The Changing Face of Everest – Why Were There So Many Deaths in 2019
This climbing season there has been news of a growing number of climbers dying on Mount Everest this year, although, not as a result of a single day’s unfortunate events, like in the 1996 disaster, but as a result of ever-growing queues and waiting times at the top of one of most inhospitable places on earth.
By the end of May 2019, 11 climbers had died while trying to reach the summit, most of which were experienced climbers dreaming of conquering the planet’s highest peak.
Other years have proved even deadlier, but in these cases, the death toll surged because of an unexpected natural occurrence, such as the 7.8 magnitude earthquake of 2015 which triggered an avalanche and killed 22 people.
In 2014, the collapse of some seracs on the western spur of Mount Everest caused the death of 16 people.
The Perils of Climbing Mount Everest
It probably comes as no surprise that climbing the highest mountain of our planet is a death-defying venture.
Everest rises to 29,029 feet (8,848 meters) and getting there requires exceptional stamina and climbing skills, as well as favourable weather conditions.
Despite the commercialisation of Everest in the late 1980s, the mountain has remained one of the most challenging climbs, mainly because of the constant threat of jet streams and blizzards, as well as quickly-moving weather and winds storming the slopes at speeds of around 200 mph.
The thin air, reduced oxygen levels and freezing temperatures, combined with the rough terrain, slippery ice and narrow passages adds to the challenge.
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Climbers start sensing the first symptoms of acute mountain sickness at just 8,200 feet, such as headache, nausea, vomiting, lethargy and light-headedness.
The best way to alleviate the severity of these symptoms is to slowly ascend the mountain and avoid over-exertion.
Certain medication can help, but if the symptoms do not subside, the person must descend the mountain as soon as possible.
Cases of high-altitude cerebral oedema (HACE), a swelling of the brain, and high-altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPE), a fluid build-up in the lungs, are much rarer, but if not treated properly can prove deadly.
Ardent climbers who have invested their savings to reach the summit, tend to underestimate or overlook these initial signs, hoping they will get better if they persevere and pushing their bodies to the limits – a well-known phenomenon called ‘summit fever.’
Great improvements in mountaineering gear and the experience of previous disasters and mishaps have made it possible for more and more people to reach the top of the World’s highest summit.
Climbers ascending Mount Everest are always seasoned and well-trained; they have handled situations like these in other peaks and have modern equipment, experienced guides and medical personnel by their side to make sure they go down the mountain alive and well.
So, what went so wrong in 2019?
Bottleneck on the World’s Highest Peak
Everest’s great peril is not its steep and long climb – other mountains are much more challenging in this sense.
The main problem is bad weather and jet streams, hitting the summit almost all year round – except during some late spring breaks, offering periods of relative calm.
This means that all those interested in summiting have a rather narrow window in which to do so.
The technological developments allowing an ever-growing number of climbers to take a chance at the mountain, the commercialisation of the climb, and the significant revenues for local authorities amalgamated into an unprecedented traffic bottleneck on Everest in 2019.
Those with lower fitness and endurance, often find the going tough, which can cause problems.
Climbers who lack the endurance and training needed to climb Everest slow everyone else down, increasing the time other climbers need to spend at the dangerous summit. https://t.co/BJgGyekW69 pic.twitter.com/GFyTeU5AwC
— CNBC (@CNBC) 17 June 2019
As if climbing Everest wasn’t dangerous enough – with a little less than 400 permits issued – the greatest number ever in the mountain’s history – and a small weather window opening on May 21 – 23, scores of passionate climbers of varying experience levels and physical strength rushed to reach the summit.
An unprecedented bottleneck formed on the way to the Hillary Step, the almost vertical rock face leading to the summit and posing the final challenge before reaching the peak.
Photos of unimaginably long queues forming all the way from the South Summit to the main Summit quickly went viral.
Check out the bottleneck on the way to the summit of Mount Everest. The human traffic jam means people have to queue and wait to get to the top, and those delays are being blamed for 2 climber deaths this week. pic.twitter.com/NZtUGMmYSj
— Siobhan Heanue (@siobhanheanue) 23 May 2019
According to several experienced climbers, the Hillary Step has probably undergone major alterations during the 2015 earthquake, making the ascent even trickier.
This bottleneck exposed climbers to harsh weather conditions for much longer periods of time, causing fatigue, and raising the risk of suffering from HACE or HAPE.
There were cases of climbers that died after spending around 12 hours to reach the summit and 6 hours to get back down to Camp IV (the final Camp before summiting Everest).
This amounts to 18 hours of highly demanding mountaineering in the planet’s most hazardous terrain, without eating, drinking, sleeping, or effectively resting.
While several other factors contributed to the deaths of each individual climber this year, the long waiting in this bizarre traffic jam is certainly the main reason for this year’s death surge.
In addition to that, climbers that did try to descend because of severe AMS symptoms could hardly do so because of the massive queue, making life-saving treatment and medication much harder to reach.
Let us hope that things will change and solutions will be found to keep human negligence out of the peril equation on Everest the next year.
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