A spike in deaths on Everest this year provoked media attention and an outcry of opinions. At a press conference last week, Nepal's Ministry of Tourism proposed stricter access regulations. But what should change, and will anything actually happen?
On May 24 this year, Everest suffered one of its most congested days ever, as 200-300 people used a weather window to push for the world’s highest summit. Queues at over 8,000m were blamed for the deaths of two climbers. In all, 11 people died on Everest this season, making it the fourth-deadliest season ever.
Photographs of queues on Everest and tales of stepping over dead bodies aren’t new, but numbers on the mountain each year are going up and this time there was a particularly strong media and social media backlash. Strong opinions and generalised statements started to fly.
For example, Ben Fogle, a TV presenter, adventurer and UN patron of the wilderness who climbed Everest last year, commented on Twitter:
One voice cut through the chatter. It was that of Di Gilbert, a very experienced mountaineer based in the Highlands, who has climbed the highest mountains on every continent. She led her clients to the summit of Everest on that busy day, May 24.
Reflecting on the experience, she wrote that she had stopped counting the dead bodies and that her team “didn’t feel like celebrating” on the summit: “The first was sitting down just off the path, knees bent, and head slumped. I felt sick. They kept on coming. If you shone your head torch off the path you would see another body. They were wedged down rock crevasses, on ledges and next to the path. Nobody spoke.”
It seems that something needs to be done, but what? British IFMGA Mountain Guide Kenton Cool, who, having summited Everest 14 times now, is something of an expert told me: “I’m fond of Ben Fogle but that comment was a load of cobbles and just muddied the water. The thing I love about mountaineering is that it is open to anyone and it is quite anarchistic. Whatever is done needs to be something true to the spirit of mountaineering.”
We'll have an opinion piece from Kenton soon, but in the meantime here's a look at the problems and suggested resolutons.
There are several roots to the issue, the first of which is Everest's very short climbing season. The summit is so high that it sticks up into the jet stream - a narrow band of winds raging at over 100 miles per hour. These winds very briefly calm down between late April and late May. 2018 was a particularly good year, with 11 summitable days. In seasons like 2019, when the weather window was particularly tight, it leads to bottlenecks.
Scott Mackenzie, who summited Everest in 2017, commented: "In 2017 we went to the summit during a fairly early season weather window and even that day 25 other people summited. On our way down we passed a lot of climbers coming up and it felt crowded and busy, especially around the Hillary step at almost 8800 metres. One up one down. I distinctly remember thinking how scary it would be with ten times the number of people and even a slight deterioration in weather”.
Khumbu icefall. Photo: Scott Mackenzie
The number of Everest climbing permits that Nepal gives out has risen gradually nearly ever year since the mountain began to become commercialised in the 1990s, as it has gained popularity as a once-in-a-lifetime challenge. Nepal handed out 361 permits to climb the mountain from the south this spring - a record high that does not include the hundreds of Sherpa guides and other staff. Meanwhile 144 were handed out on the northern side of the mountain, in China-controlled Tibet.
However, reducing the number of permits would directly affect Nepal's economy, and so would understandably need careful consideration. Mountaineering has become a key source of employment and income for the country, which is home to eight of the world's 14 highest mountains. Any changes that Nepal make to Everest regulations will directly affect locals whose livelihoods have become entwined with the peak.
The numbers game isn't entirely straightforward, either. Another thing to consider is that in Europe there are guide-client ratios for certain popular peaks: on Mont Blanc, for example, it’s 1:2. There is no similar regulation on Everest - a mountain where significant complication is added by the effects of high-altitude and by oxygen cylinders. Often the Everest guide ratio is 1:6 or even more.
A further complication is the pricetag of climbing Everest with a guide. It's typically well above £40,000 and considerably more to climb solo with a highly-qualified guide. You can see why it might be appealing to sign up with a company that is less experienced and qualified, and will be guiding more people at a time, but offers a more affordable rate. So some have suggested that reguations requiring Everest guides to hold the IFMGA qualification would help.
Finally, while the Nepalese government says it implements background checks on prospective climbers, it has been accused of turning a blind eye to those who don’t meet criteria. Scott Mackenzie is not the only one who has watched a client having his harness and crampons put on for him.
WATCH: Scott Mackenzie on the summit of Everest on BMC TV:
THE REVIEW PANEL
Following the media attention, a Nepali review panel was put together, made up of government officials, climbers and agencies representing the climbing community.
The key points of their 59-page report were:
Expeditions companies should have three years experience organising high-altitude climbs before guiding on Everest.
Climbers should submit proof of summiting at least one 6,500m peak before attempting the mountain.
To discourage budget tour companies, tour operators should charge a minimum of $35,000 per client (including the $11,000 permit fee).
Other points that were also covered, but more vaguely, include a suggestion for fixing ropes earlier and an improved weather-forecasting system.
Climber and Everest chronicler Alan Arnette told Outside Online: “While a step in the right direction, the two major rules can be easily bypassed and lack teeth.” The proposed regulations fall short of requiring guides to have qualifications and it is unclear how and to whom proof of summiting a 6,500m peak would be submitted: “China requires climbers to have previously summited an 8,000m peak before climbing on the Tibet side and has an independent agency review all applications. I had hoped Nepal would follow suit.”
A BRITISH MOUNTAIN GUIDE'S PERSPECTIVE
Stuart Macdonald, an IFMGA Mountain Guide who summited Everest as the climbing leader of an eight-man team in 2007, commented: “In Europe there is a very strict Guide training programme. It takes a minimum of three years and candidates cannot even begin until they have a huge amount of experience. Elsewhere in the world, people may be designated as ‘guides’ by the company employing them. Nepal is a member of the IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations) and should insist that Everest guides have this qualification.”
“Insisting on all climbers having already climbed a 6500m peak in Nepal will increase revenue for Nepal. But will it increase the calibre of the climbers attempting Everest? In my own experience I met many climbers on Everest who thought they were good, and who thought they had a vast amount of experience. Many were barely above novice level. They had climbed “around the world” but in reality had bounced from one guided “7 Summits” expedition to another. Think about that: Kilimanjaro - a high altitude trek without crampons. Aconcagua - the same. Carstens Pyramid - a rocky peak in the jungle. So only Denali, Vinson and Elbrus require crampons - and they’re not particularly technical climbs.”
Will the changes be implemented? It has been said that the proposals will be considered over the following months and put before parliament ahead of the next climbing season. Ghanshyam Upadhyaya, a senior official with Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism, told Reuters news agency that the changes would be made: "The government will now make the required changes in laws and regulations guiding mountain climbing.”
Everest summit looking towards Tibet. Photo: Scott Mackenzie
CAN LESSONS BE LEARNT FROM THE NORTHERN SIDE?
Everest is a mountain with a foot in two countries, and on the Tibetan side the situation is different. As US IFMGA mountain Guide, Adrian Balllinger told the National Geographic in 2016:
“There are a lot of issues with China, and getting into the country is one of them. But over the last five years, they have become more forward thinking in their management of Everest. They now have strong government ranger presence on the mountain, not only at base camp. They regulate trash. They fix the ropes all the way to the summit. And they’ve done things like remove all the dead bodies from the north side of the mountain. They’re very proud that Everest is part of China, through Tibet. I really see a change here.”
Ballinger says that if you look at the Seven Summits, every single one has gone through this process: “Denali, for example … Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua have also gone from dirty and chaotic mountains to pristine, incredible places. The same needs to happen on Everest, and it will only happen through government regulation. China seems to be taking that on. Nepal has not yet taken that on.”
Finding a space in Camp 3. Photo: Scott Mackenzie
NICK COLTON, BMC DEPUTY CEO, COMMENTED:
“Despite what’s being said, it’s unclear precisely what the status of the recommendations are in Nepal – for instance, are any of the recommendations actually going to be implemented by the government in Nepal, and if so how, by whom and from when? This is all unclear despite what people are saying. At this point, we’re waiting, and watching, to see what happens on the ground. The article about Di Gilbert’s experience on Everest this year is very sobering.
"From a personal point of view these stories make one realise that Everest has become a business – a really big business; and with that comes all the forces that the profit motive can unleash. Sadly, this now appears to be pushing the human, social, environmental, climbing and mountaineering considerations out of the picture for Everest.”
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