Recent Everest Summits, Tragedies Mark Return of ‘Normal’ Climbing Season

After three consecutive years of major disasters, Everest’s entrenched commercial climbing culture has returned to the world’s tallest mountain. The story of Everest 2016, for better or worse, appears to be that business as usual has returned.

Thus far, there have been nearly 400 recorded summits, most from the South Side. There have also been at least four confirmed deaths, including one on neighboring Lhotse (27,940 feet/8,516 meters). Despite the fact that the total number of aspiring climbers is down by at least 30 percent this year, lines and congestion high on the mountain have been clogging up the flow of climbers nonetheless. Meanwhile, down low, expensive and risky helicopter rescues have hauled upwards of 30 frostbitten or depleted people back to safety.

On May 20, Lakhpa Sherpa, a 42-year-old Nepalese woman who reportedly works at a 7-Eleven in Connecticut, reached the summit of Everest for the seventh time, breaking her own record as the most accomplished female Everest climber ever. Lakhpa reached the summit alongside Maya Sherpa, 36, the only female high-altitude worker on Everest this year.

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Mountaineer Melissa Arnot summited Mt. Everest for the sixth time, breaking the world record for the most summits completed by an American woman in history, a record she has held since 2013; Photograph by David Morton

Melissa Arnot, a professional climber from the U.S., just completed her sixth summit of Everest to become the first American woman to climb the peak without supplemental oxygen.

Staff Sgt. Charlie Linville, a former Marine who lost part of his leg while serving in Afghanistan, became the first combat-wounded amputee to reach the summit of Everest, also on Friday. Linville, 30, from Boise, Idaho, lost his foot to a below-the-knee amputation after an IED blast struck his detail in 2013. This was his third attempt in as many years on Everest, and he is climbing for the Heroes Project, a veterans nonprofit.

There is a separate group of veterans currently gunning for the summit over the next few days, including Chad Jukes, another combat-wounded amputee. Jukes, from Ridgway, Colorado, lost part of his leg below the knee to an IED blast in Iraq in 2006. Jukes is climbing with the USX Veteran Expedition, raising awareness of PTSD issues afflicting veterans. Since 2001, more than 1,645 U.S. soldiers have lost a limb in combat, and thousands more have suffered the “hidden injury” that is post-traumatic stress disorder.

Also, Irena Kharazova became the first Armenian woman to summit Everest, while Iryna Galay, 28, became the first Ukranian woman to summit the 29,029-foot/8,848-meter mountain located on the Nepal-Tibet border.

Two teenage women became the youngest climbers from their respective countries to climb Everest. Alyssa Azar, 19, of Australia, summited on May 21, and Marin Minamaya, 19, of Japan, stood on the summit on May 23.

Helicopters have hauled at least three dozen people off the South Side of the mountain this year—an unusually high count—for everything from frostbite to altitude sickness to diarrhea. (China doesn’t permit helicopter rescues on the North Side.) High-altitude helicopter rescues are extremely costly and dangerous. Whether all the rescued climbers’ lives were in grave danger, or whether some were simply looking for a quicker way down, remains unclear at this time.

Several Sherpas were tasked with carrying and aiding at least two different ailing climbers down from above 8,000 meters to 6,400 meters. Siv Harstad, a 45-year-old woman from Norway, required aid in descending from the summit due to snow blindness. And Seema Goshwami, of India, found herself unable to move due to frostbitten hands and also required Sherpa assistance in descending, according to Pemba Sherpa of Seven Summit Treks.

“It was a big and risky effort, but we were able to save her,” Pemba Sherpa said in a statement.

There have been at least five confirmed deaths, including one on the Tibetan North Side of the mountain.

Last week, Ang Furba Sherpa died in a fall while working to fix ropes to the summit of Lhotse—an adjacent 8,000-meter mountain—for the benefit of the 78 waiting climbers who have been granted permits to climb the peak this year.

Eric Arnold, 36, from Rotterdam in the Netherlands, died from high-altitude sickness at Camp 4 after having reached the summit of Everest earlier that day. This was Arnold’s fifth attempt to climb the mountain; in 2012, he was turned back just shy of the summit. He was also a survivor of the earthquake-related avalanche that tore through Base Camp last year and killed 19 people. Climbing Everest, according to Arnold’s friends, had been his big childhood dream.

Marisa Elizabeth Strydom, a business professor from Melbourne, Australia, died from a stroke at Camp 4 after turning around after reaching the south summit at 8 a.m. Although Strydom had climbed a number of high-altitude mountains, including Denali and Aconcagua, she’d never been above 8,000 meters. She was climbing with Rob Gropel, her husband, when she died.

Both Arnold and Strydom’s bodies have been brought down to Camp 2, where they will be airlifted to Kathmandu.

On Sunday, Wangchu Sherpa, a director at Trekking Camp Nepal, reported that two climbers from India, Paresh Nath and Goutam Ghosh, have gone missing above 8,000 meters. Meanwhile, two other members of their team, Sunita Hazra and Subhash Pal, were rescued by Sherpas and brought to lower camps. During the rescue effort, Subhash Pal died just above Camp 3, making for the mountain’s fifth confirmed death. Wangchu Sherpa also said that there is little hope that Nath and Ghosh will be found.

A Return to “Normalcy”

Over the past three years, a variety of dramas, tragedies, and rather unbelievable circumstances have derailed the so-called “normal” climbing season from unfolding on Mount Everest—which takes place each year in May, before the seasonal monsoon jet stream tears across the Himalaya.

In 2013 there was an unfortunate brawl between three European professional climbers and a large group of Sherpa high-altitude workers, who had felt their rope-fixing work had been disrespected by the aforementioned climbers. In 2014, 16 Nepali mountain workers were killed, and nine more were injured, in the Khumbu Icefall, a tragic circumstance that led to calls to improving the working conditions, both in terms of improved safety and higher compensations and life-insurance policies, for mountain workers. And in 2015, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated Nepal, causing over 8,500 deaths across the country and resulting in both the Nepal and Chinese governments closing Everest to climbing. Meanwhile, as medics and rescuers across Nepal found themselves without adequate aerial support needed to save the lives of people buried by the earthquake, about 200 Everest climbers—who were intact but lacked the skills needed to self-rescue from Camp 1—diverted a quarter of all the helicopters available in Nepal to bring themselves to safety.

If anything, the 2016 Everest season more closely resembles the 2012 season, which was the busiest year to date, with around 547 people summiting that year, a 57 percent success rate. It was also a deadly season, with 11 climbers dying under clear, blue skies as they waited for hours to bypass traffic jams high on the mountain.

This is the 20th anniversary of the Into Thin Air Into Thin Air disaster, when eight climbers were killed in a storm. Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book painted a picture of a mountain whose mammoth natural challenges were being reduced by commercial interests aiming to make it as easy as possible for anyone with enough cash to reach the top.

Presciently, Krakauer wrote, “As an increasing number of people attempt this treacherous climb—aided by all sorts of technological breakthroughs—a host of new businesses crop up to take advantage of this wealthy client base. But is this a good thing? As we’ll learn, there’s no easy answer to this question.”

It’s a question that clearly remains.

What’s Next

Only a few teams still aspire to reaching the summit via the South Side. The Tibetan Sherpa–led rope-fixing team on the North Side of the mountain only reached the summit last week, which is why few climbers from the north have reached the top. Of the hundred or so expected to reach the summit via the North Side over the next four days are Cory Richards, a National Geographic photographer, and Adrian Ballinger, a professional mountain guide for Alpenglow Expeditions, who are trying to climb Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen and Snapchatting their journey live with #EverestNoFilter. Read about their final push to Everest’s summit.