It’s about conquering the top of the world and returning home safely
Every year, Mount Everest, the highest peak (8,848 m) in the world, attracts adventurous travellers and mountaineers who consider reaching its pinnacle as finding the Holy Grail. Mountaineers risk avalanches, storms, ‘death zones’ and harsh temperatures in an attempt to summit the peak.
For this traditional spring season, almost $2 million in permit fees have already been collected till date as the first batch of 250 climbers from 28 countries have been given Everest permits, among which 70 used their 2015’s extended permit. The government had made a decision to extend the climbing permits of all 2015 spring expeditions by two years after the devastating earthquake struck the country killing nearly 8,500 people in April and May 2015.
Rise in numbers
As per data from Elizabeth Hawley’s reports on the Himalayan Database, there have been 7,646 summits of Everest through June 2016 on all routes by 4,469 people. A total of 1,015 people, mostly Sherpas, have summited Everest multiple times. The Nepal side is more popular with 4,863 summits as compared to 2,783 summits from the Tibet side and 14 climbers have traversed from one side to the other. Two-hundred-eighty-two people, out of whom 114 were Sherpas, have died on Everest from 1924 to June 2016, while 70 climbers have died on the descent from the summit.
This year, over 600 summits from Nepal’s side and over 200 from Tibet are expected, breaking the record set in 2013 with 658 total summits from both sides.
According to Nabin Trital, Managing Director of Expedition Himalaya, the first batch of climbers who have already left for the Base Camp includes new climbers as well as the ones who got reimbursed. “I cannot provide you the number of climbers who went through our agency, but yes we have sent a few who couldn’t reach the summit in 2015 as well,” he said. Expedition Himalaya was founded by a group of experienced mountaineers and entrepreneurs with over 20 years of experience in the adventure travel industry.
The ultimate goal
The permit cost is fixed at $11,000 per climber, which simply gives permission to climb and does not cover helicopter evacuation, maintaining high altitude ranger camps or hiring seasonal staff. The Department of Tourism’s annual press release has announced that changes would be made to make Everest safer.
According to them, all permit holders must hire guides, helicopters above Base Camp will be restricted except for rescues, climbers with disabilities or those who are older than 75 will be banned. All Everest climbers must have had summited a 7,000-metre mountain to obtain an 8,000-metre climbing permit in Nepal.
According to Alan Arnette, who summited Everest in 2011, climbing Mount Everest is a privilege. He further said in his website that climbing Everest is not easy and that it is not for beginners and should definitely not to be rushed. He climbs mountains to raise money and awareness for Alzheimer’s disease.
“For this spring season, three of our clients, along with the guides, have already left for Everest. They will acclimatise to high altitude and then move to Mount Everest,” said Govinda Gurung, Managing Director of TAGnepal. “We are fully hopeful that all three of them will successfully ascend Everest since we have highly qualified guides who know the mountains,” he added. TAGnepal has IFMGA/UIAGM Certified Mountain Guides who run both south (Nepal) and north (Tibet) climb.
Everest getting safer
Mount Everest is in fact getting safer even though more and more people are climbing it. In recent years, operators have started using the standard routes so that there are fewer unknown ones. Along with that, improved weather forecasting, extra supplemental oxygen and generous Sherpa support have made Everest one of the safest 8,000 metre mountains and the most summited one as well, that too by a huge margin.
From 1923 to 1999, 170 people died on Everest out of 1,169 summits. But the deaths drastically declined from 2000 to 2016 with 6,421 summits and 112 deaths. However, two years skewed the death rate when 16 Sherpas perished in 2014 avalanche that swept through Khumbu Icefall, a treacherous expanse of moving ice blocks that climbers must cross en route to the summit from Nepal’s side, and a 7.6-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 8,500 people nationwide and set off an avalanche of rock and ice that hit Everest Base Camp, killing 22 climbers and support workers and trapping dozens on the mountain. This made 2015 the deadliest season in the mountain’s history. As a result, for the first time in 41 years, no one trekked to the top of Everest, and one of the most productive industries in the country remained dormant.
According to Lakhpa Sherpa, a former mountain guide at the Base Camp, the reduction in deaths is principally due to better gear, weather forecasting and more people climbing with commercial operations. But according to him, there has been a rise in the competition between the agencies that organise trips to the summit. Breaking into the market, local agents also have proven that they can run expeditions that meet the needs of a different market. This change has brought in some 100 additional climbers each year and is expected to grow. Many of the new clients are climbing
Everest now due to extremely low prices, regardless of their experience. “There has been growth in local agents who organise trips in comparatively lesser price. This in turn will drop the level of experience, competence, and infrastructure and at the same time, more inexperienced clients will be accepted by those companies,” he further said.
Facing the Khumbu Icefall
Every year, the best group of Icefall Doctors build a route of fixed ropes and ladders through the Khumbu Icefall so that climbers can use it like bridges to cross crevasses. After the 2014 avalanche, they made changes to reduce the risks, shortening the route and moving it to the Icefall’s centre, farther from the avalanche threat.
To mitigate the Icefall risk, several foreign outfitters are requesting Nepal government for changes that would lessen the number of Sherpa trips through the Icefall, which can be as many as 30 to 40 a season. These proposals include leaving supplies at Camp Two year after year, regulating what gear may be brought to Camp Two, and flying loads by helicopter over the Icefall.
North side or South side?
As a result of the series of unfortunate events on the Southern side over the past few years, there has been a visible shift in climbers summiting Everest from Tibet. For several years in the mid 2000s, the north side was the preferred route of many Western guiding operations, but when the Chinese government abruptly closed the mountain in 2008, they were forced to decamp to the south side, losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process, and many have stayed in Nepal ever since. However, the last few years have seen an increase in climbers heading to Tibet. “The north side has proven to be much safer if you go along with a team,” said Sherpa.
According to him, the north side is significantly safer, particularly for mountain workers. It also offers a comparable
summit success rate of about 50 per cent. That is because a significant part of the routes on the north side follow a ridgeline, which means they’re less exposed to objective hazards than the south side, where the main route winds up a valley, subjecting climbers to avalanches and rock fall from neighbouring peaks.
Also, there’s less traffic jams thanks to fewer climbers and then there’s the fact that climbing from Tibet avoids the Khumbu Icefall altogether, a feature that poses a level of risk that would be unacceptable to climbers in other circumstances. But even with its relative safety benefits, the Tibet route carries risk in the form of the Chinese government’s unpredictability. Along with that, there are fewer infrastructure in case something goes wrong.
On the south side there’s communications, helicopters to get people in and out, and a permanent medical clinic, which is not on the north side, so those things also factor into the larger idea of risk management. One can pick the numbers to prove almost any point on which side is safe, but the bottom line is, it’s not about choosing sides. It’s about conquering the top of the world and returning home safely.
Records to look out for
A version of this article appears in print on April 16, 2017 of The Himalayan Times.
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