Nepal says Everest rules might change after overcrowding and deaths

Veterans say the increasing number of rookie climbers who try to tackle Mount Everest has made it more dangerous for everyone.
Veterans say the increasing number of rookie climbers who try to tackle Mount Everest has made it more dangerous for everyone.PHOTO: AFP

KATHMANDU (NYTIMES) - After human traffic jams at the top of Mount Everest and an aggressive, unruly atmosphere that has been likened to "a zoo", Nepalese officials said on Wednesday (May 29) that they were considering changing the rules about who was allowed up the world's highest mountain.

"It's time to review all the old laws," said Mr Yagya Raj Sunuwar, a member of Parliament.

Until now, just about anyone could get a permit to climb Mount Everest. But this year has been marred by pile-ups at the top and a surge of inexperienced climbers.

Veteran mountaineers who recently summitted described a "Lord of the Flies" atmosphere with mobs of people in huge down jackets precariously perched at the top, pushing and shoving to take selfies.

At least 11 climbers have died on Everest this year, making this season one of the deadliest. Many of the deaths were needless, veterans say, and the increasing number of rookie climbers who try to tackle Everest has made it more dangerous for everyone.

Several government officials in Kathmandu, Nepal's capital, said that they were analysing what had happened and leaning toward requiring all climbers to submit proof of mountaineering experience and a verifiable certificate of good health.

"Certainly there will be some change in the expedition sector," said Ms Mira Acharya, a senior official with Nepal's tourism department. "We are discussing reforming some issues, including setting criteria for every Everest hopeful."

 
 
 
 

At a recent meeting, she said: "We raised the issue of inexperienced climbers."

Mount Everest is a huge block of ice and rock along the Nepal-China border. China also runs expeditions to the top, but on the Chinese side, it appears to be less of a free-for-all. There have been two deaths this year on the Chinese side out of about 300 climbers, compared with nine in Nepal, though almost 800 people climbed from the Nepal side.

The path to the top is so narrow and steep, climbers have to step very gingerly around others who have fallen ill or died. Some of the dead had apparently run out of bottled oxygen, partly because the horde of climbers trying to get to the top at the same time caused major delays.

Climbers were forced to wait in the snow for hours, at heights of more than 8,484m, as their limited supply of compressed oxygen slowly ran out and their energy faded.

Several mountaineers described a ruthless pursuit of the summit in which other climbers refused to share the essentials of life - water and oxygen.

Mr Amit Chowdhury, president of the safety commission at the International Mountaineering Federation, said that the rules on some other mountains empowered guides to stop a climber from ascending if the guide felt the climber might not make it or was behaving badly.

"(But) at Everest, it is not the same - you can hire a Sherpa on the streets of Kathmandu or your travel agent says, 'Here is your Sherpa,' that's it," he said.

"There is no way to know whether that Sherpa can judge and determine the capability of the person who is climbing," he added.

Nepal is one of Asia's poorest countries and even Everest, the jewel of its tourism economy, has been marred by corruption scandals and scams.

Last year, media organisations and insurance companies exposed a conspiracy by some guides, helicopter companies, teahouse owners and hospitals to bilk millions of dollars from insurance companies by pushing trekkers with even minor signs of altitude sickness to use costly evacuation services. In some cases, the owners of the teahouses might have sprinkled contaminants into the trekkers' food to make them sick so they would need an expensive helicopter evacuation, a government investigation found.

Under Nepal's current rules, all climbers must submit a copy of their passport, limited biographical data and a certificate showing they are healthy enough to make it to the top.

But Nepali officials admitted they did not have a way of verifying health information before granting permits. Foreigners pay US$11,000 (S$15,170) for the permits alone, and the total cost of guides, equipment, food and lodging for the six-week expedition can easily surpass US$50,000. Nepali climbers pay about US$700 for a permit.

Nepali officials said that the climbing season was now over, as scheduled, and that there were no more climbers on the upper parts of the mountain.

Different mountains have different rules. To scale Aconcagua in Argentina, climbers are asked to provide details of winter ascents they have made in the past. Similar experience is recommended for climbing Denali in Alaska and Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. For other peaks, such as Vinson in Antarctica, Elbrus in Russia or Kosciuszko in Australia, it seems there are fewer restrictions.

Many veteran climbers attribute Everest's problems to the proliferation of cheaper expedition companies that have popped up across Kathmandu in the past five to 10 years. These companies are hungry for climbing dollars, veterans say, and not nearly as discriminating.

Mr Adrian Ballinger, a mountaineer and head guide of Alpenglow Expeditions, said his company required all prospective Everest clients to be evaluated by a doctor if they had any health issues that could interfere with climbing the mountain. His company, he said, turns away 70 per cent of applicants.

"The problem is that so many of those people we denied for our teams, they probably just find a cheaper operator that is willing to take them," he said.

His suggestion? Nepal should mandate that anyone wanting to climb the 8,848m Everest show proof of having scaled at least one other 8,000m peak.

Since Nepal has several other peaks that high, getting climbers to work their way up to Everest could bring Nepal more money.

"People would go to other mountains in Nepal before coming to Everest," Mr Ballinger said, "and you'd end up with people on Everest with much more experience."

Mr Chowdhury had another suggestion: Set up an Everest nomination committee of international climbing organisations that would scrutinise an applicant's statement of purpose and recommendations from guides on previous climbs.

His biggest criticism of the Everest scene is that an increasing number of climbers are untrained and rely on guides to do all the work for them, like carrying oxygen cylinders.

"If you look at the way Everest is climbed at the moment, it's nothing but a guided trip up the mountain," he said. "It is like you see people rafting in Colorado or the Ganges in India - it's the guide who does the rafting, the rest of the people are just passengers who are sitting there."

Sherpas expressed concern about the unseasoned climbers but also complained about the Nepali government, saying it had failed to properly police the country's most important mountain. Government officers sent to Everest base camp often come down with altitude sickness and desert their posts, the Sherpas said, leaving the expedition companies to monitor the flow of traffic themselves.

"It would be great if inexperienced climbers were not allowed to climb Everest," said Mr Lakpa Dendi Sherpa, an experienced Nepali guide. "But who will do this? The government? I don't think so. They can't even remove the garbage from Everest. They do nothing other than collect revenue."