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Climbing Everest: the Transformation of Mountaineering from Personal Exploration to a Commercial Guided-Tour Industry

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On the evening of May 9, 1996, large groups of climbers stationed at Camp IV, situated 8,000 meters on the South Col route of Mount Everest, were preparing summit the peak of the world’s highest mountain. Throughout the day a series of dangerously high winds had persisted, and the windows of opportunity for summiting were narrowing drastically. When the winds began to calm down in the evening, the climbers advanced on the opportunity and embarked on the 18 to 24 hour round-trip expedition to the mountain’s summit. The following afternoon, the mountain was hit with severe windstorms, heavy snowfall, and rapidly falling temperatures. 17 climbers were left stranded, and by the following day, the storm had claimed the lives of 8 climbers (Krakauer). At the time, this marked the greatest loss of life in a single day in Everest’s history and, with 12 overall deaths over the course of the 1996 season, the deadliest year on the mountain. The disaster shocked the world, who mourned the deaths of seasoned, experienced climbers such as New Zealand’s Rob Hall and America’s Scott Fisher. For many, it was a sobering realization of the sheer magnitude of Everest’s capabilities – the beginning of the 21st century had marked a new generation of Everest climbers, consisting of novice mountaineers embarking on inexperienced expeditions at cheaper rates. The country of Nepal, ranked among one of the poorest countries in the world, has long depended on tourism as a vital economic lifeline. Every time Mount Everest takes an environmental or climatic hit, Nepal’s tourism industry takes a hit as well. With global coronavirus fears temporarily closing down the mountain, it has become significantly more obvious the extent to which Nepal relies on the climbing industry for sustainability, and how Nepal’s dependency on tourism has diminished the prestige that the mountain very well may require.

Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and his Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay of Nepal, were the very first climbers to stand on the top of Mount Everest on May 29, 1953. Actual attempts to summit the mountain began in 1921, with two British Expedition teams failing in both 1921 and 1922 before two members got close in 1924. George Mallory and Andrew Irvine were believed to have made it just 800 feet from the summit before they succumbed to the bad weather. Following his conquest of the 29,035-foot mountain, Hillary would later write, “When we climbed Everest in 1953 I really believed that the story had finished”. Both he and Tenzing would never attempt the climb again. However, the legacy of the expedition was unavoidable, and since Hillary and Tenzing’s initial ascent, over 4,000 climbers have since successfully summited the mountain. With the sudden and large spike in popularity surrounding extreme climbing and mountaineering, a fair amount of controversy and criticism now surrounds the ascent up the world’s tallest peak. Jamling Tenzing, the son of Tenzing Norgay who completed the climb in 1996, claimed that “his late father would have been shocked to discover that rich thrill-seekers with no climbing experience were now routinely reaching the summit” (Harding). In the decades following Hillary and Norgay’s first summit, only the most elite climbers even attempted the feat of climbing the mountain. However, by 1996, climbing Mount Everest had evolved into a multi-million dollar industry.

The high Himalayan regions of Nepal have become the foremost center of mountaineering and trekking in all of Asia. It’s the small-scale adventure tourism of climbing Everest that links this once relatively remote part of the world with the global economy and continues to provide new opportunities for economic development. Much of the high- and middle-altitude sections of northeastern Nepal are inhabited by Sherpas, members of a Himalayan people famously renowned for the skill in mountaineering. In Stanley F. Stevens article ‘Tourism, Change, and Continuity in the Mount Everest Region, Nepal’, he discusses the patterns that have transformed Nepal into a thriving tourism industry. He explains how the first Europeans and Americans only entered the area as recently as the 1950s, and until 1964 the region was limited to mountaineering expeditions only. As recently as 1971, the Mount Everest region locally known as Khumbu hosted hardly a thousand total visitors. By the end of the 1980s tourists reached numbers of more than 8,000 annual visitors, and today more than 90% of those visitors are trekkers. As a whole, Nepal does not receive much tourism beyond those wishing to embark on Everest expeditions. According to Stevens, “Trekking and mountaineering have thus far been much more significant for regional development than has high-spending elite tourism” (Stevens). Sherpas began to establish official tourism businesses in the late 1960s, and by the 1980s nearly 15% of all Khumbu households operated family inns or stores.

Today, Nepal’s tourism industry pulls in around half a billion dollars annually. Although the country is rich with culture and religious tradition, the tourists with the most money and longest stays primarily travel to the country to tackle the largest peak in the Himalayas. Trekking and climbing are an extremely vital source of revenue and income for the Asian country, with almost 1.2 million tourists visiting Nepal in 2018 alone (Conger). According to the World Tourism and Travel Council, over a million jobs are generated by tourism in Nepal, and thousands of seasonal residents migrate from other areas of Nepal for tourism-related employment. Sherpas or mountain guides, for example, can make anywhere upwards of $2,000 per expedition, far exceeding the average annual income of a Nepalese worker. For one of the 25,000 annual Everest tourists, a government-issued climbing permit runs around $3,350. Deciding to take the most common route to the top of the mountain sets a climber back $25,000 in royalty fees to the Nepalese Government, or even up to $70,000 for a full expedition crew. The Nepalese rely on other, smaller expenses as well, including lodging, food, and any additional supplies that aren’t covered by overall expedition fees. In addition to trekking businesses, “more than 300 hotels and lodges have sprung up from the tourism, many of which are owned by local Sherpa people” (Conger). In March of 2020, the decision by the Nepal Government to cancel all trekking and climbing permits in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic brought what was once a steady flow of tourists to an abrupt halt.

For those who make their living along the major trekking routes, whether as guides, porters, or guesthouse owners, the halt in tourism is a devastating blow. Hoteliers who stockpile in advance are seeing their purchases go to waste, and Nepal’s tourist district of Thamel, located in the capital city of Kathmandu, suffered a heavy hit from the lack of visitors. Crowds of climbers have long sustained the small country, but Nepal’s reliance on their tourism industry does not come without controversy. As recently as 2019, Nepal’s tourism board had to defend the number of climbing permits they issued following a season in which 11 people died on the expedition. Recent years have seen major concerns surrounding the sheer number of climbers on Mount Everest, which often result in dangerous traffic jams on perilous parts of the trek to the top. According to Grayson Schaffer, editor at Outside magazine, “The danger there is that, at that altitude, the body just can’t survive. They’re breathing bottled oxygen. And when that oxygen runs out because you’re waiting in line, you are at much higher risk for developing high-altitude edemas and altitude sickness – and dying of those illnesses while you’re still trying to reach the summit” (Wamsley). As of 2019, Nepal’s government didn’t put a specific limit on climbing permits. Thus, tension continues to exist between the nation of Nepal and the climbing conditions of Everest. Experts claim that the mountain’s overflow of inexperienced climbers is both damaging to the prestige of the mountain and a dangerous risk for the safety of all climbers alike, but Nepal depends on the large crowds of those willing to purchase permits to keep their small economy functioning.

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Following the 1996 Mount Everest Disaster, Peter Hillary published an opinion piece to the New York Times titled ‘Everest is Mighty, We Are Fragile’. In the piece, Peter, the son of Sir Edmund Hillary, claimed that, “On the great mountains of the world there is constancy, and the Everest that took the lives of George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine in the 1920s is the same Everest that was finally climbed by my father, Sir Edmund Hillary, and Tenzing Norgay in 1953…the same summit I climbed on May 10, 1990, with Rob Hall and Gary Ball on a brilliantly sunny day, and it is the same Everest that took the lives of eight climbers, including Rob, in a terrible storm on May 10, 1996” (Hillary). His piece emphasized the “unbridled might of the mountain”, where he highlighted the fact that not even experience in climbing or the skill of famous alpine leaders is enough to conquer the mountain in the worst of circumstances. Although Hillary’s essay was somber in tone as he mourned the loss of his friends and colleagues, he seemed opportunistic about encouraging risk-takers to embark on the bold journey to the top of the mountain, claiming that “every success by an individual is an inspiration for his or her community”. Today, 24 years after the disaster and the publication of Hillary’s piece, sentiments regarding inexperienced climbers are much less optimistic. Although Everest’s most infamous year to date, the 1996 season is not the mountain’s most tragic in terms of fatalities. In both the 2014 and 2015 seasons, various tragedies led to the deaths of over a dozen people. On April 18, 2014, 16 sherpas were killed in an avalanche near the notorious Khumbu Ice Fall. On April 25, 2015, 19 people died in avalanche at base camp. As recently as 2019, 11 people died on Everest, where the season saw a record-setting number of climbers (Wengel).

Research on mountaineering tourism has shown that the large increases in numbers of climbers can be explained by the transformation of mountaineering from personal exploration to a commercial guided-tour industry set to capitalize on accessibility to large mountains, affordable transportation, and advanced equipment. Essentially, this increase in commercial “adventure sports” means that seasoned, or professional, mountaineers are oftentimes severely outnumbered by tourists whose ambitions ultimately exceed their climbing skills. Today, roughly 90% of the climbers on Mount Everest are there as a part of a guided expedition, in which a tour leader takes a group of paid clients – many without fundamental basic climbing skills – up the mountain. Another common issue with Everest tourism revolves around client expectations. Having paid anywhere from $30,000 to $120,000 to be on the mountain alone, a majority of guided climbers expect to reach the summit (Wengel). A significant number succeed in this, but often under dangerous conditions. The two standard climbing routes, the Northeast Ridge and Southeast Ridge, are not only dangerously overcrowded but also terribly polluted. Not to mention, the primary treks are now littered with corpses.

An increase in visitor numbers has also left irreversible evidence on the face of the mountain in the form of trash. Old tents, fixed ropes, used bottles of oxygen, human waste, and other forms of garbage are evidence of hundreds of climbing expeditions that have visited the mountain. Recent trends in climbing styles and ethics have helped emphasize the importance of summiting with little to no regard for environmental concerns. Not to mention, the accumulation suffers at the hands of the sheet volume of climber days at both Base Camp and on the mountain itself. In Brent Bishop and Chris Naumann’s article ‘Mount Everest: Reclamation of the World’s Highest Junk Yard’, the authors discuss a history of mountaineers generally disregarding their garbage. Even Sir Edmund Hillary said: “I must admit, when we went to Everest in 1953, we heaved our rubbish around with the best of them. That was nearly forty years ago and in those days hardly anyone had even heard of conservation” (Bishop, Naumann). This attitude has only continued to be the prevailing norm for expeditions on large peaks. Although modern climbers have become more environmentally conscious in recent decades, swarms of groups crowding the mountain has done little to decrease the build up of garbage on the mountain. The most macabre result of Everest’s unattainable location and biodegradable-resistant conditions, of course, are the bodies of fallen and unsuccessful climbers that continue to line the trek to the summit of the mountain.

Jon Krakauer, famous writer and mountaineer, was a surviving member of the ill-fated 1996 expedition. Less than a year after the expedition he published his personal account of the climb in a book he titled ‘Into Thin Air’, where he often criticized the motives of his fellow climbers as they set out to tackle the summit in life-threatening conditions. He described Everest as a “magnet for kooks, publicity seekers, hopeless romantics and others with a shaky hold on reality”. However, Krakauer, like Hillary, could not help but idealize the ambition of tackling such a magnificent feat as well. He stated, “…there are men for whom the unattainable has a special attraction. Usually they are not experts: their ambitions and fantasies are strong enough to brush aside the doubts which more cautious men might have. Determination and faith are their strongest weapons. At best such men are regarded as eccentric; at worst, mad”. In 2014, following a particularly horrific incident in which an overhanging wedge of ice crashed onto the slope below and killed sixteen climbers, Krakauer reevaluated some of his own thoughts on conquering Everest. He claimed that, “The statistics suggesting that Everest has become safe for members may, in fact, be giving Westerners a false sense of security, however. The astounding number of climbers who now attempt to reach the summit on the limited number of days when the weather is favorable presents a new kind of hazard”. In light of the trends surrounding recent Everest seasons, Krakauer’s analysis is pretty on-the-nose. Mount Everest’s wider accessibility in recent decades has ultimately caused a blow to the mountain’s previous “unattainability” status, but more importantly, the mountain’s recent problems with overcrowding are proving to have dangerous, and even fatal, outcomes.

With rising tensions surrounding the Nepal government’s decision to not place restrictions on climbing permits following the 2019 season, the decision to stop all expeditions for the 2020 season will deliver a major blow to the local communities whose economic livelihoods rely on the trekking and climbing tourism. In ‘Tourism, Change, and Continuity in the Mount Everest Region, Nepal’, Stevens ultimately comes to the conclusion that Mount Everest’s tourism is a good thing for Nepal, as it links to the Khumbu region with the global economy. He praises the fact that “forty years of small-scale international mountaineering and trekking tourism have made the majority of Khumbu Sherpas highly affluent by Nepalese standards…many Sherpas support continued tourism development and hope that tourist numbers will increase, even though they are concerned about the vulnerability of their current prosperity and about the effects of even small-scale tourism development on Khumbu society” (Stevens). Written in 1993, prior to even the 1996 disaster, Stevens never could have predicted that Nepal’s ever-flourishing tourism industry would completely shut down amidst a global pandemic. The Khumbu region thrives as long as tourism thrives, and the idea of Everest tourism dropping off after years of steady and consistent inclination simply was not realistic. The effects of the shutdown on the region have been immediate – photos of Mount Everest have recently been captured from 124 miles away, as stay-at-home orders have resulted in some of the cleanest air over Nepal in years (‘How Coronavirus’). Certain experts have claimed that 2020 is the season that Everest is finally receiving a recovery period from the increasingly commercialized expeditions that have been leading to increases in overcrowding, pollution, and human waste.

There is no telling how the abrupt halt to this climbing season will affect Nepalese citizens whose primary income comes from mountaineering-related tourism. There have always been existing tensions between Nepal’s dependency on Everest’s tourism, and Everest’s capabilities as a tourist attraction. While Nepal, up until recently, has continued to promote Everest expeditions, the mountain and its climbers continue to suffer the consequences of overcrowding, inexperience, pollution, and unpredictable weather patterns. The 1996 Mount Everest Disaster may have been the incident that garnered the most public attention and rose awareness to the potential dangers of tackling the world’s tallest mountain, but the event truly did little to deter climbers from embarking on the expedition in the years that followed. Tourism in the region of Nepal has only increased in the past couple years, and the correlation of tragic deaths on the mountain during Everest’s record-breaking seasons coincides too greatly to be entirely coincidence. Untimely pandemic aside, it’s hard to imagine the idea of Mount Everest losing traction in the years that will follow. Fear and consequence do not discourage adrenaline junkies – if anything, it is the endless possibility of risk that attracts people to the mountain in the first place. As Krakauer states in ‘Into Thin Air’, “It was titillating to brush up against the enigma of mortality, to steal a glimpse across its forbidden frontier. Climbing was a magnificent activity, I firmly believed, not in spite of the inherent perils, but precisely because of them”. Nepal’s tourism industry might take a severe hit in this 2020 season, but as long as there are those willing to embark on the expedition to Mount Everest’s summit in the future, mountaineering tourism will continue to keep the small country of Nepal afloat.

Works Cited

  1. Bishop, Brent, and Chris Naumann. “Mount Everest: Reclamation of the World’s Highest Junk Yard.” Mountain Research and Development, vol. 16, no. 3, 1996, p. 323.
  2. Conger, Cristen. “How Has Mount Everest Tourism Affected Nepal?” HowStuffWorks. HowStuffWorks, April 1, 2008.
  3. Harding, Luke. “Everest’s Decline Blamed on Trail of Rich Tourists.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media.
  4. Hillary, Peter. “Everest Is Mighty, We Are Fragile.” The New York Times, May 25, 1996.
  5. “How Coronavirus Is Giving Mount Everest a Much Needed Break from Humanity.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, April 18, 2020.
  6. Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Everest Disaster. London: Pan, 2011.
  7. Krakauer, Jon. “Death and Anger on Everest.” The New Yorker, April 21, 2014.
  8. Stevens, Stanley F. “Tourism, Change, and Continuity in the Mount Everest Region, Nepal.” Geographical Review 83, no. 4 (October 1993): 410–27.
  9. “The World Factbook: Nepal.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, February 1, 2018.
  10. Wamsley, Laurel. “Amid Deadly Season On Everest, Nepal Has No Plans To Issue Fewer Permits.” NPR. NPR, May 28, 2019.
  11. Wengel, Yana. “Death on Everest: the Boom in Climbing Tourism Is Dangerous and Unsustainable.” The Conversation, March 5, 2020.

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Climbing Everest: the Transformation of Mountaineering from Personal Exploration to a Commercial Guided-Tour Industry. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/climbing-everest-the-transformation-of-mountaineering-from-personal-exploration-to-a-commercial-guided-tour-industry/
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Climbing Everest: the Transformation of Mountaineering from Personal Exploration to a Commercial Guided-Tour Industry. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/climbing-everest-the-transformation-of-mountaineering-from-personal-exploration-to-a-commercial-guided-tour-industry/> [Accessed 1 Dec. 2022].
Climbing Everest: the Transformation of Mountaineering from Personal Exploration to a Commercial Guided-Tour Industry [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 25 [cited 2022 Dec 1]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/climbing-everest-the-transformation-of-mountaineering-from-personal-exploration-to-a-commercial-guided-tour-industry/
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