"Death, Carnage, Chaos": Analysing the 2019 Himalayan Climbing Season

Ash Routen speaks to mountain guides and journalists to analyse what went wrong this season, in which 21 climbers were confirmed dead or missing on 8000ers.


I cannot believe what I saw up there. Death. Carnage. Chaos. Lineups. Dead bodies on the route and in tents at Camp Four. People who I tried to turn back who ended up dying. People being dragged down. Walking over bodies. Everything you read in the sensational headlines all played out on our summit night
wrote Adventure Filmmaker and Everest climber Elia Saikaly last week

Sounds like any other year on Everest, but this season there's a growing sense that the death and rescue operations on the 8000'ers have spiraled out of control. There have been twenty-one confirmed fatalities/missing climbers on the 8000'ers this spring, with eleven of those occurring on Everest. The 2019 season is now the fourth (along with 1982 and 2006) deadliest in Everest history.

Such is the concern that the UIAA (International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation) have released a statement on the matter, and the Nepalese government have made all too familiar noises about screening Everest clients more closely (don't hold your breath on that one).

To get a better handle on the reasons behind the events of this season, I asked a number of 8000'er Guides and mountaineering journalists two questions: What are the key issues which have led to the numerous rescue situations and deaths on the 8000'ers this season? And what could be done in future to address these issues?

Lukas FurtenbachGuided Everest from the North this season. Owner of Furtenbach Adventures.

Furtenbach on the summit in 2019.  © Lukas Furtenbach
Furtenbach on the summit in 2019.
© Lukas Furtenbach

Most of the deaths happened on Everest. First it's important to say that the Chinese side of Everest, where I climbed with my team is totally different to the Nepalese side. China implemented strict regulations for operators and climbers, limited permit numbers on Everest (142 this year compared to 381 in Nepal), is managing the garbage on the mountain (Clean Everest and Everest Awareness projects) and has a project to remove dead bodies in accordance with the families of these climbers. We moved our operation to the Chinese side in 2017 as we are convinced we can operate safer there.

I am not surprised at all about the numerous rescues. Many of the deaths were totally inexperienced climbers. Most of the deaths [15/21] were clients from Nepal based budget operators; few were from a western operator [5 western operators + 1 independent climber]. A lot of the deaths were from one Nepalese company [6 deaths from Seven Summit Treks, although they do make up the majority of clients on the 8000'ers]. The head of this company made the remarkable statement, that he as an operator is not responsible to bring his members down safely. Maybe there is a connection…

Of course the weather window was short this year. But in the end the Nepalese side saw eight or nine days with summits on Everest so far. The Chinese side had only two to three days with summits this year. There were two deaths on the Chinese side (both of them not related to crowds, altitude/oxygen or weather) vs. nine on the Nepalese side.

If people have to wait too long, they run out of oxygen if their operator didn't calculate extra oxygen for this waiting time (which is a mistake from the operator). If climbers run out of oxygen high up on the mountain they develop altitude related health problems (HAPE, HACE) very quickly and can die within hours.

Here again exists a significant difference between the Chinese and Nepalese side of the mountain. In my experience there are more experienced climbers on the north side as their operators do screen the members. On the Nepalese side there are definitely more inexperienced climbers. India is for the first time, the strongest nation on the Nepalese side. Maybe an important side note: most of the twenty-one deaths on 8,000m peaks this season were from Nepal based operators. That is not to blame a Nation; it is just a fact that has to be considered.

The answer is very simple - limit permit numbers and have strict rules for operators and how they choose their clients.

Mingma Sherpa Owner of Seven Summit Treks and first South Asian to climb all the 8000'ers.

Mingma Sherpa  © Mingma Sherpa
Mingma Sherpa
© Mingma Sherpa

If I have to talk about the key issues, you know that everything that happens in the mountains are all sudden and are dangerous. One of the main reasons is that year-by-year the number of people coming to climb the mountains are increasing. For example this year around 1,500 (Sherpas and Guides included) people climbed the 8,000m peaks in Nepal. Now out of those many people, around one hundred were rescued, and twenty-one died, and so it's the mountains that explain the risk of life while climbing. People when they start their journey they already know they have a 50% chance of returning safely and a 50% chance of dying or being rescued. It's a fight between nature, so even though the numbers look like they're increasing, we have to say it's normal to have this number of rescues and deaths, because if we check the background history of the people who died or were rescued, they all were a really good climbers and have climbed several mountains. So we are solely fighting against nature, which makes it even more risky because it's impossible to know what's coming next.

These issues can't be stopped in future, as because everyone knows when it comes to mountains there will be deaths and rescues. But we can decrease the number of deaths and rescues. The climbers should help us by taking training, gathering experience and studying the mountain before they come to climb any mountain, which will by far decrease the rate of deaths and rescues.

Simon LoweManaging Director of Jagged Globe.

Simon Lowe.  © Simon Lowe.
Simon Lowe.
© Simon Lowe.

The answer is nobody really knows, because there is no inquiry into each and every death. The media coverage focused on the queue as shown on one day in Nim's [Nirmal Purja] photograph, but there are always multiple factors behind a death or accident. Clearly, many of the deaths this year were nothing to do with the queue, as they happened elsewhere or for other reasons (a fall, for example). The queue may have been a contributory factor, no doubt, but it would not have been the only reason, even for those fatalities near to the summit. After all, people die close to the top every year, queue or not.

An inquiry to establish the facts of each death, as best they can be known, should be mandatory. The inquiry would be fact finding only, not to apportion blame. The facts should be made public so we can all learn lessons and improve the safeguarding of future climbers and Sherpas. The enquiry would be independent but paid for through the permit system perhaps with a specific charge to meet the additional costs of each enquiry for those companies who have suffered the fatality being enquired into.

If there were an inquiry system, we might see a trend. Alan Arnette has done some work this year by reporting the known facts, such as the name, age and nationality of the victim, the expedition organiser, the leader and the location. I am sure more information can be gleaned from the Himalayan Database for previous years, and perhaps the records held in Kathmandu or Lhasa would improve the information further. Just from a cursory glance at Alan's list this year, the deaths of climbers in their fifties or sixties jumps out. Is age and/ or gender significant or are such deaths proportionate to their representation on the mountain? If their deaths are disproportionate, would pre-trip stress ECG's, and such rigorous medical examination, reduce deaths in this client group by giving forewarning of potential stroke or heart attack?

Other facts for an inquiry to gather would include whether the casualty/ fatality was delayed at bottlenecks, the weather and wind, their previous climbing experience, how much oxygen they had, what flow-rate they were on or able to use, what oxygen mask and regulator system they were using, where exactly on the mountain they died and what the pre-acclimatisation routine had been (for example, did the climber successfully complete his/ her scheduled acclimatisation rotations and/ or was there any illness before going to the top). I am sure wiser heads could think of more factors that might be relevant too.

By a formal inquiry into past deaths, we would get constructive solutions rather than a knee-jerk response solely aimed at avoiding blame, deflecting bad PR or placating the media.

As to this year, I think the queue and the permit system (by association the Nepalese Government) risk being scapegoated by those who had control of the teams on the mountain. Knowing that the limited weather window would lead to a lot of people trying to summit in the same short timeframe, why did they not do anything to mitigate the risks that would obviously ensue? It was their decisions at the time that led to the queue; it was not mandated by the permits held in each climber's hand that they should go and stand in a queue. What's more, as we have seen, it takes something in addition to a queue for people to die, perhaps insufficient oxygen being the prime culprit. To my mind, it is the paucity of good decision-making from the expedition organisers, the guides and the climbers themselves, that is they key factor in the tragedies that occur every year and the key to future prevention.

I don't think more regulation or restricting permits is without merit, but by itself it won't achieve what people think it will achieve. And how would a limited number of permits be issued? A lottery, as has been suggested by some, would not work for reasons other than it would be corrupted (we saw forged permits being issued last year, for instance).

The competence of the organisers, leaders, the climbers' and some Sherpa guides needs to be improved. We are now asking Sherpas to act as Guides, yet that is not their traditional role and they have not been trained as Guides, except for the very rare Sherpa IFMGA members. However, we must start with the climbers themselves.

The Nepalese will be worried that reducing numbers will reduce their income. This is justified, not cynical – why shouldn't a poor country maximise its earnings from what is a natural resource, but it needs to do so without undue harm, including to the environment. I believe the Nepalese should insist on an "Himalayan Apprenticeship", as we used to call it, with each climber going to Everest only after having climbed a few 6,000m peaks and a 7,000m peak, all in Nepal, plus an 8,000m peak. The Nepalese would get more royalties from these trips combined, spread income from climbing to other communities outside the Khumbu and it would trim down the numbers making it to Everest. It would create competent climbers, dedicated to climbing in Nepal and deserving of a shot at the World's Highest Summit. What's more, such climbers would come to understand what is needed to climb Everest with a reasonable margin of safety and they would demand that from their leaders and the companies that they would go with. It would return dignity to Everest and dignity to the people who climb it.

Alan ArnetteMountaineering Journalist with 3 summits of 8000'ers.

Alan Arnette on the summit of Everest in 2011.  © Alan Arnette
Alan Arnette on the summit of Everest in 2011.
© Alan Arnette

Everyone is looking for a simple answer to the tragic string of Everest 2019 deaths. This is similar to searching for a solution to mass shootings, the US opioid epidemic or world hunger. The answer as to why people die on Everest is a complex intersection of human ambitions, greed and the natural vagaries of the Earth's weather.

In 2019 there was a rare confluence of three factors. First, the jet stream stayed parked on the summit allowing only five summit days when the winds were under 30 mph compared to the historical range of seven to eleven. In 2018, there were eleven straight days that allowed for a record 670 summits without the carnage we saw this year. Five Everest climbers died that year.

Second, is the makeup of a new demographic of climbers being lulled to Everest by historic low prices. With operators now offering climbs at $30,000 compared to the "old-school" price of $45,000 to $65,000, people who simply can't afford to gain the much-needed mountaineering and altitude experience on lesser peaks believing it's not needed, jump on the low-cost Everest train.

Finally, in the "wrong" column are the operators who staff with less than qualified individuals who lack the proper medical, mountaineering and client experience to respond properly in a crisis.

The solution lies in governments having strict qualification on who can guide and climb and not simply accepting their money without question. You have to qualify for the Boston Marathon and the Iron Man, but not to climb the world's highest peak. Therein lies the problem.

Chatur TamangGuided Everest from the South this season. Owner of ChaTours Treks and Expeditions.

Chatur Tamang, right, on the summit in 2019.  © Chatur Tamang
Chatur Tamang, right, on the summit in 2019.
© Chatur Tamang

I had a long wait before the summit and was extremely cold. In my whole climbing life I never was as cold as I was this time. The main reason [for the deaths/rescue attempts on Everest] for me was the cold, and people who aren't mentally and physically ready for it to be a great obstacle. Because of the long wait so much oxygen was wasted and some people ran out of it earlier than expected. Even one of my guides was affected, his oxygen finished above the Hillary step on the descent, so we needed to help him to descend.

The main solution is on the selection of people who will be climbing; there should be fitness and medical control for the people who want to climb. It should be not only business but care. Nowadays it's just a pure business, climbing agencies taking anyone who can pay. Because of the high demand for Guides, there are lots of people (Guides) who are not professional and not experienced enough to lead people.

Dan RichardsCEO of Global Rescue (GR were involved in a number of rescue operations this season e.g. Wui Kin Chin on Annapurna).

We're seeing a consistently increasing trend of poorly resourced trekking companies bringing under experienced clients on summit expeditions. The companies' mad scramble to maximise profits during the brief Himalayan summiting window has led to severe overcrowding, endangerment of client lives and far too many avoidable deaths even in the absence of significant weather events.

We're encouraged by the Nepalese governments' efforts to crack down on the comparatively small number of bad actors that have created a web of corruption in the Himalayan trekking industry and hope that others will join in shining the light on unethical practices that put client lives at risk for profit. Ultimately, trekkers need greater transparency to fully understand their guide service's practices, track record, and limitations before exposing themselves to the inherent risks that come with travel above 7,000m, where helicopters cannot fly.

Stefan NestlerMountaineering Journalist

Stefan Nestler.  © Stefan Nestler
Stefan Nestler.
© Stefan Nestler

Hubris and lack of humility before the mountain - for me these are the main reasons for the many deaths this spring season. There is an increasing number of clients who actually lack the climbing experience to tackle an 8000'er with a healthy amount of personal responsibility and who believe they can buy 100% safety. I notice some operators who lure their clients with dumping prices and keep quiet about where they save costs: on qualified personnel and on bottled oxygen, which may be sufficient for the ascent and fast descent, but not for an emergency. And I see a government of Nepal that wants to milk Mount Everest and the other 8000'ers financially to the last dollar consciously accepting, for example, traffic jams on Everest's summit ridge.

I'm skeptical as to whether the screw, which is already over tightened, can really be turned back again. From my point of view it's necessary to limit the number of permits, because masses on the mountain increase the risk. There should be mandatory standards for expedition operators: limited numbers of team members, Mountain Guides with international certificates, sufficient bottled oxygen. Summit candidates should be obliged to prove a sufficient level of mountain experience. Another idea could be fixed ropes only at the key points instead of on the complete route to the summit. Then many would reach their limits further down. More important for me than all regulations, however, is a return to humility: before the mountains with all their risks - and before their own limits.

Tim Mosedale Guided on Nuptse this season, 6 Everest summits.

Tim Mosedale on top of Everest in 2017.  © Tim Mosedale
Tim Mosedale on top of Everest in 2017.
© Tim Mosedale

Needy clients who are not being looked after properly is becoming a toxic mix on Everest. Generally speaking fatalities on Everest are down to relatively few factors depending where on the hill the event happens. Staff tend to die lower down the mountain (innocuous accidents due to a blasé approach to safety... falling off ladders whilst not clipped in for instance), whereas clients tend to die higher up the mountain (Hypoxia, HACE / HAPE, running out of oxygen, and/or lack of access to extra oxygen), exhaustion, complications brought about by frostbite etc.) particularly on summit day.

This is becoming exacerbated by the fact that there are more and more inexperienced, novice, unfit members signing up with companies that offer a poor provision of staff, logistics and a seemingly lax approach to safety.

Staff who have limited or no experience and who have a lack of understanding of high altitude physiology can find themselves suddenly very exposed when their client collapses on the summit push. Whatever the reason for the collapse, if there is no infrastructure (or knowledge) within the team to deal with a sudden emergency then the outcome is fairly obvious.

Having a 'Climbing Sherpa' alongside is one thing. Having a member of staff (Climbing Sherpa or Westerner) who knows how to independently deal with a sudden emergency in a high altitude remote environment is a completely different prospect.

Partly this is down to the knowledge of the staff on the scene and partly this is down to the ability for the team to react, in whatever way(s) necessary, whether that be deploying other staff to the incident, having access to spare oxygen/mask/regulator and the ability to administer high altitude medication immediately.

An ability to deal with a complex set of issues methodically and systematically will greatly enhance the outcome. An untrained member of staff with little or no knowledge who has no support from Base Camp will undoubtedly flounder. Someone who has years and years of expertise under their belt along with some first aid knowledge and with direction and assistance from Base Camp will probably make a huge difference to the outcome. But that expertise tends to come at a cost, which is why the more expensive Western-led expeditions generally have very good success rates and very low fatality rates.

It's a fairly simple equation. Generally speaking, the more you pay the better your chances of success and the lower your chances of becoming a statistic.

Having said that, due diligence goes both ways and whilst a client might be willing to pay more money for more inclusions it is also up to the company to decide whether that client is suitable for the expedition. If they are a potential liability to themselves then they are a liability to everyone around them.

Inexperienced clients can get very high on Everest before things become frayed at the edges and it is incumbent on the company, and the client, to make sure that there isn't a critical failure that could have been preempted or avoided.

The queue was blamed this year, but people died before that day and people died after that day. Some were avoidable deaths and some perhaps weren't. Whether the queue was to blame for the deaths on the 23rd is open to debate. The crowds won't have helped but they weren't necessarily to blame.

Death/Missing Climber Information Courtesy of Alan Arnette (21 total, 11 on Everest):

Deaths/Missing

  1. Climbing The Seven Summits, Everest: American, Christopher John Kulish, 61, died near South Col after summiting.
  2. Everest Summit Climb, Everest: British Robin Haynes Fisher, 44, died on descent after summiting.
  3. Himalayan Ski Treks, Everest: Nepali Dhruba Bista, died at EBC after evacuation from C3.
  4. Seven Summits Treks, Makalu: Sherpa Nima Tshering Sherpa, died after summiting at C2.
  5. 360 Expeditions, Everest: Irish Kevin Hynes, 56, died at North Col after turning back at 8,300m. He had previously summited Everest South and Lhotse.
  6. Peak Promotion, Everest: Indian Nihal Bagwan: died near the South Col.
  7. Kobler & Partner, Everest: Austrian Ernst Landgraf, 65, died on the 2nd Step after summiting.
  8. Dreamers Destination Treks, Everest: Indian Kalpana Das, 49, Odisha, India died after summit on descent near Balcony.
  9. Guided by India's Transcend with logistics from Arun Treks, Everest: Indian Anjali S Kulkarni, 54, died after summit on descent near C4.
  10. Pioneer Adventures, Everest: American Don Cash, 54, died near Hillary Step.
  11. Seven Summit Treks, Everest: Indian Ravi Thakar, died near C4 after summit.
  12. Seven Summit Treks, Everest: Irish Seamus Lawless, 39, missing, presumed dead after slipping near the South Col.
  13. Seven Summit Treks, Makalu: Indian Dipankar Ghosh, 52, died after summit.
  14. Seven Summits Treks, Annapurna: Malaysian Wui Kin Chin, 48, cause of death unknown. Exposed for 3 days at 8,500m after summit.
  15. Seven Summits Trek, Makalu: Indian Narayan Singh died of altitude illness at 8,200m.
  16. Independent, Makalu: Peruvian Richard Hidalgo, 52, died in tent at 6,300m, climbing with no O's.
  17. Peak Promotion, Kangchenjunga: Indian Biplab Baidya, 48, died of altitude sickness.
  18. Peak Promotion, Kangchenjunga: Indian Kuntal Karar, 46, died of altitude sickness.
  19. Peak Promotion, Kangchenjunga: Chilean Rodrigo Vivanco missing, presumed dead.
  20. Makalu Xtreme, Lhotse: Bulgarian Ivan Yuriev Tomov, died after no Os'/ no support summit.
  21. Summit Climb, Cho Oyu: Phujung Bhote Sherpa fell into a crevasse while fixing rope near Camp 2.


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3 Jun

Thanks Ash, good to get the input from those people. There's some commonality there, and interesting to note that some say the numbers/permits are not necessarily the problem, which I think is largely correct.

Of course the notable comment: "People when they start their journey they already know they have a 50% chance of returning safely and a 50% chance of dying or being rescued. It's a fight between nature..." and "...if we check the background history of the people who died or were rescued, they all were a really good climbers." shows that, there is, er, a variety of levels of insight and wisdom between operators, which is probably not irrelevant! :-)

A good adjunct to this might be a (surprisingly good) piece of work done by the our ABC with lots of well-presented stats derived from the Himalayan Database:

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-06-02/unpacking-the-tragedy-on-mount-everest/11162770

And another good piece, especially as it comes from India itself:

"It’s cool to stand at a Party with a glass in your hand and talk about how you faced the challenge of Everest. It’s great to be garlanded in your local area by your local Member of Parliament, among a group of equally ignorant folks and show picture of you proudly standing on top of Everest and with the National Flag and perhaps land a Government job or get promoted from constable to a Sub-Inspector. If you are lucky and get some backing from a politician you could even land yourself an award or a plot of land."

https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/voices/the-cost-of-glory-climbing-mount-everest/

Also, another very experienced guide has written his views down particularly well, and makes an interesting comment about expanding the rope-fixing crew to get the ropes set earlier so there can be more usable summit windows (as there used to be years ago):

"If we had a larger team of rope fixers who had a mandate to fix to the summit by the end of April there would be an entire month of potential summit days and the crowding would be virtually non-existent."

http://adventureconsultantsblog.com/fixing-everest-part-2/

3 Jun

For years divers have understood the Incident Pit, whereby one small and apprently harmless problem sets you on a steepening slope to disaster. The equivalent to spending too much time in a queue must be spending too much time at depth.

I'm afraid that greed, corruption and ego are the vices resonsible for this avoidable disaster.

3 Jun

Seems poorly timed to publish this (very good) article while climbers are missing in the Himalaya, and their relatives deeply worried, and some bodies seen but not identified. I don't see why UKC couldn't wait a few days. Cynically I suspect it is because at the moment journalists will be crawling over the site and it's a good time to get content out.

3 Jun

I find it remarkable that the owner of Seven Summits seems happy to take people's money while accepting that half of them will die or be rescued. He seems to take the attitude "they're crap climbers, what do they expect?"

3 Jun

That was my first reaction. No problem with the article but it’s poorly timed.

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