What is to blame? Overcrowding? Budget operators? Or maybe inexperience? Despite being barely begun, it is already the fourth deadliest season on Mount Everest as 11 climbers have perished. Ricky Munday gives us his thoughts on the potential reasons behind the high toll of lives already claimed by the world's tallest mountain.
The Everest photo that sparked a sensational reaction across the internet was taken by Nirmal Purja MBE on 22 May. His photo was taken at 8,750m on the South Col route of Everest, between the South Summit and the Hillary Step, en route to the summit, the highest point on earth (8,848m), this photo captured the scene of a long line of climbers jostling for position high in the Death Zone, waiting their turn to reach the summit. It is truly an Everest climber’s nightmare scenario.
The overcrowding on this short section – and the deaths of 11 climbers on Everest so far this season – has provided fodder for tabloid journalists and armchair critics alike, with deaths being directly attributed to the long queues, inexperienced climbers and unethical operators. Local expedition operators have blamed “heavy traffic at the summit” for delaying clients on descent and causing deaths. A New York Times article was headlined: “British Climber Dies on Everest as Traffic Jam’s Toll Rises to 10.” Generalised assumptions and unfounded accusations abound – Everest is now a playground for the rich; the mountain is too busy; climbing Everest is no longer a challenge.
I had the enormous privilege of reaching the summit of Everest on 18 May 2018, via the Northeast Ridge route from Tibet, summiting with Phurba Wangchu Sherpa at 06.15 am (Tibet time) before sunrise. We climbed for eight hours from Camp 3 (8,300m) on the north ridge of the mountain, which joins the northeast ridge via the exit cracks at 8,500m before continuing on to the summit via the First, Second & Third Steps. We were the first team on the summit that day from either side, and the highest human beings on earth for five hours as we climbed. On the summit, we looked down into Nepal and saw climbers’ headtorches ascending far below. Looking back into Tibet, we could see my team-mate Sam accompanied by two Sherpas – they would reach the summit around one hour later. Our western Expedition Leader turned back on summit day at 8,500m as he was feeling unwell – at these altitudes the margins are tiny, and your own personal safety has to be your top priority. He made a smart decision.
Bottled oxygen is crucial for most when climbing Everest. Photo: Ricky Munday Collection
Fundamentally, climbing Everest is difficult because of two factors, both of which are attributable to her enormous height, almost nine kilometres up in the atmosphere.
The first factor is the remarkably low oxygen levels. Atmospheric pressure and oxygen pressure fall roughly linearly with altitude. At 5,500m at Everest Base Camp in Nepal, the amount of oxygen available is only 50% of the sea level value. On the summit of Everest at 8,848m, there is only 30% compared to sea level. It’s almost impossible to breathe at that extreme altitude, and the human body literally begins to die.
To compensate for the low oxygen levels, the body responds in three main ways. In the short term, hypoxia drives increased ventilation. Put simply, we breathe faster, providing more oxygen to our major organs. Secondly, our heart rate increases. Over a longer timeframe of weeks, hypoxia stimulates production of erythropoietin in the kidneys, which in turn increases red blood cell production. In combination, we call these responses ‘acclimatisation’, although they do have drawbacks – the increased breathing rate means that we lose significant amounts of water vapour and become prone to dehydration at altitude, and the thicker blood increases the risk of stroke. It can take six weeks for the body to be sufficiently acclimatised for a successful summit attempt and climbers will often complete two acclimatisation ‘rotations’, climbing first up to 7,000m and back down to base camp, and then higher to 7,500m and back to base camp before their summit bids. On the south side of Everest, this can mean passing through the dangerous Khumbu icefall six times – in 2014, sixteen Sherpas were killed by an avalanche in the icefall. Some teams now acclimatise on nearby peaks in Nepal to reduce the number of times they have to pass through the icefall.
High altitude mountaineers often rely on supplementary oxygen systems, and I was no different. On summit day, I carried two bottles of compressed oxygen and Phurba carried my third, and I used an oxygen flow rate of 2 litres throughout summit day; at this flow rate, one cylinder lasts eight hours. Higher oxygen flow rates are becoming more common on Everest, with some operators advertising flow rates of eight litres per minute. One US operator supplies nine bottles of oxygen per climber to allow high-flow oxygen sleeping at all camps above Advanced Base Camp, and to allow clients to climb on a higher flow than other operators.
Some operators even offer ‘rapid ascents’ with pre-acclimatisation at home using hypoxic tents for several weeks, and unlimited oxygen on the mountain. While such approaches may offer a higher safety margin for the individual climber, stocking the high camps with enough oxygen to service these needs requires enormous Sherpa manpower, adding to the overall numbers on the mountain. On summit day such clients may have two or more Sherpas carrying oxygen.
Promising winds and threatening clouds
Ricky above the clouds at Camp 3. Photo: Ricky Munday Collection
The second factor that makes climbing Everest so difficult is the wind. The summit of Everest is so high that it sits in the jet stream – a core of strong winds high above the Earth’s surface that typically blow at well over 100mph. For most of the year, it’s simply impossible to climb Everest. Only for a few days or weeks every year does the jet stream move off the summit due to the Indian monsoon starting to move north, which deflects the jet stream and provides a short period of stable weather – in other words a ‘weather window’. As mountaineers, we use a variety of strategies to manage the various objective risks. We mitigate low oxygen levels to some extent by using supplementary oxygen, but we can’t mitigate the effect of high winds, so instead we plan our summit bids to avoid the high winds of the jet stream by using detailed weather forecasting to identify suitable weather windows.
Small teams of strong climbers can move nimbly to the summit in narrow weather windows; larger teams often require several days of clear weather to account for the varying speeds of individual climbers. For example, Kenton Cool achieved a record 14th summit for a Brit on 16 May, reaching the summit on the south side with his small team of one client and three Sherpas by moving quickly in a narrow weather window. He reported reaching the summit at 03.15 am in darkness and “none of the crowds you often hear about, simply a fabulous day out on a wonderful hill”. None of the larger teams took advantage of this narrow window of opportunity.
That same day, an acquaintance of mine Seamus Lawless reached the summit from the south side, but fell during the descent from around 8,300m. A fundraising page set up by his family raised almost €270,000 and a search was launched but was called off a few days later. A second member of the same expedition team, Indian climber Ravi Thakar was found dead inside his tent at Camp 4 at 7,920 metres the following morning (17 May) – his body was later recovered. Neither of these tragic deaths can be attributed to crowds, since none were reported on their summit day.
The dangers of desires
Moving a sick climber back down to Camp 2. Photo: Ricky Munday Collection
Last year on Everest there were a record number of summits, and this was in no small part due to an exceptional weather window – on 11 consecutive days climbers reached the summit of Everest. According to the Himalaya Database, I was one of 130 team members overall who reached the summit from Tibet last year, supported by 110 Sherpas who also reached the summit. The north side of Everest sees far fewer climbers overall than the south – in Nepal last year, 562 climbers reached the summit, with 266 team members and 296 Sherpas.
Five climbers died on Everest last year; four in Nepal and one in Tibet. In 2017, there were a similar number of fatalities. With a death rate around 1%, compared to other 8,000m peaks Everest is a very safe mountain.
I first tried to climb Everest in 2017, but turned back at 7,900m due to very low energy levels – above 7,000m I couldn’t sleep and felt nauseous. While ascending the north ridge to Camp 2 at 7,900m I could take only one or two steps and would then lean over my ice axe for minutes to catch my breath – all my team-mates overtook me, and I had to increase my oxygen flow rate just to reach cap. I struggled to keep my fingers warm and having damaged six fingers on an early season expedition to Denali in 2012 I was concerned about further damage.
On the north side of Everest there is no rescue service as the Chinese Government forbid commercial helicopter operations, and there is no centralised medical support at base camp. In the event of a high-altitude emergency you have to get yourself off the mountain and it can take days to reach a hospital in Lhasa or Kathmandu. An unfavourable weather forecast meant that we would spend two nights at 7,900m instead of one. This combination of factors meant that I was unwilling to enter the Death Zone as I wasn’t certain that I could get myself safely back down, so I chose to give up my dream and I descended to Advanced Base Camp at 6,400m. This decision was mine, and mine alone – I informed the Expedition Leader and I descended alone.
That same morning, a windstorm struck my teammates, destroying two tents. When the winds subsided in the late afternoon, the team made an emergency descent. One team-mate became separated at the back of the group and ran out of oxygen at 7,500m. As night fell, he put on his headtorch but in the process of adjusting it, it slipped off along with his hat and his goggles. The wind damaged his eyes and he became wind-blind. He collapsed onto his stomach and began dragging himself headfirst down the fixed ropes. His mitts were now touching the snow and became saturated. His hands and fingers froze, and he suffered severe frostbite.
At midnight, he was rescued by two climbers who climbed up from the North Col. They tied a rope around his legs and dragged him down to the North Col. Over the next two days, he was supported by two Sherpas first down from the North Col to Advanced Basecamp, and then on an agonising 22km walk down to base camp, where I organised his safe evacuation. He suffered nine pulmonary embolisms and had half of one finger amputated six months after the expedition.
Last year when I returned to Everest, as we were moving up to high camp on our summit bid, we passed a group of eight Sherpas lowering an injured climber. An Indian climber had suffered High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACE) at 8,300m. He was semi-conscious; he couldn’t walk or talk. The Sherpas had tied ropes around his midriff and to each arm and leg and were lowering him like a parcel. Moving a 70kg weight at these altitudes is exceptionally demanding, but the Sherpas saved his life and after lowering him to Advanced Base Camp a yak carried him down to base camp and he made a full recovery.
While descending from the summit the following day, Phurba and I passed a large Russian team who were ascending. One of their Sherpas had turned back at 8,500m as he became unwell at the precise spot where our own Leader had turned back hours earlier. Phurba and I spotted him from 100 metres away – he was wearing a bright yellow down suit, but he wasn’t moving. We climbed down and approached him, and we started shouting and shaking him. I searched in vain for a pulse. He was dead. His name was Pasang Norbu Sherpa and he was 41 – the same age as me. His cause of death was recorded as stroke.
Safety in numbers?
Climber sick at Camp 3. Photo: Ricky Munday Collection
Over the course of four months on two expeditions on Everest’s slopes, I’ve become intimately familiar with the deleterious effect of high altitude and low oxygen on the human body.
What caused the crowding reported on the summit ridge in Nepal last week? Quite simply, there were too many people on the route at the same time. They were all there on the same day because a relatively short weather window was forecast – the jet stream was moving off the summit and between 200-300 climbers were told by their operators that this was their window. Some of the teams attempting to climb Everest on the south side this year were enormous – three large US operators claimed 34, 36 and 42 climbers on the summit respectively; two Nepali operators reported 13 team members (supported by 17 Sherpas) and 77 climbers respectively. These numbers are staggering. However, had a longer period of stable weather opened up as in 2018, this level of crowding would not have occurred as teams would have naturally spread out.
This year’s events have echoes of 2012 – German mountaineer Ralf Dujmovits took the definitive photo of the 2012 Everest season on 18 May that year, capturing a 'human snake' of hundreds of climbers ascending the Lhotse face on the south side. The very next day, four climbers died. That season saw a new record when 234 climbers summitted on a single day, but it was also one of the deadliest seasons since 1996, with 11 deaths in total. So overcrowding is not a new phenomenon – in 2012, as in 2018, the weather was unstable – that year the fixed ropes did not reach the summit until 17 May and the first forecast window from 18 May was short, hence why hundreds of climbers all moved at the same time.
There’s no doubt that overcrowding makes Everest less safe. Climbers spend longer in the Death Zone, and their bodies and senses decay. Extremities can freeze quickly, and climbers become susceptible to frostbite. Oxygen reserves start to run low. This is where experience counts for everything and smart decisions have to be taken. Sadly, a significant minority of climbers lack any real mountaineering experience and rely totally on their Sherpa or Western guide. Almost unbelievably, some may never have worn crampons before attempting to climb Everest. Others lack basic mountaineering experience and are unable to even unclip and reclip their safety line to the fixed ropes at the various anchor points – the Sherpa does it for them. On the south side of Everest, they might struggle to ascend the Hillary Step, which is a narrow, steep bottleneck that only one climber can ascend or descend at one time.
Moving from the North Col to the summit. Photo: Ricky Munday Collection
Some Western operators blame low-budget Nepali operators for taking on inexperienced clients and one prominent US operator outlined their views in a Facebook post:
“Although crowding is a problem that we need to address … the larger problem causing injuries and death on Everest is inexperienced guides and operators and incompetent climbers.”
However, on their own website, the same operator markets Everest as “Difficulty Level: Intermediate-Advanced”. The only prerequisites they advertise for prospective Everest clients are “serious fitness, an ability to perform well at altitude, the mindset to be away from home for 8-10 weeks, along with the desire for rugged adventure travel…solid cramponing skill and familiarity with glacier and fixed line climbing techniques.”
There’s no mention of the need to have decades of progressive mountaineering experience or previous ascents of 6, 7 or 8,000m peaks. Nor do they mention that your Guide or Sherpa may encounter their own difficulties at extreme altitude and that you really do need to have the skills and experience to get yourself safely off the mountain in such a scenario. They do however promise at least seven bottles of oxygen (and three for your Sherpa) and a variety of luxury accommodation options – it’s hardly an offering designed to attract ‘competent’ or ‘experienced’ climbers. Therefore, I believe it’s disingenuous for Western operators to blame local operators alone for the number of deaths and injuries. (Note: on my second Everest expedition, with a well-known UK operator, one of the three climbers had never worn crampons or been higher than 5,000m but was accepted onto the team).
One US operator reported that one of their teams summitted this Bank Holiday Monday (27 May) on the south side in perfect weather and had the summit to themselves, with a team consisting of four climbers, three Guides & nine Sherpas – therefore, each paying member had three support staff with them on their summit push. If clients are competent and experienced enough, surely this support ratio is totally unnecessary, and unsustainable?
There has been an explosion in the number of lower-budget Nepali operators offering relatively cheaper Everest expedition in recent years. They serve an international clientele, with increasing numbers coming from the burgeoning Indian and Chinese middle classes. Increasing numbers of operators means there is a shortage of experienced high-altitude Sherpas, who gravitate to the operators who pay more. The lower budget operators are therefore forced to employ less experienced Sherpas to guide their clients.
These new Nepali operators may not always apply the strictest of criteria to prospective Everest clients – but we have to recognise that neither do some Western operators and that Nepal is the poorest country in South Asia and one of the 30 poorest countries on earth. A new generation of Sherpas are establishing themselves as Everest entrepreneurs, and they deserve our support and respect, rather than denigration.
While operators across the board need to take their share of responsibility for accepting incompetent or inexperienced clients, clients themselves need to take personal responsibility for their own actions. A number of deaths this year occurred during descent and have been attributed to ‘exhaustion’. A fundamental principle of mountaineering is that the summit is only halfway, and Ed Visteurs captured this concept succinctly:
“Getting to the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory.”
It’s imperative for any aspiring Everest climber to recognise their limits and not to expend themselves in a quest to reach the summit. Turning back is not a failure; it increases your odds of a safe return to your family, which should be the over-riding goal on any high-altitude expedition. It’s also unacceptable to abdicate all responsibility to your Guide or Sherpa. They can support you, but they cannot absolutely guarantee your safety with so many objective dangers.
The experience of a lifetime
Ricky and Phurba when they were the highest humans on the planet. Photo: Ricky Munday Collection
To reduce crowding, some commentators have suggested capping the number of permits issued by Nepal, but Nepal relies heavily on the annual income from climbing permits, which cost $11,000 each. Ben Fogle tweeted:
“Nepal and Tibet/China need to limit the number of climbers on the mountain with a London Marathon style lottery for climbing permits.”
For someone who had very limited mountaineering experience and personally benefitted from a relaxed regulatory regime to suggest that others in such a position should be prevented from following their own dreams seems highly hypocritical.
I would suggest that rather than focusing on the overall numbers, there is a need for stricter regulations on individual climbers’ experience. It would be easy to define a threshold under which operators are unable to accept a client’s booking, with records centrally maintained and overseen by the Nepalese authorities. This would reduce the number of inexperienced people on the hill at any one time so that even in a tight weather window where crowds might exist, the line might at least keep moving. Any operator found to be in breach should have their licence suspended. This could be combined with a cap on the number of permits issued per operator to reduce the worst excesses of commercialisation and profiteering.
The crowding on the South Col route on Everest on 22 May did not cause 11 deaths – but the delays caused by the crowding may have contributed to some of those fatalities as climbers weakened in the Death Zone and drained scarce physical, mental and oxygen reserves – and climbers chose not to turn round. Everest is not always crowded; other teams summitted from the south both before and after 22 May and reported no crowds at all. On the other side of the mountain in Tibet, overcrowding is not a serious concern. Western operators should consider the impact of their over-specified support resources on other climbers sharing the hill, rather than just on their own clients; sending multiple support staff and unlimited oxygen to the summit with one client is totally unnecessary if clients are competent and experienced. Individual climbers must take personal responsibility for their actions – they cannot abdicate responsibility to their Guide or Sherpa. Climbers need to have the skills and experience to operate independently.
As the highest mountain on earth, Everest will continue to draw climbers who are following their own dreams; these dreams should be celebrated but grounded in reality. Everest can and will continue to be a force for good. After climbing Everest last year, I founded a social enterprise Inspire Alpine. Our social mission is to help close the attainment gap faced by disadvantaged young people. I’ve since spoken at over 100 schools to over 15,000 young people across the UK to help raise their aspirations. I received this message from one parent last Friday:
“Ricky, I just wanted to send you a message of thanks. We’ve never met, but you recently visited my seven-year-old son's school to talk about your adventures. He’s now writing a book called ‘Matthew and Grandpa go camping’ which involves a trip to the top of Everest, via Goat Fell, Ben Nevis and K2. My dad is a keen hill walker from Arran and climbed most of the Scottish hills but is sadly currently in hospital. All week my son Matthew has been chatting to him planning their Everest camping adventure and it’s given my dad so much joy. I just wanted to say thank you – your adventures live on in possibly your youngest and eldest fans.”
I salute those who continue to follow their dreams and inspire others to do the same.
Ricky Munday is a Chartered Accountant (CA) & Mountain Leader. From 2014-2018 he served as the youngest ever member of the executive team at the UK's national polar research organisation, where he led the key professional service teams in both Antarctica and Cambridge.
He overcame redundancy in 2004 by completing the Marathon des Sables, a 150-mile ultramarathon in the Sahara desert. This totally changed his mindset, and gave him the confidence to follow his dreams.
After qualifying as a CA, a four-month secondment to an orphanage in Kenya inspired him to spend six years deployed in the aftermath of natural disasters leading support functions for the Red Cross and other aid organisations in Sudan, Bangladesh, Pakistan & Haiti.
Over the last decade, he has completed 18 mountaineering expeditions to six continents. He attempted to climb Everest in 2017, but turned back below 8,000m due to low energy levels. He returned last year for a second attempt and reached the summit from the north side.
Follow Ricky's channels on Inspire Alpine, the social enterprise he founded offering inspirational talks & authentic, purposeful outdoor adventures. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.
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