The sheer volume of people in one place on Everest at any one time is looking more dangerous than ever.
The avalanche off the West Ridge of Everest into the Khumbu Icefall in 2014, resulted in 16 deaths. The earthquake driven avalanche in 2015 killed 19 at Everest Base Camp.
The human tragedy and loss in those moments was immense, and condolences to all those involved. As we start into the 2019 season, perhaps looking back will also better prepare us for the new challenges of the heights?
Popular photographs of the conga-line of climbers traversing the Lhotse Face en-route to the South Col, and a crowd of people swarming the Hillary step are common occurrences these days.
With the rising crowds, the traditional dangers of individual risk on Everest: falling off, altitude, ice hitting a single climber or two, are at the same level as always. Or perhaps a bit greater due to the rapidity changing conditions on Everest with climate change.
Yet as we saw in the last few years, the level of risk for a mass event have risen dramatically.
What we have to think about now is not where 5 or 10 people are, but the 100’s traversing the icefall and crawling nose-to-tail up the Lhotse Face in an infinite line.
Higher up, the numbers of people on one set of anchors climbing one single, strand of rope puts a lot of trust in a very small and potentially failable system. A pulled anchor, an extra sharp crampon point inadvertently stabbed into the rope by an unbalanced climber, an ascender that fails and strips the climbers below off, or a rock fall that takes someone out – all will generate forces that single ropes and well spaced out anchors won’t even begin to keep anyone attached to the mountain, let alone 50 or more.
On Everest, the physics for the anchors and ropes, have simply started to defy logic.
While improvements are continually being made, with additional anchors, multiple ropes and fixing teams in charge, the sheer numbers of people, in very dangerous places, is impossible to ignore.
Taking that technology to the next level, we could always just pull the Khumbu Icefall out of the occasion, and helicopter to Camp II. Though I’d certainly be in agreement with Conrad Anker when he writes:
“Yet as dangerous as the icefall is, it is an intrinsic part of the Everest experience. You boot up, say your prayers, and hope that the ice is calm. No amount of experience can make up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is very dangerous, but it is also unspeakably beautiful.”
Even a storm like what happened in 1996, a year when 11 died, and was considered especially horrific, spawning both the best selling Into Thin Air and the ‘Everest’ movie, will pale in comparison when another storm like that sweeps through again.
With much more advanced weather forecasting, hopefully those incidents will be less likely, though we all know that Everest weather can be highly localized, even from North to South on the mountain. Sometimes simply rounding a corner can make a huge difference in wind and cloud.
Multiple deaths on Everest are not of course new. In 1922, in the first recorded fatalities, 7 sherpas died in an avalanche below the North Col. But where there was one team and a handful of climbers, several hundred will be climbing through the same place this season.
The North Ridge and North Face of Everest in winter seen from the Pang La. Nobody is standing in line, and you could probably also claim the first winter ascent from Tibet.
Some have argued the North Side has less crowding and is thus safer, but luck may play a bigger part of it. I’d not be very happy being up on the North Ridge when the winds really kick up and I’m stuck above the ladder over the 2nd step waiting in line to get down.
However, there is something to be said for the North Side with less climbers overall, and no Khumbu Icefall or Lhotse Face to negotiate. But both routes have their unique characteristics that inevitably group people together and exponentially increase the dangers to a greater number of people.
There is also now the option of the Flash ascent, which has seen some success in recent years, by pre-acclimatizing and then moving quickly up the mountain. But as Mark Horrell states, success can sometimes be more luck with the weather on Everest than any other factor.
There are certainly advantages to spending less time at altitude, but if it also means you are less well acclimatized and simply are using more oxygen up high and something goes wrong as it did last year, you had better save the strength to gallop down the mountain as fast as you can.
The lure of Everest is irresistible to many, whether deemed foolish or not. Nothing really quite matches getting to the top of the world on a good day.
But it would be foolish of us to ever consider it safe. There is no safety in numbers on Everest.
Of course it does beg the question: is there any way to make it safer? Many ways, but that is a topic I’ll work on for another day. In the meantime, it is simply a matter of Fear, Fitness and Faith.