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How overcrowding near Everest summit is exposing climbers to grave risks

Eleven people died trying to climb Everest this year, one of the worst seasons on the mountain. Why the drive to stand on top of the world is proving lethal.

india Updated: Jul 04, 2019 18:30 IST
Shail Desai
Shail Desai
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
mountaineering incidents,death in everest,death in Mt. Everest
Photograph showing the human traffic on Everest this season, looking back from the summit.(AP)

On May 11, Keval Kakka, a 28-year-old from Mumbai who runs a trekking outfit, sat at the base camp on the south side of Mount Everest, awaiting news of the plan ahead.

He soon got word that the team of Sherpas fixing the route to the summit would be done in around three days. They had been at work for more than two weeks, moving steadily up Everest, laying the fixed line — a thin nylon rope which the hundreds of climbers hoping to stand on top of the world would clip themselves to — and creating elaborate systems of ropes and ladders in the more difficult sections of the climb from base camp all the way to the summit.

The sprawling tent city at Everest Base Camp. ( Courtesy: Keval Kakka )

After a quick word with Pemba Oingdi, his Sherpa and climbing partner, Kakka decided to do something bold—tail the rope-fixing party as they were finishing up, hoping to be among the first of the season to reach the summit. Base camp was getting crowded and soon, Kakka knew, people would be jostling for space along the fixed line. The weather forecast was good for the next few days, and Kakka, a seasoned mountain man with two eight-thousanders (as the world’s 14 highest mountains of 8000m and above are popularly called) under his belt, had the necessary skill and experience needed for this early attempt. In fact, Kakka’s plan was more ambitious; he wanted to attempt Lhotse, an eight-thousander that shares a summit route with Everest till Camp 4, immediately after he was done with Everest.

On the north side of the mountain in Tibet too, the weather was opening up. Kuntal Joisher, a 38-year-old software engineer, also from Mumbai, had similar plans of tailing the rope-fixing party. He, alongside Mingma Tenzi Sherpa, would try to catch the first possible weather window to make the summit.

By the time 16 May dawned, Kakka had summited Everest from the Nepal side. On the same day, there was disappointment for Joisher. He watched with apprehension as the rope-fixing team descended the mountain, with the final 550 metres still to be opened.

It took Joisher until May 23 to finally reach the summit of Everest—a notable season on the north side, given that it was the only day that climbers got to the top. Things were slightly better on the Nepal side, where there were four days in the two-week long climbing season where attempts could be made, though it was still in contrast to the 11-day-long weather window from last year. There was a cyclonic system parked off the subcontinent, disrupting the normal flow of jet streams, and squeezing the hundreds of climbers gathered on the mountain into narrow and uncertain weather windows in which to make their attempt.

For Kakka, the decision to make an early summit attempt perhaps saved his life, because by the time the camps were wrapped up on either side, Everest had seen 11 deaths in one of the worst ever seasons for climbers. Four of the casualties were from India. What made these deaths the centre of a spiralling debate on overcrowding on the mountain was that none of the climbers was caught in bad weather, which is the usual killer in high mountains and accounted for 15 lives in the infamous 1996 season; or avalanches, which killed 16 Sherpas of the rope-fixing team in 2014; or a natural disaster, like the 2015 earthquake that killed 19 people at base camp and devastated Nepal.

Instead, there was a disquieting photo that said it all: a long line of climbers, pressed thickly into each other in their vivid, bloated parkas, standing exposed at almost the cruising altitude of a jetliner on the final knife-edge ridge before the summit, with dizzying falls on both sides, and the deadly wind kicking up a bank of cloud and snow.

An American documentary film-maker, Elia Saikaly, on a project shooting the summit attempt of four Arab women, was there, and posted on his Instagram: “I cannot believe what I saw up there. Death. Carnage. Chaos. Lineups. Dead bodies on the route and in tents at Camp 4. People who I tried to turn back who ended up dying. People being dragged down. Walking over bodies. Everything you read in the sensational headlines all played out on our summit night.”

As the climbing season ended, the blame game began—the blatant commercialization of Everest; indifference towards the dangers of climbing; untrained climbing customers; inexperienced Sherpas; and poor planning and communication between mountaineering companies.

A record 381 permits were issued by Nepal for Everest this season (in contrast to 140 issued by China for the northern route). Each paying member shelled out $11,000 for the permit, which, when added to the logistics of the climb, amounted to anywhere between $30,000 and $100,000 per climber. With no other criteria in place, anyone who could cough up the money could make an attempt on Everest, quite literally buying a ticket to the season.

This year’s Everest story, like every year’s, begins in April, when most climbers arrive at base camp, a sprawling tent city at 17,500 feet above sea level. Even though climbing windows begin opening only in May, this extra time is required for acclimatisation. At higher altitudes, the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere decreases, due to lower pressure. The human body finds it hard to cope with this, and acclimatisation is the process by which it gradually, over days and weeks, begins to adapt. Part of that process is called rotation, climbing to a higher altitude and then coming back down for the day, and then repeating the process, gradually moving higher and higher.

On April 13, Anjali Kulkarni, 54, from Thane, Mumbai, arrived at base camp with her husband Sharad, 57. Everest had long been a dream for the couple; they had been trekking for 20 years, spending all their holidays in the hills. In 2014, with Everest in mind, they completed a basic mountaineering course in Darjeeling (they had crossed the age limit for enrolment, and needed a special dispensation). Mr and Mrs Kulkarni made their first attempt at a peak in 2014—Mt Elbrus, a dormant volcano in Russia that tops out at 15,554 feet—but had to turn back from just below the summit due to bad weather. Both began running in distance races as well.

Anjali and Sharad Kulkarni on Everest. ( Courtesy: Sharad Kulkarni )

They decided 2019 would be their year for Everest. To allow herself to prepare better, Anjali quit her job in a media agency in 2018. Sharad did the same, handing over the reins of the family business to his son. In January, they went to Ladakh to train in winter conditions under a veteran Everester.

To minimize risk, and because they could afford it, they requested their adventure company to provide them with two personal Sherpas each. At base camp, the mountain-loving couple met and immediately bonded with another Marathi-speaking man, 25-year-old Nihal Bhagwan from Solapur, a city in Maharashtra close to its border with Karnataka. Bhagwan was training to be a fitness instructor, and had done his advanced mountaineering course. For Bhagwan this was a matter of grit—he saved money for four years and attempted Everest last season, only to have to turn back from high up the mountain due to stormy weather.

By April 27, all three of them had made rotations up the mountain, including through the Khumbu Icefall, a moving glacier of gigantic seracs and crevasses that is considered one of the toughest parts of the climb, and back. They had gone up as far as just below Camp 3, located on a steep wall of ice and snow at 23,500 feet, where climbers remain clipped on to the fixed line even when they are moving around at camp. The next two weeks would be spent at base camp, deepening their acclimatisation while waiting for the rope-fixing teams to finish the route and set up the last tents before the summit, at Camp 4.

Kakka set out for his second rotation on May 1, heading for Camp 3, but as he approached the wall of ice, he watched a massive avalanche set off. He and his team turned back as the wind began to pick up. Over on the north at around the same height on the mountain—roughly 23,000 feet—Joisher was startled out of his daze as the wall of his tent collapsed. High winds had been predicted only for the following day, but by 3am, he was rudely awakened by gale-speed winds.

“At one point, the tent just caved in. The wind blasts would come in waves and absolutely batter us. Even after we moved to my Sherpa’s tent, we were just trying to hold it together, awaiting first light to get off the mountain. Some 30 tents were lost that night,” Joisher recalls. At 21,000 feet at Camp 2, set up painstakingly by the Sherpas ferrying tonnes of load, 60 tents were carried off by the storm.

The unusual weather pattern was making itself felt. The route should have been completed by then, but hadn’t been. Time was running out even for the rotations. Kakka remembers seeing climbers on their way up on May 3, when inclement weather was predicted due to a disturbance in the Indian Ocean that caused Cyclone Fani.

“People were still ascending when we were on our way down,” Kakka says. “It was a terrible decision and I approached a few to ask them to turn around, but nobody was bothered. A few were already struggling then.

“The Sherpas also wanted to spend less time on the mountain, since it was really cold. Base camp recorded minus 17 and 20 at night. It was tough for them to plan the oxygen drops at South Col (the final camp before the summit).”

Alan Arnette, an American climber who summited Everest in 2011 and has been chronicling every Everest season since on his blog with painstaking detail, says: “The jet stream simply did not move as it usually does in May.”

The teams were inching towards a situation where they would soon be facing a race against time.

By May 16, Kakka had made his speedy ascent on the heels of the rope fixing team, summited Everest and was sitting inside his tent at South Col, on the windswept ridge between Everest and Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world. Kakka’s plan of climbing Lhotse was hanging in the balance. He watched the weather change. He tucked into dal-baat and thepla, and after quiet contemplation, decided to head down to Camp 2 for a few days of rest.

With every day, the over three hundred paying climbers and more than double that number of guides and Sherpas grew more restless. The opportunity to make the summit was closing fast. Instead of dividing up the climbing days among the various groups to manage the crowd, everyone focussed their attention on the forecast that there would be a weather window between 22 and 24 May. It was possible, the forecast predicted, that the season would shut for good after that. The record number of climbers on the mountain were all going to make their summit attempt in that two-day opening.

At 1am on May 21, Kakka set out for the summit of Lhotse. By the time he reached the top at 6.30am, the wind had picked up and after some quick photographs, he and his two Sherpas, Nima and Pemba Tashi, began to hurry down, hoping to reach the safety of base camp. At Camp 4, where the routes to Everest and Lhotse converge, he stayed stuck for more than an hour to allow ascending climbers to pass.

“Even in places where there were double ropes set up, people were struggling,” Kakka says. “The other rope was meant for the descending teams, but climbers were grabbing both and pulling themselves up. They took two steps and would stop for 10 minutes. They were out of breath despite being on oxygen; others were being dragged by their Sherpas on a short rope. I saw a Sherpa yelling at his client, furious since she wanted to drink water in the middle of the route while the others waited behind her. And she was asking him to open the bottle, since she didn’t want to take her mittens off.”

Kakka explains that when a climber takes longer than usual to climb, the body gets exhausted. To recover, the oxygen flow is increased at times, but this means there is a chance of it running low when higher up. Then, when the flow is turned down, the body starts degrading at a rapid rate, since above 26,000 feet, called the death zone by mountaineers, the body’s capacity to acclimatise is gone.

“It’s about awareness on the mountain. And to think most climbers don’t even keep a check on their oxygen,” Kakka says.

In that throng going up to Camp 4 were Anjali, Sharad, and Bhagwan. They reached South Col, a plateau the size of two football fields that resembles a moonscape more than any earthly place. They were in the death zone. Below them lay the vast Tibetan plateau and giant glaciers, with the spires of Kanchenjunga, Lhotse, and Makalu among other Himalayan giants in the near distance. Ahead loomed the climbers’ first view of the actual summit pyramid of Everest.

The fatigued and distressed climbers tried to get some rest in this beautiful but inhospitable place before getting ready for the final push. It is here that Sharad wished Bhagwan luck, said goodbye, and started for the summit. It was 7pm. He would never see Bhagwan again.

“The idea was to summit at 6.30-7am,” Sharad says. “There’s traffic every year, but this year it was too much. Usually it’s moving traffic but when I left Camp 4, just 30 minutes later, I was stuck. The waiting time would be anything between 20-40 minutes. You were just stuck in one place.”

They were to reach Balcony—a small plateau at 27,700 feet before the route becomes jagged, nasty, and thin—at 2am, but finally arrived there at 3:30. At Balcony, climbers discard the oxygen bottle on them, and strap on a new one from the stock kept there by the Sherpas.

“Climbers normally have 4-6 cylinders on the climb but we had kept 8 cylinders for safety,” Sharad says. “So we had extra cylinders at Balcony as well.”

Sharad left Balcony with his Sherpa at 4am, leaving Anjali—who wanted a longer rest—and her Sherpa there.

“I told her I would wait for her on the summit,” Sharad says.

Within 10 minutes of starting off on the jagged, narrow ridge, Sharad was stuck again in the human traffic — he is one of the people in that infamous photograph of the queue to the summit. In this press of people, Sharad realized, there was little chance that he would be able to stand together with Anjali on top of Everest.

Just 10 metres from the summit, and already running two hours behind his expected schedule, Sharad was stuck for 45 minutes.

“My oxygen was getting over as well, and the Sherpa said that we were more or less at the summit, that we should turn around, or we would both die,” Sharad says.

Sharad asked the Sherpa to take a photo. But there was no time to pull out the camera. “He said, ‘If we die here, what good is a photo?’”

An hour after he began to work his way down through the snaking line of climbers, he saw Anjali. Her oxygen had depleted as she was making her way up that line, and her Sherpa had turned her around. But she had been unable to cover much ground, and she sat there on the snow on the side of the thin ridge that connected the South Summit, a prominence at 28,704 feet, to the true summit.

“When I got there, Sherpas were trying to make her stand,” Sharad says. “I looked at her oxygen and it was over.”

Sharad’s Sherpa began to climb down towards the Balcony to retrieve the extra bottle of oxygen.

“But they too got stuck in the traffic,” Sharad says, “Even without traffic it would have taken him too long. I asked a lot of people if they had spare oxygen, but nobody helps anybody up there. I was shouting please help, she is my wife.”

Anjali asked Sharad to hold her close, and then she lost consciousness. Sharad too was nearing the end of his endurance, and had developed snow blindness in one eye. It was noon. It had started snowing. There was nothing that could be done to help Anjali—at that altitude and on that terrain, carrying an unconscious person is not an option.

“I broke down,” Sharad says. “My Sherpa began to drag me down, saying that I would die too if I stayed there.”

A badly struggling Sharad finally reached South Col deep in the evening. Next day, he was airlifted from Camp 2.

Things weren’t much different on May 23. And a few like David Gottler, 41, a respected German mountaineer who hoped to summit without the use of oxygen, had a dilemma on their hands.

“I knew there would be a high chance of too many people on May 23; beyond the South Summit, I saw a line. And they were moving incredibly slow or not moving at all. I didn’t want to put myself in a dangerous situation, so I turned around from 100 metres below the summit,” Gottler says.

Somewhere among those climbers was a 38-year-old British Army officer called Martin Hewitt, who had lost the use of one arm on duty in Afghanistan. He started his summit push with his partner for the top at 1am, and tried to methodically work past the queue. Where the terrain was good to get past people, they unclipped themselves from the main line, got around a few climbers, before clipping onto the rope again. But in the technical sections, they had little choice but to wait their turn.

“The first queue was between South Col and Balcony, where we went past about a hundred people. Then we encountered groups of 2-5 people which was more manageable. And as we came towards the summit, there were some 30-40 people in one big line,” Hewitt says.

“It’s frustrating because you’ve got limited oxygen. Ideally, you want to top out at dawn, so that you can maximise daylight in case of any issues on the descent. On this climb, I was really just thinking about where I could pass people safely. When I was on Everest in 2012, it really wasn’t an issue.”

Bhagwan too made it to the top of Everest on May 23, but he did not make it down. He died after his oxygen ran out before he could negotiate the traffic while descending. (All four Indian causalties were retrieved from the mountain, with financial aid from the government.)

“It took us nine to 10 hours to get from South Col to the summit and back; there were others who were taking 14-16 hours. I passed dead climbers on the mountain, who had succumbed over the past few days. I don’t know whether it was their own mistake, or if they got stuck behind people and ran out of oxygen. Or, if these were people who simply shouldn’t have been there,” Hewitt says. “At the anchor points where I could switch between lines in 20 seconds, there were others taking 15 minutes, building up a line behind them,” he says.

Lower on the mountain, Hewitt observed people taking 13-14 hours to get from base camp to Camp 2, the stretch through the Khumbu Icefall that his team managed in seven hours. This, despite the use of just one arm. He also interacted with teams that could hardly read weather maps.

Another young climber from Mumbai, Parth Upadhyay, remembers hugging an ascending climber to get past him on a narrow traverse on the north side.

“The guys coming up just wouldn’t stop despite repeated pleas. I had little choice but to find my own way,” Upadhyay says.

Kami Rita Sherpa, who has summited Everest a record 24 times, was forced to send a client back after she stumbled into camp 3.

“It’s very difficult to convince a client to turn around if they aren’t fit enough, because imagine yourself in that situation. Some clients are really stubborn and these are the ones who are real trouble,” Kami Rita says.

If the growing number of unprepared and unreasonable clients are a reality, so are the growing number of ill-trained and inexperienced Sherpas.

Climbers recall Sherpas who forgot to check oxygen levels, or left them alone for hours at a stretch during the climb. Joisher recalls a young Sherpa sitting on top of the summit pyramid, delirious and exhausted. He had run out of oxygen and didn’t know how to change the bottle.

“He was carrying oxygen for the clients—really strong, but untrained and inexperienced. When you have so many climbers, somewhere, someone is going to cut corners,” Joisher says.

A rise in the number of climbers means that there just weren’t enough qualified men to lead the clients, a big problem according to Arnette. Besides, each time a Sherpa summits Everest, it translates to higher guiding fees, making them unaffordable for the budget agencies.

“The good agencies sponsor mountaineering courses for the new Sherpas, send them out on lower mountains and hand them the opportunity to work portage roles on Everest, before they have enough experience to take up guiding,” says Rishi Ram Bhandari, managing director of Satori Adventures, a leading mountaineering company that leads expeditions around the world. However, there is no criteria on who can lead a client, just like there isn’t one on who is eligible to climb Everest.

The delays on the mountain led to both deaths and multiple rescues. A number of climbers were evacuated by helicopters from Camp 2; even Camp 3 saw people airlifted, harnessed to ropes suspended from the helicopter, called a ‘longline rescue’ and used at these altitudes in times of absolute desperation.

On May 27, after almost all the climbing groups left the mountain, Everest saw a final summit attempt. The group belonged to Tendi Sherpa, who has summitted Everest 12 times before.

“A beautiful day with clear skies, no wind and no traffic. There were only four clients from my team, two western guides and 10 Sherpas who summited that day,” Tendi says.

Tendi sums up the reasons for so many deaths: a lack of proper training and mountaineering experience for Sherpas, poor equipment, weak physical condition of climbers, bad judgements and decisions.

“There are not enough trained and certified Sherpa guides in Nepal to guide commercial expeditions. I also think better communication and coordination would have resulted in less traffic. A lot of people need to change their mentality and be more friendly and cooperative in the coming days,” Tendi says.

According to Arnette, this season, there were 891 summits and 11 deaths, up from 802 summits and five deaths last year. In the past, a number of proposals have been made to introduce prerequisites for climbing Everest, or to put a limit to the number of permits being issued. But with thousands of dollars at stake for the economy— the Nepal government earns around $3.25 million as royalty fees from climbers every season—there’s no hurry to do this.

What happened on the mountain is because of the traffic, Sharad says. “This is a fact and this is a fact that Nepal will never agree to since they are so dependant on it.”

No matter what the body count, the demand for ascending Everest is not ending anytime soon. It is, after all, the highest mountain in the world.

First Published: Jul 04, 2019 07:43 IST