As the climbing season gets underway in Nepal, one year after a devastating earthquake struck the country, Sherpas are warning of the potential for more avalanches, caused this time by unauthorised sightseeing flights operating around Mount Everest.
Nepal had closed Everest to climbers after last year’s quake, which triggered deadly avalanches, but a year on the mountain is gearing up for another busy climbing season.
However, Sherpas are worried that vibrations caused by unofficial sightseeing helicopters passing over the mountain could trigger more snow slips, particularly in dangerous sections such as the Khumbu Icefall.
Mountain guide, Pasang Kaji Sherpa, told the BBC: “The sightseeing helicopters are hovering above the Khumbu Icefall and making things difficult for us. We worry that the vibrations caused by helicopters can crack ice blocks and snow packs on mountains overlooking the Khumbu Icefall.”
The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) prohibits sightseeing flights above base camp and has warned airlines against violating this rule. However, Sherpas believe not all the airlines are listening and CAAN has admitted difficulty in policing all flights.
There are also fears that concessions made by the Department of Tourism, which has permitted helicopters to fly equipment in to fix the Camp One route, were being exploited by commercial choppers.
“For Sherpa climbers, especially those carrying equipment for expedition teams, helicopters flying overhead in higher areas is a mentally torturous experience,” said Phurba Namgyal Sherpa, general secretary of Nepal National Mountain Guides Association.
“The fragile snow and ice conditions could be disturbed at any time by the rotors of helicopters and that could spell disaster for us.”
However, airline officials have been playing down the dangers.
“We fly 2,340 feet from above the ground and maintain at least 1km distance from the mountains so there is no way the vibration can cause avalanche,” Pabitra Karki, chairman of Airlines Operators Association Nepal (AOAN), told the BBC.
Last year, Sherpas in Nepal also expressed concerns over the tons of waste left by climbers which are polluting Everest’s once pristine slopes and threatening to spread disease.
Climbers were said to often be forced to squat in the open or hide behind rocks to relieve themselves.
Human waste piling up over decades gives off an “unpleasant odour”, Ang Tshering Sherpa, chief of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, told Reuters at the time.
Sherpas claimed that human excrement was a bigger problem than the oxygen bottles, torn tents, broken ladders, and cans or wrappers also left behind on Everest.
“Discarded in ice pits, the human waste remains under the snow,” he told reporters. “When washed down by glaciers (when the snow melts), it comes out in the open.”
He added that the waste also poses a health hazard to people dependent on water from rivers fed by the region’s melting glaciers.