This is the article I wrote about the overcrowding and deaths on Mt Everest during the spring climbing season that just ended. It was published in the Globe and Mail on 28 May.
Heated discussions continue about how to deal with the growing number of climbers wanting to scale the world’s tallest mountain. Of course, climbing Everest is a risky endeavour, but I don’t think it should include waiting in a queue for hours at 8,848 metres. I hope that the Government of Nepal takes some steps to address that issue. Also, I see little mention of the potential damage to the environment – this needs to be taken into account too.
Mount Everest cannot become an amusement park
When I saw the now famous photo of the queue of climbers atop Mount Everest – hordes of people waiting to ascend to the summit – I was awestruck. Such colour, such clarity, in a picture from the top of the world – wow. But the awe quickly became a sinking feeling in my stomach.
We cannot allow this natural wonder to become an amusement park. Every moment spent in that line to the summit, with scant oxygen supply, adds to the already dangerous situation and increases the odds of death. If the Nepal government does not take drastic action to curb scenes such as the one depicted in the viral photo, the damage – to both human life and the fragile ecosystem – will be extensive.
About 14 years ago, I took the mountain flight from Kathmandu airport – a tourist experience that gives passengers the opportunity of a lifetime: to see the jagged peak of Everest. It was a grey day, so visibility was not ideal, but that didn’t stop the 12 of us from crowding the small windows on the mountain side of the plane. We were all so lucky to be able to say we had seen the top of the world.
Today, I am fortunate to occasionally fly to and from Kathmandu, and I always try to sit on the side of the plane that will give me the Himalayan vantage point. After all these years, I still gaze at the peaks and lose myself in reverie. I inevitably ignore the book I’ve chosen for my in-flight reading until the wondrous mountains are behind us.
Everest is, literally, the peak – and deserves our utmost admiration.
While I am content to marvel and daydream about Everest, others are driven to climb it, to set foot on the highest point in the world. But we must find the balance between tourism and safety.
Yes, the climbing business is incredibly important for Nepal’s tourism industry, which is a major part of the country’s economy: Nepal currently grants permits to those who are willing to pay the US$11,000 price tag. This year alone, the country has taken in more than US$4 million from those fees.
The deaths of at least 10 climbers on Everest this climbing season must ring an alarm bell about the system for reaching the summit. Traffic jams such as the one shown in Nirmal Purja’s photo must be addressed immediately. I dread what might happen to climbers waiting in such a line if another earthquake hits the region. No doubt, officials at the highest levels have already started investigating how to make the experience safer.
Human safety is not my only worry. Mount Everest, set within Sagarmatha National Park, a World Heritage site, is a fragile ecosystem. Recently, it has been predicted that global warming could melt as much as two-thirds of the region’s glaciers by 2100. What might other consequences of the crisis look like? What if you combine those with the impacts of hundreds of climbers each year?
There is also the huge risk to local water supplies from the human waste produced – estimated at 12,000 kilograms a year – by the thousands of climbers who have scaled Everest, as well as the soil erosion caused by the constant footfalls of hundreds of climbers during the spring and autumn climbing seasons.
Others have said it before me: Nepal must take drastic action to reduce the number of Everest visitors – and now.
This has been done elsewhere. Thailand limited access to a fragile ecosystem last year when it closed Maya Bay to visitors until 2021, after the natural jewel had been thrust into the global spotlight in the 2000 Leonardo DiCaprio film The Beach.
The other route to Everest’s summit has already been limited: China announced this year that it is reducing the number of climbers by a third in order to do a cleanup of the mountain, which sits on the border between the countries.
In order to prevent more climber deaths and to preserve the Everest experience for future generations, Nepal must also limit the number of people who get to set foot on this one-of-a-kind natural resource.