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Amid Deadly Season On Everest, Nepal Has No Plans To Issue Fewer Permits

Eleven people have died climbing Mount Everest so far this year, amid long lines to reach the peak last week.
Prakash Mathema
AFP/Getty Images
Eleven people have died climbing Mount Everest so far this year, amid long lines to reach the peak last week.

Nepal's tourism board is defending the number of permits it issued to climb Mount Everest for this season in which 11 people have died. And the country says it has no plans to restrict the number of permits issued next year, but rather that it hopes to attract still more tourists and climbers.

"There has been concern about the number of climbers on Mount Everest, but it is not because of the traffic jam that there were casualties," Mohan Krishna Sapkota, secretary at the country's Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation, told The Associated Press. He instead pointed to weather conditions, insufficient oxygen supplies and equipment.

"In the next season, we will work to have double rope in the area below the summit so there is better management of the flow of climbers," he told the news service.

The image of a crowded Everest linked to the death toll was spurred by a viral photo last week that showed climbers in their neon gear, packed in a tight, unforgiving queue to the highest point on Earth.

A long queue of mountain climbers line a path on Mount Everest on May 22. Nepal's tourist board says weather conditions and other factors, not crowds, were to blame this month.
Nirmal Purja / AP
A long queue of mountain climbers line a path on Mount Everest on May 22. Nepal's tourist board says weather conditions and other factors, not crowds, were to blame this month.

"You essentially have something that looks like people are waiting in line for concert tickets to a sold-out show, only instead of trying to get in to see their favorite artist, they're trying to reach the top of the world and are running into traffic," Outsidemagazine editor at large Grayson Schaffer told NPR's Weekend Edition.

It's a traffic jam that can turn fatal.

"The danger there is that, at that altitude, the body just can't survive," Schaffer said. "They're breathing bottled oxygen. And when that oxygen runs out because you're waiting in line, you are at much higher risk for developing high-altitude edemas and altitude sickness — and dying of those illnesses while you're still trying to reach the summit."

Everest's very highest reaches are known as the death zone. And once a climber reaches it, all bets are off.

"Once you get above about 25,000 feet, your body just can't metabolize the oxygen," said Schaffer, who has been to Everest but not the death zone. "Your muscles start to break down. You start to have fluid that builds up around your lungs and your brain. Your brain starts to swell. You start to lose cognition. Your decision making starts to become slow. And you start to make bad decisions."

And that breakdown in cognition is happening to people who have often flown hundreds or thousands of miles and paid significant sums of money to achieve their dream of reaching the top.

"The reason that people try to climb Mount Everest is because it grabs a hold of them and they feel like they just have to make the summit," Schaffer said. "And so you'll have some people in distress and not necessarily getting help from the people who are around them. It's this kind of bizarre thing to be surrounded by hundreds of people, and yet totally alone at the top of the world."

Nepal's government doesn't put a specific limit on permits. This year 381 people were permitted to climb – a number the AP says is the highest ever. Foreign climbers must pay a fee of $11,000 for a spring summit of Everest and provide a doctor's note attesting to their fitness.

A few reasons made last week on Everest such a crowded one, with multiple fatalities. One factor is that China has limited the permits for the Tibetan side of the mountain, driving more people to the Nepalese side.

Another factor is weather. Alan Arnette, a four-time Everest climber, told CNN that bad weather left just five days ideal for reaching the summit. "So you have 800 people trying to squeeze through a very small window," he said, a number that includes Sherpa guides.

Hence the traffic. "There were more people on Everest than there should be," Kul Bahadur Gurung, general secretary of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, a group comprising all expedition operators in Nepal, told the AP.

Now Nepal's tourist board finds itself working to counter the narrative of that viral photo. On Tuesday, the tourism board's social media accounts shared a tweet by Nepali climber Karma Tenzing.

"Everest unfairly trashed via viral image of 'traffic jam' on May 22 2019," he wrote. "Below are REAL photos of my climb to Summit on May 15. Devoid of jams & I spent an HOUR at summit. With only a 3-4 day weather window & ~300 Everest Summiteer annually, jams will exist. Spread the truth!"

In a statement Monday, the tourism board expressed condolences to the bereaved family and friends of those who died and added that it takes the matter seriously and was "disturbed" by the news.

"Nepal recognises the need to work closely with expedition companies and teams to control safety of climber flows in the face of climatic risks and sensitivities," it said.

But it also pushed back on the idea that it was to blame. It said it had limited the number of permits and had issued them under stringent rules.

"As is known, climbing Everest is a hardcore adventure activity, a daunting experience even for the most trained and professional climbers," it said in the statement. And the tourist board said it had a request for the travel industry, the media, and potential future climbers: "Be aware of all the risk factors included in climbing peaks above 8,000 m. Intense training, precautions and attention to every minor detail, are of extreme importance for climbing the Himalayan peaks."

In other words: No one ever said climbing Everest was safe.

This year has been the deadliest on Everest since 2015. An avalanche in 2014 killed 16 Sherpas. And the mountain's most famous tragedy happened in 1996, when eight climbers died in one day, a harrowing event recounted by Jon Krakauer in his book, Into Thin Air.

Since then, little has changed, Schaffer says – except "it's gotten exponentially worse."

"In that incident, there was actually a storm that came. And that's why you had eight people die in that tragedy. Now what we're seeing and what we will probably see every year forward is eight to 10 people dying just in a routine manner, just because of the sheer number of people trying to fit onto the route."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.