24-30 July 2015 #768

Blazing new trails in the monsoon

Some international mountaineers stayed on in Nepal after their expeditions were cancelled to help with quake relief

When mountaineers get into trouble during climbing expeditions they need to be rescued. But after the earthquake in Nepal, it is mountaineers who have come to the rescue of survivors living in remote mountain villages where access is difficult during the monsoon.

As the rains block roads and ground helicopters, thousands of porters and mountaineers, including noted international climbers, are helping carry food and other relief to high mountain villages in Gorkha, Sindhupalchok, Rasuwa, Dolakha and Dhading. They are repairing trails as they go, to improve access and also contributing to a revival of trekking when the rains end.

Helping with this and other efforts is the Hillary Relief Collective named after Edmund Hillary, who with Tenzing Norgay was the first to step on the summit of Mt Everest in 1953. Amelia Hillary, Edmund Hillary’s granddaughter who was living in Nepal, is coordinating the Collective’s activities.

“I am now the third generation of Hillarys working in Nepal. When the earthquake hit, we all knew we would need to work together with mountain rural communities to handle the crisis to make sure aid would get to those who truly need it,” she told Nepali Times.

Besides its work with education and health, the Hillary Relief Collective provides management support for the World Food Programme (WFP) in its Remote Access Operations with the involvement of noted mountaineers like Damian and Willie Benegas from Argentina who were on Camp I of Mt Everest on 25 April, and Canadian climber Don Bowie who was climbing Annapurna during the earthquake. All stayed on to work with Nepali high altitude guides to help open up damaged trails so supplies can get to remote villages.

RELIEF EXPEDITION: Argentinean climber Willie Benegas and Nepali Everest summiteer Pasang Lhamu Sherpa (left) help with logistics at Laprak recently. Mountaineers and guides are helping with trail repairs to get relief to remote mountain villages even during the monsoon. All Pics: DAMIAN BENEGAS / BENEGAS BROTHERS EXPEDITION

Damian Benegas is working in Dolakha and Sindhupalchok to repair trails from Simigaon to Beding so supplies keep moving during the monsoon, while Bowie works out of the WFP forward base in Gorkha to literally blaze new trails to parts of lower Gorkha cut off by the damaged Budi Gandaki route, as well as via the 5,200m Larkya Pass to Manaslu and Tsum Valleys.

“Mountaineers are very good at getting material from Point A to Point B and that is why our experience has been useful,” Benegas said. “The rains keep washing the trails off, but we keep repairing them. Some of these will be useful alternative trekking routes in the autumn.”

Indeed, Benegas says that the Upper Rolwaling and the Manaslu Circuit can be opened for trekkers by October through alternative trails that have been made for relief delivery. The challenge for now is to reach villages that are not even in the map, and which have been cut off.

For Benegas and other mountaineers, there was no question of abandoning Nepal, a country they have come to love through their climbing. The Everest team ploughed its climbing budget into earthquake relief after the expedition had to be abandoned, and then other mountaineers and their families started donating money.

Besides the work with mountaineers and porters the Hillary Relief Collective has served as a platform to partner with volunteer groups to coordinate activities on the ground so that relief goes where it is needed the most. For the first month after the quake they had to help with paperwork and clearing urgent relief supplies through customs. Now the priorities are: food and medicines, shelter, education and health, and rebuilding trails.

The WFP has also mobilised 10,000 porters who lost their livelihoods because the earthquake hit during the peak trekking season. Through the Trekking Agents Association of Nepal (TAAN) and the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA) they have been repairing trails blocked by the quake and for bringing essential supplies to communities that have been cut off. 

Says Benegas: “Paying porters is a great way to revive the rural economy because it injects cash directly to the village. And many of these people had no other source of income besides portering.”

Kunda Dixit

Read also:

Operation Mountain Express

WFP starts high-altitude operation

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