New Route Up Mt. Everest

Everest Base Camp: Expedition Tents ©Hendrik Terbeck
Everest Base Camp: Expedition Tents ©Hendrik Terbeck

Last year’s deadly avalanche on Mt. Everest in Nepal, which killed 16 Sherpas–mountaineering guides indigenous to the region–has led to new safety recommendations for both guides and tourists.

The Nepalese authorities have ordered climbers to shift their path up the mountain, to avoid the route of last year’s disaster, according to Vice magazine. The new path will bring people to the middle of the Khumbu Icefall, instead of the west shoulder of the Icefall, where the guides were buried in the avalanche. The new path might be more technically difficult for climbers, but government officials say it is safer.

Last year, the Nepalese government came under fire for failing to sufficiently compensate Sherpa families for the guides’  deaths and for attempting to keep climbing season open, putting the lives of guides and climbers at risk. Tourism is the largest industry in Nepal, providing 4% of gross domestic product, and the tourists come for Mount Everest, the highest mountain peak in the world. Of the nearly 800,000 tourists who visited Nepal in 2013, over 10% went hiking or climbing.

Numbers of death ranked by cause of death for all peaks from 1950-2006. Source:
Figure 1. Numbers of death ranked by cause of death for all peaks
from 1950-2006. ©Richard Salisbury & Elizabeth Hawley

Though the number of guides killed last year is high, the record for highest number of total deaths from a single accident occurred in 2001, when a blizzard and several avalanches in central Nepal are reported to have killed at least three local guides and 26 tourists, including Israelis, Poles, Nepalese, Canadians, Slovaks and one person from India.

Recent data suggests that avalanches are the primary cause of death among guides in the Nepalese Himalayas, while falls are the primary cause of death among visitors. (See Figure 1 to the left.) Some 102 guide deaths were caused by avalanches between 1950 and 2006 of a total of 211 guide deaths, while 223 tourist deaths were caused by falls from high elevations, followed by 170 tourist deaths by avalanches over the period.

A steady decrease in deaths among both tourists and guides began in about 1975 and lasted until 2005, at which point the trend reversed itself. The Kang Guru avalanche and three separate avalanches on Ama Dablam, Ganesh VII, and Pumori in 2006 killed 14 tourists and 18 guides and marked the beginning of an upswing. Figure 2, below, shows the trend in death rates from 1950 to 2006 among both tourists (“members,” in blue) and guides (“hired,” in red).

Figure 2 Member and hired death rates by expedition year for all peaks from 1950-2006
Figure 2. Member and hired death rates by expedition year for all peaks from 1950-2006 ©Richard Salisbury & Elizabeth Hawley

As climate change melts glaciers around the world, avalanches could increase, threatening tourists and guides with more accidents. Even for the local Sherpa guides, the Himalayas become unfamiliar territory when the landscape is changed by receding ice. “Warmer temperatures and water from melting ice can combine to weaken a glacier’s grip on the underlying rock,” Jeffrey Kargel, a University of Arizona geologist, who has conducted regular studies on glaciers near Everest, told Vice magazine.

To read more about last year’s Everest accident and the aftermath, read this post.