How rush by Hongkongers and others to climb Everest is changing the mountain
Climbers like Stephen Venables say the rise in the number of people visiting world’s highest peak brings added revenue for Sherpas, but also more trash, and pushes prices up for Nepali locals
Stephen Venables etched his name into mountaineering folklore when he became the first Englishman to conquer Everest without the aid of supplementary oxygen. The sense that enveloped him when he reached the roof of the world – at about 3.40pm on May 12, 1988 – was one of complete isolation, Venables recalls, as he took in the scene at 8,848 metres. After a short while, he focused his attention on his descent – and survival.
“In the end I came as close as you’d want to come to death,” says Venables, who lost three toes to frostbite after being forced to make camp for the night alone as he made his way down from a place where temperatures can range from minus 20 to minus 35 degrees Celsius.
The danger might remain but times have certainly changed on the world’s highest peak.
“It’s unrecognisable now,” says Venables, on a recent trip to Hong Kong during which he addressed the Royal Geographical Society. “Back in 1988, the days of people being guided up the mountain had just started. It was hard to get a permit.
“We went to the east face simply because we couldn’t get a permit for the north face. And back in the ’70s, there was one permit per season, one expedition. Things have changed drastically.”
There were just six successful summits undertaken in the year Venables reached the top. When the 2016 spring climbing season closed – it starts in early May and, weather permitting, lasts about two weeks in a good year – it was estimated that just over 450 had reached the top.
In the aftermath of a climbing season that saw six people die during attempts to climb Everest, debate about the situation continues to simmer. This year’s season opened under a shadow. In 2013, there was a very public clash between a European climber and a group of Sherpas, the locals hired as porters and guides. It escalated into violence and brought an early end to the season.
In 2014, an avalanche in the Khumbu icefall claimed the lives of 16 Sherpas, again ending the climbing season. Last year’s devastating earthquake on April 25 claimed the lives of an estimated 8,000 people and brought Nepal to a standstill.
Despite the deaths – and all the dangers involved in tackling the mountain – more and more people are setting their sights on an ascent, Hongkongers included.
“[Numbers are] increasing every year,” says John Tsang Chi-sing, who has climbed Everest twice (in 2009 and 2013) and each year leads locals on expeditions to the Himalayas with the Adventure Plus tour group.
This year Tsang took a group of three to Everest’s base camp (at 5,364 metres) and the nearby village of Lobuche (6,145 metres). Tsang was at base camp when last year’s earthquake struck, helped survivors, and has been a regular visitor to the villages that frame the lower reaches of the Himalayas to help with recovery efforts.
Tsang first trekked into the region in 2001 and, like Venables, has witnessed the region undergo a “complete” transformation.
It’s not just on the mountains themselves, says Tsang, but in villages such as Namche Bazaar (3,440 metres), where new hotels, lodges and cafes spring up each year, and major international trekking operations rent buildings for the climbing season.
“The villages are changing every year, and the numbers of people you see now compared to when I first visited are incredible,” Tsang says. “The earthquake had an impact on everyone of course, and it was terrible. So they are rebuilding where they need to and I think you will see the area – and access to it – continue to expand as the money continues to flow in.”
It is natural for the people who have lived on the mountains for generations to want their share, but disputes are apparently looming over how and where the money is spent.
“There are many issues,” says Tsang. “You can feel the conflict in the villages between people who want to develop and how they want to develop. At the moment, some want to rebuild the airport next to Namche Bazaar so people can fly direct there from Kathmandu, but if they do that they don’t go through all the villages and the shops and lodges before Namche Bazaar, so the other people will miss out on business.”
The world’s fascination with the region seems certain to ensure money will continue to flow in, despite the Himalayas remaining a relatively difficult region to reach. Inroads have been made in Nepal over the past decade or so to improve access, but the country has suffered from the impact of natural disasters such as last year’s earthquake, along with a sometimes fraught internal political climate. The other major route to Everest’s summit is from the Tibetan side, where a road and a railway line to base camp have been built, although access is restricted by China.
Regardless of troubles in Nepal, the impact of international tourism at Namche Bazaar, for example, has pushed the price of goods up to three times that in the capital, Kathmandu.
Controversy has dogged the region in recent years, over everything from the number of climbers streaming up the mountain, to the amount of rubbish they leave behind. Seasoned visitors such as Venables acknowledge that the landscape has changed forever.
“It’s ceased to be mountaineering. They run very slick, efficient operations. The infrastructure allows keen, fit, reasonably wealthy people – with a lot of determination and effort – to get to the summit. There’s not a huge amount of personal decisionmaking from the people who go.”
Ironically, Venables’ talk at the Royal Geographical Society – to mark the 100th anniversary of Ernest Shackleton’s escape from the Antarctic – was backed by Silversea Expeditions, which is staging a luxury cruise in September to mark the occasion. The situation was not lost on the explorer, who shrugs and says: “That’s just the way of the world. People today are prepared to pay for these experiences – and to pay a lot.”
A permit to climb Everest costs US$11,000 – while the total cost of a trip can reach about US$75,000.
Popular culture has long played its part in luring people to the region, making much of the Himalayas’ mystique, and human dramas that have played out on their slopes. Over the past decade, though, there has also been a focus on social and political issues.
At the heart of the matter is the Sherpa community that services the trekking trade and has been a very visible part of Everest folklore since before Tenzing Norgay made history alongside Edmund Hillary after becoming the first people to reach the summit on May 29, 1953.
Australian documentary filmmaker Jennifer Peedom first went to the region as part of a project to mark the 50th anniversary of that historic occasion. Her most recent and acclaimed film sought to examine the lives of the Sherpas after whom it is titled.
Peedom arrived at Everest a year after tempers had flared on the mountainside, and was with the Sherpas and her crew when the avalanche struck on April 18, 2014. It’s all captured in her film, as is the indigenous community’s fight for a more equitable share of the trekking trade, and their continued concerns over safety.
Sherpas can earn around US$7,000 per climbing season for their dangerous services – in a country where the average annual income is about US$700. “They do a vast amount of the work and take a disproportionate amount of the risk,” says Peedom. “But the dynamic is changing. They want and need better conditions, and the shift there now is they are not being taking for granted and they realise they have power, and they have a say in the way things are developing.”
A common theme is that everyone involved would like to see those travelling to Everest come to the mountain with appropriate experience.
“I think it would be a good idea if the Nepalese government required that you had at least climbed another Nepalese mountain so that you know if your body can handle it,” Peedom suggests. “You can be an experienced mountaineer, but no experience can prepare you for climbing at altitude except climbing at altitude ... There are some people who just physically can’t and it has nothing to do with willpower. this would spread the money around and prepare the climbers.”
The positive, says Peedom, is that despite the disputes and concerns, things seem to be moving forward.
“A lot of the older Sherpas look to Everest and ask: “Hasn’t it been climbed enough already?” she says. “But the income their community receives enables them to stay living in that part of the world – because it’s their home. There are problems there but the positive thing looking to the future is that the people are working hard to find the right solutions to suit everyone.”