Adam Minter: Why are so many climbers still dying on Everest?

By Adam Minter comment

Climber Naba Kumar Phukan who successfully summited Mount Everest and was rescued back sits in a hotel in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo / AP
Climber Naba Kumar Phukan who successfully summited Mount Everest and was rescued back sits in a hotel in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo / AP

This year more than 400 climbers and sherpas decided to try their luck at summiting Mount Everest during the spring climbing season.

Tragically, at least four have died so far and more than 30 others are reported to be suffering from severe frostbite and other ailments caused by prolonged exposure to Everest's brutal conditions.

With several days remaining in the climbing season, and many climbers still preparing to make ascents, the potential for further tragedy is high.

What's keeping climbers stuck up there isn't bad weather, a natural disaster or even equipment failures. The problem is depressingly familiar: Too many people are trying to climb the world's tallest mountain and are contributing to deadly traffic congestion in the process.

An issue for years, overcrowding on Everest poses a particular threat to Nepal now, as it seeks to rebuild its economy after a catastrophic April 2015 earthquake.

In 2014, tourism accounted for 8.9 per cent of Nepal's GDP and 7.5 per cent of its total employment.

Everest's direct contribution to those figures was relatively small - around US$3.5 million in fees paid to the Government and US$12 million in additional spending. But the mountain plays an outsized role in marketing Nepal to the rest of the world. If Everest can't be safely managed for tourists, the country's reputation as a whole suffers.

Indeed, Everest climbing permits themselves were down sharply this year, with roughly 40 per cent of those serving as extensions to permits issued for the 2015 season. Though no data exists on why fewer people applied, the more than three dozen earthquake- and avalanche-related deaths that occurred on the mountain in 2014 and 2015 probably made at least a few climbers skittish.

Even with the reduced number of climbers, too many are still trying to ascend at once. Thanks to better weather forecasting technologies and wide access to communications at the top of the world, expeditions know precisely when the ideal conditions are to summit.

As they rush for the peak, they create dangerous logjams.

In 2012, the mountaineer Ralf Dujmovits captured a now-iconic photo of dozens of climbers ascending Everest in a virtual conga line. Ten people would die that year under clear skies, most because the large crowds meant that climbers were stuck in the high-altitude, low-oxygen "death zone" below the summit while waiting to ascend or descend.

If a climber spends too much time there, the chances of succumbing to a fatal version of altitude sickness increases substantially. That appears to be what happened to at least three of the climbers who've died over the last several days.

In Nepal and in the mountaineering community, the problem is widely recognised. "This was a man-made disaster that may have been minimised with better management of the teams," Ang Tschering Sherpa, President of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, told AP.

The question is how - beyond sharply limiting the number of permits handed out every year for Everest - to reduce the crowds. The politics are difficult. Nepal's Government earns US$11,000 in fees from each climber and Sherpas are desperate for employment; neither is keen to lose potential customers. Proposals to limit the climb to experienced, able-bodied, age-appropriate climbers (no children, no 80-year-olds, for example) are still pending, with many veteran mountaineers doubting they can be effectively enforced.

For everyone's sake, it should be a little lonelier at the top of the world

That doesn't mean Nepal is out of options. The first step is for all parties to admit that a deadly Everest hurts both Nepal's Sherpa community and its international image.

The Government can both cut down on the number of climbers and make up some of the loss in revenues by substantially raising fees. For most climbers, the permit is a relatively small portion of an expedition that can cost as much as US$74,000 per person. But at the low-end of the business, budget guides will take inexperienced and even out-of-shape climbers up the mountain for less (with occasionally disastrous consequences). Higher fees could dissuade at least some of those customers from risking an ascent.

Nepal could expand employment opportunities for Sherpas by reviving a delayed proposal to lease out some of the country's more than 1300 unclimbed peaks to private concessionaires for management. The proposal, which has the tentative support of the guide community, would allow the Government to concentrate its efforts on earthquake reconstruction while leaving the marketing of its peaks to professional tour companies.

Those companies, no less than the Government, should have an incentive to provide a safe and less-crowded climbing environment.

For everyone's sake, it should be a little lonelier at the top of the world.

- Washington Post

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