Traffic jams and waiting lines on Mount Everest. Climbers stepping over unconscious and dead bodies on their trek to the top of the world. Recent news articles have called attention to the obsession with people rushing to the summit of Everest. But why are there so many people trying to reach the peak this season?
Mount Everest is the world’s highest peak above sea level, reaching 29,092 feet at it’s summit. It is located in a sub range of the Himalaya Mountains along the border of Nepal and Tibet/China. Very little plant life grows on Everest and very few animals call it home. The Himalayan Black Bear and Red Panda can be found in the region, as well as a very tiny jumping black spider and a few soaring birds, but that’s about it. Fast and freezing winds from the jet stream, commonly reaching over 100 mph, contribute to the difficulty in climbing this area and temperatures never getting above freezing. With the peak of the mountain reaching into the stratosphere, Oxygen levels are dangerously low for humans. Climbers historically have reported that the paths to the peak are littered with frozen bodies of people on the way up or on the way down. I imagine that there are just as many preserved and frozen bodies off of the paths, perhaps from falls or disorientation or just getting lost. And I bet that number will rise with the amount of people competing for unique “first” titles on Mount Everest.
Several factors are to blame for this seemingly insane need to climb the tallest mountain in the world. The climbing season occurs in a brief window during May and in the fall, depending on cyclones. The length of the brief season, if it occurs at all, depends on avalanche risk, weather concerns, earthquakes, and scouts able to secure climbing ropes, bridges and ladders for climbers. Combine the short and unpredictable season with growing numbers of climbing permits issued and you get large crowds and long waits in bottlenecked climbing areas. With limited Oxygen levels at such high altitude, climbers need to carry Oxygen tanks with them. Long waits standing on line to summit depletes Oxygen tanks and energy levels. While climbers may have enough to summit, they find themselves running out on the way down! Fatigue sets in quickly, making each step in the freezing and high-wind environment increasingly exhausting.
You cannot talk about the increased number of climbers without acknowledging the greed and disregard for human life that is occurring. Countries issuing the climbing permits receive money for the permits. It is said that the cost can be as much as $30,000! Nepal is notorious for issuing permits to climbers, perhaps due to it’s “fourth world status” and demoralizing poverty. Climbing companies also receive a commission from climbers to get them to the summit. Naturally, each company competes with others for the title of getting the most amount of people to the top of the world. So, they take more climbers each year as well as start earlier and finish later in the climbing seasons than they should. Many climbers from countries like America and Britain are shocked to witness the theft, deceit, and lack of concern by Sherpas and guides. Behavior like that is uncharacteristic for many Westerners, but poverty and desperation force some to steal Oxygen bottles (valued at over $100 per bottle), take necessary food and gear from groups, trick climbers to summit the wrong peak, and even abandon people completely.
Photo Credit: @nimsdai/Project Possible, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The increasing amount of people attempting to make it to the summit has brought other ugly human traits to such a remote area. The amount of human waste and litter is evident. Reports of crime have gone up. Extortion of climbing guides and locals to entertain and get climbers to the summit have become almost normal. Prostitution, robbery, murder, assault, abandonment, and drug use are all documented crimes taking place at the various camps and on the trek to the summit of Everest.
Just surviving the humans on Mount Everest seems tricky enough, but let’s not forget about the Mother who was there first, Mother Nature. The first obstacle is Khumba Icefall, which is located on the south side of Everest. An article in Outside called it “treacherous”, “lethal”, “like playing Russian Roulette”. This is the area between Base Camp and Camp II where climbers can get used to the ladders, lines of people, terrifying crevasses, and the sounds of the Khumba Glacier heaving and sliding beneath you. It may take several climbs and descents here to acclimatize to this area. Climbers are now at about 19,500 feet above sea level. Next obstacle is the Western Cwm, or valley. Outside journalist Svati Narula writes, “The relatively flat, 2.5-mile long valley is flanked on three sides by the slopes of mounts Everest, Lhotse, and Nuptse; the sun reflects off those flanks and bakes the Western Cwm to the point where climbers often feel the need to strip down to t-shirts during the day.” Cloudless skies and no wind gives the climbers a false sense of ease as they make their way to Camp II, known as Advanced Camp, at about 21,000 feet. Next comes the Lhotse Face, the world’s fourth tallest mountain. Narula also writes, “The “Lhotse face,” as it’s called, is extremely icy and ranges from 45 to 55 degrees in slope. That’s steep, and you’ll be clipped in to a rope while methodically kicking your crampons into the ice for three to six hours. Expect traffic. This is the section where German mountaineer Ralf Dujmovits snapped an iconic photo of what looked like a conga line of climbers in 2012.” Camp III is at the top; now climbers are between 23,000 and 25,000 feet.
Photo Credit: Ralf Dujmovits, 2012
Nearing the summit is the fourth big obstacle, the Southern Col. As you leave Camp III, climbers encounter more steep and icy climbing on Lhotse side before reaching a rocky section called the Geneva Spur at 24,000 feet. On the Southern Col is Camp IV, where climbers make camp at the last place they will sleep before attempting to summit. Here they are hooked to oxygen machines, cope with hurricane force winds and freezing temperatures, and are at 26,000 feet, just inside the “death zone” of 25,500 feet. When the conditions are right, climbers will make their summit attempts from here. Climbers leave their wind-shipped tents at midnight and slowly make their way along the South Face of Everest. A variety of iconic spots along the way, like Hillary Step and Cornice Traverse, are places to pause and change Oxygen tanks. By time climbers have reached the summit, they have been hiking for over 14 hours and are summoning all of their strength to complete their attempt. Once at the top of the world, climbers could witness spectacular views of neighboring peeks of Lhotse, Dablam, Naptse, and other Himalayan mountains. Take it in fast because climbers are rushed back down through the camps and back to Base Camp, where they are tended to by camp staff briefly and are brought back to Nepal’s capital of Kathmandu. They can recoup and recount their stories in local hotels and restaurants and an Irish pub. Maybe they will even take a moment to mourn the lost of a group member, or memorialize someone ‘s remains that they passed along the way.
To emphasize how difficult it is to get to the top, Google Maps needed help in mapping Mount Everest. It is reported that it took a team of twelve climbers to get the images, but Mount Everest is now on Google Maps! That is how I plan to summit Mount Everest, and from my living room where it is a comfortable 70 degrees and there is plenty of Oxygen. Thank you Google Maps!
Narula, Svati Kirsten. “Climbing Mount Everest in 2019. From Kathmandu to the top of the world, here’s an overview of the most popular route to Everest’s summit”. Outside. 29 Mar 2019. https://www.outsideonline.com/2392617/everest-2019-summit-trek-nepal-south-side. 28 May 2019
Safi, Michael and Budhathoki, Arun. “‘Walking Over Bodies’: Mountaineers describer the carnage at the top of Mount Everest”. The Guardian. 28 May 2019. https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/walking-over-bodies-mountaineers-describe-the-carnage-at-the-top-of-mount-everest/ar-AAC1SyB?ocid=spartanntp.
Sharma,Bhadra and Ramzy, Austin. “Three more die on Mount Everest”. The Washington Post. 24 May 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/24/world/asia/mount-everest-deaths.html. 28 May 2019.
Featured Image “Birds fly close to the peak of Mount Everest”. Photograph: Niranjan Shrestha/AP