Everest 'traffic jam' contributed to 10 mountain deaths in a week

With a record number of climbing permits issued, some worry that profit is trumping safety

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The deaths of an Irish and a British climber on Mount Everest took the toll from a deadly week on the world’s highest peak to 10, expedition organisers said over the weekend.

British climber Robin Fisher, 44, reached the summit on Saturday morning but collapsed after travelling only 150 metres back down the slope.

“Our guides tried to help but he died soon after,” Murari Sharma of Everest Parivar Expedition said.

Fisher wrote about his concern of overcrowding near the summit just days before making his fatal ascent.

This year, there has only been a five-day clear window for mountaineers to attempt to reach the summit, less than the usual seven to 12 days in other years. This has been coupled with a record 381 permits being issued by the Nepalese government.

The result is what has been described as a human traffic jam on the narrow path to the mountain top that has left climbers waiting 12 hours or more in the “death zone” – above 8,000 meters where there is less oxygen than the human body needs to breath – to get to the top.

“With a single route to the summit, delays caused by overcrowding could prove fatal so I am hopeful my decision to go for the 25th will mean fewer people,” Fisher said in one of his last social media posts. “Unless of course, everyone else plays the same waiting game.”

On the northern Tibet side of the mountain, a 56-year-old Irishman died on Friday morning, his expedition organiser confirmed in a statement on its Facebook page.

The man decided to return without reaching the summit but died in his tent at the North Col pass at 7,000 metres.

Four climbers from India and one each from the United States, Austria and Nepal have already died on Everest in the past week. Another Irish mountaineer is missing, presumed dead, after he slipped and fell close to the summit.

The death zone traffic jam of climbers has been blamed for at least four of the deaths, heightening concerns that the drive for profits is trumping safety.

Nepal issued a record 381 permits for mainly foreign climbers, costing $11,000 (Dh40,398) each, for the spring climbing season.

The governmnet denies the claims that too many permits were given.

Each climber with a permit is assisted by at least one Sherpa, adding to the summit congestion.

There are 41 teams with the climbers permitted to scale Everest during the spring climbing season.

With the short window of suitable weather due to close soon, bottlenecks of scores of climbers wanting to achieve the ultimate mountaineering accolade have built up each day.

An estimated 600 people had reached the summit via the Nepal side by Friday, a government official said, based on information from expedition organisers.

At least 140 others have been granted permits to scale Everest from the northern flank in Tibet, operators said. This could take the total past last year’s record of 807 people reaching the summit.

Many Himalayan mountains – including Everest – are at peak climbing season, with the good weather between late April and the end of May.

Eight other climbers have died on other 8,000-metre-plus Himalayan peaks this season, while two are missing.

Meanwhile, veteran Sherpa Kami Rita returned to Nepal from Everest to a hero’s welcome after completing his 24th climb of the world’s tallest mountain.

epa07599026 Nepalese veteran mountaineer Kami Rita Sherpa gestures after arriving at Kathmandu Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal, 25 May 2019. Kami Rita, a professional mountaineer guide has successfully climbed Mount Everest 24 times setting a new world record for climbing Mount Everest.  EPA/NARENDRA SHRESTHA
Nepalese veteran mountaineer Kami Rita gestures after arriving at Kathmandu Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal, 25 May 2019. EPA

His wife hugged him and onlookers covered him with a cream-coloured scarf and offered him yoghurt.

The brief celebration at the airport parking area with traditional drums was followed by Rita riding on a truck waving to supporters as they drove out of the airport.

He told reporters he was very happy but exhausted.

Mr Rita reached Everest’s peak on Tuesday, the second time he had climbed to the summit in a week. He also reached the top of the world’s highest peak on May 15, then returned to base camp before climbing again.

The climbs bring Rita, 49, closer to his target of 25 ascents of Everest before he retires from high mountain climbing. His two closest peers have climbed Everest 21 times each, but both have retired from mountain climbing.

Mr Rita first scaled Everest in 1994 and has made the trip almost every year since.

His father was among the first Sherpa guides employed to help climbers reach the summit, and Mr Rita followed in his footsteps. In addition to his two dozen summits of Everest, Rita has scaled some other mountains among the world’s highest, including K2, Cho Oyu, Manaslu and Lhotse.

Members of the Sherpa tribe were mainly yak herders and traders living deep within the Himalayas until Nepal opened its borders in the 1950s. Their stamina and familiarity with the mountains quickly made them sought-after guides and porters.