A Mountain Mobbed
Exactly why these four individuals died wasn’t clear. However, many recent deaths on Everest have been attributed to a dangerous lack of experience. Without enough training at high altitude, some climbers are unable to judge their own stamina and don’t know when to turn around and call it quits. “Only half the people here have the experience to climb this mountain,” Panuru told me.
How different it was 50 years ago when, on May 1, 1963, Jim Whittaker, accompanied only by Sherpa Nawang Gombu, became the first American to reach the summit of the world, climbing the Southeast Ridge.
Three weeks after that ascent, Americans Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld clawed their way up a completely new route, the West Ridge. On that same day, Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad made the second American ascent of the Southeast Ridge. The two teams met below the summit, but by then it was dark, and they were forced to bivouac at 28,000 feet—a risky, last-ditch option never before attempted. Without tents, sleeping bags, stoves, Sherpas, oxygen, water, or food, they weren’t expected to survive.
Amazingly all four men lived—although Unsoeld and Bishop lost 19 toes between them. The American expedition of 1963 became a tale of heroic success.
Our National Geographic–supported team was on Everest to mark the anniversary of that expedition. Yet as we witnessed, the mountain has become an icon for everything that is wrong with climbing. Unlike in 1963, when only six people reached the top, in the spring of 2012 more than 500 mobbed the summit. When I arrived at the apex on May 25, it was so crowded that I couldn’t find a place to stand. Meanwhile, down below at the Hillary Step, where only one person at a time can climb up or down, the lines were so long that some climbers waited more than two hours—shivering and growing weak, even though the weather was excellent—to proceed. If these throngs of climbers had been caught in a storm, as others were in the deadly season of 1996, the death toll could have been staggering.
Everest has always been a trophy, but now that almost 4,000 people have reached its summit, some more than once, the feat means less than it did a half century ago. Today, roughly 90 percent of the climbers on Everest are there as part of guided climbs, in which a leader takes a group of clients—many without basic climbing skills—up the mountain.
Having paid $30,000 to $120,000 to be on the mountain, too many of these guided climbers naively expect to reach the summit. A significant number do, but under appalling conditions. The two standard routes, the Northeast Ridge and the Southeast Ridge, are not only dangerously crowded but also disgustingly polluted, with garbage leaking out of the glaciers and pyramids of human excrement befouling the high camps. And then there are the corpses.
Clearly the world’s highest peak is broken. But if you talk to the people who know it best, they’ll tell you it’s not beyond repair.
Next: “All of the clients who died on Everest this past year went with low-budget, less-experienced operators.”