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Apr 172017
 
Crowds in the Khumbu Icefall in 2008

As predicted it looks to be a record year on the both sides of Mt Everest and the normal routes will be crowded.

With the vivid memories of the crowds in 2012, the media will be jumping all over this with demands from armchair climbers, journalists, attention seekers and the expert at your next party who has never been above the second floor but read Into Thin Air, to close Everest immediately.  As the Irish say, brace yourself.

With histrionics aside, what can be done? First, to define the issue, this is what I posted yesterday:

The Nepal Ministry of Tourism is reporting that 385 foreigners from 41 teams have already received permits for Everest and healthy activity on many other peaks. My sincere thanks to Rajan Pokhrel for this chart and it is already outdated.

Note that Everest and Lhotse are both up from last year. Dhaulagiri also has a large number of climbers at 51 and Makalu has 43.

Remember that these are permits for foreigners and does not include Sherpas. As I have been reporting there are at least one Sherpa for each foreigner so there will be at least 770 climbers on Everest plus another ~200 on Lhotse, which shares 90% of the same route with Everest. This puts the traffic on the Khumbu Icefall and Lhotse Face close to 1,000 climbers and there are more permits to be issued. (there is some overlap between Lhotse and Everest climbers)

This was predicted as I wrote back in February 2017:

I am expecting over 600 summits from the South (Nepal) side and well over 200 from the North (Tibet) totaling 800 from both sides, smashing the record set in 2013 with 658 total summits from both sides. In 2016, 641 climbers made the summit from both sides.

Ok, so now that we have established it will be crowded how will the climbers already there respond? But first let’s look at why there are crowds and with expeditions lasting from six to eight weeks, why can’t they just spread out the summit days and eliminate the problem?

Who Summits First?

There are about 41 teams on Everest ranging from two people to 100. Almost without exception all depend on Sherpas to establish camps, including ferrying food, fuel, tents, and supplemental oxygen.

While you may read about someone climbing “self supported” in reality they are supported by the Icefall Doctors to set ropes and ladders in the Khumbu Icefall or to Advanced Base Camp on the North. Also they get support from the commercial teams or the Tibetans who set the safety line to the summit. If they clip into someone else’s rope or step on a ladder, they are supported.

And some “independent” climbers depend on Sherpas to establish their camps just like the commercial teams. This is not meant to criticize, but to clarify and to frame the problem. (well maybe a slight criticism of their transparency and acknowledgement of the support they use)

#1 Fix Route

Climber line on Lhotse Face in 2012. Courtesy of Ralf Dujmovits

Climber line on Lhotse Face in 2012. Courtesy of Ralf Dujmovits

This is the deal; the tradition is that the Sherpa and Tibetan rope fixing teams to summit Everest first.  While it is possible for someone to climb independent or without fixed ropes, it is rare. Perhaps we will see Ueli Steck do it this year. But even Ueli will use the ladders in the Khumbu Icefall, and he is fine with that. But that will be just he and Tenji Sherpa, leaving 998 climbers to go!

#2 Acclimatize

Even though an average Everest expedition arrive at base camp in early April, all climbers must check off three items before they attempt to summit: wait for the ropes to be fixed, acclimatize by climbing to between 20,000 and 23,000 feet and have a weather forecast of four to seven days with winds under 30 mph.

#3 Good Weather

Lhotse Face in 2008

Lhotse Face in 2008

The weather forecast is the primary factor that drives the crowds. If there are only a few good weather days, everyone elbows to get their spot in line. The normal range is 6 to 16 days with an average of 11 since 2001. In 2012, the year most talked about for crowds, it went down to four.

The best case scenario for 2017 is for many good weather days to spread out the crowds. If it is like 2012 with four or even six we can expect record deaths, record frostbite while seeing record summits – a harsh scenario.

Total Support

The picture often used as exhibit A in the trial of Everest’s overcrowding was from 2012 when Ralf Dujmovits caught along line of Sherpas ferrying gear to the South Col. I have similar ones from 2002, 2003, 2008 and 2011. Yeah the 2012 line was huge and should raise flags.

The fact is that those Sherpas were carrying a large amount of oxygen to the Col plus extra food, tents and supplies for clients. The trend is for clients to use 4 lpm of oxygen where it used to be only 2 lpm and now there is talk of going to 6 and 8 lpm in the future to make it easier for the clients. Therein lies the problem with crowding – too many people with marginal skills requiring exorbitant support.

But I digress 🙂

Summit Strategies

More often than not, the summit push is a herd mentality based on rumors throughout base camp of the forecast, sometimes based on false information planted by ill-intentioned teams.

There will be 1,000 humans on the flanks of Lhotse and Everest (South) starting next week. If you are already there what are your options? Here goes:

Get out Early

Once the ropes are fixed and there is a good weather forecast, teams must gamble on when to begin the first summit attempt. By going first in early to mid May, it is cold, very cold. And if the forecast misses the winds by 20%, it can be horrible. In 2012 hoarfrost coated climbers making for a miserable summit experience and once they got there there was no view.

Western Cwm - Everest 2015

But this is the rub with this strategy, many teams want to be “first” so it can be crowded. There can easily be 100 to 200 climbers in that first window. And to complicate matters, it seems the least experienced and sometimes slowest teams try to go early creating a massive traffic jam. These teams refuse to step aside to let faster climbers pass thus a mass of humanity is paced by the slowest, and sometimes the least capable climber on the mountain.

There is no “governing body” to control this and calls for regulations have never been implemented. Guides will meet a few times during the season to try to coordinate and some do, but many don’t cooperate simply managing their summit push to their schedule without regard for anyone else.

Ok, so you have 300 people trying to be the first to summit in cold conditions at a snail’s pace. Not to despair, there is a solution to this. Hang on.

Go Late

This scenario calls for the team to be one of the last to go after everyone else has given it a go. Dave Hahn with 13 summits used this strategy year after year, very successfully. The advantages are that the weather is usually the warmest of the season, the boot track is kicked in and the crowds are gone. You can move fast and easily. And there is a huge “but”….

Bay of Bengal Cyclone

Weather forecasting on Everest has improved but all it takes is for a cyclone to develop in the Bay of Bengal bringing snow and winds to Everest, or the monsoons to start early, or the Jet Stream to move on top of the summit, or a hundred other variables and without warning, the season comes to an early halt.

Even with a forecast of an early end, all of a sudden that 4-7 day window needed to summit drops to 2-4 days and you gamble with your life. If you push during a small window, you must go fast, often foregoing that extra night at altitude to rest. You may need extra oxygen that you don’t have but most of all you must be in almost perfect health. This is not a scenario for novice, slow, inexperienced climbers. You can easily die. This is the most risky of all my options.

Goldilocks Timing

Each year, a few lucky teams go between the early and late teams when it is not too cold and not too hot (as if it ever is on Everest!) and the winds are low. In other words, perfect conditions.  Most summits have occurred between 17-22 May since 1953. But this doesn’t mean the weather was good. Let me repeat this – just because more people summit on 19 May, does not mean the weather is always good that day each year.

As previously discussed, these teams chose to skip the early windows due to the crowds, but don’t want to wait too late and risk missing any window altogether. So knowing May 19th has been the sweet spot for decades, many teams arbitrarily target this date.

Everest Summit Days

Everest Summit Days. Data from Himalayan Database

But with climate change, many of these historical patterns are not as predictive as they once were. Anyway, there are long time very experienced guide like Russell Brice who will pour over custom weather forecast and select a window based on their experience, advice from professional meteorologists and input from long time Everest Sherpas on mountain conditions. You will rarely see a Himex team go for the summit in bad weather, yet it occasionally happens.

Break into Small Sub Teams and Go Fast and Nimble

This is the strategy I like the best but is the hardest to achieve. You play your own game. You go when your mind and body are fully prepared. You are well rested, acclimatized and have all your camps stocked and the weather looks good.

In 2017 there are teams with 50 members, plus 50 Sherpas – 100 total climbers! Some with even more. These large teams will break up into smaller teams of perhaps 20 to 40 climbers in total, still a lot of people. This is an attempt to not “clog” the route.

But some use a technique where they literally climb nose to butt. The theory is that they move as a single pod in unison, gathering strength from the group. This technique is fine if they were alone on the mountain, but the problem is this technique is almost always extremely slow and plodding thus create the bottlenecks we spoke of earlier.

So the best way to deal with these clogs is to unclip from the fixed rope and pass them. Yes, you will assume the risk of slipping on ice or steep terrain and falling to your death, but you have to use common sense on where and in what conditions to make this move.

The key, however, is that you must have the flexibility to breakaway from your group. If your leader insist on you being a cog in the wheel, you are stuck. So discuss this scenario with your team before you leave base camp.

In 2011 I was with IMG and climbed with Kami Sherpa, and no western guide. Even though IMG has huge teams, they break them into sub teams. In 2011 my team became very small for a variety of reasons thus we had great flexibility. I credit the IMG leadership for their flexibility and the IMG Sherpas for their skills and experience.

Kami and I made the “pass the clog” move as we left the South Col on 20 May 2011. There were 40 to 60 people almost standing in place that night on the Triangular Face about 27,000 feet, just above the South Col or Camp 4. The weather was perfect and the terrain was reasonable, not overly steep when we made our move. We passed over 50 people in one push.

That single decision allowed us to be the third and fourth person to summit that day from the south side out of 150 in total. We never waited during our entire summit push up and back.

Choices

While I went thru several scenarios, often on Everest your choices are limited due to your team leadership, mountain conditions, weather or your own skills.

2017 will almost certainly be difficult. It may be the year that finally forces serious changes in the future. From all indications,  the north side will be just as crowded when compared to historical numbers. And there are already delays at the 2nd Step so adding in another hundred people will make that bottleneck identical to the Hillary Step. Expect the loudest north side commercial operators to promote that “their” side is safe and all is well before, during and after this season.

Alan Climbing the Khumbu Icefall in 2002

In any event, perhaps the only solution to avoid crowds altogether on either of the Everest commercial routes is to limit the number of people thru quotas similar to Denali or strict requirements to receive a permit perhaps by requiring a summit of an 8000 meter mountain.

But we all know Everest equals money and neither China nor Nepal are willing to give that up. China has even put in electricity at base camp this year, so they want to capitalize on the tourist attraction they have in Everest.

So what are your choices? Actually there are several if you find all of this untenable.

First: climb in the Autumn when there there is almost no one there. Yes it take stronger, faster, tougher, more experienced climbers, but ….

Second: investigate different routes, like the West Ridge. Yes it is harder, longer, your chances of summiting are less and it takes a more experienced climbers but ….

Third: climb on your own terms to go where and when you like. There are no rules that say you have to use the fixed ropes or ladders put in by the support teams. Yes, it would be more dangerous, require more skills and experience but …

It is popular to complain about the crowds on Everest, more so by people who are not there, never have been and never will. For those that are there, complaining about the crowds is kind of like saying I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member (thank you Groucho Marx!).

In the end, we all have choices.

Climb On!
Alan
Memories are Everything

PS Thoughtful comments are welcome, but please not the old tired ones about, climbers are idiots, close the mountain or put an escalator in. Counting on some thoughtful and constructive observations 🙂 Thanks.

Comments

comments

  23 Responses to “Everest 2017: How to Manage the Everest Crowds”

  1. The world is changing for the worse and people are behaving accordingly, greed and stupidity being the common denominator. Everest is a business and where there is such a large pool of money involved, corruption and obvious mismanagment will occur. History taught us nothing, it never will, and things will rarely change for the better. The problem starts with most involved in this corporation thinking “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” If each and every person involved (governments, guides, agencies, climbers, investors, media…) took responsibility for his/her own actions and really reflected on what climbing Everest really means, maybe the majority of issues pestering Everest would cease. Unfortunately, is easier to pay, be selfish and blame everyone else for problems. I religiously read your blog most mornings over coffee and admire you as a climber because you try to be a part of the solution and not the problem. You can’t expect 25 year-old millionares to understand what climbing Everest really means, but they are the ones writing the rules these days…

    • Thank you Sandra for your thoughtful comment. I really don’t disagree with any of your sentiments.

      My only add would be that the marginal minority create 80% of the problems and attract media coverage. It is rare to see a NYT article about the 50 y/o who dreamed of climbing Everest, does and comes home safely with no drama but has achieved his/her dream.

      Drama sells and it is reflected in how Everest is covered. If I have a headline for a blog post with something like “Normal Season, No Drama” versus “Death in the Khumbu Icefall”, you know which one gets 10x the hits.

      As consumers of media, we get what we ask for.

      On your personal responsibility point, fully and strongly agree. A huge part of the problem are the marginal climbers with Kili, Stok Kangri, or Mont Blanc as their highest. They have never used fixed ropes or crampons on steep terrain or endured harsh weather. Once at Everest they are solely dependent on their guides who may or may not be around. Also, they often ignore the call to stop climbing, especially on their summit. And they die.

      Yes, everyone that is part of Everest is part of the problem. And, imho, the solution starts with the climbers themselves.

      • You’re right in regards to the media, I agree we are all fed sensationalist news and the majority sees the news as truth without any sense of objectivity.
        It is a very scary world we live in, as a society.
        It must be very frustrating for you, as an experienced climber,to see what is happening on Everest; unfortunately, you remove one issue/person and 10 more show up.
        There will always be one team that accepts climbers that would be better off watching tv, safe in their homes, there will always be that one greedy government official waiting for his share…
        It’s a lose-lose situation.
        However, I do believe that you and climbers alike show others how it can be done and set a great example for the rest of us. Others will follow, i hope, eventually… 🙂 baby steps…
        Slovenians are avid climbers and hikers and take the climber’s culture seriously. Then come tourists and start hiking in crocs, sandals and evening gowns…;)
        Have a lovely weekend

  2. The info in your posts is so thorough. You have addressed many of my thoughts & questions. Thanks.

  3. Thank you for yet another insightful and interesting article!

  4. Thks Alan, great article!

    fixed ropes – provided width of the route allow it have they considered to install at some sections double parallel ropes to enable strong climbers to safely overpass theses so called “clogs” ?

    • Usually there are few backups in the Icefall. The return on the effort is probably not there. Dual ropes are in place on the Lhotse Face and there are dual routes on/around the Hillary Step.

      To put dual ropes in all over would be expensive both in terms of ladders, ropes, anchors and manpower. But I think the real issue is that is is often hard enough to find one route that is deemed safe i.e. not too close to either the West Shoulder or Nuptse (avalanches) or under towering serac, so finding two would be quite the challenge.

  5. More climbers mean more deaths, so might it reach an equilibrium where the increasing % of deaths causes a change of behavior in prospective climbers? K2 doesn’t seem to have the same crowd problem.

  6. Alan can you explain a little more about the the 6 or 8 lpm oxygen that some teams want to use next year?

    I am curious because I readed that more than 4 lpm oxygen is dangerous.

    Thank you.

    • There is one European guide that is floating this idea using custom masks. But where there is one, more could follow. The primary issue is if the mask can support such a high rate, not leak or have the excess go unused. I cannot comment on whether it is dangerous or not.

    • I’m thinking that it maybe dangerous at sea level but not where oxygen is 20 % of sea level. In hospitals I’ve seen the flow rate can go up to 12.

  7. Great article , Alan.

    Does every team have its own ice doctors who lay out the ropes , or are they shared ?
    I mean , with so many teams around and if every team has a team laying ropes , would the first of the jams probably occur when the ropes themselves are being laid ?

    • There is only one Icefall Doctor team. They are paid thru the climbing permits and support all teams on the Nepal side. Similarly, three are the Tibetan rope fixers on the North that fix from ABC to the summit. On the South, the Doctors stop at Camp 2 and the commercial teams work together for a group of experienced Sherpas from multiple teams to fix the route on to the summit. They are paid extra wages for this task by the guide companies who take up a collection form all the climbers.

      The protocol is for the climbers to not climb while the ropes are being fixed thus eliminating dangers from ice and rockfall to the fixers and crowding.

  8. The growing interest in high altitude mountaineering is surely a positive thing. However surely if it would be beneficial not only for safety but also for Nepal’s tourism if this interest was not so concentrated on Everest. Requiring a previous 8000m summit before Everest would speed the numbers and ensure people on Everest are ready for it.

    • Interestingly, the Chinese require that a Chinese national summit an 8000 meter mountain before climbing Everest from the Chinese side. Since the Nepal government has no experience regulations at all, part of the increase in crowds are coming from Chinese climbers climbing in Nepal who do not have 8000 meter summit experience.

      • It seems collaboration between the Chinese, Nepalese and Pakistan is essential to properly regulate high altitude mountaineering. I suppose this is much easier said than done.

  9. Alan: do you have up to date statistics on the ratio of climber deaths and climber accidents for the top 8 eight thousand meter Mts?

    Good article, let us hope for a successful and safe season Everest!

  10. Alan, I have followed you for several years. I look forward to what you present about Everest. I look forward to the season. I have a question: Do all of the support Sherpas summit? Or do they go to the highest camp with their client and wait until the client returns?

    • Absolutely, only certain nationalities have historically treated the Sherpas like hired help in the respect of having them “wait” and not be part of the summit team. Today, I can’t imagine any Sherpa accepting that decision. So, yes they go to the summit and frankly, most foreigners wouldn’t make it if it weren’t for the Sherpas carrying extra oxygen, etc. It is an honor for the Sherpa to get the summit as much as it for the client. But it is complicated and evokes a lot of emotions from observers and I won’t go too much further in this answer.

      Over half of the summits each season are Sherpas. This year I predict we will see 450 Sherpas and 350 foreigners summit on the Nepal side.

  11. Ok Alan, when does the book come out?

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