Everest, Traffic Jams…and Death.

I think by now almost everyone who follows news in the outdoor world has seen this incredible photo.

CreditCreditProject Possible, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images — reproduced here via nytimes.com

A queue reported by CNN to be over 300 people waits in the ‘death zone’ (above 8000 meters) just below the summit of Everest. Of the over two hundred climbers who have died on Everest, most have died in the death zone.

It’s now being reported that at least three people (and perhaps as many as six) have died in the last 24 hours as climbers scramble to try to take advantage of a brief window of good weather to reach the summit. This brings the total of deaths this year on Everest to at least seven. This is already greater than the toll for last year, when five people died.

2018 by the way set a record for the most people successfully reaching the summit. Over 800 people summitted due to a long stretch of unusually calm weather. The demand to get to the summit, despite its huge inherent risks, is high.

The name of our blog is taken from a rather famous quote from the climber George Leigh Mallory, who rather famously died while attempting to become the first human being to stand on Everest. He was asked by a reporter to explain why he wanted to climb Everest, a question that to Mallory must have seemed almost idiotic. His answer was at least partly on the flippant side. The full quote, which is rarely seen, is as follows…

 “Because it’s there...Everest is the highest mountain in the world, and no man has reached its summit. Its existence is a challenge. The answer is instinctive, a part, I suppose, of man’s desire to conquer the universe.”

We repeat this today as a form of perspective. We now live in a day when Mallory’s dream…which cost him and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine, their lives…is now a thriving for-profit recreational business. It used to be that only elite mountaineers could reach that summit, and then only at great risk. Now, any customer who can afford the price and pass the (admittedly grueling) conditioning program can, if they chose, order it as a package online.

Note that when we speak of ‘climbers’ on Everest, we are really talking about two distinct types of climbers…

  1. Professional guides and Sherpas, who might summit many times in a season
  2. People who have paid others to get them to the summit of Everest

The point is not to dismiss the achievement of reaching this highest of high points. Even in today’s world with guided expeditions, there is no easy way to the summit of Everest. Almost everyone who reaches it is by definition special, and most are experienced climbers who have survived a serious ordeal.

But Everest is a mountain to test even the most experienced climbers on Earth. This is not a place that most average human beings should even be thinking of going. And yet many do, and pay handsomely to do so…paying a good deal of money, and in some cases, paying with their lives. To say nothing of the others they endanger.

According to CNN the Nepalese minister of tourism dismissed allegations that the traffic jam contributed to the deaths, brushing the claims aside as “baseless.”

We’re obviously distant from the scene, but it’s not just a single photograph that points to chaos. Eyewitness accounts at the scene also indicated that the traffic queue had hindered rescue and evacuation. It does not seem baseless at all to suggest the number of climbers on the route was a contributing factor.

Perhaps the definitive —  and most respected — site for Himalayan Mountaineering is Alan Arnette’s blog. His account of the 2019 climbing season so far is rife with harrowing reports of long delays, bottlenecks, disorganized groups, inexperienced climbers, harried guides, frostbite, and death.

The most serious reports are those that the Nepalese government has placed gag orders on climbers — instructing them not to talk to the press about conditions on the mountain, and especially conditions around the Hillary Step.  This last is important because the massive 2015 earthquake apparently has made dramatic changes to the the once very challenging passage, making it into a rather routine slope which Arnette likened to a ‘staircase.’ The fear apparently is this may hurt tourism, a position which seems irrational.

Sylvia and Brian are not Alpine Climbers and make no pretense toward being such. We are happy with simply hiking. Perhaps someday we’ll do the Everest Base Camp / Three Passes Route. But we have no intention of climbing the world’s largest and most dangerous mountain.

We are wondering, however, if it’s not time for the Nepalese Authorities to take some action here. Many other less dangerous hikes than Everest have very strict quota systems. Is it time for a stricter one on Everest? Or at least some sort of tougher vetting system?

It is understandable why they would be reluctant to. According to the Economic Times, the average cost of a guide-assisted summit of Everest ranges between $20,000 and $45,000, depending on whether one goes with a local or western agency. The government extracts some percentage of that as fees and taxes. And the actual amount of tourist dollars spent in the country is of course much higher.

Nepal needs the money. It is currently the world’s 153th largest export economy, with a population that is still largely employed in agriculture, and most of that in the lowlands. Tourism is a major source of revenue here. It is no secret that Nepal’s fastest growing industry is the export of fabulous mountain views to foreign eyes.

Killed in this latest round of the ongoing struggle of man vs. mountain were Donald Cash, 54, an American from Utah; Anjali Kulkarni, also 54, of India; and another Indian climber whose name has not been confirmed at this writing. There are also reports of yet another man who perished on the North (Tibetan) side. Both Cash and Kulkarni had already summitted and were returning when each collapsed, Kulkarni dying with her husband at her side. Their bodies will likely remain on the mountain, the world’s highest graveyard.

Both Cash and Kulkarni were widely traveled outdoor enthusiasts, but not professional climbers. They are far from the first to do so. We’re wondering if maybe the ratio of professional guides to tourist climbers has to increase, and the number of climbing permits handed out has to decrease.

We have our own Bucket List of things we’d like to see and do. We’re not going to start judging other people’s desire or freedom to pursue their dreams. But our concern is that many people who are doing so have not earned the right to it, and those that have are paying a higher and higher price for it.

Maybe it’s time for the Nepalese government to take some action, before another debacle of the 1996 variety — or worse — happens. Before the world’s highest graveyard gets bigger still.



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