If you've read the news in the last week, you probably came upon several articles about massive traffic jams on Mount Everest. Disturbing photos and videos of a continuous line of people stretching from the South Summit to just above the summit ridge make the highest mountain in the world look like a circus and climbing it like a terrible experience. So far, there have been 12 reported deaths during the spring 2019 climbing season. Sadly, these traffic jams are nothing new. Everest has slowly become a spectacle, and climbing to the summit can be a nightmare at times. Let me share my experiences.
In the spring of 2005, at 25 years old, I arrived in Nepal to try to reach the summit of the highest mountain in the world for the first time. I had climbed another 8,000-meter peak the year before as training, but it was my first experience on a mountain with several dozen different expeditions. Chances of successfully climbing Everest are statistically higher during the spring climbing seasons. The monsoon begins forming in the Bay of Bengal, it reliably starts moving north sometime in May, and it pushes the jetstream also towards the north. For a short period that can range between a few days to nearly a week, the Himalayas get a break from the hurricane-speed winds of the jetstream. This relatively low-wind weather "window" can typically be forecasted many days in advance and it usually happens during the second half of May. As June arrives, so does the monsoon and heavy, dangerous snowfall. At that time, the spring climbing season is over. When the weather window is long, many expeditions can spread out over several days, and there are fewer climbers on potentially dangerous areas at a time. But some years the weather window is forecasted to be very short and near the end of May. Hence, a significant number of climbers that have been waiting for their chance to reach the summit end up climbing on the same day. The resulting overcrowding of the route creates dangerous traffic jams on the bottleneck sections where climbers naturally move slower. That's how we get the shocking images we've seen on recent news reports.
On the spring of 2005, the winds were consistently strong and there never was a clear climbing window. As the season was coming to an end, some expeditions decided to quit, but many of us remained. Also because of the continuously high summit winds, there hadn't been an opportunity to set up fixed lines all the way to the summit. After a meeting of expedition leaders at Base Camp, it was decided to work together to try to summit on May 30. A group of climbing Sherpa and a couple of foreigners would fix the rope ahead of the rest of the climbers. It would be done that same day, which made it very dangerous for everyone in case of any delay. Over several days, we climbed from Base Camp to Camp 4, the last camp and on May 29 we were positioned to reach the summit the next morning. Since I left my tent that night, I could see a long line of tiny lights from other climbers that had already left for the summit. We moved efficiently until we caught up with the rope fixing team on the South East Ridge and everything slowed down. Sometimes it would take minutes before we could take a single step up. The worst part was on the knife-edge ridge between the South Summit and the Hillary Step. The Hillary Step was destroyed during the 2015 earthquake. The boulder at the top collapsed and now it's easier to have one climber moving up and another one moving down simultaneously. Back in 2005 it was only one climber at a time either going up or down, and the wait in the bitterly cold wind felt like an eternity. I was able to reach the summit that day. I recall that it was around one in the afternoon and I've never been at the summit that late again. That was my first, but not the worst experience on an Everest traffic jam.
I returned to the Himalayas in the spring of 2008 with the goal of summiting Lhotse (the fourth highest mountain in the world) and Everest on the same season. Lhotse is part of the Everest massif and the summits are right across from each other. That year brought an unprecedented challenge. The Chinese government planned to bring the Olympic torch to the summit on their side of the mountain. Their whole side would be closed to all foreigners. That meant that most of the climbers that would have tried to climb from the North side ended up coming to Nepal and creating a surge in the number of climbers on the South side. Also, the Chinese pressured the Nepal government not to allow climbers to go higher than Camp 2 (to avoid any opportunity for anti-Chinese protests at the summit) until the Chinese team had completed their project. Hundreds of climbers waited at Base Camp until the Nepalis gave us the go-ahead. I went for Lhotse while the masses moved up Everest. While I climbed at night towards the summit of Lhotse, I could see an endless line of headlamps making their way up the triangular face on Everest. The shocking moment came after sunrise when I could see a continuous line of people from below the Balcony, all the way to the South summit. Four days later, when I had a chance to climb Everest for the second time, the masses were celebrating back at Base Camp, and I had a quiet and peaceful summit day on Everest.
My worst moment came in 2011. It was the second time I tried climbing both sides of Everest in the same season, my Double Summit project. In 2010 I had only completed the Nepal side. So I went back the next year, I carefully planned my summit day in Nepal to stay ahead of the masses by one day. Unfortunately, high winds prevented us from leaving leave Camp 4 as scheduled, and we had to wait an extra night at 8,000 meters. I remember how powerless I felt when, the next morning, I saw dozens of climbers arriving every hour and setting up tents next to us. I knew the summit push would be bad, but I couldn't imagine how bad it would be. We left our tent by 10 pm, and it didn't take long to reach the first group of climbers hanging on the fixed rope. I unclipped from the line, climbed around them with my ice ax for safety, and clipped back in after passing the climbers. After a couple of hours, there were no more breaks between climbers and it was just one continuous, unmoving line of humanity all the way to the Balcony at 8,400 meters. Again, I would unclip from the rope, pass people that were moving and shaking their arms and legs to keep warm, and I would try to rejoin the fixed line on the more technical sections. But, to my surprise, other climbers would get aggressive and would push us away as if we were trying to "cut in" in front of them. This episode happened several times. What happened to the brotherhood and solidarity between climbers? Evidently, It was every man for himself. Without being able to move up, I could feel my toes and fingers starting to get cold. Just before sunrise, I made a decision. I would head down. I'm not a professional climber. I climb because it's fun and it makes me happy. That hostile environment was definitely not the Everest I loved and the place where I went to challenge myself. Reaching the summit under those conditions would not be a rewarding and meaningful experience for which I climbed. So I left the fixed rope for the last time and climbed down looking at the sorrowful eyes of the climbers hanging from the rope.
Back in Kathmandu, I made a list of lessons I had learned and ways that I could keep myself safe and happy on Everest. But the biggest takeaway was avoiding the crowds at all costs. In 2013 I went back to try the Double Summit. I arrived at Nepal earlier in the season. I pre-acclimatized using hypoxic training and climbing other peaks. So I was able to summit Everest for the first time that year on May 11. That day, the only climbers above Camp 4 were Sonam Sherpa and me. It was the best day I've had on the highest mountain in the world. While we climbed on the summit ridge, I remember thinking, "this is how it must have been for Tenzing and Hillary on their first ascent: the mountain just to themselves." I was able to reach the summit one more time only eight days later but climbing from the Chinese side. The crowds were again celebrating at Base Camp, and we had another quiet summit day.
As you can see, traffic jams on Everest are nothing new to me and many other recurrent Everest climbers. Still, when a friend shared on WhatsApp the shocking photos from recent news articles, I initially thought the pictures were photoshopped. It really looked like the highest circus in the world.
I want to finish this post by sharing some thoughts:
-Everest is essentially the same mountain it has been since it was first attempted. The challenges and dangers are genuine.
-The type of climbers Everest attracts has changed throughout the years. For the first expeditions, it was a matter of national pride. Current climbers are searching for personal experiences. Going after their individual goals.
-The only real filter for who gets to attempt to climb Everest is paying the permit and expedition fees. Absolutely no experience is required to obtain a climbing permit.
-This lack of filters brings to the mountain people with very little or no experience in high altitude climbing. Experience is essential for the safety of the climber and others around him. Taking good care of one's body at altitude is only learned over the years. Knowing how one's body adapts at high elevations also comes from experience. If climbers don't know how their body reacts at extreme altitudes, how can they know if what they're feeling is normal? If it's something that will kill them a few hours later if they keep going higher?
-When there is a very short weather window to climb, climbers get summit fever and disregard the danger of an overcrowded route. Maybe they don't even make a rational analysis and just follow the others when they go for it. Even if they do analyze it, their fear of missing out outweighs the perceived additional risks from potential traffic jams.
-Emergency rescues above Base Camp used to be nearly impossible. Thanks to significant improvements in helicopter performance at altitude, regular rescues from Camp 2 are an everyday event. I believe the number of deaths each year would be exponentially higher if not for these rescues. Nevertheless, it's usual for climbers to abuse this privilege by faking altitude illness and mild frostbite.
-This is merely anecdotal, but the number of climbers that come down from Everest with severe frostbite nowadays is inexcusable. Frostbite is, for the most part, preventable. Lack of experience and not being pro-active to prevent it are the leading causes.
-Issuing permits to climb in the Himalayas is a significant source of income for poverty-stricken Nepal. As long as climbers are willing to pay, the government will keep taking their money, no matter what they say. In the last few years, Nepal began requesting that climbers submit a letter from a doctor saying they are in good physical shape to climb. I wouldn't be surprised if the majority of the climbers write that letter themselves and fake the signature. There are no controls about it. After every disaster on Everest, the Nepal government issues new regulations for climbing in Nepal. Most of them are never enforced or reverted just as quickly.
I love Nepal and its people. Its natural beauty is magnificent. In that country, I've lived many of my most rewarding personal experiences. But it's a complicated country, and I don't believe that a long-term and permanent solution to overcrowding will come from the Nepal government.
I've thought a lot about a solution to the overcrowding problem, and I'm sorry to say that I don't have a clear answer. Nearly all of the climbers that pay for the opportunity to reach the highest point on the planet are different from year to year. The lessons learned by the previous batch never help the new one. It's naive to think that climbers will get organized and try to avoid this. The Nepal government will not limit the number of climbers. Increasing the permit fee will only make climbing Everest even more elitist, but it will not reduce the number of climbers on the mountain.
You would think that it would be in the best interest of the local companies that provide logistics services to climbers at Everest Base Camp to self-regulate. They could agree on minimum experience requirements to accept climbers. I know a few local companies with high ethical standards. But most of them would never turn away a paying client, no matter how inexperienced.
To me, the biggest victims of this situation are the Sherpa climbers and local support staff. They now have to deal with the additional risks of traffic jams and climber inexperience. Very often, they get frostbite and lose fingers and toes because they had to stick around to rescue a client that should have been nowhere near the mountain. The Sherpa community is relatively wealthy, and they now represent a lower number of high altitude support climbers. Because of the higher number of climbers on Everest, local companies recruited Sherpa and people from other local communities who themselves are inexperienced. Supply is limited, and the demand is high. It's not the local climber's fault. Compared to the rest of Nepal, their pay is enormous.