Traffic on top of the world
With over 300 climbers queued at the summit, Mount Everest is witnessing horror – human traffic has severely ambushed this climbing season and fatality has touched frightening heights
When discussing Mount Everest, the first image that flashes past one's mind is that of Tenzing Norgay atop the greatest mountain of the world in 1953. The photograph has become an enduring symbol of human spirit.
Some decades down, now, in 2019, the only image circulating the internet is of a "human traffic jam" comprising around 320 mountaineers queued up at the Khumbu icefall and death zone near the summit. 11 people have already died while summitting this year. So, what changed in the journey to Everest, in these 66 years?
Sherpa Tenzing Norgay had failed six times before successfully reaching the summit with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953. Just a year before, in 1952, he and Swiss climber Raymond Lambert had successfully climbed to 28,210 feet – a bare 900 feet from the summit – when they were forced to abandon their climb and return.
Much has changed atop Everest since then. Gone are the days of responsible climbing and camaraderie. Fierce competition, attempts at breaking records and racing are the rules of the day. There have been incidents when climbers have refused to share their oxygen and water with ailing fellows.
"The Government of Nepal has to restrict the number of climbers and also set a strict system to decide who can attempt. Too many rookie climbers are attempting and increasing the fatality count," said mountaineer Jamling Tenzing.
Jamling, son of Tenzing Norgay, has successfully summitted Everest and was also a part of the first team making an IMAX film in 1998 on the peak. He had even assisted in rescue operations during the May 1996 disaster atop Everest which had left 14 climbers dead.
Many blame the crisis on over-commercialisation. Nepal charges foreign climbers $11,000 for the permit alone. The total cost of the six-week long expedition, including guides, equipment, food and lodging, ranges between $45,000 and $60,000. The permit charge for Nepalese climbers is $700.
"There is too much competition among operators. They are now compromising on the quality of service to cut down upon costs and decrease rates. It has become a commercial venture," Jamling added.
One can even find operators charging $30,000 per person for the expedition. Eager to grab dollars, these operators are ready to guide just about anyone to the top. "It is more of a guided tour these days where everything is done by the Sherpa," says Jamling.
More than 800 people climbed Everest from Nepal this year with 11 deaths on record. Around 300 climbed from the Chinese side (where rules are much more stringent) with two deaths on record.
Under Nepal's current rules, a climber needs to submit a copy of their passport, bio-data and health certificate, assuring that the climber is fit enough to make it to the 8,848 m summit. There is, of course, no verification system in place.
"This system has to change. The Government of Nepal should have a system to check the credibility of a climber. The government of a climber's country or at least a reputed mountaineering institute should certify that the mountaineer is fit to climb. There are many climbers who lack basic knowledge and are ready to climb as soon as they save the required money. This is a very dangerous trend," Jamling lamented.
"Earlier too, there were many climbers waiting in Camp 3 or 4 for a suitable window period (with favourable weather and wind speed) to start for the summit. However, the recent traffic jams on the summit ridge are very dangerous. Because of them, climbers are dying. With 1/3rd oxygen, climbing continuously for more than 12 hours, no sleep and no food, the climber is already facing death challenges from the last camp to the summit. On top of that, if a climber has to wait for hours, perched precariously on the rope to make it to the summit or while returning back, death is almost inevitable. In these hours of wait, the canned oxygen further depletes and the body starts giving up," Jamling explains.
Two separate routes, one for ascending and one for descending would be a great option but it is next to impossible to lay a new route near the summit, added the ace mountaineer. He further suggested that commercial operators should get together at the base camp and conduct coordination meetings so that the number of climbers could be divided among the number of days that the window period offers. This would ease the traffic and rate of casualty.
'Chomolungma' (as Mount Everest is called by Sherpas) is not a killer mountain. Lack of fitness and training, inexperience and overconfidence have all contributed to the steady rise in casualties. The climbing Sherpas, despite being born in the mountains, spending most of their time in the mountains and being physically adapted to mountain life, do not take Mount Everest for granted. Instead, they revere the mountain, stay fit and train hard to meet the challenges it presents.
Jamling stated, "Even my father would not be happy to see how mountaineering has changed. It was about teamwork and discipline but these days everything is done by Sherpas ensuring that mountaineers climb peaks successfully. The more I witness garish displays of ego and individualism, the more I am disheartened. The whole essence of mountaineering is lost."
According to Jamling, a Sherpa can usually climb from Camp 4 (7940 m) to the summit (8848 m) in six to eight hours. A fit mountaineer will take 12 hours, but the unfit, inexperienced climbers take 16 to 18 hours.
Usually, each mountaineer consumes four bottles of oxygen (two for the ascent and two for the descent). If a climber is unfit and climbs slowly, they land up using three bottles on the ascent with only left for the descent. This further increases risk.
Many climbers are on a budget and compromise on quality facilities. "Slashing prices means reducing services as well. It can be fatal. One must choose their climbing agency carefully without compromising on facilities and services," advised Jamling.
"Nepal needs to review its Everest policy. The number of permits has to decrease," stated Kusang Sherpa. Kusang is associated with the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling. He is the first mountaineer in the world to have summitted Mount Everest from three sides. He has summitted twice from South Col, twice from North Col and once from the challenging Khangsung face.
At present, around 50 groups have permission and each group consists of around 16 persons. "With a window period of around two days this year, one can imagine the rush. Not more than 25 groups should be permitted to climb in a year," advised Kusang.
He also reiterated that two ropes (routes) would be a great option, one for ascending and one for descending. "Nothing can be done on the razor-sharp edge where one has to place one foot at a time. Below 8,200 ft, two routes are feasible but a herculean task. It takes around 13 to 14 hours to fix a 45-metre rope at that altitude," added Kusang.
"As long as Everest is there it will attract climbers. However, the onus is on Nepal to make it safe. Safety should be given priority over commercial gains. The numbers of permits issued need to come down drastically to avoid human traffic jams," stated Group Captain Jai Kishan, Principal, Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), Darjeeling.
The successful ascent of Mount Everest on May 29, 1953, by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary, gave a major boost to mountaineering in India. One year after this historical accomplishment, Himalayan Mountaineering Institute was established on November 4, 1954 – a personal initiative by Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr BC Roy, then Chief Minister of West Bengal – to promote mountaineering in India. The world-class mountaineering institute has trained thousands of mountaineers, many of whom have become mountaineering greats.
With Nepal Government's policy coming under the scanner of the global mountaineering community, the country said it was considering a change of rules.
"We are discussing reforms. Certain criteria will be put into place for all Everest aspirants. The issue of inexperienced climbers has been discussed," said Mira Acharya, a Nepal tourism official.
The Nepal Government, in the past, had made such commitments but failed to translate them into action. After all, climbing dollars are a major contributor to Nepal's tourism coffers.