Most of you probably imagined the summit of Mount Everest as a quiet, snowy peak far from civilisation. But then came a picture, a couple of years ago, showing a long line of climbers waiting to summit Mount Everest, bringing us back to reality. Welcome to the immense possibility of commercial mountaineering!
Last year, Nepal cancelled all spring climbing expeditions and reopened in autumn, despite pandemic uncertainty. This year, the country issued climbing permits to more than 700 climbers for 16 Himalayan peaks – 408 to Mount Everest – for the April-May climbing season, to get the mountaineering industry and tourism back up and running.
But the country is in the middle of the second Covid-19 wave, which is overwhelming the Nepali health system: nearly 2,000 people died in the past few weeks alone and hospitals are admitting fewer patients than their actual capacity, due to bed and oxygen shortages. The situation is especially dire in remote areas, where isolated populations have very limited access to basic health care due to high cost and low availability.
After Nepal Prime Minister’s appeal for global help, medical aid, including oxygen tanks, has been trickling in from across the globe, but this is nowhere near enough to meet demand. People are dying literally because of lack of oxygen.
Now Covid-19 has also reached Mount Everest and is rapidly spreading in the South Base Camp (SBC). This season, SBC has been crowded with some 1,300 climbers, Sherpas and support staff. With people arriving from the four corners of the world, along with their support staff, chances for the virus to spread can only increase. About 30 people have recently been evacuated from it after showing Covid-19 symptoms and as Nepal is overwhelmed by the surge in infections, it is hard to see how SBC could be any different.
Before the commercialisation of high-altitude mountaineering, this was an exclusive activity, practised by a few who had specialised skills, the endurance, mental toughness and motivation for summiting. It required years of experience and practice in hostile environments to prepare oneself for the summit attempt. With the commercialisation of the Mount Everest climb, this has changed considerably.
Generations in search of instant gratification are embracing the immense possibilities of commercial mountaineering. The potentially fatal mix of high disposable income, unscrupulous and poorly judged mental and physical capabilities as well as lack of preparation and experience is paving the way for hordes of climbers queuing up to reach the summit.
It is no secret that we have always been advocating for responsible and sustainable tourism as well as for mountaineering without supplemental oxygen. All the more so now, given the country’s desperate lack of O2. It is estimated that climbers and their Sherpa guides have carried at least 3,500 oxygen bottles this season, bottles that often get buried in avalanches or are abandoned on the mountain slopes at the end of the expedition. Bottles that could be used elsewhere, be refilled, and save lives.
Now we ask ourselves: how will climbers feel once they are on top of the world and afterwards? Will they feel only pride in themselves? Or will that feeling of glory and fame be overshadowed by the thought of the Nepalese people who died below, because the oxygen the former breathed to summit Mount Everest could have saved the latter’s lives? Maybe they will not care at all. Research has shown that, unlike non-commercial ones, in commercial expeditions, the death of an expedition member has no statistically significant impact on success. Examples of expedition members left dying while the rest of the party head to and return from the summit are not uncommon. Government estimates suggest that more than 150 bodies remain on Mount Everest. So why should commercial clients care about Nepalis? After all, they buy their way to the summit, no matter what.