'Traffic jam' on Mount Everest turns deadly for climbers

May 28, 2019, 8:54 a.m.
Discarded camping equipment is scattered around Camp 4 on Mount Everest.
Photo: DOMA SHERPA/AFP/Getty Images

As the once-elusive Mount Everest has become increasingly popular, overcrowding has taken a toll, and not just on the landscape. Eleven climbers have died during this spring's climbing season so far, reports CNN. That's more than the lives lost on the mountain in all of 2018, according to the BBC.

The deaths come amid reports of "traffic jams" on Everest. News agency AFP says that on May 22, when the weather was clear, more than 200 climbers were attempting to summit from both Nepal and China. Climbing teams were lined up for hours to reach the top, risking altitude sickness and frostbite while they waited.

The most recent deaths include American attorney Christopher John Kulish, 62, who died on May 27 while descending from the mountain. The circumstances surrounding his death were unclear. A few days earlier, British climber Robin Haynes Fisher, died at about 28,200 feet (8,600 meters) after feeling ill from what appeared to be altitude sickness, according to NBC News.

Fisher had warned of the dangers of overcrowding on Everest in an Instagram post captioned May 19.

"With a single route to the summit, delays caused by overcrowding could prove fatal so I am hopeful my decision to go for the 25th will mean fewer people," he wrote. "Unless of course everyone else plays the same waiting game."

Other deaths include Indian climber Anjali Kulkarni, 55, who died on her way back from climbing to the summit. Her son told CNN she had become stuck in the line above camp four, the final camp before the summit. American mountaineer Donald Lynn Cash, 55, died after fainting from high altitude sickness while descending from the summit.

Navigating 'the death zone'

Climber Nirmal Purja, who was part of the Project Possible Expedition, tweeted a photo of the line.

On Facebook he shared that he counted roughly 320 people waiting to summit. The area is known as "the death zone" because of its dangerously high altitude — 26,247 feet (8,000 meters).

Last year, a record 807 people reached the summit, according to the BBC. This year, AFP reports that Nepal has issued a record 381 permits costing $11,000 each for this year's spring climbing season alone, causing concern about how that level of foot traffic will affect safety.

Danduraj Ghimire, director general of Nepal's Tourism Department, however, told CNN that claims of crowding contributing to climber deaths are "baseless."

"The weather has not been very great this climbing season, so when there is a small window when the weather clears up, climbers make the move," Ghimire said. "On May 22, after several days of bad weather, there was a small window of clear weather, when more than 200 mountaineers ascended Everest. The main cause of deaths on Everest has been high altitude sickness which is what happened with most of the climbers who lost their lives this season as well."

Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally written on May 24, 2019.