In Lonely Planet's Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya I wrote that it is only common sense, applicable to a hiking trip anywhere, that you should not travel alone in the mountains. I expanded on the point by saying:
You should not trek alone. Many times it's useful to have someone to watch your pack- when you have to run off the trail into the bushes, or even when you are in a lodge and go out to the toilet. It's also good to have someone around in case you injure yourself or fall sick while walking. Almost all deaths, disappearances and incidents of violent crime have involved trekkers travelling alone. A companion could help convince a would-be thief to direct his attention elsewhere and can send for help if you fall or are injured. If you do not already have a travelling companion, then you should find one in Kathmandu- either a guide or another trekker. Unless you have a friend to trek with, or are prepared to take a chance on finding a companion in Kathmandu, booking a group trek may be a good option.
Yet Internet newsgroups and chat rooms are awash with comments like "you don't need a guide, just start walking", and "there's no problem to trek alone, Nepal is perfectly safe". These comments are true, but they don't take into account the trail conditions in Nepal.
It's true that Nepal is quite safe. Hold-ups by thieves are rare and few people suffer from serious falls. But many trails are rough, narrow, slippery and exposed and often cross landslides or rickety bridges. It's easy to miss a step or lose your balance when a rock wobbles underfoot. If you're lucky, you'll just end up looking silly in the mud, but each year numerous trekkers-and local people- tumble off the trail.
I remember some trekkers who moved off the trail to let some yaks pass near Tharo Kosi bridge in Khumbu. The clump of bushes they stepped into had nothing but air below and suddenly there were two people with broken legs lying on the rocks of the riverbed. Fortunately a team of trekkers came along and carried them, with great difficulty, back to Lukla. If they had been alone on a remote trail, they could have lain there for days.
Then there's the saga of James Scott, who was lost for 43 days below Gosainkunda in 1992. He was trekking with a friend, but they separated and James became hopelessly lost. It was only after 24 days that his sister finally contacted his trekking companion in Australia and was able to redirect the search to the last place James had been seen. He was eventually found alive after 43 days.
Others have not been so lucky. When a search party finally spotted the body of a female trekker near Puiyan some years ago they also discovered a second body at the same spot below a narrow and slippery spot in the trail. Both these women could probably have been saved if someone had searched for them within a few hours of their fall. Each season there are reports of missing trekkers and, almost without exception, these people had been trekking alone.
It's not enough to rely on people who happen along to assist in an emergency. If you have a bad fall like Kanak Mani Dixit (see accompanying article), chances are you'll end up far below the trail and hidden by bushes. A casual passer-by won't see you and probably won't hear you if you shout. Even if you are spotted, sometimes people won't stop to help. It's sad, but true that some trekkers won't compromise their schedule to help out. We had a tough time finding enough people to carry those trekkers with broken legs back up to Lukla. Local people may ignore an injured trekker because of the trouble they might have. Many Nepalis fear that when they report an accident to the police they may become a part of, and sometimes a subject of, the ensuing criminal investigation.
If you are trekking with a friend, you're fine, but don't split up. If you find a trekking companion through a hotel bulletin board or one of the organisations like KEEP or HRA, try to ensure they have the same goals as you and are not going to leave you on your own hundred miles into the hills. No matter how careful you are you never have any assurance that your trekking partner won't fall ill or get bored with walking. You can enrich your Nepal experience by spending a few weeks in the company of a Nepali guide or porter. It's not expensive by Western standards and you'll provide someone with a good wage, learn a lot about the country and probably make a good friend. And, if you fall off the trail, someone will come looking for you in a hurry.
(Stan Armington is the author of the Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya and Nepal, both published by Lonely Planet Publications.)