On 18 May, 2018, at 6.18am, as I stood on the top of the world, I was totally overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment. I looked around and absorbed this once-in-a-lifetime view of the world. To the north, I could see miles of brown, harsh Tibetan landscape. To the east, silhouetted against the rising sun, I could see Kanchenjunga, and south and west of the summit, I spotted icy peaks, piercing through the clouds that covered the Nepali Himalayas.
I was overcome with gratitude, anxiety, fear and relief. After a few minutes, I took a few photographs and started my descent. The climb is never over till you reach the base.
At 8,848m, the summit of Everest is well beyond the “death zone” (8,000m and above). At this altitude, atmospheric pressure is one third of that at sea level, and consequently atmospheric oxygen is one third. Winds are known to reach speeds of 200kmph and temperatures drop to -60 °C. The human body is not designed to survive in this environment. Climbers may develop various forms of altitude sickness, and frostbite, caused by the extreme cold and lack of oxygen, and the resulting amputation of extremities are not uncommon. The normal risks associated with mountaineering are avalanches, hidden crevasses, rock falls, high winds and falls from steep slopes.
The challenge is formidable. So, it’s not surprising that despite all human effort, enterprise and scientific progress, fewer than 5,000 people have ever climbed Everest.
In 2017, I was within touching distance of the summit. A bad weather forecast left us trapped in blizzard-like conditions at 8,000m on the south-eastern ridge of Everest. High winds and cold battered us for 20 hours before there was a small window for us to descend. Not many people can fathom how tough, how disappointing, it is to get so close to the summit and turn around a few hundred meters from the top. That year, a freak weather system developed over the plains of northern and western India and messed with the predictions of long-time Everest weather forecasters.
Prior to that, I had only climbed to Everest base camp as I felt I didn’t have the right training to proceed further. I subsequently underwent training for two years and climbed a few peaks in India and Nepal before I headed up Everest to summit. This summer, as I tracked the progress of some climbers on Himalayan peaks along with the weather forecast, I observed an uncanny similarity to what I had experienced. Cyclone Fani affected weather patterns and the route to the summit could not be opened till mid-May, nearly a week behind schedule. With fewer climbing days, it appears that most climbers did not want to miss out on a clear windless climbing day and ended up being on the summit push the same night when the infamous picture of a “traffic jam” on Everest was taken.
Bottlenecks and queues are not uncommon on Everest. Most mountaineers climb in a team. On Everest, an average team has 15 to 20 people. If two or three teams are crossing an obstacle around the same time, there would be bunching and queuing at the obstacle.
Over the years, I’ve been part of or witnessed such queues on Everest—at the ladder crossings over crevasses, on the ropes up the Lhotse Face, the Yellow Band, Geneva Spur and even the summit ridge. Incidentally, most of the pictures I’ve taken are on such occasions. While waiting in queue, one has the time and ability to put bags down, pull out cameras and take pictures.
But this is not truly reflective of the situation on Everest. Over the past few years, the Nepali government has issued 300 to 400 climbing permits each year. To view this in perspective, compare it with the number of climbers on Denali in Alaska (North America’s tallest mountain), or Kilimanjaro (Africa’s tallest) or Mont Blanc in Europe. In 2018 alone, Denali had 1,100 climbers, Mont Blanc nearly 25,000 climbers and Kilimanjaro a staggering 50,000.
So, is the hue and cry justified? To some extent, yes. While the call to increase the permit fee or further restrict the number of permits may be a bit harsh, there is a definite need to restrict inexperienced climbers. While the human spirit and willpower can overcome the most challenging situations, technical skills and training are needed to get out of sticky situations.
On one of my earlier expeditions, I slipped down the icy wall of the Lhotse Face. Hours and hours of practising the ice-axe arrest manoeuvre (to stop oneself during a fall without ropes) earlier saved me from certain death that day. These days, many climbers do not even carry their ice axes up the mountain.
That said, armchair mountaineers are always too quick to criticize the moment a photograph like the recent one comes out. Most deaths on Everest this year were not because of crowding, but on account of the normal risks that mountaineers run. A few inexperienced climbers without adequate training and skills and an oxygen-starved brain’s impaired ability to judge the situation resulted in climbers not turning back early enough.
The deaths on the Himalayas were not limited to inexperienced climbers but included world-class climbers like Rodrigo Vivanco (on Kanchenjunga), Ivan Tomov (on Lhotse) and Richard Hidalgo (on Makalu) this season. Top climbers Hansjorg Auer, David Lama and Jess Roskelley died in an avalanche in the Canadian Rockies this season.
Of course, there are problems: there’s the issue of trash and garbage. We go to the mountains because we love the pristine and raw beauty of nature. It hurts us to see garbage and trash. But efforts are being made. In Nepal, regulation requires you to carry back your own trash, and there’s an incentive to carry other’s trash.
The climbing community isn’t as cavalier about the mountains as non-mountaineers make us out to be; in fact, climbers probably think more about the world around them than non-climbers do. As Austrian mountaineer David Lama, who was caught in an avalanche and died in the Canadian Rockies in April at the age of 28, aptly put it, “I think climbers and mountaineers have a very open relationship towards risk and towards their fears. We really think about what can go wrong. Obviously it’s really important to stay alive, but I also think it’d be really good if people in general think about the consequences of their actions as much as climbers do.”
Climbing Everest is not just about climbing the mountain, but the triumph of human spirit, the proof of our abilities, and the symbolic victory over our life’s challenges. This year, six Arab women from Saudi Arabia, Oman, Lebanon and Dubai made history by breaking the shackles of society and successfully summiting. This is the spirit that Everest inspires. This is what it will always stand for.