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Will News of Deaths on Everest Affect Climbing Tourism in the U.S.?

26 Jun, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
With Climbing Coming to the Olympics, Interest in Challenging Treks May Increase

Some pictures captivate the world and this was one of them. The image: a long line of climbers winding upward like a bizarre crocodile going step by torturous step to try to summit Mount Everest. Not only would all of them not succeed but a record number would die trying and would remain on the mountain. Climbers would step numbly over their bodies as they moved upward in pursuit of the goal.

After a particularly harsh year – the deadliest since 2015 when an avalanche roared into Everest base camp, killing 19 people, the question has come up yet again: will Nepal cut back on permits to climb the mountain? Would it say no to that much economic impact on an impoverished region? And if it does, will more climbers come in pursuit of other summits, including Mount Denali in Alaska? And with climbing moving to the Summer Olympics in 2020, is it likely we'll see more people willing to try?

The question is as problematic as it is multifaceted. Setting aside the bucket-list appeal of summiting Everest that appeals to climbers, there is the economic aspect to consider. Nepal is one of the poorest regions in the world and Everest is its chief money-maker.

An article in Adventure Journal noted, “It is well known the Nepalese government wants to increase tourism revenue by a multiple of five in as many years. According to Laxman Gautam, Director of Communications for the Nepal Tourism Board, “We have sought the low revenue of backpackers and trekkers for too long. We need to increase the number of high paying travelers coming to Nepal.” In the very next breath, he said, “Everest climbers are the highest value visitors we have.” And he’s right. With as little as a doctor’s note and $11,000, virtually anyone can acquire a permit to stand on top of the world. Of the $50,000 spent on the actual climb, virtually all of it stays within Nepal. Everest is Nepal’s sacred cash cow.”

In fact, one source notes that during the short climbing season (it runs only from March to May of each year), the population of the Khumbu region at the base of Mount Everest soars from around 40,000 to 700,000.

But with the risk factor, will climbers still come – or will they turn instead to an area climbing tourism is more regulated and accordingly, safer?

According to Jason Martin, executive director of the American Alpine Institute, there is a stark contrast between what is happening in Nepal and what is happening in other countries. He cites Alaska’s Denali as an example.

“The National Park Service regulates how many climbers can be on Denali in a given year. There can be no more than 1,200 climbers in a season (mid-April through mid-July). There are no limits on the South Side of Everest. It's my understanding that part of the problem this year on Everest is that the North Side in China started regulating numbers, and that this pushed more climbers to the South Side.”

Deaths on Everest are generally attributed to what the article calls a perfect storm of bad decisions, poor conditions, or foul weather – but this year, those factors were compounded by a lack of permitting oversight and a large number of inexperienced and inadequately supported climbers. And while overcrowding itself doesn’t kill anyone, it was the delays caused by the crowding that resulted in climbers having to decide whether to stay (with oxygen and food supplies often running low) or abandon their quest altogether.

Added to that problem is the possibility of relatively inexperienced guides, says Martin. Nepal does not make rules on who is allowed to take climbers up the mountain. In the U.S., it’s a different story.

“The NPS regulates who can commercially operate on Denali through competitive concession contracts. This ensures quality and that every guide service has been vetted. In developing countries, pretty much anyone can be a guide. Many people become guides after working as porters or cooks. They don't become guides after years of personal climbing and guide-specific vocational training.”

It’s also unlikely the risk will drive too many climbers away from Everest; however, some may think harder about it before trying. They may also have the incentive to train harder and to join a vetted climbing organization.

Martin says they’re not choosing Denali over Everest, however, adding, “Interest in Denali has been steady. The numbers on the mountain aren't really growing that much, and there aren't really very many fatalities there. Everest and Denali have always been interlinked. Many people consider Denali to be harder than Everest, because of the lack of porter support.”

Very little formal information exists on the economic impact on Nepal of the climbing industry from Everest. However, as Martin notes, “Climbers always bring their money and have a positive financial influence on the communities near their objectives. This is true for small rock-climbing areas in the United States, as well as with international destinations.”

One study by the National Park Service revealed that the over 530,000 visitors who came to Denali National Park and Preserve in 2014 spent $5.24 million in communities near the park. That spending supported almost 7,000 jobs in the local area, which includes the 300+ employees of the park’s largest concessioner and had a cumulative benefit to the local economy of $7.48 million.

In Nepal, economic impact takes precedence over many other factors. The fact that anyone who can pony up the money can try to take on the challenge has brought out any number of climber wannabes. Actress Mandy Moore made it to Everest base camp – but (probably fortunately for her) no further.

It’s unlikely, even with the risks, that there will be a change in the number of people who make the journey to Nepal. As one climber told Adventure Journal, “Nepal wants the revenue of an Everest climb as badly as climbers want to stand on the summit. Neither of those two things will ever go away.”

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