Deadly on an over-crowded Himalayan peak

Deadly on an over-crowded Himalayan peak



Ever since New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepal’s own native son Tenzing Norgay climbed the world’s tallest peak in 1953,to present a Coronation gift to the Queen of England, Mount Everest had become a favourite for adventurers and explorers and has now come to be on the top of the ‘bucket list’ feat list.

Land-locked and impoverished the Kingdom of Nepal has been quick to cash in on this craze and had been issuing permits to climbers indiscriminately. At the cost of 11,000 dollars each this is the cash cow that they cannot resist milking to the last drop and also providing the country with scarce foreign currency. Apart from this at least 140 others had been granted permits to climb the peak from the northern flank in Chinese controlled Tibet.

Scaling Everest had been a dream few had realized before Nepal opened its flank of the mountain to commercial climbing half a century ago, soon after the Hillary-Tenzing conquest and the term Sherpa became part of the adventure lexicon. The government had issued a record number of permits this year and this has had its consequences; traffic jams on the world's highest peak that probably contributed to the highest death toll in recent times.Veteran climbers attribute this to the flocks of inexperienced climbers faltering on the narrow passageway to the peak and causing deadly delays.

Despite this hazard the Nepal tourism officials seem to have no intention of limiting the number of permits they issue and are, instead, encouraging even more tourists and climbers to come ‘for both pleasure and fame.’

According to Nepal’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism Secretary, Mr. Mohan Krishna Sapkota, they rely on the climbing industry to bring in 300 million dollars each year. They also do not cap the number of permits issued or control the pace or timing of the expeditions, but leave these minor details to tour operators and guides who take advantage of the brief clear weather conditions whenever they come. This is what is leading to the pileups.

One picture taken of the climbers, crammed crampon-to-crampon along a sharp-edged ridge above South Col, with a 7,000-foot sheer drop on either side, all clipped onto a single line of rope, trudging toward the top and risking death as each minute ticked by, summed up the entire story graphically.

‘There were more people on Everest than there should be,’ lamented Kul Bahadur Gurung, general secretary of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, an umbrella group of operators. And hence the death toll this season. Most of those who died are believed to have suffered from altitude sickness, caused by low amounts of oxygen at high elevation that can cause headaches, vomiting, shortness of breath and mental confusion.

Danduraj Ghimire,  director general of Nepal’s department of tourism, said the large number of deaths was not related to crowds, but because there were fewer good weather days for climbers and the government was not inclined to change the number of permits. ‘If you really want to limit the number of climbers,’ he said, ‘let’s just end all expeditions on our holy mountain.’

Once accessible only to well-heeled mountaineers, the country’s booming climbing market has driven down the cost of expedition, opening up the peak to hobbyists and adventure seekers. All they require is a doctor’s note deeming them physically fit, but no proof of stamina at such heights.

Because of the altitude, climbers have just hours to reach the top before they are at risk of high altitude pulmonary oedema. From Camp Four at 26,240 feet to the 29,035-foot peak, the final push is known as the ‘death zone’.

The conditions are so intense that when a climber collapses and dies the body is left on the mountain since no one can afford to expend energy on carrying it down.

‘Every minute counts there,’ said a mountain guide Eric Murphy, who on May 23 climbed Everest for a third time. What should have taken 12 hours took 17 hours because of struggling climbers who were clearly exhausted but had no one to guide them.

A few decades ago, the people climbing Everest were largely experienced mountaineers willing to pay a lot of money, but in recent years, long-time climbers say, lower-cost operators working out of small shop fronts in Kathmandu,  and even more expensive foreign companies that don’t emphasize safety have entered the market and offered to take just about anyone to the top. By some measures, the Everest machine has only gotten more out of control. Last year, veteran climbers, insurance companies and others exposed a far-reaching conspiracy by guides, helicopter companies and hospitals to rake in millions of dollars by evacuating trekkers with minor signs of altitude sickness.

This year, permits were issued to 381 people, the highest, and these were accompanied by an equal number of Sherpas. Another factor in crowding was the reduced number of permits China has issued for routes on the north side of Everest to allow for a cleanup. The northern and southern sides of the mountain are littered with empty oxygen canisters, food packaging and other debris and the Chinese state media have said the cleanup will include retrieval of bodies of climbers left above Camp Four.

The rush for adventure and tourism in the Himalayas, Asia’s water tower, comes at a huge environmental cost. In the first two weeks of May alone, volunteers collected three metric tonnes of garbage from the Everest. The Himalayas is very popular with trekkers and tourists, and is equally dirty and on  World Environment Day (June 5),last year volunteers gathered four lakh pieces of plastic waste in a two-hour operation from the 13 Himalayan states.

Other mountain peaks, sacred as well as awe inspiring, have fared no better. Amarnath and Kailash Mansarovar, not discovered by British explorers, have also seen a surge in pilgrims visiting these places without due protocol and in the process compounding the environmental degradation. Some time back when the Assisi region in Italy was rocked by an earthquake, the inhabitants and pilgrims equally blamed themselves for not conducting a ceremony to propitiate the gods and this was the punishment for that lapse.  When landslides led to heavy casualties among the Amarnath pilgrims a couple of years ago, this was partly blamed for the large influx of pilgrims who were visiting the shrine. Instead of the 21,000 or so pilgrims who trek all the way every year, that year saw four lakh visitors coming by tourist buses and even helicopters. The environmental disturbance these causes can be imagined.

A tourist taxi driver provided a clue to the environmental degradation that is all round, especially at tourist spots and pilgrim centres. According to him the real villain is the government facility of leave travel concession (LTC) that had been misused by tour operators and travel agents equally. You found that hill resorts became so overcrowded, the lakes and rivers polluted and the beaches encroached upon by resorts and surfing and other sports activities. Rafting in an a fragile ecosystem like the Rishikesh rapids can be so hazardous but there was no authority to check  these activities and no thought had been given to any of these aspects in a country where every natural phenomenon is seen as a manifestation of the divine and worshiped.

The stunning Rann of Kutch in Gujarat also faces such a challenge from adventure tourists who insist on driving their SUVs on the fragile milky white sand desert, destroying the landscape and disturbing precious animals and unique bird species. This was the Kutch that had experienced one of the worst earthquakes at the turn of the century. Most parts of Ladakh have been equally ruined by bikers.

The human and horse skeletons found at the Roopkund Lake in the Garhwal Himalayas have led to a lot of speculation, including the one that Raja Jasdwal and his wife Rani Balampa had perished in a blizzard in the lake while returning from a pilgrimage to the Nanda Devi in the ninth century. Another theory says the skeletons were the remains of the great Dogra warrior Zorawar Singh’s army that lost its way while returning from a successful expedition to Tibet. A third theory is that these were of pilgrims from Maharashtra who were chanting and clapping on their way and this led to the landslide that buried all of them. Avalanche or blizzard these victims had been unaware of the disturbance they were causing to this fragile ecosystem and paid the price.

But with greater awareness, it is all the more essential that these be put to fruitful use rather than working for short-term gains.