“I feel that the full potential of these eighteen mountains has not been realised.” Jimmy Roberts, Foreword to The Trekking Peaks of Nepal by Bill O’Connor
Earthquakes, fuel strikes and the usual vacuous announcements about Everest have been dominating the news agenda about Nepal over the last few weeks and months. It’s hardly surprising that a seemingly obscure directive from Nepal’s tourism ministry to its principal mountaineering organisation has largely gone unnoticed.
But if you’re interested in trekking and mountaineering in Nepal then it’s worth knowing about, because at a time when Nepal desperately needs tourists to help rebuild its economy after last April’s earthquake and the current border blockade, it looks like its government is about to make things harder for them. It has also deprived one of the country’s most active tourism bodies of a significant part of its budget.
Here’s the directive in full. It may not make much sense to you to begin with, but if you read on then I will explain.
I have Dave from The Longest Way Home to thank for drawing my attention to it, a backpacker and travel blogger who spends a great deal of time in Nepal, and whose blog and Twitter feed is a mine of useful information about the current situation in the country from the perspective of a western tourist.
— Dave from TLWH (@TLWH) October 16, 2015
What does this announcement mean?
The notice is announcing a transfer of management of the 33 mountains in Nepal classified as trekking peaks from the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA) to the Department of Tourism (DoT).
Previously permit fees and paperwork for expeditions to these 33 peaks were managed by the NMA, a non-governmental organisation whose remit is to promote mountaineering and other mountain activities in Nepal. Now they will be managed by the government of Nepal itself.
This may seem like a trivial change, but it could have a significant impact on mountain tourism. There is no true freedom of the hills for mountaineers in Nepal. It has never been possible to simply turn up and climb a mountain; it has always been necessary to apply in advance, complete paperwork and pay fees before being granted permission. But just how much red tape is required depends on whether the mountain you intend to climb is classified as an expedition peak (managed by the government) or a trekking peak (managed by the NMA – or at least until now).
Rules and regulations frequently change, but let’s have a look at some of the things that are involved if you want to go mountaineering in Nepal.
- Interview at Ministry of Tourism
- Pre-expedition briefing and post-expedition debrief
- For peaks over 6500m it’s necessary to hire a government liaison officer and pay their expenses for the duration of the expedition
- Expedition sirdar (in charge of logistics) must be equipped and paid according to an official scale
- All staff climbing above base camp must be paid according to an official scale
- A permit must be bought for each climber (inc. Nepali staff) climbing above base camp
- Permit fees range in price (depending on size of peak and season) from $100 to $11,000 per climber
- A permit must be bought for each climber (inc. Nepali staff) climbing above base camp
- Permit fees range in price from $70 to $400 per climber
As you can see, expedition peaks require many weeks of planning and attendance in person at the Ministry of Tourism. Paperwork typically results in a file big enough to wedge a door open. Permit fees are generally much higher, and the requirement to hire a government liaison officer is a blatant example of corruption.
The original purpose of a liaison officer was to ease communication, help travellers adhere to the local customs, and generally ensure the smooth transport of a foreign expedition through areas where locals may never have seen westerners before. They have become an anachronism. All of these jobs can now be shared by a sirdar and experienced western leader. More notably liaison officers have become like the crew of the Marie Celeste. 95% of them simply don’t bother showing up for work, but take their fee nevertheless.
While the requirement to hire a sirdar and pay staff according to an official scale is reasonable, all of these fees stack up and mean that it’s difficult, if not impossible to organise a lightweight expedition to an expedition peak.
Enter the trekking peak. The first 18 were officially designated in 1978, but the name trekking is something of a misnomer. It refers to the paperwork rather than their technical difficulty, because they can be climbed with little more than a trekking permit. None of them are walk-ups (though some operators like to claim the easier ones are). Even the easy routes require basic climbing skills. All of the peaks have serious technical routes, many of which are still unclimbed. They include some of Nepal’s most popular beginner’s peaks, such as Mera Peak, Island Peak, Lobuje East, Pachermo and Chulu Far East; and they include peaks like Kusum Kanguru and Cholatse which have serious technical difficulties even on their most straightforward routes.
Some of my favourite expeditions anywhere in the world have been to Nepal’s trekking peaks; I have enjoyed them every bit as much as the 8000m peaks, because they invariably involve a three or four week trek among grand scenery which changes every day, with a day or two of alpine climbing to get to the summits. Mera Peak provided one of my earliest introductions to mountaineering; I continue to enjoy this style of expedition even now, and I believe I will long after I’m done with climbing the 8000ers. It’s a style of expedition well within the reach of adventurous trekkers, but if the Nepalese authorities make it more difficult to obtain permits then many will be put off.
But it’s not just people like me, who at heart are hill walkers rather than climbers, for whom the trekking peaks are attractive. Their lower altitude of 5500m to 6500m (relatively speaking in a country with plenty of 7000m and 8000m giants) means that less acclimatisation is required, and they are more open to alpine-style ascents. Alpinists who like to base themselves in a small area and bag a clutch of peaks over a number of days, can do this in the Annapurna and Khumbu regions because there are many trekking peaks close together. But this would be an impossibility with expedition peaks, where the fees and paperwork are prohibitive. Nearly all of the trekking peaks also have difficult and unclimbed routes.
Trekkers and mountaineers will not be the only losers if trekking peaks become expedition peaks. More significant – and ultimately more damaging – is that two-thirds of the permit fee for trekking peaks goes into the NMA’s coffers (with the remaining third going to the government). By taking away this source of income the government has at a stroke removed up to half a million USD from the NMA’s annual budget.
So why have the Nepalese authorities changed the rules?
According to an article in the Himalayan Times, the government made this move because of “serious concern about the transparency of millions of rupees”. But this is a bit like Rupert Murdoch writing to his local paper to say there’s too much rubbish in the media, or David Cameron writing to his local council complaining about cuts to public services (hang on, that actually did happen).
There is no reason to believe the money obtained from permit fees will be used more appropriately in the hands of government than the NMA, and many reasons to believe precisely the opposite. In fact, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion this is just another way for government officials to get their grubby paws on more tourist cash at a time when fewer tourists are visiting.
The Himalayan Times article also describes the NMA’s management of trekking peaks as a monopoly, but this is a strange word to use in this context. It’s not going to be any less of a monopoly in the hands of government, and if competition is the reason they need to be opening it up to private enterprise by putting the management of the trekking peaks out to tender, rather than centralising it even more.
There is plenty of evidence the NMA has a long-term interest in the development of mountain tourism in a way the government does not. At the time of writing the NMA website still advertises the trekking peaks, and if you are interested in organising an expedition you will find lots of useful information there, including sample itineraries and an interactive brochure with route maps, photos, facts and figures. This kind of marketing doesn’t happen with the expedition peaks, where organisers need to find everything out for themselves.
The NMA does other good work in the field. On the day of the earthquake they assisted with the evacuation of the injured from Everest Base Camp, where 18 people lost their lives, and helped with the rescue of those stranded above the Khumbu Icefall in the days that followed. Over the next few months they provided climbing sirdars to the World Food Programme (WFP) to help manage their relief effort to support earthquake victims. This programme provided employment to 15,000 Nepalese at a time when they may otherwise have been deprived of an income. Trails, roads and bridges were rebuilt and thousands of porters carried supplies on foot to remote villages. The NMA’s expertise in expedition logistics was essential to the smooth running of this operation.
After the 2014 Everest avalanche the NMA set up a disaster relief fund to provide support to the families of mountaineering workers killed or injured in the course of duty. They conduct regular mountain clean-up campaigns, and provide climbing and mountain leadership training for Nepalese nationals working in the tourism industry. All of these initiatives are now in jeopardy.
By contrast Nepal’s tourism ministry – like the rest of its government – is a moving conveyor belt of officials who are not in office long enough to have anything but their own short-term interests at heart. Corruption is endemic, and nobody knows how much of their permit fee gets reinvested in mountain tourism and how much disappears into the pockets of dishonest officials. The long parade of Everest announcements which arrive to great media fanfare then never get implemented is testament to the government’s inability to do anything constructive with tourism dollars.
Nepal’s government has bigger things to worry about at the moment. A disagreement with Madhesi militants in the far south has led to a border blockade which is bringing the country to its knees. Many people suspect the government of India is involved. There are families still in temporary shelters after the April earthquake; the fuel shortage means that aid programmes are grinding to a halt, and hospitals are running out of basic medical supplies. If this situation continues then pretty soon airlines will no longer be flying to Kathmandu and there won’t be any tourism.
The announcement about trekking peaks demonstrates that tourism isn’t really a priority for government officials. If it is, they would be delegating more responsibility to experienced staff at the NMA by giving them more peaks to manage and increasing their budget instead of crippling it.
The full impact of this change remains to be seen. Are trekking peaks dead, and have they now become expedition peaks? How effective will the NMA be now they are more dependent on the caprice of government officials?
I’m yearning to return to Nepal in the spring and climb some smaller peaks on a long remote trek. But how easy will it be?
My book Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest, about my ten year journey from hill walker to Everest climber, was published last week. An important part of the journey was my ascent of Mera Peak with a commercial team in 2004. See my book page for a list of stores where you can buy it. You can also whet your appetite by reading the complete prologue from the book here.
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