Mount Everest has become so overcrowded that the sheer number of people trying to summit the mountain at once is putting climbers’ safety — and their lives — at risk. Christopher Kulish, a 62-year-old American attorney, died on Monday after reaching the top of the mountain, CNN reports. This brings the known death toll during this year’s climbing season, which typically only lasts a few weeks, to 11.
The last time 11 or more people died while climbing Everest was during a 2015 avalanche, according to the New York Times — but the latest deaths seem to be the result of overcrowding, not inclement weather. Two related factors have likely contributed to this year’s high death toll: The first is the proliferation of unscrupulous travel companies that take underprepared trekkers onto the summit. The second is that the Nepalese government doesn’t have a limit on the number of people who can make the climb. The lack of government regulations and the rise in inexperienced climbers combined are contributing to chaos on the mountain.
All big climbs require some degree of preparation, but climbing Everest in particular — because of the altitude and the elements — requires intense training ahead of time. Once climbers reach 26,000 feet, they enter what’s known as the “death zone,” an area known for its thin air and freezing temperatures. According to the Times’s 2017 guide to climbing Everest, climbers who reach the death zone have been known to suffer from altitude sickness, a lack of muscle control, and even hallucinations. These dangers have been lately exacerbated by the number of people who attempt to make the climb. Experienced climbers say the trek is particularly difficult on the Nepalese side of the mountain, since Nepal’s government is less stringent about issuing permits than the Chinese government, which controls the Tibetan side of Everest.
CNN reports that starting on May 20, crowds of climbers on the Nepalese side of the mountain were forced to wait in line for the summit — at more than 26,000 feet above sea level. Most people, especially those who are less experienced climbers, can only spend a few minutes at the summit without extra oxygen supplies, according to CNN, and the bottlenecking is making it harder for people to make it down in time.
“Even when using bottled oxygen, supplemental oxygen, there’s only a very few number of hours that we can actually survive up there before our bodies start to shut down,” one climber told CNN. “So that means if you get caught in a traffic jam about 26,000 feet … the consequences can be really severe.”
One climber who spoke to the Times, who said he spent $70,000 on his Everest experience and prepared for the climb by sleeping in a tent that simulated high-altitude conditions, told the paper he had to step around dead bodies on his way down the mountain.
Another said she watched inexperienced climbers collapse after their oxygen tanks began to run low. “A lot of people were panicking, worrying about themselves — and nobody thinks about those who are collapsing,” she told the Times. But at the same time, helping others could mean putting your own life at risk. “It is a question of ethics. We are all on oxygen. You figure out that if you help, you are going to die.”
Several experienced climbers said the Nepalese government’s refusal to regulate who can climb the mountain — or how many people can do so at once — is putting people at risk.
“The major problem is inexperience, not only of the climbers that are on the mountain but also the operators supporting those climbers,” David Morton, a veteran climber, told CNN. “Everest is primarily a very complicated logistical puzzle and I think when you have a lot of inexperienced operators as well inexperienced climbers along with, particularly, the Nepal government not putting some limitations on the numbers of people, you have a prime recipe for these sorts of situations happening.”
Morton made the climb from the Tibetan side of the mountain — which, unlike the Nepalese side, puts limits on how many people can reach the summit at once. Meanwhile, other experienced climbers have called on the Nepalese government to begin limiting the number of permits it issues. As Kul Bahadur Gurung, general secretary of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, told Time, “there were way more people on Everest than there should be.”
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