Crowds On Mt. Everest

Crowds On Mt. Everest

Conga Line 2012-1

This dramatic photograph illustrates the serious issue of crowds on Mt. Everest.  The photo was taken in May of 2012 and depicts a conga line of climbers moving up the Lhotse Face on the South side of the mountain.

These lines create major risks for mountaineers because the resulting delays can leave climbers exposed to hypoxia, hypothermia, high altitude pulmonary edema, high altitude cerebral edema and exhaustion of oxygen supplies.  A line this long makes it nearly impossible for faster climbers to pass those moving more slowly, meaning that everyone caught in the traffic jam moves at the speed of the slowest climber.  I was told by my teammates that the wait in 2012 at the Hillary Step on May 19 was over 2 hours.  I believe this contributed to the death of one of my teammates.

At the time this photo was taken, I had already moved to the North side of the mountain in Tibet.  I switched to the North because the delays in fixing the lines on the South side convinced me that an early summit on the South side would not be possible.  I was also concerned that traffic jams would ensue as climbers tried to take advantage of the few remaining weather windows. See Summit Night 2012 in Bill’s Articles.

The lines depicted in the photograph have sparked discussion and controversy over how to make the mountain safer.  In his Sagarmatha (Everest) Day speech in May of 2012, my friend, Dawa Steven Sherpa, who is the Managing Director of Asian Trekking, made a series of thoughtful recommendations to alleviate traffic jams on Everest in future years.

Here are some of suggestions that have been made by Dawa and others:

Decrease Permits

Nepal should decrease the number of permits issued to climb Mt. Everest.  Dawa Steven did not recommend this approach, but it has been put forth by others.  There are currently no limits or quotas on permits issued by the government of Nepal to climb Everest.  In the Spring of 2012, thirty permits were issued for foreign Mt. Everest expedition teams comprising 325 climbers, 358 high altitude climbing Sherpas and 230 kitchen staff.

Limiting the issuance of permits would reduce the number of climbers on the mountain during the season, but I don’t think it will reduce traffic jams.  There are only 2 or 3 weather windows in May when climbers can reach the upper portions of the mountain.  During these weather windows, all of the teams compete for limited space on the fixed lines.  Only a very significant reduction in permits will make a dent in the problem of traffic jams.  Given the importance of trekking and climbing to the Nepalese economy, I don’t think it is likely that the government will curb the issuance of permits.  In 2012, Mt. Everest expeditions contributed over $11 million to Nepal’s economy.  Trekking  and mountaineering are critical to Nepalese expedition companies, guides, climbing Sherpas, icefall doctors, porters, liaison officers, cooks, yak herders, airline and helicopter pilots, and owners and employees of airlines, restaurants, shops, tea houses and medical facilities.

There is another problem with limiting permits.  Unscrupulous operators will purchase permits in bulk when they first become available and then auction them off to the highest bidder.

Limiting permits is not the answer to traffic jams on Everest.

Better Communication Among Teams

The climbing teams should coordinate with each other in scheduling summit attempts so summit attempts can be spread out during the climbing season.  This proposal will not work as a matter of executive fiat, i.e., teams are assigned summit windows or restricted in their moves up the mountain.  The expedition companies are paid to get their clients to the top.  The clients have invested significant amounts of time, money and emotion in training and travelling to Nepal to climb Mt. Everest.  In a typical climbing season, most of the time is spent resting at Base Camp, with relatively few days devoted to the hard work of climbing.  No team will want to sit in Base Camp when the weather window opens and other teams are moving up the mountain.

However, knowledge is power.  Dawa’s proposal is that the teams communicate better their intentions to move up, instead of keeping this information a closely guarded secret.  If a 3-day weather window opens and an expedition leader knows that 200 climbers will be moving for the summit on the first day, that leader may choose to make his summit move on the second or third day.  This is exactly what happened in the Spring, 2012 climbing season.  Dawa went from camp-to-camp seeking information from the teams as to their plans for summit attempts during the weather window that opened in late May.  He communicated this information to all of the teams.  Armed with this information, the teams spread out their moves up the mountain, and the traffic jams that had been experienced during the May 17-19 weather window were mitigated in the late May window.

Each expedition team has a government-appointed Liaison Officer who has responsibility to make sure the team abides by the government rules and regulations.  The Liaison Officers are paid US $2,000 for their services.  The suggestion is that these Liaison Officers should play a more assertive role in collecting information as to summit plans and then communicating that information to all of the teams at Base Camp.  The upcoming Spring 2013 climbing season will be a good test of this idea.

Earlier Fixing of the Lines

Fix the lines on the mountain earlier so the teams can take advantage of all available weather windows.  This idea has merit and should be implemented.  In fact, this was the plan in 2012.  I attended a meeting of Expedition Leaders at Base Camp in early season.  At the meeting, the teams discussed the line fixing on the mountain and came up with a plan to have the lines fixed to the summit by May 5.  Despite best efforts to implement the agreement reached at the meeting, the plan faltered because of the lack of snow on the mountain.  The rocks on the steep Lhotse Face were not being held in place by snowpack, and rock falls occurred causing serious injuries to climbers moving up the fixed lines.  Although the lines up the Lhotse Face were rerouted, making the move a little safer, precious time was lost and weather windows were missed.  To make matters worse, on May 5, Russell Brice, the owner of Himalayan Experience, declared the mountain unsafe because of avalanche and rock falls and cancelled his expedition.  Since Himex typically plays a major role in fixing lines on the mountain, Russell’s departure created delays in the line fixing activities.  The other teams quickly and effectively mobilized their efforts and filled the vacuum, but the paucity of snow and the ensuing delays continued to be a vexing problem.

In 2013, an aggressive effort will be made to fix the lines early.  The Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee hires the Sherpas who fix the route, lines and ladders in the Khumbu Icefall.  The current plan is to have the route fixed by April 10 before the teams arrive at Base Camp.  Once the teams arrive, they can coordinate the route and line fixing up the rest of the mountain.  Assuming there is no repeat of the problems experienced last year with rock fall on the Lhotse Face, this plan should result in a significant decrease in traffic jams.

Fix Double Lines

Fix double (up and down) lines on the portions of the mountain where traffic jams typically occur.  This idea also has merit.  The problems with long lines and significant delays on the Lhotse Face, the Southeast Ridge and the Hillary Step could have been alleviated somewhat if climbers could move up and down at the same time on different lines.  Faster climbers moving up would have the option to pass slower climbers by jumping to a “down” line to pass slower climbers moving on the “up” line.  This is the plan for 2013.

Proof of Experience

Establish and enforce strict criteria for climbers to receive permits to climb Mt. Everest.  Currently, the government does not require a climber to prove any level of competence or experience in order to receive a permit to climb Mt. Everest.  This is left to the expedition operators, and, as might be expected, the practice differs widely among operators.  Some expedition organizers require a high level of experience while others look just to the wallet.  It has been suggested that the Ministry of Tourism should require some minimum level of experience before a permit is issued to an applicant.  For example, the Ministry could require applicants to state that they have previously climbed at least one 8,000 meter mountain or two 7,000 meter mountains.

This idea has been floated, but has not yet been adopted by the government.  I doubt that it will help since it is impossible to verify claims of experience set forth in a climbing bio.

Sherpa Support

Every Everest climber must travel with at least one experienced Sherpa; and for the other 8,000 meter mountains, every two climbers must be supported by at least one Sherpa.  This idea has been proposed but not yet implemented.

Radios and Satellite Telephones

Encourage the use of satellite telephones and radios on Everest so conditions on the mountain can be reported and climbers in distress can be identified and rescued.  This is an excellent suggestion.  Currently, the government of Nepal imposes a $50 permit fee for the use of two hand held radios, a $120 permit fee for a VHF base set and a $1,300 permit fee for the use of a single satellite telephone.  The government ban on the use of satellite telephones without a permit is honored in the breach, and not the observance.  Climbers and teams equipped with radios, base sets and satellite telephones should not be charged fees for the use of these life saving devices.

Reliable Weather Reports

Require all climbers and teams to have reliable weather reports.  In the last analysis, accurate weather forecasting is critical to success on Mt. Everest.  The teams that have access to reliable weather reports are much more likely to make good decisions on the mountain than the teams that move based on intuition, gossip and rumors about what other teams are doing.  The 1996 disaster on Mt. Everest might have been avoided if the teams had access to weather reports forecasting the approaching storm that claimed so many lives.  This is a good idea, but should be encouraged, rather than required.  More effective communication among teams, as suggested earlier, will accomplish the same objective.

Other Climbing Routes

Promote other climbing routes on Everest for the more experienced climbers.  The permit fees for the West Ridge, South Buttress and Southeast Face are lower than the fees for the more popular Southeast Ridge.  Promoting these more difficult routes will separate the elite climbers from the rest of the pack and reduce congestion on the mountain.

Proper Compensation for the HRA and Icefall Doctors

The Himalayan Rescue Association that operates the medical facilities at Pheriche and Base Camp and the Sherpas who set the lines and ladders in the Khumbu Icefall (affectionately christened “Icefall Doctors”), should be properly rewarded for their efforts on the mountain.  The HRA and the Icefall Doctors perform an invaluable service on Mt. Everest every year and save countless lives on the mountain.  Who could possibly disagree with the proposal that they be fairly compensated?  Efforts are underway to make this happen.

The Spring, 2013, climbing season on Mt. Everest will be a good test to see if these initiatives, some proposed and some in place, will help reduce the problems with crowds on Everest.  I am very hopeful and optimistic.