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What’s The True Cost Of Himalayan Climbing?

8163-meter Manaslu has been the site of several high-profile climbing accidents in the last few weeks - do we need to rethink our approach to these mountains? | Wikimedia photo.

The Himalayas are facing one of their deadliest years yet, and world-renowned sherpas are paying the price. This season alone has seen a considerable uptick in death on Manaslu – an 8163-meter peak that many used to call Everest’s bunny hill. As the earth warms and crowds worsen, climbing tourists and professional mountaineers alike are experiencing the mountain’s shifting conditions – and the outlook is bleak.

In 1956, Japanese climber Toshio Imanishi and Gyalzen Norbu Sherpa made the first ascent of Manaslu, opening a window of possibility for mountaineers across the globe. Since then, scores of seasoned climbers have made the summit, and many have died on Manaslu’s long ridges and valley glaciers, but never as many as this season. With the rise in popularity of post-monsoon climbing in the Himalaya, larger numbers of climbers are coming later in the year - the mountain is usually more dangerous at this time with heavy snowfall and increased avalanche risk. If you're looking to make ski descents of these peaks, it's the better season, but it comes with increased risk. In the last couple of weeks alone, the mountain has seen three fatalities due to unrelated avalanches. Among the three was 34-year-old Anup Rai – a veteran sherpa known for his resilience and sense of humor. Throughout his life, he watched the mountain transform, the number of climbing permits increase, and the weather conditions worsen. Rai summited some of the highest peaks in the world, including Everest (five times), Manaslu (twice), and Ama Dablam (twice). He was no stranger to adversity, but this year’s conditions caught up. And on the morning of September 26th, he paid the ultimate price.

Rai got caught in a large avalanche that swept between camps 3 and 4, taking his life and injuring many climbers around him. Yukta Gurung, who was at Manaslu Base Camp when the avalanche occurred, said it had been snowing nonstop for fifteen days before the accident. The snow pile-up eventually had to give way, triggering the slide that killed Rai.

Anup Rai was a highly accomplished climber with several summits of Everest, Manaslu, and Ama Dablam. | Anup Rai Archive photo.

Earlier that same morning, American ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson set off a small slide on her way down from Manaslu’s summit. Her body was recovered by Jim Morrison and a Sherpa team a few days later nearly a mile below where she fell. One week later, on October 1st, two more avalanches occurred – one that destroyed 35 tents in Base Camp and another which killed Dawa Chhiring Sherpa – another highly experienced Nepalise guide. With the loss of so many veteran alpinists and back-to-back disasters, many international expeditions have chosen safety over summit this season, and are leaving the mountain. Several high-profile ski and snowboard mountaineering expeditions on Everest and Dhaulagiri pulled the plug. American backcountry snowboarder Nick Russell was one of them. The 34-year-old athlete, featured in TGR’s 2022 film Magic Hour said,

After Hilaree’s accident, our team had written off making a summit attempt. Motivation was lost and risk tolerance was pretty minimal after hearing the news of our fallen hero. Ultimately the conditions and weather didn’t allow for anyone to reach the summit this year.

Even British alpinist Adriana Brownlee decided to descend from her mission to become the youngest person to climb 14 8,000-meter peaks. She wrote on Facebook, “Pro mountaineers and Sherpa have passed away this season on a mountain many of us came to thinking it would be a nice climb. It’s been unimaginable.” It’s safe to say Brownlee wasn’t the only one feeling the weight of this year’s tragedies. Famous Nepali climber Nirmal “Nims” Purja, who was instrumental in organizing many of the Manaslu rescues, wrote on Twitter:

Following multiple big avalanches & the loss of our dear friends on the mountain, as well as the current & future weather conditions – we have taken the decision to call off this year’s @eliteexped expedition. Safety is our 1st priority.

But still, a handful of fearless climbers press on. According to the Nepal Tourism Board, 404 climbing permits were given out this season - double the amount of any season prior on Mount Manaslu. Despite the difficult conditions during a late post-monsoon period, the crowds remain. There were an estimated 1,000 mountaineers at Base Camp this year with an expected 300-400 climbers to actually reach the summit. But increased climbing tourism is just one factor contributing to the travesty on Manaslu this year.

The Himalayas have seen unfavorable weather change over the last 50+ years. Increased rainfall and snowfall, melting glaciers, and rising temperatures have all contributed to this year’s harsh conditions. According to research from 2021, Himalayan glaciers have shrunk ten times faster in the last forty years than in the past seven centuries due to global warming. This poses a threat not only to mountaineers wanting to summit their dream peaks before they’re gone, but also to the local communities that depend on these glaciers as a primary water source. As a result of these climatic hazards, the local economy is pushing for more tourism (hence the drastic increase in permits). At the same time, more climbers are traveling to the area to experience Manaslu and the surrounding giants with a heightened sense of urgency. Together, these factors make a recipe for disaster. And when you add Covid-19 into the mix, the increasing demand in Nepal is becoming unmanageable.

With nearly 800,000 people working in Nepal’s tourism industry, closing borders for a long time simply wasn’t an option when the Covid hit. Instead, Nepal sought economic revival when they reopened their country to foreigners, mid-pandemic. But as tourist dollars began to flow again, local mountain communities weren’t equipped to handle the drastic uptick in tourism. Hospital beds were full with Covid patients, and rescue teams had their hands full. Evidently, even the most famous mountain ranges lack the proper infrastructure and regulations to support these kinds of numbers.

As permits increase, so do the number of rescues throughout the region. Helicopters have difficulty operating at high elevations and remote rescues can get dicey - especially when multiple lives are at risk. Thankfully, the small number of Himalayan rescue teams that exist are trained to navigate the most adverse circumstances, having saved a number of lives over the years. But is it fair to place a quickly increasing burden on these already strapped resources?

Sure - any passionate mountaineer can relate to the adrenaline-pumping appeal of summiting the world’s highest peaks. But is the reality of persevering through these mountains’ increasingly unpredictable conditions worth the potential reward? In an effort to preserve our peaks, people, and beloved Himalayan communities – we must understand the reality of climbing these giants year after year, and adjust our expectations accordingly.

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If you’re looking to make ski descents of these peaks, it’s the better season, but it comes with increased risk.  See: