June 6, 2019
The man who’s climbed Everest 24 times says traffic jams aren’t killing climbers, inexperienced guides are.
There is much that Kami Rita Sherpa wants to get off his mind. At first, he is soft-spoken, a low talker, but minutes into the conversation, he seizes upon something that has irked him throughout this Everest season—the ‘traffic jam’—and he becomes visibly upset, angry even.
“There has been a traffic jam on Everest for the last 12 years,” he says, his weather-beaten face dark. “This is nothing new, it’s normal.”
“Cheap expeditions,” says Kami Rita. “If you’re paying $20,000 to $30,000 to climb Everest, the permit alone costs $11,000. Then you have to pay the Sherpas, the guides and for oxygen bottles. So what kind of quality are these expeditions providing?”
For Kami Rita, still lean and muscular at 49, this is clearly a sore spot. He cannot fathom how climbers are willing to spend $11,000 on a permit but unwilling to spend more on a quality expedition company with experienced guides—all to make sure they come back alive.
“I took 26 people up the first time around and around 13 people the second time,” says Kami Rita, who, in a superhuman feat, climbed Everest twice in the same week in May. “We didn’t lose anyone. This wasn’t just because of me but because of our team of experienced guides.”
Kami Rita draws a fitting analogy, comparing high-end climbing companies to a fancy hotel and cheap companies to a local bhatti—a roadside eatery. Chosen carelessly, drinking and eating at a bad bhatti might end up killing you, or at least make you very sick. Kami Rita recounts an incident from just a few weeks ago when he noticed that an inexperienced guide had forgotten to turn his client’s oxygen on, so he had to do it himself.
“A traffic jam doesn’t kill people,” he says. “But inexperienced guides from cheap companies can’t help you if something goes wrong.”
There is so much that can go wrong on Everest, especially above 8,000 metres, in what is ominously called the ‘death zone’. There’s the treacherous landscape, capricious weather, altitude sickness, exhaustion, and even psychosis. Climbers can turn stubborn and uncooperative, insisting on climbing even when they are likely to not make it, says Kami Rita. At times like these, Sherpa guides are well within their rights to scold, harangue, yell and berate their clients—and in case the clients are especially obstinate, even slap them.
“We ask them [clients] to sign a document at Base Camp, agreeing that they will not sue us if we yell at them or slap them,” says Kami Rita. “At high altitudes, we can’t afford to spend a lot of time dealing with stubborn clients.”
Some climbers even bring pre-existing conditions with them to the mountain. Climbers are supposed to provide medical certificates but there is no mechanism to check whether these are authentic or if high altitudes might exacerbate existing conditions. A health post operated by the Himalayan Rescue Association provides services at Base Camp but it is staffed by trainees and volunteers with little medical experience. “There are no doctors there,” says Kami Rita.
Just last week, the government floated a plan to set up a mandatory medical check-up at Base Camp before allowing climbers to push on.
Then, there’s the much-disputed Hillary Step. Even an experienced mountaineer like Kami Rita would take about 30 minutes to climb the nearly vertical rock face. For others, at least an hour or two to move up 12 metres. It is considered one of the toughest spots in the push for the summit. Or at least, it was.
“The Hillary Step doesn’t exist anymore and I can show you proof,” says Kami Rita, reaching into his pocket to whip out his phone. He displays a before and after set of photos, one with a large bare rock face and another without it. To a layperson, that could be any outcropping, but it wouldn’t be wise to dispute Everest topography with someone who has climbed the mountain 24 times, more than any other human. A government official tried once, it didn’t go so well for him.
“I told him to come meet me,” says Kami Rita. “We’ll go climb Everest together and then we can discuss whether the Hillary Step exists or not.”
Everest has many issues, but Kami Rita insists traffic is not one of them. It’s all a plot by foreign media to defame Nepal and its tourism industry, he says. For all the effort he’s expended climbing Everest, Kami Rita seems hamstrung by a conspiratorial belief in the ‘foreign hand’.
Following the 11 deaths on Everest—nine on the Nepali and two on the Chinese sides—a number of leading publications from around the world, including the Post, had called for drastic measures to prevent deaths on future expeditions, including limiting the number of permits and raising fees for climbers.
Certainly, the traffic could be managed better, but that’s up to the government and Kami Rita has a special distaste for the government. Despite setting a world record and making headlines around the world, he didn’t so much as receive felicitations from anyone in government, he says. Kami Rita believes that nothing will change on Everest because the government is callous and inept.
“Why did Tenzing Sherpa have to go to India?” he asks, referring to Tenzing Norgay, the first man on Everest alongside Edmund Hillary. “Because of the government. It didn’t do anything for him, so he left.”
And what did the government do for Ang Rita, the ‘Snow Leopard’ who climbed Everest ten times without supplementary oxygen? Ang Rita lives in Kathmandu but now in his 70s, suffers from dementia.
So, for Kami Rita, it makes little sense to raise the cost of Everest permits. The money will go to the government but little will get done. Individual government liaison officers are assigned to each team scaling Everest but they rarely even hang around Base Camp.
Everest is arguably Nepal’s biggest cash cow when it comes to tourism. Everest permits cost $11,000 for foreigners but most hopefuls end up spending an average of $50,000 on gear, room and board, and hiring guides and porters. Just this Spring season, Nepal made close to $4 million from permits alone, according to the Department of Tourism.
“Around the world, Nepal is known by two words—Everest and Sherpa,” says Kami Rita. “But the country has done nothing for either.”
And it is precisely this mistrust in the government that has led Kami Rita and many other Sherpas to discourage their children from following in their icy footsteps. Kami Rita’s son, who’s currently studying tourism for his Bachelor’s degree, will not be allowed near his father’s profession.
And it is the same with the 200 to 300 other experienced Sherpas who now consider themselves the last generation, says Kami Rita.
“In 15 to 20 years, there will be no more Sherpas left to climb Everest,” he says. “Then what will the government do?”