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As COVID Cancels Everest Climbing Season, Regulators Should Use the Pause to Get into Shape

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Aleksey Tikhomirov
June 29, 2020

The infamous 1996 tragedy on Mount Everest has been a staple reading in my Organization Theory course at Binghamton University. The story of the 1996 expeditions teaches how to prevent tragedies by learning from past failures and to not see the causes of any disaster in isolation. It would be tempting and flawed to just focus on mistakes by individual expedition members when trying to make sense of the 1996 events on Everest. The interaction of many things fueled that disaster, but its survivors noted that commercialization contributed greatly to their tragedy. Profit-motive exacerbates the risks of the high altitude climbing: Just how fragile commercialization can make mountaineering came to a full, sobering view in 1996.

The aftermath of the 2019 tragedies on Everest saw a resurgence of conversation about the rise of the political economy of high-altitude tourism. It pressed officials in places such as Nepal to tangibly address a wicked mix of aggressive market and weak regulations. The response has been promising as regulators there collaborated with a diverse panel of stakeholders to boost safety on Everest. The COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 climbing season. I propose using that pause to continue working out lasting and sustainable solutions to help safeguard climbers, ecosystems and local communities against the growing, complex and possibly harmful marketplace of high-altitude tourism.

What can be done?

First, we all should be wary of being steered too easily into the mindset that pins the issue of safety disproportionately on climbers. Safety, we are told, is individual responsibility. For example, to qualify for a climbing permit climbers must produce the proof of their fitness. Yet, with this framing we run the risk of lowering accountability standards for institutional players in the climbing scene. While asking for the qualifications from individual climbers we must—on balance—probe as rigorously the fitness of institutions that are charged with keeping them safe. The public can help uphold safety on Everest by demanding greater accountability and steering the conversation back to the institutions. Ask, “Are our safekeeping institutions fit enough to bring order to the marketplace prone to hyper-commercialization? Are regulators themselves up for the challenge of not letting big money poach climber safety for profit?” We need to keep moving policies past the myth of individual climbers as the primary stewards of their own safety.

Second, the marketplace of high-altitude climbing is fast-moving, but is also young and not well understood. There is a lot of ambiguity and going can get tough for officials charged with fending off the onslaught of commercialization by aggressive, profit-driven actors. Knowing what is coming can help regulators do better at managing some of the challenges. They should look no further than the recent fiascos that regulators suffered when dealing with the ride-hailing industry actors and Uber, in particular.

A few years ago Uber was the paradigmatic case of the “young,” aggressive and poorly understood enterprise. As it proliferated worldwide, it shook public institutions, undercut social trust in the new economy and left regulators around the world upset and frustrated. What went down between Uber and regulators can offer valuable lessons for whoever is now penning a playbook of rules for the up-and-coming high-altitude tourism industry.

From the get-go Uber was a relentless serial promiser. It pushed its ride-hailing services onto the public aggressively, lauding its benevolence-to-all model. To breed appeal, it rushed claims of sharing as both commercially profitable and doing tangible public good. It raised the allure of greener, socially just, congestion-free, sustainable living amid unclogged, safer streets.

We know now that much of what was promised had not checked out. A great irony of the Uberesque political economy is that nearly everything that it has created is the precise opposite of the good it said it would do: The world of industrialized sharing saw safety nets retreating, more social unrest, added burden to the environment and diminished social trust in the new economy.

And so, here are just a few tips to regulators of the high-altitude climbing: Anticipate marketing that is clothed with claims of goodness. Beware of benevolence promised and under-delivered. Gear up for keeping such claims in check: Innovate with bold, creative enforcement mechanisms that double-down on ensuring the industry delivers on its promises.

History also shows that well-funded disruptors tend to resist regulations and forcing them to respect the rules won’t be cheap. Public interest groups know how undermining Uber has been of their efforts in the realm of labor rights, equity, environment and safety. The company also adopted an arrogant, combative stance toward the government agencies, depleting their already scant public resources through costly litigation.

Steering Everest Back to Safety

Once COVID-19 passes at some point in the future, crowds will be back to Everest’s base camp. In addition to avalanches, crevasses, oxygen deprivation and high-altitude blindness, these dreamers of the summit will have to reckon with one more climbing hazard, which hides behind the combination of industry rising and regulations lagging. This is a sobering prospect and it should give us pause to not pin all safety risks of climbing to individuals, but demand more from our safeguarding institutions and their handling of the market forces.

Fast market amid sluggish rules is a treacherous mixture. At its extreme it had and will make Everest claim more lives. This is why as COVID-19 cancels this year’s climbing season on Everest, regulators should use this pause as an opportunity to do more to help shield the global climbing scene from the “summit-bagging” market—a flirtatious, risky, and flawed enterprise.


Author: Dr. Aleksey Tikhomirov, Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Public Administration, Binghamton University. E-mail: [email protected]

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