The significance of Everest Expeditions for the Khumbu Region
The upper reaches of the Khumbu region (all villages above and including Namche Bazaar) have always been a harsh environment and until the advent of large-scale trekking in 1990s the Sherpas had to work hard for their living. In those days the mainstay of the Khumbu economy had been trading with Tibet, growing potatoes and the ubiquitous yak. However, nowadays life has got a lot gentler for the Sherpas: tourists tend to be easier to care for than yaks and they leave a lot of money in the Khumbu, especially during the autumn season when many lodges above Lukla are bursting with people. Spring, by contrast, has always been a quieter time: the number of tourists falls by around 70%.
But that doesn't mean that there's no money to be made: the spring season (running from March to mid May) may see fewer tourists but as it happens, this is also the main Everest climbing season. And one of the things that struck us during our 2010 trek through the Khumbu region was how much the Khumbu depends on these expeditions. Everyone and their uncle seems to have a job in connection with an Everest expedition. Among the first to go up to Everest Base Camp are the potato farmers, or rather their wives: they load every of the four, five yaks the family possesses with three sacks of potatoes, 50kg each, and then drive the beasts up to EBC. And so sometime beginning of April a veritable stream of potato-laden yaks starts to arrive in the Base Camp, followed by still more yaks with other provisions: noodles, beer, western delicacies.
A couple of weeks later the main expedition store arrives from Kathmandu. This is mostly flown in by helicopter, from the Jiri roadhead to Syangboche, a tiny airfield above Namche (about 3800m high). The number of boxes, barrels and drums, bundles and packages arriving there is completely amazing: hundreds and hundreds of kilos, often more than a ton, and all that just to haul a group of six or eight foreigners up a big mountain. But the Nepalese don't complain: it's all good business for the porters and yak drivers. From Syangboche it's about four days of walking to EBC, so porters can easily do two or even three trips. And given the sheer number of expeditions and the incredible amount of stuff, there is indeed a lot to carry up.
Next the first high altitude Sherpas arrive in Lukla, by plane from Kathmandu. They run up to EBC, prepare the camp and start investigating the route, especially the dangerous bit through the ice fall. Finally the “climbers” themselves arrive. They have slowly walked up to BC, for acclimatisation purposes, and for the next four to six weeks, they will try to reach the highest point on earth, either under their own steam or sometimes (as rumour has it) carried up the last few hundred metres by some strong Sherpas. Again there's good money to be made for the locals, even if they don't have literally to manhandle their clients up the mountain. The logistical side of things on the mountain is usually run by an experienced Sherpa, the so-called sirdar. He has all the high altitude Sherpas and porters, the cooks etc under his absolute command and works closely with the (generally western) group leader. This whole “climbing” business takes until end of May; hopefully at that point all clients have a) made it to the top and b) down again still living. The successful “climbers” are happy, their investment of US$50.000 or even more has paid off. The Sherpas are happy as well. And next year the circus will return, probably bigger than ever.
Of course, the yearly deluge of Everest expeditions creates problems as well, the most obvious of which is rubbish. EBC and the area above has over the last decades turned into a huge rubbish pit. There are old ropes, empty oxygen bottles and other bits and pieces of long defunct equipment, all sorts of other garbage, the occasional corpse… not exactly what you would call pristine. (Apropos pristine: to think that before 1950 the whole of the Western Cwm area had never even been entered by a human being… It says something about human conscientiousness (or lack thereof) that it took us less than 50 years to get this place into the mess it is in today.)
During the last years there has been a growing realisation, not least among the Sherpas and to lesser extent among Nepalese officials in the capital, that this blatant abuse of nature can't continue unchecked. It destroys the landscape and, in the long run, also the livelihood of the people who depend on the expedition business. So there are now regular attempts to clean up the place; the government has also put regulations in place which are supposed to make sure that expeditions leave the area as they found it. This sometimes works, but all too often, corruption or simple carelessness gets in the way.
Another more long-term problem is the ever-growing dependence of the Sherpa economy on the expeditions and tourism in general. The Sherpas apparently think that so long as the foreigners keep coming, all is well and they seem to imagine this bonanza will never end. I am not sure whether I should hope they're right or whether it wouldn't be better if it turned out they're wrong.
$updated from: Background.htxt Fri 09 Aug 2013 14:18:03 trvl2 (By Vero and Thomas Lauer)$