Last week a photograph of climbers queuing for the summit of Everest went viral. Now, as this year's death toll on the mountain reaches 11, serious questions are being asked about the safety and sensibility of Everest expeditions.
Christopher Kulish is the latest to fall prey to the world's highest mountain. The American died whilst descending, having reached the peak and becoming a member of the '7 Summit Club' – those who have summitted the highest peak on each continent. Kulish died only days after Brit climber, Robin Fisher lost his life at 8,600 metres. The latest fatalities takes this season's toll to 11, the highest since 2015, when earthquakes caused huge avalanches, taking 19 lives.
Unlike that natural, and unavoidable disaster, there is controversy surrounding a number of this season's deaths. Both Fisher and Kulish were seasoned climbers with experience of mountaineering in European and South American ranges. Such experience is not necessarily enough to prepare for Everest, however.
Experts have warned of the significant gulf separating Andean and Alpine peaks from the Himalayan giants. Fisher and Kulish were at least familiar with the rigours of mountaineering. In other cases, there have been worrying claims of inexperience on the part of both climbers and tour operators. Sherpas this season have reported seeing climbers who were unsure how to fit crampons to their boots.
There is much talk of competition amongst tour operators. With an ever-increasing list of organisations devoted to getting climbers up the mountain, even the most established operators are being forced to cut costs. This leads to inexperienced guides leading unprepared climbers. Consequently, mountain experts are calling for mandatory experience criteria to be introduced.
As another Everest veteran, Alan Arnette, points out, "you have to qualify for the Ironman race, but you don't have to qualify to climb the highest mountain in the world." Indeed, it seems that the only true barrier to testing yourself against Everest is the cost, a fact that is leaving people vulnerable and unprepared on the upper slopes.
Foreign climbers must obtain a permit from the Nepalese government in order to attempt the mountain, but the high price tag ($11k) and increasing demand puts much pressure on cash-strapped Nepal. This year Nepal issued a record 381 permits. With the addition of Sherpas and support teams that number grows to about 800 people on the mountain. May 23rd saw upwards of 250 climbers pushing for the summit. Those who made it back down safely have reported stepping over bodies on their way to join huge queues for the dangerously overcrowded summit.
Nepal's department of tourism have pointed to a narrowing window of good weather as the reason for this season's fatalities. Indeed, this year has seen the knock-on effects of Cyclone Fani, which brought bad weather and delays. This meant when the window of opportunity opened from 22 May, there was a condensed crowd waiting to attempt the summit.
Everest can be a deadly prospect even in good conditions. On average 7 people lose their lives each year on Everest. Since records began in 1922, more than 200 have died on the mountain, the vast majority in the "death zone". This is the common name for altitude above 8000 metres, so-called because the human body is simply not designed to operate in such conditions. Summiting Everest, then, is effectively a race against time – a fact that makes the images of slowly progressing queues all the more chilling.
In addition, the toll of human overcrowding is made all to clear in the images of garbage-strewn basecamps. As the spring season draws to a close 11 tons of human refuse have been helicoptered down from the mountain. Representatives from the joint clean-up expedition suggest it will take a further 3-4 years of continuous trash removal to fully cleanse the mountain. And that is without the impact of future expeditions. Next year the Nepalese Tourism Board are promoting Visit Nepal 2020: a drive to bring in 2-million tourists. This is sure to have at least some impact on the already crowded Mount Everest.
It is clear that something has to change. The money that Everest expeditions generate means these changes are unlikely to come from either private tour operators or Nepalese tourism. Perhaps, instead, the changes need to come from the wider climbing community's attitude to Everest.
The now-famous queue photo begs the question of whether Everest is worth the risk any longer? Has mountaineering's greatest achievement been devalued by the move towards tourism? It was always the sheer height and scale of Everest that made it the ultimate mountain adventure. When does the industry that has been established around the mountain tip the scales? When does the focus switch back to the struggle of isolation, self-sustenance and breaking new ground?
It is easy to imagine each of those in the summit queue looking out from their vantage point and seeing countless bare peaks just waiting to be climbed. It could be argued that a lower peak now offers more scope for true adventure than the cluttered path to the top of the world.