After a deadly year on Everest, little consensus about how to improve safety

Eleven people died this year on the world's highest mountain.

May 29, 2019, 6:31 PM

The image showed a rainbow of cold-weather gear, as hundreds of climbers waited in single file at extraordinarily high altitude to conquer the world’s highest peak.

Nirmal Purja, an accomplished mountaineer who took the picture of his Mount Everest climb and posted it to social media, said he helped manage the human traffic as he realized it would take him twice as long to summit than it normally would.

“Somebody had to take the lead. If you don’t manage that, everyone is going to get stuck,” Purja told ABC News. “So I was saying, ‘Hey guys, you stop over there. You two, go down. Hey, you stop. Now let them go over’…I had to manage it for a bit.”

The obvious question raised by his now-iconic photograph: Is Mount Everest overcrowded?

An unusually brief window of low winds, a glut of inexperienced climbers and a reluctance to put restrictions on an industry that brings in hundreds of millions to one of the world’s poorest countries have all conspired to make 2019 one of the deadliest years for Everest climbers in memory.

But as the season draws to a close, there is little agreement about how to avoid a similar situation at this time next year. While most experts agree there were too many climbers who lacked significant high-altitude experience making the storied trek, it is not clear whether it should fall on Nepal’s government, expedition companies or individual climbers to make changes.

“It’s out of control. It’s an unacceptable situation. And nothing will change,” said Alan Arnette, a climate expert who tracks Everest climbing activity on his blog.

Summiting the world's tallest mountain and spending between eight and 20 hours in the so-called "death zone" -- above 8,000 meters -- is one of the most difficult challenges a human being can take on, and some who attempt it simply lack sufficient mountaineering experience.

Eleven people died on Mount Everest in May -- the peak of Nepal’s climbing season -- as climbers rushed to take advantage of five days, scattered across two weeks, when wind and storm conditions are safe enough for them to stand on the summit. Last year, the weather window ran for 11 continuous days, allowing climbers to stagger their arrival at the final stretch.

In many ways, Everest is a victim of its own popularity -- a view underscored by photographs showing trash strewn along the mountain. Ahead of each climbing season, Sherpa guides install rope lines to guide and support climbers. Regular weather reports let climbers know about weather windows.

“The weather people can say, ‘Ok, next week there will be two days when we could get to the top when the winds will be lower, no storms are coming in,’” said Jerry Lapp, who runs the Skychasers expedition company. “And so, everybody ends up going on those windows. Whereas 15 or 20 years ago, they didn’t have this crazy great weather forecasting. And so people would end up summiting in a much more scattered window."

PHOTO: A long queue of mountain climbers line a path on Mount Everest just below camp four, in Nepal, May 22, 2019.
A long queue of mountain climbers line a path on Mount Everest just below camp four, in Nepal, May 22, 2019.
Rizza Alee/AP

Nepal issued a record 381 permits for foreign mountaineers this year, a small increase from previous years, and each foreign climber is required to travel with a Sherpa guide.

"The level of risk right now is unacceptable in terms of the crowding and the inexperience," David Morton, a Seattle-based climbing guide, who has summited Everest, told ABC News. "I think that the Nepal government really does have to step up at this point and show some leadership in terms of limiting the number of people."

Nepalese government officials have said that, were it not for this year’s unusually short summit window, there would not have been so many deaths.

In an interview with ABC News’ Good Morning America, Dandu Raj Ghimire, the director of Nepal’s tourism department, said that the viral social media images of people waiting in line painted an “unfair” picture of this year’s climb, but added that officials were looking again at the rules that govern who gets to climb Mount Everest

“We are thinking in line of this,” he said. “There are many ways to control the tourism business here.”

Others have put the onus on tour operators, who have multiplied at breakneck speed in recent years without much regulation.

Karma Tenzing, the co-owner of the Into the Himilaya Treks expedition company in Katmandu, said companies need to better coordinate among themselves to ensure that climbs are staggered.

“It is not the number of permits. There is always going to be one or two days when everybody wants to rush up and climbers have to be aware of that,” he said in a telephone interview.

This week, the Switzerland-based International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation said "access management, climber experience, training and self-responsibility" should all be reconsidered as the 2019 season wraps up. Some veteran climbers say that the most important change would be to increase oversight of who gets a permit and Sherpa guide qualifications.

"If you require clients to have that 8,000-meter experience, it'll immediately reduce the number of people on Everest by 50%," said Adrian Ballinger, an Eddie Bauer-sponsored mountaineer and CEO of Alpenglow Expeditions.

Arnette has called for a similar rule to be put in place, and notes that this could be a boon for Nepal, as the country has multiple other, slightly smaller mountains that are high enough to prepare climbers for Everest. He has also called for more oversight of Sherpa training, saying that while many local guides are exceptional, others are poorly prepared to work with sometimes bullheaded climbers who have paid upwards of $65,000 to reach Everest’s peak.

“You’ve got inexperienced climbers with unqualified guides,” Arnette said, adding that being at 8,000 meters for the first time is akin to being on another planet.

“When you start getting above 26,000 or 27,000 feet, if you’ve never experienced that, then it’s difficult to understand the toll it takes on the body and the mind. And you don’t know what you don’t know, you really don’t understand how impaired you’re going to be cognitively,” he added. “When people go up and they don’t have that experience -- they have oxygen, they’re with a Sherpa who has summited ten times -- there is this false sense of security.”

Purja, the climber who took the photograph of Everest this season, said that is exactly what he noticed on his recent climb.

“I never went from zero to hero,” he said, adding that he had taken time to learn how his body would respond to high altitudes before taking on Everest. “If people followed that simple procedure, knew their bodies at certain altitudes and how it reacts, I think there is a solution. But there are some people who do one mountain and are then off to Everest…. Sherpa does everything, they massively rely on their guide.”

One thing everyone can agree on: May 2020 will likely see a flood of Everest climbers, from the most experienced to those eager to cross an item off their bucket lists.

"There’s this weird phenomenon that I’ve been tracking for years, that every time there’s been a major disastrous year, the next year, more people go than ever," said Arnette. "I’ll leave it to the psychologists to explain."

ABC News' James Longman and Edward Wiese contributed to this report.