Shortly before the tragic accident that killed 16 Sherpas and other high-altitude workers, the Nepal government announced a series of new measures aimed at boosting revenue and easing congestion on Everest – to the alarm of the Himalayan climbing community. Ed Douglas reports on how the authorities in Kathmandu are taking care of business.
It speaks to the media obsession with Everest that earlier this year what seemed like dry regulatory changes to how climbing in Nepal is managed made headlines around the world. “I was in Spain,” says Sushil Ghimere, secretary of Nepal’s tourism ministry, “and it was on the news. I was quite surprised.”
Ghimere’s ministry has been busy; starting in late February it rolled out new initiatives weekly to a mixture of surprise and consternation. The authorities kicked off with a restructuring of peak fees, which essentially made most things cheaper, except for Everest in the spring season. This rose by $1,000 to $11,000, starting in 2015.
That announcement was followed by new garbage rules, requiring all climbers to bring down 8kg of litter from Everest, a new government ‘facilitation’ post at base camp, to include security forces, a proposed step ladder on the Hillary Step, a new requirement to buy helicopter insurance for expedition staff, a new mandatory requirement on mountains over 7,000m to hire local ‘guides’ and – most contentious of all – a plan to lease mountains to private companies.
The background for such radical reform was the decision by former tourism minister Sharad Singh Bhandari to review mountaineering regulations, which have been largely unchanged since the 1970s. “Most of these ministers change after six or eight months,” says Ang Tsering Sherpa of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, “but Bhandari was a most energetic and innovative minister, and he stayed for two years. He formed a committee to review mountaineering and mountain tourism policy.”
Ang Tsering chaired a technical sub-committee that fed into that process, which delivered a 142-page report in November, now under consideration by Nepal’s cabinet. Among its recommendations was a plan to open more peaks for climbing – 104 new peaks were announced on 21 May – and the requirement to hire guides for peaks over 7,000m.
“We feel that for the safety of climbers this is necessary,” he says. “You may be very fit in the Alps but not in the high mountains. We see lots of accidents [resulting from this]. And there’ll be more employment for the local community.”
It remains unclear whether and how this regulation will be enforced for those who want to climb without high-altitude porters – those doing new routes, for example, in alpine style. On peaks under 7,000m, Ang Tsering says that a guide is “not necessary” and that on higher peaks it need not be a qualified guide: “Whatever name you want to give them: cook, sirdar, guide.”
Helicopter insurance for expedition staff is not, Ang Tsering says, mandatory but recommended. In the light of 17 Sherpa fatalities this spring, the moral case is obvious, but Ang Tsering's Asian Trekking pays $164 per policy for his staff. If new regulations about hiring local staff are enforced, then expeditions can add hundreds more dollars to their budget.
Not included in the committee’s report was any mention of leasing peaks. “I was very surprised,” Ang Tsering says, the only moment in our interview when he seemed annoyed. “I read it in the paper. I asked the government and they said the idea came from our members, but I don’t know who.”
“We’re floating this as an idea,” says Ghimere. The “idea” of leasing peaks reveals a turf war between the government of Nepal and the NMA about who should manage climbing in Nepal. There are currently 326 peaks are open for climbing, with more on the way, but 110 of the existing number are still unclimbed.
The NMA recently took control of 15 more so-called ‘trekking peaks’, bringing the NMA’s total to 33. None of those 15 had previously been climbed, but the NMA has since taken revenues of over £26,000 in permit fees. Ang Tsering argues that if the 110 remaining unclimbed peaks had been given to the NMA, his organisation could have marketed them more effectively.
“We took over peaks the government hadn’t been able to sell and made money. We’d be able to generate funds from those 110 peaks. From that money we’d only keep five or six percent for administration costs. The rest we’d used for things like tourist hospitals, mountaineering institutes and welfare for retired Sherpas.”
So far, the government has tried to entice climbers by waiving fees in areas with few tourists, like the mid and far west of Nepal. The plan is to add a further 108 peaks to the list of those open and produce what Ghimere terms a guidebook including information on routes climbed.
Ghimere is more vague on some of the other proposals that made headlines this spring. The ladder, he says, is up for discussion. “If you put a ladder there, how can members feel they are really summiting?” The requirement to have guides may be watered down to a recommendation.
As for the facilitation office at Everest base camp, although he talks confidently about this new innovation, and how it may be rolled out at popular base camps across Nepal like Ama Dablam and Manaslu, the office didn’t in fact open at all this year. At the time of the accident on 18 April, only three out of around 40 liasion officers assigned to Everest teams were actually on the mountain, and none were involved in the rescue and body retrieval.
Plans for new mountaineering academies may also cause friction. The NMA wants to open a new climbing school in Langtang, but the ministry is also talking about its own facility in Solu-Khumbu. How these plans fit in with the growth of the IFMGA-backed Nepal National Mountain Guides Association isn’t clear.
What is abundantly clear is that both the government and the NMA are focussed on climbing as a business enterprise and the authorities see it as their role to decide how mountains should be climbed.
The government, however, has very little expertise or insight into mountain tourism; Ghimere suggested to me that tennis courts could be built at base camps to attract tourists not interested in climbing.
The NMA is the body recognised by the UIAA as representing mountaineering but it also represents the booming climbing industry of guided trips on fixed ropes up well-known peaks. It is this model that Nepal’s expedition agencies want to extend and it’s easy to see why. Ang Tsering says that 350 teams bought permits for Island Peak last year, and that the NMA issued 1,400 altogether, almost five times the number the government sold.
Climbing is undoubtedly bringing wealth to a very poor part of the world. The question is how far should business dictate how mountains are climbed?