A briefing at the Ministry

A new joke is doing the rounds in Kathmandu: How many Nepalese Ministry of Tourism officials does it take to change a light bulb? Two: one to change the bulb and the other to issue a press release to the media.

Attending a briefing at Nepal's Ministry of Tourism
Attending a briefing at Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism

There has been a flurry of strange announcements by the government in the last few months in relation to rule changes on Everest. Climbers have to carry 8kg of garbage down with them, attend a briefing to promote peace and harmony on the mountain; permit fees have been “reduced”; a ladder will be installed on the Hillary Step; everyone must climb with a Nepali guide; police will be stationed at base camp.

Nobody knows how many of these statements are serious or whether any will be enforced. Some have been mooted before and are nothing new, but the sheer number leaves the impression that if you string all the garbage coming out if the ministry together, there will be enough of it to make a rope ladder all the way up the Hillary Step to the summit and down the other side into Tibet. We’re not sure why all these statements have been coming, but the feeling is that after all the negative media coverage that accompanied last year’s fight between Ueli Steck and a team of Sherpas the government feels that Everest’s image has been tarnished, and they’re keen to let people know they’re in control of the situation. In fact these announcements have had precisely the reverse effect. The press have had a feast of negative stories to tuck into, and they’ve taken it. If you threw Rupert Murdoch’s bloated carcass into a paddling pool full of sharks there wouldn’t be a bigger feeding frenzy, and rightly or wrongly the government has appeared to be in as much control as Peter O’Toole with a crate of Mount Everest Whiskey in the cockpit of a Malaysia Airlines plane.

Yesterday we attended our much publicised briefing at the Ministry of Tourism. I would love to say things are now much clearer, but that’s far from being the case. If anything, they’re a little muddier. A briefing to “Promote peace and harmony”?

“They’re going to tell us not to fight the Sherpas. It’s just a formality,” quipped our expedition leader Phil Crampton beforehand.

We assumed the fight last year had prompted the rule changes, but in fact an entirely different incident that happened last year seems to have annoyed them just as much, if not more. A commercial client called Dan Hughes, climbing with the British mountaineering operator Jagged Globe, did a live television broadcast for the BBC on the summit, something that apparently requires a special permit which he didn’t have. While Phil is leader of the Altitude Junkies’ joint expedition to Everest and Lhotse, he won’t be climbing Lhotse, so my name is listed as leader on our Lhotse climbing permit. At one point during yesterday’s briefing one of the officials looked at me and said:

“So, Mr Mark, you are British? No BBC broadcasts like last year.”

“Yes, I’m British, so obviously I must work for the BBC,” I didn’t say (it didn’t seem the right moment for sarcasm).

The briefing itself was a confusing mass of rules, some of which seemed fine, and others which seemed extraordinary. I didn’t know which ones I need to take seriously, and many were lost in translation. The first official spoke to us in an English that was so heavily accented we could understand little of what he was saying. We nodded politely. The second official spoke better English but rushed through a series of PowerPoint slides full of long paragraphs of text, and we had no hope of keeping up with all of them.

All news we broadcast from camp has to be passed to the ministry first. Really – how about all the blogs, tweets, Facebook posts and emails we have no control over? We’re not allowed to unfurl commercial banners on the summit, but how about all the climbers who are part funded by sponsorship and expected to produce a summit photo with their sponsor’s logo?

“They tell us that stuff every year,” Phil said to me afterwards.

There are two rules which are definitely new, but neither seems to be well thought through. When leaving base camp to climb through the Khumbu Icefall we’re now expected to sign out at the new police check post at base camp. It sounds like a good idea in theory – if a major incident occurs, somebody knows who’s in camp and who’s on the mountain – but in reality most people climb through the icefall at night. Is there really going to be a police officer with a log book at 2am flagging down every head torch that passes by? The second rule concerns the new requirement to carry 8kg of trash off the mountain. This announcement received unusually positive media coverage, but nobody’s sure how it’s going to work. We’ll all be carrying our own trash back down with us, but am I really going to be spending my time in the Western Cwm combing the glacier for other people’s litter to take back with me, or will I be resting? It would be nice to think I’d do the former, but I can think of half a dozen reasons why I might not. 8kg is a huge amount of extra weight to be carrying at high altitude.

We were presented with khata scarves, and the officials insisted we posed for a team photo. A flurry of cameras were produced from the many hangers on in the room and we smiled politely as they posed alongside us. Were they confusing us with Reinhold Messner or Ed Veisturs? I don’t know. None of us took any team photos of our own.

I know the government officials are only doing their job, however strange it might have seemed to us. It was all very amiable in the end, but I definitely left the briefing more confused than when it started. Tomorrow I’m looking forward to hitting the base camp trail and enjoying the simple life again for the next few weeks.

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