Nepal to tighten control on Everest

August 02, 2013 11:38 pm | Updated 11:38 pm IST - Kathmandu:

It’s the “off-season”. The spring window for mountain climbers is shut and there are no expeditions on Mt. Everest these days, but in the capital Kathmandu, a government committee is busy writing reports on ways to better regulate the expeditions next season.

“Our plan is to put a team of government officials at the Everest base camp, including security officials and doctors,” said Surendra Sapkota, Under Secretary at the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, responsible for the trekking and the mountains. “We will also double the insurance for support staff, Nepalis, mostly Sherpas, who help the climbers at the base camps.”

The government also wants to identify new peaks to open for climbing, to add to the 326 already open, and reduce pollution at Everest and other peaks. Improving its record-keeping abilities is also in the agenda. Numerous records are made at Everest every season — this year, the first Saudi woman reached the peak, as did the first woman amputee, from India — and the government officials are disturbed that they aren’t the first ones to find out.

There are other reasons why the officials are keen to better control Everest traffic come next spring.

This year marked the 60th anniversary of the maiden climb by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary. But the celebrations were shadowed by the events in April and May that raised some uncomfortable questions about the dynamics between the tourist climbers, and the Nepali workers, in addition to the “unauthorised” use of smart phone at Everest to make a video call.

‘Savage Sherpas’

The biggest Everest story of the last spring was the high-altitude brawl between European climbers and Sherpas that sent ripples in the mountaineering community. It happened on the evening of April 27, with an angry European climber fuming on the radio.

Moro croaked over the open-frequency radio that all Everest climbers are tuned to. His fury was ignited by an altercation earlier near Camp 3, at 7,470 m above sea level, between his Swiss friend Ueli Steck and the British photographer Jonathan Griffith — the “sahibs” — and the Sherpa guides, aka icefall doctors, who were “fixing the ropes” used by all the climbers to reach the summit. Mr. Steck and his friends, “speed climbers” with no need for the ropes, were annoyed at the Sherpas.

Garrett Madison, an Everest climber who was listening to the radio, and spoke with eyewitnesses after the brawl, wrote on the website that Mr. Moro shouted all kinds of obscenities at the Sherpas, including “inflammatory” swear words in Nepali.

The swearing, it seems, reached many Sherpa ears. When he got to his tent at Camp 2, at 6,500 m, Mr. Moro found out that the Sherpas, indeed, had a problem. The dozens of Sherpas gathered outside his camp in the howling wind had all heard his invectives on the radio, and felt the Europeans not only put them in danger by refusing to obey the guides at treacherous height, but also abused the entire Sherpa community.

They wanted an apology from the European “sahibs”.

What they got instead was a fracas initiated by a westerner that made news all over the world, the reactions of journalists and commentators usually reflecting their own biases.

Mr. Steck, the Swiss who abandoned the mission, called it a “rift between two worlds.” In an interview with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation on April 29, Mr. Steck alleged that his team was attacked by 100 Sherpas with rocks and threatened with murder. He claimed to have been attacked because the Sherpa guides were jealous of the speed-climbing Europeans, and resented the wealth gap between the tourists and the guides.

But it was the media coverage that has astounded many Nepalis and Sherpas who felt the Sherpas were unfairly portrayed as “irrational” and “mob” by a Eurocentric media playing on oriental prejudice. For example, in an article titled Mount Everest Fight Raises Questions about Sherpas published on May 1, the National Geographic’s Broughton Coburn, considered a “Nepal hand”, called the Sherpas “noble savage (of romantic proportions)” on the path to “renaissance men and women” who seek jobs as “doctors, airline pilots, scientists, and professionals.”

Ang Tsering Sherpa, former president of Nepal Mountaineering Association, said then that the media had only covered “their” [the European] version of the story.

However, the brawl was not the only incident that irked Nepal’s tourism authorities last climbing season. On May 19, the British climber Mr. Daniel Hughes made a video call, using his smart phone, from the peak of the Everest to the BBC’s studio in London. Nepal’s government quickly declared the video call “illegal” for broadcasting from Everest without a permit, and summoned the expedition head to be questioned. The government committee formed to investigate the incident is said to be preparing legal action against Mr. Hughes.

“It is because of the brawl and the illegal video that sparked government’s desire to increase its presence in the mountains,” says Mr. Sapkota, “we plan to implement new measures before the spring window opens again.”

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