THE BLOG

Taking a Breather on Mt. Everest

08/05/2014 17:47 BST | Updated 08/07/2014 10:59 BST

The reverberations from the recent tragic avalanche on Mt. Everest continue to be felt. As the Nepalese Sherpa community buries its dead, renewed attention has been brought to Everest's unique prominence as the ultimate status symbol in luxury adventure travel, and the negative effects it can have on those who support this lucrative industry.

The details regarding Everest's rapid commercialisation have been well-documented. While summit-seekers can make the trek from either Nepal or Tibet, most begin in Nepal, whose government is more welcoming to outsiders and tourist dollars than the sensitive Chinese. In 2014, the Nepalese government granted more than 300 permits to the largely affluent Western crowd seeking alpine glory, at a cost of $10,000 each. These numbers will be supplemented by 400 guides, all of whom will try to access the summit during the small window of time in which weather conditions are favourable each year, leading to a veritable traffic jam on top of the world.

Much criticism has been lodged against the adventure tourism trade, which charges would-be mountaineers upwards of $50,000 to deal with the logistics of each trip, and whose clients have turned Everest Base Camp into a gigantic trash heap, with an estimated 50 tons of rubbish left behind each season. Yet, these expeditions help pump $370 million per year into Nepal's economy, in a country where the average annual income is under $600. Moreover, the Sherpas work willingly--there are no claims these highly trained professionals with specialised skills are forced to climb the world's tallest mountain under duress. Thus, pleas for the industry to be somehow reined in are likely to fall on deaf ears.

However, reforms are possible--and should be very strongly encouraged. The Sherpa guides are refusing to work until the government meets their demands for better working conditions, including improved health care, the provision of disability payments and increased death benefits. This should be the bare minimum of what they are willing to accept in labour negotiations. These people risk their lives for the benefit of other people's egos--a human life should be valued more highly than the $15,000 it costs to be evacuated by helicopter in the case of an emergency.

But there is much more that can be achieved in the way of reform, and it often takes a tragedy of the scope recently suffered on Everest to set all the moving parts into action. This was true of the New York City Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, which helped spawn the modern movement for labour unions. It was equally true for the collapse of Bangladesh's Rana Plaza building just one year ago, bringing much needed scrutiny to the contemporary garment industry. Everyone involved in the Everest experience--be it climbers, tour guides, merchants, travel agencies, or government regulators needs to think deeply about the appropriate way to bring equity and equilibrium to what has become a very overheated enterprise.

Additional concrete steps can be taken as well, and the type of people who have tens of thousands of dollars in disposable income and months of leisure time to make the trek may be particularly well-placed to do so, should they be so inclined. For example, Western climbers can urge the tour companies they employ to sign up to initiatives like the United Nations' Global Compact, in which businesses commit to aligning their operations with universally accepted norms in the areas of human rights, labour laws, environmental protection and anti-corruption initiatives. The interpretation of such norms can easily be modified for relevant application to something as specialised as mountain climbing, and the annual reports required by the Compact could help shed light on what destructive impact the Everest-industrial complex is having on the mountain and its Nepalese neighbours.

As the world grows richer and ever-more interconnected, the days of Mt. Everest's splendid isolation are long past, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Tourism can bring much needed capital to impoverished nations, providing opportunities for material advancement that may not otherwise materialise. But unbridled development is rarely a net positive for the world's most vulnerable--be it Sherpa communities or the environment. It's time to oause and catch our breath.