Climbing Everest Isn’t a Bucket List Dream—It’s a Crisis of Overtourism

Artwork by Marylu E. Herrera (Photo credit: Getty Images and Unsplash)

For far too long, the outdoors have been unsafe for people from underrepresented communities, a space where women face harassment while hiking, where people of color encounter racism while road-tripping, where disabled people are gawked at as they merely try to enjoy the pleasures of nature. But we all have the right to immerse ourselves in the outdoors, and the industry is shifting to accommodate people who want to enjoy the vast, open spaces from which they’ve long been tacitly excluded.

“The New Outdoors” is a weeklong series about adventurers from underrepresented communities who are grabbing their compasses, ice axes, dog sleds, and Instagram-ready vans and staking a rightful claim to the freedom of the outdoors.

Every year between April and May, roughly 800 climbers attempt to summit Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak. It’s an exercise often considered a metaphor for overcoming the largest of life’s obstacles, but 2019’s climbing season gave the hopeful more than they bargained for. In May 2019, images of a ridiculously long line of climbers snaking up the mountain’s spine as they waited to reach the top went viral, and 11 lives were lost as the traffic-jam conditions exacerbated Everest’s already extreme challenges. In the resulting media frenzy, the Nepali government and its Ministry of Tourism were singled out as being responsible for the deaths, as they afforded a record number of permits to climbers—and offered these passes without restrictions, which may have allowed for more inexperienced climbers and guides than in previous years.

But to more critical onlookers, those images of the congestion are a small piece of the bigger picture, one that illustrates Everest’s history as a site of Western conquest. Overtourism on this sacred mountain can’t be addressed in a vacuum: It is inextricable from Nepal’s current climate crisis, from the exploitation of the Indigenous Sherpas of Himalayan mountain communities, and from the man-vs.-nature complex that has long captivated white adventurers. Mass tourism on Mount Everest is unsustainable in every way, and simply tightening a limit on permits isn’t going to solve the problem. It’s bigger than that.

“For most, to climb the high peaks of the Himalayas is to reach for a kind of remoteness, where sublimity may be experienced,” Ipsita Chakravarty wrote in Quartz earlier this year, “yet the numerous adventure tourism companies of the Everest industry still sell the same dream of remoteness, even if remoteness is gone.” With colonialism and cis-masculinist militarism at the historical roots of the drive to “conquer” Everest, and the accelerated commercialization of the venture that began in the late 20th century—both of which have fed into today’s climate crisis—tragedies like this past season’s were inevitable. In a June 2019 op-ed in the South China Morning Post, Dinesh Paudel and Gregory Reck surmised that, “The adventure tourism industry is infused with the conquest mentality. While this industry argues that these adventures, including climbing Everest, bring one closer to nature, the opposite is true.”

Mountain climbing’s history in the West has been infused with a sense of spirituality and connection. Over time, however, a certain desecration of the practice has taken place, one that reinforces an individual’s sense of exceptionalism. “Mountains as sites of struggle, renunciation, and death were increasingly a feature of German culture towards the end of the 19th and early 20th century,” The Conversation stated last year. This comes across clearly in the notes of the German mountaineer who led an expedition to another Himalayan mountain, Kanchenjunga, in 1929: Paul Bauer referred to climbers as “soldiers;” “to climb” became “to march.” The term “ascend” was replaced with “assault” and “attack,” and “teams” were described as “convoys.” This militaristic language and colonialist attitude still suffuse mountaineering and adventure culture today.

The labor of Sherpas—a term that has become synonymous with porters native to the surrounding mountain communities of Tibet and Nepal—is regularly erased in mainstream media, as are the outright attacks on them perpetrated by white male climbers. “All too often,” The Conversation noted, “Western mountaineers ignored and belittled the Indigenous religious practices of the expeditionary labor force on whom they relied.” In their crusades to tick off this Himalayan holy site as another exploit on their bucket lists, this aspect of collective struggle took a backseat to one of individual glory—at the expense of their own lives.

You might have read that May 2019 was the “deadliest season on Everest,” but that designation is actually shared by 2014’s season—when an avalanche killed 16 Nepalis, 13 of them Sherpas—and 2015’s, when a catastrophic earthquake shook Nepal, taking 24 lives at Everest Base Camp. Media outlets might justify this wording because these fatalities were due to avalanches, but it conveniently shrugs off Sherpa deaths in favor of centering those of tourists. As National Geographic contributing editor Chip Brown wrote in 2014, “Sincere condolences are offered. Inadequate insurance payments are made. Chortens are built, plaques affixed, pictures posted on blogs. And then all parties turn back to the mighty Everest cash machine and the booming business of catering to thousands of foreigners paying small fortunes to stand on the top of the world.”

But however much the mountain has been commercialized, it has long held reverence for the communities surrounding it, and locals who lead tours and work as porters there today tend to offer a prayer before climbs. “In every mountain, there is a goddess. It’s our responsibility to keep the goddess happy,” Kami Rita, a Sherpa mountaineer and Everest guide, told the Washington Post. “Months before I start an ascent I start worshiping and ask for forgiveness because I will have to put my feet on her body.” Sherpas and other Himalayan ethnic groups revered the mountain they call Chomolungma (the Tibetan name for “Goddess Mother of the Land”) for centuries until a successor of Colonel Sir George Everest, a surveyor of British-occupied India, decided to name it in his supposed honor in 1865. These communities respected the mountain by leaving it be; they only began climbing it because of the Western mountaineers who, beginning in the early 1900s, increasingly sought to scale the peak and created a demand for guides. Before then, the Tibetan word for “summit” didn’t exist.

“From the mid-19th century, the Himalayas were part of the Great Game, a race for territory and control between the imperial powers of Britain and Russia,” Chakravarty wrote in the aforementioned Quartz article. “In the vast, uncharted expanses of the Himalayas, to map and measure was to claim.” Nazi-aligned Germans weren’t far behind; they attempted to wield the science of cartography as a tool of colonialism in the Himalayas, as well as to dispute Einstein’s theory of relativity and “Jewish science” in general with their own made-up “Cosmic Ice Theory.” This politicizing of the world’s peak in the revisionist imaginary of white supremacists paved the way for the notion that natural wonders could be capitalized upon and serve an agenda beyond pure adventure.

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The Nepali government used to issue one permit per route until the 1980s when a billionaire oil magnate reached the top and “ushered in a new era of commercialization” that promoted “the idea that anyone could climb Everest for a fee,” according to Quartz. This shift was most notably brought to mass attention in 1996 when “the pursuit of publicity,” as worded by Base Camp Magazine, referring to the social capital that some inexperienced climbers sought out by reaching the summit, led to overcrowded conditions and the eventual deaths of eight climbers who got caught in a storm. Though the cost of climbing permits recently dropped from $50,000 to $11,000, those, when added to the cost of travel, gear, and Sherpa porters and guides, brings $300 million dollars to Nepal each year.

While Western, usually white, climbing guides make anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 managing expeditions, Sherpas make about $1,700 a month during the three-month season. Low wages for locals are usually justified because the per capita income in Nepal is less than $800 a year, so the ideal that it’s better than nothing is a convenient enough excuse for foreign, white-owned climbing companies. Everest, after all, is the biggest business in the area, and local laborers have become financially dependant on foreign tourists to sustain their families and communities. “Sherpa culture has arguably been more influenced by the Western passion for mountaineering than by any other single force,” argued Brown in his National Geographic piece, and theirs are among the most dangerous jobs on Earth.

A 2013 report by Outside Magazine found that working on Mount Everest’s Base Camp in Nepal as a Sherpa porter or guide is 10 times more dangerous than being a commercial fisher—the most dangerous non-military occupation, as designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Protection—and far more dangerous than being a U.S. soldier during the four-year occupation of Iraq. Sherpas also make up 40 percent of those who have died on the mountain in the last century. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology found that, on average, Sherpas weigh between 100 and 140 pounds and carry gear that totals 90 percent of their body weight. A quarter of them carry 125 percent of their weight, and the heaviest loads total twice as much as a porter’s weight. Moreover, “Sherpas have been yelled at, kicked, and punched in the face by climbers employing them,” National Geographic reported, with one recounting a murder attempt by a climber wielding a pickaxe, the struggle causing both of them to slide down the mountain. When the Sherpa guide made it back to base camp and reported the attack, no one believed him.

Paudel and Reck’s op-ed in the South China Morning Post argued that Sherpa participation in the Everest industry is a reluctant one, “the same sort of colonial seduction that has trapped marginalised Indigenous communities around the world into positions of servitude in relation to those who control powerful political and economic forces.” After the deadly 2014 avalanche, Sherpas threatened the Nepalese government with a general strike if their 13 demands for better working conditions weren’t met; some of these were negotiated (like increasing the value of medical and life insurance policies) until the strike was called off. Sherpas who are permanently disabled due to working on Everest still receive no compensation, making the priorities of those empowered by the Everest industry clear. “Exploited for their material resources, these Indigenous traditional sites”—like Peru’s Machu Picchu and Australia’s Uluru—“have all become spaces for capital accumulation,” Paudel and Reck concluded.

How much more life, both human and environmental, must be sacrificed to satiate the Western adventurer’s unending thirst to check another box on a bucket list?

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Then there are the direct environmental consequences of overtourism on Everest: “It’s been good for the Sherpas… but it’s bad for the gods,” Kanchha Sherpa, the last surviving member of the first expedition to successfully summit Everest, told National Geographic in May of 2019. “When I was a boy, there were many feet of snow in winter. Now, the summits are black. That’s not good.” The dark color is the result of pollution being trapped within and pulled down by snow. “Overall, the past 10 years have seen a lot of changes in the mountains,” scientist and professor at Western Washington University John All told the Associated Press earlier this year, going on to add that all pose long-term environmental threats. One of these is the Khumbu Icefall, a notoriously dangerous pass on the mountain that factored into the 2014 tragedy, which continues to loosen at an alarming rate due to climate change.

Since Himalayan glaciers, one of the world’s most vital water resources, regulate the climate, their melting causes a positive feedback loop which accelerates rising temperatures even more: Between 1977 and 2010, the total glacial area in Nepal decreased by 24 percent, according to the 2014 report “Glacial Status in Nepal.” At least one-third of Himalayan glaciers are projected to melt by the year 2100—and that’s if radical climate intervention happens now; the figure rises to two-thirds if no action is taken, the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment concluded. Billions of people in these mountain communities and beyond, most of whom live on or below the poverty line of $1.20 a day, depend on the Himalayas’ more than 14 river systems for survival. While glacier melt creates more freshwater for them now, their overall depletion points to a disastrous water shortage in the future. This is the climate crisis you haven’t heard of,” said the scientist who led the assessment.

Ice and snow melt on Everest itself, meanwhile, is exposing and decomposing the many bodies of climbers who perished attempting to summit its peak, along with tons of waste and excrement. In June 2019, the Times of India reported that 24,200 pounds of garbage were pulled off the mountain after this year’s overcrowded season. The average tourist is estimated to leave 17 pounds of waste behind, prompting Business Insider to label Everest “the world’s highest garbage dump.” In the current news cycle, adventure and outdoors media has preoccupied itself with whining over the mere inconvenience of overtourism on Everest, as if they themselves are not its very cause, while the greater question of unsustainability remains unanswered: How much more life, both human and environmental, must be sacrificed to satiate the Western adventurer’s unending thirst to check another box on a bucket list? The culture of tourism manifests this entitlement as an unstoppable force that commodifies and consumes what it is attracted to until it no longer resembles what it was or, finally, ceases to exist. Like a gluttonous Ouroboros, it begins and ends its own life cycle, one in which unwilling victims are held hostage in the pursuit to conquer what is ultimately unconquerable.

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by Bani Amor
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Bani Amor is a gender/queer travel writer who explores the relationships between race, place, and power. Their work has appeared in CNN Travel, Fodor’s, AFAR, and Teen Vogue, and in Outside the XY: Queer Black and Brown Masculinity, and the upcoming Where We Stand: Brown and Black Voices Speak the Earth. Follow them on Twitter @bani_amor and on Instagram at @baniamor