I have been lured to Nepal many times, as much by the Himalayan landscape as to be with the mountain people. It is the people more than the mountains who bring visitors back to Nepal.
I realised this during two visits in 1972 and again during our first ascent of the southwest face of Mt Everest in 1975. That was also when Nepal’s first tourism master plan was drafted.
With increased global mobility, everyone today can sign up to the experience of the Himalaya. Mass tourism means that you should not go to the popular areas of the Himalaya these days to find solitude. Not even to the top of Mt Everest.
Trekking trails are no longer places of peace and spiritual renewal due to the constant distraction of fellow trekkers. Most trails offer ‘selfie’ spots and wifi or phone signals so hikers can upload instantly on Instagram. This social media publicity in turn brings more tourists. At the height of the tourist season it is now hard to take a photo without capturing another trekker in the shot, or to make your hike a walking meditation.
How to reverse this situation and return to the most beautiful and dramatic mountain landscape on the planet, to a place where the mountain people are not overwhelmed by the sheer number of visitors, and those who come are not disappointed?
What is the carrying capacity of the Everest Trail and other popular destinations? Experts on environmental impact, tourism and local culture can advise on how to enforce restrictions without causing offence to visitors or reducing local incomes.
There have been reports of insurance fraud involving climbers being rescued by helicopter. This is already hurting tourism, and will ultimately affect local incomes. The sector needs to be effectively cleaned up.
Pre-1986, there was one expedition per season per route, which was wonderful. Now, people are impatient and want to rush to achieve their goals and move on. Why should Everest be treated any differently than Mount Blanc or the Matterhorn? Because it is a holy mountain for locals, it is the highest in the world and of universal value. We have to protect not just the mountain’s sanctity, but also what is sacred to mountaineering by respecting the style of the first ascents.
After this year’s fiasco, it seems inevitable that the number of permits will be limited to reflect the carrying capacity of the mountain, as is done on Mt Denali. The challenge is to protect the mountain from the tyranny of numbers and accommodate those who have come to rely on Mt Everest and other popular mountains for their income.
The commercialisation of Everest and other Himalayan peaks is largely unplanned and uncontrolled. This could change if the Nepal government issued permits only to climbers who have summited at least one other 7,000m peak elsewhere in Nepal. Teams could be allocated certain climbing days, even though this may not go down well with those on the mountain in bad weather periods. Agents who have previously acted incompetently or have transgressed on Everest could be blacklisted. And finally, permit fees can be increased.
Once we have restored serenity to mountains, we can work to use climbing royalties to improve the working conditions of Nepali guides by ensuring full insurance cover, and a welfare/compensation board to cover accident and death. A well-remunerated mountain rescue group made up of elite mountain guides can be set up, and employed to fix and remove ropes for each climbing season.
High-altitude porters and guides could be paid for collecting, sorting and recycling rubbish and waste from the mountain. If Everest hopefuls climb elsewhere in Nepal, it will spread the benefits of mountaineering to other parts of the country. Encouraging tourism to less visited areas at less busy times of the year could reduce congestion on Everest. As new motorable roads replace trekking routes, this is starting to happen anyway.
Climbers used to visit Nepal seeking new peaks and routes, drawn by venturing where no one had been before. There are still more unclimbed peaks over 6,000m than those that have been summited, yet everyone wants to be on Everest, which has been climbed out.