With the arrival of summer monsoons, Nepal’s climbing season has come to a close––and not a day too soon. On May 27, Colorado-based climber Chris Kulish became the 11th and final fatality on Mount Everest with an additional 10 climbers succumbing to falls and the elements on Makalu, Kangchenjunga, Lhotse, Annapurna, and Choy Oyo. It was the most deadly Himalayan climbing season since 2015 when an earthquake unleashed an avalanche killing 19 people at Everest basecamp.
In most years, climbing deaths are the result of bad decisions, poor conditions, or foul weather. This year’s perfect storm included a lack of permitting oversight and a large number of inexperienced and inadequately supported climbers. It was simply a matter of too many people attempting to stand on the same tiny summit––at the same time.
On May 23rd veteran climber Nirmal Purja snapped the viral photo of the long conga line of climbers standing heel-to-toe just below the summit. While most experienced mountain guides agree overcrowding was not the sole cause of deaths this season, at least six climbers may have expired as a direct or indirect result of unexpected delays imposed by other teams. A representative with India’s Arun Treks said rope traffic and prolonged exposure likely caused the death of their client, Anjali Kulkarni. She died on the descent after spending nearly 20 hours in the infamous Death Zone above 8,000 meters. According to Purja who climbed Makalu, Lhotse, Annapurna, and Everest this spring, crowding on Everest is not uncommon, but never before this extreme.
In response to global press coverage and accusations of mismanagement by the Nepalese government, a handful of officials have hinted at permit reforms and stricter regulations. As suggested by the climbing community, they finally mentioned imposing long overdue standards to ensure only the fit and skilled are allowed to attempt Everest. Nepalese officials are pretty good at delivering timely and seemingly positive media soundbites.
Those of us who work closely with the Nepalese government are at no risk of going hypoxic as we hold our breath waiting for such policy changes.
As one of the poorest countries in the world, one political driver remains a constant––money. It is well known the Nepalese government wants to increase tourism revenue by a multiple of five in as many years. According to Mr. Laxman Gautam, Director of Communications for the Nepal Tourism Board, “We have sought the low revenue of backpackers and trekkers for too long. We need to increase the number of high paying travelers coming to Nepal.” In the very next breath, he said, “Everest climbers are the highest value visitors we have.” And he’s right. With as little as a doctor’s note and $11,000, virtually anyone can acquire a permit to stand on top of the world. Of the $50,000 spent on the actual climb, virtually all of it stays within Nepal. Everest is Nepal’s sacred cash cow.
Some might find hope in recent statements issued by Mr. Yagya Raj Sunuwar, a relatively new member of the Nepalese Parliament. In a piece published by the New York Times, Sunuwar said it was time to implement new provisions for a safer Everest. Such statements are easily issued. It’s the followthrough that remains problematic.
For the last several years, the trekking and climbing industries in Nepal have run amuck with minimal oversight or regulation. To make matters worse, corruption is rife. In the Everest region, a well-known helicopter scam has fleeced travel insurance companies of $40 million dollars in bogus claims. At the behest of the global travel industry, the government promised to look into the helicopter rescue scam and bring the transgressors to justice. No progress has been made other than to launch a phony investigation and file frivolous lawsuits against anyone bringing charges of foul play against the government of Nepal. Suspicions continue to circulate implying select officials are complicit in the scam. It’s doubtful the government will implement any regulations that might limit revenue, legal or otherwise. They have not done so yet.
Restricting permits is only one part of a long-term solution. It’s not just novice climbers proving unfit for Everest. Exact numbers are elusive, but there are an estimated 2,000 trekking and climbing companies––just in Nepal. Competition for business is creating a race to the bottom with budget expeditions now venturing high into the Khumbu.
While covering the climbing beat I walked the streets of Kathmandu waiting for street hawkers to solicit my business. It doesn’t take long. Even trekking agencies with no climbing experience assured me they could arrange my summit bid for a nominal fee. This is how teams of rookie climbers end up on the flanks of the world’s most dangerous peaks with equally inexperienced sherpas. All it takes to create a deadly disaster is a narrow weather window and a bottleneck above the Death Zone. But again, don’t expect government intervention anytime soon.
During one of many interviews with the recently deceased Minister of Tourism, Aviation, and Culture, Mr. Rabindra Adhikari, he routinely said, “It’s not our policy to interfere with the open marketplace. We feel the good trekking and climbing agencies will prevail and the lesser companies will not survive.” And it seems, nor will their unwitting clients.
Before leaving Nepal, just as the climbing season concluded, I spoke with another long-time mountaineering operator and successful Everest climber. He said it best, “Nepal wants the revenue of an Everest climb as badly as climbers want to stand on the summit. Neither of those two things will ever go away.”
Photo top: Nims Purja