The government of Nepal made a number of announcements in relation to mountaineering on Everest both before and during the Spring 2014 season. Because of Everest’s high profile in the public imagination, the announcements received widespread media attention worldwide. Most journalists chose to take the announcements at face value, quoting government spokespeople (or their press releases) and the content of the statements verbatim without questioning the likelihood of it actually happening.
Many of you reading this will be aware that it was a difficult season on Everest’s south side this year, for climbers, operators, Nepali staff and the government itself. An avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall killed 16 Sherpas, and a number of militant Sherpas, unhappy at the amount of compensation offered by the government to the families of the victims, campaigned for the mountain be closed and for all staff to be paid in full. Threats were made against climbers and staff who wanted to remain, and with no support from the government to keep the climbing route open all operators abandoned their expeditions a week after the tragedy. For a more detailed account of the events from a commercial client’s perspective you can read my trip report.
Now the season is complete (at least on the Nepal side) I will examine some of the announcements the government made and assess how successfully they met their intentions. I will also consider how it may have affected the events which transpired had they done so.
1. The Base Camp police force
What was the announcement? The BBC first reported the government’s intention of opening an Integrated Service Centre at Everest Base Camp in August last year. The new centre was to have fulfilled a number of purposes, but it was widely seen as a police force to act on incidents such as the fight between Sherpas and climbers in the Western Cwm last April, including by myself. Then earlier this year the story resurfaced, including this report by CNN which stated there would be nine officers from both the police and army. It seemed the government were serious about the service centre and it really was going to go ahead after all.
Did it happen? Did it bollocks. There were no police or army personnel deployed at Base Camp at any time during the Spring 2014 Everest season.
Would it have helped? Regardless of whether you agree with the terms demanded by the militant Sherpas (and many of them, such as extra compensation for the families, a trust fund for future accidents, and better insurance, would have been supported by nearly everyone at Base Camp), they lost the moral argument when they started threatening violence against other Sherpas and western climbers. A typical example of this included threatening to break someone’s legs if they didn’t leave Base Camp within seven days or ventured into the Icefall, Threats were also made against families of Sherpas who continued to work, with promises of vandalism against their businesses and property. I heard of at least two operators whose clients were threatened in this way, one of whom asked for an immediate response from the government by sending army personnel to Base Camp to provide protection. Unfortunately with Base Camp situated at 5270m any personnel sent there need to be pre-acclimatised, which means immediate deployment is impossible. Later some apologists for the militants claimed the threats never happened, even though there were many witnesses. Had acclimatised police and army been stationed at Base Camp throughout the season they could have investigated any reports of threats and intimidation, arrested those responsible, and provided protection for anyone wishing to stay and climb.
2. The pre-expedition briefing
What was the announcement? In March the Himalayan Times reported that Everest climbers will need to attend an “intensive pre-orientation programme designed by government authorities” before embarking on their expedition. One of the aims of the briefing was to maintain peace and harmony in the region with one government official quoted as saying “the orientation programme is aimed at averting any untoward situation.” This particular announcement was not taken too seriously by climbers and wasn’t reported extensively in the media except as an aside in articles describing some of the other announcements.
Did it happen? Bizarre as the announcement was, this one did actually happen (if you can describe half an hour sitting round a table watching PowerPoint slides as an intensive pre-orientation programme). The day after we arrived in Kathmandu all members of our team were obliged to attend a briefing at the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation (MoCTCA). I described this briefing in more detail in one of my expedition dispatches.
Did it help? If the briefing was aimed at “averting any untoward situation” then it clearly didn’t work. It was not well planned, and most of us left it more confused than when we started, having had a book of rules thrown at us, many of which didn’t make sense, seemed unenforceable, or simply weren’t applicable to most of us. While meeting with officials from the Ministry of Tourism might be of value to expedition organisers, for the majority of climbers it serves little purpose, and certainly not in this format. Besides, it may be controversial to say this but in my opinion untoward situations that developed at Base Camp this year were not forged by the hands of western clients, who by and large from what I saw behaved with dignity and respect.
3. Signing in and out of the Khumbu Icefall
What was the announcement? This is an example of one of the unenforceable rules that were announced at the government briefing. Climbers were told that at the integrated service centre (see above) there would be a log book. Whenever any of us left Base Camp to climb into the Khumbu Icefall we would be required to sign it with our time of departure and how long we intended to be away for. When we returned to Base Camp we would then have to sign back in again and let them know we had returned.
Did it happen? As we have seen, there was no integrated service centre and therefore no log book. Why did they tell us there would be at the briefing? I have no idea.
Would it have helped? In theory this sounds like a good idea – if there was a major incident (as indeed there was) someone would know who was on the mountain and who wasn’t. In practice this would only be useful for the smaller teams for whom every member would be on the mountain at the same time. The majority have someone at Base Camp at all times who would be able to provide this information, and most climbers carry radios. Another practical consideration is that most people leave for the Icefall during darkness when it’s colder and the ice more stable, so to be enforceable the log book station would have to be situated in a convenient location and manned throughout the night.
4. The 8kg of trash rule
What was the announcement? One announcement that elicited an unusually positive response from the mainstream media was this one stating that all climbers would be obliged to carry 8kg of rubbish with them when they came down from the mountain. Initially it wasn’t clear whether the 8kg referred to a climber’s own rubbish (in which case the rule would be irrelevant for the vast majority of climbers who bring all their litter down anyway these days) or whether it meant 8kg of somebody else’s rubbish. At our briefing (see above) the government confirmed it would be the latter.
Did it happen? Er … no. By the time expeditions were abandoned at the end of April each team had carried around 1,000kg of equipment, including tents, food and oxygen cylinders, into the Western Cwm in preparation for their climbs. With the Icefall closed they had no means of bringing it back down again. In the end 8 of the larger teams clubbed together to hire helicopters. A Sherpa from each team was dropped off in the Cwm to gather all the equipment together into a cache. The equipment will remain there until next year (if it hasn’t fallen down a crevasse) and will be retrieved if and when the teams return.
Would it have helped? Few people will argue that clearing up the detritus left by earlier expeditions isn’t a good thing, but there is a question mark over whether a rule like this is a practical way to achieve it, or whether it is not best left to dedicated clean-up expeditions, some of which have achieved great success over the last few years (most notably Asian Trekking’s annual Eco Everest Expedition). Much of the historical trash is now frozen in place and difficult to retrieve. More significantly 8kg is an awful lot of additional weight for an exhausted climber struggling through a dangerous obstacle like the Khumbu Icefall. Many teams would be likely to transfer this duty to their Sherpas, adding further to the list of grievances that triggered this year’s labour dispute.
5. Constraining bizarre records
What was the announcement? When the Base Camp integrated service centre was first announced last year, the government stated that one of its purposes was to restore the reputation of Everest by putting a block on some of the more silly ascents. “These days we see people trying to make bizarre records like, for instance, standing on their head or taking off their clothes while on the summit,” one official was quoted as saying. The government also appeared to be annoyed about a British climber who reached the summit last year and gave what he claimed to be the first live television broadcast for the BBC. Any climber planning to set a record would be required to inform the government beforehand so they could consider whether it fell “within stipulated criteria”.
Did it happen? One of the most high profile climbers on Everest this year was Joby Ogwyn, who was intending to jump off the summit clad in a wingsuit and sail back down to base camp using only the wind. It was no big secret; he took a film crew with him for a documentary to be broadcast on the Discovery Channel. We never did find out what the government’s “stipulated criteria” were for defining whether a record should be considered bizarre, but they must have been quite loose if this one slipped through. Then after all the other expeditions packed up and left the mountain Jing Wang, owner of the Chinese outdoor equipment manufacturer Toread, was given permission to bypass the Khumbu Icefall and fly into the Western Cwm in a helicopter. Last Friday she completed Everest’s very first chopper-assisted ascent by reaching the summit with her team of 7 renegade strike-breaking Sherpas. In reality for all their talk of constraining bizarre records, when the permit fees were offered the government accepted them
Would it have helped? It would be contentious to suggest the presence of Joby Ogwyn and the Discovery Channel film crew at Base Camp helped to inflame the labour dispute that followed. I certainly saw no evidence of this; the militant grievances were mainly aimed at government rather than westerners (although the westerners were the most immediate group to suffer by them). Some people would argue the documentary produced afterwards was sympathetic and helped to educate westerners about Everest. Jing Wang’s ascent, however, very likely will inflame the situation in the immediate aftermath. Not only has she enhanced the stereotype of Everest climbers as vain and selfish millionaires, but if reports are true then truly eye-watering salaries were offered to her 7 Sherpas to induce them to break the strike. This will have consequences for the local economy, and will lead to rifts within the community (as obscene amounts of money invariably does as surely as diarrhoea follows dal bhat).
6. Restricting helicopter flights
What was the announcement? “Barring rescue operations, helicopters will not be allowed to fly to nearby mountain slopes as the vibrations and even the sound can cause the snow to fall, endangering lives of other climbers,” Purna Chandra Bhattarai chief of MoCTCA’s tourism industry division told the BBC last year. Nearly every year a record is set for the highest helicopter evacuation on Everest. The last one was set in 2013, when the Italian pilot Simone Moro lifted someone on a long line from 7800m. Helicopter evacuations at high altitude are particularly dangerous because the thin air lies on the very fringes of what is necessary to keep a helicopter aloft. Even flying to Base Camp at 5270m is dangerous for passengers who are not acclimatised, but increasingly climbers have been using it as a means of getting to and from Base Camp. But safety isn’t the only consideration. Flying to Base Camp benefits wealthy helicopter operators but brings little to the local economy. Trekking into Base Camp, which can take up to 10 days, brings benefits to local porters, guides and tea house owners.
Did it happen? Admittedly many of the additional flights this year were concerned with rescue and recovery efforts as a result of the avalanche. On that morning hundreds who were gathered at Base Camp watched in horror as countless flights were made into the Icefall to recover body after body, and the seriously injured were flown to hospitals in Lukla and Kathmandu. But what happened afterwards would not meet these criteria. Government officials and expedition operators were flown in and out of Base Camp for meetings. Helicopters were flown above the Icefall to recover and stash equipment that had been left up there following the closure of the route through the Khumbu Icefall, and Jing Wang was reported as needing at least 20 flights into the Western Cwm to carry the equipment and Sherpas for her lone summit bid. All of these flights were sanctioned by the government. There is now talk that in future years helicopter flights will become the normal means of transporting equipment to Camp 2. The advantage of this would be to reduce the number of journeys Sherpas need to make through the dangers of the Khumbu Icefall. A corollary is they would no longer be paid for these services as the employment would of course be given to helicopter pilots instead.
Would it have helped? The rescue flights were necessary and a ban would not have affected them. A ban on Ms Jing’s flights would have been a good thing, as they will have prevented any negative effect her ascent is likely to have on the Sherpa community. A ban on the government flights would have made no difference to the situation; their meetings were pointless as we shall see. A ban on the flights into the Western Cwm to cache equipment may have been harmful, as this equipment may not have been recoverable next year, adding to the trash problem.
7. The season is still open
What was the announcement? Perhaps the most shameless and iniquitous of the government’s lies was this one. After flying a delegation to Base Camp for an emergency meeting on 24 April to talk with militants and address their demands, MoCTCA issued a press release implying they had talked with both operators and Sherpas and gained the agreement of all parties to continue with their expeditions, and that the mountain was therefore still open.
Did it happen? I was a witness at this meeting and I left it under no illusions the season was now over. To avoid waffling on about it in this post and keeping you away from whatever you mean to do, as a special bonus this week I have written an additional post which provides my eyewitness account of the meeting, addresses the content of the government’s press release and compares the two. If you are interested then please do bookmark the post and come back to it later in the week (or even better, as soon as you’ve finished reading this one).
Would it have helped? It is highly likely all parties will lose from the Everest season ending early. Commercial clients have had their hopes and dreams shattered, spent tens of thousands and not even left Base Camp. Operators have thousands of kilos of equipment in the Western Cwm which they may not be able to retrieve; they will also find it harder to get clients next year. With fewer clients on Everest next year many Sherpas who are used to their Everest salary to provide for their families will be forced to find lower paid jobs. The militants will of course find it harder to get employment in the tourist industry, as not many companies are willing to employ staff who harm their business. The government will not only lose out on revenue from Everest permits next year, but their inaction to resolve the troubles this year will have a knock on effect throughout the tourist sector, with cancellations already coming in from trekkers intending to travel to Nepal who are now worried about strikes. Would it have helped had the government kept the season open? Was Tenzing Norgay a Sherpa?
Is that it?
Unfortunately the government’s deceit hasn’t ended with the Everest season. Their final press release stated permits for Everest and Lhotse this year will remain valid for 5 years, but so far they have not provided any documentation to climbers or operators confirming this. Moreover there is talk they will use Jing Wang’s helicopter-assisted ascent to drop this commitment and pass the buck to operators by claiming her ascent demonstrates the mountain was still open and expeditions were therefore abandoned voluntarily. There have even been reports they are now investigating Ms Jing’s flights as if they may never have happened!
The government has also said it will investigate the militant element responsible for this year’s strike, and take away their licenses if they are found guilty. From what we have seen this year, there is little or no chance of this happening. Instead it will be down to operators to carry out this purge within their ranks where necessary.
As for the many reasonable demands of the militants, these will also fall to others to fulfil. The compensation for families of the victims is already being addressed by western donors, as I have described in a previous post. It is likely many operators will voluntarily increase their insurance cover for Sherpa staff, but without a government enforced minimum there will also be those who don’t. A trust fund for future accidents can only happen with operators clubbing together with voluntary contributions which will be passed onto clients in the form of higher booking fees. It is unlikely this money will come from the funds generated by permit fees, as the militants have requested.
Alienating sympathetic western climbers by going on strike was not the best way to advance the Sherpa cause, and some of the methods used were of dubious morality, but the cause itself is honourable. I love the country of Nepal, but it’s a voluntary decision to visit. For its people living with their corrupt and deceitful government has no opt-out, and the Everest industry is just the tip of the iceberg.