A photo taken by climber Nirmal Purja on May 22, 2019, shows the heavy traffic to get to the summit (Credit: Nirmal Purja)

Reaching the summit of Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain, is every climber's dream. However, despite improvements in equipment and weather forecasting systems, the treacherous trek continues to claim a few lives annually. But with eleven deaths already reported this year, the 2019 season has been the deadliest since 2014, when fourteen Sherpas, who act as guides and help carry the climbers' gear, lost their lives after an icefall ledge collapsed.

Even more concerning, the fatalities were not caused by an act of nature, but were the result of a traffic jam due to the large number of people waiting to get to the peak! Thanks to climber Nirmal Purja's viral photo of the long queue, the deaths were instantly attributed to Nepal's relatively lax policy in issuing climbing permits. However, experts say there is more to the story.

While the Everest climbing season, which spans about seven to twelve days during the months of April and May, is always short, the 2019 season has been even shorter. High winds and fresh snow made it impossible for Sherpas to begin the arduous task of attaching ropes, used by commercial climbers to ascend and descend the mountain, until April 20, 2019. Though they managed to get to Camp 4, which is located 8,000 meters (26,000 feet) above sea level by May 1, inclement weather prevented the Sherpas from completing the final 850 meters (2,790 feet) to the peak until May 14.

The following day, 113 commercial climbers, who had been waiting at Base Camp 4 on the South Col, the final launching pad for the summit push, rushed to the peak. On May 16, Seamus Lawless of Ireland became 2019's first casualty. The Irish professor, who fell from an altitude of 8,300 meters (27,230 feet), had purportedly unclipped from the rope to answer the call of nature. On May 17, a day after reaching the peak, Ravi Thakar was found dead in his tent at Base Camp 4. The 28-year-old climber from India is believed to have died of altitude sickness.

While strong jet stream winds paused the slew of additional eager climbers for three days, good weather returned on May 21. Predicted to last for just a few days, it resulted in massive congestion of climbers on May 22 and May 23, with lines forming both at the Balcony, the final resting stop before the summit, and on the Hillary Step. Named after Sir Edmund Hillary— who, along with Sherpa Tenzing, was among the first to reach the summit in 1953 — the nearly vertical, 11.8-meter-high (39 foot) rock face is the last real challenge to get to the top of the mountain. It is climbed using fixed ropes and can only be used by a single ascending or descending climber at a time.

The bottleneck to reach the peak resulted in five or six-hour delays at more than 26,000 feet — an elevation at which each breath contains only one-third of the oxygen found at sea level — making the already difficult climb even more so. While most safely arrived back at Base Camp 4, the conditions proved fatal for nine climbers, who either ran out of oxygen or died from exhaustion on the descent.

Simon Lowe, the managing director of UK-based mountaineering expedition company Jagged Globe, who successfully led 12 climbers to the summit on May 23 says, “The queue this year isn’t the problem. But it exacerbates an underlying issue, and that is incompetent climbers being led by incompetent teams. If you go up with a bare minimum of bottles of supplementary oxygen and stand in a queue for ages, that is going to cause problems."

The large number of deaths is being attributed to lax permits and inexperienced climbers (Credit: Statista/CC BY-SA 2.0)

David Morton, a freelance mountain guide agrees. The veteran climber, who has summited Everest six times, told CNN, “The major problem is inexperience, not only of the climbers that are on the mountain but also the operators supporting those climbers. Everest is primarily a very complicated logistical puzzle, and I think when you have a lot of inexperienced operators as well as inexperienced climbers along with, particularly, the Nepal government not putting some limitations on the numbers of people, you have a prime recipe for these sorts of situations happening.”

Despite the tragedies, the Nepali tourism board does not plan on restricting the number of permits next year and may even increase them to attract 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 believes the deaths are because of poor weather conditions, insufficient oxygen supplies, and equipment. The official told the news service, "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." Hopefully these measures, along with better prepared climbers and guides, will ensure the mountain does not claim more lives in the future.

Resources: explorersweb.com, cnn.com, npr.org, mountainplanet.com