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Russian roulette on Mt Everest

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

Nepali High Altitude Workers take the risks to create a rope and ladder umbilical to the summit for their clients

David Durkan

Since the first fatality in the spring of 1922, Mt Everest has claimed the lives of 105 Nepalis. The majority of them are fathers, sons, brothers and sisters from Solu Khumbu.

Historically, western mountaineers used to be elite climbers: mostly well trained, acclimatised and proficient. They worked out the route, climbed and fixed the ropes, the ladders and established camps, and then they secured the passage of the Nepali ‘staff’ who carried the equipment.

From about 1990, there has been a transformation as western and Nepali agents created ‘Instant Everest’ — offering the summit as a product, to anyone who can pay. Today, it is the Nepali staff of High Altitude Workers who establish the routes, take the risks, and create a ‘rope and ladder road’ from Base Camp to Summit. Climbers’ don’t even need ice axes to get to the top.

The once noble sport of mountaineering has been turned into a commercial circus of performing clowns. Inexperienced, incompetent and often unfit individuals pay vast sums to western and Nepali ‘expedition agents’, so they may ‘conquer’ the world’s highest mountain.

The Nepali High Altitude Worker is exposed to danger and hardship for 70 per cent of an expedition’s time frame. The climbing tourist is only exposed to danger for between 20 to 30 per cent of the time.

The Nepali High Altitude Worker is:
1. Underpaid
2. Poorly insured
3. Poorly equipped
4. Poorly trained
5. Poorly led
6. Pressured to climb in dangerous weather
7. Poor English skills can be fatal, eg: K2 tragedy

The High Altitude Workers have to ensure all camps/oxygen depots are in place for when the ‘weather window’ for the summit push by clients. The ‘bonus carry’ and ‘bonus summit’ payment system increases the pressure on them.

While the Nepali High Altitude Worker is making a route up the Khumbu Icefall the clients are meeting in a 5-Star hotel in Kathmandu, flying to Lukla and strolling up to Base Camp where they are housed in individual and spacious tents with air mattresses where they acclimatise (read: upload pictures to websites and attend to Facebook fans). They have instant helicopter evacuation and a specialised aid post on call. The dining tent has cafe-latte machines and full restaurant facilities. Performance enhancing drugs (not acceptable in other sports) are used.

Many members of commercial expeditions have never met before, have no idea of their experience, and cannot work as a team. Many are inexperienced and the Nepali guide is often put in a difficult and dangerous situation to get this client up, and then down.

When the ropes and camps are established the clients move from the safety and luxury of Everest Base Camp via a series of        pre-set camps, where Nepali staff cook meals, melt snow for water and carry their equipment. There is usually a designated ‘guide’ to push them up the ropes. Then there is a newly developed oxygen mask that gives an oxygen level in the blood of 70 per cent: similar to that most people have at 6000 m.

The Nepali High Altitude Worker works hard, suffers and is paid poorly, and as we have seen, he dies. The clients return home as heroes to write articles, books, appear on tv, hold lectures, receive sponsorship and even become experts on Himalayan mountaineering.

This week, the government formed a joint task force, led by the chief of the Mountaineering Department. It is made up of representatives from the Nepal Mountaineering Association, Trekking Agency Association of Nepal and Expedition Operators’ Association — the very organisations who have fostered and allowed the present crisis.

The solution are clear: better work conditions for the Nepali staff (wages, training, certification, etc), higher peak fees to reduce crowding, reduction of number of expeditions and climbers allowed on the mountain, pre-expedition experience of clients.

Lets return the adventure of mountaineering to Mt Everest, and take it away from circus clowns.

David Durkan is a Welsh mountaineer living in Norway and former Contributing Editor to Mountain Magazine.


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