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Race to the Everest summit: Chinese, US climbers top list

Mount Everest (Luca Galuzzi/WikiCommons)
April 26, 2023

The fierce competition between the United States and China for economic and military dominance now seems to have spread to mountaineering. American and Chinese climbers have been applying for Everest permits in record numbers this season.

The Department of Tourism said 96 Chinese and 87 Americans had received permission to climb the world’s tallest mountain as of Friday.

Nepal has issued a record 454 Everest climbing permits so far, and the final number is expected to exceed 500, expedition officials say. Among those receiving climbing permits are 40 Indian, 21 Canadian and 19 Russian mountaineers.

“Americans, traditionally, used to be in the higher numbers in Nepal’s adventure activities like mountaineering and trekking. But this year, the situation may be different,” said Ang Tshering Sherpa, a mountain expert and former president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association.

“China has opened the borders to its citizens, and it looks like there will be more Chinese than Americans heading for Everest.”

Chinese mountaineers prefer to climb Everest from the Nepal side for several reasons, the main being fewer hassles.

Mingma Sherpa, chairman of Nepal’s largest expedition organiser Seven Summit Treks, told the Post in a recent interview that after Covid, China created a new rule requiring its citizens to climb an 8,000-metre peak before making an attempt on Everest.

“That particular rule has prompted Chinese climbers to come to Nepal in droves,” he said.

On March 15, China lifted a three-year-old restriction and allowed its citizens to visit Nepal. Beijing has kept Everest closed to foreign climbers for the fourth consecutive year.

From the beginning, expedition organisers had said that the number of Everest permits issued for the spring climbing season may exceed expectations.

But there are concerns that the re-emergence of coronavirus infections, erratic weather and overcrowding caused by new climbers may ruin the season.

According to the expedition firms the Post talked to, nearly 500 climbers may attempt to summit the world’s highest peak this climbing season beginning in the second week of May.

The Tourism Department says the number may reach 500 as some alpinists apply for permits at a late hour, towards the end of April.

Each climber is accompanied by at least one sherpa guide, so the number of people on Everest may cross 1,000. But not all of them will reach the summit.

The success rate on Everest is around 60 percent, according to officials.

The department’s records show that more women are attempting to climb Everest—a record 93 female climbers have been issued climbing permits this season.

“The good news is that climbing routes have been prepared up to Camp IV, also known as South Col, till Sunday,” said Dambar Parajuli, president of the Expedition Operators Association of Nepal.

Camp IV is located at 7,925 metres where most climbers spend their first night on the mountain before making the final push to the summit.

“We are expecting that the climbing may begin by the first week of May, but it all depends on how the weather behaves,” said Parajuli. “Based on the number of climbing permits being issued, it looks like Everest will see yet another crowd, no doubt about that.”

Expedition organisers say there is a need for proper planning this season to avoid a repeat of the past traffic jams on the world’s tallest peak.

A picture of a long line of mountaineers waiting to get to the summit in May 2019 went viral.

In 2021, Nepal’s Department of Tourism issued a record 409 Everest permits when the Covid pandemic was at its peak.

The number dropped to 325 in 2022 as the Russia-Ukraine war prevented potential climbers from Russia, Ukraine, Poland and some European countries from coming to Nepal.

Yubaraj Khatiwada, director of the Department of Tourism, says they have constituted a committee to assist the climbers. The team will also monitor activities at the base camp.

The department said that they would be coordinating with the Meteorological Department to provide weather data which would give weather information at least three days before the start of any climb.

Climate change is posing a threat to climbers. Sherpa said he had never seen such heavy snow on the mountain during the spring season before.

“The climate is not behaving well, and mountaineers need to be extra cautious this season,” he said.

Already, an avalanche has occurred on several mountains. On April 12, tonnes of ice mass moved downslope and buried three sherpa guides underneath it, in the season’s first accident on the world’s tallest peak, Everest.

Since the beginning of the spring climbing season on March 1, there has been continuous heavy snowfall on Annapurna and Manaslu after a dry winter. Expedition organisers say fresh snow is dangerous.

The ascent of Annapurna, the world’s 10th highest peak, was delayed by incessant snowfall and avalanches. On April 15, climbers eventually reached the summit taking advantage of a short weather window.

Sherpa says that climate change is difficult to deal with. “On Annapurna, a short weather window allowed climbers to acclimatise for only a brief period, and that’s risky.”

Avalanches can happen anytime, but the risk is heightened when fresh new snow falls on top of an already compacted snow base. The newer snow becomes unstable, triggering an avalanche

Sherpa, who has decades of experience in mountaineering, said that the existing climate cycle could change the climbing period too in the near future.

During the 1980s, climbing in the autumn was more popular than in the spring.

According to the department, the highest number of successes was recorded in the autumn of 1993 when 37 climbers reached the summit of Everest. In 1990, there were 29 successful climbs followed by 32 in 1992, 30 in 1994 and 26 in 1996.

After the advent of democracy in 1990, the government adopted a liberal economic policy in 1992. As a result, Everest was also opened for everyone and in any season.

Before that, the government used to issue only one permit for one group on a single route. So Everest aspirants used to climb in the autumn and winter too despite the harsh weather conditions. The commercialisation of Everest started after Nepal adopted a liberal economic policy.

“Climbers started abandoning autumn climbs after 1996 because it was much safer to climb during the spring,” said Sherpa.

In 1996, Everest recorded its worst disaster, in which eight climbers were killed and several others were stranded by a storm. After the catastrophe, there were no climbers in the autumn of 1997, as per department records. Climbers then chose to climb during the spring.

“Climate change is leading to visible changes on the mountains,” said Parajuli. “This spring, it looks like our seasonal calendar is a month behind because it is still snowing as if it was winter.”

The Tourism Department has collected $4.86 million in fees for Everest alone, the highest revenue collection on record at a time when the government is struggling with a revenue shortfall. Normally, permits are issued until April-end.

An Everest climbing permit costs $11,000 for foreigners and Rs75,000 for Nepalis. Climbers pay between $50,000 and $90,000 to climb Everest.


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