Crowds on Mount Everest
Will conga lines return to Mount Everest? (Photo: Westend61/Getty Images)

Will There Be Deadly Traffic Jams on Mount Everest this Year?

Guides in Base Camp say that Mother Nature will help determine whether climbers encounter dangerous congestion on the world’s tallest peak

Crowds on Mount Everest

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

You’ve probably seen the famous 2019 photo shot by Nirmal “Nims” Purja of a long line of climbers high on Mount Everest, each waiting to set foot on the 29,029-foot summit. The image went viral after Purja published it online, because it showed how traffic jams on the peak can force mountaineers to wait for hours in the so-called “death zone” above 28,000 feet.

What that photo doesn’t tell you is that the long queue was due, in part, to the weather. In 2019, stormy conditions and violent winds in the Himalayas allowed for just three suitable days of climbing on the world’s highest peak. The tight weather window meant that the hundreds of climbers and Sherpas in Base Camp made their respective summit attempts simultaneously on May 22, and people became stuck in bottlenecks that exist along the route.

This doesn’t happen every year. Often, Everest will see two weeks of favorable weather, when winds at the summit drop below 30 miles per hour. In 2022, for example, clear and calm conditions lasted an unprecedented four consecutive weeks—practically the entire month of May. Hundreds of climbers reached the summit and there were few if any complaints of crowds or traffic jams.

This week, the expedition leaders in Base Camp are carefully monitoring the weather reports in the Himalayas, and praying for conditions that mimic those of 2022 and not those from 2019. That’s because there are more climbers and Sherpas on Everest than at any time in history. The latest count is 466 foreign climbers—a new record—and perhaps twice as many Sherpas. Not all of those people will actually make it past Base Camp—guides have told me that about 20 percent of climbers arriving at Everest give up and leave before venturing onto the mountain.

“If the weather allows several summit days, the amount of climbers is manageable. If the weather limits the possible summit day, like in 2019, there will be problems caused by the crowds, especially by slow climbers,” says Austrian guide Lukas Furtenbach of expedition company Furtenbach Adventures. “There are climbers on the mountain that need 18 hours from Base Camp to Camp I, and another 11 hours from Camp I to Camp II. That is too slow.”

I reached out to Furtenbach and other expedition operators in Base Camp to ask if they are worried about the possibility of deadly crowds, given the soaring number of climbers. The potential for traffic jams generated international headlines last week, and the record number of permits prompted longtime operator Adrian Ballinger of Alpenglow Expeditions to write a lengthy Facebook post addressing of the dangers. “The South Side of Everest has become overcrowded with inexperienced team members and unqualified guides,” he wrote.

Garrett Madison of Madison Mountaineering told me that while Base Camp feels busier than ever, the climbing route itself still feels empty. “Base Camp feels busy with a lot of tents and a lot of people. But we haven’t seen a lot of people up on the mountain at Camps I, II, and III,” he said. “All we can do is get into position, get our acclimatization done and oxygen to Camp IV, wait for the summit ropes to be put in, and wait for good weather for our summit attempt.”

Like Madison, Pemba Sherpa of Nepali outfitter 8K Expeditions said that his group has mostly finished its acclimatization hikes and is now awaiting favorable conditions to make the climb. Pemba has nearly 200 people under his guidance: 59 climbers for Everest, 22 for 27,940-foot Lhotse, and more than 100 Sherpa support climbers.

“We are concerned with traffic as well,” he said. “We will surely have a meeting between the operators and set the timing for the summit push with a good weather window.”

Pemba plans to reduce traffic jams by staggering his own company’s expedition. The group has been split into nine climbing teams, and the smaller groups will head for the summit on different days.

Furtenbach echoed Pemba’s sentiment that coordination between the expedition leaders can cut down on traffic jams. “The mood among most expedition operators is to make everything safer,” he said. There are other techniques that guides can do to avoid the crowds, he said, like climbing counter-cyclically—which in layman’s terms means waiting for others to start, and then heading up while they are coming down.

“Or you can just let the first window pass and wait patiently for the next one,” he said. “History shows that there are  always late summit windows. That was the case in 2019 when the famous pictures of the human traffic jam were taken. The following two days were empty and had good conditions.”

In 2019, an Australian operator called Climbing the Seven Summits reached the top on May 27, which was the final day of the season before the monsoons arrived, and found the summit empty.

Furtenbach believes Everest is big enough for the growing number of climbers, and thinks that the quantity of permits will continue to grow. In his eyes, the key to preventing danger is better crowd management—which could mean someday taking dramatic steps to spread people out on the peak.

“This can be through reactivating the post-monsoon season on Everest, having two or even more separate routes with fixed ropes in critical sections like the Khumbu Icefall or the Lhotse face,” he said. “Why not two routes through the Khumbu Icefall? Why not explore possibilities for an alternative commercial route on the West Ridge? This is the duty of the responsible authorities in Nepal.”

What Does the Weather Report Say?

So, what does Mother Nature have in store for the Everest climbers? Outside reached out to two experts on Everest weather, Michael Fagan of Everest Weather and Chris Tomer of Tomer Weather Solutions, on the long-range predictions for the Khumbu area. Both gave the warning that forecasts beyond seven days are of little value.

Tomer and Fagan said that predicting weather on Mount Everest is reliant on whether or not jet stream winds are present on the mountain. In 2018 and 2022, climbers enjoyed lengthy weather windows because the high winds were gone, Tomer said.

So, does Tomer predict another year with no jet stream? “My short answer is ‘No,’” he says. “I think we’re looking at more of a standard season with a powerful early May jet stream, then it weakens and moves off the summit for one to three-day periods after May 10. And I think we’ll also see a very late May window just before the Monsoon kicks in.”

Fagan says the weather models he’s looked at call for high winds this coming week, followed by a period of potential calm—a weather window when climbers may go for the summit. “Many models show the jet stream close to or over Everest at times early next week,” Fagan says. “Thus, some strong summit winds at times. Then by May 12, two key models, European and the U.S.-based GFS models, suggest no jet stream over Everest, thus a reduction in summit winds by Friday, May 12, perhaps several days beyond.”

But there are conflicting models, Fagan says, which could create some disagreement in the predictions. “The U.S. Navy model suggests that the jet stream will still be over Everest on May 12 and probably beyond,” he says. “Many meteorologists do not follow the U.S. Navy model since they think it does not have the same skill as the GFS or European model. I think the U.S. Navy has some skill.”

Tropical storms and cyclones in the Bay of Bengal also impact weather on the peak—sometimes they drive snow and winds toward the mountain, and other times they steer high winds away from it. But predicting how these systems impact the peak presents a challenge.

“Should we worry about tropical systems in the Bay of Bengal? Yes, there is some sign of a tropical disturbance on/after May 12,” Tomer says. “But accurately forecasting the track of these disturbances so far in advance is very challenging. This is the wildcard.”

Lead Photo: Westend61/Getty Images