Everest/Lhotse 2016: Slow Climbers put Others at Risk

Lhotse Face Line 2003

The final summit pushes continue on the Nepal side while it feels like everyone on the Tibet side is going for the summit on the same couple of days! As crazy as this seems, it is business as usual on the world’s highest peak.

The huge teams from International Mountain Guides and 7 Summits Club represent the bulk of the climbers tonight and tomorrow while many other smaller teams are drafting off their lead. These and others have split into multiple teams to reduce the crowds.

There should be about 100 to 150 summits from Nepal tonight and tomorrow and about the same from Tibet.

Similar to many other climbers, you can follow IMG member Paul Pottinger on his Delorme InReach that is tracking his summit climb right now. He is on the Southeast Ridge between the Balcony and The South Summit. You can see many of the teams results and plans at this link.

In another development, some climbers who just summited Everest and wanted to add Lhotse to their list cancelled their climb after the fixed ropes to the summit were not finished when Arun Sherpa Ang Furba Sherpa fell to his death while fixing the route. It is unclear if there will be no Lhotse summits this season. Again, my sincere condolences to Ang Furba’s family.

Group Work

It may seem odd that 200 plus people would go for the summit on the same day, or even poor planning. However once you understand the flow, it all makes a weird kind of sense.  Back 50 years ago, Nepal only allowed one team per season to attempt Everest so the concept of crowds on Everest, or any 8000 meter mountain, was simply unthinkable. That changed in the 1990s as Nepal began to understand the huge amount of money selling Everest permit would bring to the poor country.

The “normal” Everest schedule is to arrive in Nepal, or Tibet about six weeks before the estimated summit day. In Nepal, it takes about 10 days to trek on a safe schedule that allows time for the body to adjust to the ever decreasing oxygen density in the atmosphere. From Tibet, people drive to Chinese Base Camp but most climbers still take a few days to adjust along the way.

On both sides, once at base camp, teams then take another few days, or even up to a week to adjust to the base camp altitude and conditions. From there, they will spend time at ever increasing altitudes whether on Everest or on other nearby mountains like Lobuche to further force their bodies to adjust to the altitude. This can take anywhere from two to four weeks depending on philosophy, experience and conditions.

Some people use altitude tents at home before leaving for Everest. Some will sleep each night for as long as six months at a simulated barometric pressure of 16,000 feet. The theory is that the body is “acclimatized” to that altitude thus the expedition time can be reduced by a couple of weeks.

In any event, during the on-mountain acclimatization time, schedules are also driven by how quickly the ropes get “fixed”. Today almost every team depends on other people to set the route to the summit by establishing a fixed rope. On the North, it is done by the Chinese run CTMA (China Tibet Mountaineering Association) and on the Nepal side by the Nepal run SPCC (Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee) aka the Icefall Doctors; but they only work to Camp 2 and at that point a loose collation of commercial guide companies pay their Sherpas to continue to set the line to the summit.

Setting these lines is dangerous (as evidence this year on Lhotse), difficult and physical work. While some call for multiple ropes, often it is a momental effort just to get one in-place. That said, frustrating delays can occur on both sides due to weather, politics or conditions.

So, for a month before summit day, climbers are going up and down the mountain in a beehive of activity. Once they feel their bodies are adjusted as well as they can be, the attention turns to the weather forecast. It usually takes about four to seven days to summit Everest from the base camp on either side – that is for a round trip. Some fast climbers can shave a day or two off that schedule.

Group Think

Why does everyone seem to select the same summit day? That is the question. The leading commercial guides and Sherpa Sidars try to work together to spread the climbers out in order to reduce the potential crowds. But, as strange as it seems, people mislead others about their plans, post incorrect schedules on purpose so people like me don’t tell the world 🙂 , and in some cases outright lie. The thought is that perhaps they can get everyone else to go one one day and they will go on another. Thankfully this kind of gamesmanship is on the decline these days.

The leading commercial guides and some individuals, will professional weather forecasts that will give insight into the wind and snow at the key altitudes, including the summit. Again, some try to keep this secret as they paid for it and other teams did not, but the information is widely shared in practice.

The scenario emerges that 300 foreigners and 400 Sherpas aka High Altitude Workers, are ready to climb and all see the same weather forecast. Suddenly a handful of “summit days” are identified and plans are put in place.

Historically there are 8 to 12 suitable summit days where the winds are under 30mph/48kph and the precipitation is light. However, some years, all this falls apart like in 2012 when there were less than 5 summit days and hundreds of climbers crowded onto the mountain from the Nepal side creating massive traffic jams.

It is looking like there will be around 12 summit days in 2016 from Nepal.

Aside from years like 2012, today some leaders will see this group think of focusing on one specific day and choose earlier or later days trying to avoid the crowds. But like this year on 17 May, teams will get to the final high camp and the weather turns ugly and they choose to wait a day. But then the others teams looking at that same “next” day arrive and wa lah there are 200 people climbing Everest at the same time.

Group Climb …Bistari, Bistari

Many teams will leave their high camp about the same time. Teams plan on 8 to 12 hours from the South Col to the Summit and 6 to 8 hours on the North. Most teams would like to be back to their departure camp around noon the next day, at the latest and it generally take about half the ascent time to descend. Of course, the times vary wildly according to individuals and conditions. And this is where the punch line begins.

It is drilled into every climber to always be attached to the fixed rope. This is done by using a simple piece of nylon webbing attached to the climbing harness and then to the fixed rope with a carabiner. It is not clipping in that is a common cause of death when a climber slips on a steep icy section and falls out of control down the slope.

But being attached to a common single rope also creates the line that is often shown in pictures as evidence of crowds on Everest. In some cases, when a climber finds themselves behind a slow person or team, they can unclip and go around. This is exactly what Kami Sherpa and I did in 2011 as we left the South Col. There was a line of 50 people moving extremely slowly. We knew if we didn’t get ahead of them, we would suffer greatly. Our strategy worked as we were the 3rd and 4th people to summit that day when 125 other climbers also summited. We never waited anywhere.

2016 Case Study

In 2016, this slow line of people became a real problem on 18 May according to an email I received from Lucas Furtenbach of Furtenbach Adventures. I will not print the name of the offending team because my intent is not to place blame but rather to explain the realities of today’s Everest.

Lucas described their summit night:

we arrived in heavy storm at southcol on the 17th for summit on 18th. one member turned back to c2. but wind did not settle so nobody left c4 for summit that evening. some teams went down again next morning, we and altitude junkies spent the day on o2 in the tents. new teams arrived in afternoon. evening almost no wind so first teams started at 7pm. we left camp at 7.15 pm. no wind but very cold. one long line builded after ———–. they were responsible for a traffic jam until summit. and as they were really big group there was no chance to pass them. and of course they did not let pass anyone. and they were really slow… so we summited around 6.15am. all of us that left at c4 (5 out of 6 from our team) with 7 sherpas (2 of them camera sherpas). after we were 11 hours stuck behind this slow, egoistic and und unexperienced ———- … I am not used to this kind of climbing and egoism.

anyway, wind picked up at balcony at around 00.15 and got stronger every hour. it was extremely cold. as per meteotest -30 celsius on summit. and on summit wind was about 30km/h, still getting stronger. on the way down heavy traffic jam all the ridge from summit to south summit because still many climbers coming up. many slow and obviously inexperienced climbers with private sherpa guides that were having their members on short rope pushing them and trying all to get them forward… crazy…

hillary step snow covered, only some snow steps. easy walk. also now dead bodies could be seen. all snow covered? or moved away?

wind got stronger and stronger. i would say 50-60km/h. and clouds came in and covered the mountain. still many people up. we were back at c4 at around 12.00 and were concerned about the slow and exhausted people that were still on the mountain in strong winds. I heard about a sherpa rescue team helping people down. 

then we descended all to c2 were we arrived safely at 6pm. 

many people with frostbites. also our lead guide tone got frostbites on both feet and will be evacuated today from c2. it was an extremely cold night.

By the way, this happens on the Tibet side as well but due to few commercial teams on that side, it is rarely covered by the press.

Group Solutions

There have been many suggestions as to how to avoid the crowds and slow climbers from quotas, experience requirements to dual ropes to pre-determined summit schedules (need to get the weather to corporate with that one) to a master schedule.

But the ones that seems to work the to reduce crowds are 1) good weather 2) good communications and 3) good manners.

Best of luck to all as we near the end of Everest 2016. You can see many of the teams results and plans at this link.

Climb On!


Memories are Everything


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One thought on “Everest/Lhotse 2016: Slow Climbers put Others at Risk

  1. If a slow team started 15 minutes before Reinhold M and Peter H (when they were at their peak), what would they do?

    Never been there, but just looking at the pics, it looks like you might not need fixed ropes until you get to the rocky band above the South Col. No?

    Sounds like there needs to be some education of all the climbers to let faster climbers pass, at least on the way up. And couldn’t you bring a light rope to use to bypass uphill climbers as you are descending?

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