The deadly dream: The need to diversify the Everest economy

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Image: Nirmal Purja, Project Possible

Mount Everest has made headlines around the globe over the last few months. Its 2019 season has proved deadly for climbers, with at least 11 reported dead or missing so far – a notable jump from the average yearly death toll of 6.

Overcrowding on the mountain has be widely decried as a key cause of death on Everest. Mountaineer Nirmal Purja of Project Possible garnered online fame after posting a photo of long queues to the summit. The queuing climbers – often waiting for hours for their turn to summit – were forced to linger in the ‘death zone’ above 8,000m, where oxygen concentration is as 34% of at ground level.

The outcry against overcrowding on Everest is not new. The problem has been well publicised and roundly discussed for several years, but it cannot be denied: the urgency of the issue is worsening. With social media platforms like Instagram making peaks like Everest seem more attainable, more and more inexperienced climbers flock to Base Camp every year.

Mountain management

In the 1990s, the Nepalese government began increasing the numbers of permits to climb Everest. By opening up the mountain to more climbers and companies, Nepal has marked itself as the entry point for ambitious amateur climbers.

All that a would-be climber needs to do is submit a copy of their passport, provide a limited bio, and a certificate of good health – and pay the fee, of course. Everest can also be climbed from Tibet, but the Chinese government issues far fewer permits.

Overcrowding may be a long-running issue, but the Nepalese government issued a record 381 permits for the 2019 season. Those permits amount to roughly 600 climbers once support staff are included.

Though many argue that the Nepalese government should take responsibility for overcrowding – the US has a much stricter permit policy to climb Denali, for example, which comes in 2,658m lower than Everest – it is perhaps understandable why one of the poorest countries in the world is keen to capitalise on its prime tourist attraction.

As of 2018, Nepal had a GDP per capita of £734. Compare that sum to the £514m brought in by tourism revenue that financial year – roughly 3.5% of its total GDP.

The Nepalese government earns £2.6m in royalty fees from climbers every season. Each climbing permit costs approximately £8,600. Very little of that income, however, trickles back to the local communities and the Sherpa mountain guides.

Who profits from the peak?

As mentioned, the Nepalese government cashes in from Everest tourism. But who else is profiting from the overcrowded peak?

It costs an average of £36,000 to climb Everest – though prices range from £22,000 to over £104,000. The cheaper the expedition, the more likely that corners have been cut in safety and equipment. Pricier operations include such decadence as hot showers on the mountain.

A typical package includes in-country transportation, food, base camp tents, guides, and oxygen tanks – never mind international flights and an average of £5,500 in gear costs. Climbers are typically self-funded, have fundraised, or are supported by sponsors.

As Everest becomes an increasingly mainstream aspiration – though it still requires a highly specialised skill set – local companies have sprung up to compete with international tour operators. There are high-quality and less trustworthy outfits both locally and abroad, but the end result is the same: more companies offering more treks to more would-be climbers.

A black mountain economy

With the backdrop of a deadly mountain that is – literally – littered with frozen corpses and tonnes of human waste, perhaps it is unsurprising that there are some less than ethical schemes afoot.

Perhaps as a result of the cheapest tour offerings, there is a rising problem of theft on the mountain. Vital equipment such as oxygen tanks is routinely reported as stolen – and stealing an oxygen tank on the highest mountain in the world can be tantamount to killing its owner.

Beyond single incidences of theft, a multi-million dollar insurance fraud operation brought scandal to the mountaineering community last year. Insurance companies unveiled a network of helicopter companies, tour operators, hotels and hospitals which conspired together to stage fraudulent helicopter rescues from the mountain. Some climbers were bribed to participate, while others were pressured or even drugged.

The Nepalese government ordered a review into the mass scam. Insurance companies estimated that the fraudulent claims stretched back more than five years, had resulted in at least one death, and involved dozens of parties.

One investigation last year estimated that of the more than 1,600 helicopter rescues last year, roughly 35% were fraudulent, costing insurance companies more than £3.1m.

Alternative routes to profit

The Nepalese government shows no sign of limiting permits. It aims to bring 2 million tourists to the country in 2020 – up from 1 million just two years ago. And with the mountaineering industry directly employing 452,500 Nepalese in 2016, it is difficult to see how curtailing the climbers will not hurt the most vulnerable communities.

The crowded mountaineering industry – and the strain it places on the mountain environment – does, however, suggest other potential avenues of income.

The grisly reality of hundreds of bodies frozen near the climbing routes – and sometimes in view – has proved a source of morbid fascination for news readers. The families of those who died on the mountain have previously discussed their distress at seeing their loved ones used as trail markers and props in tourists’ photos. One potential business operation on Everest might be a repatriation service for the more accessible bodies.

Another less-than-glamorous by-product of climbers on Everest is human waste. Exhausted climbers leave behind tents, oxygen tanks, and excrement rather than clean up after themselves – and the refuse is left for overwhelmed local communities to dig out of the ice. Excrement endangers the local water supply, while indigenous communities view Everest as sacred, and the litter as desecration. Another potential venture could offer some kind of waste removal service.

Finally, mountaineering technology such as weather mapping tools get better all the time. Technology which could more accurately predict the narrow weather windows for successful climbs could potentially lengthen the climbing season – and ease overcrowding. Such technology might prove popular – and profitable – all around.

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