Mount Everest is the highest peak in the world, sitting at 29,029 feet, roughly 5.5 miles above sea level. Though the south side of Everest is located in Nepal, about 100 miles from Kathmandu, the north side of Everest lies within the Tibet Autonomous Region and is governed by China. Earlier this year, China finished construction on a paved road up to Everest’s north side base camp, bordering on a 14,000 foot elevation gain. This was the first step in a larger commercialization goal for the Chinese in Tibet. China has proposed commercializing the north side of Everest by 2019 in order to make the mountain more accessible, according to China Daily, China’s state-run English-language news site. With this move, China may further divide the Everest region, already struggling from political tensions and significant urbanization. China’s success in this venture will rest on the incorporation of approved standards of environmental, cultural and mountaineering practice.
Traditionally, Nepal has been the preferred route to Mt. Everest because of its political stability, slightly warmer climate, less severe elements and helicopter rescue capabilities, as well as government policies that offer access to the site. However, recent issues with overcrowding and growing litter on Everest’s south side has provided China with new opportunities to become more competitive in the mountaineering market, as pointed out by Tsechu Dolma, a Nepali and frequent contributor to GlacierHub. With this recent development, China hopes to bolster the local tourism and mountaineering industry in Tibet, which China claims would have positive impacts on local economies and accessibility. This includes plans for a 84,320 square meter mountaineering center in Gangkar worth $14.7 million (100 million yuan) that would contain hotels, restaurants, a mountaineering museum, a search-and-rescue base and other services.
“These jobs should and would go to locals,” Jamie McGuinness, owner of the small private trekking firm Project Himalaya, pointed out to GlacierHub, referring to the ethnic Tibetan population of the region. “With the approximate 5,000 meter altitude, other ethnic groups cannot handle living there. Initially, it could be that some of the locals would lose some business briefly; however, over time more income would be generated for everyone.”
Increasing search-and-rescue capabilities would also help to reduce risks notorious to the mountain. Summiting attempts cater to a very small portion of the population capable of extreme athleticism. Despite climbers’ skill, Everest attempts still pose a great risk to all involved; in the case of Nepal, the local Sherpas face higher risks due to increased exposure and the pressures associated with route preparation. Having an established mountaineering center could prove beneficial to tourists, and perhaps to guides as well, if the north side of Everest becomes the more preferred route for summiting attempts. Climbing risks can be reduced by having well-funded search-and-rescue teams. This might help reduce the risk of tragedies like the one in 2014 when an ice avalanche from the Khumbu glacier in Nepal claimed the lives of 16 Sherpas.
Having spent the last 25 years trekking through the Himalayas, McGuinness says, “Nepal is lucky that so many expeditions still climb from the obviously more dangerous icefall route, the price of which is roll-of-the-dice deaths. Climbing Everest from the north is significantly less dangerous, and the day of reckoning is coming within the next few years.” The switch needs to happen, McGuinness added, but whether Sherpas and guides climb from the north or from the south, they will still get paid.
As climates continue to change, increased temperatures experienced in Nepal could expand dangers posed to climbers and the Sherpa guides. The Khumbu Glacier regularly releases large, deadly ice chunks, which fall along climbing routes. The 2014 ice avalanche that killed the 16 Sherpas had a mass that was the size of a ten-story building. The Khumbu Glacier greatly increases the risks from summiting in Nepal, and these risks may only increase as climates continue to shift.
As McGuinness suggests, the dangers associated with climbing routes from the south side of Everest may start to become too great, causing a shift in preferred routes to summiting Everest. However, the north side is not without dangers, nor without glaciers. Tibet’s Mount Everest base camp currently sits below the terminal moraine (furthest point of advance of a glacier) of the Rongbuk Glacier. The Rongbuk Glacier is fed by two upper sections, the East Rongbuk Glacier and the West Rongbuk Glacier, which are also affected by climate change. According to McGuinness, these glaciers pose a lower risk for the mountaineers and guides attempting the ascent than the Khumbu Glacier. The establishment of a mountaineering center may make the climbing route more appealing to outside climbers, with increased technologies, improved capabilities to manage waste, and easier access to critical resources.
While the creation of a mountaineering center might certainly be beneficial to the mountaineering and tourism industry in the area, this commercialization would need to be considerate of the environment and culture it would be occupying. For Sherpas as for other indigenous communities of the region, the snow-capped peaks and glaciers of Everest are inextricably tied to deep-rooted religious beliefs. For example, before an ascent attempt from the north side, climbers pass Rongbuk Monastery, built in 1909 and currently the highest monastery in the world, home to 30 Buddhist monks and nuns. Largely reduced to rubble during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, this site has seen significant rebuilding and restoration in recent decades. Disrespecting the local culture of Tibet could negate the positive impacts China hopes to achieve in the region.
China’s ability to respect the values and needs of the Tibetan people would be a positive step to helping heal a complicated history between the two countries. Tensions between China and Tibet have remained high since the 1950s. Large commercial projects could further these animosities by threatening sacred sites that have helped define the local culture of Tibet for centuries. China has the opportunity to work with local communities in Tibet to not only help them build sustainable infrastructure, but also to help improve the lives of the mountain peoples who have otherwise been historically disregarded.
McGuinness comments, “The commercialization of Everest is as inevitable as urbanization. It is a question of managing it with sensitivity and balancing commercial interests against local and environmental interests.” As shown by a recent restriction which China placed on the travel of its citizens to Nepal, geopolitical interests are also likely to be at play.