The Himalayan Club's panel discussion on Everest. From left: Lindsay Griffin, Umesh Zirpe, Dr Murad Lala, Harish Kapadia, Dawa Steven Sherpa and Divyesh Muni (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The Himalayan Club’s panel discussion on Everest. From left: Lindsay Griffin, Umesh Zirpe, Dr Murad Lala, Harish Kapadia, Dawa Steven Sherpa and Divyesh Muni. Victor Saunders spoke via Skype, from England (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Expeditions to climb Everest may become costlier in the future, Dawa Steven Sherpa, Managing Director of the Kathmandu based-Astrek Group, said.

The Astrek Group has in its fold, Asian Trekking, one of the best known names in organizing Everest expeditions.

Dawa based his views on the emergent need for better regulation on the mountain, underscored by recent events. A safer passage, which any regulation aspires for, could eventually mean more expensive expeditions.

In April 2013, there was an ugly episode when a small group of elite mountaineers climbing by themselves and a team of Sherpa mountain workers fixing ropes for many other climbers, had an altercation that led to a clash ( for that story, please see http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-sundaymagazine/whose-rite-of-passage/article4936209.ece). In April 2014, a year after the previous incident, there was a terrible avalanche on Everest that killed 16 Sherpa mountain workers on the spot with another person dying later.

According to Dawa, the first incident reported widely as a clash of conflicting climbing styles (unsupported alpine style versus commercial climbing format) actually had roots in the progressive evolution of the Sherpa mountain worker to someone conscious of his role and contribution to expeditions on the mountain. “ They no longer see Western climbers as above them,’’ Dawa said. It was a clash of egos; both sides saw themselves as elite in what they do. (Later he told this blog, news reports on the April 2013 incident were one sided and not sufficiently empathetic to Sherpa mountain workers because the community was not media savvy.)

At the same time, there is an element of accumulated grievance providing tinder. There is the competitive pressure of almost 2000 trekking companies in Nepal, all of them eligible to arrange Everest expeditions if they meet some basic criteria and very little of that criteria examining competence or accrued experience on the mountain. In the resultant race to quote low and secure clients for a shot at Everest, mountain workers’ salaries and working conditions take the hit. Thus, there are disgruntled mountain workers, mostly from the smaller companies. “ There needs to be a better way of deciding who is eligible to conduct expeditions on Everest and who is not,’’ Dawa said. The existing situation harbours danger. Besides, he pointed out, “ bad operators who treat their people badly are bad for the industry.’’

He said options that could be explored include positioning service providers in distinct tiers based on such factors as years of experience, nature of work done, staff strength, extent of training for staff, equipment quality etc, following which, a given agency in given tier could be matched with a suitable expedition. You could also create a structure to move up the ladder. However, completely questioning commercial expeditions for being a business or frowning down upon them is ill advised because many important shared services like search and rescue, availed by alpine style climbers too, are supported by the richer revenues from guided ascents. The two climbing styles co-existing together made sense.

Earlier Dawa had asked which expedition on Everest couldn’t be labelled commercial for under prevailing laws everyone climbing had to be associated with a trekking company and even alpine style climbers used porters to reach loads to the base of a mountain. One way to distinguish between the two would be to acknowledge as commercial, that expedition which wants every paying member or most paying members on the summit.

According to Dawa, surveys had shown that a majority of the Sherpa mountain workers lacked formal training but all of them had informally picked up skills as their mountain work was hereditary. With better industry regulation looming and logical at that, mountain workers have begun acquiring formal qualification to guide. Dawa said that 33 Sherpas now possessed international mountain guide certification; in another month at least seven more workers would similarly qualify. On the other hand, a qualified professional won’t work for a low salary. Also, some of the qualified mountain workers prefer to work as guides in the proper sense of the word. They decline to carry clients’ loads.

All this – from the likely shake-up within the 2000 odd trekking agencies to mountain workers improving their technical qualification – point to more expensive Everest expeditions in the future. On the client side, this weeding out could mean a drift back to technically competent climbers on Everest as opposed to anyone who can pay.

Fuelling the trend further is the frustration from accidents like last year’s avalanche. When the avalanche occurred and people died, of the more than 50 Liaison Officers who should have been around (they could have helped coordinate with government), only three were present. The concerned government minister visited eight days later, for which event some of the liaison officers made sure to be present. These actions were noticed by the community of mountain workers, provoking anger, Dawa said.

Dawa was speaking mid-February 2015, at the annual seminar of the Himalayan Club in Mumbai.

Providing an overview of the concerns of Sherpa mountain workers, he said that they saw their job on Everest as traditional and hereditary. They felt that risk rose with price war; the industry’s rules and regulations were not known well to its rank and file, government decisions were sometimes ad-hoc and not including mountain workers in the process, a professional rescue squad is absent, priority in rescue goes to foreigners, the mountain workers wanted a bigger share of the royalty collected from mountaineering to be ploughed back into the industry and there should be better employment conditions and better monitoring by government of the conditions on expeditions.

A panel discussion on what Everest climbs had come to be – featuring Victor Saunders, Lindsay Griffin, Umesh Zirpe, Dr Murad Lala, Harish Kapadia, Divyesh Muni and Dawa – witnessed heated debate around Zirpe’s successful leveraging of Everest’s popularity to raise resources for climbing 8000m peaks and Kapadia’s contention that many technically challenging climbs existed, often unexplored, in the less expensive smaller peaks of the Himalaya.

Interestingly, costs are lower to attempt Everest by routes other than the much climbed normal route; costs are also lower for climbs in the off season. There are few takers.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)

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