Gateway to Everest, Photographed Generations Apart
My grandfather, Dwarika Das Shrestha, loved the mountains. He spent a good part of his life photographing them. His father, my great grandfather, Thakur Das Shrestha, in fact had wanted to climb Everest in the 1920s. But when his mother did not allow it, he opened the Das Studio in Darjeeling instead, settling for the exceptional views of Mount Kanchenjunga and other peaks of the Himalayas for the rest of his life.
I scanned the photos above and immediately below from my grandfather’s personal album that I inherited after he passed away in 2004. Norgay was a good friend and frequented our family home and studio in Darjeeling. And my grandfather was active in the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, going on several of their expeditions in the 1950s, including the Advance Course Saser Khangri Expedition in June 1956 to which the photo below was attributed in his album.
By the late 50s, he had returned to Kathmandu and helped pioneer the photo studio and postcard industry in Nepal. He worked with friends like Toni Hagen, and gave photo and video courses in the 1960s, and actively engaged in social work, including the establishing of the Nepal Red Cross Society and Rotary Club Kathmandu in the early 60s. His friends would tell me in 2007 that he had served as Vice President of both the organizations at one point.
He also, naturally, took a few trips to the Everest region in the 1960s and 70s. Like him, my father too traveled the Himalayas, in the late 1970s to the 1990s. Both their interests were rooted in the culture and landscape of the region, and in promoting the tourism sector through their work. As a child, my interest was simply rooted in the region’s landscape. As a teenager, that interest evolved into concerns over environment issues, and in recent years, the social and ecological impact of tourism in the Everest region.
Today, on International Everest Day, and to mark the 60th Anniversary of Everest’s first ascent, here is a glimpse of how the Gateway to Everest has transformed in Nepal’s Khumbu region when my grandfather saw it in the early 1970s, and I in recent years. Though these images are explicitly picked for the sheer visible physical transformation, it is also a clear indicator of the ecological, social, and economical changes the region has endured.
Hillary and Norgay’s successful ascent of Everest in 1953 had a direct bearing on the changes we see in Lukla and all points north. After climbing Everest, Hillary spent his life working for the Sherpa people and Nepal, and the airport, built in 1968, was a project of Hillary’s to facilitate easier access for building materials to the upper parts of the Solukhumbu region.
Managing Everest’s Traffic:
However, on the eve of Everest Day 2013, I read a rather peculiar quote on how one could manage traffic on Everest. The suggestion, from “a senior member of the Expedition Operators Association in Nepal”? Installing a ladder on the Hillary Step so the flow of tourists could be expedited on the way down, essentially allowing a smoother flow of tourists on the way up. The sales pitch is made with a “safety” angle, but it is clearly not oriented in managing the number or the quality of people that go up on Everest, but rather making it easier for a larger volume of traffic of the future. It is a business proposition with a short outlook.
There is already a Ladder that tourists use to ascent and descend Everest – it is called the Sherpa people. Does managing Everest’s traffic rest in installing an actual ladder to expedite the flow of growing traffic, or to set in policy changes that consider broader issues such as the quantity and quality of climbers allowed to climb the mountain, and the skills of those allowed to lead them there?
Climate Change and Mountain Tourism in Nepal:
“For Nepal, mountain tourism has been a steadily growing and significant economic sector for over half a century. The mountains themselves have become the national mascot for all things climate change, except perhaps in the context of tourism itself.
It has been well established that Nepal is no where close to being responsible for global warming. However, in light of growing scientific information on the issue, there can be little or no excuse for the lack of allotting immediate and massive investment in critical infrastructure development across the country. Failing to do so could cost the country dearly. The mountains may continue to stand, but the tourism sector could be severely crippled.”
Everest Tourism and Development in the Khumbu:
“The village, where the Sagarmatha National Park’s headquarters is located, offers a sense of cosmopolitan luxuries in the Himalayas. This Café is but a recent example of the urbanization of an otherwise remote region that has rapidly developed as the Gateway to Everest in the last 50 years. And tourism has helped make Namche home to one of the wealthiest Sherpa communities. But that tourism comes at a cost too; namely in forest wood use for fuel as well as construction. Because of its geography it is difficult to imagine Namche growing in size drastically, if not in seasonal density. But the demand for energy will continue to rise. Even those who work with the local Namche Youth Club, a popular pro-active group that helps the community with everything from garbage management to setting up rest houses for porters, is uncertain of how to tackle the problem.”
That paragraph is an excerpt from my report, Sagarmatha National Park’s Burning-Melting Problem published in Republica national daily in December 2011. In it, I talk about the role of tourism in demand for fire and construction wood and the pressure it creates on local forests, and also looks into possible solutions to address the issue. It is based on a bigger paper I had written at the time on Khumbu’s Sherpa community and the role of tourism.
Thoughts On International Everest Day 2013:
On the 60th anniversary of Everest’s ascent, remarkable new records have been set. This year is also the 20th Anniversary since Pasang Lhamu Sherpa became the first Nepali woman to climb the peak, and this season has seen women from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and India set their own records too. But the season had its share of mishaps and tragedies too. While some are professional hazards, the ones created by unprofessional conduct are unacceptable. One thing is clear: Nepal is at a crossroads on how it manages its Everest brand, and as well as Everest the mountain as part of a sensitive ecology.
Right now, despite all the records set this season, the mountaineering community, the trekking industry, and the Government of Nepal, need to seriously act towards curtailing traffic on Everest in a way that benefits local and international mountaineers and the trekking industry, and the regional ecology, in the long run, and not just for the next big season. I continue to believe these suggestions listed here are worth discussing at a policy level. There is a serious difference between “managing” Everest and “expediting” Everest. The latter has proven to be a problem in recent seasons, and so it would be a mistake to see it as the solution for the future of Everest.