Looking back over just the last few years, the avalanche off the West Ridge of Everest into the Khumbu Icefall in 2014, resulted in 16 deaths. The earthquake driven avalanche in 2015 killed 19 at Everest Base Camp.
Both of these were a result of a lot of people, being in much the same place at the same time. While the Base Camp earthquake was hopefully an outlier, it doesn’t detract from the reality of having a lot of people, in close proximity, in a highly dangerous area, will inevitably result 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.
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 closed, and even when it opens, climbers there will be restricted to having do another 8,000 metre peak before they move onto Everest, Nepal seems to only gain in popularity. The Chinese have more climbers on Everest this year – nearly 100 – than any other nation.
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?”
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.
Yet as we saw in the last few years, the level of risk for a mass event have risen dramatically.
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 hundreds heading out from the South Col, is almost beyond imagination.
The most important factor is the weather window. A long and stable weather forecast and guides and climbers can 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 go down needs to be made quickly and decisively.
I remember a nearly disco-like line of headlamps following us up off the South Col towards the balcony one year and into a gathering storm. The weather forecast was 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 on a single fixed line.
Soon we made the same decision to descend and the turmoil on the ropes, those going up, those going down and those sitting down to make a decision, soon created a chaotic mass of humanity, at 8,300 meters, in the dark and the storm.
It was only sorted out when with an extra rush of wind and storm suddenly blew through, barreling across the ridge in the dark of night, blowing any remaining undecided climbers back down the hill.
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 single ropes and well spaced out anchors won’t even begin to keep anyone attached to the mountain, let alone 50 or more.
On Everest, the physics for the anchors and ropes, 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 that technology 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.
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 will be climbing at one time this season.
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 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.
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.
Sunrise from the summit ridge, on a day like this life can’t get much better.
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. Photo: David Hamilton.