Poet William Blake once wrote that great things are done when men and mountains meet. But it has now become a commercial exercise with disastrous results.
The last days of Mt. Everest's spring window for 2019, which witnessed the deaths of 11 climbers, attracted a rash of novice mountaineers, with experts blaming the new generation of guides for offering cheap expedition rates.
“Everest being the highest mountain in the world makes for a good success story and people view it as a shortcut to glory and news to boast about. Climbers want minimum hard work and training and feel that Everest can be conquered without much pain. They feel money can buy them a ticket to the top and that an extra buck paid to the Sherpas would mean that they could be carried to the top of the world. Reality strikes high up on the mountain and at that point, either they are dragged by the Sherpas or left there buried,” says Lt. Col. Rommel Barthwal, who successfully led a 20-member expedition to scale Mt. Everest last month.
No doubt, tragedies and mountaineering go hand-in-hand, but the definition of mountaineering has completely changed nowadays. “One must understand that the mountain does not distinguish between gender, social and economic status of a person. All that the mountain knows is whether you are prepared or not. This holds true not just for Mt. Everest, but also every high-altitude trek that can be potentially dangerous,” says B. Shekar Babu, the first Indian to climb Mt. Everest solo.
Stressing on the need for preparation, he adds, “Each winter in a popular location at an altitude of 5000 m to 6000 m, which is less than half the height ofMt. Everest, people die due to very poor preparation. So, preparation is key for any person who wishes to take a trip to the mountains.”
More people going on these expeditions translate to more permits and more business. But what people fail to notice is that it also involves high risk that is even costing lives. The question is, should everyone be allowed to climb any mountain they decide to?
“There is growing concern over unfit and inexperienced climbers signing up to tread the dangerous, slippery and narrow path at over 28,000 feet.
Their mistakes and lack of conditioning can put the lives of other climbers at risk. We’re up in the ‘death zone’ at 26,000 feet, so even on bottled oxygen, you're slowly dying. You can feel your energy draining out of your legs and out of your core, and you get disassociated in your mind. It gets very difficult to be up there, just to exist. It would be great if inexperienced climbers were not allowed to climb Everest,” says Manisha Payal, who returned from Everest summit recently.
However, with the boom in commercial adventure sports, skilled mountaineers are often outnumbered by tourists whose ambitions exceed their climbing skills. “The authorities are charging huge amounts of money for Everest.
Instead of being so greedy, they need to be strict regarding safety of mountaineers. Both the climber and the government need to make sure that fatalities don't happen. There must be a strict check on who is climbing, their physical condition, past experience and qualification. Climbers coming to Everest must be medically fit and possess requisite technical skills. The climbers should have climbed at least one 7000 m peak in the last three years and should not be suffering from any disease," stresses Lt Col Rommel.
While there are seasoned mountaineers who take to guiding on other mountains or doing menial jobs, there are amateur enthusiasts-hobby climbers, typically low on experience-who have gradually transformed Everest into a cash cow.
"The Nepal government, which issues the permits, doesn't want to lose out on $11000 in permit fees and the impact the climber makes by contributing to their economy. So it's a win-win situation for them," adds Lt Col Rommel.
Outlining some measures that can be taken to avoid overcrowding and fatalities, Shekhar Babu, who has spearheaded numerous expeditions, including the one where Malavath Purna went on to become the youngest girl to climb Mt. Everest, says, "The government of Nepal should regulate movement of expedition teams to allow smooth climbing and avoid overcrowding on particular days. As for the recent events on Mt. Everest, it's unfair to blame the crowds alone for the fatalities."
He adds that the difference in the number of climbers on the mountain in the past two years is not all that much. "In 2018, the Nepalese Government issued 347 permits while in 2019, it was 379 permits. And while the number of inexperienced climbers has risen after commercial climbing was introduced on Mt. Everest, these types of climbers have always been there, not just in the Himalayas, but in all of the popular climbing destinations in the world. Blaming them entirely is just not fair," he says.
At the end of the day, it's just not about the physical and technical aspects of mountaineering. One also needs to take note of the mental aspects of mountaineering which only a seasoned mountaineer can prepare a novice climber for.
"The seasoned mountaineer will prepare a novice to understand that it's absolutely fine to 'turn back' when the conditions on a mountain are not favourable. And that today, life has to be saved so that we can return to the mountain some other day. The mentor also conditions them that it's okay if you can't summit the mountain in spite of being a 'once in a lifetime' opportunity for climbers who have raised funds from their sponsors. Mountains remain forever, it's only human life which is limited," concludes Shekhar Babu.