A photograph taken on Mount Everest by Nepali climber Nirmal Purja has taken first social media, and now the internet, by storm. In a scene that looks almost too surreal to be true, a line of nearly one hundred mountaineers snakes up to the summit of the world’s highest mountain – a traffic jam of climbers waiting wrapped in down and Gore Tex for their brief moment of glory at the top.
#ProjectPossible update. I summited Everest at 0530 and Lhotse at 1545 despite heavy traffic. I am now at Makalu base camp. Will be going directly for summit push from base camp. I will update once Makalu is complete. Thank you for my support especially my sponsors. pic.twitter.com/mAiLTryEln— Nimsdai (@nimsdai) May 23, 2019
London’s Evening Standard is just one newspaper to give the photo prominent coverage. It’s an image that challenges the popular notion of climbing Everest as a lonely feat of endurance, raising questions about the sheer numbers of climbers attempting this potentially deadly ascent. To anyone with experience of mountaineering in Nepal, it sets off a barrage of alarm bells.
The vast majority of deaths on Everest have been from climbers returning from the summit, not climbing up. In the notorious 1996 disaster, which killed eight experienced climbers, many of the fatalities were caused by expeditions making the final push to the summit too late in the day, leaving climbers exposed on the slopes when a blizzard enveloped the summit during their descent.
Already during the 2019 season, there have been 11 deaths on Everest, many attributed, by the expeditions they were part of, to the volume of climbers on the peak. American climber Donald Lynn Cash died from altitude sickness on 22 May, after long delays reaching the summit, and Indian climber Anjali Kulkarni succumbed on the same day as she descended after conquering the mountain. Many more tragedies followed.
The leaders of both expeditions have placed heavy blame on the gridlock of climbers attempting to reach the summit. In an interview with the Kathmandu Post, Arun Treks, which organised Anjali Kulkarni’s expedition, blamed her death on the level of traffic at the summit, which delayed her descent, increasing the time spent in the so-called ‘death zone’ at the top of the mountain.
Above 8000m, in the death zone, the risks of Acute Mountain Sickness are dramatically increased, due to the low concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere. Even experienced, acclimatised climbers are vulnerable, and the majority of the 300 deaths on Everest have occurred at this elevation. Any delays, for example when trying to get past climbers waiting for their own attempt on the summit, could prove deadly.
Budhanilkantha-based agency Pioneer Adventure, who organised Donald Lynn Cash’s summit expedition, also cited the traffic jam of mountaineers on the final stages of the ascent as a factor in the death of the American climber. Television presenter Ben Fogle, who summited the peak in 2018, is just one of many climbers now calling for the number of climbers on the peak to be regulated and restricted.
Yesterday on Everest. Nepal and Tibet/China need to limit the number of climbers on the mountain with a London Marathon style lottery for climbing permits. pic.twitter.com/RERjSgnvXh— Ben Fogle (@Benfogle) May 23, 2019
The number of amateurs climbing Everest on organised expeditions is increasing ever year, despite whole seasons lost after deadly avalanches struck the region in 2014 and during the 2015 earthquake. With the high fees agencies can earn bringing inexperienced climbers up the mountain, there are concerns that both agencies and the Nepali government, responsible for issuing permits to mountaineers, may not always be putting the safety of climbers first.
Meanwhile, experienced mountaineers are looking on in horror at the dangerous crowds on the world’s highest mountain. Nirmal Purja took his remarkable photo while summiting Everest as part of Project Possible, an ambitious attempt to climb all 14 of the Himalayan peaks above 8000m in a single season, breaking the present record of seven years, 11 months and 14 days.