Poor regulation and overcrowding are pushing Everest climbers away from Nepal to China, which is investing millions to boost a rival path to the top of the world.
Veteran climbing outfits, fed up with what they regard as a lax attitude to safety on Nepal’s southern flank of the 8,848m peak, are starting to shift their operations to Everest’s north side in Tibet.
“The south side is way too overcrowded with inexperienced people,” Phil Crampton, a seasoned Everest hand who last month announced that his company, Altitude Junkies, would shift to China, the third such outfit to abandon Nepal in recent years.
The exodus could dent a long-standing source of revenue for the cash-strapped Himalayan nation — Kathmandu raked in more than US$4 million in Everest permits fees alone last year.
A growing chorus of foreign-led Everest operators in Nepal are demanding greater scrutiny of low-cost outfits that have mushroomed, offering cheap expeditions up the fabled summit.
These budget players are luring hordes of amateur climbers chasing the thrill of Everest, but also risking death and injury, climbing experts say, warning that some expedition leaders are ill-equipped to tackle the peak.
Seven of the 10 climbers who died on Everest’s south side in the past two years were climbing with budget operators, according to information from the Himalayan Database.
“What has happened over the last few years on the south side is absolutely intolerable,” said Lukas Furtenbach, whose company, Furtenbach Adventures, relocated to China last year citing safety concerns.
Those pushing for change want to see permit numbers curbed and greater oversight of operators.
Nepal introduced new laws in December last year barring solo climbers, blind mountaineers and double amputees from scaling Everest, restrictions it said would make the peak safer, but many mountaineers say the rules miss the mark.
“Nepal needs mountaineering rules and regulations, but for the operators, not for the climbers,” Furtenbach said.
Nepal has been criticized as reluctant to introduce much-needed regulations because it fears harming an industry that is a money-spinner for the impoverished nation.
Meanwhile, China is sending a message that Everest’s north is open for business, investing in climbing infrastructure vital for a safe ascent to the summit.
It is building a mountaineering training center in Lhasa and plans to allow helicopter rescues on Everest’s north from next year, Chinese state media reported.
Currently helicopter rescues are only possible in Nepal.
It also fixes ropes to Everest’s summit at the beginning of each climbing season, an industry standard on most major peaks around the world — but missing on the southern face in Nepal.
“China is addressing the issues in a way that Nepal has just struggled to... There is no system in place to actually enforce the rules,” said Adrian Ballinger, who was the first operator to move exclusively to Everest’s north in 2015.
Until a decade ago, a roughly even number of climbers attempted the summit from the northern and southern sides of Everest, but China’s reputation took a hit when authorities closed the Tibetan side of Everest without warning in 2008, fearing protests ahead of the Beijing Olympics.
Many companies abandoned the north saying the political situation in Tibet was too unpredictable, but that is changing due to what many in the industry see as a deteriorating situation in Nepal.
Ballinger expects more firms to move north in the coming years, especially as the Khumbu Icefall presents an increasingly unavoidable danger on the south side.
The icefall — a treacherous, ever-shifting expanse of glacial ice that all climbers must cross to reach Everest’s summit from Nepal — is becoming more unstable as temperatures warm due to climate change and it has claimed 23 lives in the past five years.
For now, Nepal remains the most popular choice — just 155 foreign mountaineers attempted to summit Everest from Tibet last year.
An ever-growing number of Indian climbers are drawn to Nepal by its proximity to home and cultural ties.
Indians outnumbered all other climbers on Everest’s south side last year bar Americans.
Many Chinese adventurers also prefer Nepal as laws back home require that they summit an 8,000m peak before trying Everest from Tibet.
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