There are thousands of above-5,000mpeaks in Nepal of which only 142 are open for climbing after permission has been received from the concerned authorities. Anyone who climbs one of these 142 without a permit or climbs any of the other remaining of ´un-opened´ peaks will be doing so illegally. And climb illegally is precisely what hundreds of visi¬tors do every mountaineering season in Nepal.
These are facts known to everyone associated with the climbing trade in Nepal. The Ministry of Tourism (MoT) does not deny it, nor does the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA). Yet, clandestine climbing continues unchecked.
Climbing permits for Nepali summits are issued at two different places. The NMA has jurisdiction over 18 peaks and is concerned with only these so-called ´trekking´ or non-expedition peaks. The rest are dealt with by the MoT, which does not have resources or the manpower necessary to keep a thorough check on what goes on high up in the mountains.
Legislation to address climbing without permission does exist in Nepal and despite the erroneous language it uses, manages to convey the message. The Tourism Act, 2035, states unequivocally: “No any mountaineering expedition team shall be entitled to climb any Himalayan-Peaks without permission under this Act.” Failure to comply can result in various penalties on which, too, the Act is clear. But enforcement is another matter1 altogether.
The MoT relies on external sources for information on climbs that take place in contravention to the rules. There was just one complaint the Ministry received in all of 1994 and even that was not acted upon on the grounds that further information requested was not forthcoming. The NMA is equally hapless. Having no legal authority, the Association cannot take any itinerant climbers. Even on Chomolongma, there have been reports of lone alpinists piggy-backing on fixed ropes of large expeditions and bivouacking on well-stocked camps up the mountain. However, there are no reports of succ¬essful climbs of Sagarmatha by such illegal climbers.
Aesthetics vs. Morality
Why does illegal climbing take place after all? One reason is the savings in fees and on the bureaucratic hassles involved. The royalties charged—for example, the U$ 150 to U$ 300 charged by the NMA—may seem a pittance to an organised trekking group,, but could be a hefty sum for a backpacking alpine-style climber.
The free spirit that is the genuine mountaineer obviously dislikes the shackles placed on his ability to climb a peak, and he may deliberately set about evading the regulations. From a purely aesthetical (not moral) stand point, whether a Himalayan peak is climbed with permission or without does not make that much of a difference.
Most illegal climbing in Nepal takes place along the popular trekking routes, viz., the Annapurna circuit, the Langtang and and Khumbu valleys. It is easy to go about one´s business quietly in these areas amidst the hundreds of trekkers swarming the trails.
It i s possible to reach an impromptu decision to climb in Khumbu, for Namche Bazaar´s climbing bazaar offers climbing gear of the same range and quality found at any outfitters in Chamonix. Lending a helping hand arc mountain guides and trek operators without whose complicity it would be quite difficult to climb a Hima¬layan peak, however small.
The interest in enforeing the regulation is mainly that of the host country, for the lost income that clandestine climbing represents. It is therefore in Nepal´s interest that illegal climbing be checked. The NMA alone, it is estimated, loses more than NRs 5 million annually from unauthorised climbing of the peaks at its command. By the same reckoning, the central exchequer is losing many more millions of rupees from all the peaks that are being climbed without permission.
In this perspective, one would assume that serious steps would be taken to prevent illegal climbs. Predictably enough, this is not the case. No one even knows where to begin.
Question of Virginity
Another issue thrown up by illegal climbing—which almost by definition is undocumented—is whether or not to believe that the “virgin peaks” are really untrodden. Given the hundreds of peaks available in Nepal, and the inability of the authorities to check what the adventurous climbers do once they are in the High Himal and beyond the range of the base camp-based liaison officers, it is quite likely that many more “virgin peaks” have been climbed than even the climbing world knows of.
Those who climb a virgin peak are not likely to turn up at the NMA or MoT to register their feat. Those who would want to come again to the Nepal Himalaya might not even own up to their triumphs in one of the world´s many mountaineering journals. Besides, the Nepali authorities certainly do not have the ability nor the interest in perusing the world´s these journals to maintain an updated list of illegally climbed peaks. The problem here is not only that of the Nepali Government: climbers in years will obviously attempt newly-opened peaks believed to be unclimbed, whereas the summits might already have been violated.
The different organisations concerned with climbing in Nepal do not seem to view the matter seriously apart from pointing fingers at each other. The MoT places blame on unscrupulous trekking agents; the established agencies see small-time operators and individual tour leaders as the culprits; the NMA perceives both trekking companies and the MoT responsible—the Ministry for not setting out dearly-defined rules and trekking companies for looking at the regulations in ways that best suit their interests.
However, as the theoretical protector of Nepal´s mountaineering trade, NMA cannot shirk its responsibility so easily, especially because it and the Trekking Agents Association of Nepal (TAAN) share a close, almost incestuous, relationship. The NMA should, at the very least, be able to keep a check on what itineraries are being sold by trekking agents. Amid all this passing of the buck, the main issue of how to stop unauthorised climbing is being forgotten.
The NMA did make an attempt at monitoring back in 1991 by placing a representative each in Manang and Namche Bazaar but the operation floundered within a year. It proved impossible to confirm that a climb had taken place once the climbers had descended. The Association is once again said to be thinking of a similar operation, this time with two person teams which can act as a roving patrol.
There are other method s that have been suggested to check illegal climbing. One is to mobilise the local administrative bodies such as village development committees with the incentive that they receive part of the fine realised from those caught climbing without permission. Another is that national park personnel be utilised, since many peaks fall with in the boundaries of one park or the other. Meanwhile, trekkers entering the country need to be notified about Nepal´s mountaineering regulations, for many might forgo illegal climbs if only they knew what their agencies were putting them up to.
Permits can also be issued, say at Namche Bazaar, Kyanjin Gomba, Manang and Jomosom, albeit at a higher rate than what they cost in Kathmandu, so that those who get the climbing bug while on a trek will have a way out rather than having to make an illegal bid.
Stricter rules and serious enforcement of them are also being advocated, Sardars could forfeit their NMA registration if found taking part in illegal climbs. Trekking companies could lose their licence altogether instead of only having to suffer temporary suspensions. However, rules will not solve the problem if they are impractical. Many trekkers climb peaks illegally just because they involve mere side trips from the main trail and can be done with equipment on hand.
Making permits unnecessary for peaks such as Thorung Rion the Annapurna trek, which is being climbed all the time anyway, should not be much to Nepal´s loss. After all why make criminals of climbers if it can be helped?