The highlight of the autumn mountaineering season in the Nepal Himalaya this year was the first-ever descent on skis down the world's highest mountain. Not only was this a daring first, but the Slovenian Davo Karnicar's feat also went down in the record books as the fastest-ever descent of Mt Everest.
And so, it was a double celebration when Davo Karnicar celebrated his 38th birthday on 26 October, amidst well-wishers, journalists and friends at a rambunctious party at the Rum Doodle Restaurant and Bar in Thamel, the unofficial hangout of the international climbing community in Kathmandu. At Rum Doodle, he and his teammates, Tadej Golob, Matlej Flis, and Farnc Oderlap, also added their names to Rum Doodle's lengthening list of Everest summiteer-patrons (entitling them to a life-time of complimentary cuisine). "We couldn't have asked for more. The weather and snow conditions were perfect. The gods were smiling on us," said Andrej Kmet, Slovenian climber and communications expert.
Kmet was in Nepal last autumn too, managing the website that covered live the solo first ascent of the south face of Dhaulagiri by another Slovenian climber, Thomaz Humar, in an attempt described by High magazine as "audacious". Kmet, who plans to accompany Karnicar on the skier's quest to ski the seven summits within a year, is already thinking of the technical challenge, transmitting live, Karnicar's ski descent on the remote Mt Vinson in the Antarctica. "They don't have satellite phone facilities there," he says.
A tiny country of about two million people and where nearly half of them are involved with mountain sport in one form or another (the country's president himself is a mountaineer), Slovenia boasts some of the world's most accomplished climbers. This autumn saw six teams from this former Yugoslav republic climbing in the Nepal Himalaya, and despite Karnicar's success, they had their share of tragedy too.
A Nepal-Slovenia joint expedition abandoned the effort on Mt Pathivara, Mt Jongsang and Mt Kiratchuli after a Slovenian climber fell to his death, while another Slovenian attempt on a new route up the west face of the 6990 m Dorje Lakpa (visible to the northeast of Kathmandu), too had to be given up when a Slovenian member died. Further to the west, yet another team of Slovenians abandoned their attempt on Annapurna III.
Meanwhile, favourable weather conditions in the Khumbu saw five Koreans ascend the world's highest peak. Two climbers from the Korean Ulsan Everest Expedition and three from the Chung Buk Korean Everest Expedition reached the Everest summit via the regular southeast ridge. Six of their compatriots succeeded on the nearby Lhotse (8516m) from the west face.
But not all Koreans were that lucky. The 2000 Korea Gyung Nam Student Alpine Association Dhaulagiri Expedition abandoned their attempt to climb from the north face after climbing leader, Lee So Ho, died in an avalanche. A Sherpa climber with the Dhaulagiri 1 Expedition from the Nagoya Alpine Club of Japan also died on the mountain. A Russian climber died on Lhotse Shar (8400 m).
A total of 65 teams received permits to climb various peaks this autumn season, which officially ends on midnight of 15 November, by when teams have to be back at their respective Base Camps.
Generally, expeditions tend to concentrate on popular mountains in the eastern and central regions of Nepal. The government has indicated that it would simplify permit procedures and open up new peaks to encourage more climbers to come to Nepal. That may happen in the spring of 2001 when the tourism ministry, in consultation with Tribhuvan University's Geography Department, is planning to open up new peaks for climbers and to simplify the process of applying for permits. "We want to attract climbers to virgin peaks, mainly in the west, to balance the regional disparity," says Ganesh Raj Karki, head of the mountaineering section at the ministry.
But even as mountaineers eagerly await a formal announcement, there is reason for scepticism. The tourism ministry cannot decide on its own. For security purposes, it has to get clearance from the defence and home ministries, and any such application, even if it is intra-government, has to wind its way through the long and tortuous bureaucratic channels. And that, as everyone knows, can take quite some time.
The question of compulsory insurance for Nepali high-altitude porters/climbers came to the fore once again this season after three Sherpas accompanying two Korean expeditions to Cho Oyu (8201m) died in an avalanche.
Prior to leaving for the mountains, mountaineering teams have to provide the Ministry of Tourism with signed affidavits of each climbing member and high-altitude support staff, together with insurance details. The Nepali government's mountaineering regulations require porters and high-altitude Sherpas to be insured for a minimum of Rs 50,000 and Rs 150,000 respectively.
However, unknown to the ministry, the Koreans, who were climbing as one team, had hired three Sherpas up in the mountains citing lack of manpower. "They say they hired the Sherpas to carry supplies up to base camp only. But investigations showed otherwise," says a ministry official.
"The expedition said they tried to inform me by phone about their decision to hire extra people," said Ang Karma Sherpa, managing director of Windhorse Trekking, the company that managed the expedition. The Korean climbers, who abandoned their attempt after the accident, face the possibility of being blacklisted, banned or fined by the tourism ministry.
The ministry ordered the teams to pay Rs 180,000 to the families of the three deceased. Other climbing Sherpas on the Korean teams were insured for Rs 500,000 each. "The pity is the families of the dead won't get the same amount," said Sherpa.
"It happens rarely but sometimes teams try to save money by forming small expeditions. Then they realise that they don't have enough manpower and hire staff who may be untrained, inadequately insured and outfitted," said a ministry official with long experience as liaison officer to expeditions. "What happened on Cho Oyu is nothing new. It is only that these incidents are not reported and trekking companies hush up matters and pay off the families of those killed on the mountain."