On May 19,Pemba Janbu Sherpa, a high altitude guide for Thamserku Trekking, was supposed to help his client summit Mount Everest. 150-200 people were planning the same attempt that day. Pemba’s client eventually decided to attempt it the following day.
So they left the Last Camp, at 7,000 meters, at about 7:30 that evening. Pemba had climbed Everest (Sagarmatha in Nepal) in 2010 as well as in 2011, and had been in a total of 16 expeditions.
As Pemba and his client made their way up, summiteers of the day were on their way down, dangerously behind schedule, in the dark. Winds that were expected to be mild had hit up to 30 kilometers per hour.
Soon, Pemba ran into a Nepali who was trying to descend but had run out of battery for the headlight, and was running out of oxygen, too. He gave the climber some oxygen as well as water.
Next, he ran into a Korean who was also in distress. Pemba helped him continue descending after giving him some water and reestablishing his safety line.
Then, he met Shriya Shah, the Canada-born Nepali, who had been abandoned by the Sherpa she was climbing with. She had fallen a few feet off the route with her head down, and appeared to be running out of oxygen fast. Pemba called out to her a few times.
The Everest range as seen from Yeti Mountain Home, Kondge (4350 meters) at night.
Shriya finally responded. Pemba quickly set down his bags and pulled out a spare bottle of oxygen and called out. This time, Shriya did not respond. She had already died.
Further up, Pemba ran into an American, also abandoned on the high trail. The foreigner was out of oxygen, his trekking suits torn and its down feathers blown away. One of his gloves was missing too. It was 11:30PM.
Pemba told his client that if they decided to continue to the summit as planned, the American would die. At 4:30AM, Pemba had arrived back at the Last Camp with his client, and the American who was wearing Pemba’s gloves. All three were frostbitten, all three alive. Pemba consistently made the right decision every step of the way.
What is going so wrong this Everest season?
It hardly comes as a surprise that this week the international media is as littered with bad news, and expected bad news, of the current Mount Everest summit season as Everest’s Camp 2 is with garbage from at least two years ago. It has been a dangerous start to the Summit season with four deaths already. And no one knows what to expect of the more than 200 summits planned for this weekend.
On May 17, the International Herald Tribune, as well as its parent paper, The New York Times, ran the Op-Ed “Don’t Climb Every Mountain,” by Freddie Wilkinson. Soon, deaths on Everest made the rounds in the media. On May 22, “Everest ‘traffic jam’ could happen again,” a headline read in The Guardian, UK. “Missing Sherpa guide found alive after four die descending the mountain.”
World’s highest traffic jam?
The number of people attempting to summit Everest has been distinctly rising in the last three years. So yes, there are more people on Everest this season than there has been in the last two. Still, the “traffic jam” is not a numbers game alone.
With Everest, it is not just about the “how many” but also the “who” that makes all the difference. For now, anyone who is willing to pay is virtually granted the access to Everest.
This also means that people of little or no relevant experience are on the trail too. Everyone attempting the summit has to follow a single trail, and often there is no room for “overtaking.” And if anyone on the trail is causing delays because that person is on the mountain for the sake of being there, it puts everyone else at risk.
For example, anyone who will be stuck behind Prakash Dahal, the son of Maoist Party Chairman Prachanda, will probably be at risk. Prakash, with no training, will take longer to complete every task required of him on the trail. This will throw everyone behind him off schedule. On Everest, schedules are no joke.
It isn’t just Prakash, though. There are many foreigners who attempt to summit Everest for novelty and fame. But can that honestly be permitted when it means risking everyone else on the peak?
The other risk of anyone slowing down a trail of this kind is the very real threat of being frostbitten. The longer any climber is forced to be on the trail, the greater chances of frostbites.
So while numbers may be growing, it is also the quality and experience of those who make up that number that needs scrutiny to understand why these deadly “traffic jams” have occurred this season. And why it mustn’t be repeated.
One remarkable shift on Everest’s landscape may be of the Ice Pole between Camp 1 and Camp 2. While Camp 1 has gone further up, it has moved closer to Camp 2. By some estimates, the change is of about 50 meters in the last few years.
Also, this year, the establishing of the seasonal summit route was delayed because they had to wait for the snow. Without snow, rocks were exposed, posing threats of rock falls.
Still, as the season began, it has been reported that a Slovak broke a hand, an Indian’s helmet was broken and head injured, and a local guide’s face smashed by violent rock falls.
“Climbers speak of two kinds of hazards: objective and subjective. The subjective risks are those you can potentially control through skills and experience.
The objective ones are events like avalanches and icefall that don’t care who you are, only that you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rarely has so much of the latter been stacked up against so little of the former,” Freddie Wilkinson wrote in the Times.
Perhaps it is time the relevant bodies in the government and private sector established some firm prerequisites as to just who may be permitted to summit Everest.
They could range from proofs of previous summits selected by industry leaders as a prerequisite, as well as proof of training expeditions conducted in Nepal.
The list can go on, and be better developed by experts in the field. But the point is, if everyone who is willing to pay is given a permit to summit, it clearly does not serve the interest of the climbers, the host country, or the trekking community.
This season, only beginning, has already made that case through a series of unfortunate events. And considering the impacts that climate change seems to be having, there is all the more reason to be cautious and reevaluate expedition practices.
It is also worth considering that expedition leaders, and they are virtually all Sherpas, have the final decision on matters of safety. It is probably certain that almost every local leader of an expedition has had a foreign client whose instinctive response to a suggestion on canceling the summit attempt is: “No, I’ve paid to do this, I’m paying to help me do this.”
When the air is that thin, there is neither the guarantee of clear thinking nor space for lengthy debates. But if there is a waiver that has been signed by the client, let that waiver guide the decision.
If a climber takes 12 hours instead of the prescribed seven hours for the Camp 3 section, there should be no debates on whether the summit attempt should be made or not, irrespective of the US$50,000 paid.
The real risks, of death, are too high. And that risk is entirely unnecessary for the expedition leader who is advising to descend.
Scene from the Everest Summit trail last week. (Photo Courtesy: Thamserku Trekking)
The Money Trail
Where will Nepal draw the line between more immediate revenue versus sustained Everest tourism?
“The direct contribution of travel and tourism to (Nepal’s) GDP is expected to be NPR37.3bn (2.8% of total GDP) in 2011,” the World Travel and Tourism Council had noted in the 2011 Nepal Economic Impact Report.
The report also indicated that the travel industry was expected to directly support 293,000 jobs (2.4% of total employment) in the country last year, rising by 3.9% to 429,000 jobs (2.7%) by 2021.
National Parks and Protected Areas also remain significant contributors to revenue. In 2010, Chitwan National Park (CNP) topped the list with 84,518 visitors, followed by the Sagarmatha National Park (SNP) in the second place with 32,084 visitors. In terms of revenues, those numbers resulted to US$61,017,687 for CNP and US$26,662,960 for SNP.
That year, mountain expeditions alone helped Nepal earn US$3,028,600 in royalty. Of that, Mt. Everest generated the highest revenue at US$2,343,000.
Closed for the Season (or two)
Considering the climate-related changes, climbers and guides have noticed that Everest, while keeping in mind that US$2,343,000 figure, may be worth considering actually closing it down for a season or two.
In that time, the government and private sector could come together to do a few critical things: set up a local state-of-the-art weather station in the area, clean up Everest, and most importantly, rethink the heightened risks that maybe related to climate change.
If the mountain has indeed experienced various changes, and it certainly appears to be, an extended study of that situation and reorientation of guides and rescue operations accordingly is a must.
While shutting down Everest for a season or two might seem radical, at least fiscally, it actually might not be. There are 326 peaks that are open for mountaineering in Nepal. Of that, 25 are in the Solukhumbu region.
So shutting Everest down temporarily would not mean taking away revenues from Solukhumbu or the Sagarmatha National Park. It would only mean being able to offer a safer Mount Everest down the line, while promoting other peaks in the region and the country.
Mount Everest is not, and should not, be treated like an expensive amusement park. And nobody’s permit fee is bigger than somebody’s safety more than 7,000 meters above sea level.
This trekking season will find it hard to escape the international branding of “Everest traffic jam” that put lives of trekkers at risk on Everest. Add to that the avalanche in the Annapurna region that is said to have caused the massive flash flood in Seti, presenting that region as a vulnerable one.
The last trekking season’s ending, in November 2011, will be remembered for the international news reports of hundreds of tourists being “stranded” between Lukla and Namche.
At US$1’s exchange rate valued at more than Rs. 89, raking it in might seem like a good idea. But industry leaders and policymakers need to stop and think as to how many seasons of international branding disasters can Nepal’s mountain tourism endure, how many lives can be risked for revenues, and how to prove to the world that the next season there will be no traffic jams on Everest, or any other peak in Nepal.
As for such visitors, Wilkinson really did put it best in the pages of the Times: “In the end, mountaineers have one final option at their disposal. They can choose not to be there in the first place.”
But what if they really do?
The writer cum photographer is a Policy Fellow at the Niti Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @kashishds or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.