As the climbing season on Mount Everest comes to an end, there is no denying that this year has been historic in more ways than one. Let’s take a quick look:
- There has been a record-breaking number of climbers and Sherpas reaching the summit this year at more than 825.
- Records were also broken in the number of permits that were issued by the Nepalese government with 381 being issued.
- There was also a four-year high in deaths, with 11 fatalities.
Climbers understand the dangers that come with Mount Everest but in most cases, when there are high numbers of deaths, they are generally down to single disastrous events such as avalanches. This happened in 2014 (12 Sherpas lost their lives) and again in 2015 (19 people died). There has been an average of about six deaths per year over the last two decades.
The difference this year is that instead of being a single disastrous event, the lives lost have been down to several factors which have led to overcrowding in the most dangerous areas. We are going to be taking a look at just where it all went wrong this season.
“I don’t want to be so fatalistic and say it was only a matter of time, but when you have an unchecked area that is aggressively dangerous to be in … you definitely end up with disaster, unfortunately,” – Les Stroud
Missed Weather Window
Many of the climbers that wished to climb Mount Everest had started to gather at the base camp at the beginning of May. Also at this time, the authorities were concerned about the knock-on effects of Cyclone Fani which had already struck India and Bangladesh.
The weather deteriorated in the Nepalese Himalayas days after the cyclone, forcing the government to suspend all mountaineering activities for at least two days. Following the warning, several climbers, who were already en route to some of the higher camps, returned to base camp.
While the climb can also be done from the Chinese side, many climbers find it less interesting and the Chinese government issue few permits than Nepal.
Because of the bad weather, it meant that the practise of fixing bolted rope to assist the climbers was also delayed. While all this was happening there was still crowds of climbers gathering at the base camp. The ropes were fixed in place by mid-May with the first clear window being 19 and 20 May. Most climbers however, chose to wait for the second window which was from 22 to 24 May. The overcrowding issue was most evident in a May 22 photo that showed a lengthy line of climbers on an exposed ridge leading to the summit.
Rizza Alee, an Indian mountaineer who returned from Everest’s Camp Four because of a lack of oxygen, told Reuters about the “carnage” caused by the fatal traffic jam.
It has become a death race there because there was (a) massive traffic jam, and people are pushing themselves who are not even capable of doing it. They do it, they try to summit and they, instead of summiting, they kill themselves.
Bad Crowd Management
This second window is where mountaineering experts say that the crowd control went so wrong. The most climbers in a single day was on 23 May when 250 climbers started out but they had to wait hours below the summit in both directions (on the way up and back down). This meant that they were not only exhausted but also that their oxygen cyclinders were running low.
Nepal’s mountaineering regulation requires expedition teams to have liaison officers on the mountains. This time 59 of them were appointed to accompany the teams but only five of them stayed until the final part of the climb while some didn’t even turn up at all.
If these officials were to have stayed on the mountain, it would have been a lot easier to manage the crowd. By doing so, the teams could have been spread more evenly between the first and second window.
44-year-old, British climber Robin Fisher captioned an Instagram post on 19 May:
With a single route to the summit, delays caused by overcrowding could prove fatal so I am hopeful my decision to go for the 25th will mean fewer people. Unless of course everyone else plays the same waiting game
Fisher died while returning from the Summit after suffering from what appeared to be altitude sickness at 8,600 meters (28,215 feet).
Many Climbers Were Inexperienced
Each year sees an increase in the number of inexperienced climbers that are trying to take on the challenge of Everest. Many of those this year had only a single Sherpa guide with their team. Any danger and a single Sherpa can’t help much as he will need to take care of himself. A team of Sherpas means that they can look out for each other while also looking out for the climbers.
Some of the mountaineers who successfully returned after summiting said that they had seen climbers struggling because they were running out of oxygen – they had to wait much longer. Most people can only spend a matter of minutes at the summit without extra oxygen supplies, and the area where mountaineers have been delayed is known to many as the “death zone.”
Seasoned climbers call any part of the mountain above 26,000 feet “the death zone” and humans are just not meant to exist there. Even when using oxygen, there is only a few hours that the average human can survive up there before their bodies start to shut down. This is why, if you get caught up in a traffic jam, the consequences can be really severe.
Veteran climbers have been suggesting for a long time that Nepal’s government should introduce certain criteria which includes mandatory experience of having climbed peaks above 6,000m, for issuing Everest climbing permits. As it is, Nepal does not currently require proof of climbing experience for those climbing Everest.
Competition Between Operators
The quest to get anyone willing to pay has been mainly down to intense competition between operators, particularly old and new ones. As new operators emerge offering cheaper prices, it means that the more established operators have been forced to cut their fees. This in turn, sees agencies hiring inexperienced guides who cannot offer the right guidance to their clients when they have a situation like this.
These operators are no longer thinking about quality but are instead only thinking about volume and are cutting corners on safety to keep their prices low. Many are using old equipment and employing Sherpas that have no experience to carry loads up the mountain.
And while some guides go to climbing schools and become certified by groups such as the International Federated Mountain Guides Associations, no certification is necessary to take people up Mount Everest and clients often may not know how well-trained their guide actually is.
List of Everest Deaths 2019
- Séamus (Shay) Lawless (May 16 aged 39) – Presumed dead after fall at Balcony
- Ravi Thakar (May 17 aged 28) – Altitude Sickness at Camp 4
- Donald Cash (May 22 aged 55) – Altitude Sickness at Hillary Step
- Nihal Bagwan (May 23 aged 27) – Exhaustion on descent near South Col
- Ernst Landgraf (May 23 aged 65) – Exhaustion on descent on the Tibet side at 8600m after summiting
- Anjali S Kulkarni (May 23 aged 54) – Exhaustion on descent near Camp 4
- Kalpana Dash (May 23 aged 52) – Exhaustion on descent near Balcony
- Kevin Hynes (May 24 aged 56) – Altitude Sickness at North Col
- Druba Bista (May 24 age unknown) – Exhaustion and altitude sickness at Base Camp following evacuation from Camp 3
- Robin Fisher (May 25 aged 44) – Exhaustion during descent at 150 metres below peak
- Christopher John Kulish (May 27 aged 62) – Cardiac event during descent at South Col