Everest Base Camp - Hundreds of adventurers have been granted permits to climb Mount Everest, officials in Nepal said on Thursday, foreshadowing another bumper year despite concerns about overcrowding on the world's highest mountain.
Tourism authorities have granted 346 mountaineers permission to scale Everest this spring climbing season, with many already at base camp acclimatising before embarking for the summit.
That figure falls just shy of the record 373 permits granted last year.
Most Everest hopefuls are escorted by a Nepali guide, meaning about 700 climbers will tread the same path to the top in the coming weeks when the weather is most favourable.
A boom in climbers has made mountaineering a lucrative business since Sir Edmund Hillary and sherpa Tenzing Norgay made the first ascent in 1953.
But the rapid growth in the climbing industry has accompanied complaints of overcrowding on the mountain and fears that inexperienced mountaineers could run into trouble.
"There is an optimum number of people who can expect to undertake a safe summit expedition... I do wonder if we've exceeded that," Ben Clark, a manager for expedition operator Asian Trekking, told AFP at base camp.
Another 180 climbers are preparing to summit Everest from its north side in Tibet, according to the China Tibet Mountaineering Association.
Among those is Nepali climber Lhakpa Sherpa, who will attempt to break her own record of eight summits of the mountain - more than any woman in the world.
"I keep going to encourage other Nepali women to climb," the 44-year-old said before she left Kathmandu for the expedition last week.
Another 15 Nepali women are making the ascent from the south side - a record number, official records show.
Climbing in Nepal is a male-dominated business but the divide is slowing breaking down in the Himalayan nation.
"We are climbing to show that we are strong and capable of taking this challenge up," said Rosha Basnet, who is part of a team of five Nepali women making the expedition to Everest.
An ever-growing number of Indian climbers are drawn to Nepal by its proximity to home and cultural ties. Indians outnumbered all other climbers on Everest's south in 2017 bar Americans.
Spring is the busiest time of year on the mountain as the winds and temperatures are more forgiving than at other times.
But every spring, Everest claims lives: last year, seven climbers died on the mountain.
The permits do not come cheap. Foreigners must pay $11 000 for the privilege of summiting, before their expedition costs.
They are a much-needed source of revenue for cash-strapped Nepal, which raked in more than $4 million in Everest permits fees alone in 2017.