Everest 2024: The Risks and Thrills of Everest in Potentially Another Record Breaking Year

Over just the last several years, with the record number of deaths in 2023, the earthquake driven avalanche in 2015 killing 19 at Everest Base Camp, and the avalanche off the West Ridge of Everest into the Khumbu Icefall in 2014, setting foot into Base Camp this year may have more than a few pausing to contemplate their luck.

Everest, Lhotse Face, Camp 3
Follow the Congo line. Climbers headed out from Camp 3, lower right, over across the Yellow Band (yellow rocks upper left) and on up towards the South Col, out of photo to the left. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson, (with a very long lens from Camp 2).

While the Base Camp earthquake was hopefully an outlier, it doesn’t detract from the reality of having many people, in close proximity, in a highly dangerous area, inevitably resulting in fatalities on a mountain as dangerous as Everest.

The human tragedy and loss in those moments was immense, and condolences to all those involved.

So far, 352 climbers have permission to climb Mount Everest in 2024, with the numbers increasing by the day.

This includes 287 men and 65 women, all spread across 55 countries and over 30 teams. 

“Will you hurry up please?” Headed for the South Summit as fast as the ticking time clock of the oxygen allows. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

Popular photographs of the conga-line of climbers traversing the Lhotse Face en-route to the South Col, and a crowd of people swarming the Hillary step are common occurrences nearly every year. With the North Side of Everest still being a doubtful and uncertain option, Nepal only seems to gain in popularity.

Having more people around also seems to build a false sense of security for the less experienced, as they think, “everybody else is heading up, why shouldn’t I?” And in 2024, the delayed opening of the icefall and the cautions to move quickly through it, as well as keep ladder traffic to one at a time (rather a good idea at all times isn’t it?), doesn’t bode well for the many teams now heading rapidly up into the ice.

“Please don’t step on my heels!” Heading over the South Summit and onto the summit ridge of Everest. A very early start had us out in front and virtually on our own when the sun rose. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

With the rising crowds, the traditional dangers of individual risk on Everest: falling off, altitude, ice hitting a single climber or two, are at the same level as always. Or perhaps a bit greater due to the rapidly changing conditions on Everest with climate change.

Reports of a dry winter in Nepal have perhaps affected the icefall, and will most certainly increase the rockfall on the Lhotse Face. For those used to the missile like whirring of a rapidly approaching rock on any steep climb and the fear it entails, add the inability to move off the ropes and virtually no sheltering options on the Lhotse Face to the mix. When the upper part of Lhotse cuts loose, it feels more like being a pin at the end of a bowling alley than a climb.

Early season on the Lhotse Face. Brick hard ice, nowhere to hide, and the rocks of the upper face a 1,000 metres above just peaking through and showing where the rocks launch from. Photo: Borge Ousland.

Yet as we have seen in the last few years, the level of risk climbers will accept on Everest and the other 8,000 metre peaks only seems to be growing. Add to this the desire to set records, often based on time and being first, clouds the decision making process, highlighted by the two women climbers and their guides that tragically died on Shishipanga in 2023.

What we have to think about now is not where 5 or 10 people are, but the 100’s traversing the icefall and crawling nose-to-tail up the Lhotse Face in an infinite line. And eventually, hundreds heading out from the South Col, in the dark, on their summit bids, on a single fixed rope, is almost beyond imagination.

The most important factor in relation to the crowds this year is how long the weather window lasts? A long and stable weather forecast allow guides and climbers to pick their day. With a short weather window, everyone goes at once, and the chance of ending up waiting in line greatly increases. Once a line forms, your oxygen goes down, you get cold, your thinking is impaired, and the decision to descend needs to be made immediately.

I remember a nearly disco-like line of headlamps following us up off the South Col towards the balcony one year, climbing into a gathering storm. The weather forecast had been fine, the mountain had other ideas. As the wind increased and soon filled with blowing snow, a few climbers in front of us descended down into our group, wading through the clutter of a single fixed line.

Soon we made the same decision to descend. The turmoil on the ropes, those going up, those going down and those sitting down in a heap to make a decision, soon created a chaotic mass of humanity, at 8,300 meters, in the dark and the storm. And all the while, the oxygen was hissing away, a ticking time clock.

With the use of oxygen starting earlier and earlier, often at Camp 2, many climbers are less acclimatized than ever and their need for higher flows are greater. Moving quickly up the mountain, and minimizing rotations looks good in a brochure and sounds good in an Everest sales pitch. But if your oxygen runs out and you are already over 8,000 metres, the time you will last and the decisions you need to make in a hurry will only compound.

A break for one exhausted climber on the descent down from the South summit creates a bottleneck of tired climbers hanging off a single anchor in a tangle of dubious ropes. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

Above the South Col, the numbers of people on one set of anchors climbing one single strand of rope puts a lot of trust in a very small and potentially fallible system.

A pulled anchor, an extra sharp crampon point inadvertently stabbed into the rope by an unbalanced climber, an ascender that slips on an icy rope and strips the climbers below off, or a rock fall that takes someone out – all will generate forces that a single rope and spaced out anchors won’t even begin to hold.

A very small failure in the system can lead to forces that ultimately won’t keep anyone attached to the mountain, let alone 50 or more.

A natural rock anchor stuck in the ice on the Lhotse Face. It was a back-up, but thinking this is going to hold much is perhaps a bit of wistful thinking. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

On Everest, the physics for the anchors and ropes holding all the climbers, have simply started to defy logic.

While improvements are continually being made, with additional anchors, multiple ropes and fixing teams in charge, the sheer numbers of people, in very dangerous places, is impossible to ignore.

Taking safety to the next level, we could always just pull the Khumbu Icefall out of the occasion, and helicopter to Camp II. Though I’d certainly be in agreement with Conrad Anker when he writes:

“Yet as dangerous as the icefall is, it is an intrinsic part of the Everest experience. You boot up, say your prayers, and hope that the ice is calm. No amount of experience can make up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is very dangerous, but it is also unspeakably beautiful.”

Even a storm like what happened in 1996, a year when 11 died, and was considered especially horrific, spawning both the best selling Into Thin Air and the ‘Everest’ movie, will pale in comparison when another storm like that sweeps through again.

With much more advanced weather forecasting, hopefully those incidents will be less likely, though we all know that Everest weather can be highly localized, even from North to South on the mountain. Sometimes simply rounding a corner can make a huge difference in wind and cloud. While weather forecasting provides us the best conditions for an ascent, it also means teams may also all climb at once, greatly increasing the dangers.

Multiple deaths on Everest are not of course new. In 1922, in the first recorded fatalities, 7 sherpas died in an avalanche below the North Col. But where there was one team and a handful of climbers. Several hundred may well be climbing at one time and in one line this season.

everest, North Face everest, north ridge everest. robert mads anderson
The North Ridge and North Face of Everest in winter seen from the Pang La, Tibet. Nobody is standing in line, and you could probably also claim the first winter ascent from Tibet if you just choose a slightly more adventurous season. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

Some have argued the North Side of Everest has less crowding and is thus safer, but luck may play a bigger part of it. I’d not be very happy being up on the North Ridge when the winds really kick up and I’m stuck above the ladder over the 2nd step waiting in line to get down. By that time most have limited oxygen, and a hoped for quick rappel could be blocked by climbers stuck on the rope below when you most need to get down quickly.

There is also now the option of the “Flash” ascent, which has seen some success in recent years, by pre-acclimatizing and then moving quickly up the mountain. But as Mark Horrell states, success can sometimes be more luck with the weather on Everest than any other factor.

At 8,300 metres, I’m above the Everest South Col after completing our new Kangshung Face route. No pack, no rope and no oxygen and no-one else in sight, on the way to the South Summit of Everest. Photo: Ed Webster

There are certainly advantages to spending less time at altitude, but if it also means you are less well acclimatized and probably need more oxygen up high and if something goes wrong, you had better save the strength to gallop down the mountain as fast as you can.

Everest, Sunrise
Sunrise from the summit ridge, on a day like this life can’t get much better. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

The lure of Everest is irresistible to many, whether deemed foolish or not. Nothing really quite matches getting to the top of the world on a good day.

But it would be foolish of us to ever consider it safe. There is no safety in numbers on Everest.

Of course it does beg the question: is there any way to make it safer? Many ways, but that is a topic I’ll work on for another day. In the meantime, it is simply a matter of Fear, Fitness and Faith.

When you finally stand atop the peak, the travails below fade quickly. And yes, it was all worth it. Sibusisu Vilane, first Black African and I on top on a perfect day on the 50th anniversary of the first ascent. Photo: David Hamilton.