Queuing in the Death Zone

The Everest Issue

Images of people queueing on Mt Everest looking like a front-row ticket sales at a rock concert went viral across the internet this last month. As the images spread so did the debate about permits, death and expertise.  A range of professional and legendary climbers have urged the local government to limit the number of Everest climbers in each climbing season to avoid incidents on the world’s highest peak but is that really enough, is it really the problem?

Elia Saikaly a filmmaker stated on Facebook “The queue of climbers heading to the summit of Mt. Everest on May 23rd.

We raced down the Hillary Step as fast as we could after reaching the top, swapped out our depleted oxygen cylinders, climbed up the south summit expecting a smooth descent and this is what we saw. A very long line-up of climbers all heading for the top at 8.30am.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Half the teams were still on their way up!’

In his latest blog New Zealand’s Guy Cotter (CEO of Adventure Consultants)

‘I’d say most of us recognise that there are issues on Everest.
Accidents, overcrowding, a lack of cohesiveness each season with rope fixing when teams who say they will help and don’t turn up, Icefall charges much higher than the quality of work that is completed, inexperienced climbers, teams who provide no support when their team members get sick or have an accident.

So what do we do? As a group of people, it is in our best interest to sort this out – and it isn’t that hard. However, it will take some resolve and some changes to achieve and we will need to establish some standards.

Safety should always be the highest priority. Over the years the quality of the ropes and the fixing on the upper mountain has improved dramatically. We are seeing fewer instances of a 200m coil of Korean rope with only one or two anchors that result in 60 to 100 people hanging on a rope that has a breaking rate of around 400kg!’

On the eve of the 66th anniversary of the first successful summit of Mt Everest, the climbing community is voicing its concern over allowing inexperienced tourists to scale Mt Everest. This coupled with high numbers and an already high-risk factor environment is a recipe for a real disaster.

At age 87, Kanchha Sherpa is the only living Sherpa member of the historic 1953 Everest expedition. He has been voicing his fears  “Only experienced mountaineers should be allowed to attempt to scale the mountain,”

Mt Everest witnessed at least 11 deaths this year, most of them on the descent. While the government issued a record 381 Everest climbing permits to expedition members this season. Over 700 persons, including climbing Sherpas, attempted to climb the mountain after they found a short weather window in the third week of May.

Elia Saikaly describes the crowded and risky decent ‘Descending was a careful and calculated clip and unclip process. Everyone was sandwiched together in the line leaving very little space to pass. In general, most have empathy for your exposure, some help you pass, some hang onto you to protect you as they know that they too will soon be descending and taking the same risk each time. Others, who are likely exhausted and possibly hypoxic and nervous, make it a little bit more difficult.’

Celebrated American mountaineer Conrad Anker (who located George Mallory’s body in 1999) suggested that limiting the number of climbers, including their guides, to 400 in the spring climbing season would help reduce risk in the Everest death zone.

“Like the world’s famous Boston marathon, Nepal should screen climbers and permit only those who really qualify for Everest climbing,” the climber said, adding that the government could either increase permit fee or adopt a lottery system for those wishing to climb Mt Everest. 

The overcrowding images have sparked debate on the number but hand in hand with a secondary debate on ‘experience’ and allowing under experienced climber access. Anker said inexperienced people were not only risking themselves but also putting others at risk.

Elia Saikaly; ‘Because of the media storm surrounding Everest, many are blaming the ‘traffic’ for the problems people faced above 8000m. If ‘traffic’ was the main factor then why did our team and several other summit problem-free?

Too many issued permits certainly contributed to the problem, as did a narrow weather window, but where we really need to be looking is at the experience level (and lack thereof) of some climbers and the choices made by those individuals in terms of their logistics providers. We climbers all know which local company carries the burden of the highest loss of life. They happen to offer very cheap pricing which is enticing for some.’

Kami Rita Sherpa, who scaled Mt Everest for a record 24th time this season, however, said a heavy rush above the balcony area couldn’t be the sole reason behind the number of deaths. He said overcrowding could just be a contributing factor, but there were so many other reasons.

“Ego of the inexperienced climbers comes on the top,” he said. He added that weak regulations and laxity on the part of the government were equally responsible for the mess on the world’s highest peak.

Traffic jam often occurs every season, said Mingma Gyalje Sherpa, an international mountain guide who was on Everest this season.

“Traffic jam didn’t kill people on Mt Everest. They died due to their own stupidity and ego. If they are true mountaineers, they should listen to their body and should know when to turn back. Everyone knows climbing Everest is a dangerous game. You could pay with your life,”

On the other side of the fence Mohan Krishna Sapkota, secretary at the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, seemingly trying to divert the issue has said limiting the number of Everest hopefuls would not address the problems.  He goes on to lay more blame on both climbers and agencies “Climbers, high altitude guides and handling agencies should understand their responsibilities while running Everest expeditions,” 

From Guy Cotter’s blog ‘The reputation of Everest has been tainted and that impacts on all of us who operate there. If we do not collaborate and make a real effort to make positive change, the problems will intensify and the crown jewel will be lost, as will the attraction of mountaineering in general. My fear is that if we, the people who have a vested interest in Mt Everest, do not sort out the issues ourselves, the government will be forced to step in to regulate activities on the mountain and the mountain does not deserve that.’


Finally; Elia Saikaly ‘I write this with the utmost respect’ said Elia ‘for those that lost their lives and their loved ones, but it needs to be said: PLEASE remember, economising on Everest puts you, your teammates, your Sherpa support system and everyone else on the mountain in danger. When you cut corners, someone is paying for it. Not only are you risking your own life, but the lives of the great Sherpa people and other tribes who work on Everest. So much of this could easily have been avoided.

Elia Saikaly has filmed and produced an amazing film called ‘The Dream of Everest’ Amidst all of the sensation and controversy of May 22nd and 23rd, four incredible women made climbing to the summit of Everest look easy. They powered past dozens and dozens of climbers in the dark, faced the unimaginable, in sub-zero temperatures, at 8848m, with the utmost grace and style. Their full story will be in the women’s issue of Adventure in August.



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