Traffic Jams on Everest: Ethical or Not?

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?