How My Best Friend Died: A Warning

I very much regret having to post this, but I can’t see any alternative. On Thursday, the 19th of September, at about 3pm local time, my partner of 7 years, Nina Jin Zhou, drowned at the base of a waterfall in Nepal. She was doing the Annapurna Base Camp trek under the supervision of Binod Pokharel; a guide from Advanced Adventures Nepal.

I am posting this as a warning to anyone else who may be unfortunate enough to encounter this guide and this company in the future. This is also a warning about the Nepalese trekking industry in general, which has dangerous and significant structural problems. The guides are not equipped with the knowledge and the skills to handle life-threatening situations, yet their government still issues them with licenses. You cannot rely on Nepalese accreditation alone. If you do, your life is in danger.

  • They are not required to know how to swim.
  • They are not required to know cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
  • They do not know the dangers of waterways or undercurrents.
  • They will risk your safety and allow you to get into dangerous situations because:
    • They want to avoid complaints for not allowing you to do what you want.
    • They’re looking to get fat tips by not restricting you so much and giving you more thrills. Some of them find their regular pay to be insufficient.

It has been two months since this tragedy, yet this guide has not been suspended and continue to operate. The touring company and Nepalese tourism bodies are only paying us lip service. Even now, there have been no formal reviews on safety practices or their accreditation curriculum. The only ongoing formal process right now is a complaint we filed with the Nepalese Tourism Police in Kathmandu and that is going very slowly…

Meanwhile, people continue to be in danger under this guide, this company and this wholly inadequate system!

Background

At 2am, Friday, 20th of September, Sydney time, NSW Police knocked at my door to deliver the shocking message of Nina’s drowning. They asked me to contact DFAT which confirmed it. On Monday, the 23rd of September, her family and I flew out to Kathmandu with the primary intention of finding out exactly what had happened.

With the help of Australian Embassy officials, we were able to progress our agenda. In this week long trip, we had a chance to meet the trekking leader in charge of Nina’s trek: Binod Pokharel. We met the manager of the involved trekking agency: Chet Prasad Bhatta from Advanced Adventures Nepal. We spoke to the attending police officers from Pokhara. We retraced Nina’s steps at the incident site with Binod Pokharel. We also talked to some locals that were involved in the incident.

The Guide

This is the guide’s identity card:

binod_id_address_blocked_cropped

Name: Binod Pokharel
Address: Omitted in this post
Language: English
Expiry: 2015-3-17
No: 165
R. No: 289

Incident Details

Nina was pulled under by the strong vortex generated by the force of the waterfall. Here are some pictures of the incident site:

IMG_20130927_152246

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From our conversations and observations, the following facts become clear:

  1. Binod allowed Nina to swim in a dangerous location.
  2. Binod claims not to be able to swim himself.
  3. Binod claims that Nina invited him to join her, but cited #2 as the reason to decline.
  4. Binod is not familiar with the dangers of waterways.
  5. Binod is not trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
  6. The local villagerss knew it was a dangerous location and stayed well away from those waters. Binod claims he thought it was safe.

Concerns

A) How and why would licensed a trekking guide – who is endorsed by The Nepalese Government – put his client in a risky situation that he himself is not prepared to be in?

B) How and why would someone who is not able to swim be licensed by The Nepalese Government as a trekking guide?

C) How and why would someone who is not familiar with the dangers of natural waterways be licensed by The Nepalese Government as a trekking guide?

D) How and why could someone who is not trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) be licensed by The Nepalese Government as a trekking guide?

E) Given that Nina had died under the supervision of Binod Pokharel, why has he not been immediately suspended pending an official investigation and review?

F) The local villagers knew to stay well away from that spot, especially at that time of year. Why didn’t a licensed trekking guide have this knowledge?

Personal Remarks

This was not the first time that Nina had gone trekking in Nepal. She had previously gone with the same trekking company on The Everest Basecamp trek – but with a different guide. Chet Prasad Bhatta, the manager of the trekking company had befriended Nina. She trusted Chet and this company. In our conversations with him, Chet would proclaim that he hadn’t lost a customer, he had lost his friend.

chet_picture

But what a shallow friendship it was. There is no acknowledgement of this incident on their website nor their Facebook page. Not a single word of sadness, no farewell, as if Nina never existed.

What I find utterly outrageous is this man constantly proclaims and promotes his company’s professionalism. Yet he can find no fault in his current operations and consider this incident an unavoidable accident. Yes, trekking is inherently dangerous – but this did not involve any act of god. There was no earthquake, there was no avalanche, there were no sudden storms, there was no tsunami.

This incident occurred because a licensed trekking guide allowed his client to get into a risky situation and was ill-equipped to handle the consequences.

Indeed, in all our meetings with him, he would constantly be interrupted by phone calls and text messages. He is meeting the family of a client that has died and he does not even have the common courtesy to shut down his phone! This is not the conduct of a professional.

The Quest for Tips

From the CEO of Trekking Agents’ Association of Nepal (TAAN) right down to the porters, it is common knowledge that guides are eager to please their clients in the hopes of getting tips. So much so that they compromise their safety! It is my very strong opinion that Binod Pokharel was one such unscrupulous trekking guide. Nina, while strong willed, respected authority. She would never have swum there at the slightest suggestion that it was dangerous. Nina actually wanted to swim further downstream from the falls, where they saw children swimming. But Binod suggested going to the falls.

Perhaps it was because it was more visually impressive. Perhaps it was because it was more accessible from the trekking track than the original site. It is my belief that in this instance, Binod compromised Nina’s safety thinking that it would increase his chances of getting a tip.

Your Own Stories

I spent a long time with Binod Pokharel. Nina was not the only client he’s put at risk. He even had the gall to claim that he rescued them! If you have your own stories of risky operators in Nepal, please drop me a line.

matt[at]squarestorm.com

Maybe we can start some sort of movement. Or if there already is one, let me know so I can help out.

Tell Someone!

Please, if you know anyone who is thinking about trekking in Nepal, tell them about this tragic story. Nina had so much to give to this world. She was set to take up a year long post as an Australian Youth Ambassador in Mongolia last October. Yet she was cut down in her prime, simply because she trusted someone who turned out to be incompetent.

Something is very wrong with the Nepalese trekking industry. Something has to change! It would be an utter travesty if this were to happen to someone else.

——
Update, 18 Nov 2013: Changed title from “Warning: Nepalese Trekking Guide Cause Death”.

Update, 24 Nov 2013: Added concern “F”. Added fact point #6.

Update, 26 Nov 2013: Chet has contacted me about a safety page on his company’s website. Note the line: “CPR Course: After identifying the need for it, plans are on line to provide basic CPR course to our guides.”.

3 thoughts on “How My Best Friend Died: A Warning

  1. Matt, thank you for going to such lengths to help us understand what happened to our precious friend, Nina. By explaining the circumstances, I hope further tragedies like this one can be avoided. Linny

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