Site of Deadly Himalayan Blizzard and Avalanches Is Popular With Hikers

At least 23 hikers are dead along the Annapurna hiking circuit.
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A mountaineer hikes the Annapurna region on the Nepal side of the Himalaya.

The Himalayan hiking circuit where at least 23 climbers were killed in a blizzard and avalanches this week is less than 200 miles from Mount Everest. But its trails appeal to a whole different type of adventurer.

Whereas Everest, the world's tallest mountain, attracts the world's most accomplished alpine climbers, Nepal's Annapurna circuit, the site of Tuesday's disaster, is among the Himalaya's most popular treks for casual hikers. It's been dubbed the "world's greatest trek."

But the 150-mile (241 kilometer) circuit turned deadly on Wednesday, and those who know the area say the inexperienced climbers who frequent the route were likely unprepared to contend with extreme weather conditions. Many people are still missing, with dozens feared dead, as helicopters rescued hikers from the area on Thursday.

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Dosty Quarrier, a former therapist in Asheville, North Carolina, hiked the three-week-long circuit right out of college in the 1990s. "It really wasn't that hard," she said. That's partly because she and a friend hired a porter to carry supplies and partly because the trail "was a nice gradual elevation change."

Quarrier followed recommendations from locals and travel guides about acclimating to the altitude and had no problems going over Thorung Pass, the highest point on the circuit.

The pass, nearly 18,000 feet (5,486 meters) high—about the same elevation as Base Camp on Mount Everest—is near the site where the bodies of 12 hikers were discovered Wednesday. In the U.S., the only peaks as high as that are in Alaska, said Adrian Ballinger, owner and head guide for Alpenglow Expeditions.

"In normal conditions, you can go over that pass and not see any snow or bad weather," Ballinger said. Autumn weather conditions are generally stable, he continued, but "these are mountain conditions, and these storms are not unusual."

Inexperienced climbers would be challenged by the difficult conditions that developed during the heavy snowfall that struck the region earlier this week, he said.

An accomplished climber, Ballinger's first trip to Nepal, nearly 20 years ago, was to the Annapurna circuit.

Some climbers might include the Annapurna when training to attempt peaks like Mount Everest, said Conrad Anker, an accomplished climber and National Geographic Explorer. But for the most part, he said, the hiking community and the mountain climbing set are very different.

"Annapurna is manageable for trekkers with little experience," according to a BBC travel guide. "The circuit is more known for its varied terrain than its difficulty, and while some days can be a challenge, each day can be completed by midafternoon."

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A man bikes a section of the Annapurna circuit in the Mustang region of Nepal.

Jake Norton, a climber on Eddie Bauer's mountaineering team based in Evergreen, Colorado, said he was troubled by news reports that seemed to compare this week's tragedy with the avalanche that killed 16 expedition workers on Everest in April. (See "Sorrow on the Mountain: How April's Deadly Everest Avalanche Unfolded.")

"They're 100 percent different animals," he said. "The only similarities between the two are that they included snow and the Himalayas."

Still, Norton said, "there's this misperception that trekking is less risky [than climbing]."

Expeditions attempting Everest pay close attention to weather forecasts, Norton said. But there is a sense among some trekkers and guides on the Annapurna circuit that they needn't keep an eye on weather reports.

"I can only assume they were surprised by this storm," said Ballinger.

Norton hopes the tragedy won't deter future visitors to Annapurna. "It's not like trekking in Nepal has suddenly become deadly dangerous," he said.

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