Overcrowding on the route to the summit of Mount Everest is creating hazardous conditions for climbers who encounter hours-long waits. In the spring, multiple climbers died, sparking a debate on whether timetables or other restrictions should be created to limit the number of climbers and increase safety.
GlacierHub’s Video of the Week shows what the overcrowding looks like and contains testimonials from climbers on what it is like to experience crowded summiting firsthand.
The formidable Mount Everest— the tallest mountain and home to a number of the world’s highest glaciers— has long been a source of wonder and the pinnacle test of human strength and capability. For many mountaineers, it’s their ultimate crown of accomplishment. And for others, it’s their ultimate grave.
A recent collection of essays published in the Minnesota Review explores the theme of climbing and dying on Everest. The series includes articles from anthropologist Young Hoon Oh’s “Dying Differently: Sherpa and Korean Mountaineers on Everest,” and philosopher Margret Grebowicz’s “The Problem of Everest: Upward Mobility and the Time of Climbing.” As Nicola Masciandaro, the editor of the collection, describes in her brief introduction, “life and climbing are vitally linked in ways that demand our fresh attention.”
These two essays offer distinct yet complementary approaches to what is essentially a question of the meaning of life and death through the perspective of climbing. By analyzing how the human pursuit of climbing the world’s tallest mountain reflects upon life itself, Oh and Grebowicz contemplate the quintessential question of life through the context of mountaineering.
As Grebowicz contextualizes in her essay, Western fascination with Everest began in the late 1910s, but failure after failure marked the earliest attempts at summiting the peak until Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s legendary ascent in 1953. Sir John Hunt, leader of that infamous expedition, wrote in his memoir of the mountain and the “possibility of entering the unknown.”
Advances in technology have enabled more people to attempt the perilous Everest trek than ever before. Last year, over 650 people climbed the mountain, with 61 percent of those leaving the base camp reaching the summit. Even so, death on the glacierized peaks remains all too common with a recorded 288 total people having died on the mountain between 1921 and 2017. According to a Washington Post article from 2016, over 200 bodies are scattered across the glaciers of Mt. Everest.
These fatalities have not deterred adventurers; the busy spring season at Everest has been littered with expeditions large and small in recent years, as noted in Oh’s article. And what was previously considered unknown is now heavily commercialized, notes Grebowicz. In her essay, she describes how Everest has “become symbolic of a world used up by humans: crawling with amateur adventurers who can afford it and littered with the corpses of those who do not make it down.”
Many of these bodies remain in plain sight. But even those in plain sight often can’t be safely retrieved. Removing the bodies for a proper burial is dangerous and expensive, ranging from $30,000 to $70,000, as Grebowicz points out. And then there are the bodies of those who went missing climbing Everest that have yet to be found. These abandoned, buried bodies harken back to Hunt’s mystical Everest that will gladly remind the climber that they are at the mercy of the mountain’s brutal altitude and wildness.
Through a philosopher’s lens, Grebowicz discusses in her essay how these deaths often happen out of a desire to reach the summit, which blinds people to their surroundings and others around them. She shares an interesting distinction between the mountaineers and the summiteers, just as sports philosopher Pam Sailors proposed in her 2010 article: While summiteers are goal-driven, self-knowledge seeking, and demonstrative of self-indulgence to the point of disregard for others, mountaineers are more process-oriented, find knowledge through the journey, and often forfeit their bid in order to help others.
Turning to Oh’s essay, he reflects on his personal summit attempt of Everest in 2015. During his two-year ethnographic study of Sherpa communities in northeastern Nepal, Oh participated in nine mountaineering expeditions in total, including three on Everest. His prolonged stay in the region and expertise in mountaineering dictates his familiarity with the climbing cultures and mountains.
Oh had nine friends who died on Himalayan peaks during his research period, some of whom died on expeditions in which Oh was a fellow climbing member. In his essay, he highlights the deaths of a Sherpa and a Korean colleague through the different cultural perceptions of death on the mountain with his combined perspective of cultural anthropology and mountaineering. Of particular interest to Oh is the jovial response of Sherpas towards the death of Temba and its stark contrast to the more meditative reaction his fellow Korean expedition experienced regarding the sudden death of their colleague, Seong-Ho Seo. In addition to a fascinating comparison between Korean and Sherpa perspectives of death and climbing, one of the primary questions he asks is “If reactions to death differ so starkly, what do we know of death, and how does the knowing of death affect climbing?”
His answer lies in the exploration of climbing as a metaphor for life. Similar to Grebowicz’s essay, Oh touches on the parallels between climbing as sport and the game of life, which he calls “the existential irony of mountaineering.” People go up against death in order to survive the mountain. As he articulates in his essay, “Though no Sherpa or Korean would climb to die, the reality of death, magnified and elaborated by the concrete realities of mountain landscapes, inspires both Sherpas and Koreans to risk their lives on Himalayan peaks.”
The danger associated with Everest is what, in many ways, appeals to climbing. As a by-chance observer of death, Oh shared with GlacierHub in an interview how his own views of death and climbing transformed during his research. “Climbers stronger and more experienced than me died, while climbing the same mountain. This made me realize, among others, the vicinity of death to life and the hollow barrier between the two,” Oh said. “But I still found myself wishing to climb.”
The beauty and grandeur of glaciers inspire some people to get tattoos of these natural wonders on their skin. Despite the vastness of glaciers, their presence on Earth may be less permanent than those tattoos, due to increased melting caused by global warming. The ways in which people choose to immortalize glaciers also vary. Some designs capture the simple beauty, while others focus on memories or experiences on glaciers.
A Sherpa guide has died and a foreign climber was injured following an avalanche on Mount Ama Dablam in east Nepal in late November. The avalanche was triggered by a 5.4 magnitude earthquake that occurred east of Kathmandu and nearly 11 miles west of Namche Bazar in Nepal at approximately 5:20 a.m. local time.
Lapka Thundu Sherpa, a resident of Pangboche, Solukhumbu district, and British surgeon Ciaran Hill were climbing Ama Dablam as a pair when the earthquake struck. They were reportedly only a meter apart, heading for the summit above Camp 3, over 20,669 ft., when pieces of ice dislodged during the shaking, according to Tim Mosedale, leader of the 13-member expedition.
Ama Dablam is one of the world’s most formidable and breathtaking peaks, sitting just east of Mount Everest at an elevation of 22,624 ft. Nicknamed the “Matterhorn of the Himalayas,” Ama Dablam is a prominent landmark of the Khumbu Valley for those trekking to Everest’s base camp. The mountain is well known for its hanging glacier, named the Dablam, due to its resemblance to the sacred dablam or pendant worn by Sherpa women.
Despite its aesthetic beauty, tragedy is all-too-familiar at Ama Dablam. In 2006, six climbers were killed when an avalanche impacted Camp 3 on the Southwest Ridge. In that accident, three foreigners and three Sherpa guides were killed when a serac (a pinnacle or ridge of ice on the surface of a glacier) from the Dablam glacier descended on the climbers’ tents in the early morning hours of November 13. Since then, the Dablam has become increasingly unstable, with further notable collapse in 2008.
Climbers of Ama Dablam typically summit via the Southwest Ridge, settling in at Camp 3 before the final ascent, although this route has recently been under review due to the changing nature of the glacier, which sits above and to the right of Camp 3. It is not clear whether the recent tragedy was from glacial ice breaking off, but according to Jeffrey Kargel, a geoscientist at the University of Arizona who had hiked near the mountain this past October, a treacherous-looking piece of ice was visible nearby the glacier.
“There’s some ice ready to fall,” Kargel recalls saying to his hiking companion, a trekking CEO. It was a chunk of ice right near Camp 3. Although the ice Kargel noticed might not have been the same chunk of ice involved in the deadly November ice fall, Kargel emphasized that ice falls on the Himalayan peaks are a common natural occurrence.
“My feeling is that these chunks of ice and snow are coming down all of the time. They have to come down,” said Kargel to GlacierHub. “You can see how precarious they are, perched on the side and summit of the mountain.”
This sentiment, and the feeling that the tragedy in November was natural and unavoidable, was echoed by the surviving climbers involved in the avalanche on Ama Dablam.
“I think it’s important for me to say that from my perspective it was clearly just one of those freak occurrences that could not have been predicted or avoided,” said Mr. Hill in a statement. He was ultimately saved by a long line helicopter rescue operation. “There’s no one to blame.”
Hill credited his own survival to the “flawless” response of the helicopter and ground crew. He suffered broken bones in the right hand, ribs and base of his back but is expected to recover from his injuries. Thundu Sherpa, on the other hand, suffered a fatal head injury from the falling ice, according to Mosedale, the expedition’s leader. Thundu Sherpa is survived by a wife and two children, ages 8 and 14.
“This was a tragic accident as a result of an act of nature,” added Mosedale in a statement on Facebook. “We are surrounded by an amazing panorama of massive mountains, and when the earthquake happened, there weren’t multiple avalanches and landslides. There was one incident, and our team was sadly involved.”
Typically, it is the spring melting season that presents the most dangerous time for avalanches on the mountain. Ice and snow accumulate on the peak during colder periods, but once the spring melting season hits, the wet ice begins to slip.
“In November, things would have been very hard and frozen. So you can disregard melting as a factor,” Kargel said. “Obviously it was the shaking. It is not hard to imagine that an earthquake is going to set off ice collapses. We saw that with the Gorkha Earthquake and Everest avalanches. The earthquake happened to affect ice that was poised to collapse anyway. Steep peaks and slopes have ice all of the time that is ready to come down.”
Often, glaciers of the Himalayas are relatively protected from earthquakes because the bulk of glaciers sit on valley floors, according to Kargel. The waves get absorbed and scattered before reaching the glaciers, particularly during shallow earthquakes when waves come in at acute angles relative to the surface. The peaks, on the other hand, get shaken up quite a bit during seismic events.
“If there are hanging glacier masses on the peaks, like on Aba Dablam, they can come down,” said Kargel. “Most times, this ice comes down harmlessly. It makes an avalanche, but there is nobody there.”
Otherwise, the risks are often well within the climber’s control, according to Mosedale. For instance, if it is snowing, the climbers know that avalanches will occur and the risk will be high for the 24 hours following the snow fall or longer if there is a huge dump of snow. “So we will steer clear and stay off the mountain or limit activity to safe areas,” Mosedale told GlacierHub. “But accidents can still occur that are beyond our control, as happened last November. This was an accident that couldn’t be foreseen and was completely out of the blue.”
When tragedy occurred, the team was about half way through the expedition, according to Mosedale. Thundu and Ciaran were making the first summit push. The remainder of the team were at Base Camp waiting to go to Camp 1 that day and the day after. “The client who was with Thundu was very well acclimatized, and they were going ahead of the rest of the team,” Mosedale explained to GlacierHub.
Mosedale, a 51-year old guide from Keswick, Cumbria, and a five-time Everest summitteer, made it clear that he did not want to hear negative commentary about the loss of the Sherpa guide during his expedition.
“I would prefer not to receive any comments to the effect that a climbing Sherpa has died whilst Westerners are pursuing their dreams,” said Mosedale in a statement on Facebook. “Ama Dablam is a climber’s mountain and all the people in my team are suitably well qualified by experience to be here. The climbing Sherpas are not being used and abused in the duties that they perform, they are proud of the work that they do and have worked for my Sirdar for many, many years, forming a close knit team… Five minutes either way and it would have just been a close call.”
“Sometimes the luck is just not there,” added Kargel. “This is true for scientific expeditions as well. I have had some narrow escapes from avalanches. It happens in the mountains. Sherpa guides know the chunks of ice that are unstable and make their best assessment. They know it is dangerous.”
It is clear that for some time, at least, Thundu Sherpa did attempt to avoid the dangers of the mountains, taking leave from porting to train as a watchmaker in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He returned to Nepal in 2012 to co-own Kobold Watch Company Nepal (Pvt.) Ltd., alongside fellow Sherpa guide Namgel and friend Michael Kobold.
The idea for the watch subsidiary in Nepal was first proposed by Kobold, a German-born watchmaker who was indebted to the two guides for saving his wife’s life during a summit of Mount Everest, according to Elizabeth Doerr of Forbes. Kobold hoped to give the two Sherpas safer opportunities beyond the mountain. However, when the 2015 Nepal earthquake struck, hopes were dashed as the earthquake destroyed the watch company. Following the collapse of the enterprise, Thundu Sherpa headed back to work on the mountains.
“Of slight build, endowed with a quiet voice and an unfailingly humble demeanor, Thundu was nonetheless considered a giant among his peers — the exclusive club of Nepali mountain guides,” wrote Michael Kobold in a tribute to his friend Thundu in the Nepali Times. Thundu began his journey to high altitude porter as a kitchen boy and later became a cook on expeditions, according to Kobold.
“Thundu had a very gentle persona but was incredibly strong and talented in the mountains,” added Mosedale, in conversation with Glacierhub. “He had a great attention to detail, and because he had worked so often with Westerners, he had a very good understanding of what they usually required. Some Sherpas are very strong but don’t get the social differences, whereas Thundu had that extra level of understanding which made him stand out.”
On Everest, there has been much talk of changing the primary course that climbers take up the mountain following multiple tragic mountaineering disasters and deaths of Sherpas in recent years. A similar discussion may need to take place on Ama Dablam, which has become increasingly popular, dangerous and overcrowded by climbers in the autumn months, according to notable American mountaineer Alan Arnette of alanarnette.com. Arnette is a 2011 Everest summiter and the oldest American to summit K2. When asked whether he would personally summit Ama Dablam again following an expedition in 2000, Arnette cited the risks given the recent instability of the Dablam. “No. It is too dangerous given the avalanches off the Dablam. While climbers summited in 2008, many did not given the new difficulties,” he said. “A modification was put in during the fall of 2008 which takes the route further to the right of the Dablam. This somewhat avoids the avalanche danger but now is over steep blue ice making the summit bid more difficult. As of 2012, teams continue to climb without serious incident but many choose to bypass Camp 3 and have a very, very long day from Camp 2 to the summit.”
A key to reducing chances of tragedy seems to be making sure that climbers don’t sleep or rest below unstable ice masses when an earthquake hits, but the difficulty obviously lies in predicting the earthquake. “The truth is, you really can’t predict an earthquake,” said Kargel. “As climbers, they know that avalanches happen frequently. Maybe infrequently enough that people are still willing to take the risk. The danger doesn’t mean that climbers should stop climbing or that Sherpa guides should stop their work. But obviously these mountains are very dangerous and these deaths are going to occur regularly. It is an unfortunate aspect of this pursuit by human beings to conquer peaks.”
“For generations, the glacier clinging to Miragram Mountain, a peak that towers above the village, has served as a reservoir for locals and powered myriad streams throughout Pakistan’s scenic Chitral Valley. Now, though, the villagers say that their glacier — and their way of life — is in retreat….
With 7,253 known glaciers, including 543 in the Chitral Valley, there is more glacial ice in Pakistan than anywhere on Earth outside the polar regions, according to various studies. Those glaciers feed rivers that account for about 75 percent of the stored-water supply in the country of at least 180 million.
But as in many other parts of the world, researchers say, Pakistan’s glaciers are receding, especially those at lower elevations, including here in the Hindu Kush mountain range in northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Among the causes cited by scientists: diminished snowfall, higher temperatures, heavier summer rainstorms and rampant deforestation.”
“The Department of Tourism, under the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, has refused to award high-altitude workers summit certificates, citing a clause of the Mountaineering Expedition Regulation that bars them from obtaining government certificates….
He said DoT couldn’t issue certificates to Sherpas as per the existing law, claiming that high-altitude workers are not considered a part of the expedition as per the Mountaineering Expedition Regulation that was framed in 2002. ‘The regulation considers only those who obtain climbing permit by paying royalty to the government as members of an expedition’ [Laxman Sharma, Director at DoT’s Mountaineering Section, told THT].
This is the first time in the country’s mountaineering history that Sherpas have failed to obtain government certificates despite successfully scaling mountains.”
“A network of ancient rivers lies frozen in time beneath one of Greenland’s largest glaciers, new research reveals.
The subglacial river network, which threads through much of Greenland’s landmass and looks, from above, like the tiny nerve fibers radiating from a brain cell, may have influenced the fast-moving Jakobshavn Isbrae glacier over the past few million years.
‘The channels seem to be instrumental in controlling the location and form of the Jakobshavn ice stream — and seem to show a clear influence on the onset of fast flow in this region,’ study co-author Michael Cooper, a doctoral candidate in geography at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, told Live Science. ‘Without the channels present underneath, the glacier may not exist in its current location or orientation.”
The mountain Yerupaja in the Cordillera Huayhuash locates at the west central Peru. It is part of the Peruvian Andes and ranks as the second highest mountain in Peru. As one of the hardest mountains along the Andes to climb, it draws mountaineers from all over the world, who come to conquer this high peak.
For more photos featuring glaciers from Peru, look here.
Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As their name suggests, ice caves are tunnel-like features that occur within ice bodies, usually glaciers. They have been known to science at least since 1900, when the American explorer and scientist Edwin Balch described them in his book Glacières or Freezing Caverns. In recent decades, some ice caves have become major tourist attractions.
Ice caves are formed by the horizontal movement of liquid water through glaciers. This movement causes some of the ice to melt. In some cases, the liquid water is produced by melting on the glacier surface; it then descends through a vertical tunnel or moulin to the glacier bed, where it flows out and emerges at the glacier snout. In other cases, geothermal activity provides the heat to melt the ice. Caves can also form on glaciers that terminate in lakes or the ocean; melting at the front of the glacier can proceed under the glacier, sometimes for considerable distances.
Ice caves attract tourists in a number of countries. Norway and Iceland are major destinations for people who wish the visit them, but they are found in other countries as well, including Switzerland, Austria, Russia, Canada, Argentina and New Zealand. The nature photographer Kamil Tamiola entered an ice cave on the north face of an Alpine summit in France at 3,800 meters above sea level. “You need to stay focused, pay attention to every single move and commit yourself entirely to this climb,” he said. He used mountaineering gear, including ice axes and crampons.
Less equipment is needed to enter the ice caves of Lake Superior, which form each winter from seeps in a limestone cave rather than from melting within a glacier. Tourists wear warm clothing and boots, and bring only trekking poles for balance. “It’s just fantastic, ” said Jim McLaughlin, who visited them in 2014. “It’s unique to see water in so many different forms and different colors and the way it’s sculpted.” McLaughlin and the others
In all these countries, the best time to visit ice caves is during the winter. There is a greater risk of collapse from melting at other seasons. Tourists have to bring appropriate gear to enter an ice cave. Helmets, gloves, sturdy boots, and warm layered clothing are often required. Headlamps and kneepads are highly recommended.
While the rise in commercial mountaineering has been generating valuable income for Nepal, it has also resulted in pollution and local disturbance. Now the Nepalese tourism ministry is planning to lease exclusive access to many of its highest mountains to private tourism companies.
The government claims that the privatization of the mountains is necessary so that they can maximize their tourism revenue and the local people can benefit through tourism revenue and new jobs.
Of the nation’s 3,310 mountains, only 310 are currently open to commercial climbing. Around 1,600 peaks in Nepal have never been summited.
Tourism has already been piling trash on the mountains. The problem has escalated so badly that the government has initiated a new regulation for climbers. If climbers return 18 lbs. (6.2 kg) of waste, in addition to their own gear, they get back their $4,000 garbage deposit. Failure to comply with garbage regulations result in loss of future climbing privileges.
Nepal’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation generated $3.16 million from Mt. Everest royalties in 2013. Foreign tourists have to pay $500 for 10 days in Upper Mustang, which is managed as part of the Annapurna Conservation Area.
The Nepal’s push for tourism growth has been neglecting regional development at the expense of national development. Despite years of protest, locals receive less than 40 percent of the tourist entry revenues.
Both people who benefit and do not benefit are affected by tourism growth. Locals living near the glaciers express their appreciation of tourists’ expenditures; however, they are conflicted by how the tourist use sacred local areas and disturb the mountain spirits with littering. Most of these areas do not have a waste management system so they face an especially high concentration of toxic substances when tourists discard their plastic wrappers and batteries. Many of these villages burn the waste, which releases toxic polychlorinated byphenyls (PCBs) in the air, exacerbating de-glaciation, which in turn affects local access to water.
There are many questions about how the privatization of glaciers will affect nearby communities, especially since the state-run tourism sector in the Nepal Himalayas has been overridden with corruption. Will privatization of tourism be more sustainable than the earlier state-run tourism? Because privatization creates access to the remotest glacier communities in Nepal, how it will change those areas remains to be seen.