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Traffic Jam Of Climbers Makes The Trip Up Everest Even More Deadly


A photo taken near the summit of Mount Everest is bringing new attention to the world's highest mountain. This snapshot shows a long line of climbers waiting for their turn to summit Everest. It looks like, I don't know, people standing in line for a Disney ride or a Black Friday sale, except they are packed on a trail, on a snowy mountain, within what is called the death zone, which is called that for a reason. Grayson Schaffer, editor at large of Outside magazine, told NPR's Weekend Edition what happens in the thin air.


GRAYSON SCHAFFER: Your body just can't metabolize the oxygen. Your muscles start to break down. You start to have fluid that builds up around your lungs and in your brain. Your brain starts to swell. You start to lose cognition. Your decision-making starts to become slow, and you start to make bad decisions. And all of this is happening in the face of, you know, each person trying to sort of reach their ultimate dream.

INSKEEP: At least 11 people have died so far this season, the latest an American attorney who died Monday after reaching the summit. Dan Richards is CEO of Global Rescue, one of the major rescuers on the mountain, when they're needed. He joins us from Vermont Public Radio's studio in Norwich, Vt. Good morning.

DAN RICHARDS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's making this such a deadly year?

RICHARDS: Well, there's really a variety of factors. The first and foremost is there have been more climbing permits issued this year than in any year in past history. There are about 381 climbing permits for climbers that have been issued and an equal number for Sherpas and guides. So you have more people in that environment than you've had in past years. That's No. 1. No. 2 - there was a very brief weather window for people to try and get to the summit of Mount Everest, and what you ended up finding were all these folks trying to get to the top and in a very brief period of time, and that resulted in a big traffic jam, as you've seen in some of the pictures.

INSKEEP: Is the crowd itself inherently dangerous - people get in each other's way and cause each other to make mistakes?

RICHARDS: Oh, absolutely. When you get into, as you just described, or Grayson just described, the death zone, you've got a limited amount of time to do what it is that you need to do to get to the summit. And every minute that you are delayed because somebody is in your way, or where you're having some kind of a technical problem with your equipment or your ropes, increases the risk.

INSKEEP: And when you say limited amount of time, it's because your body is gradually being destroyed up there; that's why your time is limited?

RICHARDS: Above 8,000 meters, your body cannot get enough oxygen to sustain itself, and you slowly start to die. And virtually, all of the climbers that go to Everest use supplemental oxygen, and those oxygen supplies are limited by what you can carry on your back and what your Sherpas can carry on their backs. And when that oxygen runs out, you can get into real trouble, and your decision-making becomes compromised, your brain starts to - and your skull cavity starts to fill with fluid; it's called cerebral edema. Your lungs start to fill with fluid. And ultimately, you die.

INSKEEP: When you said that Nepal has given an unusually - or sold an unusually large number of permits, is that purely driven by market demand, by which I mean do they sell a permit to anybody who asks for one, regardless of how many people show up?

RICHARDS: It's sort of amazing that, you know, in the United States or most countries, to get a license to drive a car you have to take a test, a written test and a driving test. If you want to climb Mount Everest, you need $11,000, and that's it. There is no requirement for skills. There is no test regarding experience. You just need to show up and pay your money.

INSKEEP: If Nepal were to come to you for advice, what would you tell them to change?

RICHARDS: Well, there's a lot of things that could be changed. First and foremost, having an organizing agency or entity that regulates who's going to the summit and when would be right at the top of the list. The second...

INSKEEP: Oh, maybe you could have timed tickets, like for White House tours - only so many people at a time?

RICHARDS: Something like that. It would obviously have to be more structured, given the location. But yes, everybody could be allocated a time slot. The problem is, in that environment, is based on the weather, which is so unpredictable. you're going to end up in a situation where some people who have paid an enormous amount of money - because $11,000 is only for the permit; it doesn't cover the cost of the climb itself...


RICHARDS: ...Which can exceed $100,000, they may not get to the summit. And that obviously would create a very high degree of dissatisfaction with those folks.

INSKEEP: Mr. Richards, thanks very much for the time and the insights - really appreciate it.

RICHARDS: My pleasure, Steve. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Dan Richards, CEO and founder of Global Rescue. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.