Earthquakes and fuel blockades; trekking in Nepal’s annus horribilis

2015 was a bad year for Nepal. On Saturday 25 April a magnitude 7.8 earthquake shook the country and killed 9000 people. In Kathmandu the historic Durbar Square was severely damaged and Dharahara Tower, Nepal’s tallest building, was reduced to a forlorn stump poking out of the rubble. Aftershocks followed for weeks, including a large magnitude 7.3 aftershock in May.

The 2015 earthquake and the avalanche it triggered on Mount Everest, killing at least 19 climbers, is well known about in Europe and North America. The quake led to the cancellation of Nepal’s second consecutive climbing season (following the avalanche on the Khumbu Icefall which put an early end to the 2014 season). Tough for a country where the average person’s income is just $730 per year and where tourism is a huge industry. In the West there’s still a general public perception that Nepal was, and remains, all but levelled. This impression really isn’t fair, as I found out whilst trekking the Annapurna Circuit in November and December this year.

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Nilgiri North (7061m) from the Kali Gandaki river

But Nepal’s tectonic restlessness is only half the story. It’s also the better known half, maybe because avalanches on Everest make good headlines (not to diminish the tragedy for those who died). But less well known is the fact that Nepal is more than two months into a trade blockade with India, brought about by ethnic tensions over the revision of Nepal’s constitution. Without getting bogged down in the politics, it’s enough for the prospective trekker to know that Nepal is now suffering a severe shortage of fuel which has rather messed up logistics in the country. The main effect for trekkers is that transport costs have spiked.

So what was it like to trek in Nepal in the 2015 trekking season when – it’s fair to say – the earthquake and trade blockade have made this year the country’s true annus horribilis?

Well, the earthquake had different effects in different areas of Nepal. The good news is that the two most popular trekking regions – Everest and Annapurna – were virtually unaffected. The trekking lodges are undamaged and have been open for business, even though business has been thin. Landslides in these areas were minimal; I only saw the remnants of one or two whilst on the Annapurna Circuit. But the number of trekkers has been reduced by perhaps half, with people put off visiting a country widely perceived as a risky proposition. This, however, is undoubtedly good news for those who enjoy trekking away from the usual peak-season crowds (though not good news for the trekking lodges!). Walking along the dusty trail between Chame and Pisang village a couple of weeks ago, I was selfishly pleased with the silent isolation as the snow-capped face of Swargadwari (Heaven’s Gate) towered over the Marsyangdi Valley to my right.

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The Heaven’s Gate (Swargadwari)

The epicentre of the April 2015 earthquake was in Lamjung, to the north-west of Kathmandu, whereas the main aftershock was in Sindhupalchowk to the east. The earthquake hit Langtang, Nepal’s third-most popular trekking region the hardest, causing massive devastation through hugely destructive landslides. Langtang village itself was simply obliterated in the aftershock of 12 May. As a result, trekking agencies were forced to curtail all treks to the Langtang Valley, and the Sindhupalchowk and Gorkha regions in 2015. Gosainkund is also off-limits, though treks to the lower and less-affected Helambu region remained available. It’s difficult to anticipate when the significant damage to trails and paths in these areas, not to mention the infrastructure of housing and facilities, will allow trekking to resume.

So what about the fuel crisis and its impact on trekking in Nepal? In short, the impact on tourists is negligible, as long as you aren’t planning to cross the India-Nepal overland border (in which case you run the risk of being caught up in protests). Yes, transport costs have gone up but they’re still pretty affordable to the average tourist. For example, bus ticket costs between Kathmandu and Pokhara currently stand at around Rs800. This is twice as much as pre-crisis prices, but still only about £5.40. And with fewer vehicles on the roads, journeys can be smoother and less stressful. Domestic flight prices have gone up too, with flight prices from Kathmandu to Lukla (for the Everest Base Camp trek) now standing at around £135 compared to around £100 one year ago.

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Empty roads south of Muktinath

When it comes to the cost of jeep rides on trekking trails, it’s worth bearing in mind that drivers will always start with a ridiculously high offer anyway and try their luck. At the start of the Annapurna Circuit I was offered a Rs4000 (£27) ride from Besi Sahar to Manang, which was crazily overinflated. Drivers often try and justify their wildly optimistic first offers by blaming high prices on the fuel crisis, but the usual haggling should always apply. Although I didn’t take any jeep rides on the Circuit, Rs2000 at the most would have been reasonable.

So – trekking in Nepal’s year of strife? Despite the disruption, it was still very much worth it. And of course by visiting Nepal at this time and going forward into 2016, trekkers can help to get the country and the people who work in its tourism industry back on their feet. Nepal, and Nepalis, are resilient.

Climbing training with Empowering Women of Nepal (EWN)

Empowering Women of Nepal (EWN) is a not-for-profit organisation in Nepal set up by sisters Lucky, Dicky and Nicky Chettru. As the name suggests, EWN is all about creating opportunities for young Nepali women through education, training and vocational development. EWN also runs a children’s home here in Pokhara in the Annapurna region.

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Back-up belaying practice

This type of organisation is pretty rare in Nepal because of its real focus on young women or girls rescued from child labour, serious poverty, discrimination, disadvantage or worse. Nepal as a country is still light-years away from achieving gender equality. But EWN’s achievements are impressive; since it was established back in 1999 it has provided hundreds of women with better opportunities. In a country where caste barriers are still strong, EWN never discriminates. Because of this, the sisters have been recognised with a slew of international awards and accolades.

Another thing that EWN provides in partnership with 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking, also (unsurprisingly) established by the Chettru sisters, is female trekking guide training. Female guiding is something of a niche market in Nepal, but female tourists (usually) do hire female guides so this niche definitely has room to develop; the Guardian wrote a piece on this subject back in 2008. EWN runs intensive female trekking guide programmes twice a year and also helps train female trekking guides in rock climbing.

The organisation owns a sandstone crag near Pokhara with about 18 bolted sport lines. It’s a strange rock type which I’d describe as hardened glacial till. Smoothed pebbles are partly embedded in the rock, providing nice positive footholds, though some of the more precarious holds feel like hanging on broken terracotta! But it’s a nice crag with a great aspect.

Over the past four days I’ve been helping to train aspiring EWN’s Nepali female trekking guides in the dark arts of rock climbing. The training is led by a Dutch volunteer, Harry Brands. Because most of the girls hadn’t climbed before, we just focussed on the basics. Of course, you can’t become a competent to take clients climbing in just four days, so our aims were limited to developing familiarity with toproping and abseiling from the double anchors at the top of the routes. There’ll be more training at a later date, once sore arms have recovered!

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A well-deserved lunch break

All nine girls were enthusiastic and there was a good atmosphere. Hopefully a few will have been bitten by the bug and maybe – in a few years – even go on to become full mountaineering guides themselves here in Nepal.