Death on Everest

Lily Frost – Writer and Deputy Editor

Climbing Mount Everest is an achievement on every ambitious climber’s bucket list. It involves years of training, two months of climbing, and reaching up to 29,029ft. These expeditions to the world’s highest peak are inherently dangerous, with great cracks that appear in glacial ice, altitude sickness, avalanche threats, risks of hypothermia and frostbite. As a result of these harsh conditions and difficult climbing obstacles, since 1953 over 300 people have died. Yet, these deaths were as a result of more relaxed safety regulations, which have since improved. Over the past twenty years the average deaths per year has remained at only six. However, this spring, the death toll has risen drastically. Since the beginning of May, eleven people have been recorded as dead or missing.

So, what went wrong?


Firstly, spring is the best month for mountaineers to make the climb. This is because during winter the snow is unpredictable and the temperature can drop as low as -15°C, making it an undesirable time to climb. Summer is also undesirable as whilst it may seem the warmest, monsoon season falls between mid-June and August. During this time there will be large amounts of rainfall and the summit will be hidden in mist. Therefore, the ‘heavenly peak’ (as it is referred to) is between April and May, in this time the peak is highly visible and it is the best time to attempt an ascent to the summit. As a result, in May 2019, many climbers gathered at Everest base camp, with the knowledge that it would be the best month to attempt the climb. However, Cyclone Fani hit Bangladesh and India, which had knock on effects in the base camps. These effects included tents being blown away and climbers who had begun their ascent having to return. Ultimately, the weather deterioration led to the Nepalese government suspending mountaineering activities for two days. This led to an overcrowding problem in the base camp. This was then furthered by the fact that the first clear weather window was the 19th and 20th May. However due to the extremities in the weather, most chose the second window which was from the 22nd to 24th May. With a large proportion of climbers leaving the base camp between these days, overcrowding on the mountain became an acute problem. On the 23rd May there were 250 climbers reported on the mountain. In order to tackle this many climbers, there needs to be liaison officers to control the crowds. However, on this day, many did not show up, and the ones that did, did not stay for the entire climb. This resulted in hundreds of climbers on the mountain, with no means of regulating the crowds.


It was not just these weather windows that led to the overcrowding. The Nepalese government issued 381 permits this year, with no means to test whether the climbers are experienced or not. This is the highest number of permits ever to have been issued, which led to questions of whether these permit holders were experienced enough to deserve one. As the Nepalese government are heavily profiting off climbers, there may be an issue of regulation. To calculate, the Nepalese government are receiving costs from the permits and the liaison officers. In peak season during May, a climber has to pay $11,000 to climb on the south side of Everest. If you would like to climb the Tibet side, it will cost you $8,000. On top of this the government issues a liaison officer to ensure there is no trespassing and rules are complied with. A liaison officer can cost up to $3,000, plus flights from Kathmandu to Lukla. Whilst these officers may get paid vastly more than the average income in Nepal, the government is still profiting from hiring the officers. Since 2014 there have been 4,042 ascents of Mount Everest, not including the multiple ascents of guides etc. This averages out at 1000 ascents per year. Thus if one climber, climbing the south side of Everest, pays the government $14,000, plus other costs such as doctors on Everest, the government earns $14,000,000 per year, solely from climbers. As the Nepalese government knows the profit generated from climbers, it is clear to see why they may have given out a record number of permits and not conducted checks to ensure climbers are safe to climb Mount Everest.


As a result of the hundreds of climbers who left base camp during this one weather window and the many inexperienced climbers on the mountain, another problem arose. People described the journey to the summit as a ‘bus-like queue’. The problem with these queues are that people are waiting at a high altitude near the summit. The summit of Everest has an altitude of 29,029ft. This is at the peak of the “death zone” which is between the altitudes of 26,000ft and 29,000ft, whereby if you do not descend quickly there is a high risk of death. Peter Hackett, professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine reported: “You’re slowly dying above 18,000 feet, but when you get above 26,000 feet, you start dying much more quickly”. Therefore if just before the summit in the “death zone” there are ‘bus-like queues’ the possibility of death highly increases. This played a significant role in the deaths on Mount Everest, but there are further issues linked to oxygen that may have caused these deaths. Hypoxia, a deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching the tissues is a massive risk when climbing Everest. Whilst climbers have oxygen tanks, with these large waits the oxygen may have been running low. In this instance, Hypoxia can cause climbers to cause critical mistakes with the lack of oxygen causing the judgement of the climber to be severely impaired. In addition to Hypoxia, climbers are also exposed to high-altitude Cerebral Edema. It leaves climbers in a critical condition where the low oxygen levels can cause brain swelling. This condition can be helped by steroid dexamethasone and exposure to more oxygen, however when waiting in queues near the summit, climbers may not be able to descend fast enough and receive help.

These were the key factors which may have led to the fatal issues near the summit of Mount Everest this May. Whilst it has not yet been reported as to what exactly caused the deaths, overcrowding is a significant factor that is exclusive to this time frame. With this information, how can more deaths be prevented in the future? To begin with, the Nepalese government must consider using means testing to determine whether climbers are fit enough to be able to climb Mount Everest. Gordon Janow, director at Alpine Ascents commented that: “his guides only take climbers to Everest who have successfully reached one or two other challenging peaks”. This idea universalised could be adopted so that in order to climb Mount Everest you need to have successfully climbed two other mountains, for example. Whilst this is applied by some agencies, currently there is no experience needed to climb Everest. Secondly, the correlation between the amount of permits the government gave out and the long queues at the summit show how the issue of overcrowding needs to be addressed. An idea to tackle this would be to have a maximum number of permits per month which can be given out which cannot be exceeded. This would limit the amount of people on the mountain and stop large clusters forming on particular days. Additionally, the government may need to consider how many climbers can begin at each window. If more climbers had decided to climb during the first window (19th and 20th May) climbers would have been more evenly distributed to begin with. Lastly to combat overcrowding, Everest could be opened to climb in autumn. In the past, autumn climbing has proved dangerous due to unforeseen weather circumstances. However, with technology advancing in weather prediction, this could be feasible in the future.Whether either of both of these factors are taken into consideration, change needs to occur before any more climbers end up dead or missing like the eleven in the last month.

Nepal are currently considering limiting access to Mount Everest. Mohan Krishna Sapkota, secretary of Nepal’s tourism ministry revealed: ‘We are looking into having a minimum requirement for climbers, fixing more ropes or taking more oxygen and sherpas’. As of yet, no action has been taken.

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