There exist two main routes to the summit of Mount Everest. The southern is considerably more popular. In 2013, 539 successful summits originated in the south while 177 came from the north.
But what is termed the North Col route has always lured some mountaineers, including George Mallory and Andrew “Sandy” Irvine, who disappeared there during their effort in 1924.
The North Col is regarded by many as safer as it avoids the Khumbu Icefall, where occurred a disproportionate number of the deaths seen by Everest, although exposure is greater higher up the mountain.
It is also cheaper owing to the lower cost of Chinese permits and the presence of a road to Base Camp which obviates the requirement for a costly yak caravan.
Another encouragement is that the Nepalese permit system is presently in disarray following the earthquake of April 2015 that killed more than 8,500 people; Nepal has other things on its mind right now.
Fewer climbers choose the northern option because it is in politically-frought Tibet and permits are controlled by the China Tibet Mountaineering Association, which doles out and revokes them on a whim in classic communist fashion.
Luis Benitez, who owns Endeavor Consulting and has made Everest’s summit six times, bellyached, “There’s no rhyme or reason for granting or rejecting permits or the delay in permitting.
You’re at the mercy of the Chinese mountaineering authority, and they do what they want when they want.”
Benitez does, however, have reasons to harbour a dislike for the Chinese regime. He was serving as a guide on Cho Oyu, the sixth-highest mountain in the world, when he witnessed Chinese soldiers shoot dead a 17-year-old nun as she sought to flee the country.
At one point in 2005, he was halfway up Everest when his permit was revoked.
A complication of the North Col route came to pass in 2008, when the Olympic torch was brought to Everest. There were many expeditions camping in the north with more climbers flying in by the day, but they couldn’t continue until the torch was out of the way.
Given that China is something of a wild card in terms of permission to climb, a company is unlikely to book clients for $60,000 or more if the expedition could be cancelled at the last minute. It didn’t help when President Obama hosted Tibet’s current spiritual and one-time political leader, the Dalai Lama, at the White House in February 2015.
In 2010, China retaliated against Norway, banning travel by its citizens when the Nobel Prize was awarded to the Chinese writer and political commentator, Liu Xiabo. Robbie Barnett, director of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University, stated that while bans usually apply to tourist visas, the could easily be levelled against mountaineers. Bans can last for months or even years.
Anyone considering climbing Everest with no permit should recall the fate of a permitless Chinese climber in May 2012. Professional guides would never agree to take an unpermitted climber. This one aroused suspicion by camping apart from the two other Chinese expeditions then present.
At 25,500 feet, some graduates of the Tibet Mountaineering Guide School (TMGS) who were working as rope fixers for a company realised the gentleman lacked a permit and confronted him. He used his ice axe as a weapon but was subdued. His hands were tied and he was escorted down, Tibet-wards.
A British climber who preferred to remain anonymous told how the TMGS crowd “literally kicked him down the ropes,” calling it “a disgusting example of a pack of bullies egging each other on and literally beating him down the hill.”