Overkill on Everest

Last week, a government panel set up after this spring’s fatalities on Mt Everest were blamed on overcrowding recommended that permits be issued to climb Mt Everest only to those who have already scaled a Nepali mountain taller than 6,500m.

It also suggested that each foreign mountaineer spend at least $35,000 during an Everest expedition and $20,000 for other mountains. Expedition support teams should also have at least three years’ experience in organising high altitude climbs.

Though welcome, the immediate question is whether these rules are enforceable. Certificates can be forged and bought, and the 6,500m threshold is not enough – Everest climbers need technical skills and higher elevation experience, at least to 7,500m. A summit of Ama Dablam (6,856 m) would qualify climbers for the big mountains but Mera Peak (6,474 m) would not. Baruntse (7,129 m), although less technical than Ama Dablam, would qualify on the height criteria. Charging $35,000 (for permit only) would be a scandal. It would certainly reduce the crowds since that amount equals a full expedition budget currently, but it would not deter the affluent and ‘bucket list’ climbers from tackling Everest.

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Because we are there, Damien Francois

This spring, I almost turned around at the South Summit on 23 May, even though the infamous ‘traffic jam’ was not as bad as when Nirmal Purja took the now famous photo the day before. I did summit at a relatively late 10am, and it had taken my EverQuest team 13 hours to climb from Camp 4 on the South Col to the summit.

We had trained hard, were fit and experienced and had sufficient supplies of oxygen. We descended in a storm, but all made it safely back to Camp 4, and then descended to Base Camp on the 25th. We had done our homework and were prepared.

Four of the 9 climbers who died on the south side of Everest this year were Indians. Two more died on Makalu and Kangchenjunga each. Of the 21 climbers who died in the big Himalayan mountains in the spring of 2019, eight were from India. Since Indians made up the highest numbers of climbers on Everest this spring, it could be they had a higher fatality rate. Most Indian expeditions were on lower budgets and had less oxygen higher up the mountain.

Although the number of permits issued has risen since the first congestion drama on Everest in 1996, things are still pretty much the same. As Jon Krakauer wrote in his famous piece in Outside Magazine in September 1996: ‘Everest deals with trespassers harshly: the dead vanish beneath the snows.’  I agree, but the dead do not vanish. They are pretty visible.

Too much rubbish has been written in the past months about trash (see box below) and overcrowding on Everest. The number of permits this year was nearly the same as 2018.  A lot of clients on Everest should not be there at all – they did not have enough experience, and were not fit enough.

I passed the body of Don Cash, an American climber who died of a heart attack close to the Hillary Step. A Sherpa who had passed me on our descent while climbing down the Lhotse Face fell to his death because he suffered an epileptic seizure just when he was changing his safety at an anchor point. Neither died because of overcrowding.

Ever since the Into Thin Air 1996 drama, it has become a tradition to speak of the ‘traffic jam’, ‘chaos’ or even ‘carnage’ on Everest. Granted, I passed six dead climbers myself this year, but was there carnage? Chaos? Is ‘traffic jam’ the right metaphor at all?

It is politically correct (but factually wrong) to blame the numbers. Is Everest really more dangerous?  An ExplorersWeb calculation shows that the summit-to-fatality ratio on Everest has been steadily declining from 12.1% in 1996 to 1.2% this year.

Let us compare the 22 May (Nirmal Purja) photo with my 23 May picture and the Scott Fisher photo of 10 May 1996 (in John Krakauer’s, Into Thin Air). As seen from the South Summit, there are definitely many more climbers on the traverse to, and on, the Hillary Step in 2019 than in 1996.

On 22 May there was more ‘traffic’ than on the next day. There was definitely a problem. But was the higher number of climbers really the reason for the deaths of nine climbers on the Nepal side that day?

In 2019, besides lack of fitness and self-appreciation, there were two other factors: a narrowed ‘weather window’ for the summit and insufficient supplies of oxygen. Some teams opted for an earlier summit around 19 May, while others went for 25 May. But the weather changed, leading to a higher number of climbers aiming to summit on 22-23 May.

It seems many operators are stingy and try to save on oxygen. This creates problems when there are delays, which are not always due to overcrowding and to be expected in the mountains. But if you have pushed so hard that you are already ‘too far gone,’ disaster will strike with or without traffic jams. You can count on that.

Because of this, it is very important to know how far you can go. Experience and fitness, as well as being part of a good team, will help you deal with and even avoid dangerous situations. Especially when there are many people on the hill – something  that will certainly not change in the coming years, even with the new rules.

Damien Francois is a climber and author of  The Holy Mountains of Nepal. This spring’s expedition on Everest was his 19th in Nepal.

Stop trashing Everest

The politically correct mainstream media has been trashing Everest for decades. No journalists, Nepali or foreign, seem to be able to counter the established narrative that Everest is ‘the world’s highest rubbish dump’. Rubbish.

To me, the beyul sacred valley of Khumbu is as clean as the Alps and certainly cleaner than the local forests here in Belgium. Yes, there are dumps here and there, and there is a trash disposal issue.

Everest Base Camp (5,300m) itself, where up to 1,500 people live in April-May every year, is actually very clean. Do a few chocolate wrappers turn a town into a shithole? Most mountaineers are environmentally concerned and do a good job at not polluting.

At the end of the season, the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC) will collect the garbage that expedition teams might have left there. I myself took part in a large cleaning campaign after the 2015 earthquake.

Let's be honest – the garbage we see on the Everest trail and slopes is mostly left there by porters. Shiny khaini foil wrappers and WaiWai plastic discards and Hall’s candy wrappers are typical of locals, not tourists. But SPCC is picking up even these along the trail. The Pasang Lhamu Municipality in Khumbu has decided to ban plastic bags below 30 microns and plastic water and soft drink bottles.

I was positively surprised to see that Camp 1 and 2 on the Western Cwm were cleaner this year than in 2018. Obviously, the cleanup expeditions are doing their job. There is still trash left at Camp 2 because it is used as an advanced base camp, where climbers will stay up to 5-6 nights during an Everest or Lhotse expedition. Much of it is being taken down but some, like tent material encrusted in ice, is difficult to remove.

The main problem on Everest remains Camp 4 on the South Col, at almost 8,000m. Despite cleanup campaigns, there are still empty gas cylinders, bent tent poles, cans and wrappers. There are no oxygen cylinders lying around simply because they are too valuable to be left up there.

There is also talk of problems with human waste but most use drums at Base Camp and C2. And peeing on the Western Cwm is not really a pollution issue.

Some have argued for a moratorium on Everest climbs to allow the mountain to ‘cleanse itself’. As the author of the book The Holy Mountains of Nepal, I have some credentials to say that it is all right to climb sacred mountains. Mountains are made holy and sacred by humans. If those humans who decide which mountain is holy are comfortable with climbing these mountains, why do Western neo-imperialists declare that they should not be climbed?

Are the abbots of Tengboche and Pangboche monasteries betraying the mountains if they give their blessings to expeditions?

Damien Francois in Khumbu

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