On Valentine’s Day, the frozen Gokyo lakes near Everest base camp in Nepal witnessed a spectacular event.
Athletes from Canada, Russia, India and the US performed elaborate figure skating routines and played a friendly match of ice hockey. But even before they reached this gateway to Everest, controversy had started rumbling.
Some Nepalese are unhappy with the event organised by Visit Nepal 2020 – a government initiative to boost tourism in the Himalayan nation.
Up to 1.19 million tourists visited the Himalayan nation last year and the government hopes that with this initiative, the numbers will rise to two million.
Many went on social media, reminding the event organisers that the Gokyo lakes, comprising of 19 freshwater bodies, holds religious significance for both Hindus and Buddhists.
Under the August full moon, Hindu devotees throng the area for a holy bath.
In Lukla, three days walk down from Gokyo, Ang Kami Sherpa, an ice-fall doctor who lays ladders and ropes along the path for climbers, said he was surprised the government would even consider allowing people to step into the lake.
“It’s a lake that grants wishes,” said Sherpa. “We go, pray and light incense sticks. It is not for playing in.”
Sherpa has been working on Everest since the 1970s, first as a porter, then as a climber and an ice-fall doctor.
Now a senior ice-fall doctor, Ang Kami Sherpa is deeply religious and does not want the lake’s deities to be disturbed.
Others in the region are also worried about upsetting the deities.
“I don’t like that Visit Nepal is defiling our lakes,” says Nga Tempa Sherpa, a local man with a keen interest in tourism from the Khumbu region, which encompasses the lakes, Everest and Lukla.
He has his own ideas for how to increase tourism.
“What we need is better flights and internet for tourism,” says Nga Tempa. “We can talk about increasing tourism but without the infrastructure, what’s the point?”
Flights to Lukla are often cancelled as a clear line of vision is limited with changing weather. The Tenzing Hillary airport in Lukla is considered the world’s most dangerous.
Gokyo lakes and their fragile ecosystem fall under Sagarmatha National Park and are a UNESCO World Heritage site.
For the event, the athletes trekked for two weeks to reach Gokyo, acclimatising along the way.
On the icy cold morning, choppers whirled in the skies as Chief Minister of Province 1 Sher Dhan Rai, government officials, diplomats and tourism officials, along with a Nepali beauty queen and some journalists, landed in what looked like Narnia.
“We’re trying to show the potential for more people to come to Gokyo,” said Suraj Vaidya, the national coordinator for Visit Nepal 2020, which is part of the tourism ministry.
At almost 5,000 metres (16,400 feet), this is perhaps the highest point where such a sporting event was ever held.
Fed by glaciers, the Gokyo lake system consists of 19 freshwater lakes. In the winter, the water freezes to a thickness of two metres (6.5 feet), the temperatures plunge to negative double digits and most trekkers stay away.
As figure skaters jumped and twirled in midair, the audience hooted in delight, oblivious to the chaos behind the scenes.
Authorities from Visit Nepal 2020 found it surprisingly difficult to secure the required permits for the event from local authorities and the department of national parks, and expressed their exasperation that other government departments were not equally on board with the campaign.
Tourism officials have defended their decision to hold the event at the lakes, arguing that Everest itself, once called Chomolungma by the locals, is equally holy but now is a highly commercial mountain.
The government charges $11,000 for climbing permits, excluding other costs. In 2019, the government made more than $400,000 on Everest permits alone.
“We need to explore new areas while respecting their sentiments and letting them understand that we are not destroying what they believe in,” said Vaidya from Visit Nepal 2020.
Some prominent members of the local community said they were disappointed at this logic.
But Nepal’s target of reaching two million tourists in 2020 seems unlikely amid the coronavirus outbreak. The government was hoping for at least half a million Chinese visitors but the coronavirus outbreak has thrown spanner in the works.
In what appeared to be an attempt to recover from this loss, Nepal’s tourism minister has declared the country “corona free” and has welcomed all airlines willing to fly into the country.
At the lakes, the organisers have cleaned up and left the winter wonderland.
The costs and the logistical complications make it appear unlikely that regular high-altitude winter sports might happen anytime soon.
If the organisers want such events can happen, much work needs to be done to convince the locals there.