The Alpine Club (AC) has released a statement written in collaboration with the BMC, the UIAA and the mountain guiding body, the IFMGA on proposed changes to mountaineering regulations in Nepal. Following a spate of deaths on Everest in 2019 and sensationalised mainstream media reports, the AC responded by highlighting the key issues and putting forward suggestions for better regulation of the country's mountain tourism industry, with input from professional organisations, mountaineers and local community members in Nepal.
The statement includes practical measures for improving worker's rights and guiding standards, and outlines the organisations' stance on issues related to freedom of access, liaison officers, helicopter fraud, sustainable tourism and general mountain safety and best practice. The proposals were approved at the UIAA General Assembly on Nov 2, 2019. The statement reads:
'All these organisations wish to encourage best practice not just on Everest, but across the Nepal Himalaya as well. We also support the principles of mountain conservation outlined in the Kathmandu Declaration of 1982. We support any government or local authority effort that properly addresses problems caused by mountaineering, commercial or amateur.
'We welcome the Nepali government's decision to review how Everest is managed and the recent decision to ban single-use plastic from Khumbu, the Sherpa homeland south of Everest, which Sherpas and Tibetans hold sacred. With new roads getting closer to the Everest region, we share local concern about the impact on the Everest environment of even greater numbers of tourists. We believe the people of Nepal want to protect their environment. However, because of the way Everest is being managed, the current number of clients attempting the peak isn't sustainable.'
The four groups believe that their proposals will 'improve the image of tourism in Nepal, protect the investment already made in Nepal's mountain tourist industry and benefit the wider Nepali economy and local communities.'
'Mountain management has been a hot topic this December. On International Mountain Day (Dec. 11) last week, the IOC announced the launch of a Mountain Protection Group, while the UIAA reported that alpinism has been identified as an Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) of Humanity by UNESCO due to its human and social value.
We sent John Porter (former Alpine Club President) and Ed Douglas (journalist and Editor of the Alpine Journal) some questions about the statement and its proposals.
How did work on this project originate between the four groups involved?
JP: This year, the AC were receiving more media requests than usual, asking for a statement and/or expert comments on the Everest goings on; the images of long queues and 11 fatalities by the end of the season. Not many in the general media understand that commercial trips on Everest are not alpinism. As I thought about how to respond, I realised the AC and the UK as a whole had a historical duty of care for Himalayan mountaineering, especially for Nepal and Chomolungma. Remember the long history of the Great Game, the formation of the RGS in 1830, the AC in 1857 and the ascent of Everest in 1953. Ed and I discussed what to do. I wrote an initial paper to gain support for international research on mountain tourism best practice, but that would take time. We both agreed that a statement was needed now.
My initial paper on research and duty of care was circulated by Nick Colton to the BMC International Committee. People began to phone me up with suggestions. In the meantime, Ed compiled a list of issues that needed to be addressed in Nepal. These were developed and refined in consultation with members of the UIAA mountain protection and training commissions, the wider climbing community and Nepali friends. The proposals in final draft went back to the BMC International Committee. From there, it went viral. The next thing we knew, a vocal group in the UIAA, with the full support of Chris Trommsdorff at the IMFGA, took it to a vote at the UIAA General Congress on 2 November where it was passed unanimously.
Some climbers and the mainstream press fail to view mountaineering as a form of tourism in the Himalaya and attempt to differentiate it as a leisure pursuit far removed from 'conventional' tourism. What are the implications of this and how will the proposals help?
JP: Do any climbers really believe commercial expeditions to Everest have anything to do with mountaineering? Let me turn that on its head a bit. As mountaineers many of us are complicit. We have written books, done talks, created mountain festivals, etc. Commercial trips are the product of nearly a hundred years of promoting 'adventure' and climbing as good healthy fun, which it is. But creating aspirations to do things without the skills and the understanding of the importance of taking responsibility for personal actions may not be healthy at all. When Everest becomes a bucket list objective for those who can afford it, the experience is demoted almost to the level of a package holiday to Bali. It is extremely dangerous to believe you can buy a ticket to the summit of the world's highest mountain. The mainstream press and many people confuse ambition with achievement and see numbers as important: i.e. Everest = number 1 + success on Everest = true mountaineer.
My experience in the high hazard industry tells me that mountain tourism needs to be regulated. Tourism is an important industry in Nepal; mountain tourism is at the high hazard end of that industry. It took a long time for the nuclear, off shore and construction industries to realise that you can't just keep on losing people without someone eventually being held responsible. While there are no guarantees that a quality certificate (ISO) will prevent accidents, it will go a long way to improving the safety of both the guides and the clients. And the smart agencies will realise that its achievement adds choice in the market. It is not just about getting the cheapest ticket.
How would you respond to criticism that the proposal is colonialist?
(ED) There's no question here of challenging the rights of anyone else to regulate what happens on Everest, whether that's local, federal or central government in Nepal or the authorities in Tibet. It's not our mountain. We're not telling anyone what to do. We're simply offering support, because we can draw on expertise, for the benefit of local workers and tourists who are often our members. That's it.
Ed, you commented on Twitter that on International Mountain Day, there was a lot of talk about the climate crisis but not as much about poverty and the lack of opportunity that local mountain people struggle with. How will this proposal work towards helping the local mountain communities?
(ED) Yes, it's easy to focus on the issue that's transfixing popular opinion here and ignore the complexities of that on people far away. Tourism has lifted large numbers of people out of poverty in the Himalaya. It's also stopped lots of them from flying to the Gulf or Malaysia to find work. Tourism underpins a lot of employment in Nepal, a country that has relied far too much on remittances for the continuing good health of its economy. Lots of people rely on a strong trekking and climbing sector for their income. It's important to get it right. Lives are at stake, often the lives of people without much power.
How will you ensure that the key concepts of freedom and self-reliance in the mountains remain intact as better regulation is introduced? Do you think guiding companies will be happy to embrace standardisation and stricter regulation?
(ED) It's not our job to ensure anything. That's up to regulating authorities. And this is in no shape or form a criticism of the guiding community. As mountaineers, we choose to be self-reliant, or at least strive towards that, but readily accept others want to hire expertise. That's fine. If a reasonably inexpensive process was introduced to benchmark the quality of trekking and climbing guiding services, then that can only be good for business in the long run. Then people are free to choose with confidence the way they want to do things.
This week an Everest permit system was announced by the Department of Tourism stating the requirements for next season: a certificate proving climbing experience, a medical certificate and mandatory insurance cover. Although it will likely prove unpopular with some climbers, is this a positive step in the eyes of your 'committee'?
(ED) There have been similar such announcements after more or less every Everest season for several years now. Many climbers, especially those not interested in 8,000ers, will be looking at Nepal and wondering why they should bother. They can go to the Karakoram or Alaska. The constant rule changes and confusion is wearisome. They would rather be left to make their own decisions about whether they're fit enough or sufficiently experienced. For those hiring guiding services, it's better to make the experts on the mountain responsible that their clients are up to it, rather than bureaucrats trying to second-guess a system they don't understand. Plus, this is not a committee. Each organisation has its own perspective, it's just that in this case our aims are shared.
Climate change threatens mountain communities in Nepal. The proposal mentions waste management in relation to sustainable tourism, but will there be any focus on climate issues such as flooding and water resource loss in the Nepal Himalaya?
(ED) It's absolutely correct that climate change is impacting the Himalaya in severe ways. But that problem isn't part of this document's remit, except in how it impacts the safety of high-altitude workers. That's not to say that the UIAA, BMC and AC don't take positions on climate change, because they do. Discussions are going on at the MEF and the AC on the possibility of adding environmental and cultural conditions to grants; more recommendations on good practice than onerous tick box requirements.
At the Alpine Club/Mountain Equipment Alpinism Session at Kendal Mountain Festival last month there was talk of how mountaineering can become more sustainable. Can you describe some of the ideas discussed?
(JP) It is true to say that mountaineering, especially in distant places, adds to CO2 emissions, although it's an almost irrelevant fraction of the total amount added by tourism as a whole. Most experts seem to have settled on 8% of emissions as coming from tourism. At Kendal, we talked about travelling overland or by ship and spending longer periods in base camps; a sort of 'slow' climbing approach, walking in further rather than taking jeeps or helicopters. The AC is working with the BMC on lower impact policies and good practice, so look out for that. The AC environment group is producing some travel advice which will go on the AC website in due course. Mike Thompson, part of the 1975 SW face of Everest team, an environmentalist as well as an anthropologist, made some calculations years ago that showed that 36 days in base camp left you with a positive carbon footprint compared to being at home.
Do you think a 'Piolet Vert' and 'Piolet Durable' will be introduced or perhaps replace the Piolet d'Or?
(JP) Interesting idea: attaching the tonnage of CO2 to the name/grade of the route. Clearly any adventure that can be undertaken entirely on foot/paddle/pedal power is worth noting. But the best of these will be the ones that no one hears about except through friends, the purest of all adventures. Once any award becomes a competition, then people start setting records that lead to yet more films and speaking engagements. Good intentions can turn sour.
The IOC announced the launch of a Mountain Protection Group last week (in which the UIAA and IFSC are involved). This is perhaps more surprising to climbers than it is to the snowsports community, who have been involved with the Olympics for much longer than Sport Climbing. At the Kendal event an audience member asked about the impact of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on alpinism and mountaineering, and a consensus was reached by the panel members that indoor Sport Climbing and alpinism/mountaineering are at entirely opposite ends of the spectrum, and that there will be little to no crossover. Do you agree, and do you think the UIAA/IFSC involvement is useful in some way?
(JP) To me, indoor wall climbing and competitions are amazing gymnastic sports while alpinism/mountaineering are more a way of life. Yet most top alpinists train on indoor walls. I did at Leeds Uni back in the 1960s and 1970s, and still do. It is the joy of moving upwards 'beyond yourself' that draws people climbing, as my friend Wojciech Kurtyka would say. Maybe that borders on mystical, but that is what elation is, some overcoming of the self. Regarding the IOC and the Mountain Protection Group, it is far too early to judge. Like all the climate change summits, statements have led to very little action on the ground. I have greater hope that in time our Nepal proposals will actually bring results working with the Nepali authorities. But it took two generations for agreed guiding standards in the Alps!