In the Himalayas, mountaineering a fatal ascent to commercialism
The mighty Himalayas that have for well over a century attracted the adventure-seekers of the world to its majestic mountain peaks, are now turning into a mountaineer’s worst nightmare.
This year has been one of the deadliest climbing seasons in the history of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, with eleven fatalities recorded within a span of sixteen days this summer. And even though close to 300 people have died attempting to summit the mountain since the early 1950’s, never before has over-crowding been the greatest danger to human life there, or to the ecology of the entire mountain range.
For the Everest trail, Nepal issued 381 permits this year but inclement weather narrowed the window of opportunity for the final push to the peak. As a result, climbers were left stranded for hours below a single lane stretch which allowed ascent and descent through a one-way rope, with many succumbing to edema and hypothermia in the process.
At the root of the problem lies the commercialization of mountaineering expeditions, with new alpinist agencies offering quick training and budget trips that attract an abnormally large number of climbers, including those with limited proficiency in the tricks of the trade.
Nepal’s image as a leader in global adventure tourism has been dented, unless the authorities come up with an effective response to curb an alarming predisposition to shortcuts and corruption
General secretary of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, Kul Bahadur Gurung, concedes that commercial interests have overshadowed the spirit of raw adventure, but attributes the loss of life to other factors as well, including climbers’ ignorance of the realities up in the proverbial death-zone where even the slightest error can be fatal. Gurung believes climbers aspiring to conquer Everest must be conversant in basic skills like emergency response to high altitude sickness and the proper use of mountaineering accessories, and be accompanied by competent guides apart from being tough nuts themselves — both physically and mentally.
Five years ago, the disappearance of the Indian woman mountaineer Chhanda Gayen during a Kanchenjunga expedition, the third highest mountain in the world, brought with it valuable insights into the shifting trend of commercial mountaineering in the Himalayas. With the rapid mushrooming of mountain guiding agencies, there is now a no-holds-barred competition among them, offering one-size-fits-all packages which are attracting a new breed of adventurers desperate to attempt summits without adequate expertise.
A new modus operandi uses large groups of Sherpas (an ethnic group native to the Himalayas) to fix rope and make climbers, irrespective of experience, follow packed trails to the summit. Moreover, the advent of “two-for-one” double permits encourages mountaineers to opt for a second summit, taking advantage of their still-valid permits.
Gayen is a tragic example of this. She diverted her trail toward Mount Yalung Kang after successfully summiting Kanchenjunga without adequate rest, because she desperately needed an outstanding outcome without which expedition sponsorships for such low visibility sporting activities are virtually unavailable. Then there is organized corruption perpetrated by a group of people linked to the mountaineering industry and government departments who are working overtime to help a climber obtain a certificate without actually completing the summit.
As Chhanda’s body remains missing to date, and with her family reluctantly accepting her death certificate to claim life insurance benefits to return the huge loan she took to fulfil her climbing ambition, Nepal’s image as a leader in global adventure tourism has been dented, unless the authorities come up with an effective response to curb an alarming predisposition to shortcuts and corruption.
For a long time, foreign companies would handle a vast majority of climbing expeditions in the Himalayas, until the locals began feeling a sense of deprivation, which was amplified by an entrenched tradition of underpaying the load-bearing porters and the unusually large number of Sherpa deaths in 2012 Manaslu and 2014 Everest ice avalanches.
This not only led to the indigenization of the mountain guiding industry, but also opened up peaks that were more deficient in logistics and more difficult to summit like Kanchenjunga, Makalu and Annapurna – all over 8,000 meters and outstripping Everest in terms of total casualties for guided climbs.
It is time the operators realize that the climbers are practically handing over their lives to them, expecting a proper support structure in return. A Nepal tourism ministry official, Ghanashyam Upadhyaya promises a more responsible future, with a task-force assigned to recommend policies aimed at mitigating the risks in mountaineering. But the country must put in place a regulated infrastructure that provides credible guidance, institutionalizes effective search and rescue policies and criminalizes malfeasance. Besides, climbers must be put through a rigorous vetting and interview process to ascertain their experience, apprise them of potential hazards and available support options, and to discourage undue risk-taking.
At the Katmandu Climate Change conference, South Asian countries pledged to protect the mountain ecosystem which sustains millions. But this can only happen when all stakeholders associated with the mountaineering industry join hands to introduce a value-based code of ethics for preserving both the ecologically fragile mountains facing the wrath of global warming and the climbers simultaneously. There is no other way to bring the honor back into one of the world’s most historic and noble sporting endeavors.