‘It Was Like a Zoo’: Death on an Unruly, Overcrowded Everest

By Kai SchultzJeffrey GettlemanMujib Mashal and Bhadra Sharma

May 26, 2019

NEW DELHI — Ed Dohring, a doctor from Arizona, had dreamed his whole life of reaching the top of Mount Everest. But when he summited a few days ago, he was shocked by what he saw.

Climbers were pushing and shoving to take selfies. The flat part of the summit, which he estimated at about the size of two Ping-Pong tables, was packed with 15 or 20 people. To get up there, he had to wait hours in a line, chest to chest, one puffy jacket after the next, on an icy, rocky ridge with a several-thousand foot drop.

He even had to step around the body of a woman who had just died.

“It was scary,” he said by telephone from Kathmandu, Nepal, where he was resting in a hotel room. “It was like a zoo.”

This has been one of the deadliest climbing seasons on Everest, with at least 11 deaths. And at least some seem to have been avoidable.

The problem hasn’t been avalanches, blizzards or high winds. Veteran climbers and industry leaders blame having too many people on the mountain, in general, and too many inexperienced climbers, in particular.

Fly-by-night adventure companies are taking up untrained climbers who pose a risk to everyone on the mountain. And the Nepalese government, hungry for every climbing dollar it can get, has issued more permits than Everest can safely handle, some experienced mountaineers say.

Add to that Everest’s inimitable appeal to a growing body of thrill-seekers the world over. And the fact that Nepal, one of Asia’s poorest nations and the site of most Everest climbs, has a long record of shoddy regulations, mismanagement and corruption.

The result is a crowded, unruly scene reminiscent of “Lord of the Flies” — at 29,000 feet. At that altitude, there is no room for error and altruism is put to the test.

To reach the summit, climbers shed every pound of gear they can and take with them just enough canisters of compressed oxygen to make it to the top and back down. It is hard to think straight that high up, climbers say, and a delay of even an hour or two can mean life or death.

According to Sherpas and climbers, some of the deaths this year were caused by people getting held up in the long lines on the last 1,000 feet or so of the climb, unable to get up and down fast enough to replenish their oxygen supply. Others were simply not fit enough to be on the mountain in the first place.

Some climbers did not even know how to put on a pair of crampons, clip-on spikes that increase traction on ice, Sherpas said.

Nepal has no strict rules about who can climb Everest, and veteran climbers say that is a recipe for disaster.

“You have to qualify to do the Ironman,” said Alan Arnette, a prominent Everest chronicler and climber. “But you don’t have to qualify to climb the highest mountain in the world? What’s wrong with this picture?”

The last time 11 or more people died on Everest was in 2015, during an avalanche.

By some measures, the Everest machine has only gotten more out of control.

Last year, veteran climbers, insurance companies and news organizations exposed a far-reaching conspiracy by guides, helicopter companies and hospitals to bilk millions of dollars from insurance companies by evacuating trekkers with minor signs of altitude sickness.

2019-06-20T14:55:53+00:00