However, in recent years, Everest expeditions from the Nepal side also became famous for the wrong reasons. A photograph of the traffic jam on the summit ridge of Mt Everest taken by Nirmal Purja went viral in spring 2019, although other Nepali climbers argued that the media misrepresented and exaggerated what was going on in the mountain.
In 2019, Nepal issued 381 permits to climb Everest, out of which 11 mountaineers died– making it one of the deadliest climbing seasons. According to Alan Arnette, long-time Everest blogger, incompetent and inexperienced people in-charge of commercial expeditions were a major cause. Lack of regulation has made Mt Everest climbing from the Nepal side more crowded and risker than it should be.
There is no cap on the maximum number of permits to climb Mt Everest, and the narrow weather window in late May led to dangerous overcrowding in some seasons. After worldwide criticism, Nepal issued a new regulation last year requiring Everest climbers to have previously climbed at least one peak inside Nepal over 6,500m, and guide companies to have at least three years of experience in organizing high-altitude treks.
The efficacy of this new rule could not be tested this year because all spring expeditions on Everest and all other mountains were canceled in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, China has taken advantage of the closure to have its own sole expedition from the north side to re-measure the exact altitude of Mt Everest using its own GPS satellite.
China has also completed an asphalt highway leading right into the North Base Camp on the Rungbuk Glacier in Tibet at 5,150m, giving expeditions from the north side an edge in terms of accessibility. Expeditions from the Nepal side have to fly to Lukla, and conduct a 10-day acclimatisation trek from the south side.
The Chinese have removed the remains of all dead climbers they could find from the north mountain, have fixed ropes all the way to the summit, and have also managed the garbage. Now, the installation of 5G technology adds to the growing evidence of China’s interest to improve connectivity in order to promote mountaineering and tourism on the north side of the mountain.
Ren Zhengfei, the founder of Huawei, when asked about why install 5G in a place with very few people, replied: “… But there may be an Internet that can save the climbers life.”
In the early 2000s, the difficulty in acquiring Chinese climbing permits was a factor that shifted the climbing business to Nepal. With its better infrastructure, and if permits are more forthcoming, it is only a question of time before more expeditions migrate to the north.
The lesson for the Nepal government is to step up its promotion efforts, and address issues like overcrowding, commercialisation, safety, and a more nuanced permit system. The advantage for the Nepal side is that the approaches to the mountain are within Sagarmatha National Park with no road access, much more varied topography, rich biodiversity, and cultural assets.
Nepal has a niche market for trekking and mountaineering which have not been fully exploited. There are alternative tourist attractions such as promoting astro-tourism for stargazers drawn to the night sky. The Khumbu is not just the Everest trail, there are less travelled valleys like Thame, the Kongma, Cho La, Renjo three-passes trek, Gokyo, and even traverses like the Tasi Lapcha pass from Rolwaling which have now become less treacherous because of climate change. These new routes would diversify the destination, provide a much-needed scenic and culturally-rich alternatives to the well-trodden Base Camp Trek, and encourage repeat visitors.
Increased competition from China and the looming threat of climate change in the Nepal Himalaya are a given. The question is how Nepal can promote its unique selling points and ensure that the local economy benefits more from mountain tourism. The COVID-19 lockdown is a perfect time to let the mountains heal, give time for the trails to rest, and identify Nepal’s niche so we can return to a better normal.
Read also: Re-measuring Mt Everest, Nepali Times
Raunab Singh Khatri and Rastraraj Bhandari are both graduate students in Economics at the Yenching Academy of Peking University.