24-30 April 2015 #755

Because it is there

The lesson from the Everest tragedy is to spread the benefits of mountaineering to other areas of Nepal and ensure that mountaineering fees go for the welfare of high altitude workers

This is the year of anniversaries: the 200th year of some of the fiercest battles in 1815 in Kumaon during the Anglo-Nepal war, and the 100th anniversary of the heavy loss of Nepali lives in Gallipoli in 1915. There are also triumphant anniversaries like the 60th of the first ascents of Kangchenjunga and Makalu, two difficult mountains which always tend to be overshadowed by the first Everest climb in 1953. And last week was the tragic first anniversary of the avalanche on the Khumbu Icefall that killed 16 people on 12 April 2014.

In last week’s coverage in this paper of the Everest avalanche, Om Astha Rai pointed out that mountaineering cannot be made completely failsafe. In fact, it is the inherent danger of climbing that pulls people to peaks. Nepal has dozens of the highest mountains in the world where the technical difficulty of climbing is compounded by objective dangers of avalanches and rockfall, which in turn are multiplied by altitude and weather. It is the spirit of adventure that pushes explorers like George Mallory to the limits of the unknown. They don’t philosophise about why they put themselves in harm’s way to climb something that “is there”, they take it as a given.

Most people find mountaineers ‘crazy’ or ‘suicidal’. Who in their right mind would willingly expose themselves to such mortal danger, discomfort and pain? Yet, there are other rules than those made at sea level that govern mountaineering, there is a different morality 8km high on the mountain. The ethics of climbing forces mountaineers to keep their egos in check, look out for others in trouble even if it means risking their own lives, ambition has to take a back seat if they are to return to climb another day. It’s not by chance that the vocabulary of mountaineering is so militaristic: expeditions assault mountains, they need logistics and strategic planning, and like soldiers, climbers put their lives on the line to conquer peaks.

However, it has been clear for some time now that things are not quite what they should be on the world’s highest mountain. The over-commercialisation of the Everest industry, a free-for-all caused by regulatory failure and bungling in Kathmandu, and the race to the top of the Third Pole has led to dangerous overcrowding on the mountains. Many climbing clients of expeditions have very little technical experience and/or altitude acclimatisation and have to be literally pushed to the top, endangering not just themselves but also fellow climbers.

In 1996 a traffic jam on the summit ridge of Everest caused fatal delays, forcing many climbers to bivouac in a blizzard in the Death Zone. Eight climbers died. In April last year, European climbers going Alpine style had a brawl on the Lhotse Face with Nepali rope-fixers, where the root cause was a clash of civilisations between high-altitude guides who earn their living from the mountain, and clients who do it for sport. 

Last year’s Everest avalanche may have looked initially like a natural disaster, but it was caused by the inherent injustice of Nepali mountaineering today: the most-poorly paid high-altitude porters and route-makers are exposed to the most dangerous parts of the mountains for the longest period. Expeditions now pool a part of their budgets to pay 'Icefall doctors' to open up a route through the most dangerous part of the climb to Camp I.

The free-market laws of supply and demand now make the rules on the mountain, not the challenge of pitting human beings against the forces of nature. As climber David Durkan argued last week in this paper, no one wants to stop the Everest expedition industry since it is a source of livelihood for so many, but we should question the disproportionate danger that the porters and guides are forced to put themselves through while being paid the least and getting meagre insurance compensation if they are killed or wounded.

Instead of addressing overcrowding on the South Col route up Everest, this year the Nepal government reduced fees substantially. It needs to correct this, spread the benefits of mountaineering to other areas of Nepal and ensure that a more substantial portion of mountaineering fees go to the welfare of the workers who lay their lives on the line to get clients to the top.

Read also:

More equity on Everest Om Astha Rai

31 Nepali children lost their fathers, David Durkan

Aftershocks of the Everest avalanche, Om Astha Rai

Dangerous business, Editorial

Extreme Everest, Bhrikuti Rai and Matt Miller

A dangerous place to work, Jon Gangdal