Nirmal Purja is someone who responds to a crisis by becoming completely calm. When the Nepalese mountaineer saw the line of about 100 people waiting to reach the crest of Everest on 22 May last year, he knew there was no way he could overtake the slower climbers. Mentally, he abandoned the record he was attempting, for the fastest climb between the neighbouring peaks of Lhotse and Everest.
Poor weather at the start of the climbing season had meant there was only a very small window of time in which people could attempt the summit – just three clear days. In 2018, the year before, there had been 11 good days, allowing climbing companies to stagger their teams. Purja had known there would be queues, but was taken aback by the numbers.
Purja, a 36-year-old veteran of the Royal Navy’s elite Special Boat Service, has climbed Everest four times, and was philosophical. “It is what it is. I always try to stay calm on the mountain,” he tells me, speaking from his home in Winchester. In normal circumstances, he would have been up Everest this year, but he is defusing the frustrations of lockdown by writing a book about climbing all 14 of the world’s highest mountains in just 189 days last year.
He took a picture of the queue at the top of Everest, which he later posted on Instagram, mainly as an explanation to his sponsors and supporters – a vivid image of the obstacle that had slowed him down. Then he tried to assess how he could help. He knew things could go catastrophically wrong, and quickly; this stretch of Everest, from the sheer rockface of the Hillary Step to the summit, was the most exposed part of the climb, with drops of up to 3,000 metres (9,842ft) on either side. As people queued, they got colder and used up unplanned-for quantities of their oxygen supplies. It was literally the worst place on Earth to get stuck in a queue.
Looking at the line, with climbers travelling in both directions, Purja realised it would be impossible to rescue anyone who needed to be taken off the summit fast. Every climber was clipped to a safety rope, and the path is too narrow to allow the more experienced climbers to unclip and pass the slower climbers. The queue continued to build. Purja couldn’t be confident that other climbers would be helpful in an emergency. “If you have to drag a body through that, no one would be able to give up the path to them. There is no path, and people are in their own survival state at that altitude, struggling to put one foot in front of another. Everyone is in that fine line between death and life.”
Purja paused at Hillary Step and tried to quell flaring tensions between climbers; there were arguments about whether the people trying to get to the summit should be given priority over those trying to descend. “I managed the queue for two hours. Rather than people fighting over who should go up first, it’s better if it is managed systematically,” he says. He worked out who had been waiting in critically cold conditions for the longest and prioritised them, and tried to calm the other climbers, taking off his mask to issue instructions.
Purja’s experience and military background meant that climbers were happy to be guided by him. Elsewhere, local Nepalese guides were finding it harder to convince their clients that they needed to turn back. There was a dangerous clash between the typically alpha-plus personalities of people who want to summit Everest and their guides, who are dependent on their fees for survival.
“When people are in stressful situations, they do shout,” Purja says. “You can only get a few words out at that altitude: ‘Move faster! Come off!’ I disagree with it, but people come to Everest carrying a huge financial burden. Not only that, but they have spent more than two months and a lot of effort to be ready. That’s why everybody rushes for the top.”
A year on, Thomas Becker tells me he remains disturbed by the behaviour he witnessed while queueing to reach the highest place on Earth. He is a lifelong climber, although it was his first attempt at Everest. He describes the experience as being “very Lord Of The Flies”. At the worst part of the queue, he was stuck in a line of around 40 climbers, behind a woman who was struggling. He had never met her and didn’t know her name, but was worried by how inexperienced she seemed, unable to use her ice axe. He spent several hours helping her, so that he could shuffle forward himself, patiently advising her where to put her feet and catching her when she slipped. Behind them, tempers began to fray and climbers started swearing: “Fucking get moving!”, “Get the fuck off here!”, “What the fuck are you doing?”
Becker, a former rock guitarist who teaches human rights law at Harvard, was startled by the ruthlessness of his fellow climbers. Earlier in the day, he had discovered that someone had stolen eight of the oxygen tanks his team had stashed by their tents at base camp, which meant he was climbing the most dangerous stretch of the mountain with just two canisters instead of six. The theft was “disappointing”, he says now, with polite understatement. “There is a code of ethics on the mountain that you don’t steal anyone else’s oxygen, because it could be fatal.” He was also puzzled. “This is not the norm. Sometimes, someone might take one to stay alive, but to have a big chunk of tanks stolen… The folks we were with said this was the first time they had ever seen anything like that.”
He managed to feel a brief sense of elation as he embarked on the final stretch, edging closer to an ambition he had held since reading about Everest as a child. But it was a fleeting sensation. “It became less exciting when we started to see people being brought down, dead bodies. It became sad quickly.” By the time he got to the summit, he had walked past a number of corpses. “Just 10 minutes shy of Hillary Step, there was a guy attached to a rope who had passed away, dangling there. I think I saw five bodies that day, six maybe. There are people literally lying in your path, frozen,” he says. “It’s brutal.”
Purja’s startling images of the queue at the top of Everest quickly went round the world. People who know nothing about mountaineering were shocked by this contradiction between the mountain’s reputation as a lonely and unattainable peak, and the banal reality of a rush-hour crush. But it was more than banal: 11 people died on Everest that May, more than twice the number of climbers who had perished the previous year – a figure widely attributed to the crowded conditions and the extra physical stresses caused by waiting in temperatures of -30C, at an altitude where oxygen levels are not sufficient to sustain human life. Climbers call it “the death zone”.
But within the climbing community, people were less surprised. Last year’s was just a more extreme version of the bottlenecks that have been troubling the mountain with increasing frequency. The deaths were not caused by the queue itself, they argue, but a different problem: the rising numbers of inexperienced climbers who view Everest as the ultimate selfie destination, and the proliferation of companies willing to take their money and let them have a go, regardless of their ability.
“There are people who call up and ask: ‘I’ve never climbed anything. Can I go with your company? And I need a discount,’” says Greg Vernovage, Everest expedition leader with International Mountain Guides, a well-established climbing firm. “Unfortunately, there is probably a company out there now that will take them. It’s very easy to jump on your computer and dig around for the lowest common denominator.”
Last year, 381 permits to climb the mountain were issued by the Nepalese government (a record number, 35 more than the previous year). The cost of climbing Everest varies wildly; cut-price operators will offer to take you up for as little as $30,000 (£24,600) – a price that includes the $11,000 (£9,000) permit – or you can pay $200,000 (£164,000) if you want to stay at the best hotels in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu and be taken by the most experienced guides. Last autumn, Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism showed no sign of wanting to restrict the numbers of permits issued after last season, encouraging more people to come “for both pleasure and fame”.
There is suspicion that less well-established guides and companies find it harder to tell tourists they need to turn back if they see them struggling. “Just like a kid thinks they can eat a whole bag of candy without getting sick, climbers just want to stand on top. They don’t know the risks and they aren’t concerned with them,” Vernovage says. “Companies need to be a bit more forceful with clients. Just because you pay the money, that doesn’t give you a ticket to be on the summit team. I’ve had that difficult conversation with people.”
The cheaper firms have fewer backup staff, lower supplies of spare oxygen and less ability to manage things when dangerous situations arise. Purja, who runs his own climbing company, attributes the higher number of deaths in 2019 not so much to the numbers on the mountain as to the growth of cheaper operators, who employ less experienced guides. “We have backup people to help clients who are struggling. If everyone had been climbing with that support, no one would have struggled.”
Four Indian climbers were among the dead last year, leading to speculation that lower average salaries in India result in these climbers choosing cheaper tour operators, with tragic consequences. Attempting the mountain is expensive, so climbers are sometimes older, at the end of their careers, with expendable income but less physical stamina.
There has been no climbing season this year. The view from the ground has been spectacular: the disappearance of a pollution haze means the snow-capped peaks of Everest have been visible from Kathmandu for the first time in decades. But the only people on the mountain are a small group of Chinese researchers and surveyors – there to place 5G masts, and to mark the 60th anniversary of the first Chinese ascent of the north side of the mountain.
On 13 March, Nepal’s government locked down Everest, announcing that no climbing would be allowed on the mountain because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Police have patrolled the roads nearby to prevent anyone approaching. The cooks, porters and guides who help international tourists attempt the summit have mostly returned to their villages. With the disappearance of a year’s income, many have been pushed into destitution; a number of climbers have launched fundraisers to help Everest workers feed themselves and their families.
“I’m doing fine, I’m in England, I’ve managed to get income from my book,” Purja says. “But the community there is suffering. Some people don’t even have food to put on the table. It’s the saddest thing.”
David Göttler is a German climber who attempted the summit last May. As soon as he saw the queues at the top, he understood he was going to have to turn around. He was making an entirely self-sufficient attempt to summit, carrying his own kit and without oxygen – the most intensely challenging way to climb the mountain. “There are only a tiny fraction of people who can climb without oxygen,” he says. He views its use as a form of cheating, “like doping, like an enhancing drug”. But without oxygen, it was too risky to wait in line. He abandoned his climb around 100 vertical metres from the summit. It wasn’t the crowds that surprised him: “You don’t go to Everest for a lonely adventure,” he says. But he was dismayed by the slowness of the people ahead of him.
“I saw people who took 14 hours to cover a distance that took me two hours – these are people who usually have nothing to do with mountains. I have the feeling that they hear Everest is a nice thing to do and say: ‘Let’s do it!’”
It was this inexperience that caused the spike in deaths, he says. “I don’t want to sound hard or without feelings, because it’s a tragedy for the families, but most of these deaths were predictable. It is surprising that there are not more of them, given how unprepared and naive people are. They pay the money and hire an agency, and think that this is a summit guarantee.”
Elia Saikaly, a Canadian film-maker, was on Everest last year to make a documentary about a team of four women from Saudi Arabia, Oman and Lebanon. Like Göttler, they made their ascent the day after Purja’s photograph was taken, when the queues were still long. Saikaly had attempted Everest many times before, and succeeded on two earlier occasions. But he remains troubled by what he saw that day; he is now making a film about how his attitude to the mountain was changed by his experiences.
There were between 25 and 40 people on and around the summit when Saikaly arrived at the tiny plateau at the top, a patch of mountain not much bigger than the surface area of a couple of ping-pong tables. He felt subdued as he arrived there. “I didn’t want anything to do with it, to be honest. Summits can be a bit of a disappointment, when you see that number of people taking selfies in such a spiritual place,” Saikaly says. “It wasn’t the pure experience it once was. The loss of life is very challenging. It makes you question why people do this and why you are there. We celebrated quietly.”
Becker also had mixed feelings as he stood at the peak, contemplating his achievement. “There wasn’t an ‘I found God’ moment at the top that some people say they have. I was torn,” he says. “I’ve dreamed about climbing it since I was a kid. But I think the 13-year-old me would have found it upsetting to go to the mountain and see it like that.”
Becker says he felt alienated by the “almost colonialist culture of must-conquer-the-mountains”. Some of his fellow climbers had already conquered figurative mountains in their business careers. “They think, because of that, they can conquer the mountain. There are people who paid six figures to get to the top and so they think: ‘I’m going to get my money’s worth. I must make it to the top of the mountain, who cares what happens?’ I think it draws certain people who will be happy to go to the top, at almost any cost to themselves and others.”
As well as this nagging ambivalence, Becker was in physical difficulty: his attempts to ration his depleted oxygen supply had led to his tank freezing; his mask had frozen on to his face and beard, the condensation inside it creating a cascade of ice down his front; his goggles were frozen to his suit. Without goggles, he was worried about developing ice blindness in the glare of the sun on the descent.
Most of all he, like other climbers on Everest last year, was very shaken by the experience of having to walk past so many dead climbers. Garrett Madison, a US guide who was climbing with Saikaly, says it is something climbers see every year, but remains hard to get used to. “For a first-time climber, it can be shocking,” he says. “It can be a good reality check; it reinforces the gravity of it all.”
Conditions are so harsh at the summit that it is usually impossible to expend energy on carrying bodies back. “It is a major effort to bring a corpse down,” Madison says. “It is not like you can just chuck them on your back and trot on down.”
Becker was unable to avert his eyes. “The first person had the same boots as me, the same scrawny build as me. It was scary – he looked like me. I imagined myself in that situation, and I very much did not want to be in that situation. I was just sad for this guy. I thought about his family – does he have kids or a wife, or parents? What are they going to think?”
Worse was a sense that some seemed unconsciously to revel in the danger. “I’m not saying that anyone saw a dead body and thought: ‘Oh, this is great!’” he says. “There were some people who seemed upset about it. But there were others whose attitude was – and I’m speculating – ‘Wow, this is such a dangerous mountain, and I made it!’ It almost made it more romantic that they made it to the top despite these deaths. That attitude was pretty uncomfortable.”
In the wake of last year’s queues, there has been renewed discussion in Nepal about how better regulation of firms and climbers could be introduced. Some trekking firms would like firmer control of how many climbers can attempt the summit on a given day. A government panel recommended that anyone applying for a permit must in future show that they have successfully completed a 6,500 metre (21,325ft) climb, but the proposals had not been implemented before Covid-19 prompted lockdown. The damage caused to the country’s tourist industry may have reduced the willingness to regulate.
This April, a team of Nepalese soldiers had been due to mount an expedition to remove the mess that has been accumulating on the mountain for years: piles of empty fuel canisters, tents (the climbing company’s logo carefully cut out before they were abandoned, to avoid responsibility), food wrappers and human excrement. But when climbing permits were cancelled, the cleanup operation was also abandoned.
No one is sure whether the crowds will return next year. Most climbers who were forced to cancel trips this spring would like to return in 2021, which means the queues could be heavier still, with two years’ worth of tourists attempting to summit at once. But if there is a global economic slump, fewer people will have the spare money to fund this very expensive adventure travel.
Purja hopes that climbers will come back, to restore the livelihoods of the Nepalese climbing community, but he also hopes the next season will be cleaner and less chaotic. Other climbers say last year’s season has made them re-evaluate their attitude to Everest.
“Last year there was a line of people quite literally dying because of the over-commercialisation of the mountain,” Becker says. “People have come to think, if you throw money at it you can get to the top, which brings more inexperienced people to the mountain and more sherpas to work there. It does make me reflect on what kind of climbing I want to do, what’s responsible and doesn’t endanger myself and others. And to think about whether I am perpetuating this culture – the romanticisation of Everest. I worry that, am I in some way part of the problem?”