Mt Everest (Pvt) Ltd

A century after the first attempt to climb the world’s highest mountain, it is not so lonely at the top

Photo: Tendi Sherpa

It has been a century since Mallory and Irvine may or may not have reached the summit of Mt Everest. Mountaineering in Nepal has changed a lot since that first British expedition in 1924.

Everest gets bad press for traffic jams at the summit, garbage and frozen corpses below the peak. But such is the draw of the world’s highest mountain that climbers from all over the world just keep coming.

The main reason for frequent gridlocks on Sagarmatha is due to a tectonic shift in the business of mountaineering from foreign to domestic operators.

Before 2013, Nepali guides were largely just ground handling agents for international expeditions. That was also the year ‘The Everest Brawl’ took place at Camp 2, when one hundred Sherpas had the world’s highest fistfight with three European mountaineers climbing Alpine style.

After that, Nepali high altitude guides started working directly with international clients, building and marketing their own brands through the Internet. Such direct contact brought down prices because of lower wages, operating costs and liability requirements compared to international companies.


“Local companies have vastly improved,” says Dawa Steven Sherpa of Asian Trekking. “Nepalis are no longer exclusively in the servant-porter role, with Sherpas now being highly trained, world class mountaineers.”

Social media has also changed the Sherpa-climber dynamic by keeping dishonest mountaineers in check. They can no longer go home from expeditions and claim public hero status for carrying out a rescue, when in fact it was the Sherpas who are the saviours. Nims Purja’s Netflix film 14 Peaks established Nepali guides as being world class.

Mountaineering is an expensive sport, and lower prices have made it accessible to a much wider range of climbers, and the clients are no longer just from the West but from China, India, Southeast Asia and Nepal itself.

Many Chinese climbers prefer to climb from Nepal as requirements are much stricter on the north side of Chomolungma in Tibet – they must have climbed at least one other 8000er before. Most Nepali operators offer expeditions to clients with much less experience.

An increase in inexperienced climbers comes with greater risk of fatalities. In fact, Spring 2023 was the deadliest season on Everest with 20 deaths over the season.

“People should not be learning how to abseil on Everest,” says Swiss-German journalist and mountaineer Billi Bierling, adding that previous climbing experience makes everything safer for everyone.

Lhotse NT
HIMALAYAN VERTICALS: One of the most challenging routes left in Nepal are on the South Face of Lhotse, 8516m. Photo: KONSTANTINOS SOFIKITIS

Everest summiteer and mountaineering blogger Alan Arnette, recommends that climbers scale at least a 7000er before aiming for Everest. He is also for limiting the number of permits, since problems come up due to overcrowding high on the mountain. Along with more rescues and fatalities, there is also added risk of theft of oxygen bottles and other supplies.

Inexperienced climbers also need much more assistance from high altitude guides, and the ratio of Sherpas to climbers on Everest is higher than it has ever been. This does mean more employment for locals, but it also means more trash and more risk for porters on the Khumbu Icefall.

The Khumbu Pasang Lhamu Rural Municipality announcement this month that all expeditions will be required to bring down their poop from Everest made headlines around the world, and provided material for comedy shows. But many decades of frozen human waste thawing due to climate change is an issue.

Waste Alleviation and Gelling (WAG) bags are now mandatory equipment for expeditions. Long used by soldiers, these poop pouches are lined with deodorising powder. There are doubts about how the new rule can be enforced and monitored. Consolidating waste in drums at Camp II and flying them to Base Camp by chopper has been proposed.

Says Arnette: “Tourists paying $100,000 for an expedition are unlikely to bring back their own waste, and it becomes a question of dignity to ask Sherpas to do so for them. The use of these bags comes down to personal responsibility.”

The Municipality where Everest Base Camp lies recently announced other rules: each climber on Everest is required to also bring back 8kg of other garbage. Expeditions currently pay a $4,000 deposit which is refunded only after proof of significant trash being brought down.

“Officials are quite ready to give this deposit back because, frankly, they don’t know what to do with the money,” notes Dawa Sherpa, who says it is a myth that Nepal’s mountains are dirty. “They are a hell of a lot cleaner than they were.”

Sometimes, there are valid reasons to leave garbage behind, such as when a camp is buried by a storm or avalanche. Also, when team members are sick or dying, the priority is their rescue.

Many feel that the tradition of assigning liaison officers on paid leave from their civil service jobs to every expedition by the department in Kathmandu is obsolete, and is driven by kickbacks. Liaison officers earn $5,000 worth of daily allowances and most also depend on expeditions even for their sleeping bags and jackets. Many do not even bother to stay at base camp.

“How does it make sense that they are policing us when they are reliant on us?” questions Sherpa who says they are a financial and physical burden for expeditions, often requiring more attention at Base Camp than climbing clients.

The Municipality has also released a new policy limiting helicopter ferries and the ‘luxury’ at base camp. The guidelines titled Base Camp Management Procedure 2024 was issued at the start of the spring climbing season, and are seen by many as “eleventh hour media stunts” that simply cannot be enforced.

Luxury dome tents with en suite bathrooms are now supposedly banned at Base Camp, so are bakeries, cafes, and even massage tents. There is more: a climber henceforth cannot occupy more than 7.5sq m per sleeping tent, and 1sq m per person in the dining tent.

Expeditions by elevation range

The policy also caps expeditions at 15 climbers plus 15 guides to reduce the ecological footprint at Base Camp. But Dawa Sherpa thinks 15 climbers need at least 30 support staff -- one Sherpa per client, kitchen teams, doctors, physios. Sometimes family members want to spend a few days at Base Camp too.

Arnette is a proponent of a free market on mountains, and thinks agencies should be allowed to have 5-star expeditions if they want to. “It does increase each climber’s personal footprint per climber, but bigger changes would come from limiting total numbers,” he says.

Many of the record high 20 deaths last year on Everest were avoidable had climbers not pushed forward when they should not have, and a larger proportion of the fatalities were on cheaper expeditions with less well-trained members.

Despite this, preliminary data shows that the total number of climbers on Everest will surpass even last year’s 683. China is finally opening up the North East Ridge route to foreigners, and this is the last year before a 37% increase in Everest permit fees by Nepal. Currently, climbers have to pay $11,000 royalty from the Nepali side or $18,000 from the Chinese side. Nepali Permits will cost $15,000 per expedition from 2025.

Despite many negative stories about Everest, Billi Bierling points to the bright side. “Everybody has their own reason to climb, and the vast majority of people on the slopes are working together.”

Arnette concurs: “Everest is a big mountain that can handle hundreds of climbers at a time. Guides need to cooperate to prevent overcrowding on any particular day.”

Vishad Onta


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