Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism announced proposed changes for guiding and climbing on Mt. Everest at a press conference held in Kathmandu on August 14, 2019. The new rules need to be approved by Parliament before going into effect but are targeted for the 2020 spring season.
I received a copy of the press release and the 59-page report and have been digging into them to evaluate any changes that would radically impact foreign climbers.
Context: It’s Nepal’s Decision
Before I go on, let me be clear and obvious. Half of Mt. Everest is located and controlled by the Nepal government, the other by China. They are obviously free to manage the mountain in any way they deem appropriate. While outsiders may have opinions, including me, it’s up to them as to what rules they create and enforce, identical to how the US National Park Service manages Denali, Argentina for Aconcagua and others around the globe. Note that for decades, or even centuries, Nepal was a closed country where outsiders were not permitted to enter, much less to climb mountains.
Tourism’s Big Business, Mountaineering Not So Much
Also, it’s important to remember that of Nepal’s overall tourism business, mountaineering is not the dominant part. Nepal’s earning from tourism sector, defined as mostly spending by the foreign tourists in hotels and restaurant sectors but not other activities such as trekking and tours, reached USD$643 million in the last fiscal year 2017-18 which concluded in mid-July, according to Nepal’s central bank.
In 2018 there were 1,173,072 total tourist visits. 60% of the tourist who visited Nepal were for holiday and pleasure followed by adventure including trekking & mountaineering at 16%, pilgrimage at 14.4% and for other reason at 9.6%. 147,934 visitors were trekkers but “only” 3,136 permits were issued for mountain climbing or about 0.25% and then around 360 for Everest in 2018 so in the grand scheme while Everest gets a lot of attention, it is a small part of Nepal’s economy thus reducing the number of permits will not hurt the overall economy. That said, Everest is the largest public relation tool that Nepal has so they strictly manage any bad news.
2019 Déjà vu – All Over Again
The 2019 Everest season saw 11 deaths, mostly of inexperienced climbers with unqualified guides. Once again, the lack of qualifications for climbers and guides created traffic jams, and in my opinion, avoidable deaths.
There was the matter of a limited weather window of three days at the height of the season that encouraged many guides to take their clients to the summit on the same day whereas the usual window is six to ten or even 11 consecutive days as we saw in 2018 that allowed the climbers and guides to spread out. But this year’s short window only exacerbated the major issues and didn’t create them.
The Nepal government, hypersensitive to any criticism that might hurt their tourism business, reacted identically to how they have during the past crises of the 2013 Sherpa/foreigner fight, the 2014 Sherpa deaths in the Khumbu Icefall, the 2015 earthquake that killed 9,000 across Nepal including 18 at Everest Base Camp. They even tried to spin the natural event of the changing topology on the Hillary Step after the earthquake when the Ministry of Tourism denied it had changed in spite of clear evidence. I assume they felt that a natural change to a famous landmark would make it less desirable?
As usual, after significant bad press spurred by the photo taken by Nepali citizen and Gurka Nirmal Purja of a long line of climbers between the Hillary Step and the summit, they convened a committee (nothing happens in Nepal with a committee) to study this year’s problems and come up with a solution. Not a surprise, most of the suggestions have been proposed before and never implemented.
Looking back a few years at the annual announcements from the government, almost all have not been implemented or enforced. They include:
- Climbers wanting to ski Everest must pay, in addition to all the climbing permit fees, “US$1,000 as royalty to obtain ski permit while the ski team must have a liaison officer to monitor their activities in the mountains and the ski team also needs to deposit US$500 as garbage management fee at the DoT.”
- To address evacuation insurance fraud: “Helicopter companies, travel and tour operators, hospitals and insurance companies will now be required to submit details of rescue flights, medical treatment and insurance bills to the Tourist Search and Rescue Committee, Tourist Police and Department of Tourism.”
- Trekkers required to have location beacons
- Ban those with disabilities
- Ban solo climbers
- Set the lower age limit at 16 with no upper age limit
- Increase the limit on walkie-talkie sets from 12 to 15 per expedition.
- Climbing gear and necessary equipment must be carried by climbers or their authorized workers in the mountains.
- Climbers must be accompanied by guides
- Chopper ride above base camp to be restricted
- Sherpas to get summit certificates
- Climbers above 75 years of age, double amputees, visually-impaired to be banned (Nepal Supreme Court struck down the ban climbers with double amputations and blindness)
- Climbers must scale a Nepali 7,000m peak to qualify for 8,000m permit
- Liaison Officers actually be at base camp throughout the entire expedition
- 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.
- Nepal military at base camp to keep peace among climbers
- Climbers required to bring down 8kg of trash during the climb
- Trekking guides required to have up to date weather forecasts
- Everest permit revenue shared with local villages
- Ladder on the Hillary Step to reduce wait times and bottlenecks
- Dual ropes for up and down traffic
- An ISC team at base camp will represent the government’s administration on the ground
- Integrated team members will now be expected to go above the base camp in case of emergencies
- Climbers would be required to announce beforehand if they planned to set any record.
- Barring rescue operations, helicopters will not be allowed to fly to nearby mountain slopes
The only announcement that was made and actually implemented was the increase in life insurance for Everest workers. It was raised to $15,000 against the wishes of other ethnicities across Nepal.
What’s Not Changing
Before we get to the changes, what has not changed include:
- Unlimited Everest climbing permits will be issued
- Climber’s mountaineering experience requirements are vague with no centralized evaluation process
- Everest permit fee remains $11,000 per person
- $4,000 trash deposit per team
- Icefall Doctor team size and resource remains the same
- Still unknown if ropes to fix upper mountain can be helicoptered to Camp 2 thus avoiding multiple Sherpa climbs through the Icefall
With respect to no change in the number of permits Nepal will issue. Don’t get sidetracked by the argument that China has put a limit of 300 for their side. The red herring here is that since Everest has been attempted from the Tibet side, the largest number of summits by foreigners was in 2007 at 197. Adding in support staff of 176 the total is 373. So holding the foreign permit number under 300 is simply marketing and not reflecting any market reality … unless there is a flight to Tibet based on Nepal’s actions, and seems very likely.
The Big Changes
The details in two rules, if implemented, could have a dramatic impact on Nepal’s mountaineering (not trekking) business.
- Climbers must have summited a 6500+ meter peak in Nepal
- Only Nepalese citizens will be able to be leaders, guide and elevation workers.
The key words both start with Nepal. In other words, if you summited K2 in Pakistan or Cho Oyu in Tibet, Nepal deems that you are not qualified to attempt Everest. If you sign up with a non-Nepali lead guide, say from the US, UK, Austria, New Zealand, Germany, or even Poland or Russia, you will not be issued a permit to attempt Everest.
Let’s break down these proposed rules. And remember they are still proposed as part of a 59-page overhaul of the high altitude business in Nepal.
Nepal 6500 m Summit
To be clear, the new rule would require all foreigners who apply for a permit to attempt Everest to have summited, not just attempted, a mountain higher than 6,500-meter within Nepal. While on the surface, this is an excellent requirement that would dramatically reduce the number of inexperienced people on Everest, the “in Nepal” part is troubling and overly restrictive in my opinion. Remember my K2 example or we could also use Aconcagua, Denali or other peaks historically used to prove a climber’s experience. Point being I’ll take Denali and Aconcagua over Mera and Baruntse on an application any day.
I think they should drop the “in Nepal” requirement and accept any 6500-meter peak anywhere. Almost every country will issue a summit certificate and that could be provided as evidence of a summit along with a head to toe photo of the person standing on the summit. In the olden days, it used to take a letter from your country’s alpine club that you were qualified, but no more.
The only logic I can come up for the “in Nepal” qualification is that they wanted a fool-proof way of vetting applicants and they trust the Nepal system over others around the world. Of course, the logic is extremely flawed as shown by government officials cooperating with managers from Seven Summits Treks last year to forge Everest permits. And Makalu Adventures admitted to helping forge summit certificates for their clients.
If this rule is put into effect for the spring 2020 season, look for the number of foreign permits to go from 382 to under 200. There is simply not enough time to nab a 6500 peak and then go to Everest unless it’s done as part of the overall acclimatization process and even then, it will require some special logistics to get both permits. If they put it off to 2021, look for a rush in 2020 making 2019 problems look tame by comparison.
This clause is less troubling but again they are saying that someone like Garrett Madison who has led more people to the summit than any foreign leader or Dave Hahn who has more Everest summits than any non-sherpa would be listed as a “member” not a leader. But this is not a huge deal because the Everest permit process already requires the guide service (both Nepali and foreign) to use a Nepal owned agency to secure the permit. Also, every expedition has a lead climbing Sherpa aka a Sidar so putting their name as the leader shouldn’t be a problem other than a few bruised egos.
The requirement of 3-year experience guiding at “high altitude” – any Sherpa can claim to have done that – so not much of a requirement. But this falls short of a real qualification such as requiring “guides” to have received training from a legitimate organization like the Khumbu Climbing Center or being certified by the Nepal Mountain Guide Association with UIAGM/IFMGA credentials.
Another interesting requirement states: “The climbing agency should have a credible management plan, a trained rescue team and reliable management of at least one doctor related to it.”
This is a good idea but not every team needs these resources. Nepal should centralize rescue and medical resources similar to other mountains around the world. EverestER has been successfully running a clinic at base camp for over 10 years providing medical support to climbers for $100 each and free to Sherpas, porters and non-climbers. It would be nice to see the government formally support their efforts with a donation each year from their permit fees.
Minimum Price of $35,000
This is another interesting point that received limited coverage but feels like the operators were writing the new rules instead of regulators: “Guide companies must charge a minimum of $35,000 per client. (My understanding is that this includes the current $11,000 permit fee.)
This seems to have been a move to calm the local operators who feared a permit increase would hurt business. The median price Nepali operators charged in spring 2019 was around $40,000 according to my polling but deep discounts regularly took the price under $30,000 and some even lower.
I don’t think this will eliminate the deep discounts offered by the low-cost guides as invoices can be easily faked.
What Peak Counts?
Most long -time reputable guide companies like to see Everest applicants with successful summits of Aconcagua (6962m) and Denali (6168m). The best in class require a summit of an 8000m peak like Manaslu or Cho Oyu. These are some of the more popular peaks above 6500 meters around the world that would not count because they are too low or not in Nepal
- Muztagh Ata, China – 7546
- Lenin Peak, Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan – 7134
- Aconcagua, Argentina – 6962
- Ojos del Salado, Chile – 6891
- Huascarán Sur, Peru – 6768
- Illimani, Bolivia – 6438
- Cholatse, Nepal – 6440
- Chimborazo, Ecuador – 6267
- Imja Tse aka Island Peak, Nepal – 6189
- Denali, US – 6168
- Lobuche Nepal – 6119
- Kilimanjaro, Tanania – 5895
- Elbrus, Russia 5642
- Orizaba, Mexico – 5636
- Iztaccíhuatl, Mexico – 5230
- Mont Blanc, France/Italy – 4810
- Rainier, US – 4392
These Nepal peaks are the best candidates to meet the requirement
- Baruntse, Nepal – 7162
- Ama Dablam, Nepal – 6856
- Mera Peak, Nepal – 6476
These Nepal peaks between 6500 and 8000 meters would also count but the majority are serious, technical climbs and not so called “trekking” peaks. Some are sub peaks of the 8000 meter giants.
|Gyachung Kang||7,952||26,089||Khumbu Mahalangur||between Everest and Cho Oyu|
|Ngadi Chuli||7,871||25,823||Mansiri||First ascent 1970|
|Nuptse||7,861||25,791||Everest Group||319 metres prominence from Lhotse|
|Jongsong Peak||7,462||24,482||Janak||#57 in the world|
|Nangpai Gosum||7,350||24,114||Khumbu Mahalangur||First ascent October 12, 1986.|
|Gimmigela Chuli||7,350||24,114||First ascent 1995|
|Chamlang||7,321||24,019||Barun Mahalangur||#79 in the world|
|Langtang Lirung||7,227||23,711||Langtang||#99 in the world|
|Langtang Ri||7,205||23,638||Langtang||#106 in the world|
|Chamar||7,187||23,579||Sringi||First ascent 1953|
|Melungtse||7,181||23,560||Rolwaling||First ascent 1988|
|Pumori||7,161||23,494||Khumbu Mahalangur||First ascent 1962|
|Nemjung Manang||7,140||23,425||First ascent 1983|
|Gaurishankar||7,134||23,406||Rolwaling||First ascent 1979|
|Tilicho Peak||7,134||23,406||Annapurna||First ascent 1979|
|Api||7,132||23,399||Yoka Pahar Gurans||First ascent 1960|
|Baruntse||7,129||23,389||Barun Mahalangur||First ascent 1954|
|Nilgiri||7,061||23,166||Nilgiri Annapurna||First ascent 1962|
|Machapuchare||6,993||22,943||Annapurna||Sacred mountain, unclimbed|
|Kang Guru||6,981||22,904||Larkya or Peri||2005 avalanche kills 18|
|Ama Dablam||6,812||22,349||Barun Mahalangur||“Mother and her necklace”|
|Kangtega||6,782||22,251||Barun Mahalangur||First ascent 1963|
|Cho Polu||6,735||22,096||Barun Mahalangur||First ascent 1999|
|Lingtren||6,714||22,028||Khumbu Mahalangur||First ascent 1935|
|Num Ri||6,677||21,906||Barun Mahalangur||First ascent 2002|
|Khumbutse||6,640||21,785||Khumbu Mahalangur||First mountain west of Everest|
|Thamserku||6,623||21,729||Barun Mahalangur||First ascent 1964|
|Taboche||6,542||21,463||Khumbu Mahalangur||First ascent 1974|
|Singu Chuli||6,501||21,329||Annapurna||Trekking peak|
As long as we are looking at the proposed new rules from Nepal, let’s review the recent changes China made on their side of the mountain. In 2018 and early 2019, China changed its structure and dramatically increased their climbing fee to match Nepal’s.
An Everest climbing permit from the Chinese (North side) is now USD $9,950 per person for a team permit of 4 or more; with three or fewer members, the permit skyrockets to $19,500 per person. In addition there is now a $1,500 rubbish-collection fee for Everest summit climber, $1000/person for Mt.Cho-oyu, Mt.Shishapangma, Mt. Lhakpari, North-col and Mt. Everest ABC member.
This is a price increase as the $1,500 per person is not a deposit but rather a fee on top of the $9,500 permit fee. China now exceeds Nepal with the $11,450 per person permit fee. However China includes more with the permit for example transportation to base camp by vehicle.
In 2018 they implemented a $5,000 trash deposit and the requirement that every climber bring down 8kg of rubbish. Nepal has been doing the same for year with a $4,000 deposit but never enforced the climber collection policy. China has a better Liaison system – one at base camp instead of Nepal’s one per team who never shows up at base camp, thus the Chinese approach may work.
To begin to address unqualified climbers, China now requires a health certificate for each climber along with their permit application. If the climber is using a Nepal guide service, that company must provide all their registration details to the CTMA (amazing this has never been a requirement, but again, anyone could guide on Everest – either side – with no qualifications.) They also added the option to drive to Base Camp via the Kerung border. This will make it less expensive compared to flying to Lhasa and driving to BC from there.
I wrote about the new rules in this post. I obtained a copy of the new rules and have read them myself so this is first hand reporting. This is a summary of the changes and my opinion of their impact (bold emphasis is mine):
- “Strict standards will be established for all the expedition organizers or operators, especially on market access. We will cooperate actively with the Expedition companies with good social reputation, strong ability of team formation, logistic support, reliable service quality, excellent professional quality, and law-abiding.”
- “Expeditions climbing above 8000 meters in Tibet Autonomous Region, 1 summit climber must be accompanied 1 Nepalese Mountain guide, and each expedition must be equipped with 1 team leader.”
- “To further strengthen the cooperation and the management of mountaineering team, and ensure the exploration companies strictly abide by relevant regulations, $5000 will be collected as mountaineering security deposits from each exploration companies at the beginning of mountaineering, and all deposit will be refunded with no safety accidents and environmental problems at the end of mountaineering.”
- “In order to ensure the healthy and orderly development of mountaineering and minimize the occurrence of mountaineering accidents, mountaineering teams which were organized in Nepal temporarily will not be accepted.”
- Registration Deadline – February 28th
- “Standard of rubbish-collection fee will be $1500/person for Mt. Everest summit climber, $1000/person for Mt.Cho-oyu, Mt.Shishapangma, Mt. Lhakpari, North-col and Mt. Everest ABC member.”
- “All the climbers, mountain guides and logistic service staff above Base Camp, must bring 8 km mountaineering rubbish to base camp in each climbing season and hand it over to the Chinese Liaison Officers”
- “Mountaineering Rescue Team of Tibet Autonomous Region and Yarlha Shampo Expedition in Tibet will jointly undertake the rescue missions in Mt. Everest, Mt. Cho-Oyu and Mt. Shishapangma during mountaineering season (Spring and Autumn).”
- “The expenses caused by the rescues shall be borne by the climbers themselves,”
The key question from all of these new rules from both Chinese and Nepal is if they will be enforced. By all accounts from this past 2019 spring season, China is serious and sources tell me that the CTMA the Tibetans in charge of the CTMA really, really want to clean Everest and the other mountains. As for Nepal, if past is prologue then we can anticipate no real changes and business as usual. In fact, one well-placed foreign guide told me that his Nepali contacts suggest all of this is window dressing and nothing will change.
I’ve been told by experienced guides that they do NOT expect the new rules to go into effect, at least for 2020 on the Nepal side. Some of them might be approved by parliament, especially the $35,000 minimum but the 6,500 m Nepal summit probably will not be, or at least not enforced similar to what happened in 2015. The key will be when they actually change the documents and provide them to all agencies and guides, then the rules are real, but still perhaps not enforced.
We will know more once the Parliament meets, but the real consequences will be revealed once e the climbing season begins in eight months.
Memories are Everything