Should It Be Lonely At The Top?

While one problem nears fixing on Everest, others are imminent.

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Langtang Mountain Peaks Photo: stock photo

The traditional problem on the highest mountain in the world has always been one of trash. Ugly heaps of oxygen cylinders, tents, cans, and thermoses on the serene snowy slopes make for striking pictures.

Pressure from the media and the successful implementation of policies have largely minimised this problem. But two other issues are emerging, those of overcrowding and of warming temperatures leading to collapses on the mountain.

Asian Trekking CEO Dawa Steven Sherpa asserts that Everest has genuinely become cleaner. “Base Camp is almost entirely clean, so reports about the mountain being trashed are slightly exaggerated,” said Sherpa. Expeditions pay a garbage deposit fee to the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee, which is refunded when proof is submitted of teams bringing back 8 kilograms of waste per person.

Sometimes there are genuine reasons to leave trash behind. Storms may rip tents to shreds and bury items deep in the snow. When a team member falls sick or dies, the priority is rescuing them and not their trash.

It has also become mandatory for climbers to carry Waste Alleviating Gel bags, kits that deodorise and break down human waste.

As Nepal gets better at managing trash on Everest, it must now find solutions to the problems of overcrowding on the routes, and of warming temperatures reducing the integrity of snow structures.

Everest’s irresistibility leads to a paradox. What should be one of the most difficult climbs in the world, due to the sheer height, sees massive numbers of climbers. Everest also generates huge amounts of revenue for Nepal, and creates many jobs. The Ministry of Tourism issued 421 permits to climb Everest, and the season ended with about 600 summits - only a percentage of the 421 summit successfully, and are accompanied by one or two Sherpas.

The season started on May 11 and closed on May 29, but most of the summits had to be squeezed into a window between May 20 - 23 when the weather was particularly cooperative. Each day saw about a hundred summits each, which led to gridlocks on the routes.

The weight of the climbers going both up and down, coupled with softer snow and ice has recently led to fatal accidents. Last year, a serac collapse at 5500m triggered an avalanche that killed three descending Sherpas.

This year, early on May 21, an ice cornice collapsed just below the Hillary Step near the summit at 8790m. Two climbers were swept away to the Tibet side and lost their lives, and four were left dangling by their ropes before they scrambled to rescue themselves.

With the route interrupted, descending climbers were running out of oxygen and would have been in critical conditions. Luckily, expert guides were present and able to break a new route. The death toll could have easily been much higher than two.

This overcrowding has led to calls for limits on the number of people climbing Everest. However, this is unlikely to happen as there is simply too much money involved bringing in much needed revenue for the state..

There are several ways the number of climbers could be reduced without an explicit limit. One way may be to simply increase the cost of expedition, pricing out a demographic of climbers. Everest permits are already going from $11,000 now, to $15,000 next season.

Another way might be to require climbers to complete, say a 6000er, before being eligible for Everest. To climb from the Chinese side, for example, foreigners must have climbed a 7000er, and Chinese nationals must have climbed an 8000er. The number of summits on the Chinese side are certainly much lower than the Nepali side - only about 50 this season.

Implementing such a rule would call for a higher commitment from climbers in terms of time, money, and preparedness. It would weed out the bucket-list type mountaineers who look to check Everest off as efficiently as possible.

It would also force Nepal and trekking companies to research, organise tours for, and promote the less popular and shorter peaks. Perhaps this would lead to greater appreciation of the Himalaya and mountaineering.

But such a policy could also backfire. It might become one of the many rules about Everest - such as the banning of luxury tents on Base Camp - that are announced but never implemented. Or all the companies may collectively find the easiest 6000er to climb. The problem of overcrowding would just migrate to that mountain.

Vinayak Jaya Malla, who saved the day when the cornice collapsed, is one of only 75 IFMGA/UIAGM certified mountain guides in Nepal. These are experts who have deep knowledge and experience of mountaineering, climbing, and rescue. Malla emphasises not reducing permit numbers, citing the volume of jobs that Everest creates. He has simpler solutions:

“One way to reduce crowding is to simply have multiple fixed ropes up Everest, instead of just one. And the season should be longer. longer. Right now, the Ministry of Tourism sets the dates arbitrarily. With current weather patterns, the season could go well into mid-June, allowing climbers to spread out their summits.”


The collapse of the structures, however, is a very serious problem with longer term solutions.

The simultaneous deaths caused by collapses are of course the obvious issue. As collapses get more common, climbers may be less and less willing to risk an expedition.

But, for example, if the Khumbu Icefall becomes untraversable, then major questions arise. One company, Furtenbach adventures, already thinks that there is no route that is 100% safe through the icefall, and has hence moved much of its operations to the North Col route from Tibet.

A majority of climbers choosing to go the China route would result in Nepal losing a lot of revenue.


“The government of Nepal might have to think about closing up the South Col route altogether,” says Alan Arnette, who has covered Everest for the past 22 years. He adds, “But given the money involved, this is unlikely to happen. We might see climbers taking a helicopter from Base Camp to Camp 2 and starting their climb there.”

Of course, this would raise questions about the legitimacy of the summit. If you use a helicopter to go much of the way up a mountain, are you really climbing it?

There would have to be much investment in researching and setting up alternative routes up Everest that would bypass the Khumbu Icefall. While there are many such routes, they are much more technical and dangerous than the current South Col path.


Climbers are just not going to stop climbing to get to the highest point in the world, simply “Because”, as British climber Mallory put it, “it is there.” However, while Everest will always be there, Nepal cannot take for granted that it will always be possible to climb.

It would be an abject shame if Everest, a source of so much pride and money for Nepal and for climbers around the world, becomes unscalable.

Vishad Raj Onta is a journalist based in Nepal