May 13th 2019 – Nirmal Pirja is 800 feet from the south summit of Mount Everest. Born in the Myagdi district of Nepal, Pirja is no stranger to high-altitude. Moreover, his 15 years of service in the elite forces of the Royal Navy as a Lance Corporal have embedded within him a resilience and grit that are prerequisites for survival in the brutal conditions of the Himalayas. This is Pirja’s second Everest expedition, his first came in 2016 when he was only 33 years old, but this trip to the top of the world would prove quite a different experience. As he traverses the knife-edge ridge of the south summit, Pirja steps past the very spot of the last documented sighting of George Mallory who vanished on the mountain in 1924, in what would have been the first expedition to reach the summit; a feat eventually achieved in 1953 by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary. Expecting to see an unobscured view of the infamous Hillary Step and the prayer flags blowing on the summit, Pirja is instead greeted by a line of over 96 climbers, all vowing to reach the summit. It’s a queue you’d expect to see outside a busy nightclub on the weekend, but at the cruising altitude of a Boeing 747 aircraft, and with oxygen levels that are 66% less than at sea-level. This is the death-zone on Everest, where the altitude is greater than 8,000 metres and the temperature drops to as low as -34 degree celsius. It’s the same route that Norgay and Hillary took in 1954 when they first reached the summit, but things were a lot quieter back then. After realising how futile it’d be to join the queue, Pirja takes a picture of the scene ahead of him and retreats to Camp 3.
The tragedy however, is that the sight of over 100 climbers queuing at over 29,000 feet is somewhat expected for an experienced climber like Pirja. What experienced climbers and traditional alpinists have witnessed since the turn of the millennium has been the hyper-commercialisation of mountain ranges across the world, specifically the Himalayas. Since 2000, Everest has seen nearly a ten-fold increase in traffic with more than half of all of the mountain’s 10,055 successful summits coming in the last decade. In the early ‘90s, famed climbers like Scott Fischer and Rob Hall saw a business opportunity in offering private tours to the top of Everest, and what followed was the mountain’s slow descent into the world of commerce and consumerism. As of last year, sixteen companies will bring you to the roof of the world, but at a substantial cost. Packages vary from between $40,000 to $200,000, the price-point dictating the quality of service and guide experience, the higher price-bracket reserved for the many climbers who avail of private guides who will provide a 1:1 service. If you can afford the price, you can climb the mountain; this unwritten rule of modern mountaineering has attracted hordes of inexperienced climbers to the Himalayas and other ranges each year, bringing with them new problems and igniting existing ones. Once a niche pastime, mountaineering is now a multimillion-dollar industry, fuelled by wealthy Westerners with little climbing experience and money to burn. Thirteen climbers (two Irish) died on Everest last year, with at least three casualties attributed to the extreme overcrowding on the mountain, one woman died in the queue. Oddly, these tragedies do little to curb the high-demand for a spot in an Everest expedition group, and even after the 1996 Everest disaster in which eight climbers died in a single night, demand nearly doubled for the following year. This is the modern industry of ascent, driven by lucrative brand deals and online views. It isn’t climbing anymore, it’s queuing. It isn’t exploration, it’s crowd control.
Everest Base-Camp has become a mini-city in recent years, with high-volumes of climbers venturing to Nepal each May. With the variety of tour operators, mountaineering has never been more accessible, and the amount of inexperienced climbers that tackle the mountain year are putting both their own and their Sherpa’s lives at risk. After the level of traffic and high-number of casualties in 2019, the Nepalese government introduced a fresh wave of restrictions on the number of climbing permits distributed for Everest. As of this year, climbers must undergo basic high altitude climbing training, as well as having successfully summited a peak of at least 6,500 metres prior to an Everest attempt. However, these latest regulations are only a token gesture at best and any well-versed climber will acknowledge that these stipulations are easily achieved. Nepal’s reluctance to crackdown on mountain overcrowding is somewhat expected from a country whose economy is heavily-reliant on the Himilaya climbing season; the Nepal Mountaineering Association attributes 80% of Nepalese employment to mountain tourism. Blighted by Government corruption and forgeign influences, the money generated from the climbing season rarely trickles back to those who actually work on the mountains, and has cemented Nepal’s position as one of the poorest countries in South-East Asia; approximately 25% of Nepal’s population live below the poverty line with many getting by on less than a dollar a day. Sherpas and porters, who all but carry climbers up the mountain, are seen as having an elite position of employment, but their sacrifices are frequently fatal. When Covid-19 hit in early March, and planned expeditions to Nepal were cancelled, the country was decimated by a missed climbing season with potential losses estimated at $700 million.
The economic fallout has been seismic, but the pandemic has provided a much-needed break for mountain ranges across the world that have come under increasing pressure from large climber volumes. The reduction of smog in Kathmandu means that for the first time in decades, the peak of Everest is visible from the capital city. Not only are the cities healing, but so too are the mountains. In the six decades since it was first submitted, an estimated 50 tons of rubbish have been left on the slopes of Everest, everything from empty oxygen canisters to abandoned tents. Adding to the refuse levels on the world’s highest rubbish dump are approximately 200 corpses of mountaineers, who heard the siren song of the summit and fell short; their bodies are left on the mountain to freeze, too dangerous to repatriate. Last year over a six-week period, 10 tonnes of rubbish was removed from the peak in one of the first clean-up operations in years, but much of this work was done at lower-altitudes. In 2014, a deposit refund scheme was introduced for climbers who removed 18 pounds of refuse from the mountain, and to some extent the initiative has seen results. The Nepalese government had intended to capitalise on the quieter Summer months this year and replicate last year’s clean-up operation at a higher-level, enlisting the army and pledging $7.5 million to the cause. But the motion was shot down by the Sherpa community who contested that inexperienced army members would not be able for the high-altitude clean-up, and instead proposed the Sherpas themselves should complete the task. No agreement was reached, and a golden opportunity was missed.
Nepal remains in denial that overcrowding is leading to problems on their mountains, and it’s a view that’s unlikely to change in the coming years. The need for stricter regulations in the Himalayas will thus fall on deaf ears for another climbing season, at a time when change is needed more than ever. As hordes travel to Kathmandu each year, the magic and allure of the mountain is depleted by privileged amateurs looking for their shot at glory. The Himalayas are expected to lose more than a third of their glaciers before the end of the century due to climate change, which will be detrimental to the farming lands of the millions of natives who live in the shadow of the mountain range. In Tanzania – Kilimanjaro, for its part, is expected to lose its iconic snow-capped peak by 2022. The mountains are vulnerable and we’re not helping. One of the only few expeditions this year to Everest was made by China Mobile and Huawei, who sent a team to install a 5G mast at 6,000 metres on the north face of the mountain. It comes a year after the Tanzanian government proposed plans to install a cable car system on the side of Kilimanjaro. These latest modernisation attempts coupled with a year-on-year increase in unregulated and unethical expeditions, are an insult to what attracted people to mountains in the first place. Without proper governance, we may lose one of the world’s few remaining escapes. A tragedy, because more than ever, we need their wildness.