It’s the image that took the world by storm. Published on various social media platforms by experienced mountaineer Nirmal Purja, the image depicts a traffic jam of brightly coloured climbers huddled on the narrow ridge waiting to complete their ascent to the summit of the highest peak in the world. The image has raised a number of questions about trekking on Mt Everest and brought overcrowding to the forefront of the debate.
Trekking and mountaineering tourist numbers to Mt Everest have been on the rise over the past decade, with reported summits increasing from 670 in 2013 to 802 in 2018. The 2019 season has followed suit to be busier than ever, with an estimated 320 climbers, including Purja, queuing to summit on May 22nd and an additional 120 climbers summiting the following day. For experienced mountaineers, these increasing numbers and subsequent queues are merely an inconvenience and added hurdle to completing their climb, however, for the vast majority of modern-day Everest climbers who are inexperienced tourists, the consequences of overcrowding on the southern Nepalese face of Mt Everest have proven to be deadly.
In the final weeks of May alone, as the Spring season drew to a close, eleven people reportedly died or went missing, more than the total number of recorded casualties for the entire 2018 season.
The Death Zone
Hiking officials have largely attributed these fatalities to weakness and exhaustion resulting from prolonged time spent in the so-called ‘death zone’, the area of land above 8,000 meters. As its name would suggest, the death zone has such reduced levels of oxygen that the body’s cells begin to deteriorate and ultimately die. Add sub-zero temperatures, high-speed winds, and depleting oxygen tanks and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Every minute counts in the death zone, and as climbers queue in overcrowded bottlenecks for up to four hours, they waste valuable time, oxygen, and energy, leaving them increasingly vulnerable to exhaustion and hypothermia.
How Did We Get Here?
The tourism industry has been gaining increasing momentum since it’s inception, however after decades of seemingly uncontrollable growth, many argue that a line has been crossed in many international destinations whereby the existence of tourism is proving more problematic than beneficial. Essentially, too many people are flocking to the same cities, landmarks, and natural wonders, and it’s the locals, infrastructure, and environment which are suffering the consequences of such overcrowding.
In the case of Everest, the high-altitude mountaineering experience which was previously reserved for the highly experienced has become overcommercialized and is available to anyone with the money to attempt. Prospective mountaineers merely require a passport and certificate of good health to gain a climbing permit, and with an increasing presence of low-cost operators, the top of the world is now more accessible than ever. As a result of such reduced barriers, Mt Everest is attracting an increasingly inexperienced market whose motivations to summit largely stem from the hope of social media traction, bragging rights, and ticking off a bucket list item.
Death, Degradation and Dependance
Not only does overcrowding on Mt Everest threaten the lives of climbers and Sherpas, but like many destinations grappling with overtourism, its effects are also being felt by the natural environment and local economy. Pollution on Everest is not a new concern, and unsurprisingly, as the number of people exploring its many trails has continually increased, so has the environmental impact of such activities. Despite regulations requiring visitors to leave no trace, each season tonnes of waste is left behind on the mountain, ranging from small plastic items and gas cylinders to tents, sleeping bags, and even corpses. Additionally, up to 12,000 kilograms of human excrement is removed from base camps to decompose in lower valley areas where water supplies often become polluted, therefore threatening the health of local communities.
How can we be better tourists in the age of overtourism?
Yes, Mt Everest is an incredible natural wonder of the world and no, we don’t have to put an end to tourism there altogether. We do, however, need to be conscious of our impacts and make more responsible decisions when it comes to visiting such fragile and potentially dangerous environments. It’s all about compromise, and there are many options which let you experience mountaineering in the Himalayas without all the risks and negative impacts. Here are a few simple ways you can do just that;
It’s clear that Mt Everest is one of the most desirable destinations on the planet right now, and for good reason! However, the time has come to acknowledge the issue of overtourism and the associated impacts on climber and Sherpa well-being, the environment, and local communities. Through responsible travel, we can experience the wonders of the world without leaving a trail of destruction in our paths.