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.”
Do you prefer going to the beach or the mountains? This simple icebreaker aims to provide insight into one’s personality or interests. For mountain lovers, it’s a question that may also evoke a dramatic landscape with snow-capped peaks reminiscent of those found on the Instagram page of National Geographic Adventure, for example, where mountaineers are captured undertaking challenges that test the limits of human capability.
What is critical but often overlooked are the high-altitude shelters that protect adventurers and tourists on their treks. Hikers and climbers today typically rely on tents and other camping gear, but earlier generations sought shelter in more permanent structures or huts. A recent study by architectural historians Roberto Dini and Stefano Girodo explores how the design and construction of huts in the Western Alps in the late eighteenth through nineteenth century was a milestone in the exploration of the Alps. The construction of shelters offering overnight accommodations made it possible for explorers to undertake wide-ranging scientific explorations in the Alps for the first time. Unlike existing housing models, these huts were usually simple—carved into rock surfaces or leaning against them, providing the minimum needs for protection against what explorers saw as a hostile and frightening alpine environment.
Prior to the construction of these huts, mountains represented “an insurmountable barrier to discovering areas at higher altitudes,” according to the study. The researchers state that such shelters “in the most inhospitable areas of Europe” represent the “progressive transformation of the alpine region from sharp construct into an outpost of scientific learning, the ‘playground’ of mountaineers.”
The architectural structure of these first shelters present another dichotomy. The huts represented a safe space free from the harsh environment outside, a place where one could recharge before persevering the next day. And not only did the huts provide shelter, but they also gave visitors a psychological comfort with a brief chance to withdraw from the otherwise extreme non-human terrain.
Not mentioned in the article but interesting to note is the historical context surrounding the establishment of these shelters. When first constructed in France and Switzerland during the late 1700s, European high society was in the later periods of the Age of Enlightenment. A corresponding movement during the previous century was the Scientific Revolution, an era when the concept of modern science emerged with revolutions in scientific fields including mathematics, astronomy, physics, biology and chemistry. It appears logical that the intellectual heritage from the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment was under the same impulse that led to the expansion of studying astronomy in these remote regions. Additionally, it raises questions about who constructed these structures and the political dynamics that might have impacted the desire to expand into these regions. While, the Dini and Girodo study doesn’t address these questions, it sets the stage for further research to explore how the political and social perspectives influenced the design and use of alpine huts.
During the 1800s and 1900s, researchers and explorers could rely on the haven of shelters to plan more extended expeditions. These huts sparked curiosity among Enlightenment-induced scholars to study the not-well-understood glaciers and alpine landscape previously unattainable. But as a result, the introduction of shelters and exploration also led to an increased human intervention in the European Alps. According to the study, a consequence was the systematic physical alteration of the high-altitude region.
For scholars interested in the intersection between humans and the environment (and breaking the sharp dichotomy between the two), the authors indicate that high-altitude areas are “an ideal setting for testing a qualitative conciliation of the natural environment and human intervention.” In other words, alpine huts can be of interest to people not even working in mountain areas since they offer such a contrast between the natural environment and human interventions.
In recent decades, huts have even transformed from the historically crude and limited models to more luxurious structures that experiment with style and design. With the primary need for overnight shelter established, the building has become increasingly conceived as a place of short-term stay (whether overnight or a few nights) and a location for consumption of food and pleasure.
In the last twenty years, designers such as the ones behind the Monte Rosa Hut in Switzerland have responded to the surging interest in environmental questions and sustainability by incorporating energy-saving technology and rational resource management for isolated alpine refuges among glacierized terrains. Although still primarily serving as short-term housing and as protection against the elements, these newer shelters seek to enhance the outdoor experience for humans with interior designs that feature large windows and open floor plans. Earlier huts lacked windows, and this change reflects not only our improved technology and better heating but also our cultural shifts. Early on, humans perceived mountains as so hostile that they wanted to withdraw from them. Now, the Alps are a place of interest for people to explore and experience first-hand.
Despite the transformation of alpine shelters from simple design to luxurious spaces, two primary points remain unchanged throughout the last three centuries. First, visitors are still temporary. Whether they enter for a few hours or a couple of days, the structures reflect the come-and-go nature of tourism. Second, the reasons behind individuals occupying these shelters remain tied to the luxurious sphere of free time and pleasure. Certainly, the professional lens of Enlightenment-inspired scientific endeavors or today’s mountaineering expeditions have transformed the leisure activity into a professional occupation.
On the whole, the inhabitants of these shelters remain an elite group of predominantly white male individuals who continue to explore the heights of the world’s tallest mountains. The construction of alpine huts is a part of the history of white male privilege. But as these shelters transform from an image of stark refuge to more sustainable designs that celebrate (and market from) the surrounding environment, perhaps alpine shelters too may become more welcoming of a diverse team of scientists and explorers in glacierized environments.
In honor of Black History Month, this Photo Friday showcases the first all-African American team of climbers to ascend the highest point in North America, the daunting and mesmerizing Denali in Alaska. Sponsored by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), Expedition Denali aimed to inspire minority communities to look outdoors for life-enriching experiences. Another goal was to bridge the “adventure gap,” that is how “minority populations are much less likely to seek recreation, adventure, and solace in our wilderness spaces,” according to the Joy Trip Project.
The expedition took place in the summer 2013, 100 years after the first ascent of the mountain. By marking this anniversary, the team set out to forge a new historical moment in mountaineering and “build a legacy by paving a way for young people of color to get outside, get active, get healthy, become passionate about America’s wild places, and chase their own Denali-sized dreams,” according to the official website. Ultimately, with demographics in the United States rapidly changing, this legendary team hopes to become role models for our nation’s future generation, comprised mostly of people of color, to be the stewards of the world’s extraordinary and increasingly vulnerable landscapes.
In 2014, directors George Potter and Andrew Adkins produced an award-winning documentary film on this groundbreaking journey titled An American Ascent.Check out the trailer for it below:
From the National Park Service: “A decade of scientific research has produced conclusive results – human waste left behind by climbers is polluting the streams and rivers that flow out of the Kahiltna Glacier. Our ultimate goal is to require 100% removal of all human waste from Denali, and we will continually strive to develop practical, working solutions to achieve this goal. We will be learning from your participation how to best to manage this next phase of ‘Clean Climbing’ on Denali.”
You can read more about how the Park Service is encouraging these practices here.
A Forager’s Paradise for Seabirds
From Scientific Reports: “We found that tidewater glacier bays were important foraging areas for surface feeding seabirds, kittiwakes in particular. Such sites, rich in easily available food and situated in the fjord close to colonies, are used as supplementary/contingency feeding grounds by seabirds that otherwise forage outside the fjord. For kittiwakes these areas are of great significance, at least temporarily. Such an opportunity for emergency feeding close to the colony when weather conditions beyond the fjord are bad may increase the breeding success of birds and buffer the adverse consequences of climatic and oceanographic changes.”
Find out more about why these areas are so abundant here.
Nepali Youth Appeal to Trump
From The Himalayan Times: “Nepali Youth and Mountain Community Dwellers have appealed to U.S. President Donald Trump to take back his decision to pull out of the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. An appeal letter was submitted to the U.S. embassy here on Monday by Nepali youth representing people living in the foothills of the Himalayan peaks, including the tallest Mount Everest. The letter was handed over to deputy political and economic chief of the U.S. embassy Stephanie Reed.”
Read more about why Nepalese people are so concerned over Trump’s decision here.
It’s summer in Alaska, and for some intrepid adventurers, that means it’s mountaineering season on Denali, the iconic peak whose name means “The High One” in the Koyukon Athabascan language. According to the Denali National Park Service mountaineering blog, Denali Dispatches, there are currently 520 climbers attempting the highest peak in North America. 142 climbers have already reached the summit this season, a 34 percent success rate.
This week held some excitement for the Park Service, which on June 5th responded to two simultaneous medical incidents on the Kahiltna Glacier. One climber, suffering from “acute abdominal illness,” was assessed and helped by park personnel to Kahiltna Glacier Base Camp. More dramatically, another climber was un-roped when he fell forty feet into a crevasse on the West Buttress route, and became wedged in the ice. Rangers arrived at the accident site at 4 a.m., and after nearly twelve hours of chipping away ice with power tools, they were finally able to extract the injured and hypothermic climber, who was hastily evacuated to the hospital in Fairbanks.
Edward Theodore Compton, usually referred to as E.T. Compton, was a German painter, illustrator and mountain climber who lived from 1849-1921. He is best known for his paintings and drawings of alpine scenery, many of which also contain glaciers.
Born in London, Compton’s family moved to Darmstadt, Germany, in 1867, for him to continue his education. He was also a skilled mountaineer, making 300 major ascents during his lifetime, mostly within Europe. For example, he made the first documented ascents of 27 mountains, including Torre di Brenta in the Italian Alps and Grossglockner in Austria, which he climbed at the age of 70!
Apart from oil and watercolor paintings, Compton also produced numerous illustrations of alpine scenery. Many of his works help to document the days of early alpinism, showing what mountains and glaciers looked like in the past.
On November 4th, the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA) held the 11th annual Asia Piolets d’Or awards, commemorating outstanding achievements in rock climbing and mountaineering. Considered by many to be the Oscars of alpinism, the awards have motivated progression in Asian mountaineering culture over the last decade, contributing to an ethos of safety, respect and athleticism in alpine and glacial environments.
The awards honor athletes who employ lightweight, alpine-style tactics in their expeditions, rewarding a commitment to technical face climbing and positive environmental stewardship while in the mountains. These alpine style expeditions generally use less gear, leave less waste on the mountain and exemplify respect for the outdoors.
At this year’s event in Seoul, Korea, six winners of the Piolets d’Or Asia were announced (comprising two climbing teams) along with recipients of the Golden Climbing Shoe Award and the coveted Piolets d’Or Lifetime Achievement accolade.
In an interview with GlacierHub, American Alpine Club lifetime member Edward Rinkowski spoke to the prestige of the ceremony by stating, “Winning a Piolet d’Or is arguably the highest of achievements in climbing beyond one’s personal climbing goals. No one really sets out to win one, but if the academy recognizes you, it means you’re doing something right. ”
Award recipients belonged to a pair of teams, one from South Korea and the other from Japan. Led by Chang-Ho Kim, the Korean team of three successfully established a new route on the south face of Mt. Gangapurna, a glaciated 7,455 meter (24,459 feet) peak in the west Nepalese Annapurna region. Gangapurna was first climbed by a German expedition in 1965. Since then, only eight teams have successfully reached its summit.
Kim, along with his climbing partners Suk-Mun Choi and Joung-Yong Park, ascended Gangapurna’s south face via a new, technically demanding route full of glacial ice and loose rock. They managed to leave no trace of their climb, having recovered all of their gear and expedition waste from the mountain.
Rinkowski, who has climbed in this region, told GlacierHub, “The combination of technical climbing and high altitudes can be absolutely brutal. Hearing that the team recovered all of their gear is extremely impressive.” The expedition’s leader Kim is a laudable recipient of the Piolets d’Or award, having completed all 14 of the Himalayan Giants — Earth’s peaks looming taller than 8,000 meters — by 2016.
The Japanese team that received the Piolets d’Or honor also consisted of three members: Koji Ito, Yusuke Sato and Kimihiro Miyagi. The group of athletes successfully climbed the Golden Pillar in the Tsurugidake Kurobe Valley, a 380m near vertical rock face in Japan. Their climb required a dangerous snow-covered bivouac (a temporary camp without tents) overnight, which subjected the team to hypothermia and frostbite. Additionally, the climb involved nine hanging belays, meaning that the team rarely had the opportunity to rest on ledges and solid ground after they set off from the ground.
The Kurobe Valley is considered by many alpinists to be more difficult than climbing Himalayan peaks of comparable prominence and is known for experiencing unpredictable, powerful winter storms. The team lived in the snowy region for 22 days, spending much of their time trapped in a tent awaiting a safe weather window to attempt the climb.
Having been on many alpine expeditions himself, Rinkowski talked to GlacierHub about the Japanese team’s climb. “Being stuck in such a desperate situation not only puts stress on the climbers physically, but even more so mentally,” he said. “Riding out such a long storm window can be demoralizing.”
Despite the adverse conditions and difficulty of the ascent, the three men reached the peak’s summit and returned home safely. Less than a dozen teams have successfully climbed the Golden Pillar, especially in the kind of weather conditions present during Koji Ito’s team’s attempt.
Winners of the Golden Climbing Shoe Award included Keita Kurakami, who free-climbed in traditional style the Senjitsu-no-ruri route on the Moai Face of Japan’s Mt. Mizugaki (without the use of bolts or pitons except at belay stations), and Han-na-rai Song, this year’s women’s ice climbing champion from the Rabenstein World Cup event. The golden shoe award is presented to athletes who have achieved exemplary success in the realm of competitive climbing and sport/trad climbing, recognizing great achievements outside of the Piolet d’Or’s alpine realm.
Capping off the evening at the ceremony was the second annual Piolets d’Or Lifetime Achievement Award, which was gifted to 84-year-old Tamotsu Nakamura from Japan. Nakamura has participated in thirty-eight successful expeditions in southeast Tibet and China over the last twenty-five years. He has attained numerous first ascents in the glaciated Cordillera Blanca range of Peru. In addition to his climbing efforts, Nakamura has discovered, documented and mapped countless unclimbed peaks in some of the most isolated mountainous regions in the world. As a product of his climbs, maps and photographic stories, he has attained hero-status in Japan, where he motivates the nation’s youth to pursue their dreams no matter how big the mountain that lies ahead.
On the evolving state of climbing and exploration as a whole, Nakamura stated, “Some convince themselves that veiled mountains in the greater ranges are an experience of the past, but Tibet has an incredibly vast and complex topography that holds countless unclimbed summits, and beckons a lifetime’s search.”
Although many of the world’s glacial and alpine realms have been explored in the last few decades, Nakamura reminds the youthful generation of climbers that “peaks are stunning and magnificent” and “many of them will remain enigmas for generations without the motivation to go forth and explore.” This ideology epitomizes the spirit of the Piolet d’Or awards in Asia, promoting exploration and ascent through the lens of positive environmental stewardship.
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.