Everest Debacle 2019
Everest debacle by Amit Khadka, Wildheights

Photo: Nirmal Purja (Bremont Project Possible)

Here’s my take on the latest Everest debacle. This is a ‘think out loud’ piece and largely written to clear my own mind out.

Everest is back in the news, and yet again, for all the wrong reasons. The problem of overcrowding is at the heart of it, and was the main reason apparently that killed more than 10 people. The world media is running amok with the traffic jam photo at the top, and criticizing the poor handling by the Nepal government. In the social media sphere, people of all kinds are also busy prescribing their own remedies.

Some of the suggestions being floated are:
-Declare a climbing moratorium, give the mountain a break
-issue less permits
-increase the climbing royalty (removing the poorer people out of the equation)
-allow parties to climb in rotation, so everyone would have their turn
-give permits to only experienced climbers, ie requiring a participant to have bagged a 6000m mountain previously
-introduce stronger regulations (?)- (wonder if ‘mania’ could be regulated)

If we cut through the noise, we’ll find that these voices are of those belonging to various groups representing their own vested interest. And there are those, who cite government corruption and ineptitude as factors contributing to the traffic jam. By discrediting the government, they think they would make themselves more credible. Easy to attack the strawman though. Some have their own political axe to grind. It seems whichever interest group that makes the most noise (or have more followers) will sway the public opinions in their favour.

If brief moratorium is declared, the government loses money; issue less permits, powerful business houses will initiate strong lobbying; issue permits to only experienced climbers, you lose revenue, as the inexperienced lots are the real cash cows; if you are made to follow the rotation rule, the weather window is so rare that, at the first chance, everyone would make a mad dash flouting all rules; If you raise the fees, there will be strong objection from elite athlete climbers, whose feats and heroics, are actually the reason why we have the Everest circus in the first place. They are the poster boys, how can anyone ignore them?

At the base camp, there are people of all hues, creed, and nationalities, with varied physical mental abilities, varied skill set and capabilities, representing varied interests as diverse as themselves, vying for the same goal, the summit. Co-existing for these people within a prearranged safe area for a limited period of time is perhaps within their civic grasp, but would be a completely different ball game when you take the game to as inhospitable a place as THE Death Zone ie your body actually starts deteriorating and natural acclimatization doesn’t work.

One simple fracas could lead to an all-out brawl (ie 2013). Beneath the love peace global village bonhomie lies a volcano ready to erupt. And in the midst of all this, there exists, in the name of government presence, the least popular group of slimy mid-hill dwellers, officially called ‘liaison officer’ representing each group, who far from commanding respect, get constantly derided, and being unable to brave the hostilities, disappear from the site for days on end.

Alternatively, the government can always opt to have a whole Gurkha platoon there at the base camp just to make its presence felt, but creates unnecessary burden on the resources and fragile environment. I also think the presence of men in uniform also takes away the whole romance of being in ‘an adventure playground’. Afterall, they are tourists, not terrorists. Without security reinforcements though, the chance of liaison officers staying put at the BC is almost nil. The government can’t force them to either as it’s the government’s job to provide them security.

Some say that any attempt to introduce new regulations will not work without addressing the core issue of overcrowding. On the other hand, no regulations WILL work if you don’t have anyone to enforce them. To be honest, my gut feeling says the problem actually wasn’t overcrowding, but failing to manage the crowd. This is where I feel the government could’ve done something.
There could be one way out of this predicament.

While its important that every participant must take personal responsibility for the hazards they subject themselves to, the bigger share of the responsibilities I believe lie with the Sherpas as they are the natural stewards of these places. The government would do well in officially recognizing them as such, and with their cooperation, chart out a policy that would avoid a similar bottleneck when the summit window presents itself. More debates should follow along this line to sort out the finer details. One more thing, get rid of those liason officer hillbillies!

That jam at the top was utter madness. I am trying to picture what the best government in the world would have done in similar situations to have control over what happens at 8000m. Black Friday shoppers come to mind.

Although I am not a fan of the current government, I feel bad that the government is taking all the flak for the turn of events that led to what happened on 22 May (the day that traffic jam pic was taken). The earlier weather window apparently wasn’t taken advantage of, which occurred a few days before. It meant the communication network channel (often carried out by sherpas of their respective group) failed to reach a consensus. Even during normal climbing conditions with less people on the mountain, these little impromptu consensuses hold paramount importance.

I feel bad that the government didn’t immediately go on the damage control mode, and didn’t do enough to fight off the criticisms.

I feel bad that the private operators weren’t called out for their role in this mess, for not having done enough to contribute to the informal communication process in the ‘village’ to facilitate trust building among groups, and for preying on people’s vanity, indiscriminately accepting anyone who can dole out the money.

All said, will it harm Nepal’s reputation as a tourism destination? A big NO, as opposed to what some of the self-styled foreign tourism experts have you believe. It’s a popular rhetoric they use as weapon against us to downsize us, and an attempt to ‘put us in our place’. Ok it was a national PR disaster, but nothing of the sort the world will remember/boycott us for.
And here’s to Everest 2020!!

 

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Amit Khadka
Over 20 years of experience as a tour leader......

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