When to be a mountain guide in Nepal?

Nepalese south side of Everest
Nepalese south side of Mount Everest

“We feel really bad,” Vinayak Jay Malla writes to me, meaning himself and those about 60 Nepalese who, after a long training, have received an international mountain guide certificate. Despite their qualifications, they now have to apply for a mountain guide license from the Ministry of Tourism in Kathmandu, shortly before the start of the spring season on Mount Everest and the other high mountains of Nepal. Background: The government has decreed that every expedition on a mountain in Nepal must hire a mountain guide. Only those who have one of the new government licenses will be recognized. The international certificate does not automatically count as proof. Unacceptable, complains Ang Norbu Sherpa, president of the Nepal National Mountain Guide Association (NNMGA), which issues the certificates.

Several years of training to become an internationally recognized mountain guide

According to estimates, there are at least about 2,000 people in Nepal who call themselves mountain guides – many of them, however, without ever having received the appropriate training. Since 2005, the NNMGA has been fighting against this proliferation, which is also blamed for many deaths on Mount Everest: low-cost expedition operators in particular send poorly trained or untrained “guides” up the mountain.

NNMGA training course

The NNMGA developed a training program that is recognized by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA). Those who have climbed four six-thousanders and participated in a seven-thousander expedition must attend a basic and then an advanced mountaineering course. This is followed by the entry exam for the mountain guide course, which includes three aspirant guide courses lasting several weeks spread over ten months. The aspirants then have to gain mountain experience for two more years before they have the chance to obtain the internationally valid certificate.

There is a so-called “bridge course” for those who have already climbed three eight-thousanders and two seven-thousanders (the NNMGA also includes the 6,814-meter-high Ama Dablam): They can go directly to the entry exam for the mountain guide course. Around 60 Nepalese have bitten their way through the long training and received an international certificate at the end, including Dawa Yangzum Sherpa in 2018 as the only woman so far.

Red book as a free ride

Vinayak Jay Malla
Vinayak Jay Malla

In the same year, Vinayak Jay Malla also completed the demanding training, and he has since become an instructor. His frustration is ignited not only by the lack of appreciation of his certificate, but also by the fact that the government wants to grant a license to all applicants with a so-called “red book” from the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA). “Six years ago, with the company’s recommendation for the NMA, I would have slept comfortably with a black book easily available,” the 32-year-old wrote on Facebook. “Now it would be a red book and today I would get to call myself a real mountain guide.”

Expedition members can get a black book from the NMA as a “support climber” on the recommendation of an operator, Vinayak tells me. If you renew it for three years for a small fee, it automatically becomes a blue book, and the status changes to “senior support climber.” Then, three more years later, the blue book becomes a red book, and the climber advances to “sirdar” (chief climbing sherpa) – “without exam, no need to go the mountains,” Malla says. “NMA distributes the red book on the basis of some temporary processes instead of looking at whether they (the guides) have taken extensive training, and have the necessary skills and qualifications,” NNMGA President Ang Norbu Sherpa also criticizes.

“Barely mountaineering knowledge”

Mingma Gyalje Sherpa

Mingma Gyalje Sherpa, along with Dawa Temba Sherpa and Pemchhiri Sherpa, is one of three winter first ascenders of K2 who hold an international mountain guide certificate. Once again, Mingma can only shake his head at the government. “I’m tired of these rules,” the 34-year-old head of the expedition operator Imagine Nepal writes to me. “Tourism department is run by people who barely have mountaineering knowledge and future planning.”