The 2023 Everest spring season is over, with some records to take pride in and others to be avoided. If there were one word to summarize the season, it would be chaotic or perhaps deadly. This spring was the deadliest season in history on Everest.
Nepal issued a record 478 climbing permits to foreigners. Add in one and a half Sherpa supporting each foreigner; over 1,200 people pursued the summit this spring. Fears were rampant of a 2019 repeat with long lines and deaths. The lines never developed, thanks in part to colder weather that sent a higher number of climbers home in mid-season, many with a persistent virus. However, the deaths developed, but not because of the record permits or climate change. These are red herrings to abdicate responsibility.
Multiple local and foreign teams reported summits from the Nepal side, including, but not all: 7 Summit Club, 8K Expeditions, 14 Peaks, Adventure Consultants, Alpine Ascents, Altitude Junkies, Climbalaya, Climbing the Seven Summits, Dreamer’s Destination, Elite, Furtenbach Adventures, Imagine Nepal, IMG, Kaitu, Madison Mountaineering, Pioneer Adventures, Summit Climb, and Seven Summit Treks.
Despite high winds and mourning the loss of three teammates dying in the Icefall, the Sherpa rope team reached the summit in mid-May. Then, once the winds relented, forty teams on Everest spread out to minimize potential crowding between May 15 to May 26. About 600 reached the summit, about 50% of the total permits with support. Once again, more Sherpas,350, summited than clients, 250, according to my estimates. The Himalaya Database will have the final numbers later this year.
Sixteen Chinese climbers summited from the Tibet side. They were performing maintenance of the weather station installed last year near the summit. China resumed issuing tourist visas in late March, which was too late for any foreign operator to run an expedition. Because of the pandemic, China has been closed to foreigners. The last time any foreigner summited Everest from the Tibet side was in 2019.
What stole the headlines were the seemingly daily reports of rescues, frostbite, missing climber, and deaths. The root cause of the chaos is still elusive. Some blame the record permit numbers, inexperienced clients, and low-cost operators. However, Nepal government officials cite climate change.
Dr. Yuba Raj Khatiwada, the director of Nepal’s tourism department, told Bloomberg News and reported in The Vision Times, “The death rate is quite high this season because of the climate and climate change. There is no other reason. We are trying our best to reduce the risks, but mountaineering itself is risky.”
Managing Director of Expedition Himalaya, Nabin Trital, agreed, “Compared to the previous years, we have experienced a lot of cases of frostbite. This year snowing occurred only in late March, which is why it was colder in the mountains like winter expeditions.”
Adventure Consultants Managing Director Guy Cotter, who has been climbing Everest since the early 1990s, noted, “As to frostbite, it was a very cold season, the coldest my staff and I have ever experienced. We had two Sherpas suffer from frostbite, which is the first time in thirty years that we have ever had any of our Sherpas suffer frostbite. Luckily one case was superficial, and the other may lose the end of a finger.”
Chris Tomer of Tomer Weather Solutions, who supplied forecasts for multiple teams on the 8000ers, including Everest, felt it was a colder than usual season, “There were a few things I noticed about Everest weather this season. First, I routinely saw computer model data suggesting colder than normal summit air temps with summit air temps colder than minus 20F (-28C) during many of the summit windows. The most popular Everest computer model was “too warm,” by my estimation. Second, I had three clients on Everest this season, and all three changed summit days based on when the biggest crowds were planning to summit. In other words, they were afraid of standing in line on summit day. Third, some of the early summit windows were not great windows. There were climbers summiting on days when summit winds gusted above safe thresholds. And as is the case most years, the best summit days with the lightest wind occurred at the very end of the season.”
Lukas Furtenbach, the founder of Austrian-based Furtenbach Adventures, said they had had a -22F summit day with 25 mph winds but no frostbites in their team. He noted that most of the frostbite could have been avoided by using professional weather forecasting services and avoiding risky weather windows, “I have to say that our weather forecast from Michael Fagin (Westcoast Weather) this season was exceptionally accurate, especially summit wind speeds. Yes, it was cold, but if you picked the right summit day (with low wind speeds), it was not an issue.” He added that “modern-day gear like heated socks, gloves or down mittens with heat packs and heated socks are standard for our members.”
Treating frostbite cases has become a critical issue, even for those back in Kathmandu. A source in Kathmandu told me, “The medical facilities here in Kathmandu are seeing many patients who previously had Covid and now are coming in ill. There is no testing (as of yet) to prove this theory, but previously having Covid either mild or severe cases, led to frostbite problems when at altitude.”
And another of a young Sherpa who summited Everest last week and suffered severe frostbite and is about to lose all his fingers. Yen Madrigal, of Pembroke Pines, FL, previously climbed with Dendi Sherpa and spoke with his doctor in Kathmandu. They told Madrigal that “they couldn’t treat him further because they don’t have more of the medicine needed.” They treated him with only one cycle, and he needed four more. The doctor said they didn’t have the medicine anywhere in Nepal or India. Madrigal found more medicine in the UK and is desperately trying to get it to the hospital. The doctor in Nepal said that without the treatment, they would release him home, and his fingers would not be saved. Dendi has a wife, three daughters and his elderly mother to support.
Multiple reports of helicopter rescues were a daily occurrence, with pockets of high winds creating significant frostbite to climbers. Adventure Consultants’ Cotter noted, “The number of rescues was unprecedented, with probably 200 flights to Camp 2 over the season.”
Cotter noted that some of the flights were used to transport gear. In some cases, even climbers to and from Camp 2, something the Nepal government explicitly prohibits except for medical resources. “It was clear that many of these flights were actually being used to transport equipment to C2, and climbers were regularly flying out from C2 as opposed to facing the icefall. Helicopter activity over base camp is continuous from dawn to dusk every fine day. Some of the biggest local operators spent many days flying the majority of their gear to base camp and up onto the mountain instead of using traditional transport techniques.”
One bright spot among the rescues came when Gelje Sherpa, 30, sighted an incapacitated Malaysian climber alone. He had been climbing with Seven Summits Treks. Gelje convinced his Chinese clients to let him rescue the ill climber. Gelje and Nima Tahi Sherpa began at the Balcony, and “We wrapped the climber in a sleeping mat, dragged him on the snow or carried him in turns on our backs to Camp 3,” The man was long-lined from Camp 3 by helicopter.
Several meaningful summits records were broken. Kami Rita Sherpa, 53, set a new Everest summit record at twenty-eight, exceeding Pasang Dawa Sherpa, 48, at twenty-seven. The two Sherpa guides summited Everest twice this season, swapping the record lead several times. British guide, Kenton Cool,49, set a non-Sherpa summit record at seventeen.
Meanwhile, Norwegian Kristin Harla continued her project to summit all fourteen of the 8000-meter peaks in six months, with summits of Shishapangma, Cho Oyu, Makalu, Kangchenjunga, Everest, Lhotse, Dhaulagiri and Annapurna (this one with seven Sherpas) from April 26, 2023. She still needs Manalsu in Nepal and K2, Broad Peak, Gasherbrum I, Gasherbrum II, and Nanga Parbat in Pakistan.
It was also an impressive season for climbers with disabilities. Mexican Rafa Jaime became the first Mexican blind climber to summit Everest with Seven Summits Treks. American Lonnie Bedwell, a blinded Navy veteran, also summited. He was with Mountain Professionals. These followed the double summit of Everest and Lhotse by Scott Lehmann and Shayna Unger, who were born deaf. And British Gurkha soldier Hari Budha Magar became the world’s first double above-the-knee amputee to summit Everest.
Catalan mountain runner Kilian Jornet made a valiant attempt on Everest’s West Ridge, alone and without supplemental oxygen. He posted on his Facebook account that he triggered an avalanche that carried him 150 feet down the mountain. The runner remained philosophical, saying, “I’m a big believer in the how is way bigger and more important than the what, and in that sense, the climb was just perfect. Like a big puzzle with all the pieces but one, the summit one.”
It was not a good year for climbers trying to summit without supplemental oxygen. Multiple people tried, and all but two, Colombian Mateo Isaza and Pakistani Sajidali Sadpara, turned back.
Tragically, on May 25, Hungarian Szilard Suhajda, climbing alone with no Sherpa support and without supplemental oxygen, went missing. He was found the next day at the base of the Hillary step by a Seven Summits Treks summit team of Sherpas guiding Chinese clients. They recognized his clothing and told authorities his location and that he was almost unconscious, with high-altitude pulmonary edema, HAPE and frostbite. A search team looking in the area where he was last reported failed to find him the next day, and he is presumed dead.
Another headline from the season was a series of thefts at the South Col. Multiple companies, including Adventure Consultants, Arnold Coster Expeditions, Climbing the Seven Summits, and Furtenbach Adventures, reported the theft of cooking gear, tents, and oxygen bottles.
Reports of missing climbers became a regular event. How any client with a commercial team can go missing is baffling to me and suggests serious issues with that company’s competency. Malaysian Hawari Bin Hashim, 33, and Indian Singaporean Shrinivas Sainis Dattatray climbed above the Balcony but went missing on May 23.
Dattatray’s wife seemingly has accepted that he will never be found, posting on Instagram, “He was 39, and in his glorious and rich life, he lived fearlessly and to the fullest. He explored the depth of the sea and scaled the greatest heights of the Earth.”
The Himalayan Times reported that Janakpur-based Ranjit Kumar Shah and his Sherpa guide Lakpa Nuru Sherpa have been out of contact since reaching the South Summit on May 25.
As of this writing, thirteen people lost their lives on Everest, and four were still missing. The death toll is the highest in Everest history, exceeding 2014’s sixteen, and one of the highest for clients at seven. If the lost are declared dead, 2023 will become the deadliest at seventeen. The 2015 earthquake took nineteen to twenty-one lives at Everest Base Camp, but some were not climbing; thus, 2023 is the deadliest for Everest climbers.
These stats can get a bit wonky, so stay with me for a moment. In terms of deaths as a percent of total summits, 2023 comes in at an estimated 2.76% (17/600). Suppose you look at years with relatively low summits and high deaths. In that case, the percentages increase, for example, in the infamous 1996 year with 98 summits and 15 deaths, making it 15% or for the earthquake in 2015 with 13 deaths of Everest climbers (only Everest climbers, not Lhotse or other people at base camp to make an apples-to-apples comparison). So if you compare years with significant summits, say over 500, 2023, tragically stand alone. The highest years and percentages were:
The season began tragically on April 12, when three Sherpas lost their lives near the top of the Khumbu Icefall. A small section of the Icefall collapsed, burying Tenjing Sherpa, Lakpa Sherpa, and Badure Sherpa under tons of ice. They were ferrying ropes and gear to put in the safety lines from Camp 2 to the summit. Their bodies were located, but Sherpas could not retrieve them.
It appears that health issues may have contributed to several of the deaths this season. On May 16, Phurba Sherpa passed away near Yellow Band above Camp 3. He was part of the Nepal Army Mountain Clean-up campaign.
Climbers over fifty took a heavy toll this season. On May 1, American Jonathan Sugarman, 69, climbing with American operator International Mountain Guides (IMG), died at Camp 2. On May 18, Chinese Xuebin Chen, 52, died near the South Summit with Nepali operator 8K Expeditions. And on May 24, Canadian Dr. Pieter Swart, 63, died after turning back at the South Col with Madison Mountaineering. Garrett Madison told me, “He died of a rapid onset lung infection/pulmonary edema.” Maddison spoke of how they tried to save his life, “Guides, Terray Sylvester & Scott Webster spent the entire day with him assisting in his descent, joined by myself and Cacho Beiza from 1:00 pm onwards after our Lhotse climb, as we attempted to descend with him down to Camp 3 where a helicopter rescue might be possible. “
Ang Kami Sherpa, working as kitchen staff for Peak Promotion, died at Camp 2 when he fell near the helicopter pad.
Several other climbers died from unknown causes but were probably altitude related and not from falls or poor climbing conditions. Moldovan climber Victor Brinza died on May 17 at the South Col. He was with Nepali operator Himalayan Traverse Adventure. On May 20: Malaysian Ag Askandar Bin Ampuan Yaacub got above South Summit, then became ill and died. He was climbing with Nepali operator Pioneer Adventures. And Australian Jason Bernard Kennison, 40, died on May 21 near the Balcony. He was with Asian Trekking.
Also, with an unknown exact cause of death, was Indian Suzanne Leopoldina Jesus, 59, who intended to climb Everest but left base camp ill and died in Lukla on May 18. She became sick at Everest base camp but refused to go lower for help for several days.
Furtenbach felt that many of the deaths were preventable, “Apart from the three sherpas in the icefall and the IMG client who probably had a heart attack or stroke, I am convinced that all the other deaths could have been avoided by following safety standards and sufficient oxygen supplies at all times. They all have a similar pattern. This, in combination with the fact that oxygen cylinders have been stolen from several teams (including ours), shows one of the main problems this season. oxygen logistics and safety standards.”
Why So Many Deaths?
Some feel the cause of the deaths lies with inexperienced climbers joining low-cost operators. Garrett Madison, the founder of Madison Mountaineering, weighed in on their Everest climber qualifications, “We require climbers to have successfully completed several big peaks before joining us for Everest, such as Aconcagua, Denali, Chimborazo, Cho Oyu, etc. I’ve seen a trend where companies say, ‘No experience required/ anything is possible,’ and I don’t support that model.”
Again, Adventure Consultants Cotter, “Seemed to me there were many people with little or no real mountaineering experience who got stranded when they got tired or ran out of gas, and there was no backup for them. The operators supporting those climbers still have a mindset that they are merely providing expedition services and not guiding these people and therefore feel no sense of responsibility for them.”
Climbing the Seven Summits’ Caroline Pemberton, General Manager & co-owner, along with Mike Hammill, had forty-four people safely summit this spring. They feel similar about the differences among Everest operators, “a consumer misunderstanding of the options available on Everest, i.e., the difference between low-cost operators who are essentially logistics providers. (These companies have the vast majority of incidents and freely and openly admit they aren’t responsible for climber safety and have a different take on the duty of care) vs. a more traditional Guide service that provides logistics, but the focus is on professional mountain guidance and safety.”
Phil Crampton, the founder of Kathmandu-based Altitude Junkies, adds, “As far as dodgy local operators go, they take the client’s money, Sherpa gets sick and goes home early, the client has no Sherpa, so they go home, and then the company folds and reopens next season under a new company name. Simple, brilliant, and still supported by the gullible Westerner who should know better but is looking for the cheapest price.”
CTTS continued, “In many cases, the two compounds with the cheap price attract the ill-prepared with dire consequences. Sadly, people lose their lives in an effort to save $10,000. It appears that they do not anticipate that people who are not climbers are incapable of looking after themselves and cannot manage their energy and oxygen levels, and regularly collapse after the goal (summit) has been reached. The incidents occur on the way down. People with little or no experience who book under-resourced (cheap) expeditions are exposing themselves to huge risks. Yet, due to the positive messaging they receive from these operators are naïve to the dangers they face. Many of these operators cannot even afford to finance the expeditions they have sold to their clients. They are merely getting clients due to having a lower price than anyone else. The impact of underpricing is considerable, including a lack of oxygen and supplies, understaffing, staff that doesn’t get paid, and so on.”
Without a clear reason for the record deaths, changes will not come quickly, if at all. Historically, changes that could reduce tourism revenue for the Nepal Government or operators have been rejected.
Phil Crampton feels there is little incentive for Nepal to make meaningful changes. “I don’t think Nepal really cares who’s climbing on the hill these days. It’s all about the money received for permits, silly Liaison Officers expenses and the bribes they receive from the Nepal agencies so they can secure a climbing permit.”
There are obvious ways to address safety that would have little impact on revenue. Modeling best practices from other mountains like Alaska’s Denali or Argentina’s Aconcagua, safety could be drastically increased and lives potentially be saved by stationing a permanent rescue team at Camp 2 for the entire season, as they do Denali. Also, rotating “rangers” at South Col to watch for theft and serve as a deterrent to potential bad actors, while being available for rescues.
Nepal has previously suggested stronger experience requirements for permit seekers, noting that perhaps part of the reason for deaths and missing climbers was partly because of inexperience. So maybe it’s time to institute a requirement that every Everest aspirant has summited at least a 7000-meter (23,000-foot) peak. China requires any Chinese citizen to have summited an 8000-meter peak before trying Everest from Tibet. They don’t have a similar requirement for foreigners.
Another safety measure could allow helicopters to ferry fixed rope supplies, but not climbers, to C2, thus reducing the number of trips through the Icefall for the Sherpas. Also, require that every foreigner and Sherpa carry a GPS tracking device that would make finding them faster and safer for rescuers.
Reducing the number of permits would directly reduce potential crowds and trash but would reduce revenue, so it is unlikely to occur. Similarly, reducing the number of Sherpas allowed to support each climber would reduce mountain traffic and encourage more self-sufficient clients. But operators would argue that more Sherpas make climbing safer for their clients.
Nepal has a medical requirement, but it’s unclear how effective or enforced it is. But requiring a complete physical, including a stress test, for every climber over fifty could help find potential health issues.
Finally, increasing the climbing permit fee from $11,000 to $20,000 would reduce inexperienced, first-time climbers with low-cost operators.
Cotter has perhaps the best summary citing the insatiable lure of climbing the world’s highest peak, “An underlying tenant of mountaineering has been the specter of injury or death in the event we make mistakes which have driven the focus to make cautious and conservative decisions. Most of us who have been in this game for a while have seen too many people pass away to forget this tragic and unsavory aspect of our sport/profession/calling. I am therefore perplexed as to why people who come to climb (specifically) Everest are not cognisant of the need to ensure their own skills and decision-making are up to the task of making this serious ascent. This can only be achieved through a long and focused climbing career on ever-more-challenging ascents. It is as if people are interested only in the goal of having climbed Everest and not climbing Everest as a major achievement in their climbing career.”
From 1922 to May 20, 2023, 193 members and 125 Sherpas died on Everest on both sides by all routes. The top causes of death for all 323 deaths include avalanches (78), falls (72), Acute Mountain Sickness-AMS (38), exhaustion (28), illness-non-AMS (27), and exposure (26).
The top years for deaths on both sides, by all routes, were 2014 (16), 1996 (15), 2015 (13), 2019 (11), 1982 (11), and 1988 (10). These are the deaths during this 2023 spring season:
1-3. On April 12: Tenjing Sherpa, Lakpa Sherpa, and Badure Sherpa, all working for Nepali operator Imagine Nepal, died when the upper section of the Icefall collapsed
4. May 1: American Jonathan Sugarman, 69, died at Camp 2 climbing with American operator International Mountain Guides (IMG)
5. May 16: Phurba Sherpa passed away near Yellow Band above Camp 3. He was part of the Nepal Army Mountain Clean-up campaign
6. May 17: Moldovan climber Victor Brinza died at the South Col with Nepali operator Himalayan Traverse Adventure
7. May 18: Chinese Xuebin Chen, 52, died near the South Summit with Nepali operator 8K Expeditions
8. May 20: Malaysian Ag Askandar Bin Ampuan Yaacub got above South Summit, then became ill and died. He was climbing with Nepali operator Pioneer Adventures
9. May 21: Australian Jason Bernard Kennison, 40, died near the Balcony. He was with Asian Trekking
10. May 23: Ang Kami Sherpa, cook staff, died at Camp 2. He worked for Peak Promotion
11. May 24: South African Dr. Pieter Swart, 63, reportedly died after turning back at the South Col. Team unknown
12. May 18: There was another death, Indian Suzanne Leopoldina Jesus, 59, who intended to climb Everest but left EBC ill and died in Lukla, so not technically a climbing death.
13. May 25, Hungarian Szilard Suhajda, climbing alone with no Sherpa support and without supplemental oxygen, went missing and is presumed dead
2023 Missing and Presumed Dead
14. May 23: Malaysian Hawari Bin Hashim, 33, remains missing
15. May 23: Indian Singaporean Shrinivas Sainis Dattatray remains missing
16 & 17. May 25: Janakpur-based Ranjit Kumar Shah and his Sherpa guide Lakpa Nuru Sherpa have been out of contact since reaching the South Summit on May 25.
Nepal RECORD Permit Update as of May 14, 2023
Government officials say they will not issue any more Everest climbing permits this season, stopping at a record of 478. The previous Everest record was 408 for the 2021 season of 408. Nepal issued climbing permits for 1,176 climbers from 80 countries for 27 peaks. Looking at Everest only, China has the largest representation with 97 members, followed by the US at 89, India–at 40, Canada-21, and Russia-20. There are 44 countries represented by three or fewer climbers.
These permits have generated $5.8M in royalties for the government. Almost all of this revenue stays in Kathmandu, with some in various personal pockets and none to the Sherpas, porters, or other high-altitude workers. The Nepal Ministry of Tourism posted these foreign permit tallies as of May 14, 2022:
- Everest: 478 on 47 teams
- Lhotse: 156 on 17 teams
- Ama Dablam: 79 on 8 teams
- Nuptse: 63 on 6 teams (only a few will attempt to summit, most will stop at C2)
- Makalu: 63 on 9 teams
- Annapurna I: 54 on 5 teams
- Kanchenjunga: 44 on 5 teams
- Himlung: 41 on 5 teams
- Dhaulagiri: 37 on 4 teams
- Manaslu: 15 on 4 teams
Memories are Everything
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Podcast: 2023 Season Summary and Coming Home
Why this coverage?
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