“During the 10 minutes I stood on the top I was acutely aware of the dangerous and serious place that I was in. No celebration was in order until I was safely back down.” Standing at the top of Mount Everest, the mountaineer Alan Hinkes was suitably awestruck by the extremity of his situation.
“I was aware for that brief moment that I was the highest person on the planet,” said the climber who has scaled the world’s tallest mountain four times since that first ascent in 1996.
But those in charge of regulating most famous climb on the planet, now want to rein in the numbers who scale the peak after Nepalese officials announced this week that they would introduce new regulations banning inexperienced climbers from attempting the 8,848-metre peak – something Mr Hinkes, one of the few mountaineers to have climbed all 14 mountains above 8,000m, is in favour of.
Under the proposed regime, permits would be given only to people who have already scaled mountains higher than 6,500m, while disabled, old and very young people also face bans.
Nepal’s tourism secretary Krishna Sapkota said the move is intended to improve safety and maintain the “glory” of the summit after the number of climbers attempting it roughly doubled in the past decade to about 600 a year – a level that most experts agree makes the route too crowded.
The problem of overcrowding has been made worse because much of the increase is down to a new-generation of climbers from emerging economies such as China, India and Russia, who are typically less experienced than the European and North America mountaineers who have traditionally dominated the slopes, expedition leaders complain.
Most mountaineers agree it would be good to reduce the number of climbers attempting Everest; 600 people a year may not sound like a lot but the number doubles when you include the sherpas who guide the climbers, set up the ropes, pitch the tents and carry the gear, while the severe weather conditions mean the summit can be reached only during a 12- to 14-day period in the second half of May.
Nonetheless, they have mixed feelings about the ban that has been proposed.
“Everest is very, very dangerous and difficult,” said Mr Hinkes. “Most of the route is fixed with rope and there are ladders over the crevices to make it easier, but it is still very dangerous and difficult with a chance of death and frostbite,” he said.
Nick Talbot, 39, who was caught up in the avalanche caused by the devastating Nepal earthquake in April, supports the ban on inexperienced climbers.
“I strongly support the ban and question whether it goes far enough because 6,500 metres compared to Everest isn’t that high and it doesn’t necessarily equate to having the right amount of experience and knowledge to do the climb,” said Mr Talbot.
He has scaled the 8,200m Cho Oyu mountain and still hopes to be the first person with the lung disease cystic fibrosis to reach the peak.
“If you’re not used to altitude, there’s a question as to whether they know they can operate effectively at a high altitude,” said Mr Talbot, adding that he disagrees with a ban on the disabled. “Where do you draw the line – what if you’ve lost a finger or a partially sighted in one eye?” he asks.
But for those people with the necessary experience, Mr Talbot, a director at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, would highly recommend the climb, which he plans to attempt again next year.
“It’s certainly one of the greatest things you can do. It’s beautiful and exhilarating and I actually found it quite relaxing,” says Mr Talbot of the 12 days he spent climbing before the avalanche struck and ended his quest for this year.
“That was disappointing and scary. When you see a 200- to 300-metre tsunami of snow and ice coming at you it’s pretty scary. But when climbing Everest I felt excited and full of anticipation and the scenery is hugely inspiring,” he says.
For Stephen Goodwin, who scaled Everest’s south summit in 1998, the experience was anything but relaxing. “Most of the time you’re a little bit out of it. It is exhausting, even for fit people, to perform at that altitude. So every step is an effort and decision-making can be quite blurred,” he says.
“It’s not the same as a good day out in the Alps where all your faculties are sparkling fresh, you do feel quite dulled and slowed, physically and mentally. Which is partly why accidents happen,” said Mr Goodwin, a former editor of the Alpine Journal.
He was forced to abort his quest to scale the main peak of Everest at the south summit 100m below, after the group in front of him ran into trouble.
But while most of the time “you’ve got your head down and are working hard” there are some fantastic moments to savour, he says.
“When you come up to the balcony, which is below the south summit, and for the first time you see over into Tibet when it’s just getting light, that is an exhilarating moment. That’s a moment when you pause, take breath and then turn to continue up the ridge and then you’re back head down again and working hard,” he said.
Stephen Venables, the first Briton to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen, is less impressed about the ban.
“I have no idea how they will police this. This smacks of the Nepalese government trying yet again to be seen to be doing something, while actually having no intention of stemming the hordes of people coming to Everest, because Everest is a jolly useful source of cash,” he said.
Mr Venables argues that if the government was really concerned about overcrowding it could sort out the problem simply by banning the use of supplementary oxygen on the mountain and returning to the system that operated up to 1985 – where the Nepalese authorities allowed only one expedition was allowed at a time on each route.
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