On Mt Everest’s 70th, records and fatalities

Peak season on the world’s highest peak is drawing to a close, 70 years after the first ascent

Double amputee Gurkha veteran Hari Budha Magar returns to Kathmandu on Tuesday, after successfully having summited Mt Everest on 19 May. Photo: SUMAN NEPALI

This has been a season of new records on Nepal’s Himalayan peaks, with more than 1,000 mountaineers attempting 25 peaks. Mt Everest alone has more than half those climbers, exceeding the pre-pandemic peak in 2019.

High winds and early pre-monsoon blizzards are expected to hit the mountain this week, and climbers are scrambling to the summit before the season officially closes on 1 June.

So far this year, at least 10 climbers have died on Mt Everest alone, but many records have also been broken, including some multiple times on successive days.

Kami Rita Sherpa summited Mt Everest twice in one season, taking his total to 28 times. Kami Rita is once again ahead of Pasang Dawa Sherpa who had tied his record of climbing 27 times only 24 hours previously.

Kami Rita SHerpa
Kami Rita Sherpa

More than 500 people have summited Mt Everest this season, and that is another record, but the climbers have spread themselves out to prevent a repeat of the notorious traffic jams that gave Himalayan climbing a bad reputation in 2018.

This year is the 99th anniversary of the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine on the north ridge of Everest in 1924, and the 60th year of the first traverse of the world’s highest mountain up the West Ridge and down the South Col route by Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld of the 1963 Mt Everest expedition. Hornbein died earlier this month, only 16 days shy of the 60th anniversary of the historic climb.

With the record numbers of climbers, there has also been the problem of waste. Although a Nepal Army expedition his season cleaned up some of the trash left by previous years’ expeditions, it represented a small proportion of the garbage.

The Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC) requires each expedition group to deposit $4,000 which is refunded if everyone brings back at least 8kg of garbage even though an average climber leaves behind much more.

“I believe that climbers who spend five to six weeks on an expedition produce more waste than that,” says Billi Bierling of the Himalayan Database. Human waste from Base Camp is supposed to be carried to a landfill in Gorakshep lower down the valley. Plans are underway to build a biogas plant generating methane gas from waste to heat base camp.

Besides the race for records by Kami Rita and Pasang Dawa Sherpa, there were other records. Kilian Jornet, a Spanish ultra-runner who summited Everest twice in a week without supplemental oxygen in 2017, is back on Lhotse trying out a non-standard different route.

The gender gap is closing on Mt Everest with more and more women attempting to summit each season. Nearly 7,000 different climbers have summited Mt Everest, and out of them 822 were women. Only nine of them have reached the top without bottled oxygen, compared to 154 men.

This season, several women are attempting to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen. Among them is Nepali Dabuti Sherpa and if she succeeds, will be the first Nepali woman to have achieved this on the 45th anniversary of the first Everest ascent without bottled oxygen by Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler in 1978.

Another climber who made history this year was Hari Budha Magar, a double above-the-knee amputee who lost both of his legs in Afghanistan. After being discharged from the British Gurkha, Hari had been training to climb Mt Everest since 2017 with special gear. Magar is a climate champion and is raising funds 100 times more than the height of Mt Everest (£884,900) for charities that helped rehabilitate him.

Hari Budha Magar

Other notable climbs included Naila Kiani’s summit which made her the first Pakistani woman to get on top of five highest mountains, and compatriot Sajid Ali Sadpara, who was the first Pakistani to climb Everest without oxygen and plans to climb the remaining seven eight-thousanders.

Vietnamese climber Nguyên Thi Thanh Nhā became the first Vietnamese woman to reach the Everest summit, and Xu Zhuoyuan, 16, became the youngest Chinese female climber to get to the top of the world’s highest mountain. Both climbs were made from the Nepal side, since there is only one national Chinese expedition from the north.

There have been 10 deaths on Mt Everest from icefall collapse, exhaustion and high altitude cerebral edema. Although there have been seasons with more deaths (avalanches in 2014 and 2015 killed a total of 34 climbers) the average is four fatalities per season.

Annapurna 1 recorded fatalities early in the season. An avalanche forced climbers off higher camps, three of them were reported missing, one Indian climber was miraculously rescued from a crevasse after three days. And Noel Hanna, a renowned Irish mountaineer died at Camp 4 the night after he summited the world’s tenth highest mountain.

Several mountaineers who had reached the top were airlifted from high camps raising questions from purists whether theirs could be really called a ‘summit’. Mountaineers Jonathan Lamy from France and Pakistani Naila Kiani were caught in the middle of that debate. The Himalayan Database has introduced a new category of summits that indicates whether a climb was ‘aviation assisted’.

On 3 May, Norwegian Kristen Harila, atop Cho Oyu, became the fastest woman to climb all 14 eight thousanders in a year. She had planned to break Nims Purja’s record of summiting all 14 peaks in six months and six days, but could not get a Chinese visa last autumn for Cho Oyu and Shishapangma.

Harila now aims to climb all 8,000 mountains again, this time in four months, and is re-climbing the mountains all over again, summiting Lhotse and Everest in a record eight hours on Monday.

Counting Shishapangma on 26 April and Cho Oyu on 3 May, Kristen has begun her 2023 ‘14 Peaks’ attempt in less than 6 months. She has already completed 4/14 peaks, climbing Makalu on 13 May and Kanchenjunga on 18 May in under 22 days. Her website allows her followers to track her rapidly progressing journey with an online GPS.

“Since Nims (Nirmal Purja) climbed the 14 8,000ers in record time, there has been a shift in mountaineering,” says Billi Bierling talking about the athleticism and speed which is now sought in the high Himalayas.

Harila’s record surpassed her female predecessors’ by years, one of them Austrian mountaineer Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner who took 14 years to ascend all 14 8,000 peaks. Harila has climbed expedition style, while Kaltnebrunner is a true alpinist who climbs without supplementary oxygen and Sherpa and helicopter support.

Alpine style climbing is what Polish climber Votyek Kurtyka describes as "meeting the mountain one-on-one" and is gradually being displaced by commercial military-style assaults on mountains. Experts say the style of climbing is more important than record-setting.

With commercial expeditions, there were also reports of theft of oxygen cylinders, climbing equipment and food at higher camps, including the South Col this season.

But there are still less-publicised alpine style climbs, including a new route on Kabru South (7,318m) by a team of Slovak and Solvenian climbers who got to the top of this side peak of Kangchenjunga without oxygen, Sherpas and setting up tent camps.

On Dhaulagiri 1 Bartek Ziemski from Poland became the first person to complete a full ski descent of Dhaulagiri, the world’s seventh highest. Two Russian climbers also skied down Mt Everest, but it is not clear where they started and where they stopped.

High winds are battering the mountains ahead of this week’s storms, and there will be many at base camps following the progress of the last summit teams.

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