Trekking in the time of climate change

Himalayan tourism now has to be prepared for more frequent extreme weather events

ALL PHOTOS: Achyut Tiwari

Just as the global tourism industry begins to revive after the pandemic, climate anxiety is affecting the travel business. 

In industrialised countries, awareness is spreading about consumption and the carbon footprint of long-distance air travel. The more ecologically conscious travellers are taking trains where available, and buying carbon offsets.

Seasonal weather patterns in Nepal are complex to begin with, and climate change has made them even more unpredictable and variable. This is something that trekkers to Nepal should now consider, and be flexible enough for change of itinerary or duration.

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 Weather forecasts are getting more accurate, and it is now possible to plot the trajectory of late monsoon troughs, or cyclones in the Bay of Bengal so there is enough warning.

Nepal is influenced primarily by the South Asian monsoon but the country has a rainfall gradient with a much wetter east and drier conditions as one heads westwards.

Climate data analysis reveals that the Himalayan range is undergoing rapid change, with temperature increasing at a rate that is double that of the global average. In recent years, there has been an unpredictable rise in the frequency of extreme weather events. 

Higher temperature means the air carries more moisture, and as it rises along the mountains there can be violent convection storms. Higher temperatures also means an elevated risk of snow avalanches, and increased instances of rock falls as the ice in crevices on slopes melt.

Read Also: The ABCs of a winter trek in Nepal, Monika Deupala

With more precise storm forecasts, tragedies like the blizzard that hit Central Nepal in 2014 that killed at least 43 below Annapurna and Dhaulagiri can be prevented. Similar freak storms have occurred in the Khumbu and even in the usually arid trans-Himalayan regions like Mustang and Manang.

ABC trek 2

The risk of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) is higher in eastern Nepal, but the Annapurna region also has some dangerous glacial lakes like Thulagi below Himalchuli, and others. But even without lakes, supraglacial ponds can cause sudden floods downstream like the one that hit Kagbeni this year.

 There are sections of the ABC trek, for example where avalanches off Annapurna South can funnel right down to the river. Evidence of these are ice fan deposits even at lower elevations. 

During a trek in May this year, we witnessed numerous such powder snow avalanches above Deurali. And unusually heavy downpours and hailstorms lashed us in the Chomrong and Sinuwa sections. 

Such extreme weather events not only pose risks to trekkers but also endanger local communities, including mountain porters. It is important for trekking groups to now be alert about weather warnings, and also take precautions like crossing avalanche fans before or after the most risky times between 9AM and 12 noon because rising temperature triggers melting of overnight snow.

Read Also: Nepal's glacial lakes in danger of bursting, Mukesh Pokhrel

Undoubtedly, embarking on the ABC trek is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and with careful planning and adequate preparation against the growing incidence of extreme weather events in the region, it can be a relatively easy trek. 

A Himalayan trek is an opportunity to contribute to Nepal’s rural economy, and slow down the pace of life. 

The ABC of Treks

Nepal’s tourism is seeing a vigorous rebound of trekking this autumn season, and total arrival figures for 2023 look like they will only be slightly lower than the pre-covid 1.2 million high in 2019. Trekkers and climbers have already arrived for the autumn season and have headed out to the high Himalaya.

ABC trail
Map: NT Graphics

Nearly 30% of all visitors go on treks, and most of them land up in the Everest and Annapurna trails, although the Manaslu circuit and Langtang are also gaining popularity. Trekkers on longer duration trips go to Mustang or Dolpo.

Of these, the Annapurna Base Camp Trek and the Annapurna Circuit are the most popular because of the awe-inspiring views. The Base Camp trail follows the Mardi Khola and into the sanctuary which is ringed by rock and ice ramparts of Annapurna South, Annapurna 1, Annapurna 3 and Machapuchre. 

 The Round Annapurna trail is now mostly motorised, but this cuts short the approach time which can be devoted to exploring side valleys in Manang and Mustang.

The entire massif and its foothills lie within the Annapurna Conservation Area, spanning 7,629 sq km, which is a conservation model designed in Nepal for ecological preservation to be funded by eco-tourism. 

 Annapurna 1 at 8,091m is the tenth highest mountain in the world and was the first eight-thousander to be climbed, and the story of 1950 French expedition by Maurice Herzog propelled Nepal into the world stage even before the Everest ascent three years later.

ABC trek 4

Annapurna 1 has long held the highest fatality-to-summit rate among the eight-thousander because of its technical difficulty and avalanche risk. As of 2022, 365 people had reached the summit of Annapurna I, while 72 have lost their lives attempting it.

 However, in recent years, climbing success rates have improved with reduced fatalities. Nevertheless, the mountain still presents serious objective dangers due to avalanches and rockfalls which have reportedly become more frequent due to climate-induced weather extremes.

 The south face of Annapurna 1 soars 3,000m above the base of the mountains and is considered one of the most difficult climbs in the world. 

 Not everyone is there to climb Annapurna, and a trek to its base is an adventure in itself. The ABC (Annapurna Base Camp) Trail alone gets 55,000 visitors a year, and offers an enchanting excursion into a wilderness area with cloud forests teeming with wildlife. The ABC Trek is of moderate difficulty and does not require advanced physical fitness, making it accessible to everyone, including families with children.

 The trek offers a glimpse into Nepal’s immense biodiversity as well as ethnic groupings. A bonus is a natural hot spring near Jhinu Danda nestled amidst forested flanks. Locals believe the waters possess healing properties, and offer a refreshing respite to trekkers. 

Trekking to Annapurna Base Camp via Ghorepani aids in acclimatisation to high altitudes, allowing the body to adapt gradually. This preparation enables hikers to better cope with the physical demands of walking at up to 4,000m and above.

 Achyut Tiwari, PhD, is a Plant Ecologist and Assistant Professor at the Central Department of Botany at Tribhuvan University.


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