Mount Everest isn’t commonly considered the world’s most difficult mountain to climb. Other Himalayan peaks that include K2 and Annapurna compete for that title while Everest often sits lower on the list.
But because Everest is the world’s tallest mountain, reaching a staggering 29,029 feet (8,848m), it often attracts far more popularity amongst climbers — both novice and experienced —when compared to its more challenging counterparts. And as a result of this fact alone, Everest happens to be one of the world’s deadliest mountains.
It’s done well to showcase that title throughout this year’s climbing season.
After the passing of American Chris Kulish on May 27th, the Everest death toll reached 11. Both reports and photos have cited a combination of long lines, overcrowding, and inexperienced climbers as key factors that have led to the staggering number of deaths thus far.
Because the window for ideal climbing weather on Everest is so small (it’s commonly only a few days out of the entire year), those that have made the voyage and spent the money will stop at nothing to reach the summit. When such an exodus occurs, the likelihood of death increases dramatically. The 11 deaths have illustrated this reality quite well.
In response to the deaths atop Everest thus far, governing bodies and climbers alike have begun to consider alternatives that would significantly decrease the likelihood of such events occurring again. Because overcrowding is one of the largest factors playing a role this season, one option seems rather simple: limit the number of permits issued to climbers.
Unfortunately Nepal doesn’t limit the number of climbing permits issued to those that want to conquer Everest, unlike that of neighboring China which does. This year 381 people were permitted to climb — a number the AP says is the highest ever. Because it seems reasonable to assume that such figures will grow for years to come as Everest grows in popularity, Nepal would be wise to limit permits and ensure the safety of anyone paying the fee. After all, does the country not have an obligation to protect those that seek to explore it?
Instead of coming to terms with this reality, Nepal has simply deflected, citing the fact that Everest is a difficult mountain as reason for the increased number of deaths. A statement from the Nepalese Tourism Board read “As is known, climbing Everest is a hardcore adventure activity, a daunting experience even for the most trained and professional climbers.”
The board had a request for the travel industry, the media, and future climbers as well: “Be aware of all the risk factors included in climbing peaks above 8,000 m. Intense training, precautions and attention to every minor detail, are of extreme importance for climbing the Himalayan peaks.”
The Numbers Tell a Different Story
While it’s true that Everest is a difficult mountain to climb, and that there are risks associated with climbing the world’s few 8,000 meter peaks (no one would suggest otherwise), statistics tell a different story. In 2008, Nepal saw the arrival of approximately 500,000 international tourists. By 2018, that figure had doubled to over 1.1 million. And because tourism is the largest industry in Nepal and its leading source of foreign exchange and revenue, the notion that they’d be resistant to limiting permits seems reasonable, albeit irresponsible. But what stance should they take? Protect those that seek to visit the country, or protect their pockets? Their current answer seems rather clear.
Some in the community have called foul over the claims that Nepal should be doing more to protect climbers, citing unfair images that inaccurately depicted the current realities of Everest. Sherpa Karma Tenzing tweeted that “With only a 3–4 day weather window & ~300 #EverestSummiteer annually, jams will exist. Spread the truth!”
The truth is simply that Everest has become deadlier over time. Whether that is due to random and uncontrollable events, like the avalanche in 2014 that killed 16 sherpas, or because of route jams and inexperience, doesn’t truly matter.
One thing is clear: more people are climbing Everest than ever before. More deaths are occurring during routine aspects of the climb. And if Nepal continues to ignore the realities of climbing the world’s tallest peak within its borders, we’ll probably see a similar number of deaths for years to come.