This week, an estimated 400 people are on their way to Nepal in hopes of climbing Everest. Though the number is not as high as previous years, it speaks to the mountain’s allure that so many people will attempt the climb after two of the most disastrous years in the mountain’s history: in 2014, an avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall killed 16 Sherpa, and in 2015, the 7.8-magnitude earthquake set off an avalanche that killed 22 in Base Camp.
Those that go will receive treatment appropriate for the amount they’re paying to be there, which ranges from $25,000 to $60,000 or more. High-end customers are treated to luxuries like heated tents, fixed ropes, and plenty of cylinders of supplemental oxygen. I believe that climbing Everest is a good thing, yet we’re overloading the mountain with more inexperienced climbers, and that is putting the Sherpa, guides, and clients at risk. It’s time to take a step back and consider how the scores of climbers who ascend this fragile mountain each year are managed. There are a few things we can do right now to help.
First, we need to ensure that the Sherpa and Nepali workers have a minimum set of mountain skills and adequate equipment. This will allow them to be more economically independent and to stay safe on the mountain.
Second, the Nepali government should require prospective Everest climbers to summit lower elevation peaks with similar challenges before attempting Everest. Requiring prospective climbers do two expeditions in Nepal before Everest will distribute some of the pressure, bring in needed tourist revenue, and ensure the visitors understand the seriousness of Himalayan climbing.
And finally, we need to perform a study of the crowds on Everest and use that information to set a carrying capacity of the peak. Denali, the highest peak in North America (which, like Everest, is one of the seven summits and is glaciated), limits traffic to 1,500 climbers during its four-month season. On Everest there are bottlenecks that inevitably form in the Khumbu Icefall and, on summit days, at the Hillary Step. Capping the number of climbers at, say, 500, would help eliminate such bottlenecks so that climbers, guides, and Sherpa can pass safely along an uncongested route.
Everest climbing isn’t going to stop anytime soon. In fact, if this is a successful season, we could see more crowds on the mountain next year. But this makes it the perfect year to test some of these issues, and in particular measure how a reduced number of climbers operate on the mountain. If the numbers are allowed to grow unchecked, there will be even more people on the mountain the next time something goes wrong.