The comeback of the kingdom

Not to mention total fear. With an armed Maoist rebellion still simmering in an estimated one-third of the country, “people are now focusing on South America and Africa, areas that are not in the news,” laments Andy Crisconi, co-owner of Colorado-based outfitter KE Adventure Travel, which specializes in Nepal tours. Of course Nepal has never been a bargain for climbers. Fowler calls the kingdom, where payoffs and kickbacks are a fact of life, the most expensive nation in the Himalayas, not counting Bhutan. When tourist numbers plummeted last winter, it became clear that the world's biggest mountain playground had landed on the rocks.

But with a little luck and a little more openness from Nepal's Ministry of Tourism, it may not stay there long. In December, well into the planning cycle for the pre-monsoon adventure season that begins in March, the ministry said it would begin issuing climbing permits for 103 new peaks above 5.000 meters, including White Wave – a spectacular 5.809 meter high pyramid -and Nangpa Gossum, on the border with Tibet (with 7.350 meters it is the highest on the list). The ministry also invited backpackers to six never-before-opened trekking areas, including the Walungchung Gola, a region in the northeast with hundreds of lakes and sweeping views of Kanchenjunga. In total, the terrain covers thousands of square kilometers of largely untouched mountains and valleys – an unprecedented offering from a country that welcomed organized tour groups only in 1955.

So far everyone seems to be enthusiastic. Mountain Travel Sobek, the El Cerrito, California based adventure outfitter, hopes to offer trips to the new trekking areas as early as this fall. And alpinists are, well, thrilled. “A lot of the peaks on this new list I imagine are pretty spectacular,” says Fowler, a 45-year-old climber from Melbourne, England, who last year secured a special permit and Polartec Challenge grant to climb Peak 43 of the newly opened mountains. “You would attract many people like me.”

And not a moment too soon. The year 2001 proved to be one of the bleakest in recent decades for Nepal. Although strikes paralyzed the capital in January, things didn't get started until April, when Maoist rebels killed 31 police officers in the first of several upcoming shootings. In June, Crown Prince Dipendra went on a drunken rampage and shot nine members of the royal family, including King Birendra, before turning the gun on himself. The Nepalese government only made things worse. Although not a single foreigner was a target or victim of Maoist violence in the six-year history of the rebellion, Nepal branded the revolutionaries in the months after 11. a nationwide state of exception. The U.S. State Department advised citizens to postpone travel to the kingdom, and visits by Americans were down 62 percent in December compared to the same period last year. Last fall, not a single team attempted Everest.

A tourism crisis of this magnitude won't turn around overnight. Most of the ten Kathmandu-based trekking agencies interviewed for this article said their bookings had dropped by more than 50 percent in spring. Similarly, Danbury, Connecticut, outfitter Himalayan Travel reports a 25 percent drop in confirmations. Mountain Travel Sobek has canceled two planned Nepal trips due to lack of interest and KE Adventure Travel has canceled seven. On the other hand, it is more or less normal at Everest; for April and May numerous expeditions are planned.

Although the Maoists continued to fight with the military in remote areas of the country, the army seemed to have them on the run in the middle of winter, and on 24. January, the U.S. State Department downgraded its travel warning. “This 'emergency' is psychological,” says Ravi Chandra Hamal, CEO of Ama Dablam Adventure Group, a tour operator headquartered in Kathmandu. “Things are more stable now than four months ago.” After Wyoming climber Dave Anderson, 37, called a friend in Nepal's capital for an on-the-ground update, he made a December trip to the 6, 185-meter Kwangde Lho. “It was much less of a state of emergency than I thought it would be,” he says.

Meanwhile, the list of new peaks is making the rounds of the world's alpine clubs, and outfitters hope new trips to untracked valleys will be irresistible to trekkers this fall. Even more incentives are in the works: Nepalese government sources say they are working on new regulations that will extend the season's deadline of 31. “Nepal is starting to get the message that it needs to be more service-oriented and proactive for tourism,” says Pete Athans, who has been to the top of the world six times.

Like many adventurers, Athans believes Nepal's new terrain will encourage more modest travelers to explore some of the world's last unclimbed areas. He has already updated his own tick list. “I'd like to go out and do the Yak's Horn,” he says, referring to the newly opened 6.948 meter high Mount Tengi Ragi Tau near Cho Oyu. “That's a nice peak,” he says. “And I'm pretty sure there won't be any Maoists out there.”

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