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THE BROAD VIEW

Everest deaths and overcrowding spark anger over commercialisation

Climbers, expedition leaders and government officials seek to apportion blame

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A long line of parka-clad climbers inching up the final ridge. "That's not what mountaineering is supposed to be, that's not what being an alpinist is all about and that is certainly not what Everest is," says Alan Arnette, who has attempted Everest five times and reached the summit twice.

AT LEAST 11 deaths and hours-long queues on the approach to the summit of the world's highest peak have provoked an intense debate about greed and governance in the multimillion-dollar business of Everest ascents.

Photographs shared around the globe this week showed a long line of parka-clad climbers inching up the final ridge to the mountain's 8,848m peak. In May, the month seen as having the best conditions to attempt the summit, an estimated record 810 people reached the top, 619 climbing from the base camp in Nepal.

As one of the least technically demanding but highest of the world's 14 mountains over 8,000m, queues on Everest's summit ridge have not been uncommon in the past decade as mountaineering has become more popular and more commercial. But this year's scenes, with some climbers queueing for more than three hours for their chance of a summit photo and climbers dying as a result of the delays, were the worst yet, according to veteran mountaineers.

"When I saw that picture, it was a kick in the gut," Alan Arnette, who has attempted Everest five times and reached the summit twice, told The Financial Times. "That's not what mountaineering is supposed to be, that's not what being an alpinist is all about and that is certainly not what Everest is."

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The deaths, which appear to have disproportionately affected those climbing with new operators in Nepal, have sparked recriminations as climbers, expedition leaders and government officials seek to apportion blame.

The number of climbers attempting the mountain has exploded in the past 10 years, as operators have multiplied and costs have come down. Before this, there were only a few predominantly western-run guiding companies.

While UK-based Jagged Globe continues to charge upwards of £45,490 (S$79,150) per person for an Everest expedition, new, mainly Nepalese companies have sought to undercut the market in the past five years, charging as little as US$25,000 in order to take dozens of clients to the top at a time. 

Critics say such operators are less qualified and that in the hunt for clients they have become less scrupulous in screening the competence of climbers - many of whom this year came from China and India's rising middle class. Some operators have clients who only learn how to use their equipment at the foot of the mountain, said Lukas Furtenbach, an experienced expedition leader. "They're learning how to put on crampons in base camp," he said. 

An Austrian mountaineer and entrepreneur, Mr Furtenbach said he moved his guiding business, Furtenbach Adventures, to the Chinese side of the mountain in 2017 to escape overcrowding and inexperienced climbers on the more popular Nepalese route.

Krishma Poudel, of experienced Kathmandu-based Peak Promotion, dismissed criticism of Nepalese operators but said more regulation was clearly required. 

New and reformed rules, guidelines from the government needed

Of nine Peak Promotion clients on Everest this month, six reached the summit but one, Nihal Bagwan from India, died from altitude sickness and exhaustion after being delayed during the busiest day, said Ms Poudel. 

"In a situation like this everyone wants to blame someone, something or some situation. However, if we look at the bigger picture, what Everest needs is new and reformed rules and guidelines from the government that will act as the basis of quality control," she said. 

Currently, almost anyone can climb Everest. A permit costs US$11,000 per person and the Nepalese government has no limit on how many it issues and does not require applicants to demonstrate any mountaineering experience. 

"Nobody would ever put you in a Formula One car and let you go around the track but they'll give you a permit to try and climb to the top of the highest mountain in the world," said Mr Arnette. 

The scrutiny has led to some Nepalese officials saying that management of the mountain needs to be reviewed, while others have blamed the overcrowding on weather patterns, which meant hundreds of climbers sought to reach the summit on the same day.

But industry veterans doubt anything will change. In addition to revenue from permits, the downstream economic impact on hotels, airlines, restaurants, hotels, porters and guides is worth an estimated US$20 million to US$30 million to the Nepalese economy every year in April and May alone. 

The pictures of a human traffic jam at one of the least accessible places on earth could push more climbers to the Chinese side of the mountain but there will be others to replace them, said Mr Furtenbach. 

"The public pressure and the pressure from the climbing community need to be much greater for any change to happen," he said. "Every piece of bad news on Everest just sees demand grow for next season." FT