Mountaineering is always unpredictable because of weather, avalanches and the effects of altitude. But climbing the world's highest mountain this year has an added uncertainty: China.
Hundreds of climbers are already in Kathmandu to begin their long-planned expeditions to the south side of Chomolungma. However, whether or not they will be able to scale the world's highest peak this season is still shrouded in mystery.
Earlier this month the Chinese government decided to ban all expeditions other than its own, which will take the Olympic torch to the summit. It then pressured Nepal to follow suit on its side of the mountain. With escalating protests worldwide against the Olympics by Tibetan activists, Beijing is apprehensive about someone waving a 'Free Tibet' banner at the summit just as the torch gets there. ( 'Mount Olympus', #391)
For the past two weeks the Nepal government has been dithering over a decision on how to impose restrictions on the mountain. But with elections looming, ministers are distracted.
"We are expecting a decision soon and I have told the ministers involved that the expedition leaders are getting a little bit nervous here in Kathmandu," Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association told Nepali Times.
Some optimistic expedition leaders and their teams are already on their way to Base Camp. "We have talked to our clients and they are aware of the fact that we might not be able to climb this year. They are willing to take the risk and that is why we are heading off," one expedition leader said.
The Cabinet is examining a compromise proposal that nobody will be allowed to climb beyond Camp 3 before 10 May, the latest date for the Olympic torch to reach the summit. It is not yet clear whether that would be acceptable to the Chinese.
However, some climbers are worried that this cut-off date will pose some dangers as the Hillary step, the famous rock wall at 8,760m, could become a bottleneck if too many people are bidding for the summit at the same time in late May.
With Cho Oyu and Shishapangma also closed because of the ban on foreigners visiting Tibet, a total of 40 expeditions that were poised to climb mountains from the north this season are affected.
"A few hundred people have lost their jobs this spring, which is the time they normally earn most of their annual income," said Russian expedition leader, Alex Abramov who has taken expeditions to the North side of Chomolungma for five years. He had 15 clients booked on his expedition this season and would have employed 20 Nepali Sherpas.
British expedition leader Phil Crampton was faced with a similar dilemma but his team decided to defect to the Nepali side of the mountain.
"For many leaders this was not an option as the price is much higher (in Nepal) and logistics are a lot more complicated," Crampton said. His clients, who are all experienced mountaineers, have agreed to pay a little bit extra. "I am very happy to have the opportunity to climb in Nepal this year as it means that I do not have to leave my staff in the lurch."
For the Tibetans the cancellations aren\'t that much of a problem because they are involved in the torch team, Crampton said, the people who suffer much more are the Sherpas.