Last week, a government panel set up after this spring’s fatalities on Mt Everest were blamed on overcrowding recommended that permits be issued to climb Mt Everest only to those who have already scaled a Nepali mountain taller than 6,500m.
It also suggested that each foreign mountaineer spend at least $35,000 during an Everest expedition and $20,000 for other mountains. Expedition support teams should also have at least three years’ experience in organising high altitude climbs.
Though welcome, the immediate question is whether these rules are enforceable. Certificates can be forged and bought, and the 6,500m threshold is not enough – Everest climbers need technical skills and higher elevation experience, at least to 7,500m. A summit of Ama Dablam (6,856 m) would qualify climbers for the big mountains but Mera Peak (6,474 m) would not. Baruntse (7,129 m), although less technical than Ama Dablam, would qualify on the height criteria. Charging $35,000 (for permit only) would be a scandal. It would certainly reduce the crowds since that amount equals a full expedition budget currently, but it would not deter the affluent and ‘bucket list’ climbers from tackling Everest.
Adventures in Robert Macfarlane’s Aboveworld and Underland, Kunda Dixit
Because we are there, Damien Francois
This spring, I almost turned around at the South Summit on 23 May, even though the infamous ‘traffic jam’ was not as bad as when Nirmal Purja took the now famous photo the day before. I did summit at a relatively late 10am, and it had taken my EverQuest team 13 hours to climb from Camp 4 on the South Col to the summit.
We had trained hard, were fit and experienced and had sufficient supplies of oxygen. We descended in a storm, but all made it safely back to Camp 4, and then descended to Base Camp on the 25th. We had done our homework and were prepared.
Four of the 9 climbers who died on the south side of Everest this year were Indians. Two more died on Makalu and Kangchenjunga each. Of the 21 climbers who died in the big Himalayan mountains in the spring of 2019, eight were from India. Since Indians made up the highest numbers of climbers on Everest this spring, it could be they had a higher fatality rate. Most Indian expeditions were on lower budgets and had less oxygen higher up the mountain.
Although the number of permits issued has risen since the first congestion drama on Everest in 1996, things are still pretty much the same. As Jon Krakauer wrote in his famous piece in Outside Magazine in September 1996: ‘Everest deals with trespassers harshly: the dead vanish beneath the snows.’ I agree, but the dead do not vanish. They are pretty visible.
Too much rubbish has been written in the past months about trash (see box below) and overcrowding on Everest. The number of permits this year was nearly the same as 2018. A lot of clients on Everest should not be there at all – they did not have enough experience, and were not fit enough.
I passed the body of Don Cash, an American climber who died of a heart attack close to the Hillary Step. A Sherpa who had passed me on our descent while climbing down the Lhotse Face fell to his death because he suffered an epileptic seizure just when he was changing his safety at an anchor point. Neither died because of overcrowding.
Ever since the Into Thin Air 1996 drama, it has become a tradition to speak of the ‘traffic jam’, ‘chaos’ or even ‘carnage’ on Everest. Granted, I passed six dead climbers myself this year, but was there carnage? Chaos? Is ‘traffic jam’ the right metaphor at all?
It is politically correct (but factually wrong) to blame the numbers. Is Everest really more dangerous? An ExplorersWeb calculation shows that the summit-to-fatality ratio on Everest has been steadily declining from 12.1% in 1996 to 1.2% this year.
Let us compare the 22 May (Nirmal Purja) photo with my 23 May picture and the Scott Fisher photo of 10 May 1996 (in John Krakauer’s, Into Thin Air). As seen from the South Summit, there are definitely many more climbers on the traverse to, and on, the Hillary Step in 2019 than in 1996.
On 22 May there was more ‘traffic’ than on the next day. There was definitely a problem. But was the higher number of climbers really the reason for the deaths of nine climbers on the Nepal side that day?
In 2019, besides lack of fitness and self-appreciation, there were two other factors: a narrowed ‘weather window’ for the summit and insufficient supplies of oxygen. Some teams opted for an earlier summit around 19 May, while others went for 25 May. But the weather changed, leading to a higher number of climbers aiming to summit on 22-23 May.
It seems many operators are stingy and try to save on oxygen. This creates problems when there are delays, which are not always due to overcrowding and to be expected in the mountains. But if you have pushed so hard that you are already ‘too far gone,’ disaster will strike with or without traffic jams. You can count on that.
Because of this, it is very important to know how far you can go. Experience and fitness, as well as being part of a good team, will help you deal with and even avoid dangerous situations. Especially when there are many people on the hill – something that will certainly not change in the coming years, even with the new rules.
Damien Francois is a climber and author of The Holy Mountains of Nepal. This spring’s expedition on Everest was his 19th in Nepal.