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Risks of trekking tours can be mitigated with research, preparation, experts say

10/22/2014 08:00 EDT | Updated 12/22/2014 05:59 EST
TORONTO - Mohamed Khaki watched with shock and horror as the news flooded in from Nepal last week.

Media reports of deadly avalanches on the Annapurna trail he had hiked just a few years ago chronicled unprecedented levels of tragedy for the area he had always seen as relatively safe. But even as the death toll climbed to a historic high of 43 and four Canadians were listed among the victims, Khaki didn't even consider cancelling his next trip to Nepal, slated for next month.

The 64-year-old from Toronto has visited the Himalayas half a dozen times and feels that the Oct. 14 disaster was an anomaly caused by unusual weather conditions, a factor which savvy trekkers can prepare for.

"If you're driving along (a highway) in November and there's a freaky ice storm that just happens and there's multiple car crashes, it doesn't stop you from going along (the highway) a week later," Khaki said in a telephone interview.

Although Statistics Canada does not track the number of Canadians who leave the country for adventure-travel excursions each year, some companies that offer such trips report that customers are showing growing interest in trekking vacations. The Intrepid Group, whose member companies provide various forms of adventure travel, says at least 10 per cent of its total business comes from Canadian trekkers.

Deputy general manager Christian Wolters said such trips are generally considered very safe and can be enjoyed by anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. The most successful trekkers, he said, research the region they're planning to explore and have a healthy respect for the sometimes fickle weather conditions in mountain ranges.

"I think the people that really enjoy trekking have an appreciation for where they're going and realize there are some risks, but they can definitely mitigate them by either going with a group or with a guide, travelling at the right times and obeying certain rules and common-sense guidelines," Wolters said.

Wolters said weather conditions are usually considered most stable in October or November while spring treks are considered safest in April or May.

Trekkers should also advance cautiously to avoid falling victim to altitude sickness and be willing to keep their itineraries flexible in case things go wrong. Preparation is the key to a successful expedition, and Wolters said tour operators worth their salt offer clients detailed lists of clothing, medicines and other gear to pack.

Michael Dudeck, operations manager at Canadian Himalayan Expeditions, said tour providers also have a duty to ensure their clients are signing up for trips that suit both their expectations and their physical strength. This should involve frank discussions with potential travellers before they so much as pack a bag, he said.

"We like to deal with every person, deal with contingencies, explain the realities, be harsh, be brutal if we have to," Dudeck said. "We don't sugar-coat the trip, but we also know that in most cases, people are safe and capable of doing these trips."

Dudeck also stressed the importance of hiring tour leaders with the local knowledge to pick up on cues that technology might miss.

In August 2010, for instance, Dudeck said tour guides leading a group through northern India became alarmed when their horses began acting highly agitated. Interpreting the animals' distress as a sign of impending bad weather, the guides led the travellers to high ground and avoided being caught in an unexpected cloudburst that caused massive flooding and killed more than 150 people.

Nepal's government has also emphasized the importance of local knowledge, announcing on Tuesday that trekkers venturing to mountain trails will be required to take trained guides and will have to rent a GPS tracking unit to help authorities trace them in case of an emergency.

Khaki said the risks associated with trekking are greatly outweighed by the chance to walk through what he described as some of the world's most beautiful scenery.

Dudeck said most of the trekkers he's known would agree.

"While the trips can be challenging depending on weather, most all clients come back saying it was the best trip of their life," he said.

"It was sometimes 'life-affirming' or 'life-changing.' This is why we still do these trips. We're making dreams happen."

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