It's been an especially dangerous climbing season on Mount Everest. Eleven people have now died atop the world’s highest summit, and on Monday, American Christopher John Kulish, 62, became the latest to die.
The last time a season was this deadly was in 2015, when an avalanche struck the mountain. But an avalanche or terribly high winds aren’t to blame for the uncommonly deadly year. Instead, experts have said traffic on the mountain has added to the danger of the already perilous climb.
Reports from the mountain have detailed a crowded scene with scores of inexperienced climbers queueing up to reach the narrow 29,000-foot summit. The resulting delays in the so-called “death zone”— the area between the highest camp and the peak, where oxygen is low and supplies are light — have made for a harrowing experience.
“I cannot believe what I saw up there,” climber and filmmaker Elia Saikaly wrote on Instagram. “Death. Carnage. Chaos. Lineups. Dead bodies on the route and in tents at camp 4. People who I tried to turn back who ended up dying. People being dragged down. Walking over bodies.”
While traffic might seem like a mundane concern, the top of Everest leaves precious little room for error or delays: When you’re that high up, every moment counts. Climbers typically bring just enough supplies and oxygen to climb to the top and back, and inexperience and overcrowding can cause problems for everyone.
“I cannot believe what I saw up there. Death. Carnage. Chaos. Lineups. People who I tried to turn back who ended up dying."
The New York Times reported over the weekend that some of the deaths this year could be attributed to the delays, which prevent climbers from getting up and down fast enough to replenish their oxygen, while others simply could be due to inexperience. The Nepali government this year issued a record 381 climbing permits, each costing $11,000. The Times described the resulting scene near the summit as “Lord of the Flies” at 29,000 feet, as climbers jostled to get to the top and take a photo.
Even with supplemental oxygen, the body is under extreme stress when it’s that high up. Altitude sickness can set in and prove deadly, and has taken lives even as climbers make their way back down from the summit. When you’re low on oxygen, thinking clearly becomes difficult, and any moment you pause or oxygen you share adds to your own risk.
“It is a question of ethics,” Fatima Deryan, a Lebanese mountaineer, told the Times. “We are all on oxygen. You figure out that if you help, you are going to die.”
"Humans just really aren't meant to exist there,” mountain guide Adrian Ballinger told CNN. “Even when using bottled oxygen, supplemental oxygen, there's only a very few number of hours that we can actually survive up there before our bodies start to shut down.”
Kulish, the 62-year-old American climber, actually made it to the summit but died suddenly on his way down. His cause of death is not yet known.
“He saw his last sunrise from the highest peak on Earth,” his family said in a statement. “At that instant, he became a member of the '7 Summit Club,' having scaled the highest peak on each continent.”
Nepali officials have said they would look at the data after this year, but might be hesitant to scale back the number of permits. “The government cannot just say no to the tourists who come to ask for permits,” Meera Acharya, director at the Department of Tourism, told the Washington Post. “Personally, I feel that it is not as much about the number of permits as what kind of climbers we are issuing the permits to.”
Cover: In this Monday, May 27, 2019, photo, birds fly as Mount Everest is seen from Namche Bajar, Solukhumbu district, Nepal. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha)