Ambition and loss on Mount Everest

Everest has taken the lives of many climbers over the years. 2016 has seen six deaths, blamed mostly on commercialisation and poor regulation.

Photo by: Reuters (Archive)
Photo by: Reuters (Archive)

Mount Everest continues to attract amateur climbers who face steep risks.

Mount Everest has claimed over 280 lives since 1953, when Edmund Hillary became the first mountaineer to reach its summit. Many have died in the last two years alone on its slopes. In 2015, a massive earthquake sent tons of debris downhill, sweeping away 18 people to their deaths. A year before that 16 people were killed in an avalanche.

But the climbing season of 2016 has been particularly tragic for the way five hikers passed away within the span of a few days for reasons related to altitude sickness. Many observers think Nature wasn't to blame, but rather a deeper problem with the desire to conquer the world's tallest mountain.

All of those who died were extraordinary individuals.

The story of Australian lecturer Maria Strydom, who died in her husband's arms after succumbing to high altitude sickness, has touched people around the world. She was on a mission to prove that vegetarians have what it takes to climb the 29,000-feet tall mountain. She had practiced vigorously for the trip.

Maria with her husband on their last trip together

Eric Arnold, 36, from the Netherlands, was no novice to Mount Everest. He was a professional climber and had attempted to summit the mountain before.

Eric was an accomplished climber, but even he succumbed to altitude sickness.

And the three Indians who died this year and were part of the same team had led remarkable lives.

Paresh Chandra Nath, a 58-year-old tailor, came from a humble background. Nath was 11-years-old when he lost part of his left wrist in a firecracker explosion. That didn’t deter him. He worked, saved money and took hiking lessons from an institute. In 2014 he went up as far as the base camp of Mount Everest but came back after a deadly avalanche.

An amputated hand was never going to stop Nath from trying to conquer Everest.

Goutam Ghosh, a police sub-inspector, was also not new to mountain challenges. His Facebook profile is full of pictures from past expeditions to mountains in India.

Ghosh had plenty of experience but Everest was perhaps a climb too far.

For Subhas Paul, being a poor auto rickshaw driver was no deterrent either. He wooed sponsors to back his trip and would have achieved his dream of reaching the summit last year if not for the Nepal earthquake.

Nothing was going to stop Paul from reaching the summit.

But maybe it was their awe-inspiring ambition which undid them all.

Reports of deaths due to heart failure, oxygen deprivation and exhaustion related to altitude sickness have raised concern about the risks an increasing number of people are putting themselves through.

"To survive as a mountaineer, the most important skill is knowing when to draw the line, and I could see it then as clearly as if it were painted in the snow," Lincoln Hall, the famed Australian mountaineer, once said, according to the New York Times.

In May 2006, Hall survived a night alone on Mount Everest after he was left for dead. He was rescued the next day. He died in 2012 due to an unrelated illness.

But what he said is something every expert is talking about now: the importance for a climber to know when to stop.

"I feel like a lot of people don't know when to stop pushing themselves, and they don’t have a guide who can tell them when it’s far enough," said Garrett Madison of Madison Mountaineering in an interview to the National Geographic.

"It's like swimming out into the ocean – you don’t want to get so far out that you can’t swim back."

Everest is far from the world's most treacherous climb from a technical perspective. But less skilled climbers keen to conquer the highest points on each of the world's continents often fail to appreciate how much more difficult Everest is than the other six, people in the climbing community say.

Competition among low-cost local companies chasing a business that has boomed in recent years and is no longer dominated by international outfits has meanwhile undermined safety standards.

Some companies, charging around $30,000 a climb – or half that of high-end firms – are known to have sent relatively inexperienced climbers up the mountain without medically trained guides.

"There is this exponential growth in organisations offering guiding services on Everest and because there are so few internationally qualified guides in Nepal, it means the companies are engaging less and less in skilled workers," veteran climber Andrew Lock told Reuters.

Climbing is big business in Nepal, earning the government $3.1 million from 289 Everest permit fees this year.

Critics accuse Kathmandu of failing to enforce rules requiring past experience of high climbs, but Tourism Department official Bishnu Regmi said the government was committed to safety.

Over 280 people have died attempting to ascend the world's highest mountain, and bodies litter the mountain's "death zone" – the region above 8000 metres where oxygen levels are too low for people to survive for more than a few hours.

Author: Saad Hasan

TRTWorld and agencies