From next spring, Nepalese government officials are considering banning those who haven't previously climbed at least one 6,500m peak from tackling Everest's summit. More controversially, plans to ban the disabled, the old and the young are also on the table.
“Everest summit should be dignified and an issue of glory. For that the ministry is working on introducing some limits,” said Mohan Krishna Sapkota, acting secretary of the ministry of tourism in Nepal. He added that now “everyone is going to Everest” levels of risk had increased for all involved.
It's undeniable that the infrastructure on Everest enables fat wallets to compensate for skills, and as a result the mountain has boomed into a multimillion-pound industry. The $11,000 permits to the top are a vital source of income for Nepal. However, the flip side of the coin is that this growing industry is also increasingly damaging the mountain’s reputation.
Many in the mountaineering community have been concerned about the way Everest has been going for a long time. Over the past three years, major incidents on the mountain have headlined in the press, repeatedly drawing not only the wider world's sympathy but also its attention to these underlying issues that have been simmering for decades.
In 2013 the altercation between Ueli Steck, Jon Griffith, Simone Moro and Sherpas on Everest pointed to underlying tension against the Westerners who come to conquer the summit. In 2014, 16 Nepalese guides died in an avalanche, sparking debate about dangers that had been ignored around the Khumbu Icefall, and the high risks Sherpas take for low recompense from the Everest machine.
The two huge earthquakes which killed thousands of people and left half-a-million homeless earlier this year was an appalling tragedy, and one with wider implications for a country struggling to recover: it was the second spring in a row in which climbing season on Everest was effectively shut down. The Nepalese now have to do something to reassure the world that Everest is safe, and to restore its ‘glory’.
"The mountain is flexing her muscles and telling us she needs a break," commented 11-times Everest summitteer Kenton Cool.
"Come climbing but be humble. Give me the respect I deserve. I think, well I hope, that the main thing the Nepalese want to address is the gimmicky aspect that's developed around climbing Everest. For example, a couple of years ago a guy tried to climb it in shorts. Every time he stopped, Sherpas had to gather round with blankets."
Clearly something needs to be done to manage the Everest machine, but is this the answer?
"The great thing about our sport, though, is that it is open to anyone," said Kenton. “Once you start putting constraints on Everest, which is - for the layman at least - the pinnacle of our sport, you open up a whole can of worms. It's a tricky one.”
The youngest person who has climbed Everest is American Jordan Romero, who was just 13. The oldest is Yuichiro Miura from Japan, who was 80. Perhaps it's not good for developing bodies to take on 8,000m altitudes. Undoubtedly the over 75s are another high risk category to be climbing out of reach of helicopter assistance. But should regulations forcibly ban the old and the young?
The idea of having to prove some competence before tackling Everest has received more support, but would be very difficult to enforce.
How does someone prove they have previously climbed a 6,500m peak? The figure also seems very arbitrary, and doesn't necessarily prove any competence. it's a relatively easy walk up, for example, to the 6962m summit of Aconcagua in Argentina.
Whatever your opinion on imposing climbing restrictions, it's clearly positive that the Nepalese are trying to address safety on Everest and restore the mountain's glory. Unfortunately, clumsy discussions about banning those with disabilities have drawn the most attention from the global press.
Kripasur Sherpa, the tourism minister, said: “We cannot let everyone go on Everest and die. The disabled or visually impaired usually need someone to carry them, which is not an adventure. Only those who can go on their own will be given permission.”
"We don't think we should issue permits to people who cannot see or walk or who don't have arms,” tourism department chief Govinda Karki said. "It is not a matter of discrimination, how can you climb without legs? Someone will have to carry you up. We want to make the mountains safer for everyone, so we have to insist on some rules."
The comments have unsurprisingly sparked debate in the climbing community. British quadriplegic climber Jamie Andrew commented:
“Banning ‘disabled’ climbers only serves to undermine the notion that mountaineering is about helping each other to overcome challenge and achieve potential. All mountaineers have to be ‘carried’ up Everest. All need the support and logistics of base camp teams, porters, Sherpas, equipment manufacturers, weather forecasters, etc, etc. All of us climb on the backs of those who have gone before. When I climb mountains, I rely heavily on the help of friends, guides, and even passers-by. In this respect I am ‘carried’. But I like to believe that the effort I make, the commitment and hard work, makes the climb authentic and therefore all the more worthwhile.”
Blind British paraclimber John Churcher, who recently summited the Eiger, said: “I fully agree with the idea of restricting it to those that have adequate experience, but to say that you can't do it if you are disabled is discrimination. if you have the experience then you should be able to do it.”
Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of Nepal Mountaineering Association didn't think this aspect of the regulations would be implemented, commenting: "Earlier such plans were aborted because of pressure from human rights organisations and foreign embassies.”
"There’s disabilities and there’s disabilities," commented Kenton. "Erik Weihmayer, the first blind person to climb Everest - people like that have done it without putting anyone else in jeopardy. But I met a guy who had no arms. How would he pull himself up on the jumars and climb the Hillary Step? But again, I think our sport should be open to anyone, otherwise you are inhibiting the freedom of the sport. It should come down to the responsibility of the individual and the operator who agrees to take them."
Is clamping down on diversity a better answer than simply limiting numbers? We would be very interested to hear your opinions so please do comment. We'll follow the story with interest as it unfolds and bring you more news when we have it.
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