Could 2021 See Another Everest Traffic Jam?

The number of climbers in Everest Base Camp totaled 371 as of today, only 10 shy of the record number of permits issued in 2019. Mount Everest 2021 promises to be busy.

With the current rope-fixing methods, the massive use of O2 at lower altitudes, and modern weather forecasts, it is likely that the first good weather once the ropes are in place will produce the same images of endless ant-like lines of climbers that have become sadly familiar in recent years. The 2019 circus led directly to casualties, as climbers dependent on oxygen ran out while waiting hours for their turn on top. Several succumbed to exhaustion, exposure, or Acute Mountain Sickness. 

Crowding on summit days is not new, but it has become much worse since the turn of the Millennium, as more people from many different countries flock to the Big E. Spring has become the only season to climb Everest, which is virtually deserted in autumn.

The crowding problem doesn’t just stem from the number of people on the mountain. The main problem is that nearly all of them want to reach the summit on the same day. All approach at the same pace and an astonishing percentage make it to the top.

Mount Everest climbers crowd in line

The first viral Everest crowd photo, by @RalfDujmovits, 2012.


Everest Past Versus Present Crowding

It didn’t use to be like that. As recently as the year 2000, a long weather window led to a large number of summits on Everest, but they were distributed every day from May 15 until May 28, according to the Himalayan Database. Many summited from Nepal, but a good number also reached the top from the Tibetan side of Everest. That spring, there were a total of 133 summits.

By contrast, in 2019, there were 40 summits on May 15 and nearly 90 on May 16. There were a further 60+ on May 21. And on May 22, an astonishing 227 summits, only 4 of them from Tibet. That season, 870 people successfully made the summit.

Twenty years ago, there were significant differences among the climbing teams. Some were more experienced, some less, some were stronger and others weaker, some depended heavily on Sherpas, others not so much. And most intended to use as little oxygen as possible. Quite a few did not use it at all.

Different teams had different weather forecasts and different strategies. For some, the bet paid off and they reached the summit first while others, following different information, had to turn around. A greater level of uncertainty prompted climbers to be cautious.

On Everest in 2021, the strategy is more efficient and homogeneous. Accurate forecasts set the pace, Icefall Doctors take care of the Khumbu Icefall, and highly experienced Sherpas quickly fix ropes up the entire route.

At this point, other Sherpa guides step in to help their clients up the mountain. Every summit allows a company to boast of its statistically high success rate. Successful guides get valuable ticks on their resumés too, as well as juicy bonuses.

Equipment Improvements

Modern clients are better equipped, better fed, and most of all, better supplied with plenty of oxygen, often from as low as Camp 2. Few bother to minimize their oxygen use. In part, this is because of the growing percentage of less experienced climbers. As long as they can physically endure, they just follow the line and listen to their Sherpa guides, since they are often not experienced enough to recognize when they should turn around.

In the end, this means that a larger percentage of climbers summit, while the number of summit days is the same. It also means that if they get bogged down at some bottleneck like Hillary Step, they may run out of oxygen or succumb to cold or exhaustion as they wait hours for their turn on top.

Everest 2021, Open For Business

At the beginning of 2021, COVID-19 raged through Nepal, which was closed to foreigners. Who could have predicted that climbers would return to Everest in soaring numbers just a few months later? Some international outfitters declined to offer Everest climbs this year, out of an abundance of caution and concern both for the health of their clients and that of the local people, exposed to hundreds of foreigners trekking through their villages on the way to Everest Base Camp. Many countries, still grappling with coronavirus surges, also don’t allow foreign recreational travel.

But local companies themselves have been happy to welcome whoever signs up. Some months earlier, Nepal authorities — responding to the embarrassment that the viral 2019 Everest crowd photo caused them — made noises that they would somehow limit the number of permits. In the end, they have done nothing of the kind. Rather, they published a series of regulations trying to prevent such pictures from being shared on social media.

This year, China has kept its side of Everest firmly closed to foreigners, concentrating everyone on the standard Everest route in Nepal, the Southeast Ridge. The recent summits on Annapurna, all of which took place in a single day, suggest what should lie ahead for Everest. Only unstable weather, creating short summit windows in which climbers have to go up in waves rather than all at once, can prevent the upcoming Mount Everest 2021 traffic jams on the roof of the world.

This year, only a handful of climbers have committed to climbing without supplementary oxygen. Their challenge is daunting. In addition to the obvious difficulty of climbing to 8,849m and descending without O2, they will have to avoid getting stuck in the traffic jam on the upper slopes of the mountain, where a delay of hours could be fatal.