On May 19th, Pemba Janbu Sherpa, a high altitude guide for Thamserku Trekking, was going to help a client summit Mount Everest. 150-200 other people were going to try climbing Everest that same day. Pemba’s client ended up deciding to attempt it the following day.
So they left the Last Camp, at 22,965 feet, at about 7:30 in the evening. Pemba had climbed the mountain in 2010 and in 2011, and had been in a total of 16 expeditions.
When Pemba and his client were on their way up, summiteers of the day were on their way down, and they were dangerously behind schedule, and in the dark. Winds that were originally expected to be light had hit up to 19 miles per hour.
Soon, Pemba ran into a Nepali who was trying to descend but ran out of battery for his headlight, and he was also running out of oxygen. Pemba gave the climber oxygen and also gave him water.
Next, he ran into a Korean climber in distress. Pemba helped him continue his descent after giving him water and reestablishing the climbers safety line.
Then, he met Shriya Shah, a Canada-born Nepali, who had been abandoned by the Sherpa she was climbing with. Shriya had fallen a few feet off the route with her head down, and appeared to be quickly running out of oxygen. Pemba tried calling out to her a few times.
Shriya finally responded and Pemba quickly set his bags down and pulled out an extra bottle of oxygen and called out again. This time, Shriya did not respond to his calls. She was already dead.
As he made he way further up the mountain, Pemba ran into an American, who was also left alone on the high trail. The American was out of oxygen, his trekking suit was torn and its down feathers blown away. One of his gloves was missing too. It was now 11:30PM.
Pemba let his his client know that if they wanted to continue to the summit as planned, the American would die. At 4:30AM, Pemba and his client had arrived back at the last camp with the American who was now wearing Pemba’s gloves. All three were frostbitten, but all three alive. Pemba had consistently made the correct decisions every step of the way.
World’s highest traffic jam?
The amount of people trying to climb Everest has been rising in the last few years. So yes, more people are on Everest this season than in the last two years. Still, this “traffic jam” is not a numbers game alone.
With Everest, it is not just about how many people, but also who are these people that are trying to climb the worlds tallest mountain that makes all the difference. As it stands right now, anyone willing to pay is virtually granted the access to Everest.
This means that people with little or no relevant experience at all are also on the trail. Everyone that is attempting the summit follows a single trail, and often there isn’t room for “overtaking.” When someone on the trail is causing delays because that person is on the mountain for the sake of being there, it puts all the other climbers at risk.
For example, anyone that is stuck behind Prakash Dahal, the son of Maoist Party Chairman Prachanda, will probably be at risk. Prakash, has no training, and will take longer to complete every task along the trail. This will throw everyone behind him off schedule. On Everest, schedules are nothing to joke about.
It isn’t just Prakash, though. There are many foreigners with little or no training who attempt Everest for novelty and fame. But should that really be allowed when it means risking everyone else on the mountain?
Another risk of people slowing down a trail of this kind is the threat of being frostbitten. The longer climbers are forced to be on the trail, the greater chances of frostbites.
So while the number of climbers is growing, it is also the quality and experience of the climbers that needs scrutiny to understand why these deadly “traffic jams” have occurred this season. And why it shouldn’t be allowed to be repeated.
Maybe it is time that the government and private sector established some firm prerequisites as to who may be allowed to summit Everest.
They could range from proof of previous summits chosen by industry leaders as a prerequisite, as well as proof of training conducted in Nepal.
The list can go on, and should be developed by experts in the field. But the point is, when everyone who is willing to pay is awarded a permit to summit, it doesn’t serve the interest of the climbers, the host country, or the trekking community.
This season, which is only beginning, has already made the case through a series of unfortunate events.
It is also worth considering that expedition leaders, who are virtually all Sherpas, have the final say when it comes to safety. It is almost certain that just about every local leader of an expedition has had a client whose response to the suggestion of canceling the summit attempt is: “No, I’ve paid to do this, I’m paying you to help me do this.”
With the air as thin as it is on Everest, there is neither the guarantee of clear thinking or the time for a long debate. Just because a waiver has been signed by a client doesn’t mean it should help guide any decisions.
When a climber takes 12 hours instead of the normal 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.
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 $61,017,687 for CNP and$26,662,960 for SNP.
That year, mountain expeditions alone helped Nepal earn $3,028,600 in royalty. Of that, Mt. Everest generated the highest revenue at $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 $2,343,000 figure, may be worth actually closing it down for a season or two.
During this time, the government and private sector can 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 who is actually allowed to climb the mountain.
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 22,000 feet 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.