At 0915 hrs local time on Thursday 25 May 2006, I summited Mt Everest. It was my first attempt on the 8850m world’s tallest mountain and I had only ever reached a maximum altitude of just under 7000m previously, with a climb of Ama Dablam two years before. However, having been climbing and mountaineering on and off since I was 17; undergoing some of the most extreme physical challenges in my life previously, both in and out of the Army; and having put three years detailed planning, hard training and total dedication to climbing the ‘Big E’, I felt I had at least a 50-50 chance of reaching its summit.
Nevertheless, I very nearly didn’t. My oxygen mask failed for all but the final two hours of the ascent and the entire descent – Atkins testing it after reaching home and finding a malfunction preventing any oxygen entering the bladder. The result was the climb nearly killed me and the 7 hours descent from the summit in a totally hypoxic state was the hardest 7 hours of my entire life.
On the plus side, my slow ascent in comparison to team mates Tim Calder, Tim Colquhoun and Rob Casserley and their three Sherpas did result in myself and Tundhu Sherpa having the summit entirely to ourselves for well over an hour – staying that long only because the mask was working when I reached the summit and took it off to put on the ice. It never worked again…
10 years on, how has the mountain changed? Greatly it seems. Prior to commercial expeditions commencing in 1993, less than 1000 climbers had scaled its lofty heights with a success rate of approximately 18%. By 2006 over 2000 had reached the summit with success rates reaching around 36%. By the end of the 2013 season, a total of 4093 individuals had topped out, with total summits (i.e, including multi summits) being over 7000, with a success rate souring to nearly 50% - a huge change in both numbers and summit prospects.
On the numbers side, in 2006 Base Camp South Side had approximately 175 foreign climbers present. In 2013, when I last visited there, that number had grown to nearly 375. Add Sherpas, porters, cooks, bottle washers and everyone else, it amounts to a small town settling on the Khumbu Glacier every year. On the success percentages, better weather forecasting, lines now being fixed all the way from Base Camp to the summit; better cooperation and coordination between teams and better equipment have all contributed greatly to the higher chances of reaching the top. Only the tragic disasters of 2014 (the Khumbu Ice Fall avalanche) and 2015 (the Nepal Earthquake) have halted the progression.
This year, although total numbers were less than in 2013, it seems hundreds have again reached the top with, at the time of writing, 6 deaths. Hearing that 150 climbers reached the summit on Thursday 19th May, I can only wonder that, had the Hilary Step not been bypassable with a snow bridge due to heavy snow this season, how the resulted queues may have caused more deaths. For time at altitude kills and this is the unfortunate consequence of too many people attempting it on any one day and any one season.
There is another unintended consequence of more people from all walks of life coming to the Himalayas – a noticeable lessening of the ethics and respect that should govern anyone who ventures into the great outdoors, with reports of stealing of equipment or food, or using other climbers’ kit and tents coming in. Something friends of mine have experienced on other mountains in the past few years.
Are there too many people climbing the mountain? Yes. Has it become too commercialized? Yes. Are there people attempting it that shouldn’t be there? Yes. But, with the possible exception of the last, these claims could as easily be levelled at Kilimanjaro, a brutally commercial enterprise, as Everest. And simply reflects a world we live in where more people feel an urge or need to attempt something outside of what has become a relentless life of longer working hours, stress and overwhelm – be it for a sense of achievement, significance, direction, purpose, legacy or whatever. And whether it is a marathon, Ironman, Kili or Everest., more people than ever before are attempting challenges that were the preserve of hard core athletes a generation ago. With no shortage of operators and companies offering packages to meet the demand, the reasons for the numbers on Everest will be obvious.
Should it be regulated? I believe so. A requirement to have summited an 8000m peak prior to attempting Everest would be relatively easy to impose and give any person with a desire to attempt Everest an invaluable indication of how they perform at high altitude. Although that could still mean someone arriving at EBC having climbed one mountain in their entire life, it would hopefully prevent those that can’t even put a pair of crampons on from being there.
Nothing is static in the world we live in and we have to recognise that more and more people will attempt to summit Mt Everest. And who am I or anyone to say they shouldn’t. For, despite the negative press, it is still a magnificent mountain and icon that should be open to everyone….