Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 24 August 2019

Why so many people died on Everest: surely, in 2019, mountaineering is safer than ever?

Sixty-six years after the first ascent of the world's highest mountain, 11 climbers have perished in what has been the mountain’s most deadly season for tourists

Mount Everest in Nepal faced its deadliest tourist season this May.  AP Photo    
Mount Everest in Nepal faced its deadliest tourist season this May.  AP Photo    

At 11.30am on May 29,1953, New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa from Nepal, become the first explorers to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth.

The pair, part of a British-led expedition, made their final assault on the summit after the remainder of their group was forced to turn back due to exhaustion. After a gruelling five-hour climb, the climbers stood 29,035 feet above sea level.

On the same day in 2019, 66 years later, the world is mourning the death of 11 climbers who died trying to conquer that same summit. This makes it one of the most deadly incidents since 2014, when an avalanche killed 16 people on April 18.

Sixty six years after Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary completed the first summit of Mount Everest, the mountain is facing an overcrowding crisis. Courtesy Jamling Tenzing Norgay
Decades after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay completed the first summit, Mount Everest is facing an overcrowding crisis. Courtesy Jamling Tenzing Norgay

Overcrowding at the top

A photo taken by mountaineer Nirmal Purja went viral last week. The picture shows the last ridge of the summit of Mount Everest from the southern Nepali side. In it, several climbers wait in a "traffic jam" to summit or descend the peak.

The ridge line at Everest is extremely narrow, made for one climber at a time. As more and more trekking companies bring travellers to the mountain, the overcrowding on such a thin ridge is becoming deadly.

Too many climbers

This season, Nepal issued a record number of permits, which allowed 381 people to attempt to scale Everest. Seasoned mountaineers have blamed the authority’s failure to limit this number for the overcrowding and increasing number of deaths.

EVEREST-CLIMB
EVEREST-CLIMB

The authorities knew it was going to be a busy season on Everest, as the number of permits issued was the highest ever, topping the previous record set in 2017 when 373 permits were issued.

At present, there is no limit to the number of permits issued for climbers seeking to summit Everest, and with a price tag of about Dh40,000 per permit, in one of the world's poorest countries, it’s unlikely limits will be set.

The Instagram impact

The rise of social media has also been blamed for the overcrowding as people are seeking online recognition for travel feats such as conquering the world's highest mountain. As more and more people try to get Insta-famous, Everest gets busier. A British mountaineer who died on May 25 during his descent wrote on Instagram just a few days before that overcrowding could prove fatal.

There are no qualification rules for who can seek a permit, something that makes the climb even more dangerous. Sherpas have said many climbers are very inexperienced and cannot manage their own gear or perform simple tasks such as putting on crampons – clip-on spikes that increase traction on the ice. This puts undue pressure on guides and slows down the progress of trekking groups.

When climbers do make it to the top, they have to stand in long lines to attempt the last part of the climb. This makes it difficult for them to be able to get up and down fast enough to successfully replenish their oxygen supplies.

In a statement, the Nepal Tourism board said: “Nepal recognises the need to work closely with expedition companies and teams to control safety of climber flows in the face of climatic risks and sensitivities. The tourism industry of Nepal is committed to working with the global climbing community to establish the right model for enabling trekking to continue for benefits of tourists and people of Nepal."

It goes on to add: "Conscious of the need to manage climbing numbers, especially with ever-changing climatic circumstances, 44 permits were issued for Mt. Everest through which 381 climbers were permitted to climb the peak in spring 2019. As in the previous years, climbing permits for Everest were limited by the DoT as per stringent rules, to ensure sustainable, safe and mountain-friendly tourism."

Too dangerous

Other pictures show climbers stepping over dead bodies. The danger involved in bringing deceased climbers down from the mountain is often too great a risk and adventurers are left to rest on Everest’s slopes.

In his blog Frosty on Everest, Chag Gaston who was climbing Everest this week writes: “As we climbed closer to the dark figure, it looked to be a woman from India. She lay, as if she passed out and fell backwards … I slowly climbed past, took one last glance back and reassured myself that would not be me.”

The other side of the mountain

Overcrowding has also increased since Chinese authorities for Tibet placed regulations on permits for the north side of the mountain. The process to acquire a permit is more tightly regulated and more costly, meaning climbers have been flocking to the Nepalese side. Jordanian Dolores Al Shelleh took the north route to climb Everest this week and encountered almost no traffic on the slopes. The ascent from this side is also notorious for its treacherous conditions and considered a much tougher climb

In his book High Adventure: Our Ascent of the Everest, first published in 1955, Edmund Hillary wrote: “Modern developments in technology and equipment have produced major changes in the technique of exploration.”

Of course, the explorer could not have imagined the impact social media has come to have on Everest's peaks, but that has been perhaps the biggest game-changer in the mountain’s illustrious history.

Updated: May 31, 2019 04:47 PM

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