Mt Everest: What's killing trekkers up there

The tragedy this year is that it was not the gruelling climb that killed the trekkers

mt-everest-trekkers-afp (File) The picture released by climber Nirmal Purja's Project Possible expedition shows heavy traffic of mountain climbers lining up to stand at the summit of Mount Everest | AFP

Remember that long weekend getaway to the hills? When it turned out that almost the entire city had the same plans. That long wait on the highway, with cars stretching ahead and behind as far as the eye can see. The clutter disposed by tourists—soda cans, chip packets and fruit peel. Mt Everest these days is not too different. The carrying capacity of the once pristine, snow-clad peak has long been breached, but not many wanted to heed the warning calls. Until this year, when the traffic jam has become so bad that it is claiming lives. The pictures of the long rows of trekkers—one queue going up, another coming down—takes away the magic of the place.

There was once a time, when scaling the tallest peak on earth was one of those extreme things only a few did. The terrain was hostile. Snow, snow and more snow. Scant oxygen, depleting rapidly the higher you went. Treacherous terrain. Today, thanks to better equipment, scientific training for the summit and, of course, good amenities along the route, the trek has become much easier. Everest scaling has turned from the aspirational to the doable. It is now one of those bucket list items that need to be ticked.

For centuries, the peak stood tall and unscaled (at least not a recorded scaling). In fact, it even stood unrecognised as the tallest among the tallest Himalayan peaks, till, in 1852, mathematician Radhanath Sikdar, who was working on the Great Trigonometric Survey of India, realised that Peak XV was the highest peak on earth. He reported this to his superior, Andrew Waugh. The news must have been exciting, but Waugh waited till 1856, by when they had cross-checked the calculations and were sure of the discovery, before announcing the discovery to the world. It was named Mt Everest after the former surveyor general of India, George Everest. The name was only given in 1865, though.

It took almost a century after its “discovery” for Mt Everest to be finally scaled in 1953 by the now famous duo of Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary. Over the next six decades, however, Mt Everest has attracted trekkers by the hundreds, many of whom are looking at the peak as a means of breaking world records. 2018 had a record number of summiteers—807. The number is remarkable, given that the scaling window is small—barely two weeks, and given the weather conditions, can become even smaller.

And for every person who summits, there are several who do not. Trekkers may have better clothing and equipment than in the past, but the peak still tests people for physical fitness. Ace climbers have been known to suffer from breathing issues and needed evacuation. Payal Saxena, who reached Everest Base Camp at an elevation of around 17,500 feet above sea level recalls hearing that the success rate for even this feat is only 60 per cent. “It is a gruelling climb,'' she says. “With such little oxygen in the air, every step is an arduous one. You only cover around 200m in four hours. I remember sighting the base camp, it seemed so near, but it took hours before I could reach it.''

The tragedy this year is that it was not the gruelling climb that killed. Only one mountaineer is recorded to have fallen off the Tibetan side and died. The seven others who lost their lives this year, died waiting in queue. High altitudes have a different environment than in the plains, and at such heights, waiting and twiddling your thumbs is not an option. A climber on the move is ensuring his body is being constantly heated. While waiting, however, the body begins cooling rapidly. Add to it the rarified atmosphere where oxygen is at a premium. It doesn't take much for people to go into oxygen starvation. The dip from delirious to death is rapid.

In June 1924, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine had made a historical bid to reach the summit. They were sighted by the team somewhere at the top, but then, were engulfed by the clouds. Mallory's body was discovered only as recently as 1999; Irvine remains lost. It is one of those mysteries whether the duo actually reached the summit or not. But as Mallory's son John himself said several years later, scaling a summit is not complete unless you return. Mallory and Irvine did not. Neither have the eight summiteers this year.

As the rarefied Mt Everest becomes commonplace, the victims of today will not even go down in history, except perhaps as a statistic. Like how we record road deaths in cities.