Is waiting in line for the 7 summits getting more dangerous?

As if climbing challenges:  cold, wind and altitude are not enough, the growing danger on some of the 7 summits is increasingly just waiting in line – not necessarily the first thing we are used to having to worry about.

As reported today on Denali by the NPS, a climber returned from their summit day with severe frostbite “likely attributed to long waits during a high traffic day in which 95 climbers were counted traveling between high camp and the summit.”

Lines have long been a challenge on Everest, and now we are increasingly seeing the same problem on Denali, with its’ one-lane summit ridge and fixed ropes that make most climbers reluctant to unclip and step off the track. And whereas one day climbers on the big peaks were mostly fit and competent, the range of skills, fitness and ability now range so widely that it is not uncommon to have climbers who are five times as fast, or worse, as slow, as others.

Everest, hillary step, waiting in line on Everest
Everest Summit ridge, climbers headed up over the Hillary Step. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

On Everest the lines have become legendary as weather predictions have improved and the best weather days are targeted by many teams at once. What is supposed to assist us now has become a double-edged sword and packed us all into the same tight windows standing one behind the other. Peter Athans quote long ago still echoes from my first Everest expedition, “there are two types of Himalayan climbers, the quick and the dead,” and that truism now extends to any peak that is high, cold and windy it seems.

The 7th summit with the biggest danger for people waiting in line is certainly Everest. From waiting for ladders under towering ice blocks in the Khumbu Icefall, to lined up on the Lhotse Face dodging rock and ice chunks, to the simultaneous departures around sunrise from Camp 3 with 100’s of climbers heading up over the Geneva spur, the lines all start long before summit day.

Then ultimately, the one long fixed line from the South Col to the summit is a huge bottleneck. The higher one goes, the more oxygen commonly used, the less time you have, and the more dangerous it becomes, with every minute waiting in line cutting into your oxygen supply.

Now on Denali, the fixed lines out of 14.2 Camp and the steeper sections along the ridge to high Camp all provide choke points lower down. On summit day, the long traverse over to Denali Pass, a few shorter sections leading to the summit ridge, then the ridge itself all provide plenty of chances to get stuck in the queue.

On a cold day (and most are very cold), a bit of wind, high elevation and if lacking real experience in the extremes of the Arctic, frostbite can set in just minutes. The double insulated, down filled mittens that looked so comfy in the store suddenly become impossible to use with an ascender. The face mask ices up the goggles and vision is impaired. Crampons seemingly suck the warmth right out of the soles of your boots and your feet feel like they are burning with cold. And realizing how fast things suddenly change is hard to comprehend, particularly with a mind fogged with altitude and exertion.

Double 003, Vinson, Antarctica, Vinson massif, Chris Heintz
All in a line – crossing the Vinson Summit Plateau, completing a new route to the top of Antarctica Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

Looking quickly at the other summits, on Vinson, the short summit ridge is rarely crowded and climbers spread out from the days climb up the long ice slope below. On the regular route of Aconcagua one can easily pass virtually anywhere, as you also can on Kilimanjaro. Carstenz could be very troublesome, but fortunately with a year round climbing season, small groups and difficulty in access, it rarely gets the crowds all in one  place.

Carstenz, Hillary
On the cables, Carstenz Pyramid summit ridge. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

So the lines are the result of:

  • an increase in climber numbers,
  • all on the same routes,
  • often short but well predicted weather windows,
  • and highly variable climbing abilities and speeds.

Assuming climbers numbers will continue to rise, weather predictions get even better and skills and speed unfortunately decline, incidences of frostbite and worse are only likely to increase.

What, as climbers, can we do? Guides working together on Everest and now Denali can hopefully help space people out some – this has occurred to some degree on Everest. But if there is a short weather window and many groups backed up, everyone will inevitably go anyway and hope for the best. And this most recent frostbite incident on Denali was from initial indications, part of a guided group.

On Denali, with the season reasonably extending from mid-May through the end of June, there is the option of going outside the highest traffic time. I know most of us would rather keep moving in a colder May, than be sitting in a line in early June unable to move.

The obvious solution is to simply take another route – but that is so rarely done it hardly needs to be suggested. The minute you turn off the regular route on Denali you will be on your own, having an experience that is truly remote and wild, and where you will probably be lucky to even see another person.

For many, waiting in line needs to be added into the plan – with warmer gear, more hydration and food and planning around other teams and whether there is an opportunity to stagger approaches and summit days.

And then of course, there are still all those other routes, the new routes and the off season for many of the 7 summits – always worth thinking about if you want to avoid those deadly lines.

denali, West rib, robert mads anderson, paul teare
Paul Teare on the summit of Denali after completing the West Rib – not a soul in sight. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

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