The summit of Mt. Everest is starting to look more like a busy intersection than the top of the world.
Over the past month, approximately 500 climbers have made their way to the mountain's summit -- surviving the thin air, harsh terrain, and sub-zero temperatures that make scaling Everest one of the toughest physical challenges in the world -- and setting a new record for the most people to reach the summit in a single climbing season.
The list of those reaching the top is wide-ranging: An 18-year-old woman from California became the youngest American to climb to the summit; a Canadian woman made the climb despite having an artificial heart valve; and a group of sherpas made it to the peak in record time, one of them also breaking a record for most trips up the mountain -- 17.
And then there are the more fun milestones, such as the British mountaineer who pulled out his cell phone at the peak to make the world's first cellular call from its highest elevation. He also sent a text message. In the fashion of Neal Armstrong, it read, "One small text for man, one giant leap for mobile-kind." (The call was made possible by a Chinese telecommunications company, which set up a base station about 12 miles from the summit.)
Others heading for the peak include an American school teacher who hopes to inspire his students to spend more time outdoors, a registered nurse who wants his climb to draw attention to the shortage of nurses in the U.S., and a Dutch man scaling Everest while wearing shorts. Not surprisingly, his nickname is "The Iceman."
"It blows me away," said Jake Norton, a Colorado-based mountaineer who has climbed Everest five times and made it to the summit twice. "It's not a place to get away from it all anymore."
Norton said the ever-increasing number of climbers on Everest is a result of several factors, including the fact that the mountain has become very well mapped since Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay first made it to the top in 1953.
"We know the route like the back of our hands," he said. "The prevalence of guided expeditions, and the competition between them driving the price down have also made [climbing Everest] more affordable and available."
Bargains at the Top of the World?
A guided expedition up the face of Everest can cost up to $60,000 per person, but new, so-called budget expeditions are considerably cheaper -- in some cases costing as little as $5,000. But as Norton warns, climbers should expect to get what they pay for.
"If you're lucky, you get a coherent team leader, a sherpa not being paid well enough to really be invested in making the expedition a success, and marginal equipment," he said. "In the worst cases, people get up the mountain ... and the tents are no longer there, the oxygen is no longer there, and we're seeing more and more tragedies on the mountain as a result."
Five people have died while attempting to conquer Everest so far this climbing season, which runs from late March to early June. Eleven climbers died last year, the second deadliest on record after 1996, when 15 people died after a sudden blizzard trapped their expeditions near the summit.
The most controversial Everest death in recent years was that of David Sharp, a British climber who froze to death in a cave close to the summit last year. He was climbing with a low-cost expedition but was found alone. As many as 40 people from other expeditions may have passed him on their way up, but most did not stop to offer help.
Those that did stop determined that Sharp was too sick to survive -- and were unwilling to risk additional lives to attempt to bring him down -- so he was ultimately left on the mountain to die. But there is still speculation that he could have survived if other climbers had been able to carry him back to camp.
Only a few days after Sharp's death, another expedition discovered Australian climber Lincoln Hall -- severely frostbitten and near death -- as they approached the summit.
Daniel Mazur, an American who was leading the expedition, ordered the team to turn around and carry Hall down the mountain, abandoning their hopes of reaching the top. Hall survived, but Mazur has said since then that his decision to turn the team around has hurt his guide business.
Norton worries the economics of Everest are interfering with what he sees as the only true measure of a successful climb -- making it home safe.
"I believe in open access to the mountains, but somewhere there needs to be accountability," Norton said. "I want [climbers] to know from the outset that my job is to get you back home, not to get to the summit ... no amount of money paid to get yourself to that summit is worth life."
A New Era on Everest
But despite critics' worries that the economics of Everest are changing the climbing experience, it appears next year's climbing season will be as busy as this one.
Chinese officials have already announced plans for the 2008 Olympic flame to visit Everest's peak on its way to Beijing.
And in the record-breaking department, a Florida grandmother is already training for next year, when she plans to become the oldest person ever to scale the world's tallest mountain.
Many of the climbers on Everest this year are blogging their adventures. Check out some of their dispatches from the mountain at these links: