Nepal Looks to Restrict Climbing on Everest, But Do the New Rules Make Sense?

Credit: Danita Delmont / Getty Images

Nepali officials announced on Tuesday that they were considering sweeping changes to the permit program for Mount Everest in an attempt to quell overcrowding and enhance safety on the world's highest peak. The news follows a string of disasters in recent years and comes just days after Japanese mountaineer Nobukazu Kuriki abandoned his attempt to become the first person to tackle the mountain since he devastating earthquake on April 25 that killed 19 climbers.

Nepal's proposal takes aim at the age, ability, and experience of climbers. Under the new regulations anyone older than 75 or below the age of 18 would be banned from climbing above base camp, as would persons with physical disabilities, and climbers who have yet to scale a peak above 6,500 meters (21,325 feet).

First, the age limits will hardly put a damper in the overall volume of climbers on the mountain. While the oldest person to climb Everest was 80-year-old Yuichiro Miura of Japan and the youngest was 13-year-old Jordan Romero, these climbers are exceptional. (And Miura would not be able to repeat his Chinese side climb anyway; China later imposed a minimum age of 18 and an upper limit of 60 years and for all Everest climbers).

The physically disabled are also a tiny category of exceptional athletes. Among the small list of disabled mountaineers to reach the top in recent years are double amputee Mark Inglis of New Zealand and blind climber Erik Weihenmayer of the US. "We don't think we should issue permits to people who cannot see or walk or who don't have arms," Nepalese tourism department chief Govinda Karki told the AFP. "Climbing Everest is not a joke…it is not a matter of discrimination, how can you climb without legs? Someone will have to carry you up. We want to make the mountains safer for everyone, so we have to insist on some rules."

By far the group most impacted by the proposed provisions — and one that critics warn is on the rise — are climbers who have little previous mountaineering experience.

Gordon Janow, director of programs at Alpine Ascents International, said he's seen these types of proposals — banning climbers based on experience — come and go in the past and doesn't think the latest iteration will stick, particularly because it would be incredibly difficult to verify a climber's record. "I applaud the effort to reduce the amount of climbers on Everest, but the idea of how to select who gets to go is really difficult," he said. "It's not an easy task to look at somebody's background and see if they are ready for a mountain, which is why there is no kind of government control like that anywhere in the world."

Janow also believes that the idea of an arbitrary height limit that a climber must have reached in the past is misleading. "You have mountains like Aconcagua in South America, which is over 22,000 feet but is a non-technical climb," he explained. "So I'd prefer to take someone who's been up something like Denali first. It's a lower mountain but far more technical skill-wise and high enough to see if somebody has a propensity to have trouble at altitude."

Limiting numbers through concessions or application systems would be much more efficient than looking at climber backgrounds, he added. But finding that magic number is a tricky prospect for the impoverished Southeast Asian nation, which faces a delicate task of balancing safety and environmental measures with the lure of foreign revenue.

 Mountaineering fees are a vital source of income for Nepal, and it has a financial incentive to maximize the number of permits on offer. Some 334 hopefuls from 41 countries forked over $11,000 apiece for permits in 2014 alone. The greater economy of Mount Everest is estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars annually, according to World Travel & Tourism Council statistics, with a large portion of Nepal's $508 million in tourist spend last year coming from the climbing industry.