Trouble at the Top

Mt. Everest Suffers From Too Many Climbers and Deteriorating Conditions

Commercial climbing on Everest is in trouble as the mountain’s two biggest problems—the number of climbers and the deteriorating conditions—have expanded beyond anyone’s control, writes Nick Heil.

AFP / GettyImages

By now, everyone has seen the startling photos and video of the conga line of climbers ascending Everest earlier this month. If you’ve ever wondered what a human traffic jam looks like at the roof of the world, there it is, in all its goose-down glory. The images, from just a few days ago, show as many as 300 mountaineers moving between Camp 3, on the Lhotse Face, to Camp 4, on the South Col. This isn’t summit day, when those climbers converged again even higher up, but it’s nearly as bad. Many of them successfully reached the top, but at least four didn’t make it back to the bottom.

A couple of weeks earlier, an equally surprising, if less sensational, story emerged from the mountain, this time from Base Camp. I’m referring to the unprecedented May 7 decision by Russell Brice, owner and expedition leader of Himalayan Experience (Himex), one of the largest and most successful operators on Everest, to cancel his climb, pull up stakes, and go home. Himex has run commercial trips on Everest since 1994, and this year had more than 60 team members on the hill, not to mention a village worth of tents, food, fuel, ropes, radios, and other gear and supplies. Clients had coughed up a nonrefundable $60,000 for the climb, and they’d barely ventured above base camp. After the fateful meeting that morning, Greg Paul, one of the Himex team members who was blogging about his Everest climb, wrote, “Jaws dropped and shock spread throughout the room. Long held dreams, years of training, big time and financial commitments all down the drain in one pronouncement.”

A few days later, Himex elaborated on the specific reasons the team decided to abort. These included dramatic warmer-than-usual temperatures; dire warnings from experienced sherpas passing through the Khumbu Icefall about its instability; a massive serac (a hanging ice-cliff) directly threatening climbers from above the trail; abundant rockfall on the Lhotse Face (a steep section of the route); and at least two near misses from avalanches earlier in the season. If overcrowding was also part of their calculus, there was no mention of it on the site.

The growing number of climbers on Everest—most of them amateurs—and the increasing instability of the high-alpine environment, sum up the mountain’s enduring dilemma: How to manage its burgeoning popularity as the terrain becomes ever more dangerous.

With Himex gone, a mere 700 or so climbers remain on the south side this season (additional teams are also climbing on the north side of the mountain, in Tibet). By May 23, the total body count was up to 11 on the season (the 11th person was reported dead, but has since been found and rescued), barely shy of Everest’s deadlist year, 1996, when 15 people perished, including eight in one day. Currently, a second wave of 200 or so climbers are poised to make a summit bid on May 24-25. Not surprisingly, many observers and media outlets are already fluttering with morbid prognostications of additional carnage. The public isn’t infatuated with this place because it expects everything to turn out OK.

For those who are unfamiliar with how the Everest dance works, here’s a primer: Climbing teams spend weeks on the mountain acclimatizing before making their summit push, typically between early May and the first week of June, a brief weather window that provides favorable chances of reaching the summit—and returning alive. Everyone ascends via the same route, clipping into ropes stitched up the mountainside—six miles of it—all the way to the top. On summit day, you race the clock, trying to get up and down before your oxygen runs out and your body gives in to the hypoxic environment. There is no cap on the total number of climbing permits issued each year (Nepal is happy to collect the permit fees). Nor are there any regulations determining who goes, or when. If the forecast looks good, it’s up to the loose confederacy of international expeditions to determine whether they jump or stay put.

Commercial climbing on Everest is in trouble. Despite the best efforts of the established players to improve communication and cooperation; despite a full-time independent medical clinic now operating at base camp; despite, even, the arrival of powerful, high-altitude rescue helicopters servicing some of Everest’s high terrain, the mountain’s two biggest problems—the sheer number of climbers and the deteriorating conditions—have expanded beyond anyone’s control.

The latter, a growing body of research suggests, may well be linked to climate change. The conditions on Everest this year could be a seasonal aberration, but some hard evidence indicates the unstable trend is here to stay. Nepal’s glaciers have shrunk more than 20 percent in the last 30 years, and the rate has accelerated during the last decade, according to research from the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development. Temperatures throughout the Himalayas are, on average, rising, and the mountains are falling apart in the warming atmosphere. As the Himex climber Greg Paul noted in his post, “Russell [Brice] expects an accident of catastrophic proportions to possible [sic] hit the icefall.”

For every outfit like Himex that makes a prudent, conservative decision to leave, however, a dozen other expeditions stand ready to fill in the vacated boot track. That’s because, since so much is already in motion, it’s nearly impossible to reverse course, a pressure that only intensifies the closer teams get to the top. It’s one of the reasons Himex’s decision is so astonishing. For all the ballyhoo directed at successful Everesters, bailing out midclimb requires an act of will beyond the capacity of most commercial mountaineers. It’s far easier to ignore the risks than to heed them.

Something else may be happening, too. The proliferation of communication technology now commonplace on remote expeditions has taken Everest voyeurism to new heights. Photos, video, podcasts, lengthy written dispatches, 3D graphics, and GPS tracking tools flood websites each spring, beaming reports from the mountain, practically in real time. Far from serving as cautionary tales, warning wannabes from the dangerous slopes, these extreme reality shows only bolster the peak’s mystique, prestige, and appeal. Climbing Everest has long been a spectacle; now it’s a spectator sport, with no shortage of willing participants.

When the remaining teams make their final push in a few days, the world will be watching. Based on the way things have shaped up thus far, they probably won’t be disappointed.