Against All Odds: Celebrating Everest’s Record Highs and Deadly Lows from the Monumental 2023 Season

With a record 478 permits issued for Everest this year and climbers from 47 different teams in Base Camp, along with a host of Sherpas in support, (rapidly approaching a 2/1 ratio on the mountain), Everest was never going to be anything less than monumentally busy, with drama and very sadly, a record setting number of deaths.

The weather cooperated this year, and after a relatively late fixing of the ropes to the summit, 2 weeks of mostly clear skies ensued, with low winds and light snow lasting from Base Camp until many reached the top of the world.

Everest, atop the Yellow Band looking down towards Camp 3.

However, as Everest always does, more than a few teams hit pockets of high wind, sudden snowstorms and the inevitable icefall collapses, forcing them back to bed, only to get up early the next morning and start all over again. Others had mini epics – frostbite, rapid ascents followed by even more rapid descents, equipment stolen on high and sickness lying them low.

Everest wouldn’t be Everest if it was at all predictable.

The Adventure Consultants team on top of the world. Long time Expedition Leader and Everest veteran Guy Cotter led the team, but from a more relaxed place at Everest Base Camp. AC on Instagram

With ropes fixed to the top in mid-May by a nine-strong Sherpa team, they were quickly followed by the first international climber and the second overall Pakistani woman to summit, Naila Kiani, reaching the top with her lone Sherpa, Pasang Temba. She was in turn closely followed by her compatriot, Sajid Sadpara, who climbed without oxygen, a first for Pakistan.

With weather forecasts for literally weeks of good weather, teams had the rare opportunity to get acclimatized in good conditions, return to the valley to rest, then head back up on a civilized and comfortable schedule. That, coupled with an ever increasing level of Sherpa support, made this year one of the most successful ever for Everest climbers with an estimated 600 plus climbers reaching the summit.

A host of other records were broken, first from this country, then that country, first deaf couple and most notably, Hari Budha Magar, climbing with both legs amputated above the knee from an explosion while serving in Afghanistan with the Gurka’s.

Just to get permission to climb he needed to overturn a Nepali ruling to get his permit, then found his summit day stretching out to 3 p.m., hours after he wanted to top out. But with good weather and a very strong Sherpa support team, just managed to get across the summit ridge, reach the top and descend safely.

Hari Budha Magar in the icefall prior to his ascent.
Photo: Krish Thapa HST Adventures/ SWNS

A number of people had early rotations up the mountain, then fell ill, and returned to Kathmandu, thinking they were finished. But with the return to low altitude, perhaps a relaxing night out or two out, and the pressure off, they jumped back into the Helicopter service to Base Camp, and made quick ascents back into the heights and onto the summit.

This included both Tonya Samoilova and Julie McKelvey, who posted an excellent video of her and Tendi Sherpa at the South Col recounting their climb to the summit. Tendi has more clarity about how to think about and climb Everest than many of us could come up with at sea level.

While a number of the larger teams opted to follow along soon after the ropes were in, with days having 50 climbers at a time summiting, several of the well known Western led teams, from Madison Mountaineering, Adventure Consultants to Mountain Professionals, all took a good look at the ongoing good weather forecasts and pushed their climbs out until later in the season.

Avoiding the earlier crowds, inevitable rescue scenarios and often the less experienced but more eager groups, they too found good weather, slightly warmer temperatures, and with a deep set trail kicked in and ropes in place, enjoyed relatively straight-forward climbs to the summit.

Furtenbach Adventures claimed another 100% success rate, summiting with a mix of their flash and regular climbers on 17 May. If you want to leave home, climb quick, and get it over with, they seem to have the formula down for remarkably rapid ascents. Depending on your point of view, this may either be the future of Everest ascents, or yet another step backwards, reducing as many of Everests challenges to the minimum to make the ascent as quick and effortless as possible.

What could well distinguish this season however, is not the number of climbers, the good weather and the records broken, but very sadly, the record number of deaths.

The season started quickly on a very sad note, with 3 Sherpas killed in the top section of the Khumbu Icefall, before climbing had hardly gotten underway. This was followed by the death of 69 year old American Jonathan Sugarman at Camp 2.

Currently, up to 17 climbers are reported as dead or missing, far more than would be expected in a year with extended good weather.

While there is a range of causes, it seems this year the clear skies and hard snow, made access to the heights perhaps easier than is common?

This in turn allowed more climbers to reach higher than they normally would, with many falling ill at the South Col or above.

The good weather may have been a double-edged sword, as the higher you climb, the more likely altitude will affect you, and the further you are away from either getting yourself down, or having any assistance to help in your descent.

Climbing on higher rates of oxygen and starting it at a lower elevation, also assists in gaining height, but when any delays occur and oxygen runs low, or out completely, getting to lower elevations just becomes that much more difficult. Or impossible. For those trying without oxygen, still only a tiny fraction of the successful submitters, your acclimatisation time is often longer, you climb slower, you get cold easier and overall it is just far more dangerous.

Being “missing” high on Everest is never a good thing. It is also becoming more evident, that the operator and the support you choose has a major impact on how “safe” you will be.

Going for a cheaper option on Everest can quite simply, prove life threatening. And it seems that often the least skilled choose this option. You may not need an executive tent at Everest Base Camp and on demand heli-service to be successful, but you do want your supplies, your support and the advice you are given at high altitude to be the best.

Kristin Harila, Norwegian climber: 3 a.m. and recording video from the top of Everest. 8 hours later she was on top of Lhotse, the worlds’ 4th tallest peak. Photo: Kristin Harila,Instagram.

Through the midst of the occasional mayhem, and fresh off a host of earlier 8,000 meter peaks this season, Kristin Harila yet again proved her strengths, climbing Everest and then 8 hours later summiting Lhotse.

With her summit of Dhaulagiri today, 29 May, 2023, she is on her way to finishing off all the Nepali peaks in the spring season alone?

Having already set the record for the fastest person to climb all the 8,000 metre peaks, if she can finish up in Nepal and get through the 5 Pakistani Peaks this summer, it will be yet another record that could prove very hard to surpass.

With nearly all climbers accompanied by Sherpas, sometimes with two or even more in support, the Sherpas will have been quietly breaking records themselves, many we will probably hear little about.

However, two ascents that most certainly will stand out are Kami Rita Sherpas record-setting 28th ascent, and Kenton Cool’s 17th, the most for any Westerner, still humbly pointing out last year, “In reality, it’s not that amazing. I’m really surprised by the interest in my 16th ascent, considering that so many of the Sherpas have so many more ascents.”

While numbers are one thing, more interesting is the number of people who have successfully completed not only Everest, but also climbed Lhotse this year as well.

Garrett Madison completed the double a fifth time, and having ascended to the top of neighboring Nuptse earlier in the season, becomes only the second person after Kenton Cool to do them all in a year – the Triple Crown. At one point, climbers considered themselves lucky to just manage to scale Everest in a season, now people are wondering if just climbing Everest is Enough?

There are still a few rare climbers left however who want to push the limits. While ascending without oxygen is just about 2% of the total summits, and facing the added challenge of longer acclimitazation, slower pace and cold sensitivity, only the aforementioned Sajid Sadhapara climbed without supplementary oxygen this year, despite several others attempting this. Sajid also climbed as alone as one really can, on an otherwise very busy mountain and was still one of the very first to summit.

While many climbers stepped up to reach the heights, many of the climbs were done with more Sherpa support, more oxygen and more helicopter flights than ever before. Making Everest easier and more dangerous than ever it seems.

The trend overall is to simply make an Everest climber faster, with a commiserate higher rate of success. Not that it will ever be that easy, or safe, but certainly the historical challenges, and the aura of success around an Everest climb fades with every passing year.

Everest West Ridge, the video of the lonely wander across the ridge before heading out left to the Hornbein Couloir. Video: Kilian Jornet

There was only one climber who tried anything new this year, the ever creative and talented Kilian Jornet, attempting the original West Ridge route pioneered in 1963 by Hornbein and Unsoeld. He made it up what are now brick hard ice slopes to the West Ridge, then across the North Face and over to the Hornbein Couloir, where he was caught in a small avalanche, and wisely decided the snow obviously wasn’t quite right. If you want the longer version of an ascent of the West Ridge Direct, the first chapter in my latest book covers the full climb.

And if getting up the peak is one thing, getting down has now become a new, and now allowed challenge, with Nepal issuing one permit to the Chinese climber Li Shingtao (Muzi). Muzi took advantage of the good weather on the South Col, to make the quick, direct flight from there to Base Camp. He didn’t reach the summit, but that flight down will have certainly been memorable.

Muzi headed down from the South Col, flying over the Lho La and headed for Everest Base Camp. Video and details: Cross Country Magazine

And while there are always many stories, photos and videos, perhaps some of the most enjoyable ascents will have been done by small teams and individuals who eschewed social media, sponsorship and the overall hullabaloo of Everest.

An extremely talented and experienced guide I had the good fortune to meet and work with in Antarctica, summed it up on reaching the top of the world for the first time with:

I’ve always been quite sceptical of the commercial nature of this mountain, the huge queues, stories of inexperienced climbers, the exploitation of the Sherpa people etc. and while aspects of the above are an issue to some extent I’m pleased to have seen first hand that it’s not as bad as some would have you believe!
On a personal level it’s hard to deny that it’s a pretty special feeling to stand at the highest point on our planet! And even better to know that I’ve helped others to realise a long held ambition.
Scott Webster: Guide, Madison Mountaineering: Instagram.

Here is to all those who, (including my dear friend and climbing partner Lisa Barge) who just quietly and confidently climbed the mountain, enjoyed the experience and this years truly amazing views, while reaching the highest point on our planet.

And to those who tried and didn’t quite make it, hopefully your experience was a good one.

And finally, to those who sadly won’t be coming home, condolences to their friends and families.

A few more Everest stories in my latest book, Nine Lives – Expeditions to Everest. And in French, Neuf vies – Expeditions A L’Everest, both available in print and for immediate reading, digitally. Photo: Alexander Hillary