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As Nepal heads for a busy climbing season, mountain guides wage another unhealthy battle

The Nepal Mountaineering Association and the Nepal National Mountain Guide Association have not seen eye to eye over the past year. There is some real toxicity going on between the two associations of mountain guides.

As the country is heading for a busy climbing season, key professionals in the community are for another round of the rather unhealthy battle, further extending a year-old issue. It is highly likely that the battle will have an impact on the mountaineering business in the season.

The old fuss

In March 2021, the Department of Tourism under the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, had released a statement about the passing of a new law that will recognise red book holders of the Nepal Mountaineering Association as mountain guides. This did not go down well with the NNMGA, and its representatives then filed a writ petition asking the Supreme Court to stop the NMA from handing out mountain guide certification to people.

Their main argument was people who climb could not be called mountain guides as the red book could be obtained by anyone who climbed Everest once. The NNMGA said it wanted to fight for their rights to be called mountain guides because it felt there was a big difference between support climbers and mountain guides.

“Just because you are a strong climber doesn’t mean you can be called a guide. And, the government wanted to recognise them as mountain guides before they recognised us,” said a member of NNMGA last year.

And, this did not go down well with the NMA. NMA’s chief Santa Bir Lama in an interview says that it was wrong for the NNMGA to file a case that could be solved through talking. He says as the NMA supports this training, these people should be indebted to the NMA and people like Kami Rita Sherpa who trains these people.

“This should have been settled on the table instead they went to the court.”

But, the NNGMA says that it tried to hold discussions with the NMA, but after nothing came out of it, it had no choice but to go to the court to fight for the rights.

Meanwhile, on February 22, 2022, the NMA sent a letter to 43 IFMGA Nepali mountain guides saying their NMA membership would be cancelled unless they sent in a written clarification on why it shouldn’t be. Cancellation of their NMA membership would mean that the IFMGA guides would not be given permits to climb during the climbing season.

The unhealthy escalation

Nepali mountaineers training.

This shows how the incident has escalated as a few members of the organisations have been going at it on social media criticising each other. While one side feels that the NMA is bullying the international mountain guides in Nepal, the latter feels that the NNGMA is trying to take away jobs from the people who depend a lot on the mountains.

“All we wanted was recognition from the government. Maybe that was too much to ask for,” says an NNMGA member.

The NNMGA is an association that is a member of the International Federation of Mountain Guide Association (UIAGM/IFMGA) that aims to create quality mountain guides in the country through regular and rigorous training.

Working in tandem with the NMA, the NNMGA has been conducting various courses in the mountains like rock climbing, ice climbing and basic rescue courses with the goal of training more people who can work safely in the mountains. The NNMGA has also been sending its members to conduct the NMA’s basic and advanced mountaineering courses. 

“The NMA is the country’s alpine club. We have a lot of respect for them, but what they are doing right now is wrong,” says an NNMGA member.

The serious issue

NMA President Santa Bir Lama says this dispute needs to solved without going to the court. Photo: Shankar Giri

On the eve of the mountaineering season, the NMA threatening the NNMGA mountain guides feels a cheap shot. But, the NMA members say they had to do this as it was affecting the livelihood of 3,000 people.

“The mountain community is not run by them [the internationally recognised mountain guides]. It’s run by the blood and sweat of people like us. Why is it so hard for them to admit that we will be recognised as mountain guides? What right do they have to go against the integrity of the organisation,” says an NMA member.

There is partial truth to this. But, the NMA and the Department of Tourism (Mountaineering) under the government plan to hand out a mountain guide license to anyone who has a red book is dangerous, according to the NNMGA. If they were doing so based on experience, it would be fair. But, based on a red book that can be obtained without even climbing a mountain or after climbing Everest just does not make sense.

“But, we will not be giving it to inexperienced climbers. There is a recommendation process, through which we will identify skilled people and give them the license,” says NMA.

Yet, the NNMGA is not too sure about this. It argues climbing than climbing Everest or other commercial expeditions. This is why it is calling Nepal to produce better mountain guides as it wants the country to bring in better-spending clients. And, if a guide is not experienced enough, these people will not come.

The crucial difference

File: The Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation
File: The Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation

Stakeholders say there is a vast difference between an IFMGA guide and an NMA mountain guide. While some NMA guides claim that their counterparts cannot work on a mountain like Everest without them, they are trained to work in these mountains by instructors who mostly are from the NNMGA.

It takes fives years of regular training to become an internationally certified mountain guide. What a lot of mountaineers have failed to understand in Nepal is that there is a difference between climbing and guiding.

“I’m sure that a lot of Nepal’s mountaineers who have climbed Everest over 10 times can’t guide properly,” says an NNMGA guide.

But, the NMA people think that this is a flawed argument. They say that experience matters as much as training and some of them have that in abundance. A few even argue that not everyone can be an IFMGA guide because it costs a fortune to become one.

“No one wants to spend USD 10,000 and above to become a mountain guide. We have families to feed,” says an NMA member.

The NNMGA folks also do not want that either as they understand this is not everyone’s cup of tea. What they want is the government to recognise them the same way the international climbing club has.

They want the (NMA) red book holders to be known as expedition guides as well as it would sound better internationally and give experienced mountaineers the respect they deserve. But, they are adamant that calling people with experience mountain guides would be wrong.

“We don’t have anything against anyone. We are all brothers and want the best for everyone, but giving the title of mountain guides to everyone will not make our community better. Only training will,” says an NNMGA member.

The business impact

A fight during the eve of the climbing season is worrying stakeholders.

An NNMGA source says it wants to create more people who will help make the mountain community better. There have been talks among various international expedition companies that Nepal is not safe for climbing Everest as the mountain as there are a lot of local guides without the experience to guide the different types of clients. 

Take the 2019 traffic jam on the south summit. Some international expedition companies have argued if there were trained mountain guides, things like that would not happen. A well-trained guide would let a faster climber go but when people are not taught this, they will do what they are told.

Having more IFMGA guides is beneficial for the mountain community and the country as well. An IFMGA guide earns a lot more money than an average mountain guide. This means the climbers make money as does the country through their taxes.

A foreigner who comes into Nepal mostly looks for an IFMGA guide because of the reputation of these mountain guides. Sure, Nepal has its share of climbers who are more than great like Karmi Rita Sherpa, Mingma David Sherpa and even Nirmal Purja. But, even these people hire IFMGA guides on their team because these guides through their hard work and training have earned the respect of the mountain fraternity internationally.

But things are still tense between them and many IFMGA guides are nervous heading into the season. One even says he was sceptical to go as the ego can cause bad things to happen on these mountains.

“To fulfil the dream of some people, the entire mountain community in Nepal that has worked together is being put out to dry. I hope there is no incident on the mountains,” says an NNGMA member.

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Pant is a journalist currently working for Onlinekhabar. He writes on movies and music, travel and mountains, and culture among others.

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