The Northern Escarpment of the Black Mountains

With a walk planned for next month I thought I ought to take the opportunity to have a look at it, although the Black Mountains is an area I know well. Having listened to an improving weather forecast I set out last Sunday to find, by the time I reached the car park, I was shrouded in thick mist and the rain was falling heavily. According to the forecast on my phone there was little chance of improvement throughout the day, the Black Mountains not necessarily complying with climatic trends elsewhere. It is best when you are doing a recce to be able to see so I abandoned my walk without bothering to change into my boots.

I had decided I was not going to do the planned walk from Hay Bluff along Offa’s Dyke, dropping into Capel-y-ffin to then climb up to Twmpa before returning to the start point. We have all walked Offa’s Dyke, which can be boring at the best of times. We have all slithered on the descent to Vision Farm and wallowed in the mud along the track to Capel-y-ffin. None of us needed to do those again either. So I decided to go where we had not been before and explore the northern escarpment of the Black Mountains from the two perspectives of high and low.

Mist on the top of Hay Bluff

Mist on the top of Hay Bluff

Yesterday, Tuesday, held more promise, so I set out again to find the tops shrouded in cloud but, this time, with a much better chance of breaking free from it. It was chilly when I emerged from the car and for the first time this season I wore two fleeces, a hat and gloves. Heading into the mist I climbed the steep path up to Hay Bluff. The wind was coming from the south, so once I reached the ridge the mist doused me in a very fine spray. As I descended towards Gospel Pass the mist began to thin and blue sky could be seen through it, Twmpa (Lord Hereford’s Knob) kept emerging and disappearing again, but the signs were there that it was going to clear and be a spectacular day. Already it was much brighter to the south and by the time I reached the summit of Twmpa I was bathed in not-so-warm sunshine. To the east Hay Bluff was still shrouded.

The walk along the top of the escarpment is beautiful, not for the features on the top but for the occasional glimpses down the face into gullies, and for the far reaching views across the Wye Valley to the hills and mountains of mid-Wales. The colours were stunning with the browns of the now dead bracken contrasting with the vivid greens of the well watered grass. The trees still held a little colour but they were clearly fading fast and they prepared for their winter sleep. One worrying aspect of this walk, particularly having passed the trig point on Pen Rhos Dirion, were the many tracks created by off-road motorbikes, churning up the fragile grasses, obliterating the path and turning the area into a quagmire. The tracks cover an area at least the width of three lanes of a motorway and is clearly a playground for those who should not be there, but are difficult to control.

Looking east at Twmpa from Rhiw Cwnstab

Looking east at Twmpa from Rhiw Cwnstab

On reaching the deep cleft that is Cwm Cwnstab I descended by Rhiw Cwnstab. The route is so named, I am led to believe, from the time when construction workers were building the Grwyne Fawr Reservoir, started in 1912, interrupted by the First World War, and concluded in 1928. Down valley from the construction site a village, Blaen-y-cwm, was created for the workforce, which included all the necessary facilities of a school, chapel and pub. The latter was very popular, particularly on pay day when a surfeit of booze encouraged the men to brawl. Usually a young lad would be sent over the hill to Talgarth to summon the local constable who would walk over to sort matters out, thus the route became known as Rhiw Cwnstab. True or not it makes for an interesting story. The view on the way down this route is stunning and on a good day is an ideal spot for lunch. Looking east you have the crenelated slopes as far as Twmpa to admire. To the north the patchwork of fields and moorland sloping down to the River Wye with the hills of mid-Wales rising beyond. To the west is the even more stunning northern escarpment of the Brecon Beacons, although not as clearly defined in the late autumn haze.

The walk so far had been very easy to navigate and I was expecting more navigational decisions to be made on the return along the foot of the escarpment. The map shows a wide variety of paths crisscrossing each other with no direct line to follow. However, on the ground, while there were many paths to follow, there was one which seemed to follow a direct west to east line. Being at the foot of the escarpment it tended to be quite wet and muddy in places where run off had gathered in the grooves, largely created by livestock, that make up the path. The path undulated without being too arduous, although there is one climb a little longer than the others as I chose to stay high over a spur running off Twmpa. As I rounded the spur Hay Bluff came into view, or at least it would have had it not still been shrouded in cloud.

Atmospheric Twmpa

Atmospheric Twmpa

Walking on my own it had taken me five hours to cover the ten miles. I only stopped once, for twenty minutes for lunch. With a group it will take a little longer. I never tire of walking in the Black Mountains but it is refreshing when you do a route you have not done before. I have walked along the top before, mostly in a west to east direction, but I had never done the lower level return before and it makes for a very interesting and pleasurable walk. It does need reasonable weather to gain the most from it.  I saw not a sole all day and as I looked back at Twmpa from my car it displayed itself atmospherically in moody lighting. I think those who join me next month will enjoy this walk.

 

 

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Adventure Guide with Classic Journeys – 2015 Trip Programme

DSC_0180Adventure Guide, with Classic Journeys, has a full and increasing programme for the years ahead, with something for everybody from cultural tours to mountain treks to long distance trails in the UK. Built on the success of more than 20 years of training and trekking with the King’s Himalayan Club, the following programme is available in 2015.

Mera Peak (6486m) Dates 26th March -20th April 2015 A stunning trek and climb in the Nepal Himalaya. A unique opportunity to climb the highest trekking peak in Nepal as part of a fabulous 18 day trek in a less frequented area giving you a real taste of adventure.

The Dales Way – Dates 6th – 14th June 2015 A fully supported camping trip from Ilkley to Bowness-on-Windermere through some of England’s most beautiful countryside.

The Pembrokeshire Coast Path - Dates 27th June – 5th July 2015 A fully supported camping trip. This is not the path in its entirety but includes the best sections to fit within the time frame.

Iceland – Dates 24th July – 2nd August 2015 A breath taking 5-day trek in the remote northeast and an opportunity to visit some of Iceland’s most spectacular attractions. Iceland is one of the most understated countries in the world. This trip not only takes you whale watching from Husavik, it also takes you to the thermal activity around Lake Myvatn, to the tallest waterfall in the country, climbs a spectacular peak and incorporates a stunning, remote 4/5 day trek in the NE of the country.

The Cotswold Way – Dates 4th – 13th September 2015 A fully supported camping trip in a beautiful stretch of rural England with attractive market towns and quaint villages.

Shivling and the Source of the Ganges – Dates 20th Sept. – 3rd Oct. 2015 A trek in the Garhwal Himalaya, northern India, to the Source of the Ganges in the shadow of Shivling. The Ganges is religiously important to approximately one billion Hindus. This 13-day trip takes us into the Garhwal Himalaya to the source of the Ganges, where many Sadhus (Holy men) reside and on to Shivling Base Camp for stunning views of this spectacular mountain. At 6543m, it is not the highest Himalayan peak by any means but it too is of huge religious importance, being the sacred symbol of the God, Lord Shiva.

 Possible destinations for the next two or three years

Sri Lanka – a rich mixture of culture, adventure and relaxation in a country that is emerging after many years of civil war.

Makalu Base Camp (5400m) - a trek to the fifth highest mountain in the world in memory of Scott Rennie and to raise funds for CRY – April 2016

Greenlanda chance to visit the vast emptiness of Greenland with its spectacular scenery.

Galapagos Islandsan opportunity to explore the unique flora and fauna of theseremote islands. This trip can include some time on mainland Ecuador

Vietnaman off the beaten track trip trekking among the hill tribes of the north as well as visiting some of the better known sights and including a short extension into Cambodia

For more information email john@adventureguide.org.uk call 07944611253

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Double Booked

It was one of those weekends when you needed to be in two places at the same time. ‘Share the Vision’ had a training weekend based at King’s YHA near Dolgellau and I was leading a group of friends on a walk in the Forest of Dean on the Sunday. Not wishing to disappoint, I spent Friday evening and Saturday in Wales and Sunday in the Forest of Dean.

From the summit on a blustery autumnal day

From the summit on a blustery autumnal day

Looking up the forecast for Saturday we were not encouraged. The morning was to be very wet following lots of overnight rain, very windy on exposed slopes, cold on the summits but brightening as the day progressed. Certainly the ground was waterlogged and the river flowing past the youth hostel was full, fast and coloured. However, having travelled all this way we were not going to be deterred from climbing Cadair Idris with the group. To make life easier for us we only had three visually impaired students to look after, although flat light, mist and rain was going to make it more difficult for them. With ten sighted guides we were going to be able to share the responsibilities.

Saturday dawned dry and reasonably bright after some heavy overnight rain. This was already a bonus and the longer it lasted the more optimistic we became. The aim was to drive round to Minffordd on the south side and walk across Cadair and back to the hostel on the north side.

The stepped climb up through the trees, with the Nant Cadair cascading noisily to our right, is steep and a heart pumping introduction to the walk. However, the advantage is that you gain height quickly and once clear of the trees the views, despite the dank conditions made the effort worthwhile. The students coped well with the guiding on the narrow steep path, with a running commentary of the terrain under their feet from the lead guide and a second behind to assist if needed with stumbles and foot placement. The experience gave the guides confidence in such terrain and those being guided felt they could trust those looking after them.

Heading up the Minffordd Track

Heading up the Minffordd Track

Having reached Llyn Cau we then took the Minffordd Path around the impressive ridge to the south of the lake with cliffs and steep gullies falling away to our right. The path reaches a summit before dropping quite steeply over a rock strewn slope to Craig Cau. This downward slope proved to be the hardest obstacle so far and the guides had to be extra vigilant to get their partners down safely. Often, those with visual impairment find depth of field very difficult, not knowing how deep a step is or whether a gap between rocks is solid or not. The fact that they negotiated this safely gives credit to the guides and to the visually impaired in trusting those looking after them.

On the summit

On the summit

Throughout the morning we had had very little rain, just a few short spells, but nothing as bad as the forecast had suggested. While we had been walking around the ridge the summit of Cadair had mostly been shrouded in cloud but eventually that lifted, giving us a view of our target, which we reached three and a quarter hours after leaving the car park. On the summit we were exposed to the strong winds, so we took refuge in the substantial stone shelter where we ate our picnic lunch. We really had been lucky; we had a view below the heavy layer of cloud only a few metres above our heads and we had remained relatively dry.

Contrasting colours of autumn

Contrasting colours of autumn

As we ate lunch we soon began to feel chilled so it was time to begin the descent. Now we were in the full force of the wind, and the heavy rain, which began to fall, making up for not soaking us in the morning. The wind meant that any exposed skin was peppered with sharp needles of viciously propelled water droplets. Despite the rain, the strong winds and one or two areas which required some rocky negotiation, it was a good route down. Occasionally glimpses of sunshine would light up distant hills highlighting the stunning colours of autumn from the vivid greens of pasture land, the varying yellows of ageing leaves to the copper coloured bracken and long grasses on the open hillsides.

Finally, our approach to the youth hostel was through the trees accompanying the fast flowing Gwynant, a beautiful way to end a walk, to reach warmth, dry clothes, a cup of tea and loads of yummy cakes!

Leaving them to enjoy their cakes, I headed back to Worcester to dry my kit before heading for the Forest of Dean. While I was going to be there the ‘Share the Vision’ group were going to enjoy another day’s walking near Dolgellau.

For me, the sun shone brightly on Sunday morning and it promised to remain so until a band of rain moved in late in the afternoon. Hopefully, by the time it came we would be finished. Twenty of us gathered in the car park at Symonds Yat, disappointed to see notices announcing that the cafe would not be open today, depriving us of tea and cake at the end of the walk.

Making our way through the forest

Making our way through the forest

There were still plenty of the vibrant autumnal colours to enjoy despite recent cold snaps, heavy rains and strong winds. The carpet of leaves on the ground was thicker and there was significantly more mud to squelch through. At 11.00am we paused for two minutes to reflect upon those who sacrificed themselves for our liberty. With dappled sunlight penetrating the trees and the sound of water on its hasty journey down the hill, it was easy to reflect on how lucky we were to be where we were. The carpet of leaves on the ground were reminiscent of poppy petals, and, having recently visited the poppies at the Tower of London, made it all the more poignant.

The Suck Stone

The Suck Stone

Heading for the Suck Stone we perched on the rocks of an escarpment and enjoyed a welcome break while we admired the view over the wooded hills of the Wye Valley. The Suck Stone is a detached piece of rock from the escarpment and is reputably the largest piece of rock in the British Isles, weighing in at a mighty 30,000 tons (imperial).

Descending past the Suck Stone we gathered pace on a wide forest trail before crossing the B4136 and continued to Monmouth. The recent rain had found its way into the river and the levels were quite high. Now the murky, brown water was flowing relatively quickly and was much more vocal. A long stretch of the path crosses fields of pasture before rounding a corner and heading back into the trees. We were all walking at a steady pace with a tendency to keep your eyes focused on the path at your feet. This strategy led to my demise as I did not see the low branch straddling the path. It stopped me dead in my tracks as my head thumped into the hard timber with a skin splitting crunch. I could feel the fold of skin peeled back by the impact and the slight oozing of blood. Fortunately the bleeding was not profuse and I was not in any great pain. My own stupid fault, just get on with it. My head began to feel a bit like the top of a tomato sauce jar with the seal on the lid broken and messy tomato ketchup coagulating around the opening.

The River Wye from the look out

The River Wye from the look out

The sunshine of the morning had gone and the clouds were building for the expected rain. I was quite keen to get back before it came and certainly before the car park barrier was locked at 5.00pm. There was no reason to linger on this stretch of the walk and so we made good progress, getting back ten minutes before sunset and just as the rain began to fall. Good timing.

It is an excellent twelve mile walk through varied countryside, and one which could easily be repeated according to the seasons in order to gain a different perspective and emphasis each time. Shame about the cafe and the lack of tea and cakes at the end.

 

 

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Forest of Dean – Highmeadow Trail & River Wye (solo)

As I drew the curtains this morning I was greeted with cloudless skies and the sun still below the horizon, a deep glow gradually brightening in the east. It was a good day for a walk and recce of the route for a group walk taking place in a few days.

IMG_1111Rucksack packed, I was off by 8.00am heading for the Forest of Dean where I was looking forward to a display of autumn colours enhanced by the blues skies and bright sunshine above.  By the time I arrived at the Forestry Commission car park above Symonds Yat East it was still early for all those enjoying a half term break in the Forest of Dean, as the car park was deserted. Booted up, I headed south from the car park until I picked up the Wysis Way, a trail that links the Wye with the Thames. While most of the tracks through the forest were good, the Wysis Way does not necessarily follow them, but breaks from the main trails on narrow tracks that pick their way through the majestic mixed deciduous trees. Above the canopy, planes deposited their vapour trails, which expanded with time,  as they headed west across the atlantic to unknown destinations.

Many of the trees were still surprisingly green, despite the fact that I was walking on a carpet of copper brown leaves. The canopy, the part of trees exposed to sunlight were beginning to turn various shades of yellow and orange, while the leaves below the canopy and therefore protected were still green.

Beautiful light and colours

Beautiful light and colours

As I walked I began to think that this was not too unlike trekking through the jungles of the Chitwan in Nepal. There were trees and leaf debris on the ground. What it lacked was elephants, rhino, black bears, tigers, leopards and wild boar. Apart from the lack of wild life it was very similar. Suddenly there was a rustling of leaves, the snapping of twigs. As I looked down the slope, through the trees, I spotted three stags running. It was only a fleeting glimpse but enough to excite and get the heart beating a little faster. More rustling above me drew my attention, and a dog, I’m not sure what breed it was but it was the size of a dalmatian, came running out of the trees in front of me. Seeing me it hesitated, eyed me up, and decided that it would be more fun chasing stags that me. It had an extremely thick collar on it, as if its neck might be vulnerable. In the distance an owner was shouting, either calling for it or sending out instructions. I could not make up my mind whether this was a rogue dog doing what it should not, or a working dog following instructions.

The most beautiful patches of wood were those where beech trees were more prevalent than any other species. Here the ground cover was really a good copper colour, the leaves on the trees were more spectacular and underfoot the husks of beech nuts crunched under my feet. Occasionally squirrels skitted around on the branches among the thinning foliage, still making the most of the autumn harvest of nuts.

The view from Near Hearkening Rock

The view from Near Hearkening Rock

Eventually, having navigated myself through the forest without too much difficulty but with regular reference to the map, I reached Near Harkening Rock, an outcrop of rocks with panoramic views of tree covered hillsides  beyond. It was an ideal spot to stop for coffee, enjoying the view and the warmth of the sun. Had it been raining it was still a good place for coffee as the cliffs were overhanging and it was only a short distance to seek their shelter.

Descending from the rocks I reached a wide forest track. All that accompanied me were the sounds of birds, rarely seen but clearly heard. Shrill robins hopped around in shrubs and on lower branches while buzzards mewed as they circled high above the canopy. Suddenly another sound drifted through the trees, that of excited children, getting louder as we got closer. The birds were quiet, shocked into silence by the children, four of them on a half term stroll with their mother. As they drifted into the distance exploring minutely  everything they came across, another sound drifted through the trees, that of traffic on the A4136. The trees, rather than muffling the sound, seemed to amplify it and it was a long time before I could see any traffic, a lot of it heavy aggregate lorries. Having crossed the road there was just a little more woodland before the descent into Monmouth.

From Biblins Bridge

From Biblins Bridge

Having crossed the Wye via the main bridge I then dropped down to the riverside path on the Monmouth side of the river. I was now walking parallel to the busy A40, which shattered the peacefulness of the river bank. It is a good path and therefore I was able to cover some distance quite quickly. It is 5.5km from Monmouth Bridge to Biblins and had I not stopped for lunch and a mooch around the delightful St Peter’s Church, it would probably have only taken me an hour to cover the distance. But why rush? Despite a build-up of cloud, it was still a very pleasant day and there was plenty of bird life on the river to distract me from forward progress. Every-so-often fishermen sat at the water’s edge whiling away a few lazy hours. The lack of keep nets draped into the water suggested that they were not having very much luck. The river had lost the clarity that we associate with it in summer and had the appearance of thin gravy . It was moving quite quickly and occasionally there was the hint a rapids but nothing of significance. As I neared Biblins Bridge there were a few Canadian canoes with young families enjoying the river experience.

A much photographed view of the Wye from the viewpoint

A much photographed view of the Wye from the viewpoint

Having crossed Biblins Bridge the riverside path became significantly busier with casual walkers reaching this far from Symonds Yat, taking one of the many walks available from there. Just before the riverside village, about the spot where there are some more active rapids, I took the steadily climbing path up to the cafe and car park. Here it was really quite busy so, following a visit to the viewpoint and a cup of tea, I headed home having had a very enjoyable walk.

 

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Nepal – Climbing and Trekking Disasters

2014 has been a bad year for Nepal as far as climbing and trekking is concerned. First, on the 18th of April, a devastating avalanche fell into the Western Combe near the top of the Khumbu icefall, which wiped out the lives of sixteen Sherpas and affected the lives of many more. Now, on the 14th October, a severe storm, the result of cyclone Hudhud, dumped copious amounts of snow in the Annapurna region, triggering avalanches on to trekkers caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. At the time of writing the death toll stands at 39 and there are still people unaccounted for. It is no longer a case of searching for survivors but looking for more bodies that the melting snows will eventually reveal.

As sad as these two incidents are, I am not surprised that they have occurred. Both accidents are the result of over-commercialisation of Everest and of the most popular trekking routes in Nepal.

EverestLet us consider Everest first. Everest has become a high altitude playground for people who have the money to climb the mountain, even if they don’t have the skill. Without the skill they rely very heavily on the Sherpas and commercial leaders to get them to the top. There is a belief among many of the climbers on Everest that because they have paid a lot of money they expect success. The result is that, because the weather window is so brief, a long queue of people can be seen heading up the Lhotse face to the South Col. Having reached the South Col they all head off for the summit together, jostling for position to get up the Hillary Step. Some find themselves waiting a long time at this bottleneck, risking frostbite, running out of oxygen, running out of time, possibly dying. Even if you manage to get up the step and on to the summit, you then have to wait for the opportunity to get down the step; it is a 29,000ft. single track road.

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend a debate at the Royal Geographical Society entitled ‘Everest’s Deadliest Day’. The evening was hosted by Ben Ayers with Doug Scott, Dawa Steven Sherpa, Rebecca Stephens, Simon Lowe and Ed Douglas on the panel. They all have different perspectives of the Himalaya from commercial interests to philanthropic concern. They all gave valuable contribution but those of us in the audience wanted to know how a similar tragedy could be avoided in the future. Of course, nothing can be guaranteed in the mountains, mountains are very fickle when it comes to human life. However measures can be taken if there is a universal will among the climbing community, mountaineering associations, governments even. Doug Scott has a simple solution to prevent the cash rich from venturing on the mountain with little or no experience. Each climber must have a climbing CV, which includes ascents of 6000m and 7000m peaks, before they can even apply for an Everest permit. If they are genuine in their desire to climb Everest it should not put them off, but should excite them. It won’t diminish the income the Sherpas can make out of climbing as there will be just as many climbers in a season, hopefully not all in the same place. Everest will become safer with fewer climbers and the opportunity to summit must improve without bottlenecks. It does not guarantee Everest will be accident free but if it avoids disasters like this year’s it will be worth something.

There will be many, particularly those who make a good living out of Everest, who will disagree with Doug. There is speculation that helicopters will be used to ferry climbers from Base Camp to Camp 1, thus avoiding the particularly dangerous Khumbu Icefall.  Helicopters are increasingly being used to fly equipment up to Base Camp, putting many a yak man or porter out of business. To fly higher seriously increases the risk of accident, as they will be flying right on the edge of capability. Air accidents already happen all too often in Nepal. Finally there is speculation that commercial organisations will erect permanent ladders up the Hillary Step making passage both up and down the obstacle that much easier. Everest is a World Heritage Site and should be protected from such vandalism. As it is, its status is abused with the amount of rubbish left on its slopes. How many other World Heritage Sites allow people to defecate all over them and leave it for others to see. There are some expeditions that take everything off the mountain when they leave. Why can’t all expeditions operate to the highest levels of expectation?

The legacy of this year’s disaster will be felt for many years to come. Left behind are thirty-one children without a father. The Himalayan Trusts of New Zealand and the UK, with the Australian Himalayan Foundation have committed to looking after the education of the sixteen children not already being cared for or beyond education. This is a financial commitment through to 2031, long after the events of this year are forgotten, or have been superseded by another senseless loss.

Approaching the Thorong La from PhediTurning to last week’s on-going tragedy, it too is no surprise. October is supposed to be a perfect time to go trekking with blue and crystal clear skies, all dust from the Indian deserts having been washed away by the monsoon rains. The weather, presumably because of global warming, is not reliable; patterns are changing, abnormalities are increasingly becoming normalities. I was leading a group trekking in Mustang last October. Mustang is an area behind the Himalaya and therefore in the rain shadow. While we had good weather we were aware that it was not the same for everybody. A cyclone in the Bay of Bengal was having a similar effect on the Himalaya as this year’s cyclone. The Annapurna region was under heavy cloud and rain and we met trekkers who had not seen a mountain top until they reached Jomsom on the western side of the circuit. Last year the storm had more devastating effect in eastern Nepal, where nine feet of snow fell in one night!

Back in 1996 I was trekking up the Gokyo Valley when we came to Pangka, a camping ground with two or three huts. The previous November, after a significant snowfall, an avalanche swept down the hillside above the camp and buried it. Twenty-six Japanese trekkers and Nepali crew were killed. As we walked through the campsite, newly revealed now that the snow had melted, we came across flattened tents and an area strewn with personal kit, camp pots and pans. The force of the avalanche was visible as the roofs had been ripped off the huts and carried to a new resting place.

I have led twenty-nine trekking expeditions to the Himalaya. It is an incredibly spectacular part of the world and I consider myself very lucky to have been able to go there so many times. I went initially for the mountains but I return for the people. They are wonderful and those I have worked with are so thoughtful, willing and helpful. It is within the nature of Nepalese people to look after their guests come what may, and I am not surprised that so many perished or were injured doing just that.

It has to be remembered these are mountains, very big mountains, and the weather, just as  in Snowdonia, the Lake District or Scotland, can change with devastating effect.  I was in Ladakh in 2010 when a cloudburst triggered off landslides, one which swept through Leh, while others engulfed whole villages. Over 1200 people died that night.

On another occasion, while climbing Menthok Peak (6250m), we had heavy snow at high camp, forcing us to delay our nighttime departure for the summit. Delaying further, so that we could see the route ahead, my guide and I decided the conditions were not favourable, there was too much risk involved. I was responsible for the welfare of twenty-seven group members, most of them pupils from a school. Naturally, they were disappointed, but as we left high camp to go down, there was a loud crack and a cornice that had been overhanging the gully we would have been climbing up collapsed into it. We would all have perished and suddenly the decision was appreciated.

It is inevitable, that from time to time, trekkers will be caught out by bad weather but there are steps that can be taken to avoid it.

So many trekkers in Nepal arrive with no specific plan. They arrive in Kathmandu and decide they would like to do a trek. There are 1600 trekking agencies in Kathmandu alone. How do you know, when you sign up, that you are signing up to go with a reputable agency? You don’t. In a country that has no industry to speak of, that has no natural resources to speak of, that has an ineffective government, that has a level of corruption that we in the west find hard to believe, let alone understand, it is easy for people with little or no experience of the mountains to set up an agency. Regulation is ineffective and can always be bypassed with a bribe. And why not? Every year, with thousands of rich trekkers coming to their country, it is understandable that they want some of the pickings. As discerning westerners, we should be more careful about how we organize our treks. I always work with a UK based adventure travel company, Classic Journeys, who, in turn, work with a reputable Nepali trekking company, Karnali Excursions.  It may cost a little more but you can be sure that when decisions have to be made that concern the safety of the group they will be taken. We also guarantee that all trekkers are properly equipped, that the crew are properly equipped and that the porters, especially, have warm weather and wet weather clothing, that they have appropriate footwear and are suitably housed at night. This, all too commonly, is not always the case.

Many trekkers, particularly those traveling for many months where Nepal is only part of a much bigger picture, tend to minimize on kit. They are dressed inappropriately for the mountains, certainly mountains as high as these. They don’t have enough warm clothing, wet weather clothing, and often their footwear is inadequate. Nepalis might be able to trek in flip-flops but that does not mean we can, or should.

Descending towards MuktinathThere is no excuse for being caught out by last week’s bad weather. Mobile service is readily available throughout most of Nepal and it is possible to get weather warnings in advance and act appropriately. Reputable trekking agencies send their guides out with satellite phones so that contact with the outside world is guaranteed. Those who work and live in the mountains would have seen it coming simply by looking at the sky, reading cloud formation, the light on the mountains and the direction of the wind.

Out of all of the events of the last week, I feel greatest sorrow for the porters who lost their lives, and the families they leave behind. They had no choice in the matter. If they did not do as they were told, they would not have been paid.  There is no insurance cover for them and no welfare state for families to fall back on. It is sad that trekkers lost their lives or were injured; they have a voice and can make their own decisions. So too the guides to a certain extent, although they are likely to have felt under pressure. Porters have few rights in the unequal world of Nepal. Now their families are bereft of their breadwinners, children of their fathers, wives of their husbands. Who is going to look after them now?

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