Having been there last year I have had a much more heightened awareness of this years expeditions.
The four people who I was watching closely; Kenton Cool, Mollie Hughes, Becky Bellworthy and Leanna Shuttleworth all summited the mountain and are all safely back down. Kenton fulfilled his Olympic Medal Quest and took a gold medal to the summit. While Leanna Shuttleworth became the youngest British female to summit both Mt Everest and all of the seven summits. Impressive stuff!
Before any summits had even been attempted this season Russell Brice and his team, Himalayan Experience, had already pulled the plug and decided to leave the mountain. Being such an experienced, prominent and involved team over the past few years them leaving the mountain must have sent shivers through base camp for those who decided to stay. The physical challenge of Everest is one thing but there’s such a huge mental game too. You spend weeks in base camp, the acclimatisation process is a long one and you have so much time to just think…. When should you make your summit push? Are you strong enough? What about the conditions of the Khumbu ice fall? The conditions of the Lhotse Face? What will the weather be like? … Endless questions, you can see how easy it could be to psych yourself out. Let alone dealing with the fact that such a big team has opted to leave the mountain.
In the press this photograph has done the rounds …
…and the words “Everest traffic jam” have appeared in many headlines and stories.
It’s not uncommon to hear about queues on Everest, you may have heard stories, for example, of the bottle necks created at the Hilary Step which sees people waiting for hours and hours and sometimes tragically this can costs them their lives.
The route to the top is set with fixed lines, often you are climbing along a ridge, there are no over taking or passing places and so your speed is very much determined by the people in front. The day I summited the weather was bad and so most people who had set out for the summit turned back. Perhaps that bad weather was good luck as I didn’t have to wait in any queues. I reached the Hilary Step and waited minutes before ascending it.
The climbing season for Everest is short and the weather windows to summit are even shorter. In past years there has usually been a few summit windows. For example last year Kenton Cool summited early May, my team summited on the 12th May and other teams were still getting to the summit two weeks later. This meant that the volume of people summiting on those days were generally less.
This year, due to the weather, it was looking like there might only be one or two summit windows, which is why when the first decent weather report came through most teams went for it. And I think this was a huge contributing factor to the queues we saw on Everest two weeks ago.
That doesn’t of course deal with the bigger questions that have arisen now that more and more people are climbing Everest. Are there too many people on the mountain? Is it too easy for anybody, even those without sufficient training and experience to join an Everest climbing team?
There’s no easy answer to this. As the world of exploring and adventure opens up with technology, media and the pace of progress moving rapidly forward it’s inevitable that more people will have the choice to climb Everest. And who are you or I to remove that choice?
As a mountaineer I think first and foremost you must take responsibility for yourself. I asked myself these questions before I went to Everest. Was I experienced and fit enough to be on the mountain? Did I know the risks? Did I expect other people to risk their lives trying to save me? Was I prepared to save someone who perhaps shouldn’t have been their in the first place, possibly risking my life to do so? These were only some of the many questions I thought about and answered before I went.
For now the mountaineers have the choice, we can put ourselves in these places but we must be fully aware of the reality of doing so.