Last week, a picture of a long queue of mountaineers waiting to climb Mount Everest went viral. It’s an image that is haunting in many ways. It carried an ominous message that overcrowding at the world’s highest peak is leading to avoidable human tragedies. At least 21 people, including three Indians, have died on Mount Everest this year. The mountaineers have blamed inexperienced climbers, greedy operators and ineffective regulatory system on the Nepal side of the mountain for the traffic jam. The majestic Mount Everest beckons mountaineers from across the world, regardless of the number of mishaps that might take place. But, too many bodies are piling up on the planet’s highest peak. It is time the authorities put in place a proper mechanism to screen climbers and limited their numbers. Most of the victims this climbing season perished on the way down, overcome by altitude sickness and exhaustion after the hours-long delays created by the traffic jam in the oxygen-starved atmosphere above 28,000 feet. A record 381 climbing permits were issued for Everest in 2019, as against 347 in 2018 and 375 the year before. However, unlike last year’s week-long clear weather window for the climbers to plan their summit bid, this year it was only 4-5 days (15-16 May and 21-23 May) of suitable weather conditions. Traffic jams create dangerous situations for climbers, who are often already exhausted carrying heavy loads while battling altitude sickness, which can make people dizzy and nauseated. Everest typically has 10-15 days of relatively calm weather in May for climbers to attempt a summit climb.
The rise in fatalities this year is largely due to the poor standards set by the Nepalese government and the proliferation of dubious expedition companies. China also runs expeditions from its side of the mountain, but fewer use that route because of the tighter controls. It minimises the problem of crowding by issuing far fewer permits. Many veteran climbers attribute Everest’s problems to the proliferation of cheaper expedition companies that have popped up across Kathmandu in the past five to ten years. The quality of the guide services on the Nepal side is very poor. On the Nepal side, anyone can pick up an Everest permit for $11,000 and the total package, with guides, equipment, food and lodging for a six-week expedition for $50,000. Experts say that many of the deaths were needless and the increasing number of rookie climbers who try to tackle Everest has made it more dangerous for everyone. Nepalese officials must set proficiency standards for climbers and limit the numbers on the mountain to reduce congestion and garbage at the summit. And, it should happen before the next climbing season begins.