Traffic Jams on Everest: Ethical or Not?

8000ers Everest Mountain
A previous season's crowd on Everest.

Elia Saikaly, one of the hundreds of clients on Mount Everest this week, summed it up on Instagram: “I cannot believe what I saw up there. Death. Carnage. Chaos. Lineups. Dead bodies on the route and in tents at Camp 4. 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.”

Earlier this week, near the top of Everest. Photo: Nirmal Purja

Although I’ve seen photos of long lines of climbers on Everest before, Nirmal Purja’s shot of a conga line of climbers near the Hillary Step this week was still shocking. Between 250-300 climbers in colorful down suits inched upward in a three-hour queue near the summit. It’s a place where you want to hurry the last few metres to the top, grab a selfie affirming your success and race down to safety. This Facebook video, taken around the same time, adds to the impact.

Of course we all know the inherent dangers of climbing Everest: avalanches, toppling ice seracs, altitude sickness, frostbite, etc. And traffic jams certainly heighten the risk of acute altitude sickness and exhaustion. When American Don Cash collapsed near the summit this week, his guides were able to revive him and move him down to the Hillary Step. But here, they ran into the crowds and had to wait at least two hours to continue. During that time, Cash lost consciousness a second time and perished.

How, then, can it be ethical for outfitters to knowingly place paying clients in a situation of even greater risk than usual? I fired off a slightly hot-headed tweet with words roughly to that effect on Thursday morning.

The tweetstorm of responses suggested that many do consider it ethical. They say that climbers go to Nepal aware that high-altitude traffic jams may occur, so they tacitly accept it.

But just because a climber recognizes the risk, does that mean that the service provided is ethical? For example, companies offer exploitative casual labour contracts which contractors reluctantly accept and enter into knowingly. But few would argue these contracts are ethical.

Together yet alone: Would-be Everest summiters in lock step.

The causes of the jams are complex but relate to the short weather window, the date when ropes are fixed and the slow, inexperienced climbers. Theoretically, you could eliminate the jams by controlling the number of climbers on the mountain. But the Everest season brings in big money, both to the outfitters and to Nepal. And traffic jams don’t occur every year.

In my day job, I work in public health. If I wanted to improve the number of kids walking to school, I could educate families about the benefits. But years of study show that it’s hard to change individual behaviour. It would be more effective to create a two-mile vehicle exclusion zone around the school. Then the kids and parents would have to walk.

Along those lines, it’s unlikely that better communication among the many Everest outfitters, with the aim of limiting the number of clients they take on, or the number they send up on a given day, would do much. The solution is surely for the governments of Nepal and China to cap the number of climbing permits issued.

This, of course, means less money for the governments and enablers, but can the international mountain community stand by and allow profit to take precedence over the duty of care owed to Everest clients?

In any other business, this casual attitude towards human life would unacceptable. Why is Everest different?

About the Author

Ash Routen

Ash Routen

Ash is a postdoctoral scientist, globally published outdoor writer and arctic traveller. Ash's next expedition is a 700km trek along the coast of Baffin Island in 2020.

Read more at www.ashrouten.com

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9 Comments on "Traffic Jams on Everest: Ethical or Not?"

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Hal Hill
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Just two points–and not to correct Dr. Routen, who has covered the bases well. To be, or not be, “ethical”, a verbal or written consensus, a “canon” of mutually acceptable standards of practice has to be in place, like for a doctor or a used car salesman. No ethical yard stick exists. The question becomes, is it moral? Leading to a second point, which can be overstated simply: If I run a Russian roulette table, and all the participants are aware they may end up with their brains outside their skulls, am I exempt from responsibility, because everyone is aware… Read more »
Jay May
Guest

I believe that a very strict set of rules need to be in place in order to get a permit to climb Everest. At least 1 ascent of another 8000m peak. “X” amount of hours climbing experience, etc. From what I understand, if you have the money, some company will take you. I find that to be the most dangerous and unethical thing. I further believe that by having strict permit policies, that alone would bring safer climbs. I say this with 0 climbing experience, so if I’m wrong, feel free to let me know.

Damien
Guest

And here comes the but… In Nepal, and probably elsewhere as well, certificates can be bought. The nr 1 responsibility lies indeed with the climbers who should not climb Everest, or any other mountain, without the proper experience and fitness. Everything else is not going to work. Nepal is not China.

Rick Wilton
Guest
Nepal is a poor country and they have to do what they can to survive so you will never get either government or locals to except restrictions. The only way for both to continue making good money and responsible climbing is to make regulations that all Everest applicants must of summited at least one 7,000er first, this way it would create Sherpa and guide work else where in Nepal plus the government will still get payments from other Peak permits. You are not going to reduce the amount of climbers going to Nepal which is essential to there economy, just… Read more »
BobB
Guest

It will be interesting to see if people still want to pay outfitters for the Nepal side climb next year after all the publicity about the deaths associated with the crowds. I do think the low wage work analogy isn’t quite right because people have to work to live whereas no one has to climb Everest. My guess is that human desire to have that accomplishment (which is an equal problem with greed) will continue to knowingly override the crowding risk.

Jonny B. Good
Guest

sick!

Damien
Guest

So traffic jams in any city or town at 8 am is unethical? Or sic? probably.

Damien
Guest
Heart attack. This is the real cause of death (Don Cash), from what I heard. I summited on the 23rd – thus I passed by the unfortunate climber. People will always die on big mountains but, yes, the unfit und unprepared should stay away. I turned around in 2018 at +- 7.500 m because I wasn t feeling well, couldn t breathe due to the”heat of the centuy” on Everest. I didn t want to put my Bhote climbing partner and myself, and others, at risk. Many Indian climbers seem NOT to have had the same mindset this year 2019… Read more »
Young
Guest
Sensationalizing — conjecturing what happened and what ought to be done simply based on a short-sighted depiction of a scene — doesn’t really help us see what’s contributed to the making of the very scene. I couldn’t find a single news article that talks about how decision makers on Everest — mostly Sherpa base camp managers — think about this. To entertain philosophical quandary of “ethics” or “morality” without bothering to grasp what’s going on there seems to me simply unethical. I was there in the Spring of 2013 when National Geographic sensationalized the world with a similar photo, a… Read more »