Eleven mountaineers, including four Indians, have been killed on Mount Everest this year — the largest number of deaths since at least 1996 when too, 11 climbers perished on the world’s highest mountain. More recently, in 2015, 11 sherpas were killed on Everest.
Climbing the Himalayas is an extremely risky expedition (on Sunday, rescue teams were scouring Nanda Devi, the second highest peak in India, for eight climbers from UK, Australia, US and India, missing for more than 24 hours in a dangerous area), but the mountains, and especially Everest, have continued to draw large numbers of adventurers to them. In the 66 years since the first recorded conquest of Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, more than 4,800 people have achieved the feat, and some 300 are believed to have been killed on the mountain.
The massive interest in climbing Everest has also turned the 8,848-metre peak, sacred to Buddhists, Hindus, and animists, into one of the world’s dirtiest mountains — scarred by piles of garbage, from empty oxygen cylinders and stoves to human waste and even bodies of dead climbers. As part of the Everest Day celebrations — held annually to commemorate the triumph of Hillary and Tenzing on May 29, 1953 — Nepal’s Army, assisted by other agencies and activists, cleared the summit route of 10,834 kg of garbage.
Who can climb Everest?
Adults over age 18, who have completed basic and advanced courses in mountaineering from recognised training institutes, are eligible. They are required to have above average physical and mental fitness. Experts say only those with four to five years’ experience of Himayalan trekking, including a few peaks at heights over 7,000 metres, should attempt to climb Everest.
Applications are cleared by the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB). The climbing season is for three months, ending on May 31; however, the most favourable period, called “weather window”, lasts for only about 10-12 days of May. For most of the year, a powerful westerly jet stream surrounds Everest, and the constant winds of speeds around 120 km/hr — double the maximum wind speed that climbers can usually toleate — make it almost impossible to climb the peak. During the weather window, westerly winds blow at below 2,000 metres, and speeds can drop to 40km/hr.
What happened this year?
The NTB has not given a reason for the 11 deaths this year. “We don’t really know,” a senior NTB official told The Indian Express. “It could be loss of energy, loss of courage, waiting in low-oxygen conditions, or altitude sickness.”
Indeed, even the fittest humans struggle at altitudes higher than 8,000 feet — the most common symptoms being fatigue, headaches, vomiting, and dizziness. The Everest base camp on the southern side is at 17,600 feet; Everest itself soars 29,000 feet. Beyond 26,000 feet, surviving every minute is a challenge.
A lot has been written and said about overcrowding and “traffic jams” on the peak after a picture was published in the international media showing a long line of climbers, virtually holding on to each other, making their way along a ridge. While the NTB did issue permits to a record 381 climbers in 44 teams this year, Karma Tenzing, who scaled Everest on May 15, said the descriptions of “traffic jams” on the mountain were “misrepresented and exaggerated”. TIME magazine quoted Mohan Krishna Sapkota, Nepal’s Secretary of Tourism and Civil Aviation, as saying: “ There has been concern about the number of climbers on Mount Everest but it is not because of the traffic jam that there were casualties. In the next season we will work to have double rope in the area below the summit so there is better management of the flow of climbers.”
The crowding happened on May 21, when some 250 out of the 381 climbers — accompanied by a roughly equal number of sherpas — attempted to reach the summit all at once. “Sophisticated technology has contributed to a very accurate weather forecast, and climbers for that day had hours of fair weather to get to the top,” said Suman Pande, Nepal’s leading tourism and hospitality entrepreneur.
Is it difficult to get a permit?
On the contrary, generally, all applications received at the NTB are granted permits. “We issue permits on a first-come-first-served basis,” said Meera Acharya, who coordinated on behalf of the NTB with various stakeholders of this year’s expedition. Critics have said that the absence of a policy has allowed many non-serious or inadequately trained individuals to attempt the climb, putting lives at risk.
The NTB awards permits to groups of mountaineers against a payment for $11,000 (approximately Rs 7.65 lakh), plus a refundable deposit of $4,000, which is returned after verifying that the climber has adhered to all regulations. Climbers from India said expeditions are planned by a mountaineering agency or company that is recognised by Nepal’s government. Individual climbers pay $35,000 (about Rs 24.3 lakh) to the agency, which covers transport, camping and lodging, food, medicine and the company of a sherpa per climber. Each sherpa is paid between Rs 3 lakh and Rs 4 lakh.
What equipment is needed?
The list of mandatory climbing gear includes 20-22 different types of equipment, including headgear, goggles, various rappelling devices like harness, carabiner and descenders, mountain boots, crampons, ropes, ice-sacks, etc. Special clothing includes a down jacket, mountain boots, windproof thermal layers, mitten gloves, thermal socks, oxygen masks and sleeping bags. The clothing can cost Rs 5 lakh, the most expensive items being the down jacket (Rs 60,000 to Rs 80,000) and the mountain boots (Rs 50,000 to Rs 60,000). Climbers also require at least five 4.5-kg oxygen cylinders, plus a spare. Each cylinder lasts 7-8 hours at normal usage rate.
“Only those with required experience of Himalayan mountaineering and good fitness levels must attempt such a feat. The mountaineers must be well aware of their own body’s responses at such high altitudes and must have expertise to judge challenging situations, including taking halts at appropriate places and from time-to-time,” said Umesh Zirpe, president, Akhil Maharashtra Giryarohan Mahasangha, Mumbai.
While there can be no control over weather conditions, the possibility of human-induced errors needs to be addressed, experts say. “The system we have is not perfect, but we are trying to make it foolproof and more credible,” an NTB official said.