Making Everest Safe Makes it Unsafe.

A couple of days ago I published a Bloomberg View column on ways to reduce deaths – and crowds – on Mount Everest. The two are closely related: too many people on the summit means that climbers are spending too much time in a dangerous, low oxygen environment. Why the crowds? Nepal’s government earns needed fees from climbers, and guides – primarily located out of Nepal – offer high-end, all-inclusive trips to the summit that oftentimes attract unfit climbers.

In any case, a day after the piece ran I received an email from a Dr. Christopher Pizzo who summited Everest in 1981 as part of a medical research mission. I found his points compelling, and so – with his permission – I’m reprinting the email below. So do have a look at my column, and then turn to Dr. Pizzo’s very illuminating thoughts.

I just read your article about overcrowding on Everest.  You make a number of valid points but I think you missed a very important one.
First, a little background about my qualifications to comment:  I summited Everest in 1981 as a member of a medical research expedition.  Back then the Nepalese allowed just one expedition per season on their side of the mountain (and the Chinese side was closed).  We sahib’s, not sherpas, established the route thru the icefall, fixing all the ropes and ladders.  We sahibs, not sherpas, fixed rope up the headwall to our camp 5 (we climbed the Polish pillar route, to the NW [left] of the standard south col route).  We did employ sherpas as porters as we had 2 tons of scientific gear to move thru the icefall to our main lab camp at 21,500 ft in the western cwm.  But we sahibs did all the lead climbing and route finding.  That’s what mountaineering was all about in those days.  In the next few years I climbed 2 additional 8000m peaks, one with no sherpa support and one with 4 sherpas employed only as porters.
Anyway, to my point on overcrowding:  When you are sharing a route with hundreds of other climbers/sherpas there’s a false sense of security which leads many to take risks like ascending too rapidly while ignoring the early signs of mountain sickness, thinking that if you get into trouble there are scores of other stronger more experienced climbers (and oxygen cylinders) around to bail you out.  I first encountered this aspect of overcrowding on Denali in 1985.  A group of us high altitude researchers had set up a lab, complete with a large heated wood-floored tent at the 14,000 ft camp on the standard west buttress route.  We encountered a staggering number of pulmonary edema, cerebral edema, and frostbite cases during the month of May when we had unusually persistent winter-like conditions with temps of -50 F.  You see, we were both part of the problem and part of the solution.  Yes we saved lives.  But the reason so many ascended too quickly in horrible conditions is because they knew we docs (and bottled oxygen) were up there to bail them out.  Now the park service has a physician staffed “clinic” at the 14,000 ft camp during the May-June climbing season every year.
Similarly, Everest base camp has a virtual hospital and another “clinic” in the western cwm.  No one goes thru the icefall until sherpas (the “icefall doctors”) fix the route.  Sherpas also fix rope to the south col.  And now I see that no one gets to make a summit attempt until sherpas fix rope on the Hillary Step just below the summit.  It’s become a Disneyland ride.  Yes, let’s make it as easy as possible to get as many people to the summit as possible because it’s all about the money.
The art of mountaineering is minimizing risk in an adverse environment.  That art is lost when you share the route with hundreds of other climbers because there is a false perception of substantially reduced risk.
It will never happen because there’s too much money at stake but IMO, Nepal should close the mountain to mountaineering for a decade to give it a chance to heal.
Christopher Pizzo, MD