The numbers attempting the climb in May led to bottlenecks in the “death zone,” where very low oxygen levels put lives at risk. Handout/AFP

The climbing season in Nepal this year has been crowded, deadly and wracked with controversy. The spectacular rush to get to the top of Mt Everest, the world’s highest peak, has cost 11 mountaineers their lives.

Among the deceased are a Nepali guide, two Americans, two Irishmen, one Austrian, and four Indians.

On Tuesday morning, American mountaineer Christopher John Kulish, 61, climbed Everest via the Southeast Ridge. But sadly, he died while descending from the summit towards South Col, which sits at an altitude of around 7,900 meters on the Nepalese side of the mountain. Kulish was the 11th climber to die on the top of the world this season.

But climbers have also perished on many other peaks this season – 21 on six different mountains over 8,000 meters high in the Himalayas. Most of them – 17 – lost their lives within nine days, authorities have said.

This year also marks the highest number of permits given out by the Nepal government to prospective climbers. The 381 permits are not as surprising as the fact that almost an equal number of guides accompanied these people from all over the world to climb Everest, which is 8,848 meters tall.

Analysts say it is not just inexperience that led to these climbers dying. The weather was also a big factor in these fateful events. This season, mountaineers had just a single window to get to the top.

The traffic congestion was pictured by Nirmal Purja, a Gurkha mountaineer who served with the British Special Forces (known on Instagram as @nimsdai). It suggests that climbers took deadly risks in the zone above 8,000 meters, where oxygen levels are very low for humans. That also left them susceptible to poor weather.

Officials said the traffic jam on the world’s highest peak was ominous, as the air is thin and most climbers have depleted oxygen cylinders.

Temba Tsheri Sherpa, the founder of Asia Voyage Nepal, told Asia Times: “The deaths are mainly due to weather and inexperience of climbers and not because of the traffic. The climbers knew that a single oxygen cylinder would also fail them.

“The lure of climbing Mt Everest is commercialized these days. There’s a war going on between operators and agents. And the climbers, too, go where they provide a cheaper rate. They do not assess the risk,” he said.

The cost of climbing Mt Everest is US$11,000 and it is an important source of income for a developing country like Nepal. This year conditions at the tallest mountain were not good until the middle of May and those who had permits had to make the attempt in two weeks when the weather was better for climbing.

Mountaineers make their way to the top of Mount Everest from the south face in Nepal. Photo: Phunjo Lama / AFP

Viral photo ‘illegal’

Mira Acharya, director at Nepal’s Department of Tourism, said in a video interview: “It is unfortunate that the photo of traffic jam on Everest has gone viral. We are dealing with this issue and let me remind that the viral photo goes against Mountaineering Law 2059 No. 24 and no one can publish any material without taking permission from the government.

“The mountaineering expedition team shall provide all the news relating to mountaineering expedition through the liaison officer to the Government of Nepal,” she added.

Alan Arnette in his popular blog wrote: “As I will develop in this post there are four reasons for the deaths on the Nepal side this season: a) Too many people; b) Too few summit windows; c) Too many inexperienced people climbing; and, d) inadequate climber support”.

On Sunday May 26, the Nepal Tourism Board released a press release cautioning people not to make “rash judgments” on the causes of death without awaiting “scientific results”.

Acharya also said that she was yet to determine if the excessive crowd was the reason for so many deaths. “Nepal doesn’t believe in commercializing Mt Everest and neither does it encourage breaking records…” she said.

But Temba Tsheri Sherpa said the government erred by issuing permits to anyone and everyone. He said it should cut the numbers for the next two to three years while reforming its policies.

And he reminded interested climbers not to underestimate Everest. People would only know how difficult it is to climb the highest peak once they have climbed higher than 8,000 meters, he said.

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