The world's highest mountain is considered the ultimate challenge by mountaineers. Their expensive showdown with nature is an indispensible source of income for Nepal, one of the world's poorest countries.
When trekkers arrive at Mount Everest's south base camp in Nepal, everything is already prepared for them. Dozens of support staff from various expeditions have levelled the ground, set up tents and made sure there's internet access. Climbers don't carry most of their gear themselves. Yaks, the robust central Asian domesticated oxen, or human porters take over that job, as sherpa Temba Tsheri reports. He seems largely unimpressed when he talks about the logistics necessary to climb the 8848-meter-high mountain.
On May 23, 2001, at the age of 16, he became the youngest person to climb Everest. Now he heads an expedition agency, Sherpa Khangri Outdoor, one of about 25 Nepalese companies that guide tourists on their way up the world's highest mountain. They're competing increasingly with established companies from Europe and the US, because they want a bigger share of the Everest boom. But it's a risky and sometimes fatal business - people die on Everest almost every year. In late April Swiss extreme alpinist Ueli Steck lost his life in the region.
50,000 euros for five minutes at the top
Although every year only a fraction of tourists to Nepal really set off for Mount Everest, the mountain has developed into a significant source of income for Nepal and its inhabitants. At a price between 40,000 and 50,000 euros, an average ascent costs as much as a good new car. Climbers with big budgets can easily spend double that or more. And according to the ministry of tourism in the capital Kathmandu, there's plenty of room for upward expansion. "Everest is far and away the most popular route in the Himalayan mountains," says a spokesman. "We are trying to make more alternative summits available to tourists, but there's still room on Everest."
In saying that, he's contradicting the accounts of many mountaineers who complain of virtual gridlock just below the highest point on the planet on the few days when the weather allows an ascent to the summit.
This year Nepal has issued a record number of 375 tourist permits to climb Everest. Every single one of them costs 11,000 US dollars (ca. 9,800 euros). In this way the country took in more than four million dollars in April and May of this year alone. Added to that are hundreds of locals who are allowed to climb the mountain without a permit and are often there to earn money.
Ang Tshering Sherpa, head of Asian Trekking, one of the country's largest expedition companies, explains why there is so much money to be earned: "People who book the all-inclusive package also get domestic flights, equipment, food for extreme heights and oxygen supplies, and of course transport of climbing equipment, tents erected and a mountain guide."
Local businesses want a share in the earnings
In the total of six to eight weeks during which a climber deals with Everest on average, dozens of helpers make sure, directly and indirectly, that - if all goes well - the customer gets to stand on the summit for a few minutes. All season long, experienced mountaineers secure ropes and climbing aids at the difficult points on the mountain and make sure they hold. Porters carry equipment back and forth between the base camp and the four different high camps, so that customers can accustom themselves to the mountain air by making regular ascents and descents. They set up the tents and often deal with meals.
A local sherpa can earn up to the equivalent of 5000 euros per season by accompanying a climber to the summit or carrying loads almost to the top. Those who work nearer the base camp earn significantly less. Equipment and gear can also vary greatly in price - special jackets can cost several thousand euros. Added to that are tents, shoes, crampons and helmets. The oxygen that 19 of every 20 climbers need for the last 1000 meters to the top is very expensive. Together with a guide, a climber often needs ten or more bottles of it. Each one of them costs up to 500 euros.
If it were up to the Nepalese authorities, the crowds on Mount Everest would also increase in the future. Indirectly, tourism already brings a good 1.4 billion euros in revenues to Nepal - about 7.5 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP). In addition, more than 900,000 people, over six percent of the working population, earn a livelihood from tourism, directly or indirectly. In the coming ten years, both figures are expected to rise substantially.
Stefan Mauer/ms (dpa)