When nine Sherpas made it to the top of Mount Everest on 11 May, it had been close to two years to the day when the last summiteers had stood at the same spot. These nine men were the best of the support staff from various expeditions attempting the 8,850m mountain from the south side. They had been nominated by the expedition leaders to fix ropes all the way to the top.
Given the recent history of the mountain, this was an overwhelming moment for them—more relief than exhilaration. These were men who had volunteered to step on the mountain where so recently so many of their comrades had lost their lives. First there was the avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall that killed 16 Nepali guides in 2014, followed by the 2015 avalanche at the base camp, triggered by an earthquake, which killed 18 people. Sherpas bore the brunt of both.
“Essentially, without the hard work and dedication of the climbing Sherpas, the tourist climber has no chance of reaching the summit,” says Michael Groom, an Australian who summited Everest without oxygen in 1993.
However the momentous 11 May expedition paved the path for a veritable mob as the first of 289 foreign permit holders for the spring season made their way up, looking to make the most of the window of good weather. The following day, British mountaineer Kenton Cool was the first foreigner to set foot on the world’s highest peak since 2014, setting a British record en route with his 12th summit. In tow, was a paid client, Rob Lucas, who followed Cool to the top.
Cool had been clear form the outset that there would be no summit attempt if the lead Sherpas failed. Later, he was glad to have been the first in line to follow the route setters. “A typical summit day would see up to 70 people but we had Everest to ourselves—almost unique,” he told the Evening Standard. What followed was a week of celebration, where a number of mountaineers such as Cool led their clientele to the top. A number of firsts followed: Lhakpa Sherpa set a new record for maximum summits by a woman at seven; Alyssa Azar, 19, became the youngest Australian to hit the top; and Melissa Arnot was the first American to climb without oxygen.
Then came another of the dreaded firsts, as Eric Ary Arnold of the Netherlands succumbed on the mountain last Friday. Six deaths have been recorded so far, which include three Indians.
Reports suggest that Arnold and Australian Maria Strydom fell victim to altitude sickness (Strydom’s body was discovered on Friday). Subhash Pal succumbed to exhaustion, while Gautam Ghosh was found dead on Friday. Paresh Nath, who went missing with Ghosh, is also feared dead. Phurba Sherpa fell to his death while fixing ropes on Lhotse.
Tragedies and mountaineering go hand in hand, but with the change in the very definition of mountaineering these days, what’s unfolding is (a) man-made disaster on the route to personal glory.
“The non-climber population these days is possibly 70% of the clients,” says Mark Inglis, a New Zealander who was the first double amputee to summit Everest in 2006.
Nepal has two climbing seasons, one just before the onset of the monsoon in spring and a second in autumn. And then there are the bold mountaineers who have set new benchmarks with daring winter ascents of these mighty peaks. While there are seasoned mountaineers who take to guiding on other mountains or doing menial jobs during the off season in Nepal, there are amateur enthusiasts—hobby climbers, typically low on experience—who have gradually transformed Everest into a cash cow.
The 289 permits this season generated $3.1 million, with clients paying anywhere between $40,000 and $80,000. The Nepal government makes $11,000 on each permit, while a Sherpa makes anywhere between $3,000 and $8,000 per climb.
With no licence needed to operate, there are also new players in the game who charge as little as $20,000. They often have no backup plans and hire Sherpas with little experience. Of course, at times, the higher costs are often for the comfort of spacious tents and hot towels, as highlighted by Jennifer Peedom’s documentary, Sherpa.
“It takes several years of strength conditioning, technical climbing training and experience to realize how your body reacts at over 8,000m. You will never know until you get there and the last place to learn should be Everest,” says Inglis.
“Prior experience of climbing other 7,000-8,000m peaks will give them a sense of their limit, but many tend to come straight for the biggest one,” says Nima Namgyal Sherpa, an expedition leader and doctor who specializes in high-altitude medicine.
Namgyal, who has summited Everest, Manaslu and Ama Dablam, among others, has had no hesitation in turning back clients whom he considers unfit.
“As a leader and doctor, I make calls regardless of how much money my clients have paid or the time they have put in. They push too fast, too hard—driven towards the summit for name or fame—and pay a heavy price in the end. These kind of clients put their own life at risk and also that of the Sherpa climbing along with them,” he says.
Since the first ascent of the mountain by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953, 3,701 climbers and 3,303 support staff have made the summit, according to figures released by The Himalayan Database, which is maintained by veteran journalist Elizabeth Hawley, and seasoned climber and retired computer analyst Richard Salisbury.
But a break-up of the numbers shows how the popularity of Everest has grown since commercial expeditions first started in the early 1990s. More people attempting the peak also means a greater rush on the mountain, especially on the roped sections to the summit. In 1990, 22 expeditions carried 210 potential summiteers, of which 58 reached the top. That figure in 2013 (before the disasters on the mountain in the following two years) had shot up to 87 expeditions carrying 459 potential summiteers, of which 308 reached the top. While the success rate had increased from 45.5% to 80.5%, so had the casualties—there were four deaths registered in 1990; in 2013, that figure had doubled to eight.
Mountaineer Ralf Dujmovits’s 2012 photograph, of climbers in a line, had shaken up the mountaineering world and had added weight to the voice of critics. Despite his experience, he had decided to turn back then at around 8,000m due to bad weather, but nothing quite prepared him for what he saw on his descent.
A human chain had lined up on the Lhotse face—like ants on a sugar trail, but moving way slower—and Dujmovits realized that many of them wouldn’t make it off the mountain. That year, 10 climbers died and it triggered yet another debate of crowding on Everest.
Dujmovits believes that fewer climbers came in the spring of 2016 because of the earthquake last year, but the numbers will only rise in the years to come.
“The number of people nowadays makes it likely that you run into line-ups and therefore, high on the mountain, many climbers run short of oxygen (which leads to casualties). Fewer people this year and a longer weather window meant that there were no major problems resulting from the crowds,” says Dujmovits, who became the first German to climb all the 14 “8,000ers” after summiting Lhotse in 2009.
“In 2012, I had hoped to make people understand how many are lining up and how much danger is resulting out of this queuing. But the opposite happened—the more people get warned about the dangers of Everest, the more are coming. It’s difficult to understand,” he adds. It is as if greater awareness of the perils involved only serves to draw even greater interest in peaking Everest.
The south side of Everest through Nepal is the most popular approach to the mountain, where most climbers throng the fixed lines up the mountain. With each climber bringing in a handsome sum for the government and the demand only increasing, permits have been issued with a generous hand.
“When I first attempted Everest in 1991, it took 18 months for my permit to be granted by the government of Nepal. The permit was for the difficult West Ridge which was not our original intention, but as there were two other expeditions on the normal route, they were not going to issue another permit for it,” recalls Groom. Shripad Sapkal, joint secretary (western region) of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF), who has climbed five virgin peaks since starting off in 1994, says that it’s impossible for two expeditions to attempt a mountain via the same route under the IMF. “The demand has led to greed among the Nepal authorities, and there really should be some regulation in the future,” he says.
Last year, the Nepali authorities had suggested regulations to keep inexperienced climbers at bay. This included an age criterion (climbers should be between 18-75 years), previous climbing experience (permits to be issued to only those who have scaled mountains over 6,500m) and fitness (only those who can go on their own will to be given permission).
It’s a given that the mountain demands tremendous respect—commercialization notwithstanding—and only the fittest must attempt it. But a dangerous new game—that of chasing records and the glamour that comes with it—is bringing all kinds of people to Everest.
“I don’t think it (the criteria) has been applied this year as many climbers are using the permit from 2014 and 2015, which has been extended. But I am sure the rule has been applied to climbers obtaining new permits to climb Everest this year,” says Tenzeeng Sherpa, a mountain guide certified by the IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations). This in turn adds to the load on the shoulders of Sherpas, who not only have to fix ropes, but also have to ferry loads to higher camps.
“It’s the biggest drawback I’ve seen these days in various expeditions,” says Chandra Prabha Aitwal, a veteran Indian mountaineer who was one of three women to first climb Nanda Devi and who has carried out three unsuccessful attempts on Everest.
“Back in the day, stacking advance camps was part of the climb, and played a major role in acclimatization. These days, a lot of youngsters are only interested in the summit, which has led to the current situation,” she says.
It’s also a big industry for the Sherpas—the only source of livelihood for some—which makes Everest even more important. Each season, about 400 to 500 of them go above the base camp, and with no licence needed for them to join expeditions, more Sherpas are joining the industry despite the risk, making about three climbs on an average each year.
“Everest has always been a huge money-making expedition. Many Sherpas in the past have sustained their family needs by climbing Everest and many young climbers are attracted to climbing this mountain for the money that comes with it. Money has changed the perception of climbing Everest,” says Tenzeeng.
Dujmovits feels the need to secure the lives of Sherpas, whose work will only get riskier as global warming increases the risk of avalanches. These days, insurance premiums for Sherpas are anywhere between $10,000 and $15,000. “Sherpas have to be made aware of the amount of risk they are taking. There needs to be strict control on the amount of insurances that is paid by the expedition companies to the families of killed or injured Sherpas,” he says.
That said, commercialization and the sheer volumes of climbers has made it one of the safest ‘high mountains’ to climb, with the 11th-lowest death rate among the 14 8,000m peaks, according to veteran American climber Alan Arnette. While one in four climbers die on Annapurna, that figure for Everest is one in 30.
The spotlight, though, will always be on Everest, and making it safe will remain a persistent dialogue. Some have suggested a holiday for the mountain, while others feel the need to curb the number of permits being issued to reduce the casualties and also save an environment which is slowly turning into the highest dump yard in the world.
“Fewer permits should be handed out and only to experienced climbers. Let them climb other high Nepalese mountains to qualify. Sherpas still make good money and Nepal benefits,” says Jim Whittaker, who in 1963 became the first American to climb the Everest.
Setting foot on the highest mountain in the world comes at a price, one which participants are happy to pay. It is an industry with a number of stakeholders, and it is highly unlikely that there will be a restriction on the numbers anytime soon.
As the debate continues on the failing romance of mountaineering and the need for safety, one can only wait and watch as another climbing season comes to an end.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer who dreams of the mountains and lives for long road journeys.