Climate change to blame for up to 17 deaths on Mount Everest, experts say

<span>Photograph: Lakpa Sherpa/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Lakpa Sherpa/AFP/Getty Images

Experts say this is likely to be one of the deadliest years on record on Mount Everest, with variable weather caused by climate change being blamed as one of the main reasons for the deaths of up to 17 people.

A total of 12 people have now been confirmed dead during Everest expeditions this season and another five are missing, presumed dead, as no contact has been made for at least five days in all cases, according to the Himalayan Database, which tracks mountain fatalities.

The figure was confirmed by Yuba Raj Khatiwada, the director of Nepal’s tourism department. “Altogether this year we lost 17 people on the mountain this season,” he said. “The main cause is the changing in the weather. This season the weather conditions were not favourable, it was very variable. Climate change is having a big impact in the mountains.”

It would make this year one of the worst on record for deaths on Everest, matched only by the events of 2014 when 17 died, most of whom were local sherpas killed in an avalanche. On average, between five and 10 people die on Everest every year but recent years have seen a spike.

Among those who lost their lives climbing Everest this year were Jason Kennison, a 40-year-old mechanic from Australia who had overcome spinal injuries to climb to the top but could not make it back down, a Canadian doctor, Pieter Swart, and three Nepalese sherpas who died in an avalanche in April.

Those still missing include solo Hungarian climber Suhajda Szilárd, who scaled the mountain without a sherpa guide or additional oxygen, and an Indian-Singaporean climber who is feared to have fallen off the mountain.

This year has been more deadly than 2019, when images went viral of overcrowding and “carnage” on Everest, with hundreds of climbers waiting up to 12 hours to scale the mountain and reports that people were forced to clamber over bodies and incapacitated climbers. A total of 11 people died that year.

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The Nepal government has been criticised for issuing 479 permits this year, the highest number ever. At £12,000 each, they are a major income generator for the small cash-strapped country, and the government has been reluctant to scale back numbers.

Khatiwada denied it was too many, saying the number was high this year because the window for climbing had opened earlier and the season had been longer than usual, so that there was no overcrowding.

The rising death toll comes as the 70th anniversary of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s historic first ascent to the peak of Everest was celebrated on Monday. It marked the start of a global obsession among mountaineers to scale the world’s highest peak, with over 10,000 ascents since and demand for climbing permits increasing every year.

Ang Norbu Sherpa, the president of the Nepal National Mountain Guide Association, said “too many” permits were being issued and it was putting environmental pressure on the mountain.

“The climbing has pattern has changed, it used to be hardened climbers but now it is a lot of novice climbers who want to get to the summit of Everest,” said Sherpa.

Experts and celebrated mountaineers have warned that Everest, which tops 8,848 metres, is now seen as a “tourist destination” and a playground for the thrill-seeking rich, even those with little experience of climbing at high altitude, who are willing to pay upwards of £48,000 to be guided to the summit.

Alan Arnette, a mountaineer who climbed Everest in 2011 and now writes regularly on conditions, said this year had been “chaos”. “The root cause of the high number of deaths lies with inexperienced clients who push themselves too hard and do not turn back soon enough,” he said.

“Many guide companies have no experience requirements and accept anyone, telling them ‘We will teach you everything you need to know.’ But when the client gets in trouble, they can be abandoned to save the lives of the support staff. We saw several clients abandoned this season, left alone on the upper mountain, with some still missing today.”

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There had also been concerns that the increased human activity at Everest base camp, which is located on the Khumbu glacier, is making it unstable and unsafe, exacerbating dangerous conditions already created by global warming. According to a recent survey, Everest’s glaciers have lost 2,000 years of ice in just the past 30 years.

In order to cater to the demands of upwards of 400 climbers annually, about 1,500 people will come to base camp during the season, where luxury facilities can include massages and evening entertainment. Helicopters are also now a common way to reach base camp.

A plan was put forward last year by Nepal officials to move the base camp to a spot lower down the mountain, off the thinning glacier. Khatiwada confirmed that a plan was under way to change the rules so no trekkers could spend the night at base camp, and instead would have to stay lower down.

However, this plan has faced resistance by the sherpa community, who voiced concern that it would add three hours to the Everest climb and could potentially make it more dangerous. Sherpa said there were plans to learn how to better manage the base camp, rather than moving it. “It is a big question mark for local people where it could be moved to,” he said.

The high number of climbers is also escalating the problem of the massive amount of rubbish left strewn on Everest. Though the situation has improved slightly since the introduction of a £3,200 “garbage deposit”, which is only returned if they bring back 8kg of rubbish, local guides say the mountain is still littered with rubbish, particularly plastic, at the end of every season.