Traffic jam at Everest
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Traffic jam at Everest

The expedition to the top of the world still tests the limits of human endurance. But better organisation and safer technology are luring climbers in hundreds, finds Utpal Parashar

india Updated: Jul 18, 2010 01:39 IST
Utpal Parashar
Utpal Parashar
Hindustan Times

As he readied for his final assault on Mount Everest, creating history was not at the top of Arjun Vajpai's mind. In a few hours the 16-year-old would become India's youngest Everest hero. But for the moment, he was thinking of ways to avoid the world's highest traffic jam. What you wear is how you trek: A Geek's guide

To improve their chances, the team of five climbers and their porters decided to leave Camp 4, which is perched 7,926 metres above sea level, at 10 pm on May 21 this year — two hours earlier than the usual practice.

The strategy worked. Arjun managed to escape the jam and reach the summit — at 8,848 metres — more than eight hours after he started. He wasn't alone at the top; nearly 20 other climbers had already reached the peak. After spending half an hour at the top, the team decided to leave despite wanting to stay longer. Again, the decision was influenced by the prospect of a jam on the way down.

"We experienced the jam on our way down and had to wait a bit as others were making their way up," says Arjun.

Apart from Arjun, 96 others reached the peak on May 22 from the south side in Nepal and from the north in Tibet. It included the 13-year-old American Jordan Romero, the youngest climber yet, and Nepal's Apa Sherpa, 50, who climbed a record 20th time.

The rush increases

This season alone, 513 climbers repeated what Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay achieved 57 years ago without getting stuck on a rope with a dozen climbers. Till date 3,431 people have climbed Everest 5,070 times, some having climbed it more than once. Nearly two-thirds of those ascents were made in the last 15 years and a twelfth of the total was notched up just last year. But the busiest season yet has been 2007, when more than 600 managed to reach the top. As Arjun found, dozens of climbers often reach the peak at the same time from the two sides.

So the jam occurs for a few days every May when Nature gives a small window to make it possible. Kathmandu-based German journalist and climber, Billi Bierling, who reached the summit last year, says, "If you go to Everest expecting a quiet, Alpine experience, you have certainly gone to the wrong place."

She should know. Billi has been interviewing numerous Everest climbers over the years for Elizabeth Hawley, the chronicler of Himalayan expeditions for nearly five decades.

What has led to such the recent rush? Has it become easier due to more accurate weather predictions, lighter-weight gear and better logistical support?

The answer seems to be as uncertain as the weather up there. Over two decades, the entry of professionals herding commercial expeditions has made things easier. Yet, the difficulty of the effort cannot be denied.

"It's not become easier. But Everest has become less dangerous and more accessible," says Jamie McGuinness of Project Himalaya, which has been conducting expeditions to Everest for more than a decade.

Whoever goes up

But the real heroes who make it possible — for the hardcore professional as well as the amateur — are the hardy Sherpas of Nepal. Before every season, a group of Sherpas called Icefall Doctors put out ropes and ladders over the crevasses of the notorious Khumbu Icefall, without which many climbers wouldn't be able to go forward.

"Nearly 95 per cent of the successful climbers wouldn't have got to the top without the Sherpas," says McGuinness.

The importance of their work has increased. These days, expedition organisers get an increasing number of inquiries from amateurs too, some of who don't know how to use an ice pick. The 225 deaths that have occurred on the route over the years do not deter these glory-seekers.

"The endless quests of ‘firsts' — being the first ethnic ‘x', the oldest or youngest ‘y', or overcoming obstacle ‘z' — has added to the lure and congestion of Everest," wrote Richard Salisbury and Elizabeth Hawley in their 2007 book The Himalaya by the Numbers.

So we have records of people getting married on the top, sleeping there, skiing down and if you are someone like Jangbu Sherpa, a mountaineering guide from Nepal, remaining 4 minutes and 40 seconds on the peak without clothes.

Another thing that distinguishes present-day expeditions is the facilities you can get at the base camp (5,486 metres) — hot showers, Internet access, films on DVD and even apple pies can be had for a price.

And business is booming. Since 1998, more than 283,000 trekkers have reached the base camp. Dozen-odd villages along the route from Lukla to Gorakshep, the last post before the base camp, cater to the trekkers in this region without motorable roads.

The climb-down

Is this craze likely to subside anytime soon? Not likely. And the locals know it. "I can accommodate 65 guests in my lodge. But I am building another 15-20 rooms to cater to the rush," says Kaami Dorjee Sherpa of Phakding. Many others doing the same.

Climbers agree on the trend. "Everest can't lose its charm — because it's still the world's highest peak and still a challenge to climbers," says Vajpai.

Some feel the governments in Nepal and Tibet should set a limit on the number of climbers. Last month, the China Tibet Mountaineering Association, which regulates climbing from the Tibet side, set down rules allowing only those aged 18 to 60 years; anyone beyond will have to provide medical reports. The move follows the criticism that 13-year-old Romero's climb attracted. Nepal has a lower age limit of 16 years, but none on the higher side.

It seems that till such restrictions mount, nothing can stop those wanting to reach the base camps and the summit. Not even a perilous traffic jam.

First Published: Jul 17, 2010 23:19 IST