibrations. By going on our recce trek in September we inspected the region for any further trail damage post publication of Miyamoto report and to check the condition before The Mountain Co groups arrive in early October.

Key findings: trail conditions
Overall the trail to Everest Base Camp and Gokyto was in pretty good shape and during our trek we had no issues with completing our itinerary. Where the trail had been damaged by the earthquake in most places had already been fixed or there were teams working hard to repair. In my view the objective risk has not increased significantly since the earthquake, there is always a risk of rockfall and landslides in the mountainous areas of Nepal especially during the rainy monsoon season from June through to September.

Photo: trail repairs are ongoing
Photo: crews working hard to get the trail repaired for Autumn season
As highlighted in Miyamoto report there are several sections of the trail with new rockfall or landslide risk as a result of the earthquake, these are as follows:

- near Tok Tok a section of the trail has been damaged by a landslide below the waterfall and this debris is now partially blocking the Dudh Khosi river. There always has been rockfall risk around Tok Tok and Bengkar as the valley is narrow here and there are cliffs high above these settlements. As you can see in photo below one house was destroyed by a large boulder falling from above. I heard some talk about relocating the trail onto other side of the valley in the near future however this has not yet been confirmed. We advise our groups walking through Tok Tok and Bengkar to keep moving and minimise breaks in this area and certainly not stop at lodge here for meals or sleep overnight.
Photo: landslide at Tok Tok into Dudh Khosi river
Photo: landslide at Tok Tok
Photo: local house in Bengkar destroyed by a large boulder
- above Namche on the low trail to Everest Base Camp, as you pass the Tenzing memorial there is an area with fractured rock zones above the trail. There is certainly rockfall risk here however if you are aware of this and do not stop below then the risk is quite low. Also the fractured rock is 200m+ above the trail so there should be time to move out the way if there is any rockfall.

Photo: rockfall area above Namche past Tenzing memorial
- there are several smaller sections on trail from Namche to Tashinga that have slipped however the trail is still passable and in one place just passed Sanasa has already been repaired. There is a large landslide newly formed during the monsoon directly below the trail shortly after Tenzing memorial however this is unlikely to affect the path.
Photo: there are a number of smaller landslides on Everest trail although still possible for trekking groups to pass 
- in my view the section of trail with highest risk is on the path to new bridge after Deboche, I gather the older bridge was damaged several years ago and new one was built 300m further upstream. On the approach to new bridge one passes under three landslides above the trail. These landslides are examples of natural hazards on Everest Base Camp trail that were in existence since before the earthquake in Spring.
Photo: trail to new bridge below Deboche
- trail from Gorakshep to Everest Base Camp has changed slightly in two places, firstly in moraine before Gorakshep the path now crosses a new bridge further 30 metres upstream. Secondly after Gorakshep in one place the trail follows below the lateral moraine for 200m whereas before was safer following on top of the moraine. 
Photo: walking to Everest Base Camp on lateral moraine
Key findings: lodges and guesthouses
During our Everest recce trek we inspected the lodges and guesthouses used by The Mountain Co and all of these places are now in suitable condition for use by our groups in Autumn season. Several of these lodges were badly damaged after the earthquake especially in Monjo, Thame, Tashinga, Phortse and Pheriche however the owners have worked hard to repair over the summer in order to be ready for Autumn season. The lodge owners and companies like Everest Summit Lodge have employed large number of workers from outside the Khumbu to help with the reconstruction.

Photo: having tea outside rebuilt Tashinga lodge owned by Everest Summit Lodge
Of course the focus has been on reconstruction of the lodges and guesthouses for Autumn season however there is still alot of work to be done to rebuild local houses. Due to the vast amount of rebuilding required workers are in short supply and their daily rates are increasing. 

It was encouraging to see throughout the Khumbu there were many solid, winterised tents provided by German Red Cross so everyone at least has shelter from the elements. I also saw in some villages "Relief houses" donated by Himalayan Trust, these are small houses made of corrugated steel and wood and look much better than living in tents. It is good to see relief supplies have been distributed throughout the Khumbu by charities and NGOs.

Photo: "relief house" donated by Himalayan Trust
Photo: "relief house" donated by Himalayan Trust
Photo: tents donated by German Red Cross
We noticed the construction methods are changing post earthquake with many of the rebuilt houses now made from corrugated steel and wood rather than stone blocks. Often the base of the house up to about half a metre is still in stone then the rest of the walls are in steel and wood. These houses should have higher earthquake resistance and be safer for people living inside compared to the traditional stone walls and roof.

Photo: reconstructed houses and lodges using more metal and wood materials
Overall conclusions
Sherpas of the Everest region have worked very hard over the summer to rebuild lodges and repair the walking trails to be ready for the Autumn season starting in early October. Yes there are sections of the trail to Everest Base Camp with risk of rockfall however I do not believe this is significantly higher post earthquake as there always has been objective risk of travelling in the high mountains. As discussed the section of trail to new bridge below Deboche built several years ago probably has highest risk of rockfall. As we move into the post monsoon season there should be lower amounts of precipitation and as a result the risk of further landslides and rockfall should decrease.

Following our recce trek to Everest, The Mountain Co has decided to go ahead with organising our Autumn treks to the Everest region. By taking sensible precautions and being aware of these riskier sections of the trail we feel it is the right time to start trekking again in the Khumbu. Of course there is a chance of further aftershocks and earthquakes in Nepal however it is ultimately up to each person to decide their level of acceptable risk.

Updated October 7th 2015: the British government through Foreign and Commonwealth Office ("FCO") currently have no travel restrictions in the mountains of Nepal apart from Langtang and Manaslu regions badly affected by the earthquakes. We suggest you carefully read FCO travel advice to Nepal.

If you decide to trek in the Everest region this Autumn season then we suggest take an experienced trekking guide with you, not only will this enhance your safety but will also provide valuable employment. The best way to support to Nepal is to come out and visit! If you are comfortable with accepting these risks then it is a great time to come as the trails are quieter than usual and the flights to Kathmandu are great value.

Please get in contact with us if you have any questions about trekking in Everest region. If you would like to join one of our groups, please click on this link to the list of trips now guaranteed to run

Trek on!

Roland Hunter

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