The road to Mount Everest’s summit is clogged with traffic and tragedy. Perhaps channeling mountaineers towards the Uttarakhand peaks might ease that traffic and save some lives.
There was a jam on the Nepali side of Mount Everest last month. The dangers of overcrowding on the world's highest mountain are beginning to show.
A telling account of the grim situation on Everest was a photo of 22 May. It showed climbers standing in a trail dangerously longer than queues you would normally see during a new phone launch. The climbers were struggling to make their way to the summit.
The reason for this traffic jam is even more worrying, and dizzying. According to reports and experts, 250 climbers along with Sherpas, made a bid to scale the mountain, almost at the same time. The total number of climbers this year was 381. And the mountaineering season started in March.
What drove the climbers to be in a jam-like situation on a certain day? A good weather forecast in the relatively short season — hence a narrow window for the task. The good-weather narrow window has its disadvantages. The 250 climbers and Sherpas queued up on limited oxygen supply and nerves to scale the summit. The bottleneck impact — which has left many seasoned limbers across the world worrying about the trends that triggered it — was inevitable.
To add to this, there are too many operator players (as heard in the context of rafting and trekking business boom in Uttarakhand before regularisation and tightening of permits came in), resulting in increased number of climbers owing to easy access to permits (obtained against a payment of just $ 11,000). For Nepal, this is an important source of income.
Its impact: the number of climbers (waiting to scale the summit in the limited and short-window period) joining the queue went up this year, and already 11 climbers have died so far. Among the people who successfully scaled the summit is a local stalwart, Nepal’s Rita Sherpa, a Sherpa mountain climber. He completed his 23rd climb in May this year.
Conditions triggered by the congestion on the mountain that stands at 8,848 m are turning lethal. The risk is higher in the "death zone", so-called owing to the thin availability of oxygen, posing a life-threatening challenge to climbers.
Reports suggest that members of the Sherpa community of Nepal — whose service and dedication brings visitors to the Everest and Nepal every season — have expressed concerns on how some climbers do not heed to the advice given to them. Sherpas who were helping a couple of climbers who have died said that the climbers turned down their appeals to descend when in the “balcony area”.
The Sherpas have stressed that not all deaths can be blamed on congestion and some did not even take place in the congested area. These Sherpas must be heard. Considering that they depend solely on the Everest climbs for their income, what they say about climbers' safety must be taken seriously.
In May, Robin Haynes Fisher, a British climber, had warned of the overcrowding and its implications. He wrote on Instagram: "With a single route to the summit delays caused by overcrowding could prove fatal so I am hopeful my decision to go for the 25th will mean fewer people. Unless of course everyone else plays the same waiting game."
Making observations on the two deaths that happened on a day, Fisher wrote: “Around 100 climbers did summit in those 2 days with sadly 2 deaths, an Indian man found dead in his tent at camp 4 and an Irish climber lost, assumed fallen, on his descent.” He specified the altitude, saying, "Both deaths happened above 8000m in the so called death zone where the majority of deaths of foreign climbers happen."
This appears to be precisely the zone where Fisher himself suffered altitude sickness. And unfortunately, after sharing his insights into the most unnerving situation before his eyes, Fisher too died later. CNN reported: "He died after suffering from what appeared to be altitude sickness at 8,600 meters (28,215 feet), while returning from the summit on Saturday."
Out of the 11 climbers dead this year, four were Indian. Christopher John Kulish, an American lawyer, 62, died after reaching the peak's top on the Nepalese side of the mountain. Among the dead is Anjali Kulkarni, from Pune, who was climbing with her husband Sharad Kulkarni. Anjali died struggling for oxygen. Sharad, as per reports, was pulled away by the Sherpa as he was grieving by her corpse. Camp 4 is not the sort of venue where one can wait long. The clock of death and life was ticking.
Among the four Indians who have died are a mountaineer from Odisha, Kalpana Das, and Nihal Bagwan from Maharashtra. According to reports, both were scaling down from the summit when they met their end.
Things were fairly different on the Tibet side of the climb. David Morton, a veteran climber spoke to CNN about his experience. He said, "We were up just 100 meters below the summit on the 24th on a beautiful day and there were maybe 30 or 40 people going to the summit from the Tibet side, the north side. It was a completely different dynamic."
The world's tallest mountain is a natural, and the most sought-after spiritual destination for mountaineers from across the world. Volunteering to take the perils of a congested summit line is part of their skin in the game.
Risks to life, unexpected perils on the snow-covered slopes, the complexities of the climb, weather-related challenges, avalanches creeping below the silent white, all of these can stand before a mountaineer on any climb in the Himalayas. Recently, eight mountaineers of a team, led by well-known British mountaineer, Martin Moran,
went missing en route to Nanda Devi East Peak. They, as reports suggest, perished under an avalanche that struck them during their ascent.
There is adventure, its spiritual value, its risks, and then there is a meaningful engagement with all three. A traffic jam steals all of these from a mountaineer who invests his grit, gear and gumption into this activity. At lesser popular Himalayan peaks, particularly the ones nestled in Uttarakhand, a mountaineer can go unhindered, taking full advantage of scaling to the summit without getting struck in a fatal traffic jam.
Here is what David Morton told CNN: "Even when using bottled oxygen, supplemental oxygen, there's only a very few number of hours that we can actually survive up there before our bodies start to shut down. So that means if you get caught in a traffic jam above 26,000 feet...the consequences can be really severe."
Many seasoned climbers, it is believed, do not consider the Everest a real challenge. And now with the Everest turning into a life-threatening tourist spot — that too with factors that erode the profound sense of adventure, converting it into to crowd-triggered accident site, mountaineers could soon start to look elsewhere. Tightening the permit policy might help Nepal make necessary improvements towards solving these crowd-related issues.
While local authorities and seasoned mountaineers have different views on what has caused the deaths this season, it is easy to understand that Mount Everest bears the burden of being the chosen one for climbers. Uttarakhand could help diffuse this burden by being yet another host to satiate the appetite of mountaineers.
Consider, for a moment that the mountaineering destination shifts to Garhwal and Kumaon ranges of the Himalayas — a pearl thread of which is visible from planes flying into Dehradun. The peaks here are in a majestic 6000 to 8000 m range, including the lofty Nanda Devi East (7816 m).
Interestingly, the current state government is working towards developing the bugyals as tourist destinations. The many roads make things easier for mountaineers en route the base camp, and these all-weather roads will boost the first leg of their journey.
The peaks of Kumaon and Garhwal — named and unnamed — have been destinations to mountaineers since the 1900s. Joshimath, the Badrinath Trek, Kedarnath, Gangotri and other gateways beckon mountaineers to scale peaks that not only overlook many spiritual destinations and hubs of Uttarakhand life and culture, but offer the most divine skylines in the land of Shiva.
The curves of the trident peaks blaze into prominence against the morning sun. Nearby is the Nanda Devi Sanctuary. Out of the three points of the trident — that’s how Trishul’s peaks appear, like three points of Shiva's own weapon — Trishul I, the highest among the three, was climbed first, way back in 1907.