How to Travel Safely in the Tourism “Death Zone”

Tune in now

Listen to episode #3 of NAVIGATE, the travel podcast, as it climbs to 8,000 metres above sea level.

Want to know what it’s like to climb the world’s highest peaks? Or to travel through remote regions that are a week’s walk away from civilisation? 

Join Leeds Beckett University PhD research student Jase Wilson as he shares the thrilling – and often risky – world of academic research occurring in the tourism “death zone”. 

It sounds ominous, but the “death zone” actually refers to altitudes above 8,000 metres, where oxygen concentrations are dangerously low. 14 peaks in the world soar above this height – found in Pakistan, China, Nepal, and India – forming a travel belt for intrepid explorers and mountaineers tackling legendary summits like Mount Everest and K2 Base Camp.   

Academic research into dark tourism is what brought Jase here. In the field for 150 days, he travelled from Kathmandu to remote areas of Nepal and Pakistan to interview people from all sorts of backgrounds and experienced plenty of setbacks along the way.  

In this travel podcast with NAVIGATE host and travel risk management expert Ben Cooper, Jase reveals the triumphs and trials of his adventure, and the importance of travel risk management along the way – from transport and healthcare to emergencies or threats of political instability.  

Often, it’s preparing for the unknown that’s key…

What we cover:

  • Defining the tourism “death zone”
  • The complicated journey of tourism operators and travellers climbing Everest Base Camp or K2 Base Camp
  • Travel risk management in remote or turbulent areas
  • How academic organisations will adapt to travelling during COVID-19

Experiencing the tourism “death zone” | PhD research student Jase Wilson

Voice Over

0:00:01 – 0:00:19

Welcome to Navigate. The podcast that helps you safely and securely traverse the globe. Alongside travel industry experts and global travellers, we’ll gather insights and advice that help you manage any pitfalls or problems that may occur while you’re away from home. Our voyage of discovery starts now.
Ben Cooper

0:00:20 – 0:00:45

So welcome everybody to today’s Navigate podcast. Today we have joining us. Jase Wilson. Jase is a PhD candidate at Leeds Beckett University who has recently and not so recently travelled the world during the course of his research to some higher risk environments, shall we say, And he’s gonna tell us a little bit about international activity in a research capacity based at a UK university and how that plays out. So welcome, Jase.
Jase Wilson

0:00:46 – 0:00:49

Thank you very much.
Ben Cooper

0:00:50 – 0:00:57

Jase. Maybe first of all, you could just tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at Leeds Beckett and then – and then a little bit about your research as well.
Jase Wilson

0:00:59 – 0:02:11

Yeah, right. So I’m a graduate student from Canada, and I’ve been living in the UK for the last two and a half years. I came over specifically to work on this project, that I had written a proposal for. The title of the project is called “Tourism in the Death Zone”.

So I imagine that probably quite a few people aren’t exactly very familiar with that terminology. Basically, the Death Zone just refers to altitudes above 8000 metres. So there’s 14 peaks in the world that are above those altitudes, and they’re found exclusively in Pakistan, China, Nepal and India. So, as you can imagine, with something like tourism in the Death Zone, which involves mountaineering on high altitude peaks like Everest, like K2, like Kangchenjunga and so forth. You know, that obviously means for me as a researcher that I’m going to be going into base camp at or above 5000 metres in pretty remote areas to do interviews with people from all sorts of backgrounds.

Ben Cooper

0:02:12 – 0:02:27

So when universities that we’re talking to when they say when they refer to the academics that wander off into the high risk parts of the world or sit on the edge of volcanoes or climb mountains or climb trees in the middle of the Amazon, that’s you. They’re talking about you.
Jase Wilson

0:02:28 – 0:02:30

*Laughs* Yeah, yeah, I mean, yeah. I guess so.
Ben Cooper

0:02:31 – 0:03:25

And it’s really interesting, actually, because you touched on a great point there, which is you know, your final destination for the for your research purposes might be Everest base camp and you might be there for, you know, for as long a time as you can manage, but actually from a travel risk management point of view, possibly just as complicated and just as risk ridden, maybe is the journey to that environment, as you say through Pakistan, through Nepal, through remote areas and then the more typical part of travel risk management, as companies and corporate entities have to think about it, come into play.

The healthcare is not so good. Or, you know, maybe they don’t drive so carefully this kind of thing. So would you say that’s fair that when the university considers your kind of trip, do they go straight to the sort of glamorous, high risk bit and worry about the Everest part? Or do you think they actually start looking at the journey in general?

Jase Wilson

0:03:26 – 0:05:29

Well, it’s tough for me to say, of course, what each university does. I can only speak to the specific experience that I’ve had, and I think that because Leeds Beckett, the university that I’m at, has a tendency to do; actually they have a programme called Battle Back, where they actually take wounded veteran soldiers to Nepal pretty regularly, so to go trekking in the Khumbu Valley of Nepal. So they go about every year and a half or two years, and the person who’s sort of responsible for the expedition was brought on very early to sort of take a look at what I wanted to do.

So I think that individual, specifically in the familiarity of the university with, with these types of threats, meant that I think the process was relatively thorough.

Um, you know, for example, like I was going through his – the other guy has his risk management sheets and he’s got all kinds of stuff like, ‘No riding motorbikes’ or ‘no drinking alcohol and riding motorbikes’ or anything like that. So, you know, it was pretty thorough in some senses. But at the same time, I think there’s a lot of unknowns and there’s a lot of difficulty predicting, especially to give it a little bit of context. I was in the field for 150 days, so that 150 days away from the university 150 days, you know in, you know, taking international flights, buses and trains. You know, possibly even, you know, with Covid right now, I think it’s awfully revealing how easy it is to pass germs and get sick or contract some type of virus whilst out in the field. So that 150 days of like quite a bit of exposure to potential risks which might be out there.

Ben Cooper

0:05:29 – 0:05:44

Brings us back to a question that I probably should have asked first, which is just tell us a bit about your Everest journey in terms of where you flew through, where you travelled through, where you perhaps spent time on the way to get to Everest. Just give us an idea of your overall trip.
Jase Wilson

0:05:45 – 0:09:05

Yeah, all right, so my trip was, again, it was 150 days. I began – I flew into Kathmandu and I spent about two weeks in Kathmandu. I went around and did some interviews with – this is prior to the mountaineering season – and I did some interviews with high altitude workers and whatnot primarily. And then at that point, what ends up happening is you take what is probably the world’s most exciting and dangerous flight from Kathmandu to Lukla. These flights are, unfortunately they are actually, they do actually have quite a high likelihood of crashes. Whilst I was there, one of the planes had actually made contact with the helicopter. Everyone in the plane and the helicopter, you know, died. So it happens. And it happens actually quite frequently and of course, you know, while in Kathmandu there’s all kinds of things, like taxis and trains and whatnot. So there’s lots of moving parts and lots of sort of risk flying around, you at all times.

Then you end up sort of trekking. It’s Ah. I mean, the Khumbu Valley of Nepal is quite populated the tourists, so there’s lots of people around. So, you know, if you were to wind up in a situation, you know, there’ll be lots of people to, around to help. But for the most part, you know, it is a mountainous area in a pretty remote part of the world where if something were to happen, Okay, the Khumbu Valley is one thing, because there’s a lot of helicopters, because there’s lots of tourists and they can transport you out of there if something were to happen but, you know, after my period of time at Everest, what was arguably the sort of much more sort of dangerous part of the field work was my field work in Pakistan and that’s not because of the typical way we think of Pakistan with sort of social, political, sort of conflict and different things. I mean, that obviously poses a risk. But the biggest part about Pakistan is the remoteness.

So for we trekked in K2 base camp, which is about at least a week’s walk from anywhere and when you do, you walk a week and the village that you would get to wouldn’t have any hospital facilities. And on top of that, because there’s fewer tourists, you know, the rescue services are only provided by a couple of like really ageing military helicopters back there. So, uh, it’s in that part of the trip and how far we were from anywhere, it makes it actually quite risky because, um, you know even simple things, like if you were to get a cough or if you were to get a flu or or whatever, you know, you really don’t have access to medicine. If you were to break your ankle or something like that, you’re really in the middle of nowhere.

So luckily, that portion of the fieldwork went off without a hitch. But, you know, I think that’s probably one of the periods of time where I was exposed to the, well, I’ll say it’s that the small things that when you’re out in the middle of nowhere, the small things can turn into really big things really quickly.

Ben Cooper

0:09:05 – 0:10:30

Mmm. That’s an interesting point. Because it’s those small things or that small health issue or a medical issue or a small injury or a small cut. Those things that start small, they can get bigger and bigger and bigger and that in that environment is a really bad thing.

That’s what we see quite a lot off, because people call us, you know, to discuss those things along the way, and then you see that window of opportunity to make decisions and do things at a slower, less dramatic pace. Help you make the decision that you know, we’re turning around here, and, you know, this is a big enough deal to cancel your trip, to change things, to come away, and that comes with a lot of heartbreak when something has had this much planning go into it. But it’s better to have those points of discussion, those experts on the line so you could make those, those decisions at a slower pace and have the comfort that it is absolutely necessary to do so rather than leave it another week and then, you know you’re hoping for a helicopter the right kind of time.

The remote environments are very interesting aren’t they because that in the one sense there’s a lot of planning and preparation you can do which I just alluded to to make sure that those remote environment incidents can be dealt with as best as possible. But there’s an awful lot of stuff, actually, you know, you have to take that mode of transport to get in or out. There is no health care when you’re there. So to a certain extent, I suppose you and the university are looking at each other, accepting a certain amount of risk is that would you say that’s the right way to put it?

Jase Wilson

0:10:31 – 0:11:40

When it comes to risk, of course, there’s those sort of those things that you know about that can happen that you can sort of mitigate and plan for as best as possible. But then there’s other stuff that comes up that you can’t even you know, that you can’t like, sort of the Black Swan events, or whatnot that are unknowable by nature.

One of which was while we were trekking to K2 base camp. Now, this didn’t actually wind up being an issue because I wasn’t sort of caught, but I wasn’t even thinking about it. There’s when you’re checking into K2 base camp you cross quite a few Military checkpoints, and, um, I took some photos of one of them on my phone, and it was very quickly pointed out to me by my trekking porter, by my checking guide that, you know, you really, really shouldn’t do that. And you should delete those photos immediately. If you got caught doing that, you would be detained and there’d be all this sort of all these issues going on. And, you know, it was something so innocent that I hadn’t really even thought of for a second about what kind of risk that could put me under.

Ben Cooper

0:11:41 – 0:12:39

What you would assume would have very quickly come up in part of your, you know, administrative risk assessments, paperwork research done, you know, sitting back at Leeds Beckett with a coffee in your hand, actually was one of the things that completely blindsided you and took you by surprise. And I suppose similar incidences in either less friendly countries or countries who perhaps because of geopolitical reasons, are being very sensitive to research being conducted. All of a sudden, you know, there’s your headline in the sense that you know Jase William gets detained in Nepal for researching without permission that that’s how those things happen, I guess.

What about life at Everest Base camp? How did that pan out? Did your research go the way you wanted it to go? Did you see people who were better prepared than you? Not as well prepared as you? Were there any incidents whilst you were at Everest base camp, with people falling ill or fatalities, or how did it all pan out?

Jase Wilson

0:12:39 – 0:13:51

Spending, you know, a minimum of six weeks at around 5000 metres is very exhausting. I lost a lot of weight and you can see how it would be very easy to get quite sick. You know, it’s not always the easiest thing to do to just do something simple, like eat food because you might feel sick or whatever.

There were nine, nine foreign climbers in my camp who were either going to climb Everest or Lhotse, which is the fourth – Everest of course, the highest and Lhotse fourth highest mountain in the world. And they’re kind of more or less side by side. Of those nine climbers, only four of them summited. One of them ended up developing symptoms of high altitude, sort of Pulmonary Oedema. Another one of the climbers fell into a crevasse.

We had one of our team members actually die, so there was a lot of things. There was a lot of things around and lot of people that I had met that had symptoms that had to call their trip off, and a lot of stories that I had collected through my interviews of pretty extreme things.

Ben Cooper

0:13:52 – 0:14:23

An environment where you have to have done your preparation for sure and an environment where you need to have your plans in place for when things go wrong, if you know if those plans could exist.

Jase, I wanna I ask you some questions about about the university, which departments of the university were most engaged with the sort of planning and preparation for your, for your trip? Was it the health and safety department? Was that the insurance and risk department? Was it some kind of international office or you know, who did you deal with most? Who seemed to own the process at Leeds Beckett when it came to its planning for your trip?

Jase Wilson

0:14:25 – 0:15:53

Well, so the way that it works for us is basically, you have, we have sort of an internal ethics sort of protocol, which involved me, obviously filling out a lot of paperwork about, ok, here’s what I’m proposing that I will do, 150 days of field work and that will involve these type of risks to me, the researcher. So the ethics procedure usually is mostly to prevent any issues that might arise with participants from here whom you’re dealing with.

However, in this case, and in my case it was mostly around protecting myself, the researcher. But actually way, way in advance of this, I had went quite early because my PhD supervisor basically said, well, you need to talk to this Martin Watson, who’s the sort of risk and ethics sort of officer at the university. Who’s the one who basically is responsible for insuring the trip and making sure that I cross my T’s and dot my I’s for the whole thing.

So right there, we’ve kind of got sort of four or five different levels, or layers of faculties or organisations within the university that are sort of coming together to take a look at this trip and to provide expertise and so forth.

Ben Cooper

0:15:53 – 0:16:05

Were you required to sorta keep in touch with the university on a daily basis, you know, 2 or 3 day basis? Was there a schedule and a routine as to how they required you to keep in touch throughout your trip or was it, was it more ad hoc than that?
Jase Wilson

0:16:06 – 0:19:09

Dave Bunting, who’s the coordinator for these outdoor trips that they do to Nepal every two years. His though process was “Well, we need to have daily communications with you” but you try to keep daily communications is really dangerous because ultimately there’s so many opportunities for there to be a breakdown in the chain of communications.

So, you know, for example, one of the talks that we had very early on was, well, if we’re supposed to communicate on a daily basis and we don’t hear from Jase in 24 hours, well, what do we do?  Do we start to raise the flags or do we start to, you know, begin searching or what’s gonna happen? How do we, do we escalate immediately, and we had just kind of realised that trying to keep that level of contact was just probably going to cause problems.

So we had agreed that on a more or less kind of ad hoc basis I would be keeping in contact with the supervisors, at least on a sort of weekly, weekly basis. But this is in, also paired up with a pretty detailed itinerary that I had developed. So the supervisors, so I was able to sorta send them a message and say, “Hey, here’s where we are now, I’m trekking between look Lukla and I’m trekking up to Tengboche for the next couple of days, I’m going to spend a couple of days in Namche Bazaar acclimating to the altitude, and hopefully doing some interviews and there, there we go there’s like five days.

However, in Pakistan it was a completely different scenario, where we were trying to keep regular communications up and we’d actually, the university had actually bought a spot communications device which, you know, again, one of the things you know, you could blame this maybe on a lack of research, I’m not sure. But the network provider that spot uses to communicate just didn’t operate that well. There were people I’d be sitting beside, people who use Garmin devices who used a different network, and they were able to communicate fine. Whereas me with my Spot device, I was getting messages out, but I couldn’t get messages back in, so I never had a confirmation that my messages were ever received, which obviously sort of made me feel pretty nervous.

Luckily, in the end, I was able to use other people’s devices to confirm that something had been sent and received. So, you know, we sort of were able to put the fires out there on that and at some point, my communications device completely died. So it froze with a full battery. You know, so it took, like four days for the battery to finally die before the screen unfroze and I could recharge it, reboot the system. But that was four days where I had no communications.

Ben Cooper

0:19:09 – 0:19:44

So, Jase, I just wanted to ask you before, before we let you go. I just wanted to ask you your thoughts on academic activity or research assignments that you feel might get signed off at the moment even with all the Covid restrictions that are part of our world at the minute I’m sort of guessing that universities will say, Well, if it doesn’t need to happen right now, um, you know, let’s put this trip off, and I suppose your, your research may well have fallen into that category. But in the academic circles or at your university, are you hearing about trips that are continuing, trips that are carrying on at the moment with all the restrictions in place?
Jase Wilson

0:19:44 – 0:20:02

It’s really tough to say right now. I think that the appetite for risk at the moment, as demonstrated by the closures and by the way that the Covid situation is being handled, you know, the appetite for risk seems to be extremely low.
Ben Cooper

0:20:03 – 0:20:14

When you feel that you can travel again and when you feel the next trip request and risk assessment process might go through and get approved, where is it then you’ll be trying to get to next, Jase?
Jase Wilson

0:20:16 – 0:22:30

Well, my next direction will hopefully be to obtain some post-doctoral research funding, and the types of things that I want to look at and I’m very interested in if how we are dealing how, where what is what is dealing with risk through adventure  tourism mean for us? What does it give to us, what are the benefits of it and how?

Because we have sort of this public erasure of risk from our, from our lives as citizens. You know, it’s something that’s kind of banished to the corners of society. But meanwhile, when I’m out in the field and I’m interviewing sort of high level, you know, high altitude tourism is really expensive, and most of the people that do it are high income earners, and they see a really strong value in doing, you know, sort of extreme athletic feats which involve a lot of risk. And when I talked to them about it, they seem to think that there’s a tremendous benefit from dealing with risk and from dealing with the real emotions and fear and all of the things and the doubt and the concerns and all of the things that you have to deal with on an expedition.

They talk about when they come back from this; they talk about like a really extreme clarity. But they can see, you know, if you’re dealing with the emotions and the fear and everything of, sort of what can be described in some senses, as sort of life of life and death situations, you know, for example, one of my participants had said to  me that, you know, if I’m up at camp three and the storm is coming in and I have to go all the way back down to base camp if I don’t do it, if I don’t pick my body up, walk down the mountain, you know I’m gonna get stuck up there in a storm, and I might die.

So a lot of them talk about how, when they come back into sort of their real world and they see things much more clearly, all the little problems or the little minutia that have bogged them down in their job or in the work or their life with their partners or whatever and all of a sudden, it just seems to be really simple to deal with because they realise how trivial sort of a lot of these small things are.

Ben Cooper

0:22:30 – 0:22:57

Jase, in this conversation we’ve touched upon on an awful lot. We’ve touched upon fatalities in the field. We’ve touched upon remote areas; we’ve touched upon reduced healthcare capability, state detention, security dangers in Pakistan. And you’ve told us a lot about how you and your university prepared for your trip and how it went. And I thank you very, very much for your time. And I hope you’ll come back and speak to us again in the future.
Jase Wilson

0:22:58 – 0:23:02

Sounds good. Thank you very much. Was a pleasure to be with you.
Ben Cooper

0:23:02 – 0:23:05

Thanks, Jase and thank you for listening to this episode of the Navigate podcast.
Voice Over

0:23:05 – 0:23:38

Thank you for listening to this episode of Navigate. The World Travel Protection podcast that steers you in the right direction, helping you to explore the world safely. For more information on how we protect millions of global travellers each year, visit WorldTravelProtection.com or follow us on LinkedIn. We’d love to connect.

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