Everest’s ever-rest

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- Navin Singh Khadka
Everest’s ever-rest

May 1, 2014-

With its exposed rocks and snowpack patches, Everest largely bears a black and white appearance. But mountaineering on it has not been so straightforward. It has had many grey areas, which have now become more pronounced after the April 18 tragedy that claimed 16 lives.

From payments and compensation for climber guides and their families to what goes to the local Sherpa community out of the royalty the government collects from mountaineering, all kinds of issues have come to the fore. Working conditions for mountain guides and the support staff and the dangers they have to brave have hogged world headlines amid expedition teams pulling out this spring season.

On the rise

In all this, there is one aspect that has remained buried beneath the after-effects of the killer avalanche. It is the rocketing number of people from around the world who want to stand atop Everest, say international mountaineering experts. They think the crowd of inexperienced people going up the mountain is growing dangerously.

“Now everybody wants to buy the ticket to the summit of Everest and want the Sherpas to do all the work and they just want to go up,” Frits Vrijlandt, president of the world body for mountaineering, International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA), said in an interview I did for the BBC.

“So many people who are quite inexperienced about mountaineering go to climb Everest these days and this has been the main source of the problem. It means that these inexperienced people need more support staff and so you see many less experienced professionals doing the job as support staff including guides, rope-fixers and porters.” Vrijlandt explained that the demand for support staff, including porters and guides, has shot up and that has resulted in less experienced people joining the expedition as staff. “There are people who want everything to be carried by porters. They don’t even realise that we don’t need to eat so much while climbing the mountains and yet, they make the porters carry loads that endanger their lives. The notion that if you can pay, you can summit the highest peak has led to a surge in many inexperienced mountain professionals who are at greater risk.”

Demand experience

Of course, there were some senior and well-respected mountain guides who were killed in the April 18 avalanche—accidents do happen and natural disasters do take place. Vrijlandt’s argument was not just about that one incident. He thinks allowing Everest to be accessible to anyone who has the money to pay for it has made it an even more dangerous place.

He said a UIAA team had warned the government of such a danger when it visited Nepal last year. “I addressed this issue during my conversation with the Nepali government last year. I asked them to put some rules for Everest climbers, like, for instance, demanding some climbing experience. They just listened to what I said. I hope they include the idea in their recommendations one day.”  

But because Everest expeditions now mean big business, how can the government take a step that would not only slash its own royalty earnings but also the income of mountaineering professionals?

Vrijlandt said he had even suggested an idea to the government that would address that challenge as well. “The government can ask these inexperienced people (wannabe Everest climbers) to gain experience by climbing 7,000 metre peaks in Nepal, which means the employment for Sherpas will still be there but not on Everest. It will be moving to other mountains in Nepal.”

Spread the burden

The idea of demanding some experience for wannabe Everest-climbers means that they will have to train on some other mountains first. And that begets the need to train mountaineers also in the context of changing weather patterns and the way snow-packs, ice-cliffs, glaciers and snowfields behave. This is not to suggest that any one incident was climate-related because natural disasters do happen. But what cannot be ignored is the fact that the Himalayan region has seen a higher temperature rise than elsewhere and that, scientists say, will have some bearing on the glaciers and snowpacks. Add to that the risk of earthquakes, given that the Himalayas lie in an active seismic zone. This is not to say that the pan Himalayan region has to be studied but at least areas where expeditions take place need to be monitored and risks should be factored in while preparing training modules for climbers.             

Tourism ministry officials say there have been many lessons for them.

“We are still discussing with different stakeholders to see what are the issues we need to address,” says the ministry’s mountaineering division chief, Madhusudan Burlakoti.

The government has announced royalty waivers and discounts to decentralise mountaineering but the crowd on Everest has not become any smaller. Whether the last avalanche brings about any sweeping change remains to be seen.

Khadka is a BBC journalist based in London


Published: 02-05-2014 08:59

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