Mount Everest Is Overcrowded. Is Our Selfie-Obsessed Culture Part Of The Problem?

27 May 2019
Culture, Everest
@nimsdai/Project Possible
After a photo of literal human traffic on Mount Everest went viral, questions surrounding our social media use went ablaze

Ask most highly experienced mountaineers or perhaps even your average adventurous hobbyist climbers what their ultimate challenge would be and, yes the cliché likely rings true, they’d probably list one notorious mountain peak: Everest.

Ask an everyday regular person – like, I don’t know, the writer of this piece – whether they’d be interested in scaling Mount Everest, to which the answer would be a definitive no. But to each his/her own.

One can then – more or less – break down people into these categories: skilled climbers, with plenty of experience, and the will to climb Mount Everest. And then those who definitely have no interest in considering the hardship.

But then there seems to be another group of individuals: those who don’t possess the ability and years of mountaineering expertise to summit Mount Everest, but would like to do so – because, why not?

Well, simply put, here’s why not: it’s an extreme endeavour to undertake, not only physically and mentally, but there’s the very real added challenge of an increased chance of actually dying. And this is a fact, not just an irrational fear that say something like camping in your backyard may elicit, but it’s quite literally a matter of life and death.

“You have to qualify to do the Ironman,” Alan Arnette, a prominent Everest chronicler and climber told The New York Times. “But you don’t have to qualify to climb the highest mountain in the world? What’s wrong with this picture?”

Over the past week, a large number of outlets began reporting that climbers on Mount Everest were dying in actual human traffic jams, either waiting to summit the peak or even on their descent. This news was further fuelled by a disturbing photograph captured by Nirmal Purja of climbers queuing high atop the mountain range in what looks like the Great Wall of China snaking across a barren landscape.

We wondered: what must it be like, after weeks of strenuous physical climbing, to enter – and now, wait at – what is aptly known as Everest’s “death zone”? And then, only to be greeted at this major milestone – the last stretch of the climb – by people scrambling to take selfies.

“Everest is the tip of the iceberg for this drive for social media recognition,” explains Adrian Hayes, a British mountaineer who has climbed three of the highest peaks, including Everest. “It’s recognition instead of significance. And that’s the difference between internal significance. That internal drive has been over taken by ‘look at me – look what I’ve achieved.’ We’re on this PR drive and we don’t even know it.”

Though accidental death by selfies (or “kilfies” as they’ve officially become known) is not exactly a new phenomenon – not to mention a very crude commentary on our society today – reading this extract from The New York Times, really put things into perspective once again, begging the question whether everyone taking on this momentous challenge are in it for the right reasons:

Climbers were pushing and shoving to take selfies. The flat part of the summit, which [Ed Dohring, a doctor from Arizona climbing Everest] estimated at about the size of two Ping-Pong tables, was packed with 15 or 20 people. To get up there, he had to wait hours in a line, chest to chest, one puffy jacket after the next, on an icy, rocky ridge with a several-thousand foot drop.
He even had to step around the body of a woman who had just died.
“It was scary,” he said by telephone from Kathmandu, Nepal, where he was resting in a hotel room. “It was like a zoo.”

Twitter, as always, reacted to the news:

As the same report mentions, climbers now face more than just the sheer magnitude of the summit itself. Five months into the year, the number of deaths on Everest has already reached 11. The last time that many people or more died was in 2015 – and that was due to an avalanche.

Veteran climbers and industry leaders insist that the problem is due to overcrowding, with too many inexperienced people attempting the summit. This is worsened by the fact that shifty adventure companies and even the Nepalese government are desperate for money and issuing more permits than what’s safe.

One of the latest people to die on Everest posted this before succumbing to altitude sickness:

View this post on Instagram

Climbed up to camp 3, 7500m but the jet stream had returned closing the summit after only 2 days so I descended to basecamp. Around 100 climbers did summit in those 2 days with sadly 2 deaths, an Indian man found dead in his tent at camp 4 and an Irish climber lost, assumed fallen, on his descent. A go fund me page has been set up for a rescue bid for the Irish climber but it is a well meaning but futile gesture. Condolences to both their friends and families. Both deaths happened above 8000m in the so called death zone where the majority of deaths of foreign climbers happen. Around 700 more people will be looking to summit from Tuesday the 21st onwards. My revised plan, subject to weather that at the moment looks promising, is to return up the mountain leaving basecamp Tuesday the 21st 0230 and, all being well and a lot of luck, arriving on the summit the morning of Saturday the 25th. I will be climbing with my Sherpa, Jangbu who is third on the all time list with an incredible 19 summits. The other 4 members of our team decided to remain on the mountain and are looking to summit on the 21st. My cough had started to return at altitude so I couldn’t wait with them at altitude for the window to open without the risk of physically deteriorating too much. Furthermore as I had missed due to sickness the earlier camp 3 rotation best practice was for me to descend to allow my body to recover from the new altitude high so I could come back stronger. This was not an easy decision as the 13 hours climbing from basecamp to camp 2 in a day was the hardest physical and mental challenge I had ever done, now I have it all to do again. Finally I am hopeful to avoid the crowds on summit day and it seems like a number of teams are pushing to summit on the 21st. With a single route to the summit delays caused by overcrowding could prove fatal so I am hopeful my decision to go for the 25th will mean fewer people. Unless of course everyone else plays the same waiting game. #everest #everest2019 #lhotseface

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The chilling part read:

"With a single route to the summit delays caused by overcrowding could prove fatal so I am hopeful my decision to go for the 25th will mean fewer people. Unless of course everyone else plays the same waiting game."