Numbers game in deadly race to top

Editorial | Mary Ma 30 May 2019

It is the pinnacle of achievement in mountaineering when a climber fulfills the lifetime dream of conquering the world's highest peak, Mount Everest.

However, this year's spring climbing season has been more about the dark side of humanity, the flip side of the coin. Along the ridge on Nepal's side, 11 climbers have been killed since the current season started, making it the deadliest in four years.

A major cause was the large number of climbers allowed to scale the 8,848-meter mountain. While unstable weather is always common, it's only to be expected that climbers wouldn't want to miss the short window that opens up whenever the weather improves in order to stage the final push.

But a similar mix is causing more deaths this year due to a record number of people assembling on Everest. They got stuck in a long queue for hours, exposed to freezing temperatures and low oxygen levels.

Kathmandu must be held responsible.

How desperate was the situation up there? Canadian filmmaker Elia Saikaly said he would never return to Everest again. On the sharp ridge, mountaineers had to climb over bodies to finish their journey. The situation was so demanding that nobody could spare energy to help should one fall on the way to the top.

Saikaly called it a scene of "death, carnage, chaos."

But the Nepalese tourism ministry disagreed, with secretary Mohan Krishna Sapkota insisting its policy not to cap the number of permits was sound - instead blaming the weather, equipment and inadequate supplies of oxygen for the death toll.

Those were factors, but the major one that Sapkota avoided in particular was the record number of permits issued for the popular climbing season: a total of 381 climbers in 44 teams. That led to a crowd since each climber must also hire a guide from the local Sherpa community.

For a country ranked among the world's poorest, climbing activities are a major foreign currency income source, generating about US$300 million (HK$2.34 billion) a year. Economically, it's in Nepal's interest to issue as many permits as possible for, in addition to the direct fee of US$11,000 per permit, expedition members have to hire guides, porters and cooks.

It's a booming business as the market continues to expand to include white-collar adventurers inexperienced in climbing.

Sapkota should know that a handful of novice climbers would be enough to create a congestion effect, which is believed to be what actually happened near the peak.

It's futile to sweep the concerns under the carpet.

The tragic incidents tarnishing this climbing season had everything to do with the over-issuance of permits.

The Nepalese official said ropes would be doubled in the area to improve safety.

That's far from adequate. Furthermore, they should tighten up the number of permits being issued.

It may be true that if more climbers come, there would be more business. However, the flip side of the coin is the risk of higher casualties. Nobody wants to see a glorious test of the human body descend into dark greed.

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