27 Feb-5 Mar 2015 #747

Aftershocks of the Everest avalanche

Big drop in Everest bookings this spring affects the livelihood of high-altitude Nepali guides
Om Astha Rai

In previous years, Pasang Sherpa (pictured, right) would now be packing up his gear, getting ready to receive his expedition and fly off to Lukla for another Everest climb. This spring, the 38-year-old is out of a job because most Everest expeditions have been cancelled after last year’s avalanche that killed 16 high-altitude guides.

Many of those killed were his friends, and Pasang had decided that this profession was just too dangerous. But with no other jobs available, he changed his mind and was ready to join an expedition. However, negative international publicity of the avalanche and confusion about government policy has prompted most companies to cancel their expeditions this year.

With just over a month left for the climbing season to start, Pasang still hasn’t been contacted by any expedition team, and he is now worried that he will not be able to make any money this year.

Not a single expedition group has applied for permits so far this season. And even those who abandoned their expeditions last season have yet to confirm if they are climbing this year. Only 10 of 35 climbers who went to the Everest through Shangrila Treks Nepal last year, for example, are coming this year, says Jeevan Ghimire of Shangrila Treks.

“I am just praying that the situation will improve,” says Pasang, who summited Everest in 2013.

More than 300 Sherpas are directly employed during the average Everest season as so-called ‘icefall doctors’, guides, porters and support staff. For most of them, the Everest season from April-June is an opportunity to earn enough to take care of their families for a year. Every climbing client employs at least five high-altitude workers on Everest, so if there are no expeditions hundreds will be out of jobs.

Industry insiders say the main reason for the mass cancellations is the Ministry of Tourism’s inability to decide whether members of expeditions who cancelled last year have to travel in the same group, or can climb individually.

Infographic: Ayesha Shakya

This is a continuation of the mishandling of the immediate aftermath of the avalanche last year, when it gave confusing statements about whether expeditions would be allowed or not. The government also botched the strike at Base Camp by distraught friends and relatives to meet their demands for higher insurance and compensation. All expeditions were then cancelled, but despite this some climbers reportedly took helicopters to Camp I and actually summitted Everest.

The government had then assured those who had to abandon their expeditions that they could climb Everest anytime up to 2019. However, it was never clear whether members could climb individually or by forming or joining other groups. Tourism Minister Bhim Acharya promised to sort this out, but was soon replaced by Deepak Chandra Amatya. Both are from the UML, a partner in the ruling coalition.

Ministry officials realise that it needs to revise Mountaineering Expedition Regulation (2002) to allow individual members of the abandoned expeditions to climb Everest individually, or as parts of other groups. Bureaucratic red tape has delayed a decision, which is being reviewed by the Law Ministry before it is forwarded to the Cabinet.

“Realising that it would not be practical for members of the abandoned expeditions to be in the same groups, we recommended revision of this regulation,” Gyanendra Shrestha of the ministry confirmed to us.

In January, the Canada-based Peaks Freaks cancelled all its Everest expeditions for spring 2015 citing ‘fickle posturing of the government’. Although no other company has followed suit, they have not confirmed their expeditions, either.

Ghimire of Sangrila Treks says, “I would have received a list of clients from my agent by January in previous years. Not a single one has confirmed their expedition this year.”

Krishna Aryal, secretary of Expedition Operators’ Association (EOA), says the delay has already affected tourism with cancelled hotel bookings, flights and porter hiring. “The longer the government takes to decide, the more expeditions we lose. No one is prepared to wait, they will just go and climb Everest from the north side,” he told Nepali Times.

Expedition companies say they are also receiving queries from clients in the US and Europe to seek assurances that they will not be abandoned by their high-altitude guides like they were last year after the avalanche.

Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, president of Nepal National Mountain Guides Association, admits that the Sherpas’ behaviour in the aftermath of the avalanche was not ‘professional’ but says it would be wrong to only blame them.

“It was our collective failure, even foreign climbers did not contribute to managing human crisis that ensued the avalanche,” says Pemba, a six-time Everest climber. “And they did not try to diffuse tensions later, they just acted like onlookers.”

Read also:

Dangerous business, Editorial

Extreme Everest, Bhrikuti Rai and Matt Miller

Working in high places, Ayesha Shakya

Taking chances on Chomolungma, David Durkan

A dangerous place to work, Jon Gangdal

Avalanche on Everest