An Extreme Trekking Case-Study
In mid-November 2022, a group of twelve trekkers, including their de facto leader, landed in Kathmandu at mid-day after a short flight from a tropical Southeast Asian country. There was only one man in the group, the leader also being a woman, and they were all previously acquainted with each other to some extent and had prior experience of trekking, including in Nepal. That afternoon, they did some final shopping for the trek and the following day they drove to and stayed overnight in Besisahar, the gateway to the Annapurna Circuit Trek (ACT), accompanied by eight porters, a local guide and an assistant guide. The next day, they were again on the road, this time by jeep to Manang: situated at an elevation of 3500m, it is, in many ways, the symbolic heart of the Annapurna region.
3500m is not an excessively high altitude but, as mountain experts will attest, the impact of altitude can be affected — increased or mitigated — by many things, including the environment. In Manang’s case, the glaciers and icy peaks of four of the Annapurna giants (Annapurna II [7937m], Annapurna III [7555m], Annapurna IV [7525m] and Gangapurna [7454m]) form the immediate backdrop to the village: many trekkers who are normally not affected by the first minor symptoms of altitude sickness at this altitude nevertheless experience headaches and other mild to moderate feelings of discomfort there as a result.
The following day, the group did a short orientation hike up to the Gangapurna Lake and beyond. It seemed that all was well. A group photo on Facebook, accompanied by the comment “Acclimatized!!!!” showed smiling faces. However, there were reports that some members of the group were already being affected by the altitude, probably in combination with the cold — a few days before that I had experienced temperatures as low as -9oc at night in Manang — along with the dry, windy conditions of day time plus intense sunlight, all so very different from the sultry heat that they had left just three days earlier. The next day saw the start of their trek with the itinerary stating that on Day 12, the adventure completed, they would be back in ‘home sweet home’ once more. That did not materialise on that day for any of them and, for two members of the group, it was destined not to happen at all.
Given that the group had journeyed as far as Manang by jeep instead of starting to trek in Chame, Pisang or some other lower point on the trail, it was already clear that their objective was none of the infinite variations of the ACT, linked only by the necessity of crossing the Thorong-la Pass (5416m). Instead, they clearly had a very different agenda. On Day 5, the group started their trek by going to Khangsar (3734m), involving a modest 200m altitude gain; and then, on Day 6, to Tilicho Base Camp: at 4150m, the altitude gain was well within the recommended daily maximum of 500m once above the 3000m contour. They were clearly heading for Tilicho Lake itself, a popular add-on to the ACT before turning around and re-joining the main Thorong-la Pass trail. However, instead of doing this, in spite of making very slow time up to the famous turquoise lake (4920m), the group continued to ascend to Tilicho High Camp (5240m). Now their goal was clear: they were going to tackle the highly risky Mesokanto Pass route over to Jomsom.
It was on this day, Day 7, that the problems started and many red flags were totally ignored by the so-called leader/guides. The most worrisome of these was that the some members of the group, at least, had already started to go at an excessively slow pace. A normal group would have arrived at Tilicho Lake in time for lunch before returning to spend the night back at Base Camp. But it was already late afternoon (approximately 17:00) by the time the lake was reached and, shockingly, the final member of the group didn’t get to High Camp until 21:00 after porters, already tired after a long, tough day, had had to go back and physically aid her and two others to get to that day’s destination.
Time to pause and assess the situation. The group’s leader, let’s call her Ms. X, an ambitious woman in her late 30s and a so-called Brand Ambassador for a well-known outdoor clothing and equipment company, had experience of going above 7000m and had a cult following among her fan club for leading treks and tours, especially, but not exclusively, in Nepal. She had never attempted the Mesokanto Pass route before: her personal objective was to explore its potential and market it back home among the tight-knit, enthusiastic trekking/mountaineering community as an ‘extreme trek’.
Not for nothing is the Mesokanto Pass route ignored by most trekking agencies: it is infamous for being risky even under normal conditions. The Exciting Nepal agency is one of the few exceptions, qualifying the nature of the trek by stating it to be “an exciting and stunning route as well as a bit technical, mainly the downhill section”; while the Nepalgram agency makes a similar statement: “Tilicho Lake Trek with Mesokanto Pass is a challenging trek; mainly Mesokanto Pass downhill is challenging, ” adding that it is “considered as one of the technical and adventurous pass [sic] of Nepal”, demanding “lots of effort from the trekkers. So, [a] good level of physical fitness and high level of stamina is required.” Crampons/mini snow spikes are also listed as required equipment for the trek
It is also worth asking at this point why the guide, a member of the Sherpa ethnic group, had been selected for this trek. He also had never been on the Mesokanto Pass trail before and Sherpas usually focus on the countless treks in their homeland, the Khumbu region, including Everest.
The assistant guide? Nothing is known about him to date: it can only be hoped that he, at least, had done the Mesokanto Pass route previously, otherwise it would be a case of there being no one with previous experience among the three leaders.
And it also has to be taken into consideration that, rather unusually, heavy snow had fallen in the Annapurna region, as elsewhere in Nepal, in the opening days of October, leaving many trekkers stranded; teahouses full to bursting point, it being the peak of the trekking season for Westerners and locals alike; and the Thorong-la impossible to cross for a few days until a new trail had been broken in the deep, fresh snow. That early October snow never melted, or at least, became compacted to ice on the trail up to the pass: after the sudden cold snap which had led to the snow, the temperature did not revert to its usual early October levels, meaning that by the time the group arrived to challenge the trail, Tilicho and the Mesokanto Pass had been under ice/snow for a month and a half already.
And what about that Day 7 altitude jump, from 4150m at Tilicho Base Camp to 5240m at Tilicho High Camp, more than double the recommended daily altitude gain? That was an extremely unwise tactic, especially for a group that was already having problems: better by far to have stayed overnight at Tilicho Southern Base Camp (4910m) and reassessed the situation the following morning. After all, they had full camping equipment, didn’t they? Or did they?
There were eight porters on the trek: they would have had to carry most of the personal baggage of the twelve overseas trekkers, plus suitably sturdy winter tents; sleeping bags capable of keeping the trekkers warm at -30oc or even below; food; cooking utensils; and so on for the whole group. Was that enough manpower? Some experienced guides were randomly questioned about this and answered in the affirmative….with the proviso “but only just” A couple of extra porters would have been highly advisable, they added, given the route they were going, the time of year, and the need to prepare for any eventuality.
Perhaps the decision to press on to Tilicho High Camp that day had been taken knowing that the schedule did not include even one spare day to allow for any change of plan, whether that be the need to add an extra night’s camping, cancellation of a flight and so on. Apparently, it was Ms. X’s style to par everything down to a minimum in order to push down the cost as much as possible and thus making her packages attractive to repeat clients.
Day 8 was the day on which the disaster started to snowball. The trekker who had reached Tilicho High Camp at 21:00 the previous evening was clearly unable to continue and, in the only sensible decision made to date, albeit 24 hours too late, she and a porter headed back down to be heli-rescued and flown to Kathmandu, where she soon recovered and, thankfully, was none the worse for the ordeal.
Her departure left eleven trekkers including Ms. X, seven porters, plus the two guides, all unaware that the following 30 hours were going to be brutal. By the end of Day 8, the group should have ascended to the highest point on the trek, at 5340m a little over 100m above Tilicho High Camp; dropped slightly to Northern Campsite (4940m); gone over the infamous Mesokanto Pass (5121m); then done the tricky drop down via High Kharka and Chauri Kharka to Kaisang where, being on approximately the same altitude as Manang, breathing and sleeping would become less laboured and more restful respectively. Except it didn’t happen like that. Indeed, it is painfully obvious that it could not have happened like that, given the extreme weather conditions, and the lack of stamina and endurance that most members of the group had already evinced.
What actually happened during that day and the following morning will probably never be exactly known but it amounted to a total, unthinkable disaster. And another factor that played a major role in what was to unfold should be mentioned here: there was no mobile signal in this, the most remote part of the trek. The group was totally dependent on accessing a mobile network for communication: their equipment did not include satellite phones or even walkie-talkie sets. This meant that once the trekkers started to spread out again, the individual small groups could not contact each other, let alone Ms. X, who had gone ahead, making no attempt to keep them herded together, as if not interested in their welfare.
And here it should be stressed that, as mentioned in the agencies’ websites quoted above, it is precisely this part of the route, not the ascent from Tilicho Base Camp to Tilicho High Camp but the technical descent, which is responsible for giving the trek its high risk rating.
Details of what happened are few and far between but it seems that Ms. X went ahead, probably with one or two porters, to prepare the equipment for the cliff that had to be negotiated, possibly reaching Kaisang at nightfall, leaving the rest of her team, most of the porters and either one or both of the guides to spend the night huddled in tents in, conjecturally, two locations: from a video released later, the tents appeared to be much too flimsy for the onset of Winter and the specific location.
The following morning, 17 November, one woman in the higher of the two camps died after all efforts to revive her by a doctor in the group failed. By the time a few more hours had elapsed, another woman who had somehow managed to make her way down to a considerably lower location after feeling unwell the previous evening, had also passed away. At that point, the trekkers with the body of each woman were totally unaware of the death of the other. All of the remaining eight members of the group — to recap, one had already returned, Ms. X was nowhere to be seen and two had now died — were in a bad way, suffering to one extent or another from hypothermia, acute mountain sickness (AMS), pernicious frostbite or a combination of all three. As communication was gradually restored via both the resumed mobile network and exhausted porters running up and down the trail in a desperate effort to assist, word started to get out and rescue helicopters, much in demand at that time of year, were urged to give priority to the Mesokanto group. One woman, clearly suffering from severe frostbite, was air-lifted to a Kathmandu hospital, accompanied by a friend who was later also treated for frostbite. The remaining seven, including Ms. X, were finally united and temporarily settled in Jomsom. The two corpses were initially left at the foot of the Mesokanto Pass for the police investigation procedure. (The cause of death for them both was later recorded as hypothermia).
But what of the guide, assistant guide and porters? It is here that the picture starts to become even murkier. According to Ms. X, some of the seven porters at least had fallen on the way down, leaving their loads strewn across the ice and snow. This, she claimed, was due to the extremely adverse weather conditions including blizzard-like winds, the same conditions, again according to her claim, that caused the problems and had hindered the rescue and evacuation. And yet the skies were clear, both day and night, throughout the trek, with no reports of winds, clouds and low visibility anywhere else. She also claimed to have met and tried to enlist the help of a German group camping at Kaisang. There was indeed a group of German nationals on the trail at that time with their German leader and local guide: they had come over the Kang-la Pass (5302m) from the Nar Phu Valley before summiting Chulu East (6429m) and going on to Tilicho and the Mesokanto Pass. This is an exceedingly strenuous expedition, so, unlike Ms. X’s group, they were clearly fully acclimatised and had the experience and stamina to endure extreme conditions. Currently, the support of the Austrian-side expedition company which organised the trek is being enlisted to see if the Germans were aware of the situation and/or spoke to anyone in the group. As it stands, one comment in the leader’s Facebook page is very telling: “Crossing [the] Mesokanto La (52xx m) in these conditions (Winter) is not only strenuous but also a real mountaineering adventure.” It seems that Ms. X’s group was doomed from the outset.
All that is known for sure is that the porters and the guides fled the scene at some point, clearly afraid of the repercussions of the two fatalities: they were not on the flight back down to Pokhara with the seven trekkers, nor did they communicate with anyone who could possibly leak the real story to the press. What did emerge some weeks later was that one of the porters had, in fact, suffered from AMS while another, a newbie of just 18 years old, had been afflicted by frostbite severe enough to necessitate the amputation of one finger.
Of course the news did break after a few days, first in Nepal and then in the trekkers’ home country. The information was garbled, inaccurate and then simply regurgitated as different agencies took up the story. Oddly, though, the names of Ms. X and the Sherpa guide did not feature in any of the media reports, although the identities of the deceased did.
With equal inevitability, the tragedy also percolated into various Facebook pages connected with trekking, in particular the Annapurna Circuit Trek group. Members were astute enough to pinpoint the red flags that should have been spotted and adjusted beforehand: the speed of travel from Kathmandu directly up to Manang; the insufficient numbers of porters; and so on.
“I suspect the agency had no idea what they were up to, and clients slow and totally ignorant about altitude and the arctic conditions they were about to encounter. Sad story and nothing will be learned from it,” commented one person.
However, there was no agency! The name of an enterprise referred to as Arsland Trekking Agency was quoted as the source of the news in many of the first, sketchy media reports. But Google searches throw up nothing and there is no agency of that name registered in Nepal. A wrong transliteration of a name heard over a bad connection? We will never know
Several things emerged in the aftermath of the disaster.
Firstly, there was Ms. X’s determination to put a distance between herself and the events on the Mesokanto. There was one uncontrolled outburst on her FB page — “If you weren’t actually there, you don’t know anything except by clicking on Google translate and becoming addicted to the drama, destroying [my] life day by day. JUST SHUT THE F*CK UP!” — from which the unwise and uncalled for obscenity was later deleted; followed by a more subdued post seeming to indicate that she was in Boudhanath, praying for the souls of the deceased; then a deafening silence. It would have been understandable had she initially felt too traumatised by the events of that day, too weighed down by guilt and self-reproach, to be able to speak; but after she had had time to compose herself, she should have had the courage to come out and make some kind of statement, explaining what had happened and offering an apology to the family and friends of the deceased in particular. But to date, that has not happened: instead she remains totally quiet, as if hoping that the affair will gradually die down. Of the few details that have leaked out, one in particular seems extremely damning: one of the deceased had apparently already booked and paid for two future treks with Ms. X: however, to this day there has been no offer of a refund to the bereaved family.
Then there were the three trekkers suffering from frostbite: the third person did not reveal their condition until after returning home. All three had Stage 4 frostbite: as of now, two are at risk of having feet, or at least toes, amputated whilst the other faces the same possibility with one or both hands. One can only wonder would it not have been in their best interests and long-term advantage to have completed the treatment in Nepal, where surgeons and doctors have experience and in-depth knowledge of such conditions rather than in their tropical homeland. They also should be given an answer to how this could have possibly happened.
Oddly, whereas one might have expected information and accusations to freely fly once the trekkers were safely back home, everyone seemed to be reluctant to reveal what actually happened, as if having been sworn to secrecy. No one is suing Ms. X: there are only ruffled feathers and threats from group members against others, including for infringement of privacy in the case of one person posting online the medical records related to the Mesokanto incident of another member.
In the Mesokanto tragedy, two people lost their lives; three people stand to have their hands/feet amputated; and one person could easily lose her professional reputation and social standing if the whole truth were to be exposed.
One comment in the Annapurna Circuit Trek Facebook page really hits the mark: “Tour companies/guides need to take responsibility for screening members of these large groups as well as ensuring proper acclimatisation. Mesokanto La is NOT a tourist route. Especially in winter months. I did it in June after almost 3 weeks on the trail including Larkya La [Manaslu Circuit]. And even then we camped just after the pass in wind driven rain. It was a tough 2 days trek from TBC to Jomsom.”
Is Ms. X responsible, criminally and/ or morally, for what happened? In my opinion, yes. Why? Look at the following:
● The PR for the trek on her Facebook page several months earlier had in no way indicated the physical stamina and overall ‘toughness’ needed to enlist. She simply referred to participants having to adjust to camping for two nights and to eating instant noodles during that time. (Was that the only food they had? If so that would partially account for the low number of porters.)
● The only criteria for being allowed to join was previous trekking experience over the 4000m contour. This, for a trek in early Winter that went up to 5360m and involved a technical and rather risky descent? Surely not strict enough!
● She planned the itinerary with all its flaws, including lack of contingency days and rushing the group up to 3500m in Manang instead of starting trekking a little lower down.
● There was knowingly insufficient acclimatisation.
● She had opted to take paying clients on an acknowledged risky trail which she had not previously explored herself.
● Her objective was self-aggrandisement and financial gain in the future from promoting the route, had this recce been successful.
● She was operating as a de facto guide/agent without a licence or legal permission to do so.
● She rejected the additional safety net of going through a reputable trekking agency with experience of this route and instead opted to use a freelance guide with whom she had worked before and an assistant guide, presumably, again, out of a wish to economise and reap the greatest financial benefits from the tour.
All of this is corroborated by a Facebook post written independently by Kitti Boonnitirod, a former client of Ms. X who, although not on the Mesokanto trek, had experienced many of the same organisational flaws when trekking with her in the K2 region, Pakistan. (https://m.facebook.com/kboonnitrod/posts/pfbid0U3sQYjHmLEas2weYsDXbWb7coQHJXyWbxFYXCSw5MBtQ4BrSTbxN5wBJLwCaRCBWl?device_id=5c54ca97-ffb0-4f2b-8173-82bb09d00f83 )
As one person commented in the Annapurna Circuit Trek thread, “This would be prime material for a good investigative journalist to find out all the things what went wrong and why.” I do not claim to be an investigative journalist, let alone a good one, simply someone who champions truth and justice. It is my hope that this article will contribute in some small way to uncovering the former and achieving the latter.
By: A Champion of Truth & Justice
All photos taken by the writer in November 2022, 10 to 14 days prior to the incident