Despite bitterly cold and harsh conditions, the prestige associated with summiting the tallest mountain in the world continues to make Mount Everest a dangerous lure for many, regardless of their climbing skill and experience. As Joshua Hammer reports at GQ, Nepal and China handed out nearly 500 pricey climbing permits during the 2019 season. Partly due to a massive logjam of over 100 summit hopefuls crowding the ascent during a rare break in the weather on May 22nd and 23rd, over 11 people died on the mountain.
Grubhofer looked down toward Nepal and could see gray clouds sweeping across the southern face of the mountain. There was something else down there too: a line of a hundred or so climbers in brightly colored suits snaking up the side of the mountain. The crowd seemed incredible—like a bag of Skittles had been scattered down the slope. On the north side, Grubhofer knew, more climbers were tracing his trail up the mountain from Tibet too.
And then there are the growing crowds. For this year’s climbing season, Nepal handed out 381 permits to scale Everest, the most ever. The Chinese government distributed more than 100 permits for the northern side. According to the Himalayan Database, the number of people summiting Everest has just about doubled in the past decade. And in that time the mountain has become accessible even to relative novices, thanks to a proliferation of cut-rate agencies that require little proof of technical skill, experience, or physical fitness. “Some of these companies don’t ask any questions,” says Rolfe Oostra, an Australian mountaineer and a founder of France-based 360 Expeditions, which sent four clients to the summit this year. “They are willing to take anybody on, and that compounds the problems for everyone.”
In Katmandu in August, long after the last mountaineers had returned home, I found the local climbing community consumed by a debate about what had gone wrong. At least four climbers died in the 24 hours that followed Grubhofer’s moment at the top—casualties of interminable lines and tragic miscalculations, victims of one of the deadliest seasons the mountain has ever seen. In all, 11 would die on Everest in May. By the time I visited, the Nepalese government had proposed a new set of rules requiring, among other things, that prospective climbers provide proof of high-altitude experience. But skeptics doubted that the government would seriously enforce such reforms and risk reducing its millions of dollars in permit-generated revenues. “At the end of the day, the changes that Nepal talks about never happen,” Rolfe Oostra tells me. “At the end of the day, money talks.”