Western climbers are discovering that their permits from Nepal's ministry of tourism to ascend Mt. Everest this spring via the South Col route have come with some surprising restrictions. Some expeditions have received instructions not to climb above Camp II until May 10, or perhaps later, and some teams have been told the use of satellite phones may be restricted at Everest Base Camp, in fact some of the communications gear may be locked up.
Uncertainty reigns, however, on just how rigidly these unprecedented restrictions will be applied. It is widely believed the restrictions on climbing above Camp II from the Nepal side are meant to ensure a team of Chinese climbers won't be interfered with as it makes an attempt on the summit during China's Olympic year. That is underscored by the fact that official documents from the ministry specifically state that no anti-Chinese statements or banners may be displayed by those attempting to climb Everest from the Nepal side.
More troubling is that some teams have reported that their satellite communications equipment may be placed under lock and key at base camp, under the watchful eye of police. But there is still a ray of hope that these and other restrictions won't be fully enforced, and even official documents seem to offer some wiggle room with communications. Climbers are reluctant to go on the record about the restrictions over concern they will not recieve their permits.
"It's a dynamic situation," said Gordon Janow, program director for Seattle based Alpine Ascents International, which runs treks and climbs on the world's highest peak every year. "As of this morning, teams have permits in hand and are making there way through the Khumbu. There is still discussion on the parameters of the trip such as staying below Camp II until May 10 and what type of communications equipment will be allowed on the mountain prior to May 10, 2008. We are hoping for a resolution in the next few days."
For more than a decade now, satellite phones have enabled once isolated Everest climbers to share their adventures in real time with the friends, families and a growing number of Everest aficionados. Some of the restrictions on using that equipment handed out to some climbers with their permists could mean a greatly reduced flow of news from the mountain. Further, expeditions now use satellite phones to communicate with their agents in Kathmandu and their Sherpa staff, and to arrange medical evacuations and deal with other emergency needs. For this reason, some climbers wonder if the restrictions can be enforced without endangering lives.
"There's always been a high degree of accountability on the part of climbers on Everest," said Wally Berg of Berg Adventures International. "For decades, climbers have been careful about having permits to climb, having permits for sat phones, and have been accompanied by liaison officers from the Nepal military. That's normal. This year, climbers may have to be extra careful if the parameters are changed on climbing and communications. It could present some challenges. "
The climbing restrictions, if enforced, could present problems for climbers. If South Col climbers can't climb above Camp II (22,000 feet in the Western Cwm) until May 10, some hopefuls may be denied a summit attempt. Depending on the arrival of monsoon storms, the climbing season can be over, or at least made more hazardous, by then, although generally most summits happen around mid May.