For many people, summitting Mount Everest is the ultimate bucket list challenge. It isn’t hard to see why – Everest is the highest point on the planet and represents a serious physical challenge, yet it is a challenge that is, evidently, within the grasp of many. As a result, thousands travel to the mountain every year and hundreds will climb to the summit, many of them with little to no prior mountaineering experience.
Photos from the most recent season showing huge queues of climbers waiting to summit the mountain highlight the issue. Everest cannot be summited on any old day; there are a number of factors in play – the mountain has its own ecosystem and climate. Unfavourable weather conditions during the 2019 season meant that the last summitting window was smaller than usual. Those long queues of people have all come a long way to get to the top, some have waited their whole lives to be there. No one wants to turn back.
Into Thin Air
The ultimate result of the recklessness became clear this year. 11 people died, a number that is on par with some of Everest’s most lethal disasters. The infamous 1996 Everest disaster, recounted in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, later adapted into a Hollywood film, claimed 8 lives.
A number of survivors of the ‘96 disaster have written their own accounts of what happened and there is disagreement amongst the group as to who was ultimately responsible. Regardless of individual actions, the result was the same – members of two teams attempted their scheduled summits of Everest on 10th May, despite being aware of a gathering storm that had been building since the 8th. The team leaders thought that a break in the developing storm provided them with a window during which to summit. However, delays in reaching the summit due to queues, and a failure to turn around before 2pm, meant that by the time the teams descended, they were forced to do so directly into the fully-formed storm.
The 1996 disaster was the first time that people began to seriously question the commercialisation of Mount Everest. However, the 96 disaster was a single event and was down to human error. It was an easily identifiable tragedy and seemed self-contained, but 2019 wasn’t like that. The ‘96 tragedy wasn’t just because of a bad decision; it was an inevitable side effect of the creeping commercialisation of Everest.
The deaths in 2019 weren’t the result of a single tragedy, they were the result of a number of individual tragedies. What was notable about them was the number that were due to exhaustion while descending the mountain. Such deaths used to be rare, but have significantly increased in the last decade as climbers have found themselves battling long queues while descending from the summit.
Death and Danger
Everest is definitely a challenging mountain. It is a long way from Kilimanjaro or Fuji, both of which can be climbed by anyone able to put one foot in front of the other. But Everest is generally not considered a particularly difficult mountain compared to, say, K2, which is in the same range. In general, the really dangerous parts of climbing Everest aren’t done by the people paying to summit. In fact, they’re not usually even done by the tour guides – it is Sherpas who do the really dangerous stuff.
And by dangerous stuff, well, it’s hard to know where to begin.
On Everest, there are deep chasms separating chunks of ice that need to be crossed. Tourists will cross these chasms while secured to a series of ladders that have been lashed together and are held securely at each end. However, the Sherpas who lay the route for the climbers have no such luxury. The first person to cross, always one of the Sherpa guides, has the most dangerous job. For them, the other end of the ladder is unsecured and deaths are not uncommon here. In 2018, Damai Sarki Sherpa, aged 37, died after he fell into one of these crevasses.
The story is the same for the rest of the climb; the Sherpas laying the lines take on the bulk of the risk and handle the most dangerous parts of the climb. In 2016, 25-year-old Phurba Sherpa fell to his death near the mountain’s summit. In fact, with the exception of 2010, a Sherpa has died on the mountain every year of the last decade.
Sherpas need to carry enough oxygen and other supplies for themselves and the clients. Clients are reliant on oxygen canisters placed there by the Sherpas. In fact, they, and the guides in most cases, are dependent upon the Sherpas for everything. Make no mistake, without these guides, far fewer people would be able or willing to go up the mountain.
And yet, despite being the backbone of the industry and taking on some very serious risks, Sherpas remain criminally underpaid. The commercialization of Everest is dangerous for clients, but the majority of them will get to go home and back to a life of relative wealth. The Sherpas, on the other hand, have been ruthlessly exploited.
Something that a lot of people don’t realize is that the term Sherpa refers to an ethnic group. The Sherpa people are one of a number of peoples indigenous to the Himalayas and Nepal but are considered to be uniquely gifted mountaineers. The term Sherpa has come to be a byword for any guide working on Everest, but the Sherpa people are still considered valuable in the cold language of economics. They are the primary victims of Everest’s crass commercialisation.
Anything involving ice and snow is already pretty dangerous when it comes to mountain climbing or rock climbing. Why? Because they are so unpredictable. Sure, now and then a huge chunk of rock will break off El Cap in Yosemite and kill a couple of people; all geology is to some extent unpredictable. But ice and snow are far more unpredictable and are also much more difficult to assess visually; you can see the damage to a rock formation, but you can’t see the varying densities of ice and snow.
The New Normal?
Everest is a dangerous place for the inexperienced. Even experienced mountaineers need to have a solid understanding of the mountain and its weather systems in order to make an ascent safely – there really isn’t another mountain like Everest.
As it stands, the 2019 season remains an outlier in the history of Everest. Naturally, we all hope that this is the case. However, there is also a sense that this could well be a new normal. The Nepalese government has long viewed Everest as an important cash cow and has been reluctant to impose more restrictions on climbers than it has to.
This point is best illustrated by the discrepancy in deaths on the Tibetan side of Everest. You see, climbers can ascend Everest from the Nepalese side or the Tibetan side, with the Nepalese side being popular because it is much easier. And yet, despite being the easier route up, it is on the Nepalese side that the vast majority of deaths occur. The Chinese government is much more selective about who it gives permission to climb Everest, meaning that while the Tibetan climb is more dangerous, far fewer people die attempting it.
Many of the wealthy middle-class western liberals traipsing up Everest’s slopes so they can fulfil their bucket lists would be appalled at the notion of an entire ethnic group being essentially commoditised and exploited. And yet, that is the very trade that they will be supporting.
Of course, we shouldn’t be trying to stop people climbing Everest or Sherpas from working on the mountain for a reasonable wage if they choose to. However, there is no reason for us to be making an already dangerous pursuit more perilous. As long as anyone with the money is allowed to ascend Everest, people will continue to die needlessly.