Scaling the world’s tallest peak Mount Everest, in Nepal, is every mountain climber’s dream, but it is a dream which has already been achieved over half-century ago. Since then, thousands of mountaineers have climbed the summit of Everest. In 2019, Nepal government issued record number of permits to climbers which lead to a traffic jam on the world’s tallest peak, the picture of which has gone viral. The traffic jam lead to highest number of deaths in four years. The charm of climbing Mount Everest has attracted crowds of climbers from all over the world, even inexperienced climbers have made their way to the top but they are not always lucky. During the ‘traffic jam’, they were faltering on the narrow passageway to the summit causing deadly delays. 11 climbers have died so far.
This month on May 22, one of the climbers clicked a photograph which showed a long queue of dozens of climbers in their colorful winter gear that snaked into the peak. Mountaineers were standing crammed along a sharp ridge on South Col. This route has a 7,000-foot (2,000-meter) drop on either side. Climbers were clipped onto a single rope, slowly trudging toward the highest peak in the world and risking their lives every minute, every step.
Talking to Financial Express Online, president of Delhi-based Indian Mountaineering Foundation Col (Retd) H.S. Chauhan said, “These days on Everest, conducted expedition take place. A conducted expedition means that there are 35-40 expedition at a time on the mountain. In conducted expedition, when you are up on the mountain, from the base camp onwards, everything is organised by the company or the agency hired by the mountaineer/expedition. There is a separate team to open up the route, which is dangerous otherwise and there is another team which fixes the route from camp onwards and right up to the summit.”
Explaining how and why so many people were crammed at the peak, Chauhan said “This year highest ever number of permits were issued to 381 people in 44 teams. All these teams were crammed into a narrow window of time (of few days) when the weather conditions were clear. It is a window when there is minimum possibility of strong winds and the sky is clear. This generally happens in the month of May, climbers get only 3-5 days like this. This time there were three days only. So, everyone who signed up to climb on Mount Everest was ready and lined-up, wanting to go.”
“Now, what happened in the photograph which has gone viral, which is from South col onwards going right upto the peak showing dozens of people lined-up, is kind of a traffic jam. When you climb up, the path which is made or roped up is very narrow, some people reached earlier but are slow and the person next to them has to adjust to that climber’s pace. If the person in front is slow, everybody gets delayed. It is like how it happens on a crammed narrow road with vehicles. Adding to the the woes are people who have reached the summit, they also then come down via same route further cramming the razor-sharp ridge,” Chauhan said.
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Chauhan told Financial Express Online that it is so dangerous that one might slip as well. “Climbing Mount Everest is not easy even if it is conducted. Extreme level of physical fitness is required. It also happens that after all the work, those who reach that height and are within few meters of the summit, don’t want to give up. You have waited for so long, you have paid so much money, number of things come in mind, and they push themselves to the limit. And if something goes wrong in all this, delay happens or anything, so the body does not keep up with that. This is unfortunately what happened that day or I think is one of the reasons. It is the individual who pushes himself/herself to the limit. But in mountaineering we got to draw a line.”
For Nepal, which is one of the world’s poorest countries, Expedition to Mount Everest is an industry in itself. The country relies heavily on the climbing industry. It adds $300 million each year to Nepal’s economy. Nepal, so far, has not capped the number of permits it issues to climb on Mount Everest or has also not tried control the pace or timing of the expeditions. This all depends on the tour operators and guides. They try to take advantage of brief clear weather window, leading to big pile-ups near the peak. “It is a good money that climbers pay, some 11,000 dollars go to govt of Nepal only. In addition, they stay in Nepal for almost a month and half adding to the economy,” Chauhan said.
Chauhan added that climbing Mount Everest has become a status symbol in the field of mountaineering. They take at least one sherpa and those who can afford can take two or three sherpas as well adding to the traffic. When asked who will he blame for the traffic jam and subsequent loss of lives on Mount Everest, Chauhan said, “We can’t blame anybody for this but yes, I can’t really say that about the agencies which were hired to carry these expeditions. What was their experience? Whose fault was this, we need to know the facts before blaming anyone. For the govt of Nepal this is an industry. More people means more dollars to the government. One person generally spends 20 to 25 lakhs rupees. A large number of people also get employment. Sherpas, porters, aircraft agencies; everyone from Kathmandu onwards benefits from this, for them it is a source of their income.”
“We need to know about the agencies, about the sherpa escort – was he good, were the mountaineers advised properly or did they push themselves too much beyond the limit. It is combination of few things but we can not blame one person for this. Everest is the biggest name and status symbol. It should not be done only for status symbol,” Chauhan added
This year the death toll on Mount Everest in highest since 2015. On Mount Everest, the region between Camp Four located at 8,000 meters to the height of 8,850-meter is is known as the ‘death zone.’ Climb here is so deadly and exhausting that if one of your co-climbers dies, you can not afford to carry down his or her the body as it will result in loss of your energy risking your own life. Those who died this year during and after the ‘traffic jam’ are believed to have suffered from altitude sickness. This condition is caused by low amounts of oxygen at high elevation. It results in headaches, shortness of breath, vomiting and mental confusion. At the high-altitude on Everest or any other peak, climbers just have few hours to reach the top and return before the deadly condition of pulmonary edema, in which lungs get fill with liquid, starts impacting them.
Mount Everest is now littered with leftovers by climbers including empty oxygen canisters, water bottles, food packaging and other wastes. So far thousand have climbers have scaled the summit of Mount Everest. It not a virgin peak anymore. According to estimates there is some 50 tons of human-caused trash on the mountain. Not just that, there is some 26,000 pounds of human waste lying as well causing enormous amount of pollution and risk of epidemic in the region. On high altitude human waste takes much longer to disintegrate, probably never.
Everest is also covered with dead bodies unfortunate climbers. It has become the tallest frozen cemetery of hundreds of people who have died there. For every 10 successful summits, there is one dead body. The bodies left behind never decompose.
Talking to a news agency, Indian climber Ameesha Chauhan who was at Mount Everest and got frostbite on her toes, said that she is agonized because she has to come back from the peak after realizing that her supplemental oxygen supply was very low. Two of her co-climbers died on the May 16 ascent. Now, mountaineering community expects some regulations to take place and efforts to clean the Mount Everest of the litter scattered there.