KATHMANDU: Around 5am on the morning of 22 May, Keepa Sherpa (25), along with a group of four Indian mountaineers, made the final push towards the summit of Mount Everest. It was still dark. And the group managed to stay at the peak for a mere 10 minutes—a short window of ultimate exhilaration after months of preparation and waiting out adverse weather. But the real adventure was yet to begin. As they began to descend, the group of eight (four mountaineers and their accompanying guides) ran into the largest “traffic jam" the world’s tallest peak has seen in while.

The ridge that leads up to the summit is access controlled—by a one-way rope that makes the difference between life and death at the harsh, frigid heights of the Everest. The lane is used by those going up as well as by those coming down. And Keepa Sherpa descended on to a mass of people trying to go up.

“I have never seen (something like) this before," says Keepa, who has climbed the Everest three times before. “The wind was also strong that day… so, it was very risky."

Traffic jams on top of the Everest are unlike any other ordinary pile-up. Any altitude beyond 8,000-metre is called a “death zone" for a reason. At that height, an average person’s breath can take in only about 30% of oxygen, compared to how human lungs usually perform at sea level. Thinking straight is a luxury. Making swift decisions is hard. Prolonged exposure to the elements can be fatal. Nearly 300 people have died since the early 1950s while attempting to reach the summit of Everest, according to the Himalayan Database.

That is what Keepa was up against as he began to lose sight that day. He experienced stinging pain in his eyes. After finally managing to descend through the crowd that day, he got admitted to the Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology and is gradually recovering.

“Due to the traffic jam, some climbers had to stand in the route for two hours," he says. “If climbers have to stand for long periods in the same place and cannot walk, there would be higher chances of frostbites, cold exposure, and other illnesses," he adds.

By the time Keepa’s team reached firmer ground, images from the morning of 22 May had spread far and wide. The “traffic jam" on top of the tallest peak had quickly become a meme. But for those who got stuck on Everest, on that day and the days which followed, the consequences were serious. In the short window of a few weeks in May when summiting Everest is possible, at least 11 climbers had died, including three Indian nationals, according to official data provided by the Nepal government.

What these deaths highlight is a system under serious stress in the face of an increasing number of Everest aspirants, all of whom are chasing glory on top of a mountain that is in the midst of climatic flux.

Climate risk and commerce

The difficult task of summiting Everest is possible only over a few weeks in May every year. But the window of reasonable weather in May (before the monsoon arrives) is increasingly getting shorter, due to the effects of climate change and global warming. According to Sherpa guides, the weather in the month of April and May was somewhat predictable even 5-6 years ago, but now abrupt changes in weather patterns are common. When climatic flux meets the demands of commerce, it creates a potent mix of risk. The climbing permit to summit Mt. Everest is around $11,000 per person, though each climber ends up spending between $40,000-90,000 overall. Every year, the Nepal government collects around 500 million Nepalese rupee in royalties from the permits alone, giving it little incentive to cut back on the number of climbers, even if the number of days of clearer weather is changing. (Climbers have also long complained they receive little in return from the Nepal government in exchange for the steep permit fees).

In the spring of 2019, 381 foreigners took a permit to scale Mt. Everest (77 were Indian nationals). On most years, the highest number of requests for summit permits come from Indian nationals. Last year, 349 climbers had taken permission, but the death toll this year was unexpectedly high, pushing the mountain that is locally known as Sagarmatha into the glare of intense international attention.

The blame game within Nepal has already begun. There is heated talk of setting up a probe panel. But one early culprit for the turn of events this year is, strangely, a cyclone. In April, cyclone Fani had hit the eastern Indian seaboard and is now accused of partially affecting weather patterns in Nepal’s mountainous regions. It delayed the task of “rope fixing", which sets the route that climbers follow. If rope fixing was completed by the end of April or the first week of May, then, multiple weather windows would have been available for climbers, says Gyanendra Shrestha, a senior government liaison officer deployed at Everest Base Camp.

“From next year, we have to seriously think about completing the task of fixing rope in the month of April so that there would be sufficient time for climbing," he adds. “This year too, I had allocated a fixed number of climbers for each day, but it was not possible to implement due to a narrow weather window."

Shrestha acknowledges that the images which have gone viral depicting huge crowds on top of Everest are “true", but he immediately adds that the photos only convey a normal, annual occurrence. “Obviously, a crowd was seen in (the) photograph, but it is normal because climbers who are ascending to and descending from Everest use the same rope," he says.

Early warnings

In hindsight, the sequence of events which led to the traffic jam had left a trail of ample warnings. In between 14 and 16 May, there was comparatively favorable weather for climbing, but very few climbers had reached elevations from which they could attempt to reach the summit. And then, the weather turned fickle till 21 May. Early weather forecasts had put the brief period between 21 and 24 May as the best bet to make an attempt, but strong winds had forced the gathering group of mountaineers to stay at base camp-4 for one night. By the dawn of 22 May, base camp-4 was teeming with people. A big queue at 8,790m, which is known as the Hillary Step, was inevitable. But what the images didn’t show is this: there was crowding even at South Summit (8,690m) and the Balcony (8,400m).

On 22May, relatively calm weather lasted for 24 hours and, on that single day, 250 climbers made their final, frenzied push to the peak. “Above South Kol (the final campsite, base camp-4), neither the government nor expedition teams can do anything. Climbers themselves should coordinate and consult with each other before heading towards the peak," says Shrestha. “But they all left South Kol for the top at the same time. Some climbers should have waited for a few hours," he says.

The summer of 2019 is also not the first time that the Everest has witnessed a traffic jam. In 2012, there was a heavy traffic jam which also caused the death of a few climbers. In 2012, around 260 climbers made a final push on a single day but only 179 were successful. At that time, four climbers had died due to altitude sickness while descending from the summit.

While climatic change has only steadily exacerbated the risk, serious human failures, which remain unacknowledged, put a question mark on all future summers and the fate of the unending line of people for whom summiting Everest is a life-long dream, says Ang Tshering Sherpa, former president of Nepal Mountaineering Association (NAM). “To address the problems caused by adverse climate, there should have been better coordination among government officials, expedition teams, and climbers. But clearly, they failed," he says.

Ultimately, what the near stampede of 22 May shows is that the allure of the Everest is hard to resist for many. Cheap tour companies have sprouted to feed the intense fascination for the world’s tallest peak and many of them have a litany of quality concerns—from the type of equipment to the quality of advice. Currently, around 2,000 mountaineering companies offer Everest “packages", resulting in intense and unhealthy competition to provide services at a cheap price.

The type of equipment matters immensely. Being stuck in a crowd in itself cannot kill people because the real health hazard kicks in only when the oxygen tanks run out during the wait, says Kamiti Rita Sherpa, who has summited Everest 24 times. “The shortage of oxygen and other equipment means expedition teams are not providing sufficient logistics. This is not just about traffic jams... other problems could emerge while climbing, so they have to carry sufficient logistics."

“Climbers do not die just due to traffic jam," he adds.

Last year, the Nepal government had mandated that climbers should carry at least five oxygen cylinders. However, many instances of non-compliance have surfaced, primarily to cut costs—since high-quality oxygen cylinders are expensive.

The race for peak attention

Since its discovery in 1852 as the highest point on earth, the Everest has remained a towering, unconquered sentinel for the most part. But something changed in 1985, which perhaps has a deep resonance with the events of 2019. In the mid-1980s, the summit success of Dick Bass, a wealthy American businessman with limited climbing experience, forced many to believe that the Everest can be conquered by anybody with some guidance and adequate financial might. “(The) feat that brought him (Bass) worldwide renown, spurred a swarm of other weekend climbers to follow in his guided bootprints, and rudely pulled Everest into the postmodern era," wrote Jon Krakauer in his book Into Thin Air, a personal account of a 1996 disaster on the Everest which detailed how commercial climbing expeditions were sacrificing safety for the sake of summit scores. In the last three decades, the phenomenon has only gathered more momentum. The result: people with little training attempt to climb the Everest, resulting in slow-paced climbs that creates large crowds near the top on the final few days of good weather. Anyone wishing to climb Mt. Everest should have the experience of climbing at least 7,000m to ascertain the effects of high altitude, Nepalese government officials say.

But such rules hardly come in the way of the quest for Everest, which increasingly has appeal even for those who may not be able to readily afford the sky-high expenses. Besides, there is the race for records and recognition. Mingma Dorchi Sherpa, who climbed three mountains this year (Mt Everest, Lhotse and Makalu), says: “Foreigners climb the Everest to set a new record. We climb the Everest with a view that as a foreigner is keeping new record (sic), we want to break those records." An Everest summit has come to mean many things—national pride, social prestige, personal milestone, placing a corporate flag at the peak, among others.

Caught up in this intricate web of desires is a silent mountain and the crowds that it has begun to host every summer. This is why sweeping changes that Nepal brought in on the permits front in 2018—compulsory presence of guide with every climber, a ban on blind and double amputee climbers, etc.—will likely remain ineffective. And it is also why any cap on climbers is almost unthinkable. “I do not think it would be possible to limit the number of climbers. What will be the standards for limiting numbers?" Shrestha asked.

Given these realities, and the inevitability of climate change-related effects in future summers, Everest traffic jams may be here to stay. And the image of the traffic jam in one of the hardest-to-access places on earth will remain as a constant reminder of the human impact on a fragile landscape. In a Nepal government helmed two-month long clean-up of the Everest which just got over, over 11,000kg of garbage and four bodies were recovered. As the rate of snow melt increases every summer, more of that litter and frozen dreams in the shape of human bodies will surface.

The melting snows will also disintegrate the rocks of the mountain, causing several problems for future climbers, says Narendra Khanal, a retired Professor at Tribhuwan University.

A recent report by a multi-national group of climate scientists had warned that two-thirds of the Himalayan snow cover could melt by 2100. But even as south Asia’s water towers melt, there will still be enough itinerant travelers making their longing treks to the tallest peak in the world. Disintegrating rocks won’t stop them. Traffic jams might, briefly. But managing traffic on top of Everest may remain a perpetual problem.

Kamal Dev Bhattarai is a Kathmandu-based journalist and writer

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