For as long as I can remember, I’ve had the spirit of adventure burning in me – whether that be the desire to dive coral reefs, wander slowly around ancient ruins or lose myself among the wilderness. I have a deep respect for this planet, so adventure is sometimes a conundrum for me – how do you visit places without damaging them or putting them at risk? How do you really leave only footprints, take only photographs?
Carbon footprints, destruction of animal and plant-life, exploitation of local people and cultures… all of these things are real concerns for me when travelling.
Lately Mr K and I have been taken with the idea of trekking to Everest Basecamp. The subject of much news coverage in recent years, there has been a real, important discussion about the ethics (and safety) of climbing Everest and I wonder whether it’s even possible to tackle this peak (entirely, or to basecamp) in a responsible, respectful way. If you need to frame the issue, the 2015 documentary Sherpa (Jennifer Peedom) is very insightful.
The Sherpa community are crucial support lines for anyone climbing Everest – they have the skill and experience (and the acclimatisation) to deal with sticky situations at tricky altitudes. This expertise is sometimes used for setting up camp and sometimes for hauling non-essential luggage and luxuries for the tired mountaineers. You might say they are responsible for the survival of visitors, which to me indicates they should be treated with utmost respect (and paid accordingly). There’s no denying that a Sherpa’s income is, in comparison with the local average, life-changing. But so is the risk. Nobody should have to face death for the sake of carrying someone’s television up a mountain.
Aside from being used as a glorified donkey, Sherpa are also entrusted with leading groups of climbers to the summit of Everest – and often nipping back-and-forth from camp to camp, fetching Oxygen and assisting poorly mountaineers. All the while putting themselves at immense risk, spending much time away from their families.
The Nepalese government have vowed in past years to tighten up restrictions on climbers with insufficient physical skill or experience to safely scale Everest – and rightly so – however a popular Western attitude that Money = Ability means that many aspiring climbers can prove they’ve tackled some other monstrous peaks, thus gaining access to Everest. It doesn’t mean they didn’t get excessive physical support at those times though. Climbing Kilimanjaro is not to be compared with climbing K2. Although it’s a step in the right direction, it still somehow seems irresponsible to expect a Sherpa to risk their lives for a potentially incapable, unprepared climber.
My solution? If you’re not fit enough to carry your own kit & oxygen… you’re not fit enough to climb Everest. Or walk to Basecamp.
If you’re not honest or responsible enough to acknowledge that you’re suffering altitude sickness, or any other conditions (like toothache, or a cough), you’re not ready to tackle the climb.
On the flipside, for experienced and genuinely capable climbers, the Sherpa community benefits greatly from the tourism factor of Everest – where respectfully conducted. Where the other main income sources are tourist tea-houses and farming, being a mountain guide is an attractive prospect in Nepal. The guides earn good money, and the streams of tourists coming in to view the mountain or enjoy less physical treks in the lower Himalayas spend welcome money in the community.
But, as we all know, with tourism comes trash – and Westerners often forget that to the locals, Everest is a sacred place. Reports in past years have shown huge amounts of rubbish and human waste left at Everest camps, forcing the Indian army to execute a cleanup mission. How terribly disrespectful to litter in a place of worship – imagine the outrage – food packets, water bottles and faeces left in a Church, or at Lourdes. Diabolical!
Much of the time, you’re partly reliant on tour operators to be up-front and honest about their approach to employee wellbeing and their clean-up policy… and basically their overall goodness and dedication to preserving the integrity of such a beautiful place.
Recently I spoke with a Nepali “ex-Sherpa” and Himalayan Mountain Rescue team member who had spent several years on Everest, he spoke positively about the impact of responsible and respectful tourists on Everest. He was of the opinion that there are some Nepali trek operators who plan ethical, local-friendly trips in the area – and the key is to book locally, through a guide who will be taking you (or at least through a company who can tell you the name of your dedicated guide). Tip well, mentally prepare as you physically prepare, do your share of the slog, and be honest about your condition and ability.
My conclusion? I’m inclined to believe what the locals tell me, and hope they say what they think.
I don’t see throwing money at a feat as a true accomplishment – did you really climb Everest if you were carried there? If you’re clued up, physically able and genuinely have a lust to visit, then you can do the trip successfully without harming anyone. If you look for shortcuts (be it money, time or effort driven) someone/something is going to get hurt.
I suppose in an entirely different way, I will find out the coming months as we plan our own ethically-driven trip to Nepal.
Stay tuned for that, and please share any opinions, insights or experience on this type of trip – everything helps!