To open Machapuchre for mountaineering, or not?

Mt Machapuchre, 6,993m from the southwest, with Mardi Peak on the foreground. Photo: YUBARAJ SHRESTHA / NEPALI TIMES ARCHIVE

The tourism-dependent municipality below Mt Machapuchre (6,993m) in Nepal wants a decades-old ban on mountaineering expeditions on the iconic Himalayan peak lifted.

The imposing peak towers over the sub-tropical Pokhara Valley in central Nepal, but mountaineers have been forbidden from climbing it after an unsuccessful attempt in 1957, and despite an unverified ascent in 1982.

Although lower than the Annapurnas to which it is joined by a long ridge, Mt Machapuchre dominates the Pokhara skyline because it is only 25km away.

Its name translates as ‘Fish Tail’ because of the distinctive double summit, and the peak has an uncanny resemblance to the Matterhorn in Switzerland, which is 2,500m lower.

Nepal allows mountaineering expeditions on 414 Himalayan peaks, but climbing Machapuchre was banned in 1962 ostensibly to preserve the sanctity of the mountain.

Two members of a 1957 expedition led by British Gurkha Lt Col Jimmy Roberts had to turn back from 50m below the summit due to poor weather and technical climbing on the last stretch. Roberts later became the Defence Attache at the British Embassy in Kathmandu, and is said to have convinced the royal government at the time to keep the mountain out of bounds.

Although some later accused Roberts of having done so out of pique so no one else could climb Machapuchre, the Nepal government apparently also wanted to keep the mountain ‘virgin’ since some regarded it as sacred. Roberts went on to become a pioneer of trekking tourism in Nepal, and lived in Pokhara till his death in 1997.

Jimmy Roberts in Pokhara in 1995 with Machapuchre and Annapurna in the backdrop.

The maverick New Zealander mountaineer Bill Denz is said to have secretly climbed the mountain in 1982 and did not tell anyone about it. We will never know if he did, because after Machapuchre, he was killed in an avalanche on Makalu.

The arguments for lifting the ban on Machapuchre has been gathering strength in recent years. Some have questioned why other sacred mountains in Nepal are allowed to be climbed, and not Machapuchre. When the ban was announced in 1962, it was said the mountain was revered by the local Gurung communities living below the mountain.

But even experts of Gurung society and culture are not in agreement about whether the peak is considered holy or not. Geographer Harka Gurung maintained that there was no evidence that the local people considered the mountain sacred.

But at an interaction organised by Machapuchre Municipality last month, the vice-chancellor of the Nepal Academy and cultural historian Jagman Gurung said that expeditions should not be allowed on Machapuchre because the mountain held special religious and cultural significance for the Gurung people.

Machapuchre from the north Base Camp. Poto: BEN TUBBY / WIKIMEDIA

In fact, few in Nepal know that the Gurungs living on the southeastern slopes of Machapuchre have their own name for the mountain: ‘Katasunkli’ which means ‘snowy fish mouth’. Herders from the villages of Lwang, Lahchok, Ghachok, Ghale Khakra and Chyadlung used to take their sheep up to high pasture on the eastern spur of the mountain in the monsoon.

Streams from glaciers below Machapuchre, Annapurna II and Annapurna III form a lake called Tin Shir, which is the headwater of the Seti River and is a pilgrimage site for Hindus on Janai Purnima full moon day in July. Pilgrimages were discontinued after devotees were killed by the avalanche-flood on the Seti in 2014.

The Municipality’s government elected in 2017 had passed a village council resolution demanding that the ban on climbing the mountain be lifted. The new municipal government elected in May is also in favour of opening the mountain.

The Gurungs were originally animist, later Buddhist and some have assimilated Hindu practices. Gurung herders revere the mountain gods, and extend special prayers and offerings for protection from the elements before embarking on their annual migration up to the high mountain meadows. And the dangers are many: lightning strikes, hailstorms, landslides, rockfalls, floods and wildfires.

Machapuchre from the east. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

Nepali cultural beliefs also consider the Himalaya the abode of Lord Shiva and his consort, Parbati, and that such sacred places should not be defiled. According to the Hindu communities living in the lower valleys of Kaski and Parbat, the twin peaks of Machapuchre represent the sage brothers Nara and Narayana who themselves are incarnations of Vishnu, the preserver god.

Those opposed to Machapuchre being opened for mountaineering also cite the fragile environment of the Seti and Mardi river valleys that drain the mountain on both sides. The southern slopes of the Annapurnas get up to 3,600mm of rain every year, most of it falling in the three monsoon months — making the terrain unstable and prone to landslides and floods.

Global climate change is making the mountains even more fragile, and a sudden influx of expeditions could disrupt the environment further. Opening up the mountain could bring the kind of crowds seen on Mt Ama Dablam, where there are more than 600 mountaineers and guides trying to summit this autumn season.

Machapuchre from the directly below its imposing south face. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

The other argument against opening Machapuchre is that of the 414 peaks on which expeditions are allowed, Nepal government permits were issued last year for only  88 mountains. In Gandaki Province, there were expeditions on only one-third of the peaks on which climbing is allowed. When there are not enough expeditions on other peaks, we may need to rethink opening up Machapuchre.

Even if no one is allowed to climb the mountain, the local municipality got a team from the Nepal Tourism Board Pokhara and Nepal Mountaineering Association to recce a new ‘Great Machapuchre Trail’ for an 11-day roundtrip trek from Pokhara via Ghachok, MBC, Rani Khakra, and Karuwa.

It is clear that a decision to open Machapuchre for climbers should only be undertaken after detailed study and evaluation of its feasibility, historical, cultural and environmental aspects. Deciding solely on the business standpoint will be a mistake.

Juddha Bahadur Gurung is a tourism expert, and this article was translated from the Kartik 2079 edition of Himal Khabar.