Nepali Times
Climbing low


All will be quiet at Everest Base Camp this fall. For the first time in nearly two decades there is no autumn expedition from the south side on the world's highest mountain.

So is the lure of Everest fading?

"I don't think so," says Ganesh Raj Karki, undersecretary at the trekking and mountaineering section of the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation. "I think a lot of teams are saving their funds and energies for 2003, the 50th anniversary of the first summit
of Everest."

Karki does, however, acknowledge that all around this is one of the lowest climbing seasons he has seen in a long time. The Tourism Department has permitted 22 expeditions to climb 15 mountains around the country, about one-third the number that usually comes to scale Nepal's peaks from 1 September through 15 November.

But Karki remains optimistic. "We expect the number to increase to 45 by the end of the season," he says. But even that number falls short of the average 60-65 expeditions that climb in the Nepali Himalaya every fall.

Despite the fact that spring is the popular season for Everest, as large commercial expeditions feel their chances of negotiating the treacherous Khumbu Ice Fall and reaching the summit with the aid of ropes fixed by climbing Sherpas are better, trekking professionals feel the decrease in the overall number of expeditions is a cause for concern. "If the trend continues the next season, the Ministry should seriously rethink its mountaineering policies," says Ang Tshering Sherpa, chariman and managing director of Asian Trekking, one of Nepal's foremost trekking and expedition companies.

Sherpa's concern is justifiable. As of this week, there are 20 expeditions climbing Cho Oyu via Tibet, with a few more likely to go. "That's the total number of expeditions climbing in Nepal," says Sherpa, whose company is the general sales agent for the China Tibet Mountaineering Association. This fall Asian Trekking is organising two of the four expeditions to Everest, six expeditions to Cho Oyu, and three to Xixapangma-all via Tibet. In Nepal, it is organising just one expedition to Pumori. In spring this year, in contrast, it organised 24 expeditions to Tibet and 11 expeditions in Nepal.

Expeditions have often cited steeper climbing royalties, bureaucratic hassles, paper chases around the finance, tourism, and communication ministries, and the problem of too many liaison officers as reasons that discourage teams from climbing border peaks via Nepal. "We've repeatedly stressed the need for a one-window policy to deal with all the paper work for customs, immigration, communications, finances," says Sherpa.

Nepal has the longest experience in expedition operation in the Himalaya, dating back to 1949. The last major push to rationalise mountaineering activities was in 1978, when peaks were opened in different seasons to accommodate more expeditions on particularly popular mountains, unclimbed peaks were reserved for strictly Nepali or joint expeditions, and 18 peaks were designated "trekking peaks" to support the activities of the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA) activities.

Since then there has been nothing except a steep hike in 1996 in the royalty charged by HMG to climb Everest. "While the cost of expeditions in Tibet and Nepal add up to about the same for other mountains, there's a vast difference in the case of Everest," says Sherpa. An Everest expedition via Tibet, including royalty, can be organised for $70,000, which is what a seven-member expedition via Nepal pays in royalties alone.

Climbers are also exploring other areas in the region, mainly Pakistan, where a number of unclimbed peaks offer new challenges. Apart from having a fair share of eight thousanders, since Pakistan is a late starter, expeditions are cheaper there. It is also closer to Europe and the US, from where many climbers come from. "But even many Japanese, avid climbers, are looking at Pakistan," says Tashi Jangbu Sherpa president of the NMA.

While this year's political turmoil may be why some teams cancelled or postponed, most expedition leaders and climbers we spoke with say Nepal needs to spruce up its act. Officials at the ministry say they are trying. "The regulations have been reviewed and should be out soon," says Karki "They focus on the welfare of climbing staff from porters to high-altitude Sherpas, and ensure that teams have to endure less red tape. They also address the concept of climbing season," he explains.

When the Destination Nepal 2002-2003 Campaign will coincide with the 50th anniversary of the ascent of Everest and two International Years-of the Mountain and of Eco-tourism, it would be an ideal time to open up new peaks and destinations.

The Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation is trying to convince the Home and Defence ministries to abandon their three-decade-old policy and open prohibited areas on Nepal's northern border and also some 60 new peaks. After the Sino-Indian war in 1962, Nepal closed her northern borders as a security precaution. China on the other hand, opened its borders in the early 70s and went all out to draw mountaineers and climbers to the region by adopting a liberal tourism policy and setting up tourism infrastructure.

Dr Harka Gurung, geographer and former tourism minister, has been saying for the last decade that Nepal needs to open prohibited areas and promote unexplored peaks. Based on recommendations made by the Central Department of Geography and approved by the Home Ministry and the Defence Ministry, the mountaineering section of the tourism department opened nine new peaks in spring this year. But, says Gurung, "opening up new peaks is not a deliberate policy of the ministry, it is more a response to external pressure, the demands of the international climbing and trekking community."

Lhotse Middle (8,413 m) in Solukhumbu was climbed that very season by a Russian team that went up to the South Col of Everest and made a traverse of the Tibetan flank and P2 (6,251 m) in the Manaslu region was climbed for the first by the Ukranian team that made the first ascent of Manaslu's South East Face. This autumn, a six-member Japanese expedition will be attempting Hungchi (7,036 m) in Solukhumbu, while a British duo will try the north face of Tengkangpoche (6,500 m), a much sought-after peak. The peaks opened this year are just a fraction of the list of over 60 peaks the department has submitted to the Home and Defence Ministries for perusal. Of the 160 peaks open for climbing, 140 are over 6,000 m. This means that just over 10 percent of the 1,314 peaks over 6,000 m are open to climbers.

Gurung is quick to point out that the peaks selected are concentrated in the east and middle region of the country, areas that already benefit from trekking and tourism, unlike the relatively unexplored west. This high disparity in the numbers of expeditions by area and by peaks leads to overcrowding in some places. None of the 18 trekking peaks operated by the Nepal Mountaineering Association are in the western region. To decrease the regional disparity, Gurung suggests that setting higher royalties for crowded peaks and for the high season and less for distant peaks and low season will lead to regional dispersal and seasonal diffusion of climbing activities.

In the past two decades, over 2,000 mountaineering expeditions visited Nepal - nearly 60 percent of them came in the autumn. Forty-eight teams visited in 1979, and twenty years later this had gone up to 141. Royalties had also increased almost forty-fold. Many say that at least 50 percent of the revenue generated from mountaineering and climbing activities should be given back to these mountain communities.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)