Chopper vs Chauri below EverestExpeditions impacted by rule to replace cargo helicopters with yak trains
The spring mountaineering season had started when the Nepal government suddenly banned cargo helicopters to Everest Base Camp and told expeditions to use porters and yaks instead.
Just like another rule making it mandatory for all trekkers to hire guides, the decision has been greeted with cheers and jeers.
Helicopter companies and expeditions are outraged, while porters, and owners of mules and yaks support the idea.
So far, 400 international climbers are expected on Mt Everest, about the same number as last year. Nepal’s trekking and mountaineering industry is seeing a revival after the 2020-21 break.
The Expedition Operator's Association Nepal estimates that there will be more than 2,500 Nepali guides and support staff at Base Camp for expeditions on Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse peaks. They have to be supplied by food, energy and material for 3 months.
Nepal shares Everest (Chomolungma) with China, and expeditions from the north Tibet side have also been opened this season after a three year gap. Nepal gets some of the largest numbers of mountaineers from China as well.
This year also marks the 70th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest by Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay on 29 May 1953, and this is expected to attract more climbers and trekkers.
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Many mountaineers already arrived at base camp before the climbing season officially began, in order to acclimatise to the high altitude. Even before they arrived, helicopters have already been doing the heavy lifting from Kathmandu and Lukla.
Expeditions begin only after climbers have made sure that they have all the necessary supplies, and the Icefall Doctors forge a route and fix ropes, which is already underway.
The sheer volume of climbers will mean that it will be difficult to get essential supplies to base camp in time. Now, tourism operators say that the difficulty will be compounded after the local government of the Khumbu Pasang Lhamu Rural Municipality banned helicopters from making supply runs to base camp for environmental and employment reasons.
At present, the municipality allows helicopters to transport supplies up to Dingboche (4,400m) and nearby Pheriche. Now choppers will only be allowed to fly gear up to Syangboche airfield (3,800m). The municipality has stipulated that porters, yaks or jokpe be used to move supplies from Syangboche.
It can take up to four days for yak caravans and porters to carry supplies from Syangboche to base camp. Expedition operators complain that they are facing difficulty finding porters and pack animals. Local youth from districts to the south have migrated to cities for better education and employment.
Farmers in Khumbu are also moving away from traditional pastoralism, which means fewer yaks and jokpe.
The sudden rule change at the cusp of the climbing season has not given expeditions time to prepare logistical alternatives. In fact, one expedition to Lhotse through Seven Summit Treks switched to climb Makalu after facing delays in supplies reaching Everest Base Camp. Other expeditions may follow suit.
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But some residents of Namche and surrounding villages are against what they see as “hyper-commercialisation” of Everest by expedition operators and helicopter companies which have taken away local jobs.
Chopper flights in the Everest region have increased after climbers who could afford the fares began paying to be flown down even from Camp 2 under the guise of rescue operations.
Locals add that the amount of trash in the region has increased significantly since helicopters started transporting goods directly to base camp.
This politicisation of mountaineering will hurt this season’s expeditions if the local government and tourism bodies do not find a solution on time, say operators.
Fifty climbing clients are booked for Everest just through Lakpa Sherpa’s ATK Expedition, and 15 have applied to climb Lhotse, and 160 guides will be helping them. But Sherpa says his supplies are stuck at Syangboche.
“I have 14 tons of supplies waiting for transportation, our guides at base camp are spending nights in cowsheds,” he adds.
Operators are worried that delays in organising base camp and fixing ropes will reduce the summit window leading to a repeat of dangerous overcrowding on the peak.
"The icefall team has not even made it to Camp 2 yet,” adds Lhakpa Sherpa. “I can already see traffic jams on Everest making headlines in the global media once again.”
The Everest Pollution Committee is contracted by the operator’s association to fix the route up the Khumbu Icefall to Camp 2 for most expeditions.
Some 11 climbers and guides lost their lives while summiting Everest in 2019, with many of the deaths attributed to long delays in the summit ridge.
The Expedition Operator’s Association Nepal met with Hom Prasad Luitel of the Department of Tourism, after the local government banned helicopters to base camp warning that this would affect the industry adversely. The Department of Tourism has since written separate letters to the rural municipality and district administration office to find a compromise.
“Concerns about employment are valid, but the timing of these demands just at the start of e climbing season has led to tension between locals and tourism operators,” admitted Bigyan Koirala at the Department of Tourism, "The local government must come up come up with a solution immediately. We cannot afford to prolong this problem."
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