Death on Everest

Nepal’s famous summit is becoming a graveyard, and climate change is poised to make things worse.

Years ago, when I was in the Everest region of Nepal for geological fieldwork, a Nepali friend said that there were three religions in Nepal: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Tourism. The mountaineering industry is indeed a major source of revenue for the country, bringing in around $300 million a year. Now, living in the shadow of the Wasatch Range in Salt Lake City, Utah – home to some of the most popular skiing destinations in the United States, I appreciate anew just how critical tourism is to the economy of regions endowed with high peaks.

photo of climbers on everest
At 8,848 meters (29,029 feet) above sea level, Mount Everest’s snowy summit is the world’s highest. The Sherpa people did not attempt to climb the mountain until the 1920s, when they began escorting Western climbers to the summit. For centuries the peak — called Chomulungma, or “Holy Mother Mountain," in Tibetan Sherpa — was revered and feared, but today, it has been highly commercialized, and is viewed as the ultimate climbing challenge, although technically, it is not the hardest mountain to climb. Photo by Mário Simoes.

But imagine, if you will, if dozens of skiers had lost their lives on the slopes of the Wasatch over the last few years, and dead bodies as well as trash left behind by visitors piled up on the mountain over time. It would be considered a national tragedy, demanding an urgent response. It seems unthinkable, but in the Everest region, this tragedy has recurred for decades, with no remedy in sight. Just this May alone, 11 people — four Indians, three Britishers, two Americans, one Austrian, and one Nepalese — lost their lives on Everest. This has brought the Everest death toll to over 300, from the time it began to be recorded in 1922.

Of course, climbing deaths are not limited to Everest. But the other Himalayan eight-thousander peaks are not as popular; thus, the number of Everest casualties far exceeds that of any other mountain. (So far, 86 climbers have died on K2, which is the world’s second highest peak and second also in terms of casualties. That is less than a third of Everest deaths.) The crisis on the world’s highest mountain is acute, and intensifying. Like many lovers of the Himalaya, I am deeply concerned about it.

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Mountaineering on Everest has changed drastically since the 1920s, when the British first attempted to reach the summit and secure that triumph for their country. In the early years, Everest climbers were experienced mountaineers, and Everest expeditions were usually supported by governments or mountaineering clubs. The fantasy of being the “first” on Everest — the first man or woman from one’s country, or town, the youngest, the oldest, the first solo climber, couple, climber without oxygen, and so forth — still continues. But today’s Everesters are not always competent climbers.   

Since the early 1990s, several international companies have offered guided Everest climbing services to people who could afford to pay anywhere from $45,000 (for basic support) to $115,000 (for custom climbs). Consequently, the number of Everesters has soared rapidly.

The presence of a large number of climbers on Everest, especially above Camp 4 (at 8,000 meters or 26,000 feet), has created frequent and dangerous human traffic jams. These altitudes are known as the Death Zone because the oxygen levels in the air are so low that humans cannot survive for long. Freezing temperatures and high winds are additional threats to the climber’s life. Every minute in the Death Zone matters — a prolonged stay at these altitudes without oxygen bottles (which are also limited) causes deterioration in bodily functions, mental disorientation, and accidents. That is why one-third of Everest deaths occur in the Death Zone. Climbers have a very short window of time to climb up and come down, however, as a viral photo taken on May 22, 2019 shows, long queues are now bringing things to a standstill at Everest’s summit.

As the number of climbers on the mountain has increased, so have the number of casualties. From 1953 to 1993, there were 487 ascents and 117 deaths on Everest. According to the Himalayan Database, by the end of 2018, the number of Everest ascents was at 9,159. During this 25-year interval, between 1993 and 2018, 178 people died attempting to climb the mountain. More than two-thirds of the dead bodies on Everest have never been found or brought back because of logistic limitations. Interestingly, the ratio of deaths per ascent decreased from 24 percent during 1953-1992 to 2 percent during 1993-2018, largely because of improved logistical support (thanks in part to Sherpas), better gear, and weather forecasting. However, the absolute number of Everest deaths has risen drastically over time: four in in the 1960s, 27 in the 1970s, 59 in the 1980s, 59 in the 1990s, 50 in the 2000s, and 93 in the 2010s.

graph of everest deaths
The number of deaths on Everest has increased over the years. Graph by Rasoul Sorkhabi.

Put another way, since 1970, at least one climber has died on Everest every year (except for 1977). Some years, like this one, saw the death count rise to 10 or more. In 1996, 15 climbers, including two mountaineering leaders, Rob Hall and Scott Fisher, lost their lives on Everest. Their story became the subject of Into Thin Air, a bestselling book by writer and mountaineer Jon Krakauer, who had been part of the Everest expedition that year. In April 2015, the avalanche that followed the 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Nepal killed 19 people — the highest in a single year yet.

It is difficult to ascertain the exact causes of all fatalities on Everest, however, given what we know, about 33 percent of deaths are due to avalanches, 25 percent due to falls (especially into crevasses), 20 percent due to exposure, exhaustion, and frostbite, 10 percent due to acute high-altitude sickness, 10 percent due to heart attack, cardiac arrest, hemorrhage and stroke, and nearly 2 percent due to collapse of glacial ice columns.

In the context of climate change, the ascent to Everest is likely to become far more perilous than it currently is. The Himalaya is one of the fastest warming regions on the planet, and a warmer climate is expected to destabilize its glaciers and icefalls. A recent study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the USA, found that warmer winters and early springs favor the formation of wet snow avalanches in the western Himalayan and that these avalanches are likely to reach lower slopes.     

graph of everest deaths
Most deaths on Everest occur in May, because of the popularity of the spring climbing season and the turbulent weather conditions in this pre-monsoon month. Graph by Rasoul Sorkhabi.

Latest mapping has shown that global warming has accelerated glacial melting in the Himalaya in the past four decades. Warmer temperatures would also increase the frequency of cyclones (hurricanes) in the Indian Ocean and thus intensify blizzards on the High Himalaya. Indeed, Cyclone Fani, which formed in April 2019 in the Bay of Bengal, was responsible for creating especially harsh weather conditions on Everest in May.

However, the Nepalese government has not taken concrete steps in response to the mounting death toll. In fact, the government, over the years, has increased the number of climbing permits it issues. In 2019 the government issued a record 381 permits to climb Everest; in 2008, it issued 160. Undoubtedly, these permits are a lucrative source of revenue, earning the government around $11,000 per foreign person in the spring (and half that for autumn climbing); rumor has it the permit fee will increase. Nevertheless, it is clear that this profit comes at a great cost.

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Himalayan mountaineering is a noble sport — it brings people together and helps bolster the local economy. The glamor and romance of reaching the top of Everest still holds strong allure. However, Everest need not turn into a graveyard. Several measures would drastically reduce the number Everest deaths. A cap on the number of permits issued by Nepal (as well as China) would prevent human traffic jams in the Death Zone. Mark Jenkins, a veteran mountain climber who summited Everest in 2002, suggests that the Nepali side of Everest should issue no more than 200 permits a year, or 100 permits per climbing season. The Nepalese government should also evaluate existing climbing companies more rigorously before issuing permits. The climbing companies, in turn, should employ a more rigorous selection process to ensure that their clients have sufficient mountaineering experience and are in good health and physical fitness. Khumbu Icefall is a dangerous part of the climb path to Everest. Therefore, logistical cooperation among the climbing companies and early coordination with Sherpas who place lines and ladders on the Khumbu Icefall shortly before the climbing season would ensure smoother climbing operations. Finally, individual climbers will need to be more caring and respectful of their own lives and families as well as the Everest environment and the people of the Himalaya region, to ensure that mountaineering in the future is safe and sustainable.

Everest’s post-monsoon climbing season will being this September. This adventurous sport is here to stay. An official with Nepal’s Tourism Department is reported to have said that the government may evaluate the physical fitness of the climbers before issuing permits. This would be a good start.

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