KATHMANDU - A snowstorm that killed dozens of people in Nepal is a "wake-up call" for the trekking industry and tourists alike, experts say, with some heading to the world's highest mountains unprepared for conditions that can easily turn deadly.
At least 26 hikers, guides and porters were killed when heavy snow and avalanches struck the Annapurna circuit in the Himalayas last Tuesday at the height of the trekking season, in one of the worst disasters ever to hit the country.
Hundreds more have had to be airlifted to safety, some suffering from frostbite after days in freezing conditions without adequate clothing or shelter.
But unlike a deadly avalanche that hit Mount Everest earlier this year, experts say the latest disaster could have been alleviated had warnings of bad weather in the area been heeded.
"This is a wake-up call for us. We need a weather warning system and emergency shelters for stranded hikers," Nepal Tourism Board spokesman Sharad Pradhan told AFP as emergency workers continued to pull bodies out of the snow, almost a week after the storm hit.
"It's also a reminder for thousands of trekkers who think they can go up 4,000-5,000 metres alone that they need to take responsibility for their safety," he added.
"If they had gone with registered guides, the casualties would have been much lower." Every year thousands of tourists hike the Annapurna circuit, known as the "apple pie" trek because of the food served at the lodges known as teahouses that line the route.
Most of the route follows clearly marked paths at relatively low altitudes, making it suitable for inexperienced trekkers.
But the Thorong La pass, near where many of the victims were killed, climbs to 5,416 metres, exposing trekkers to the risk of altitude sickness as well as avalanches.
"It's not an ordinary trek if you go up to the Thorong La pass - it's almost mountaineering," said Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times and an authority on the Himalayas.
Paul Sherridan, a British survivor who has described how his group made their way to safety in near-zero visibility, claimed trekkers were "herded to their deaths" by Nepalese guides who lacked the expertise to deal with the conditions.
"My view is that this incident could have been prevented," the 49-year-old policeman told the BBC.
Nepal's prime minister has promised to set up weather warning systems in remote mountain areas, particularly those popular with tourists.
But experts say much more needs to be done to raise awareness of the dangers of trekking at altitude in a country where many tourists head into the mountains with little preparation.
Anna Solander, a 21-year-old Swede among the many young people who flock to Nepal for holidays, had planned to hike across the Annapurna region later this month - but said she was now debating whether to go ahead.
"I didn't even know that trekking was, like, dangerous - I thought it was only dangerous if you go for Everest or something," she said.
About 30 per cent of the around 200,000 hikers who trek in Nepal every year do so without a registered guide, according to Pradhan, who said trekkers needed to shoulder some responsibility for their own safety.
Some survivors have said they were unaware the storm was coming when they set out on their trek - even though it had been forecast by meteorologists.
But much of the blame for the scale of the disaster has fallen on trekking agencies, who critics say should have been better prepared.
Tashi Sherpa, a trekking agency head who postponed his clients' trip after seeing the weather forecast, said lives could have been saved had the proper precautions been taken.
"We take many precautions when we go up the Annapurna circuit - we carry emergency oxygen, masks, medicines, satellite phones, extra jackets, snowboots, goggles. Basically whatever we might need in case the weather turns bad," said Sherpa, director of the Seven Summit Treks agency in Kathmandu.
Sherpa said there were no particular requirements to open a trekking agency in Nepal and called for better government regulation.
"There is no criteria in place to open a trekking company - anyone can do it, regardless of experience," he told AFP.
"If you speak enough English and you can convince clients, you are in business." But Dixit cautioned against overregulation of trekking in Nepal and said improving mobile communications in mountain areas should be the priority.
"The spirit of trekking in Nepal's mountains, it's about the freedom to go anywhere, with or without a guide," he said.
"If you start regulating it, you lose that freedom."