Tragedy has once again been carved out of triumph in the Himalaya. At least four people lost their lives descending an overcrowded Mount Everest in unsuitable conditions.
I have read a few of the eye-witness reports, and some comments on various forums, many stating “the mountain is conquered”. Himalaya giants such as the world’s highest mountain are never conquered, they may temporarily seduce us into believing we’re safe and in control, but eventually their true nature always resurfaces. Woe betide the ill prepared or reckless when they do!
The Greater Ranges are dangerous places, and those that set foot upon their higher peaks need to be sufficiently prepared, experienced and equipped.
It seems that over 150 climbers made a dash for the summit in a short window of clear weather. The conditions on Everest can change rapidly however and despite this window of opportunity obviously closing climbers were still heading for the summit at 2.30pm. This is a dangerous situation even in ideal conditions, when the weather is beginning to change for the worse it is reckless.
Many climbers were also forced to wait at the Hillary Step for over 3 hours, thereby extending the time spent in the ‘Death Zone’ above 8000m. The name itself should warn anybody that this is far from ideal, the risk of high altitude pulmonary edema or other debilitating injury is greatly increased. The ability to concentrate adequately reduced the more time spent at this altitude.
To further compound the problems there is little snow cover on Mount Everest this season. Snow holds rocks fast, and reduces the risk of rockfall.
Perceptions of Everest have changed in recent years, it’s considered ‘conquered’, slightly benign and merely a surmountable obstacle if sufficient funds, and equipment are thrown at it; respect appears to have diminished.
Commercial guiding companies use ‘siege’ tactics; laying miles of fixed ropes. Establishing 3 or 4 camps above base camp, used as ‘staging posts’ for the final assault on the summit. There is usually an advanced base camp, with the final camp located in the South Col. Establishing the camps and transporting supplies to each successively higher camp helps in the acclimatisation process, and ensures each camp is well stocked, when suitable conditions exist for a summit bid.
It is a tried and tested method which has been successfully used throughout the ‘Golden Age’ of mountaineering and many later expeditions, most of the major summits fell to this form of climbing.
However it is also the means by which commercial companies manage to summit nearly 300 people in a single day. It enables them to take a 13 year old to the summit via the Tibetan side where there is not any restriction on age. Jordan Romero has almost completed the celebrated ‘Seven Summits’ challenge; climbing the highest peak on each continent, so has climbing experience, but limited in the Himalaya.
In fact many climbers and adventurers blame recognising the Seven Summits as a challenge for the upsurge in attempts on Everest. The growth of commercial guiding companies is the result, to satisfy this demand.
This supply and demand policy is inevitable, the companies however have responsibility to their clients, not just to get them to the summit but also to make sure that they return safely. Regardless of the money exchanging hands, success at any cost is unacceptable!
Every expedition has a leader, and their decision is final. Regardless of the experience or skill of the climbers participating it is the leader that decides who, how, and when to make the summit bid. A commercial expedition should operate in the same manner, though I suspect that this maybe compromised because money is involved. In some cases inexperienced climbers that do not easily accept decisions made by the experts; their guides.
Many of the deaths on Everest have been Sherpas, they transport most supplies to the various camps. This is hazardous especially through the Khumbu Icefall known affectionately as ‘The Fat Lady’ after a quote by Conrad Anker. It is highly unstable, crevasses can appear almost instantaneously and seracs collapse with alarming regularity. It would be interesting however to discover the percentage of deaths in the last 20 years against the previous 80 of Everest climbing history.
This percentage is skewed slightly by the total number now attempting to reach the summit. There maybe more actual fatalities but due to the huge numbers now on the mountain this will be a lower percentage against other less ‘popular’ peaks.
The lessons of 1996 have not been learnt, mistakes are still being made and unnecessary risks still being taken. Highly skilled, experienced alpinists are now choosing not to climb the mountain and even abandon projects planned for many years.
It is unlikely that bottlenecks at the Hillary Step will ever be reduced. So many climbers are eager to reach the summit in the short windows of opportunity available, therefore delays are unavoidable. Guides have the control, they should make all decisions. If conditions or time reduce the chances of a safe ascent and descent then they must abort.
There are of course many responsible guiding companies, well run with more integrity than greed. it is important to seek one of these out if considering an expedition to the Greater Ranges.
It was gratifying to hear earlier in the year that Russell Brice of ‘Himalayan Experience’ has cancelled all expeditions this season due to the poor conditions forecast. This is a responsible decision, and certainly not an easy one to make, informing clients, and cancelling all the logistical support will not have been a pleasant task. His stance needs applauding, and future clients can be certain his company has their best interests at heart.
However I wonder how many ‘cancellations’ merely found space on another commercial enterprise. Just days after the first tragedy there was again a long queue forming at the Hillary Step as climbers sought to summit in a spell of clear weather.
The unfortunate truth is as long as there are ill prepared climbers willing to spend outrageous sums of money to achieve their dream regardless of the risk, there will be commercial guiding companies prepared to indulge their dream.
“The Golden age of mountaineering is over, we have entered the commercial age of guided climbing”