Thursday, March 20, 2008

Everest Closure Update

The Government of Nepal has capitulated to Chinese pressure to close Mt. Everest to summit climbs from May 1-10, 2008. The Chinese are hosting the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, and they are hoping to garner some major exposure in the international press by carrying the Olympic torch to the summit of Everest. The Chinese government has already announced that the north side of Everest will be closed as well, “in order to provide safety” for the torchbearers headed for the 29,035' summit.

In reality, the government knows there is deep resentment in many parts of the world in addition to Tibet, over the Chinese seizure of that country, and the Chinese fear protests on the mountain and perhaps on the summit which would overshadow the glamour of getting the torch up there.

Besides political and free speech impacts, the closure will have serious repercussions for expeditions trying to climb Everest this pre-monsoon season. The historical, best weather-window is May 15-25, so heading out of base camp on May 10 will be far from an ideal schedule. It will be helpful if the Nepalese allow acclimatization and movement on the mountain for camp installation up until May 1, but it remains to be seen if that will be allowed.

Theoretically, the Nepalese stand to lose millions of dollars in canceled expedition income if they can’t work out some accommodation, but the reality is the power of the purse, and in this case, the government holds all the expedition fees and is unlikely to refund them. It will be simple for them to say, "you can work around this short closure, so there are no refunds." Cancellations would have a major impact on the annual incomes of the people of the Khumbu.

This NASA photo shows the Everest region from space with an overlay of the South Col route and North Col/North Ridge route.

Another big concern is crowding on the route. If everyone starts out on the same date, the movement will create some difficult circumstance on the route and in the smaller camps. The American Alpine Institute /Adventure Consultants 2008 Everest Expedition will of course be affected by this time constraint. AC Expedition Director Guy Cotter remains in touch with Nepalese officials and is in Nepal now attempting to negotiate some accommodation for the spring expeditions. (If you are interested in learning more about the AAI/AC Everest Expedition, you can follow the team dispatches beginning at the end of April; please follow this link.)

Additionally, many fear for the well being of the Chinese climbers, driven as they will be for success for the motherland. The Chinese expedition history in the Himalaya is not a pretty one, with a run of large expeditions and significant numbers of deaths. There has always been a pressure-to-succeed-problem for many climbers, especially those from less developed countries or individuals with limited financial resources - who feel “this is my only shot at the top and the fame that can be mine if I get there.” Many a bad decision has been made on the mountain because of this internal pressure.

In Tengboche on the approach to Everest (center) with a shoulder of Ama Dablam on the right

Couple such a state of mind with overt pressure and high expectations for success from the sponsoring government (“The eyes of the world will be watching you.”), and you have a recipe for disaster. The Chinese team reportedly includes over 100 climbers, in hopes that larger numbers will increase their chances to summit. We all hope that they don’t get into trouble, and we wish safety and success for the individual climbers. It may to hard to tell exactly what is going on with the Chinese expedition once it begins because the government is so good at and comfortable with secrecy, and they will understandably want the world’s attention focused on the romance of the torch and the symbolism of the trip, not on any problems that arise or the practical problems (and occasional suffering) that occur on some large Everest expeditions. It is our hope that all Everest expeditions, including the Chinese torch mission, will continue to focus on safety and that they don't disregard or minimize the extremely serious issues of acclimatization and hazardous weather conditions.

Stand by. In the meantime, here’s a link to a March 15 New York Times article on the subject.

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