An hour above Camp IV on the Southeast Ridge of Mount Everest, Panuru Sherpa and I passed the first body.
The dead climber was on his side as if napping in the snow, goose down blowing from holes in his insulated pants. Ten minutes later, we stepped around another body, her torso shrouded in a Canadian flag, an abandoned oxygen bottle holding down the flapping fabric.
Trudging nose to butt up the ropes that had been fixed to the steep slope, Panuru and I were wedged between strangers above us and below us. The day before, at Camp III, our team had been part of a small group. But when we woke up this morning, we were stunned to see an endless line of climbers passing near our tents.
Now, bumper-to-bumper at 26,000 feet, we were forced to move at exactly the same speed as everyone else, regardless of individual strength or climbing ability. In the swirling darkness before midnight, I gazed up at the string of lights from climbers’ headlamps rising into the black sky. Above me were more than a hundred slow-moving climbers. In one rocky section, at least 20 people were attached to a tattered rope anchored by a single badly bent picket pounded into the ice. If the picket popped out, the rope would instantly snap from the weight of two dozen falling climbers, and they would all cartwheel down the face of the mountain to their deaths.
Panuru, the lead Sherpa of our team, and I unclipped from the lines, swerved out onto open ice, and began soloing—a safer option for experienced mountaineers. After twenty minutes, we encountered another corpse, sitting in the snow, frozen solid as stone.
Several hours later, before we reached the Hillary Step—a 40-foot wall of rock and the last obstacle before the summit—we passed yet another corpse. His stubbly face was gray, his mouth open as if moaning.
Later I would learn the nationalities and names of these four climbers: Chinese Ha Wenyi, 55; Nepali-Canadian Shriya Shah-Klorfine, 33; South Korean Song Won-bin, 44; and German Eberhard Schaaf, 61. All four had died just days before—between May 18 and 20, 2012, as had two people on the other side of Everest. Because it’s dangerous and difficult to transport bodies down the mountain, most people who perish there remain where they fall, although some are eventually moved by ice and wind, covered with snow, or pulled to the side of the trail. Some have even been pushed into crevasses by other climbers in a kind of makeshift mountain burial.
April and May 2012 became the third-deadliest season on Everest. As I cramponed past the icy corpses, I thought of the shattering sorrow their families and friends must have felt when they heard the news. I, too, had lost friends to the mountains.
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.
Pasang Geljen Sherpa/AP/Shutterstock
The guide dilemma
Russell Brice, 60, runs Himalayan Experience, the largest and most sophisticated guiding operation on Everest. Himex, as it’s known, has led 17 expeditions to Everest, and Brice is famous for running a tight ship. Despite the relatively large size of Brice’s teams—as many as 30 clients matched with 30 Sherpas—they leave a small footprint on the mountain, removing all of their excrement and rubbish, a practice not followed by most teams. “We can manage the numbers if all the operators talk to each other,” Brice insists. “It’s all about good communication.”
If only it were that simple. There are other factors at work. One is advances in weather forecasting. Lack of precise meteorologic information once led expeditions to attempt the summit whenever their team members were ready, meaning groups were staggered. Today, with hyper-accurate satellite forecasts, all teams know exactly when a weather window will open up, and they often go for the top on the same days.
Another factor: Low-budget outfitters don’t always have the staff, knowledge, or proper equipment to keep their clients safe if something goes wrong. The cheaper operators often employ fewer Sherpas, and those they do hire sometimes lack experience. “All of the clients who died on Everest this past year went with low-budget, less-experienced operators,” says Willie Benegas, 44, an Argentine-American high-altitude guide and co-owner, with his brother Damian, of Benegas Brothers Expeditions, which has led 11 trips to Everest. The brothers say that Nepalese outfitters need to be held to international standards, and that Nepal’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, which regulates climbing on Everest, should promote better education for Sherpas.
Steps to fix Everest
To prevent crowding on the mountain, some have proposed limiting the total number of permits per season and the size of each team to no more than ten clients per team. Others are skeptical. “That will not happen,” says New Zealander Guy Cotter, 50, owner of Adventure Consultants, which has led 19 expeditions to Everest. “Everest is big business for Nepal, and they will never turn down the money.”
Another way to make the mountain safer is with technology, says Conrad Anker, 50, who led our expedition in 2012. The mountain is already high-tech—everyone at Base Camp has access to a cell phone or the Internet—but last summer in a meeting with the Nepalese ministry, Anker proposed something new: identification cards issued with every climbing permit.
“The Everest ID would contain data that could save the life of a climber or Sherpa,” Anker explains. It would have the climber’s photo, of course, but more important, it would also have a QR code—a type of bar code. “Scanned with a smartphone, the QR code would reveal information such as age, experience, health history, allergies, emergency phone numbers, everything,” Anker says that bureaucrats just looked at him with blank faces when he tried to explain the benefits of the ID.
Despite all the problems on the mountain, Everest still stands alone. I’ll never forget the breathtaking view from our perch at Camp III, clouds rolling up the Western valley like a slow-motion reverse avalanche. Or the visceral relief of a cup of scalding soup at Camp IV. Or the crunch of my crampons in the crystalline labyrinth of the Khumbu Icefall just above Base Camp. I’ll always treasure the memory of climbing with friends.
Such moments are the reasons climbers keep coming back to Everest. It’s not simply about reaching the summit but about showing respect for the mountain and enjoying the journey. Now it’s up to us to restore a sense of sanity to the top of the world. Too many people die on Everest yearly; this hiker was left for dead on the famous mountain, but strangers sacrificed reaching the top to save him.