Add four more deaths to the 225+ climbers that have died on Mount Everest and another 150 to the 3,700+ that have summitted it. This past weekend a couple hundred people attempted to reach the summit of the highest mountain in the world and 150 succeeded during the first good weather window this spring. Four climbers, however, died high on the peak while descending after success.
The four dead climbers are 32-year-old Shriya Shah-Klorfine, a Nepali-born Canadian; 61-year-old Eberhard Schaaf from Germany; 44-year-old Song Won-bin from South Korea; and 55-year-old Chinese climber Ha Wenyi. All perished high on the mountain from exhaustion and altitude sickness. Shah-Klorfine from Toronto, Ontario, was the fourth Canadian woman to summit Mount Everest.
Her husband Bruce Klorfine said: "My wife was someone who lived life to its fullest, with irrepressible energy and vitality. She died in the pursuit of her dreams, and with the satisfaction of having achieved them."
The weekend's success and tragedy seems a repeat of the 1996 Everest disaster, when eight climbers died on May 10 and 15 total during that disastrous spring season. Now, as in 1996, there are a lot of expeditions on the mountain--over 300 climbers with 33 expeditions, many of them commercial, as well as all the support crews of Sherpas and Nepalese porters, cooks, and helpers.
Now, as then, there are many climbers high on the mountain, awaiting a good window of weather to allow a summit dash. The problem, however, is that there are too many climbers so the dash becomes a slog and then a traffic jam, especially at the Hillary Step between the South Summit and the summit. And the climbers aren't prepared for the slow ascent and descent by bringing enough supplemental oxygen.
Gyanendra Shrestha, spokesman for Nepal's Mountaineering Department, said, "There was a traffic jam on the mountain on Saturday. Climbers were still heading to the summit as late as 2:30 p.m. which is quite dangerous. With the traffic jam, climbers had a longer wait for their chance to go up the trail and spent too much time at higher altitude. Many of them are believed to be carrying limited amount of oxygen not anticipating the extra time spent."
Last weekend, as in 1996, lots of climbers became stranded high on Mount Everest. In 1996 the climbers that left late in the day were caught in a snowstorm, losing their way and succumbing to altitude sickness and hypothermia. Last Saturday evening (May 19), many climbers, both ascending and descending, were trapped high on the mountain by severe winds with gusts exceeding 100 miles per hour as the jet stream raked the summit, and were forced to spend the night out in the open or continued struggling down in the dark.
On Sunday morning, Dr. Jon Kedrowski from Avon, Colorado, made a summit attempt from the South Col. On the way up Kedrowski witnessed first-hand the death and destruction of the bad decisions, bad weather, and too many climbers from Saturday. He told reporters: "[One man] was basically hallucinating, he took his hat off, his gloves were thrown away and then he kind of reached out and looked at me...he kind of reached out to me, kind of in a zombie-like fashion... At that point, there's not a lot you can do for somebody that's dying and frozen to death."
Jon also reports on his blog that there was "a two-hour wait at one of the main chokepoints near the summit." The climbing team he was with failed to reach the summit on Sunday, instead helping some of the stranded climbers descend.
This spring's weather has been unusual on Mount Everest. There have been warmer than normal temperatures, but plenty of stormy weather so few expeditions have placed climbers on the summit. Instead climbers, including guided clients who have shelled out as much as $75,000, are stacked up waiting to climb to the summit from the South Col. This weekend the number of climbers attempting the summit were somewhere between 200 and 300 people--too many people. Ditto for the next good weather window, which is forecast for May 25 to 26, with at least a couple hundred climbers waiting for that chance.
It's up to the different expeditions to decide if weather and crowded conditions are worth it. Commercial groups certainly have financial incentive to herd their paying customers to the top since it looks good on the website and sells more trips. But it appears that Mount Everest is overcrowded. When that many people with all their varying abilities and physical capabilities are jammed onto the Everest's upper slopes, then the potential for bad stuff happening is pretty great.
The upper slopes of Mount Everest aren't called "The Death Zone" for nothing. It's up there in that inhospitable environment that a person is can easily die from low oxygen levels, altitude sickness, frigid temperatures, high winds and severe storms, and dangerous climbing conditions with ice slopes and huge dropoffs.
The Nepalese government feels their hands are tied with the situation. Bal Krishna Ghimire with the Tourism Ministry says, "The climbers have received the permits to climb within specific dates. We cannot say who gets to get to the summit on which dates because of the unpredictable weather. When weather clears up they all want to benefit. We have officials at the base camp but beyond that it is mostly up to the climbers."
Photographs above:(Top)High winds rake the summit of Mount Everest.(Bottom) Shriya Shah-Klorfine from Canada died high on Everest on Saturday. Photographs courtesy Facebook.