Everest's human traffic jam: did two climbers die because of hundreds queueing at summit?

Ben Farmer
Many teams had to line up for hours on May 22 to reach the summit, as a rush of climbers marked one of the busiest days on the world's highest mountain - AFP

Waiting patiently in single file, exhausted and within touching distance of their goal, hundreds of climbers this week became stuck for hours in a traffic jam on the summit of the world's highest peak.

Mount Everest recorded what is thought to have been one of its busiest days on Wednesday, as 200 to 300 mountaineers used a window of good weather to push for the summit.

The combination of clear weather and Everest's increasingly congested slopes combined to leave them stuck in a tailback for hours at high altitude.

The congestion was blamed for the deaths of two climbers who died after a lengthy wait at more than 8,000m.

Photographs of the scene showed a solid line of climbers waiting for their turn to reach the 8,848m (29,030ft) peak.

The crowds led Ben Fogle, the adventurer and television presenter who climbed the mountain last year, to call for Nepal and China to limit permit numbers.

Fogle, the United Nations patron of the wilderness, said: “Nepal and Tibet/China need to limit the number of climbers on the mountain with a London Marathon style lottery for climbing permits.”

Donald Lynn Cash, 55, an American, and Anjali Kulkarni, also 55, both died while descending after reaching the top on Wednesday.

Thupden Sherpa, general manager of Mrs Kulkarni’s expedition agency, told the Kathmandu Post she died of “exhaustion”.

“Anjali and her husband were forced to wait for hours to reach the summit as there was a long queue on the slopes of Everest,” he said. The couple had managed to reach the summit, but had become exhausted in the process.

Donald Lynn Cash died while descending Everest 

The two deaths came a day after officials had claimed the problem had been eased by instating a timetable for climbers. The mountain slopes above 8,000m are nicknamed the death zone because of the harmful effect of low oxygen levels. Prolonged waits come with a high risk of altitude sickness, frostbite and exhaustion.

Mr Cash became weak with altitude sickness after spending hours waiting to reach the summit, said Pasang Tenje Sherpa, chairman of Pioneer Adventure, Mr Cash’s expedition organisers.

He admitted that it was “obviously” the traffic jam that led to Mr Cash’s death but said he did not want the cause reported so as not to “injure the country’s prestige”.

The deaths are likely to add to worries about overcrowding on the mountain, which climbers say is increasingly thronged with those hoping to reach the summit.

 A Nepalese sherpa collects rubbish, left by climbers, during an Everest clean-up expedition Credit: AFP

The popularity of the mountain as a once-in-a-lifetime challenge has attracted growing numbers. The short climbing season from late April to the end of May, which can be further squeezed by bad weather, adds to congestion.

More than 200 people are thought to have reached the summit on Wednesday.

But the mountain's popularity has also led to complaints the crowds are turning it into a high-altitude tip. Slopes are now strewn with discarded oxygen bottles and rubbish.

China earlier this year announced a third fewer climbers would be allowed to attempt the mountain from the north as the country performed a major clean up.

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