Stranded in heavy snow at Qomolangma

Updated: 2013-10-21 07:19

By Wang Huazhong and Da Qiong (China Daily)

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As the tourists were being escorted down the mountain on the morning of Oct 15, the autonomous region's government was notified that the trekkers from New Zealand had sent out an SOS, saying they were trapped in Choitang village in the Garma Valley at the foot of the eastern side of the mountain, often known to mountaineers as the Kangshung Face.

Snow reported to be a meter deep hindered the rescue attempts and caused temporary telecommunications blackouts.

Stranded in heavy snow at Qomolangma
Stranded in heavy snow at Qomolangma

Dean Higgins, a 60-year-old Australian, died of hypothermia after spending six hours digging with his bare hands to reach his wife and two other companions who had been buried in snow, ice and rock by an avalanche on Oct 13.

Unlike traditional sightseers who travel to base camp in motor vehicles, the two foreign groups, assisted by local guides, cooks and porters, chose to trek to the east side of the mountain.

Fortunately, all the stranded tourists on the northern side of the mountain were evacuated safely and rescue workers discovered the missing group from New Zealand sound and safe on Oct 18.

"Incidents such as this happen very rarely. But we will think about how to better communicate with the local government and improve our emergency action plan," said Paldron, general manager of the Tibet Holyland International Travel Agency, which organized the New Zealanders' trip.

In a review of the incident, the government of Dingri admitted that it "did not handle the information provided by weather forecasts accurately and also failed to prevent tourists from heading for the destination in time". The government also said the communications facilities in and around the camp were not up to standard.

'Just within control'

The deciding factor in the success or failure of a rescue operation is money. In addition to natural disasters, tour operators are coming under increasing pressure from the enormous number of tourists seeking first-hand experience of the mountain and their eagerness to "explore" the area.

"It's not just foreign tourists, but also a lot of domestic tourists choose to trek, for a variety of reasons," said Jigmed Namgyal, deputy general manager of the Tibet Longda International Travel Agency, which was hired by the Australian trekkers to organize their visit.

When sharing his trekking experiences, one Chinese blogger wrote, "Going to Milan is happiness. Crossing the Garma Valley with leeches sucking your blood is also happiness."

According to Jigmed Namgyal, whose company provided services for 300 foreigners in 2012 alone, the local government does not oppose the development of this high-value-added activity in the park, which was officially opened in October 2012. Within its 78,000 sq km are five peaks that stand 8,000 meters above sea level and 10 others that are higher than 7,000 meters.

The number of visitors to the area rose from 13,374 in 2008 to 73,000 in 2012, according to figures provided by the Dingri county tourism bureau. In 2008, the zone received 2,698 foreign tourists, but by 2010 a record 18,700 foreigners visited the area, the highest number for five years.