Death Race to The Peak

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Indians make for the largest group of climbers on Mount Everest now, contributing to the overcrowding that is leading to increasing fatalities

A WOMAN LIES IN the heap of her colourful mountaineering clothes. You cannot see her. But you know she is there, somewhere inside those large down-filled clothes, her left hand and body attached to a rope, while the rest of her collapsed body is slipping away. Two Sherpa guides are trying to rescue her.

“I had told you to go down, didn’t I?” one of them asks her in Hindi, “but you said it is okay.” All she manages are gasps. But even these gasping breaths, you can tell, are gradually leaving her.

This is a part of the video shot presumably close to Everest summit. The woman, a Mumbai-based mountaineer in her mid-50s, Anjali Kulkarni, was trying to summit the mountain along with her husband. For the two, their ultimate goal, according to media reports, was to climb the Seven Summits (the highest mountain peaks of each of the seven continents). Only her husband managed to reach the Everest summit. Anjali died somewhere between Camp 4 and the Everest summit, possibly a little after the video was shot. Nepali authorities claim the death was from exhaustion.

Mingma Sherpa, a well-known Nepali mountaineer and guide who knew Anjali, claims she was not experienced enough to attempt to climb the peak. “I had met her at the base camp. She was very happy then, I remember. But climbing Everest is very difficult. If you don’t have prior experience of climbing peaks that are 6,000 to 7,000 metres in height, it can be very dangerous,” he says.

This year, Everest has recorded one of its deadliest climbing seasons in history. According to Danduraj Ghimire, the director general of Nepal’s tourism department, there have been nine confirmed deaths so far. Media reports claim the toll to be 11.

But unlike before, the problem hasn’t been avalanches or blizzards. The issue, according to several mountaineers, has been overcrowding and the preponderance of inexperienced climbers. A photograph that went viral on May 22nd showed around 100 climbers or more huddled single-file in their fluffy jackets on an icy, rocky ridge known as the ‘Death Zone’, waiting (many of them for over 10 hours) for their turn at the summit. According to reports, because of the poor weather earlier, more than 200 people reached the top of the peak on that day.

What has gone somewhat unnoticed is that among the dead, the majority have been Indians. Four Indians perished this season. This is because Indian climbers now constitute a majority who try to climb the peak. This year, among the 381 permits issued by Nepal (the largest ever), the largest chunk, 78, went to Indian mountaineers.

THIS IS QUITE remarkable. American and European climbers have traditionally tended to dominate the Everest climbing circuit. According to Nepali mountaineering agencies, that has changed in recent years. “The business [of Everest mountaineering] is changing,” Ghimire says, “Indians, and to an extent Chinese, are now beginning to constitute the largest chunk of Everest climbers.”

For a long period of time access to Everest, both from the Tibetan and Nepal side, was severely restricted. China, it is said, closed the Tibetan portion from 1950 to 1980. Nepal also rarely allowed foreign climbers. But by the 1990s, both Nepal and China began to grant more permits. According to the Himalayan Database, which maintains a record of all climbs and attempts at Himalayan peaks, less than 1,800 people attempted to climb Mount Everest in the 80s. In the last two decades, the total number has swelled to almost 8,000, turning one of the world’s most dangerous spots into something of a tourist park.

“I really thought I wouldn't survive that day. But I wanted to live for my family and friends. And kept going on,” says Ameesha Chauhan, mountaineer

Once Everest was commercialised, besides Americans or Europeans, sometimes South Koreans from the Far East, were the regular climbers. These nationalities still constitute a significant number annually but the last few years has seen a sharp growth of Indians. At the start of this decade in 2010, for instance, when climbing the peak was already very popular, out of the 252 alpinists, there were only seven Indians, with four managing to reach the summit. The highest chunk of climbers that year constituted Americans (58 men and eight women). Last year in comparison, out of the 364 people trying to climb Mount Everest, Indians and Chinese alpinists accounted for the largest number (60 climbers each). The next were Americans— 56 of them.

This is not to suggest that Indians climbing Mount Everest is something new or that they are the only ones behind the boom. They have always constituted a fairly significant chunk of climbers. The first Indian team to summit the peak was in 1965. There is also the slightly prickly subject of Tenzing Norgay’s nationality. He was born and raised in Nepal (although some also point he could have been born in Tibet). But he had been living in the hill station of Darjeeling before his famous Everest expedition and continued to live there until his death.

But Indians have rarely dominated the Everest climbing circuit as they do now. And it isn’t just the record of increasing Indian climbers. One can also witness a perceptible fascination among several Indians for climbing the peak. Every year more and more of them, some experienced mountaineers but many just amateur thrill-seekers, attempt to surmount the peak. Three years ago, a couple, both working as constables for the Pune police, were found to have morphed photographs to show that they had climbed the peak.

According to most mountaineers, the big spurt among Indian climbers has been caused by the emergence of several budget adventure companies that offer trips at less than half the cost of established companies. These operators, many of them owned by locals, are notorious for cutting corners, employing inexperienced Sherpa guides and concerning themselves less with safety measures.

According to Mingma Sherpa, who runs an agency of his own, Imagine Nepal, good operators will never take clients if they don’t have enough (mountaineering) experience. “Even when we take them [clients], we tell them we are taking the money for guiding you safely. Not to reach the summit, come what may. But these companies never even vet clients.” As a result, he points out, one often sees inexperienced climbers arriving at the base camp and learning the bare essentials of how to climb the mountain for the first time. “Many of them will just be carried by the Sherpa all the way up,” he says.

Climbing the peak is an expensive business. The well-established operators, several of them owned by foreigners, charge around $70,000 (Rs 48.5 lakh) or more for every individual, including the $11,000 (Rs 7.62 lakh) the Nepal government charges for permits. Budget companies reportedly charge less than half the amount, around $35,000 (less than Rs 25 lakh). Mingma’s agency charges somewhere in between (around Rs 40 lakh).

“Having been here, I know what it is all about now — it’s a cash game. You don't need to be a mountaineer or incredibly fit. Pay the money and you can get a permit and a Sherpa to take you to the top,” says Rizza Alee, mountaineer

According to Jinesh Sindurakar, the chief administrative officer of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, an umbrella body of expedition operators, people often get the wrong notion that summiting the peak is easy because of the increasing number of successful attempts. “Since the number of people reaching the summit is increasing, so everyone thinks it is easier to climb and anyone can climb… They forget they are going to the top of the world.” He points out how dangerous it is for Indian climbers to choose budget operators who are less careful about safety. “They [Indian climbers] should be… conscious about the equipment, [their] own health conditions, [the] service of the trekking company [logistical support, supporting staff, guides, etcetera], mountaineering training,” he says.

Earlier this year, when Rizza Alee first learnt that his Everest expedition was not going to be sponsored, he broke into tears. Alee, an 18-year-old from Kashmir, was then at Delhi, on his way to Kathmandu, having been assured that his expedition was going to be sponsored by a private company.

Wanting to achieve the record of the youngest Kashmiri to ever climb the peak, he claims to have spent several years training. He was at a Delhi metro station when he learnt the money might not come through and he briefly contemplated throwing himself in front of a train. Eventually, his father stepped in with the required amount (Rs 30 lakh).

Alee’s dream did not play out as he had imagined. He made several attempts to climb the peak, managing a little further with every attempt, but he had to keep returning to the base camp. In all, he spent nearly two months at the base camp or one of the camps above. He was lonely and miserable. At one point, he fell in with a group of British soldiers, but they resented him because he could not keep up with their pace.

On May 22nd, he eventually reached Camp 4, the last camp before the summit. But Alee’s oxygen cylinder began giving him trouble. The regulator had broken down and venturing any further was going to be dangerous.

“This was the toughest decision of my life,” he says. “But eventually I chose my life.”

All around him he found chaos. “It was like a death race to reach the top. People had no humanity or emotion,” he says. At several points during his descent, having run out of water, he began asking people for help. “But nobody gave me any. They all looked like they were ready to kill themselves for the summit,” he says.

The Everest of real was very different from what he had imagined. “Having been here, I know what it is all about now—it’s a cash game. You don’t need to be a mountaineer. Pay the money and you can get a permit and a Sherpa to take you to the top,” he says.

Less than a week before Alee began his descent, another Indian climber, a Dehradun- based former software engineer, Ameesha Chauhan, was making her way beyond Camp 4. She had climbed the peak all night with her guide, leaving Camp 4 at 7.30 pm, and was now at 8 am, just two hours away from the summit, when her guide asked her to return. His cylinder had run out of oxygen and she was fast losing hers as well. “I told him I would do the rest of the journey myself. But that was dangerous because it was possible I wouldn’t have enough oxygen to descend from the summit,” recalls Chauhan, currently recuperating in a hospital in Delhi, the toes in her left foot having developed frostbite.

Chauhan and her guide began to descend. But her guide had by then turned near blind (he was suffering from snow blindness, where one temporarily loses vision due to overexposure to the sun’s UV rays). She was near-delirious and exhausted and was now leading her guide. She was also hungry (she had gone without food since the previous night) and soon ran out of water. After a point, she began to eat snow to quench her thirst and then a little later, too exhausted, began to slide her way down the peak. “I really thought I wouldn’t survive that day,” she says.

She managed to find some help at Camp 3 eventually and reached the next camp by that night. There she learnt, two other people from her group had perished climbing the peak.

After a few days of rest, she was back trying to climb the peak again. On May 22nd, she saw her first dead body. It lay tethered to a rope as two Sherpa guides tried to identify it. The next day, she saw another dead body tethered again to a rope. The summit now lay within touching distance. It was nearly 8 in the morning. But a crowd had already gathered at the summit before her. But this time it was not as bad as the human traffic jam of the day before.

How long did it take to clear?

“Not much. Just 30 minutes,” she says.