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A Traffic Jam on High

September 05, 2002

If the 1996 tragedy on Mt. Everest was not enough to scare off other would-be Everesters, then you'd think reading the appalling and spellbinding details in Jon Krakauer's bestseller "Into Thin Air" certainly would.

Members of two American teams led by paid guides jammed the route up the southeast side of the mountain in Nepal. Eight clients and guides were trapped by a storm at various points above 27,000 feet and died. That others survived and got back to their tents was considered virtually miraculous.

Unfortunately, the tale seems to have been more attractive publicity than deterrent. On May 16, a record number of climbers for one day, 61, reached the 29,035-foot summit of the world during a brief window of fair weather. In all, 250 people populated base camp at the foot of the southeast ridge of Everest this year. Ninety-one reached the summit and only two died, considerably better than the historical death rate.

But Nepal's Ministry of Tourism is expecting even greater numbers next spring to mark the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest, by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Elizabeth Hawley, who has chronicled Himalayan climbs for 40 years, told Outside magazine: "Everest next year: Do not show up. No parking space."

The hordes of climbers not only create unsafe conditions at bottlenecks high on the mountain, such as the famous Hillary Step, they also degrade the environment around base camp and contribute to a massive trash problem. Also on the mountain are many dead climbers whose bodies cannot be recovered.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Nepal allowed only one or two Everest expeditions each year. But over time, more climbers had the money and time required to attempt Everest, and the Nepalese government realized it could collect considerable hard currency by charging up to $60,000 for an expedition permit. Inexperienced climbers plunked down as much as $65,000 each for a spot on a commercially guided team. Climbing Everest has become the ultimate adventure trek.

No one wants Nepal to give tests to determine who should be allowed to attempt Everest. But the Nepalis should be more diligent in determining what the environment can bear and put a reasonable limit on masses flocking to the famous but abused mountain they call Sagarmatha--"head of the sky."

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