On May 22, Nirmal Purja, a Nepalese mountaineer, posted a photograph showing a serpentine line of climbers extending to the top of Mount Everest on Facebook. The photo went viral and soon became a subject of intense debate on the growing commercialisation of the world’s highest peak.
As many as 220 climbers attempted to summit the Everest on that particular day resulting in a deadly ‘traffic jam’ near the so-called ‘death zone’ of Everest.
On the same very day, Aditya Gupta, a Delhi based entrepreneur, climbed atop the Everest, witnessing the same extraordinary scene. Gupta had to spend some anxious moments in the ‘death zone’, which is at an altitude of between 26,000 and 29,000 feet.
“I summited on the 22nd of May at 7:30 am, the worst scenarios happened after that," he told News18 in an interview. Gupta had to spend a lot of time during his summit, waiting. "I had to wait for a couple of hours on the way up, but it got worse on the way down," said the 50-year old mountaineer.
Gupta wasn’t the only climber who had to spend time in this traffic jam. Many of the climbers had to wait for hours to reach the summit and even on their way back. Gupta survived, but not everyone was as lucky as him. At least 11 climbers died this year while attempting to summit the Everest, making this the deadliest season since 2015. Most of the deaths occurred in the same area where jams occurred.
“Traffic jams are nasty. Not because they are inconvenient. They are a death risk and people have died because of that," Gupta said.
The Nepal government had issued a record-breaking 381 permits to climbers who wanted to reach the top of Everest. Every climber is accompanied by a Sherpa or a guide who helps them summit the peak. This meant that over 750 people were in the race to climb the Everest. The climbing season begins in late April and continues until the end of May each year. All climbers spent nearly 45 days to complete the expedition which includes a month long stay at the base camps where the climbers acclimatize to the weather and altitude. The summit then takes up to 5-7 days from the base camp. Before the summit is attempted, the weather forecast is assessed to find out the safe window for the summit. Incidentally, this year’s weather window was short, between May 21-23, which coupled with higher permits led to traffic jams as hundreds of climbers marched on to reach the highest peak in the world.
“If there are too many on the same day and same time and then some of those people are slow either because they are sick or scared or simply not able to move fast enough on the mountain,” Gupta said.
An expedition to the Everest is a costly affair. A climber pays anywhere between Rs 25-35 lakh per summit which includes Rs 11 lakh towards permit charges levied by Nepal Tourism Board (NTB), but with more and more people with higher disposable income seeking an 'adventure,' Everest is increasingly becoming accessible. This has raised concerns about the safety of fellow climbers and deadly traffic jams becoming a regular occurrence in the future.
Getting stuck at an altitude of over 26,000 feet above sea level could quickly turn deadly in minutes due to low oxygen levels and sub-zero temperatures.
The mountaineer explained that every extra minute on the mountain means that the climber is getting cold and running out of oxygen. "So when you run out of oxygen, you will feel even colder. Once the brain has insufficient oxygen then your decision making and your comprehension situation are completely compromised. In a matter of minutes, anything can happen,” he added.
As the situation unfolded, many experts blamed the deaths on lack of experience on part of climbers and lack of regulation by the Nepalese authorities. Gupta believes that most of the deaths at Everest take place due to "human errors".
So what goes in the training of a mountaineer who wants to climb the Everest? Besides the physical fitness, Gupta said, a climber needs to be mentally fit before attempting an expedition of this nature. “It’s not just about being determined but also being very conscious and very aware of factors that could be indicating that you should be turning around whether it’s your personal health, your personal issues, environmental issues, the situational awareness of what’s going on out there," he said.