17-23 April 2015 #754

31 Nepali children lost their fathers

David Durkan

That should have been the headline last year after the Everest avalanche killed 16 Nepali climbers The tragedy on the Everest Icefall on April last year was followed by mountaineers screaming foul-play because they could not climb Mt Everest. They criticised the ‘Sherpas’ for refusing to climb, and the tourist expedition industry complained about lost business and money.

Both figures are correct: 16 men died and 31 children lost their fathers, but there should have been a third number: 50. There were 50 Nepali high altitude ‘workers’ in a known high-risk avalanche area with no western guides or mountaineers.

It would have been too embarrassing for the Nepal government, Nepal Tourism Board, Nepal Mountaineering Association, Trekking Agents Association of Nepal and the Expedition Operators Association to admit why those 50 were exposing themselves to such danger. That fact would also have been embarrassing for the ‘agents’ who sell package tours to Everest abroad and for expedition leaders and guides who slept safely at Base Camp as the tragedy unfolded.

The government appointed a Board of Inquiry comprising of representatives from the very same organisations noted above. No other country would appoint a group with such economic vested interest to evaluate an accident of such magnitude. These members evaluated themselves.

It is this ‘cartel’ that fostered, managed, promoted and befitted from an industry with few (if any) ethical or professional control mechanisms. A medieval industry, driven by incompetence, greed and short-term self-interest.

The clients are the rich pampered ‘mountaineers’ who sleep in five-star lodges or drink kaffee latte in luxury tents in Base Camp waiting for the rope and ladder road to be constructed all the way from the base to the summit. Often incompetent and unfit individuals, lacking mental ability to tackle the demands of functioning at high altitude. There are two questions about last year’s avalanche: Who built the Icefall road, and why did the route up the icefall go so close to an obvious potential avalanche area?

The ‘Icefall Doctors’ built the road. They are not professional mountaineers, but local experienced mountain ‘workers’ paid by expeditions even before their clients have left their home country. They choose the quickest way of least resistance, not the safest.

Then, along come the porters who carry the equipment day after day up the Icefall to set up and stock the camps. These workers are not always well equipped or well trained, nor are they compensated meagerly in relation to the work and risk involved. Poor leadership and inadequate insurance is the norm. They work under conditions experienced mountaineers would deem unacceptable and illegal in the countries the ‘clients’ come from. And they pay a stiff price for their poverty: 104 Nepalis have died on Everest since 1922.

The ‘elite guides’ (western and Nepali) and paying ‘clients’ are only exposed to danger for short periods. They sit in safety, taking performance enhancing drugs and training on ‘safe peaks’, before they make a mad-rush through the Icefall to reach their tents and oxygen-depots. Masks give them a 70 per cent oxygen saturation at 8000m. They return home self-proclaimed heroes, to hold lectures, make films and write books. Yes, they suffer and they die, but anyone can suffer or die, especially the unfit and incompetent.

In December 2014 I presented to the Secretary of Tourism and to 70 representatives from the industry 24 possible changes. One obvious suggestion was to reduce the number of expeditions and individuals allowed on Mt Everest at a given time. As expected, the Ministry did the exact opposite, reducing the fees to encourage even more traffic probably influenced by powerful business interests.

No one wants to stop the Everest expedition industry, but we should question its lack of integrity and lack of vision. There are 140 virgin mountains in Nepal, innumerable ones that have only one climb on them. Real mountaineers around the world wish to visit Nepal and climb, but today’s ‘model’ has become too expensive. Yet the Everest package lacks substance and soul.

Edmund Hillary was, and I assume Tenzing would be, disgusted by today’s scene. It is time to put back the: ‘why’ we climb, that leads to ‘how’ we climb. Time to stop embracing the meaningless: ‘What’ we climb.

David Durkan is a traveller, mountaineer and author of the book, Penguins on Everest.durkandavid@gmail.com

Read also:

More equity on Everest, Om Astha Rai

Aftershocks of the Everest avalanche, Om Astha Rai

Everest climbing continues in Nepal

Dangerous business

A dangerous place to work, Jon Gangdal

Taking chances on Chomolungma, David Durkan

Extreme Everest, Bhrikuti Rai and Matt Miller

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