Scene on Mount Everest a 'vanity fair', local teacher says

Local teacher says the once daunting climb is now only a matter of paying your way up

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 June, 2014, 3:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 June, 2014, 11:06am

It was once the preserve of world-class mountaineers with the loftiest ambitions. Now it's a vanity project for those with the deepest pockets.

Mount Everest has become crowded with social climbers who have little skill in mountaineering, and some who do not even like sport, according to Ada Tsang Yin-hung, a Hong Kong teacher whose expedition was cut short following a deadly avalanche in April.

"Mount Everest has become a big vanity fair," said Tsang. "Many people want to become the first to scale the mountain in their social circles, communities, cities, provinces or countries, and they want to profit from the title."

According to Tsang, technology and modern tools have greatly lowered the risks of climbing the mountain, and driven the commercialisation of a trip once deemed a mission impossible.

Tsang's own bid for the summit followed a promise four years ago to her pupils at CUHKFAA Chan Chun Ha Secondary School in Ma On Shan. At the time, Tsang herself had no mountaineering experience. She made the promise to show them that "if I can do the seemingly impossible, so can they".

In Nepal, business is thriving for the countless companies set up in recent years which offer a complete range of services to climbing parties - everything from Sherpas and porters to chefs and even professional photographers.

"If you are rich, you can always hire several Sherpas and a couple of chefs and porters and buy a dozen tanks of oxygen, which will surely get you to the top easily," Tsang said.

She said a Sherpa charged an average of HK$78,000 for an expedition, a photographer about HK$39,000, and a porter about HK$230 a day. The cost of chefs varies, while a tank of oxygen costs HK$3,900.

The Nepalese government also charges climbers HK$85,000 for a permit.

One of the members of Tsang's team hired three Sherpas and one photographer. Her team together hired two chefs and three porters. Tsang hired one Sherpa.

Last year, 540 people successfully scaled Everest, up from 350 in the previous year. As of last year, more than 3,500 climbers reached the summit.

Dr David Savage, from the Queensland Behavioural Economics Group, co-conducted research last year on the commercialisation of Everest climbing.

He said expeditions like those offered by adventure-tourism companies accounted for about 25 per cent of all Everest attempts in 2010. A decade ago that figure was just 15 per cent.

Climbers in commercial expeditions spend at least HK$210,000, and sometimes as much as HK$660,000, according to Savage.

Although Savage believed this commercialisation had improved Sherpas' lives, it has also changed their traditional values and cultures.

He said it had made them less willing to help other climbers in life-threatening situations because they were too busy with their own clients, who cared only about their own success.

Increasing commercialism on the mountain has also brought increasing pollution.

"Can you imagine any place in the world where you have tourists banging about on the mountainside, climbing up and down, leaving their rubbish, including bodies?" Savage asked.

"[Everest] is nowhere near as pristine as it used to be."

He called on the Nepalese government to limit the number of climbers every year, and charge them more for climbing.