28 November-4 December 2014 #734

Tragedy on Thorung La

What could the authorities have done better before, during and after the October 2014 blizzard?
Dhanvantari by Buddha Basnyat, MD

On the morning of 14 October 2014, Prakash Adihikari, executive officer of the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA) opened his Facebook page, and saw a picture of a heavily snow clad Manang. While the picture was beautiful, it got Prakash thinking about the condition of the four porters he had hired to carry propane gas cylinders to the HRA Manang Aid-post.

While he was trying to reach out to people there (phone lines were dead), Adhikari got a call from the Israeli embassy, asking to see if HRA had any information about the conditions at Thorung La (5400m). The embassy had received a note calling for help from Israeli trekkers at the pass, who had tied the note to a donkey going down to Manang. Prakash knew something bad was happening up there, but had no information that could help the embassy.

At a pre-arranged meeting regarding tourism promotion at the Trekking Agent Association of Nepal (TAAN) office, attended by the director general of tourism, representatives of Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA), and members of HRA, the mood was tense. Without any clear information about the ongoings in Manang, however it was hard to plan a rescue.

Worried and anxious, Prakash sent a message to Bamsi Acharya at the Ministry of Home Affairs, enquiring about weather conditions in Manang. Acharya in turn sent the message to the National Emergency Operation Center (NEOC) at the Home Ministry, from where the message was forwarded to the chief district officer (CDO) of Manang and Mustang. Instead of answers, Prakash got a call from the Manang CDO asking him if he knew more. It seemed no one had any idea what was going on.

Early next morning, the HRA’s Disaster Management Committee called a meeting to try to liaise with the Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of Home affairs, the Nepal Army, Nepal Police, TAAN, and NMA to help deal with the potentially dangerous situation at Manang.

The Nepal Army had begun their rescue from the evening of 14 October. A Nepal Army B3 Helicopter had flown out early in the morning of 15 October for search and rescue in Thorung La, and their MI 17 helicopter was mobilised in the afternoon of 15 October. The rescue mission was in full swing.

Along with many other institutions, the HRA played a significant role in communicating information to other agencies. But it was frustrating not having a well-managed “nerve center” to deal with the situation in the Himalayas. With the global change in the weather pattern, there is every likelihood that disasters such as the one on Annapurna will repeat. The government and all associated organisations need to learn from the October disaster.

Even something as simple as a documented list (a master list) of trekkers at any one time in the Nepal Himalayas would be very resourceful. During this tragedy, lists of trekkers in the area were hard to obtain and when the lists were made available, many names were badly misspelt (for example, Burush for Bruce) which did not help matters. The Nepal government charges lot of dollars to individual western trekkers to obtain a trekking pass, the least they can do to help these trekkers is to have a list of names of all trekkers properly spelt with their correct trekking destinations.

Read also:

After the storm, Kunda Dixit

Narrow escape, Sunir Pandey

Anatomy of a Himalayan tsunami, Kunda Dixit

Dangerous business, Editorial

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