What forced Chhanda Gayen — missing along with two sherpas after an accident— to make an attempt to scale the dangerous Yalung Kang, hours after setting foot atop the equally treacherous main peak of the Kanchenjunga? The media have attributed her decision to valour and her love for mountaineering. But Gayen’s own admission to Tashi Sherpa, the leader of the ill-fated expedition, throws light upon an unexpected, and under-reported, aspect of mountaineering — sponsorship. Moments before the mishap, after inclement weather had forced Gayen and Tashi to abort their climb, a distraught Gayen had told Tashi that the failure would make it difficult for her to obtain sponsors for future expeditions.
Gayen’s fears are not unfounded. As a sport, mountaineering is inordinately expensive. An expedition to the Everest, for instance, could make a climber poorer by 10,000 dollars. For the Kanchenjunga, the price is 1,500 dollars. (A substantial portion of the fee goes to the coffers of the Nepal government in the form of royalty.) Raising such princely sums is as daunting as the climb. The agencies that organize the expeditions — they are responsible for providing climbers with gear, tents, yak and even insurance — charge their own commissions. Incidentally, very few Indian companies offer insurance coverage for mountaineers. Worse, these policies are not recognized in Nepal, forcing climbers to opt for expensive coverage from private companies in that country.
Neither the Indian Mountaineering Foundation nor the Indian State bears the expenses for expeditions outside India. Hence, climbers are entirely dependent upon voluntary donations and corporate sponsorship to fund the trips. Sponsors, having little or no knowledge about this challenging sport, follow strange rules. For instance, it is easier to gather funds for the popular and heavily commercialized Everest than the arduous Kanchenjunga. The paucity of sponsors and the exorbitant costs often force climbers to scale multiple peaks in the course of a single expedition. As is evident from Gayen’s fate, such an idea is fraught with risks.
Should mountaineering then be commercialized to ease the financial strain on climbers? Such a proposition, the tax sops notwithstanding, is unlikely to galvanize the corporations that are threatening to take over the world of sport itself in the name of democratizing it. This is because the dividends from mountaineering, given its niche appeal, are limited. Physical hardship serves as a deterrent. But even more relevant is the fact that at its heart, mountaineering, unlike team sport, remains an intensely private and solitary engagement. The corporations’ glorification of and patronage for team sport — football, cricket, to name a few — as opposed to its apathy to mountaineering lays bear their profiteering motives.
This, however, opens up an opportunity for the welfare State to support mountaineering. But given its limited resources as well as the massive ecological degradation, the State ought to impose an environmental rider on such expeditions. For instance, monetary support for climbers could be given in return for critical information on the sighting of endangered flora and fauna, the extent of pollution and the steps undertaken to control it, the depletion of the glaciers, and so on. The media, too, would have to be co-opted into such an initiative so that they can serve as a platform to disseminate climbers’ experiences, troubles and ecological data in the public domain.