Nepal Facing a Mountain of Trouble on Everest
Mount Everest, long the centre of the climbing and adventure world, is attracting international attention for all the wrong reasons. Thousands descend on the mountain each year, hundreds of them hoping to reach its 8,848 metre high summit. Split between Nepal and China, Everest’s Nepalese half was thrust into the international spotlight by viral photos of climbers queuing for the summit in 2019. As the mountain reopens to the world after a year-long closure forced by the coronavirus pandemic, Nepalese authorities will have to confront chronic mismanagement or risk compounding a deadly and ecologically devastating situation.
The world’s highest traffic jam
Overcrowding at altitude is a deadly problem. In the so-called death zone above 8,000 metres, climbers waste valuable supplemental oxygen waiting in queues, sometimes for hours, leaving them vulnerable to lethal altitude sickness and exhaustion. Extreme weather conditions limit the climbing season and concentrate the majority of climbers into narrow summit windows, particularly in mid-May, creating bottlenecks at key obstacles on the narrow summit route.
Yet more people are climbing Mount Everest than ever before, with almost 900 summits recorded in 2019 — a season which claimed the lives of 11 climbers. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, hundreds are expected to arrive at Nepal’s basecamp now that the mountain has reopened, suggesting that the trend will continue. Backed-up bookings from cancelled 2020 expeditions may result in even higher demand once the pandemic ends. Worse, the growing popularity of outdoor activity worldwide has birthed a proliferation of cut-price tour operators offering almost anyone a shot at mountaineering glory, with little regard for safety. As a result, many climbers are dangerously unprepared, unskilled and unfit to tackle Everest.
More people on the mountain means more waste. The climbing gear, oxygen tanks and human waste that are typically left behind in the course of summiting Everest now pollute much of its slopes. Freezing temperatures don’t allow human waste to biodegrade at high altitudes, further compounding the problem. Hundreds of bodies, similarly unable to decompose, are also thought to remain on Everest, unable to be moved due to the difficulty of conditions and the immense weight of corpses when frozen.
Problems persist despite recent efforts to clean up Everest. A 2019 project removed over ten tonnes of waste from its slopes. The scale of the problem and the difficulty of such efforts, however, mean that a long-term solution will require broader cultural and organisational change. Enforcement of environmental regulations on the mountain is effectively impossible, with responsibility laying with ever growing numbers of increasingly less-experienced climbers. Other environmental changes are making Everest more dangerous. Rising temperatures are destabilising seracs and making icefalls more common in the notorious Khumbu Glacier, which must be traversed when approaching Everest from the south and was the site of a deadly 2014 icefall.
The human impact
The Sherpa people, in their roles as porters and guides for international climbers, have borne the brunt of Everest’s safety issues and face chronic exploitation. They are often endangered by inexperienced climbers who require greater assistance and are more likely to make poor decisions at altitude. The 2014 icefall killed 16 Sherpas fixing ropes for international clients and brought to a head tensions between the government, Sherpas and major climbing operations. Many Sherpas say they feel ignored and sidelined by the Nepalese government, while climbing operations are often more focussed on profit rather than safety or respect.
Simply closing Everest to climbers as a means of addressing safety and environmental concerns is not an option. Sherpa communities are heavily reliant on climbing revenue and were devastated by the closure of the mountain after the 2014 icefall, 2015 earthquake and 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Tourism makes up eight per cent of Nepal’s gross domestic product, with Everest bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy. The Nepalese government directly receives over four million dollars from the sale of climbing permits. Permanent closure would be ruinous for both Nepal’s economy and its people.
A question of enforcement
Some argue that Nepalese authorities are prepared to take risks and cut corners to not compromise this immense revenue stream and issue more permits than the mountain can safely handle. Nepalese authorities have introduced new rules mandating minimum experience levels and the removal of waste by climbing operations. However, questions have been raised doubting whether the government has the means or desire to properly implement and enforce them. Other new regulations such as a ban on photos of other climbers are aimed at avoiding future negative publicity of overcrowding, rather than addressing the root causes of Everest’s problems. Government corruption and a lack of engagement from Kathmandu officials further compound the issues, with authorities often estranged both geographically and ethnically from the Sherpas who conduct the majority of work on the mountain. The central government appears to instead be focussed on US$11,000 climbing permits which are paid for in Kathmandu, while the reality on the mountain lags behind official regulations.
‘Not a trophy’
Although summiting Everest remains a significant achievement in mountaineering, many climbers feel that the commercialisation of the mountain has corrupted the original spirit of climbing, with money now trumping skill and determination. The mixture of profit-seeking with growing numbers of inexperienced climbers driven by social media has certainly produced a dangerous situation, with significant implications for Nepal and its people. Climber Mark Jenkins argues that Nepal must limit the number of permits issued and professionalise the companies permitted to operate on the mountain so that Everest becomes ‘a privilege, an honor, not a trophy’. Doing so, however, will require the Nepalese government to overcome years of mismanagement and corruption. Until then, it seems that little will stop the descent of the world’s highest peak into ignominy.
Samuel Garrett is the Young Diplomats Society’s Regional Correspondent for South and Central Asia, and a student of Arabic and International Relations at the University of Sydney.