After Nepal disasters, more climbers eye Chinese route to top of world

The Mount Everest south base camp in Nepal is seen a day after a huge earthquake-caused avalanche killed at least 17 people, in this photo courtesy of taken on April 26, 2015 and released on April 27, 2015. REUTERS/

By Krista Mahr and Andrew MacAskill KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Climber Carsten Pedersen has not given up his childhood dream of scaling Everest, despite last month's avalanche that killed 18 people at base camp after a devastating earthquake. But if he does try again, it may well be from China, not Nepal. Frustrated at the Nepal government's silence over whether his permit to scale Everest will be extended due to the disaster, the Danish amateur is one of a growing number of climbers considering another route up the world's highest peak. "To every reaction, there is going to be a reaction," said Pedersen, who has spent more than $110,000 on three previous attempts to conquer Everest. "My reaction if they don't extend the permit? I will probably go to Tibet to climb it. It is not that complicated." If the number of mountaineers switching routes continues to rise, the damage to Nepal's trekking and climbing industry could be significant. While the permits themselves only account for a few million dollars each year, the sector overall is worth some $340 million, and the draw of Everest plays a crucial role in the industry. "This one mountain has an oversized impact on the rest of the tourism in the country," said Prachanda Man Shrestha, a former head of Nepal's tourism department. So trekking agencies and mountaineers in Nepal are urging the government to make up its mind about what to do with this year's permits, which cost $11,000 per climber. At the same time they recognise that, overwhelmed by a natural disaster that has killed nearly 8,000 people, the government has other priorities. Tulsi Prasad Gautam, head of Nepal's tourism department, said the government was not in a position to refund fees, which go into state coffers once paid, and a decision would be made in the next few months on whether they would be extended. "If the government extends the permit, then clients will come back," said Sonam Sherpa of mountaineering outfit Thamserku Trekking and Yeti Airlines, one of Nepal's best known domestic carriers that flies climbers to remote regions. RECORD NUMBERS That is what happened last year. After an Everest avalanche killed 16 people in 2014, ending the season, Nepal eventually extended climbers' permits, and a record number of people flocked to Everest base camp in 2015. But worryingly for Nepal, after two successive setbacks on Everest and criticism of what some climbers said was a chaotic response to the April 25 disaster, more are now eyeing the colder, windier but better organised Chinese route. Following last year's avalanche, expedition leader Adrian Ballinger decided enough was enough. Already concerned about the instability of the Khumbu icefall, a particularly dangerous section of the Nepalese ascent, he moved operations of his Alpenglow Expeditions agency to Tibet. Ballinger estimated there were more than 200 climbers and a similar number of sherpa mountain guides on the north face when the quake hit, and he praised China's swift decision to call off attempts to scale the summit. The China Tibet Mountain Association, which issues climbing permits, then moved quickly to assist expeditions to descend after the quake, climbers and companies said. Nepal has yet to formally close Everest, and several mountain outfits said that Nepal's response had been disorganized in comparison. Ballinger now calls the north the only ethical choice for climbing Everest, saying the risks in Nepal put sherpas and clients' lives in danger. Jiban Ghimire, managing director of Shangri-La Nepal Trek in Kathmandu, added: "If the government doesn't decide soon (on the permits), everyone is going to go from the north side because the Chinese are treating everyone so well." CRITICAL SITUATION Many trekking companies that sent teams to Everest are still emerging from the shock of the earthquake and disaster at base camp, including, in some cases, the death of staff and clients. Several outfits that set up camps in the avalanche's path lost all their gear, and others had to abandon equipment at camps higher up the mountain that were cut off once the Khumbu icefall route was destroyed. Ballinger said the decision to switch sides was a large investment that cost him two years of "theoretical profits", but believed the accidents meant it was inevitable more would follow him to Tibet. "The system is entirely broken on the south side," Ballinger said. Few in the climbing community believe that disasters on Everest two seasons in a row will keep people away altogether. Indeed, for some, the danger may increase the allure. Pedersen, a technology consultant who has been to the North Pole, flown a MiG fighter jet and spent $100,000 on a ticket to fly into space, has aborted three attempts on Everest in the last four years when people on the mountain were killed. But, he said, climbing the mountain is a chance to join an elite group. "If I nearly died or if I had head trauma then my feelings may be different, but it is still my dream to climb Everest." (Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel, Clara Ferreira-Marques and Gopal Sharma; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Mike Collett-White)