Mt Everest, ancient and ungovernable, forever looming amongst the misty peaks of the Himalayas, certainly elicits a timeless allure. For many years, locals lived in the valleys below, in the shadow of the great mountain, believing that only the sacred or monstrous could dwell at such heights. In the last hundred or so years, much has changed – technological advancements have come about, and now, such sublime scenery incites adventure, catharsis and the promise of metaphysical awakening to those willing to venture to the summit.
That being said, the summit in question lies 29,029 feet above sea level; Sagarmatha, as the locals know it (which translates as ‘Mother of the Universe’), is the tallest mountain on earth and has long been known to be a deathly climb – prepared trekkers and climbers alike don’t go up without being aware of the risks of bad weather, extreme environments, avalanches, storms and high-altitude related problems.
Back in 1996, a deadly blizzard claimed the lives of eight people in a single day, 13 Sherpa guides and three local workers died during the 2014 Mount Everest avalanche and a further 22 people died in 2015 in avalanches caused by the April 2015 Nepal earthquake – tragedy on Mount Everest is not uncommon, and yet more and more people set out to make the climb.
Phil Sylvester, Head of PR & Media Communications and Travel Safety Expert at World Nomads, reasoned that most who attempt the journey are willing to take the risks: “The reality is, the type of people that wish to – and have the ability to – summit Everest are hard adventure specialists and expeditioners, not travellers, tourists or soft-adventure seekers,” he told ITIJ. “As far as I know,” he continued, “no travel insurance provider offers cover above 6,000 metres.” At 5,800 metres, he explained, Everest Base Camp (EBC) can be covered with certain conditions and exemptions; above EBC, climbers have ‘moved into the realms of expeditions and high-risk uninsurable activity’. As such, specialist insurance is more appropriate for those aiming for the peak, and these days it is hard to come by and has a price tag to match.
The death zone
Dr Kimberly Chawla of East West Rescue, an international assistance company that operates in the Indian Subcontinent and was involved in an advisory capacity regarding the search and rescue of survivors and the deceased at an avalanche near Nanda Devi, Uttarakhand in May 2019, said: “Everest is a very strenuous climb, even for the fit and experienced. Altitude, climate, weather and forces beyond control, such as avalanches, play a huge part in the success or failure to summit (and unfortunate deaths).”
There is a moral obligation on parties to ensure the safety of climbers, guides and support staff on the mountain
With an altitude density a third of that at sea level, climbers are forced to ascend into Everest’s ‘death zone’ (above 26,000 feet) with the aid of oxygen cannisters, and even then, climbers’ bodies are effectively decomposing due to the severely low atmospheric pressure and oxygen levels. Dr Chawla cited insufficient levels of fitness and high-altitude problems such as high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE), exhaustion, hypoxia, visual problems and snow blindness, as debilitating factors that can put increasing pressure on oxygen supplies and place team members and other mountaineers at risk. “Standing in a queue in cold weather chewing up oxygen can test any climber,” she warned. She also speculated over the reliability of the supplies distributed: “A mandatory minimum number of oxygen bottles is also required, but checks may need to be performed to ensure that they are full and functional. It is hopeful that all tour companies (or the Government) keep a ready cache of oxygen bottles available for exchange and payment at key locations such as at The Balcony.”
In terms of inexperienced mountaineers, most reputable mountaineering and exhibition agencies will insist that climbers go through a substantial vetting system. Gordon Janow, Director of Programs at Alpine Ascents, extrapolated: “A substantial vetting system requires climbers to have climbed with your company on progressively more challenging climbs, starting with a climbing school and a series of peaks, being approved after each climb for the next level.” He added that this vetting system had been in place at Alpine Ascents for 30 years.
Dr Chawla reasoned that, prior to the May fatalities, Nepal has also already made certain changes to make the peak safer for mountaineers – banning solo climbers, double amputees and those who are blind, and enforcing penalties for anyone climbing without a permit. She detailed that recent events have the Nepalese Government and authorities considering mandatory health checks by qualified physicians in Nepal and certification of an advanced climbing course. “The capabilities of the climbers and the expedition company shall hopefully be addressed,” she said.
Still, less reputable agencies are known to operate, and less-experienced climbers can slip through the net. And Dr Chawla reasoned that experienced climbers have also suffered fatal mishaps this year.
Responsibility still falls on authorities to better manage Everest expeditions; with a record 381 climbing permits issued by the Nepalese Government this year, there has been much speculation around whether this decision put monetary gain before safety.
The logistics of climbing Everest are determined by available good weather days, explained Dr Chawla. “If 381 climbing permits were issued,” she said, “and the weather conditions were limited, then all 381 – plus their Sherpas and guides (an expedition could have up to 12-15 persons) – could head for the summit at the same time. These are staggering numbers.”
Indeed, these numbers put a great deal of strain on co-ordinating operations atop Mt Everest and climbing conditions were notably poor this climbing season, with bad weather causing fewer summiting opportunities. Then again, Dr Chawla also highlighted that tourism is the main industry for Nepal, and at US$11,000 a pass, Mt Everest is a prime source of income. In addition, overcrowding on Mt Everest is not exclusive to the 2019 climbing season; increased numbers of climbers have been causing queues on the mountainside for many years.
This was a tragic and deadly perfect storm caused by a number of reasons, including the increased number of permits issued for summiting Sagarmatha, a very short weather window and lack of co-ordination between expedition groups at base camp
Furthermore, contrary to the purpose of the hefty price, which, if anything, should act to deter all but the most dedicated (and in some ways, it does), for some, increased cost of the expedition only increases the pressure on the climber to summit, and in this situation, safety can get placed on the backburner. “The consequence of the commercialisation of Everest means that, in good weather, there are enormous queues on the few available good weather windows,” Dr Chawla explained, adding that a ‘radio blackout’ maintained between tour operators only hindered proceedings.
“This was a tragic and deadly perfect storm caused by a number of reasons, including the increased number of permits issued for summiting Sagarmatha, a very short weather window and lack of co-ordination between expedition groups at base camp,” said Sylvester about the deaths in May. He stressed the importance of encouraging expedition teams to work cooperatively to ensure that lives are not put at risk in the future.
“The effect of those images is profound and long-lasting and will hopefully bring about a re-evaluation of all the contributing factors,” said Sylvester. Certainly, there is a moral obligation on parties to ensure the safety of climbers, guides and support staff on the mountain, not to mention reducing the environmental impact of tourism to Everest.
“Clearly the cachet of summiting Everest is an important drawcard for the EBC treks,” Sylvester told ITIJ. “People wish to experience some of the thrill without the risk, but this latest incident will take off some of the gloss, reduce the romanticism associated with it.” He noted that the recent media coverage will now increase awareness of the environmental impact of Everest expeditions, as well as the ‘senseless human toll’, which he ultimately thinks will be a good thing for Everest and Nepal.
Speaking ahead of the Asian Resilience Summit 2019 that took place in Kathmandu at the end of May, Director of Tourism Consultancy Chemonics International for the Middle East and Africa, Ibrahim Osta, said: “The country has lots of attractions beyond trekking and adventure tourism and they need to present that to the world in an attractive way.”
Over-tourism occurs when people do the same thing, in the same way, at the same time, said Sylvester, “but Nepal is much more than EBC; there are many other equally spectacular treks to take in Nepal.” He referenced trekking in Manaslu, exploring Dolp and Upper Mustand and mountain biking along the Annapurna Circuit, amongst other things. “Trekking will always be popular, and Nepal is unique in offering the best in this activity. I hope increased awareness and a dedication to sustainable, responsible travel, will see travellers explore more of Nepal,” he concluded.