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Behind Everest Deaths: Fatal Attraction or Commercial Activity?

Is commercialisation of expeditions to Everest to be blamed for recent deaths of climbers, Payal Mohanka’s report.

Updated
India
5 min read
Is commercialisation of expeditions to Mount Everest to be blamed for the recent deaths of climbers? (Photo: Rhythum Seth/ <b>The Quint</b>)

Bereaved families of those who died in their struggle to scale Mount Everest struggle to find a sense of closure. Their questions remain unanswered as mountaineering agencies accuse climbers of not following the rules and obeying sherpas.

Behind the bitter blame game is a tragic tale of passion and irreplaceable loss.

Also Read: Death of Indian Climber Takes Everest Toll to 6 in the Last Month

Lure of the Himalayas

Mourning the loss of their loved ones, families grapple to come to terms with the harsh reality that the lure of the Himalayas and an all-consuming passion for this adventure has ended in tragedy.

On 2 June, the bodies of two mountaineers who were among the four who died in May 2016 were brought back to Kolkata with the help of the West Bengal  government.

When you are trying to scale the highest peak in the world, it is risky business. The families requested us to help. While two bodies were brought back last year, inclement weather delayed rescue operations and the remaining two bodies only made it back now.
SA Baba, Principal Secretary, Sports and Youth Department, West Bengal.


West Bengal Sports Minister Aroop Biswas receives the coffins of Paresh Chandra Nath and Gautam Ghosh who died on Everest last year, Kolkata airport, 1 June, 2017. (Photo: IANS)
West Bengal Sports Minister Aroop Biswas receives the coffins of Paresh Chandra Nath and Gautam Ghosh who died on Everest last year, Kolkata airport, 1 June, 2017. (Photo: IANS)
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Who’s to be Blamed?

Last  year, 455 climbers from across the world attempted to scale Mount Everest, while 126 were successful in the six-week long expedition.

Ranjit Guha, a close family friend of one of the victim’s, Paresh Nath, 58, is visibly upset about media reports which doubt the mountaineering skills of the deceased, “Paresh had completed 30 expeditions. He was very qualified and physically fit.”

Each peak is different in character. Each poses a different challenge and whets your appetite for more. This is a hazardous sport.  Even an experienced army General can die in a war. This is a battle with nature. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
Ranjit Guha, Paresh Nath’s family friend
A signboard indicating way to Everest base camp. (Photo: iStock)
A signboard indicating way to Everest base camp. (Photo: iStock)

The other victim, 51-year-old Gautam Ghosh, too was an accomplished mountaineer with 31 years of experience. His elder brother Debashish Ghosh says, “Our family is not being able to come to terms with this loss.”

We want the Indian government to take this up with the Nepal government. We suspect that the mountaineering agency was negligent and did not provide sufficient oxygen. We want answers.
Debashish Ghosh, Gautam Ghosh’s elder brother

Was it a shortage of oxygen bottles? Agencies say that the maximum they provide is five to six bottles of oxygen per person. This works for 24 hours.

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Measures by WB Govt

Following these deaths, the state government has introduced strict rules.

From 2017 onwards, those attempting to climb 8,000 metres and above, must have climbed at least four peaks of 6,000 metres and above in the last 5 years.

“This would mean that you are almost doing an expedition a year so you are obviously physically fit,” explains Debdas Nandy, Advisor, Mountaineering, Directorate of Youth Services and Sports, West Bengal.

Also, now applicants cannot be more than 50 years old. They should have helicopter rescue insurance and personal insurance as well.

The state government, which organises expeditions each year, has been promoting adventure sports. Those who are selected by the government's special committee  for the 8,000 metres climb are given a grant of Rs 5 lakh and have to raise the remaining 15 lakh themselves.

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Climbers climbing the ice wall to the top of Island Peak (Imja Tse) summit (6189m) in the  Everest region, Nepal. (Photo: iStock)
Climbers climbing the ice wall to the top of Island Peak (Imja Tse) summit (6189m) in the Everest region, Nepal. (Photo: iStock)

Commercialisation of Expeditions

Those mountaineering enthusiasts who apply directly, have to get in touch with one of the hundred mountaineering agencies based in Kathmandu.

They charge Indians close to Rs 20 lakh, while foreigners pay twice the amount. These agencies take care of the paperwork and the permits required from the Nepal government, as well as other logistics –– guides, sherpas, equipment, food, and tents.

Is commercialisation of expeditions to be blamed for the tragedies?

It is not fair to blame the agencies. There are lots of aircraft in the world. If one crashes do you blame all of them. Here, mountaineers are pitted against nature. Candidates can be fit and strong yet mountainous terrain and unpredictable harsh weather can take its toll.
Mingma Sherpa, Managing Director of Seven Summit Treks, Kathmandu

Mountaineering agencies ensure applicants have moved from smaller peaks to the higher ones.

We watch their progress closely. If they are slow we advise them against it. We reject close to 40 percent of the applicants, while more than a 100 from my company go to the Everest each year. When people follow our rules, they are safe. If they don’t accept our rules, then they die.
Mingma Sherpa, Managing Director of Seven Summit Treks, Kathmandu
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Tents put up by climbers for temporary stay at the  mountain Everest base camp. (Photo: iStock)
Tents put up by climbers for temporary stay at the mountain Everest base camp. (Photo: iStock)

Concerns Related to Environment

An obsessive fascination draws hundreds to this sport. Veteran mountaineers fear the impact of ‘overcrowding’.

Eighty-six-year-old, New Delhi-based Captain MS Kohli, led India’s first successful expedition to Mount Everest in 1965 and has written 26 books on mountaineering. He was pivotal in popularising treks in the Himalayas in 1971.

Trekkers  from across the world rushed to India, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, China, and Pakistan. The economy received a boost.

Twenty years later, Kohli realised that unlimited trekking in the Himalayas was causing pollution. But by then tour operators were in business and commercialisation of expeditions had begun.

Noted mountaineer Edmund Hillary (who was the first to reach Mount Everest together with Tenzing Norgay) and Kohli set up the Himalayan Environment Trust. They requested the Nepal government to ration expeditions going to the Everest.

Unfortunately, today there is no limit on the number of climbers attempting to scale the Everest. The carrying capacity of the mountains and overloading are issues of concern.  In our times, when we used to go to the Everest there was nobody a year before and after. Today, there is a queue to climb the summit. There are times mountaineers have to wait for 45 minutes to get to the top.
Captain MS Kohli, co-founder, Himalayan Environment Trust

Unbridled passion and the mystique of the mountains spurs a climber on, but the mantra of a good mountaineer could save lives, “Jitna peechey aa sakte ho, Utna hi aagey chalo.”  (Don’t be reckless, go only as far as you can successfully return).

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(The writer is a Kolkata-based senior journalist.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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