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Meet the man taking a stand on overcrowding - and the death toll - at Mount Everest

'Today, it's a bucket list thing. Overnight mountaineers come to climb it, people who have no experience.'
'Today, it's a bucket list thing. Overnight mountaineers come to climb it, people who have no experience.' Credit: Samir Jung Thapa for Bally

In recent years, climbers following Edmund Hillary's lead in tackling Everest 'because it's there' have led to it becoming overrun. Now, though, efforts are afoot to restore this majestic mountain to its former pristine self

The first intimation of what lies ahead comes in Lobuche, a collection of aluminium-roofed huts, scarcely a village, that is the last settlement before Everest Base Camp. We've stopped to refuel our helicopter and take the opportunity to stretch our legs, dip our hands in the icy snowmelt river that threads through the rocky valley. Then, above us, the whirr of rotor blades: a pale white chopper moving fast and high. One of our Sherpa guides tells us it's a medical helicopter, that there has been some kind of incident on the mountain.

We find out later that there have been two deaths the previous night - one climber, an Irishman, was blown off the ice face just below the summit, his body unrecovered; the other, a member of the Indian Army climbing team, had died in his tent of altitude sickness, and was in the helicopter that passed over us as we made our own way to the mountain. We were there at the beginning of what was to be a fateful climbing season for Everest.

But let's rewind a few days, to our arrival in Nepal, and the halfway house of Namche Bazaar. It's a picturesque enough place, its aluminium rooftops painted shades of jade and aquamarine, its golden stupa looking down over a gorge where cataracts cascade from faces of sheer rock. But it's a town for passing through, not for lingering. When we arrive towards the end of May, the weather is bad - a hangover from the cyclone that has just battered India and Bangladesh - and the helicopter that brings us up from Kathmandu passes through drifting banks of cloud and mist as it rises from the plain into the mountains. It is one of the last to make it through before the fog descends completely and we are marooned.

In recent years, Base Camp has expanded extensively Credit: Samir Jung Thapa for Bally

We spend a lot of time waiting at the heliport in Namche, although that's too grand a name for what is really just an outcrop of rock. Occasionally there is a break in the cloud and brief views of the Golden Valley beneath us winding towards Tibet, or the icy heights of Everest and its neighbour Lhotse, tantalisingly close, but inaccessible through the fog and high winds. We could walk, but it would take a week. We don't have a week.

Instead, when the waiting becomes too much, we trek through the mist over the hill to the next village, Khumjung, where the temple has a moth-eaten Yeti scalp on display. We're challenged to a game of football by some schoolkids, and are made swiftly and painfully aware of the Sherpas' advantage over us. At 13,000ft, oxygen levels are around half those at sea level, and we don't have the Sherpas' genetic mutations that help them breathe efficiently at such elevations. We lose 15-2.

At last, on our third day in Namche, we are woken in the icy pre-dawn hours and watch the sun rise through clouds that appear to be thinning. Our pilot climbs very high, and the helicopter is buffeted by the wind, lurches a couple of times, then follows the course of a valley far below. Shafts of sunlight fall down on to hillsides covered with rhododendrons, white-water rivers spanned by rickety rope bridges.

We pass over the serene and flag-bedecked temples of the Tengboche monastery, and then the terrain begins to change. We can see Everest and Lhotse, but also Ama Dablam, Thamserku, Kangtega - all storied peaks, prominent chapters in the history of mountaineering. Finally we're surrounded by the vastness of the mountains, and our helicopter feels like a child's toy as it comes down to refuel in Lobuche. We watch that ominous evacuation chopper hurry over, then climb again, en route to Base Camp.

Our pilot is Swiss, one of the Air Zermatt team who come to train local pilots. Even he is nervous in this weather, constantly checking his instrumentation, from which a disconcerting alarm emanates every few minutes. "It's windy," he says, needlessly. We take the final dog-leg in the valley, and there it is before us - Base Camp - a collection of orange tents strung together with prayer flags, perched on the icy moraine. We land and are greeted by Dawa Steven Sherpa, head of Asian Trekking. He is leading a summit attempt that will depart at 2am the following morning.

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on the South-East ridge, May 1953 Credit: Getty

We've been given acetazolamide to help with the altitude sickness, but it's still striking how after a few steps we're out of breath - fingertips tingling, a light-headedness that intensifies the shimmer of the wind-whipped snow. The expedition doctor runs some tests on us - my heartbeat is twice its usual rate, the oxygen in my blood down to 77 per cent. I feel OK, though, and ask Dawa if I can climb up the foot of the Khumbu Icefall, the notorious, treacherous and dazzlingly beautiful frozen waterfall that is the start of the South Col route up the Nepali side of the mountain.

I'm allocated a friendly Sherpa and we stride off over the plateau to where the great glacier above disgorges itself, the ice rising around me in pillars and crackling sheets, everything giving the impression of violent motion suddenly frozen. The largest towers of ice are called seracs, and are known for tumbling and shattering without warning. This, and the depthless crevasses that are crossed on ropes and ladders, give the Icefall its deadly reputation. It was here in 2014 that an avalanche struck, killing 16 Sherpas.

I'm at Everest to witness the launch of the Peak Outlook project, an undertaking overseen by Dawa and his team and sponsored by the Swiss shoemaker Bally, which shod Tenzing Norgay when he and Sir Edmund Hillary first conquered the summit in 1953. The project seeks to undo some of the harm caused to Everest by the explosion in visitor numbers in recent years.

2019 will see a record of more than 750 people summit the mountain, many of them paying unscrupulous and poorly provisioned new tour operators who have begun to offer budget trips to the top. Where once you had to shell out upwards of £49,000 to reach the summit, some firms are now offering the experience for just over £16,000. Of this, £9,000 goes to the Nepali government as a royalty.

The numbers summitting have risen staggeringly since the turn of the millennium, when fewer than 100 people managed it each year, and climbing Everest still seemed like something mythical, heroic. The pictures of crowds queuing to get to the summit this year, and the deaths that have arisen as a result of the overcrowding, have turned global attention to a problem that has been building for some time.

Jamling Tenzing Norgay wears wool hat and jacket, both Bally, and wool and jacquard sweater with Mountain Peak motif, £325, Bally  Credit: Samir Jung Thapa for Bally

Everest is overrun, and it's filthy, particularly at the higher altitudes where there is no formal scheme for disposing of the empty oxygen canisters, abandoned tents and human waste that has accumulated during this period of high-altitude congestion. There's a more sinister form of detritus to deal with, too. More than 300 people have died on the slopes of Everest, with many of the bodies never recovered. Now the mountain's glaciers are melting due to global warming, and this has caused long-frozen and strikingly well-preserved corpses to rise eerily to the surface.

The Peak Outlook project will clean the upper reaches of Everest, with a team of specialised climbers working to restore this once-pristine mountainscape to its former beauty. It is the central element of a broader movement seeking to make Everest special again, to persuade mountaineers, tour groups, and the governments of Nepal and China (who license the south and north approaches to the mountain respectively) that it is in all of their interests to maintain the currency of this iconic place. For a moment I stand looking up the Icefall, the wind whipping spindrifts of snow from the seracs, which look like the pillars of some ancient ruined temple. I place my own Bally climbing boots in the footsteps of heroes - and I don't think of Hillary, or Messner, or Junko Tabei at this point - but of the real heroes of Everest, the Sherpas who for almost a century have risked their lives so that others could pursue their dreams.

Back in Kathmandu I meet one of the other architects of the Peak Outlook project, Jamling Tenzing Norgay, son of the famous Tenzing. We have tea at the glorious Dwarika's Hotel. On the other side of the pool, a group of Russian climbers are drinking beer and arguing in loud voices. I see Jamling shoot them a hard stare. He's a tough-looking man in his mid-50s, his English impeccable. I'd read his book - Touching My Father's Soul - on the plane over, and found it extraordinarily moving. It tells of Jamling's own summitting of Everest in another notorious year - 1996 - when 12 climbers lost their lives. Jamling now runs expeditions of his own - he's recently crossed Antarctica and is about to attempt the ascent of a mountain in Greenland that has never been climbed before.

Gathering rubbish in Bally bags Credit: Samir Jung Thapa for Bally

Several times in the book, Jamling mentions something his father said - that he had climbed Everest so that his children didn't have to. While Sherpas love the mountains, they also respect them, and recognise the danger they face with every ascent, the relatively poor wages and minimal life-insurance policies that compensate them for the risks they take.

Jamling was sent away to university in the United States, where he lived for 10 years, and yet the Himalayas called to him. The story of his life is one of returning - to Nepal, to the traditions of the Sherpas, to Buddhism. Above all, though, climbing was a way of getting to know his father "I was at boarding school, then I was in the US. He died relatively young and I never really got the chance to know him. I was in college in the US when he died, and hadn't seen him for over a year."

The deaths in 1996, like many of those in 2019, were caused by a mixture of inexperienced climbers and inadequate support. "Mountaineering has changed a lot in the 60 years since my father climbed Everest," Jamling tells me. "They climbed because it hadn't been done before. Today, it's a bucket list thing. Overnight mountaineers come to climb it, people who have no experience." He looks witheringly over towards the Russians. "It has become a place of greed for the commercial operators who tell people, 'You pay this much money, we'll get you up, whether you have experience or not'." Jamling believes that the government should restrict access to the mountain and rein in the more unscrupulous tour operators.

"They constantly undercut each other, and they risk the lives of their clients and of the Sherpas. Because if someone dies, or breaks a leg on the mountain, they're going to need at least 10 Sherpas to bring them down. Ten Sherpa lives risked to bring one stupid man down."

We speak about the beauty of the mountain, of the Icefall, of the sacred place Everest has within the belief system of the Sherpa people. I ask Jamling what it was like when he reached the summit, and he closes his eyes for a moment. "We had the whole mountain to ourselves. We weren't part of 500 people waiting in line." That line, and the deaths caused by 2019's perfect storm of bad weather, inexperienced climbers, insufficient support and absurd numbers risks irreparably tarnishing the image of Everest. Peak Outlook and the work of people like Dawa Steven Sherpa and Jamling Tenzing Norgay offer a different future for the mountain - one that restores its coruscating beauty, its unique power.

Bally

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