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.
There has been a flurry of strange announcements by the government in the last few months about rule changes on Everest. Climbers have to carry eight kilograms of garbage down with them. We have to attend a briefing to promote peace and harmony on the mountain; a ladder will be installed on the Hillary Step; everyone must climb with a Nepali guide; police will be stationed at Base Camp; permit fees have been “reduced” (in fact, they’ve been increased slightly, but never let the truth get in the way of marketing).
Nobody knows how many of these statements are serious or whether any will be enforced. Some have been mooted before. But the sheer number leaves the impression that if you string all the garbage coming out of the Ministry together, there will be enough 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 the government believes that Everest’s image has been tarnished by all the negative media coverage that accompanied last year’s fight between Ueli Steck and a team of Sherpas. They’re keen to let people know they’re in control of the situation.
In fact these announcements have had precisely the opposite effect. The press have tucked in to a feast of negative stories. If you threw Rupert Murdoch’s bloated carcass into a paddling pool full of sharks there wouldn’t be a bigger feeding frenzy. Right or wrong the government appears to be in as much control as Peter O’Toole with a crate of Mount Everest Whiskey.
Yesterday we attended our much-publicised briefing at the Ministry of Tourism. I would love to say things are now much clearer, but if anything, they’re muddier.
A briefing to “promote peace and harmony”?
“They’re going to tell us not to fight the Sherpas. It’s just a formality,” our expedition leader Phil Crampton quipped beforehand.
We assumed the fight had prompted the rule changes, but in fact an entirely different incident seems to have annoyed them just as much, if not more. Last year, 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. Apparently this requires a special permit that he didn’t have.
Although 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 threw up a confusing mass of rules, some of which seemed fine, and others which seemed extraordinary. I don’t know which ones I need to take seriously, and many were lost in translation. The first official spoke to us in English 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 that are definitely new, but neither seems to be well thought through. When we leave base camp to climb through the Khumbu Icefall we’re supposed to sign out at the new base camp police check post. 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 logbook at 2am flagging down every head torch that passes by?
The second rule concerns the new requirement to carry eight kilograms 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. Eight kilograms is a huge amount of extra weight to be carrying at high altitude.
After presenting us with khata scarves, the officials insisted we pose for a team photo. The many hangers-on in the room produced a flurry of cameras 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.