Registrations for Everest have now reached a new high, with 394 people, more than have ever headed up the mountain from Nepal before. Numbers in 2019 hit 381, when with a short weather window, climbers backed up for hours on their summit push.
This is of course coupled with the increasing number of covid cases, as just updated by ExplorersWeb, with the third confirmed case being Steve Davis, from California.
While a few extra people may help stamp out the trail, those coming in now are primarily on a fast track, having pre-acclimitized either at home or on another high peak. While Nepal has publicized a system based on first permit, first up the mountain, this is both unworkable and unsafe and will likely be discarded before attempts to implement it are put in place. With ultra-fit climbers having paid for “flash ascents,” they are unlikely to be deterred by a rule propagated from the lowlands of Kathmandu.
Many hoped this year would prove a quiet one with the pandemic, and climbers trying to avoid the crowds that have become well known and well documented. Since 2019, ’cause of death’ now also includes ‘waiting in line’ as oxygen runs out, the day drags on and moving up or down the mountain is blocked by others moving more slowly than yourself.
The weak link is now the slowest person on the mountain. It seems no matter how much you have trained, how much oxygen you have and how fast you can individually move, if there is only one rope and only one way to go your passage will inevitably be limited. In practice, skipping the fixed rope and moving past others sounds possible.
Above 8,000 meters, in the dark, in the cold, on a steep slope, few have either the speed or the ability to pass others. So you take it a step at a time, at the pace of however many people are in front of you, which as you get higher often seems to just get slower and slower – all as your need for oxygen gets greater and greater.
South Summit to the Hillary Step. Not an uncommon sight, as nearly every year now it can be an expected part of the ascent on the normal route. Photo: David Hamilton
It is hard to fathom that ultimately after all the preparation, it is climbers tripping over climbers, that slows them to a snails pace that delays them to the point that, according to fellow climbers in 2019, they simply collapsed while waiting in line. Very sad, this waiting in line. As a comment was overheard, “Starbucks maybe, the grocery store probably, but Everest?”
It adds to the dangers of ice falling down and the storms rising up, this new danger of just getting caught in one of the increasingly common conga lines snaking up Everest. With the highly varied skill levels and fitness, the line is only as fast as the slowest person in front of you. This year, with the reports of large teams on discounted trips, the number of climbers with less skill than might be ideal will only be further exacerbated
Little wonder that climbers were seen to be leaving the South Col as early as 3 p.m. in previous years. You may not get those magnificent sunrise views, and have to settle for a flash photo on the top as veteran Guide Kenton Cool did in 2019, but you will (hopefully) beat the crowds.
Everest of course gets exponentially more dangerous as you climb higher. You need more oxygen, yet then it runs out faster. It gets colder, and though sunrise is a good visual effect and can be heartwarming the temperature doesn’t actually go up much.
Wind and then cloud and snow often build up in the afternoon. Every minute more you spend up high is more dangerous. It may rather dramatically be called the death zone, but it is also an apt description, and never more applicable than when you are just forced to stand around.
As you climb higher your oxygen saturation is going down and your heart rate is going up. Leaving the South Col, your resting heart rate, even for the very fit climber, could very well be in the 100’s. And your max rate will have dropped considerably – effectively you will have just a small window of heart beats to work with, and you will be at the top of that range much of the time.
It is little wonder that before Messner and Habelar ascended without oxygen in 1978 there were serious scientific doubt if they could do it at all. Even with oxygen, your working, moving, functioning and thinking abilities are so compromised, that every extra minute up high is killing you.
Well known Expedition Leader Pete Athans, who was on a National Geographic team in 2019 commented to me on our first climb on Everest together: “Robert, there are two types of Himalayan climbers, the quick, and the dead.”
It is noteworthy that most guiding companies previously managed to work their way through the crowd challenges and come back safely – it is invaluable that the ever erudite and balanced scribe of Everest, Alan Arnette, is listing the companies each climber is climbing with when he lists fatalities. It is not difficult to see that climbers may be deciding their own odds long before they leave for the mountain, by the decisions they make on whom to climb with.
After the ‘how’ you want to climb Everest is decided, best to choose your team or your guiding company wisely. With the new information available online, at sites that specifically offer Expedition Reviews, it won’t take long to work out that you may greatly increase your chances of success, as well as keep yourself alive, if you choose wisely.
Finally, in an era of ever increasing ‘madding’ crowds you always need to keep your own counsel and take responsibility for your own climb. There is no safety in numbers. And as previous seasons have proven, the new danger is actually in the numbers themselves.