Nepal to Ban All Solo Climbers and those with Disabilities – a Political Move

Icefall Doctors training in 2016. Courtesy of Pemba Sherpa

I was hoping we could go into the Everest 2018 season without Nepal’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation announcing another plan to “make Everest safer” thru Byzantine rules that are not grounded in merit or even common sense. But alas they have once again met my low expectations.

This time they are repeating a previous proposal with a full-on ban of “… people with complete blindness and double amputation, as well as those proven medically unfit for climbing, will be restricted from attempting to scale mountains.” according to a Himalayan newspaper.

Before we go on, this is a proposal that must go thru the government process before it is approved so perhaps someone will recognize that this is a solution seeking a problem and will go on to more important topics for Nepal such as food, water, and electricity.

Update: The regulations were passed at the end of December plus a measure to raise life insurance for Liaison officers. This is an insult to injury since the LOs rarely do their stated job and rarely go to base camp in spite of regulations requiring them to perform that duty. Cleary all of this is a political move and has nothing to do with safety, mountaineering or Everest. source

The Ministry either knowingly or unknowingly has become an expert at manipulating the media to parrot announcements making the public believe real changes were implemented. Most journalists simply use what they are told, create a sensationalist headline and move on to the next story.

I actually believe there are good intentions behind a few of these ideas. To be clear, there are many people able or not that should not be on Everest but the Ministry demonstrates annually that they have a poor understanding of the real problems and real-world solutions.

The major problem with not implementing any new rules lies in the constant turnover of Ministers appointed by the current PM. They make a splash, see their names in print are out of office six months later. Thus the problem with an unstable government.

But this approach just creates more confusion and undermines any credibility the government might foster.  Climbers and organizers don’t know what will be enforced so most, perhaps all, simply ignore these announcements.

2017 Silly Rules

There are several new rules proposed to go into effect for the 2018 season:

  1. Ban those with disabilities
  2. Ban solo climbers
  3. Set the lower age limit at 16 with no upper age limit
  4. Increase the limit on walkie-talkie sets from 12 to 15 per expedition.
  5. Climbing gear and necessary equipment must be carried by climbers or their authorized workers in mountains.

On the positive front, they also proposed:

  1. Sirdars, mountain guides and high-altitude workers who accompany expeditions to the top of the climbing peaks, including Mt Everest, shall get summit certificates.
  2. Medical and life insurance for liaison officers, base camp workers, and climbing guides be increased.

Don’t Dis their Abilities

The ban on disabilities seems to be a clumsy move to stop double amputee Hari Budha Magar who is a former British Gurkha. He had announced he would attempt Everest in the spring of 2018.  He had already summited a trekking peak, Mera, for training and had lined up extensive support.

I have no insight into his fitness to climb Everest but if he was their concern, banning everyone with a disability to stop one person seems a bit of overkill.

So what constituents a disability or who is “proven medically unfit for climbing?” If this is about protecting people from their own ambitions, then over half of the annual climbers should be banned each year as they lack the experience to safely climb Everest.

And where does this stop – people with asthma, diabetes, hemophiliacs or cancer? All of these have recently successfully summited Everest with no problems.

Very qualified disabled climbers including Mark Inglis (leg prosthesis) and both Eric Weihenmayer and Andy Holzer (blind) have summited Everest with proper support. In both of these specific cases, they were with professional climbers and operators. Inglis did suffer damage to his stumps as a result of his effort.

Japanese climber, Nobukazu Kuriki has been hailed a hero for his solo attempts. Oh, Kuriki lost nine fingers in a previous Everest attempt and would be considered “disabled” by many.

Not to let facts get in the way of a good irrational opinion, climbers with age or disabilities issues represent a tiny fraction of both climbers and deaths as reported by the Himalayan Database through 2017

Country Attempts Under Age 16 Attempts Over Age 75 Total Attempts
Nepal 4 3 10,415
Tibet 6 0 7,260

No climber under 18 has ever died on Everest from either side. And two people, both Nepalis, over 70 have died 85-year-old Min Bahadur Sherchan,  at base camp and Shailendra Kumar Upadhyay at age 81.

As for disabled, the Himalayan Database shows Phur Yemba Sherpa in 2014 and Thomas Weber in 2006 as being disabled and dying while on Everest. Nepal had 10 climbers with a disability summit and there were 5 in Tibet.

Everest Atempts Summits Deaths
29 disabled 15 2
17,675 non-disabled 8,306 288

Of note, since 2010, climbers from the Tibet side must be between 18 and 60 to be issued a permit. There has not been a significant reduction in deaths with these age limits since then. For the record, the youngest person to summit was American Jordan Romero, age 13, on May 23, 2010 from the north side. The oldest person to summit was Japanese Miura Yiuchiro, age 80 on May 23, 2013.

In this rule around disabilities,  the Minister’s ignorance is only surpassed by their prejudice. They have time to change this and join the rest of the world with compassion and sensibilities.

Make Everest Safer by Limiting Communications?

This proposal is a real head-scratcher – increase walkie-talkie sets from 12 to 15 per expedition. Why limit them at all? Thankfully almost every well run expedition provides radios for both members and Sherpas and monitors them with a base station at base camp. What in world is the Ministry trying to accomplish with these arcane rules? It’s not like they radios will be used to … well, I have no idea what they might be used for other than calling in status or perhaps a helicopter rescue.

Make Everest Safer by Carrying Your Own Gear?

And this is another odd rule – climbing gear and necessary equipment must be carried by climbers or their authorized workers in mountains. I guess this is to prevent yaks from carrying gear to the summit? Perhaps they are aiming at using helicopters to ferry gear. If this is the case, then say so, not this ouija board style communications. Most likely this is another part of the overall Sherpa works program to morph Everest into a Kilimanjaro type environment where you are forced to hire porters and they carry everything.

Make Everest Safer by Banning Solo Climbers?

First, it would be virtually impossible to be really alone on Everest except in the dead of summer or winter. The Himalayan Database shows only one true solo summit – Reinhold Messner in 1980 from the Tibet side. This is yet another works program for Sherpas when there are not enough qualified Sherpas to support the demand already. Not every climber needs help.

The notion of hiring a Sherpa Guide is also misleading because not every Sherpa is a “guide” like every airline passenger is not a pilot.

Yes, there are several scores of Sherpas who have been trained at the Khumbu Climbing Center and a few have a legitimate certification from the IFMGA, but the vast majority of Sherpas working on Everest have only carried loads, have no medical training, lack basic mountain skills  – setting anchors, fixing belay stations, and a few lack the basic language skills required to be of significant help is an international crisis.

This is not a commendation on every Sherpa just like it is not saying every Sherpa is a qualified guide.

In addition, Nepal has been a favorite of aspiring alpinists to attempt unclimbed peaks, sometimes solo –  keeping the last remaining aspect of” adventure” to the sport of mountaineering. By requiring a Sherpa “guide” and/or a partner, Nepal has clumsily and heavy-handed squashed the very spirit of the industry it claims to nourish.

At a minimum, there should be a process for qualified climbers to apply for a solo permit.

Treating Sherpas Better and Paying off LO’s

There was some positive news in this article in that summit certificates will be issued for all support who summit – that is a game changer! Somehow, rules published in 2002 declared who would get a certificate: “only those who obtain a climbing permit by paying a royalty to the government as members of an expedition.” Thankfully this will change.

Also, an increase in life and medical insurance support staff is good news. But it is beyond hypocritical and unbelievable to increase life insurance for Liason Officers as they rarely do their job, including showing up at base camp. This is a payback program for political purposes, plain and simple.

A History of Silly Announcements

Well, this is not the first time, they have floated some strange rules. Let’s take a trip down memory lane at some of the best. Note that almost all have not been implemented or enforced:

  1. Ladder on the Hillary Step to reduce wait times and bottlenecks
  2. Dual ropes for up and down traffic
  3. Rescue team at Camp 2 to save climbers in trouble
  4. An Integrated Service Center at base camp to represent the government’s administration on the ground
  5. Liaison Officers actually be at base camp throughout the entire expedition
  6. Nepal military at base camp to keep peace among climbers
  7. Climbers required to announce beforehand if they planned to set any record
  8. Climbers required to bring down 8kg of trash during climb
  9. Helicopters barred to go to base camp except for medical evacuations
  10. Trekkers required to have location beacons
  11. Trekking guides required to have up to date weather forecasts
  12. Everest permit revenue shared with local villages

The only announcement that was made and actually implemented was the increase of life insurance for Everest workers. It was raised to $15,000 against the wishes of other ethnicities across Nepal.

For reference, here is a history of silly announcements that are never enforced.

2016 Silly Rules

2016 Everest New Rules
2016 Everest New Rules. Courtesy of The Himalayan Times

In looking at the 2016 edition, there are a few problems.

While I agree requiring prior experience on a 7000m or better yet an 8000er would be the way to reduce crowds and improve safety, it cannot be enforced in an environment of money grabbing and summit frauds.

Also, the way this new law is written, if you summited K2 in Pakistan or Cho Oyu in Tibet but not a mountain in Nepal, you would not be able to get an Everest permit because it would be required to have summited a 7000er in Nepal.

Also, the fact that every Sherpa is called a Sherpa Guide is misleading … The term Guide has real meaning and is backed by international certifications. calling everyone a guide is disrespectful to the certified guides who spent years and tens of thousands of dollars to achieve that level of expertise.

I certainly hope that if any of these ideas are put into ‘law’ that giving the Sherpas summit certificates passes as the current law does not give Sherpas certificates because they are “not part of the expedition”. That law was written in 2002 but this clause was not enforced until 2016 so all the Sherpas who summited this year have not received summit certificates.


2015 Silly Rules

The Nepal Ministry of Tourism announced a proposed, note the word proposed, set of new regulations for Mt. Everest to address growing concerns of crowding and safety. There were three new requirements announced:

  • Climbers must be between 18 and 75 years of age
  • Permits will only be given to those who can prove they have already scaled mountains that are higher than 6,500 meters (21,325 feet)
  • Disabled or visually impaired people need someone to carry them. Only those who can go on their own will be given permission.

How to Make Everest Safer

I posted this in May 2013 and I believe it still applies today:

I believe the basis of safety and crowding issues lie with inexperienced climbers that are enabled by poor operators and guides. The inexperience shows up in slow climbing, ignoring health issues and taking unnecessary risks to achieve the summit.

There are too many operators who will take on a member regardless of their experience in order to boost their profits. They will tell the member about extra Sherpa support, the number of times their Sherpas have summited and sell them a low price expedition that is filled with shortcuts.

The member, eager for their chance, will hear what they want to hear, ignoring all the warning signs; even the history of rescues, shoddy logistics, broken gear and perhaps deaths attributed to that operator. An official clearing house of incidents would be useful to identity the suspect operators.

The long lines are more complicated. The trend on Everest is to increase the Sherpa support as way to encourage climbers who may think they are not ready. The members should listen to themselves more closely.

The long lines are usually due to one or two slow climbers. It is often difficult to pass another climber on Everest, especially if they are already tired or a Sherpa is carry a huge double load.

The obvious solution is tighter vetting of members as to their skills, capabilities and experience. This could be done through the Nepal and Tibet permitting process, but corruption is an ongoing problem as is simply falsifying an application.

I don’t think leaving vetting solely to the operators will work as some will ignore the risks to get the business. Of note, many reputable operators regularly turn away members only to see them on the mountain with someone else.

Another option is to limit the number of permits issued each year. On Denali, there is a limit of 1500 permits each season, which has never been reached. But again, corruption is a real problem and an Everest permit would have real value.

For Everest both of these options would require cooperation on both sides to achieve the goal of increasing safety and prevent switching to the side with the looser permit process.

However, I am not sure if it would reduce deaths given that most of the recent deaths have been caused by altitude related issues, that are not easily screened out before a climb, or from mistakes made during the climb such as not clipping into the safety lines.

If safety is the top concern, then requiring a climb of Nepal’s Manaslu (26,759’/8,156m) or Tibet’s Cho Oyu (26,906’/8,201m) would be good step. This would increase the chances that an Everest climber would have experience to select an appropriate guide service. Also they would have an increased understanding of how their body reacts to extreme altitude. It would also give them a solid basis of skills and experience to handle potentially similar conditions that they would face on Everest.

To encourage climbers to make this investment, perhaps a discount on the Everest permit price would work while maintaining the same level of permit revenue by having applicants climb two mountains. It would most likely increase the overall money brought to the country through porters, teahouses and other support functions. Finally it would reduce the number of people who climb Everest for bragging rights thus attracting more qualified climbers.

Many operators ask (not require) for climbs on other peaks such as on Denali or Aconcagua to demonstrate skills. So could these climbs accomplish the same objectives? I don’t think so. Those mountains, while difficult in their own right, are not 8000m mountains or have the complexity of a two month expedition.

Can Everest be made safer? I don’t know, the same way I don’t know if Mont Blanc, Denali, Aconcagua or any mountain in Colorado or France can be made safer. This season, there have been multiple deaths on 8000m mountains other than Everest. In the end it sometimes comes down to luck and not being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But not being put in that position often is the personal responsibility of the individual climber.

You cannot make a mountain safer but you make climbers better.

It is clear that the Nepal Government only understands money, so perhaps its time for climbers to vote with their permit money and go to the safer, cheaper side – Tibet.

Climb On!
Memories are Everything

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3 thoughts on “Nepal to Ban All Solo Climbers and those with Disabilities – a Political Move

  1. Thanks again for another well thought out & researched article. Regarding the disabled climbers, most of us have seen the ability of the handicapped who exceed the accomplishments of the non-handicapped. I would disagree with a total ban on permits for the handicapped.

  2. I think they should limit Everest climbers to only people who have already summited Everest. Right, Alan?

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