Ever since the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India determined that the world’s tallest mountain was Peak XV located on the border between Nepal and Tibet, Everest has brought out the best and the worst in us. Nepalis have conveniently forgotten that the summit is on the border, and only the southwest face of Everest is in Nepal — the east and west faces are wholly in China. While the Tibetans had a name for the mountain (Chomolungma), the Nepali Sagarmatha was bequeathed to the peak only after it was determined to be the highest in the world.
When Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary returned from Everest in 1953, Nepalis claimed Tenzing as our own, garlanding him profusely while ignoring Hillary. Dharma Raj Thapa composed a folk song that implied Tenzing had to drag Hillary to the summit.
The 1996 disaster, when 15 climbers died on the mountain (eight of them on a single day, 11 May), made ‘overcrowding’ synonymous with ‘Everest’. The bestseller Into Thin Air and the IMAX movie Everest created the hyper-reality of Everest being trampled by climbers and buried in trash.
Overkill on Everest, Damien Francois
Adventures in Robert Macfarlane’s Aboveworld and underland, Kunda Dixit
The truth, as usual, is much more complicated. As a report in this issue concludes, while the number of climbers on 22 May this year might have been a factor in some of the fatalities on Everest, inexperience, altitude sickness and lack of oxygen were more significant. There were 642 climbers, porters and guides from 43 countries on the summit this spring. Of them, 223 stepped on the top on 22 May alone. Nine of the climbers died on the south side this season, but news about the 10 more who died on other 8,000m peaks, where there were no significant crowds, was buried in the avalanche of news about Everest.
Reacting to the media spotlight, the government on 7 June set up an expert committee to recommend reforms in the management of expeditions. Last week, the committee issued its report, which should address many of the problems.
The committee carried out a post-mortem of Everest 2019, and found the main cause of the nine fatalities was the narrow weather window, inexperience and lack of fitness, altitude and medical conditions. One could argue that long queues contributed to altitude sickness and exhaustion, so crowding was a contributing factor. Summiteers say lack of experience at altitude and limited climbing skills were also causes for delays on the summit ridge on 22 and 23 May. Even though ‘traffic jams’ may not have been the main cause of fatalities this year, publicity about them did prompt the government to act.
The committee’s recommendations, if enacted into law and enforced, could change Himalayan climbing. For example, only those who have been on a peak higher than 6,500m in Nepal will be allowed to climb a mountain above 8,000m, and mountaineers must have climbed at least one peak below 6,500m before they can climb a peak higher than that. This will not only ensure diversification away from Everest and benefit other parts of Nepal, but also guarantee that only experienced climbers get to scale mountains like Everest, Kangchenjunga, Makalu or Manaslu.
However, the committee appears to only have taken altitude into account and not the technical climbing grade of mountains. There is a vast difference between climbing the relatively easy Cho Oyu (8,021m) and the technically difficult Kusum Kangru (6,367m).
The committee has also proposed that Everest climbers must show proof they have paid a Nepali agency at least $35,000. While this may lessen crowds, it will not be much of a deterrent against rich but inexperienced trophy hunters.
The committee found that cheap expeditions did not stock up on enough oxygen, and that guides with little experience were a danger to clients. The solution to this could be a payment threshold and minimum experience for support crews. The criteria for liaison officers are also being changed, requiring them to stay at Base Camp till the end of expeditions, to thwart fake climbers and to do a trash inventory.
As with everything else in Nepal, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Given endemic corruption and the likelihood of forged documents, it remains to be seen if these rules will be followed. But if implemented honestly, these reforms should clean up the mountain’s tainted image.
Most days, it’s not so crowded in Everest, Nepali Times
Expedition brings down 11 tons of Mt Everest trash, Bharat Bandhu Thapa
Crowd-funding from Mt Everest, Ivan G Somlai
How to restore the lure of Everest, Doug Scott