Are there too many climbers on Everest?

Mount Everest has always been more than just a mountain. It’s an idea, a goal, something bigger than itself — and it’s already pretty big. For lots of mountaineers, a chance to visit Everest and attempt to summit is the opportunity of a lifetime, with some making trips more than once, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. Climbing Everest is a pursuit for the wealthy, but it’s also one for people with considerable mountaineering experience and skill, and a high degree of physical fitness. Which is why you don’t see me running to sign up for an Everest expedition, even though I have no doubt that the experience is amazing and the view from the summit is incredible: I would almost certainly die if I attempted to climb Mount Everest.

At some point in recent years, it feels like Mount Everest has gone from an extremely challenging and highly technical climb to a tourist destination, and that troubles me. During the short windows for climbing, China and Nepal are both offering fairly large numbers of climbing permits, and increasingly, climbers can set themselves up with nice package deals. They rely heavily on sherpas and guides who do much of the heavy lifting for their clients, allowing them to focus on climbing as they treat human beings like pack animals. The mountain itself is littered with garbage (and dead bodies), and rather than being a once in a lifetime experience, it’s another box to check off on the extreme sports experience list.

I’m a big fan of people following their dreams and doing things that are amazing and meaningful for them, but not at the cost of the environment, or human lives. Mount Everest would be a healthier place if climbers weren’t littering it with garbage, and the hundreds of people (including many sherpas) who have died on Everest did so in a variety of circumstances on a mountain that doesn’t mess around when the weather and conditions get severe. Maybe it’s time to rethink how many permits we give out, because while some climbers clearly know and accept the risks they’re taking, I’m not convinced that all of them do.

This year’s climbing season brought down six people within a matter of days in late May, including an Australian woman who died of altitude sickness. Her case got a lot of play in the news because she had to turn back when she was just 15 minutes away from the summit, but her husband decided to press on. In interviews after the fact, describing his wife’s rapid decline and death from altitude sickness, he expressed understandable remorse about his decision to keep going when his wife appeared to be in distress. That’s something he’s going to be living with for life and it’s not my place to judge him or make him feel even worse than he already does, but that fact is that his wife was very ill, and the pressure to summit undoubtedly influenced the decisions that both of them made, and some of those decisions contributed to her death.

Climbing at high altitude is extremely dangerous, and limited oxygen aside, the slopes of Everest are treacherous. It’s icy and rocky, slippery and deceptive. It requires a high degree of skill. Those disabled climbers who summit and get used as inspirational objects? They’re incredibly accomplished athletes with a high degree of skill. The fact that some disabled people can summit Everest doesn’t mean that it’s easy to do, or that all disabled people could if they just picked themselves up and tried a little harder. Mountain climbing is difficult. Very difficult.

Yet, there seems to be a kind of growing attitude in some corners of the public consciousness that summiting Everest is pretty easy, really, I mean look at all the people who do it every year. Women and men, teenagers and octogenarians, disabled people and nondisabled people alike. Acting like it’s easy really devalues the accomplishments of those people, all of whom have to fight tooth and nail to get their way up the mountain and back down again. And acting like it’s easy turns the climb into a sport instead of a challenge, something any reasonably fit tourist can do, and that’s…not how it works.

We’re all humans, and as such, we don’t always make super great decisions. Just because we technically can do something does not mean that we should, and we should consider not just ourselves, but others, in this equation. If climbers want to take an informed, thoughtful risk to pursue a dream, that’s great — though it seems that not all climbers are really considering this risk in their quest for glory. However, when people get sick or die on the mountain, other people get involved, including fellow climbers and sherpas who try to render medical aid, and rescue teams who attempt to recover critically ill people or dead bodies when it’s feasible to reach them. Those people are endangered when they give their time and resources to help their fellow humans.

The more people we have on the mountain at any given time, the greater the risk for all of them. If you’re handing out more climbing permits, you increase the chances that someone who isn’t qualified may embark on a climb and get into trouble. You’re creating a situation that puts people in danger, and it’s a bad business for everyone. While issuing permits and taking advantage of Everest tourism can be profitable, maybe it’s time to put the brakes on it.

Image: Tibet Mount Everest, Göran Höglund, Flickr