Located in the Khumbu mountains in northeastern Nepal and bordering Tibet, Everest — Chomolungma in Tibetan and Sagarmatha in Nepali — was identified as the highest peak on earth (8,848 metres) by the British Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, led by Sir George Everest, who gave his name to the peak in 1865. Climbed in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, the Nepalese name was used for the national park, Sagarmatha National Park, established in 1976 and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Considered sacred to the Sherpa and the world’s mightiest tourist destination, even an ‘iconic hyperlocation’ (Lussault, 2017), Everest is a powerful spatial operator.
It is the focal point in the Khumbu region of an original and globalised tourism system, based on trekking and Himalayan mountaineering, which in 2014 drew more than 42,000 visitors, including 37,124 trekkers, 4,701 expedition mountaineers, and 1,121 tourists from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) member countries. It is also an essential source of income for the Nepalese government through climbing and trekking permits, as well as for local inhabitants, whose land and economy have been profoundly transformed.
Origins of an iconic hyperlocation in the tourist imagination
Everest, known as the roof of the world and the Third Pole, became part of the world’s collective imagination for tourism when the British expedition led by General John Hunt made it to the top in 1953, and this after a series of unsuccessful attempts (nine expeditions) in the interwar period in a strongly nationalistic context of rivalries between European nations. At the time, the Nepalese border was closed to foreigners. Access to the mountain went through the northern slope in Tibet, from the Darjeeling hill station in India, where the British founded the Himalayan Club, modelled after the Alpine Club, in 1927.
These expeditions forged the peak’s mythology around the exploits of mountaineers and the Sherpa as heroic figure, the Sherpa being an ethnic group native to Khumbu, employed in such expeditions. In 1959, the Tibetan border closed after the Chinese army invaded Tibet. But the open border between India and Nepal moved the logistical organisation of expeditions to Nepal and Kathmandu, the capital.
Everest, now accessible from the south slope, became the climax of the first trekking circuits in the region, making Khumbu the second most popular tourist destination in Nepal. Everest is also the most popular summit for expeditions from all over the world, with several hundred expeditions every year. Expeditions must now obtain a climbing permit from the Nepalese government, which costs about $11,000 for each participant. They also must pay a deposit, which is refunded if they return with their rubbish, which due to the growing number of expeditions, especially commercial, accumulates at the base camp.
Increasingly popular expeditions
These expeditions appeared in the 1980s in the catalogues of foreign tour operators specialising in adventure tourism, and in the programmes of independent mountain guides, who saw such expeditions as an extension of their activities. The cost ranges from $20,000 to $60,000. Expeditions require extensive logistics organised with the help of Sherpas, who are responsible for securing the route and setting up the camps at high altitude.
These commercial expeditions reflect the evolution and change of scale of a practice that was previously reserved for top-level mountaineers, following the example of Mont Blanc, as they are now open to anyone who dreams of reaching the roof of the world, provided they are physically fit and sufficiently trained, and pay the costs. The overuse of the standard route during certain times of year (there were 354 climbers in one day on Hillary Step in spring of 2019), and the potentially related fatal accidents (119 deaths between 1990 and 2019, 4 in 11 were partly attributed to overuse in 2019) are the subject of much criticism.
They raise the question of whether Everest should be temporarily or permanently closed to such expeditions, in favour of other lesser-known or more attainable peaks. The Nepalese authorities are reluctant to close Everest due to the potential loss of revenue from royalties, and income for the Sherpa, arguing that the mortality rate is relatively low (1%) and has remained stable over time despite the increase in visitor numbers (see Hawley, 2021).
- Boutroy Eric, 2004, L’Ailleurs et l’Altitude. Alpinisme lointain et quête de la différence. Une ethnologie de l’himalayisme. Thèse d’anthropologie, C. Bromberger (éd.), Aix-en-Provence, Université Aix-Marseille 1, 2 vol., 727 p.
- Hawley Elizabeth, 2021, The Himalayan Database, en ligne.
- Lussault Michel, 2017, Hyper-Lieux, les nouvelles géographies de la mondialisation, Paris, Le Seuil, coll. «La couleur des idées», 307 p.
- Jacquemet Etienne, 2018, La société sherpa à l’ère du «Yack Donald’s», lutte des places pour l’accès aux ressources dans la région touristique de l’Everest. Thèse de l’Université Bordeaux Montaigne.
- Raspaud Michel, 2003, L’aventure himalayenne, les enjeux des expéditions sur les plus hautes montagnes du monde 1880-2000. Grenoble, Presses Universitaires de Grenoble, 213 p.
- Sacareau Isabelle, 1997, Porteur de l’Himalaya, le trekking au Népal. Paris, Belin, 271 p.