Everest deaths no surprise to some of Steamboat’s top climbers
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Some of the dangers climbers face on the way to the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, cannot be predicted. However, three of Steamboat Springs’ most experienced climbers said they have not been surprised by the deaths on Everest during the 2019 climbing season.
More people, less experience
“I have friends — both Sherpas and western dudes — that have been up on the mountain this year,” said climber Eric Meyer, who reached the summit of Mount Everest in 2004 and 2013. “What’s happening right now, the deaths and the chaos up there, are a direct result of the numbers of people on the mountain — particularly the lack of experience among those climbers and the different demographic that is climbing the mountain in greater numbers.”
Meyer said the quest to reach the top of Everest has seen an increased interest in recent years, and for people willing to pay the price, the goal is achievable. The problem is that while many people are willing to drain their bank accounts to reach the top, they may not have the skills or experience to complete the task. That problem is amplified by a large number of newer outfitters in Nepal willing to take less experienced climbers and guide the trips at a reduced cost for those who bring more clients.
“What you are seeing in the last two years is an increase in the number of Nepal-based budget outfitters on Everest. Many of those are offering trips on Everest in the low $30,000 range,” Meyer said. “The average is closer to $45,000 to $50,000, and western trips are probably $60,000 to $70,000 speaking in broad strokes. And a few are over $100,000, but those tend to be concierge-level expeditions.”
“There are higher numbers of people on the budget trips … they are less well equipped with oxygen with less-experienced Sherpas, and there is almost never any medical support,” said Meyer, who has worked as a staff doctor on several expeditions. “Outfitters with an experienced staff can spot problems with clients much earlier, and they can intervene and get that person down before they are on their last legs. Even as strong as many Sherpas are in general, only the very experienced ones can spot somebody that is suffering from early altitude sickness — whether it be pulmonary edema or cerebral edema.”
Led back down the mountain
Steamboat Springs resident Matt Tredway knows what it means to have to be led down the mountain. In 2006, as he made his way toward the summit of Mount Everest, a coronary spasm brought his journey to an end at 22,000 feet between Camp 1 and Camp 2.
“I felt fine when this spasm hit me. At first, I thought I had ripped the Pectoralis muscle in my chest. It was a pretty big jolt, and I thought, ‘What the heck?'” I sat down, adjusted my crampons, ate food and drank, but when I stood up, I felt a shadow of that same feeling again,” Tredway said. “I decided to go down (to Camp 1) to rest and come up another day.”
The good news for Tredway was that he was in good hands, and despite his determination, the staff eventually convinced him to return to base camp for a more thorough medical exam. He admits he was still in denial as he made his way down, and even after he was advised that this wasn’t his time to summit the massive peak, he still wanted to go back.
“It was not a good feeling. I understand the physical part of it, but in terms of my mental psyche, it rattled me a little bit,” Tredway said. “I was admittedly quite disappointed. I was thinking about the time I had invested. You may think it’s only a couple of weeks, but no, in my case, it was couple of years.”
But Tredway was thankful that the people around him made him realize that reaching the top of Everest is just part of a larger journey. Looking back, he realized the summit was only the halfway point. He still needed to get back down, and he said that’s often when climbers get into trouble because they have pushed their bodies too far.
“This is just not the arena where you take chances,” Tredway said.
But this year, he fears the added pressure to get to the top of the mountain has pushed people to their limits.
Tredway has seen the photographs of people waiting to get to the summit and heard the stories of climbers pushing and shoving one another along the route to the top.
“I’ve seen those pictures, and it makes you a little sad — just to see that mountain with so many people on it,” Tredway said. “The numbers are more than it was meant to hold. To be honest, it would be like being on I-70 when the traffic backs up. You tell yourself, ‘That if there were fewer cars, I would be going faster.’” Right now we are stuck in a stop-and-go, and it’s just sad.”
Beating the crowds led to success
Kim Hess reached the summit of Mount Everest on May 21, 2016. The Steamboat Springs resident began the final leg of the climb in the darkness of night, and she reached the summit at 5:04 a.m.
It was Hess’ goal to become one of the elite climbers who have reached all seven major summits. Everest was her fifth, and she would go on to collect all seven.
“The pictures that are circulating right now were not different than my summit day. I was just able to get ahead of it, and it worked out in my favor,” Hess said. “This isn’t a new problem at all. This is something I think Everest climbers have been battling.”
Nepal’s government doesn’t put a specific limit on permits, and this year, 381 people were permitted to make the climb. Climbers who come from outside of Nepal pay $11,000 for the permit and must provide a doctor’s statement proving they are physically fit.
“People have been talking about regulating it, and I’ve always been for that,” Hess said. “We need someplace that makes sure people are qualified to be there and have the skill set to make the climb. Health requirements should probably be something that they look at as well.”
The idea of limiting permits or making sure climbers have the experience and skills to make the climb seems like a simple solution, but it’s not that easy. Nepal is a poor country that relies on the tourism sparked by Everest to drive its economy. The government is not eager to limit the number of people coming and saying “no” to the money that comes from it.
The problem is exacerbated by the limited window of time that exists to make it to the summit of Everest, which results in most expeditions beginning in April and most summits taking place in May. Once the Jet Stream shifts, conditions on Everest, which is the tallest mountain in the world standing at 29,029 feet, become too dangerous.
Last year an extended window of favorable weather allowed for climbers to reach the summit during 11 straight days. There were a record number of summits during the period and five deaths.
This year the conditions were not as favorable, and the window was much smaller. This resulted in most of the climbers making the final push to the top at the same time creating dangerous conditions that resulted in 11 deaths.
Many of those deaths were the result of climbers running out of oxygen in what is called the “death zone” — an area above 26, 247 feet where the limited amount of oxygen causes the human body to die cell by cell. Meyer said bad choices made in this area by inexperienced climbers are often fatal.
“In general, these climbers just have not been on big mountains before,” Meyer said. “You are cold, you are tired, you don’t feel well, you have not been eating well and you haven’t been sleeping well. It’s no great surprise that they start acting poorly toward one another — it’s distressing,” Meyer said.
“You end up spending more time getting through dangerous sections, which increases hazardous things like ice falls,” Meyer added. “More people are up there kicking down more rocks and ice, and it is very clear that the increased summit times have led to people running out of oxygen.”
All three climbers said they would go back to Everest given the chance, but they say Nepal has plenty of other peaks that are less crowded and provide many of the same thrills as Everest. They hope that as Everest gets more crowded the rest of the world will discover some of these other treasures.
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