Why Nepal Wants to Keep Everest Business in Sherpa Hands

Long a symbol of our indomitable earth, the Himalayas are now just another multimillion-dollar business, albeit one with a high mortality rate and tempestuous weather.

Citing concerns for safety, industry officials said recently that Nepal is considering a ban on foreign climbers ascending Mount Everest without the aid of a local guide.

The majority of the injuries on Everest involve foreign climbers who eschew the use of local guides, said Ang Tshering Sherpa, whose association represents tourism promoters. The compulsory use of a local guide will reduce risks and prevent future accidents, he said.

The change may not sit well with the most elite mountaineers, who enjoy climbing alone and see a solo Everest expedition as the pinnacle of climbing achievement.

However unwelcome the proposed change may be to foreign climbers, its future benefits to local communities are all too clear. Nepal is one of the poorest countries on earth, with around one quarter of its population living below the poverty line, according to the CIA World Factbook. Second only to agriculture in revenue generation, tourism accounts for nearly 4% of the country's GDP.

Much of that tourism comes in the form of climbers and mountaineers from around the globe. In 2012 (the most recent figures available), the Nepal Mountaineering Association issued nearly 6,500 climbing permits, with 78% of those trekkers attempting Everest.

A costly climb

The cost of an average Everest expedition is not for the budget-conscious. Pricing for 2013 excursions with SummitClimb, a company offering "full-service expeditions," began at $36,000. International flights, rescue or travel insurance, personal equipment, tips, in-country lodging, visas, and political payments can quickly send the total upward of $100,000.

This influx of money from climbers, expedition aides, sightseers, and other visitors accounted for tourism receipts of more than 30.5 million Indian rupees ­– about $500 million – in 2012 alone, according to the Nepal Rastra Bank.

If enacted, the ban on solo climbing will funnel more of that revenue into the hands of the predominant guide community, the Sherpa. An ethnic group known for their mountaineering expertise, Sherpa communities depend on the annual two-month climbing season. Around 10,000 Sherpa are registered to work as climbers or porters, according to figures cited in the August 2013 issue of Outside magazine. Only a small percentage of those numbers actually work at any given time.

Restricting the access of parties with foreign-only guides will also cut back on refuse cluttering the mountain, said the president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association. Hired Sherpa guides would help climbers bring down garbage, in line with new rules requiring each descending mountaineer to remove eight kilograms of trash.

Seeking balance

In what may be seen as a pre-emptive move against backlash, the Nepalese government is slashing the fees for single foreign climbers, Madhusudan Burlakoti, head of Nepal's department of mountains, said in February. Individual permit prices will now be $11,000, a dramatic reduction from the previous $25,00 price tag.

In conjunction, the discount rate for group climbs will be discontinued, said Burlakoti, due in part to an internationally publicized brawl between European climbers and their Nepalese guides in 2013.

With the price reduction, "We hope to attract more climbers," said Burlakoti. "This will allow the smaller teams and individuals more freedom when they climb Everest."

Offering climbers the incentive of lowered fees and forcing them to use local guides should, in theory, funnel more money into Sherpa communities. However, the wage difference between local and foreign guides is enormous, according to figures cited by the Trekking Agencies' Association of Nepal and the May issue of Outside magazine.

The minimum wage for Sherpa guides and porters is 2,000 Nepalese Rupees -- about $23 -- per day, while experienced European guides can garner fees of up to $50,000 for one expedition. While Sherpa pay will largely continue to stay in-country, foreign guides spending their fees on lodging, food, supplies, transportation, and other incidentals will necessarily be curtailed.

Additionally, Everest climbers may be deterred by the increased danger of climbing in smaller groups or of attempting the summit without a compatriot guide.

Whether the proposal will pass will likely be decided at a meeting with government and tourism representatives from Pakistan, China, and India later this month, said Ang Tshering Sherpa.

It remains to be seen what benefit, if any, the changes will have on the local economy and Sherpa communities.

For a people who have lived and worked on this, the highest and holiest of mountains, for more than 500 years, Everest may yet again be a savior, or a downfall.

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