25 years suffering from ‘altitude sickness’

Several of the climbers who attempted the summit in 1996. In the bottom row, Krakauer is third from the left.

Each of the 291 deaths recorded on Everest, since its first ascent in 1953, constitutes a tragedy of such incalculable magnitude for those close to it as it is anecdotal for the general public. However, the chain of events that occurred between May 10 and 11, 1996, 25 years ago, on the roof of the planet (8,848m), two days in which they lost their lives, does belong to the collective memory. five climbers on the south side of the mountain and three more on the north side. It has now been a quarter of a century since a catastrophe baptized in capital letters as The Great Tragedy, although it is not the bloodiest in the history of the mountain, much less the last of similar characteristics, but it is the best known thanks to the best seller Altitude sickness, signed by American journalist and mountaineer Jon Krakauer. The avalanche of ice blocks that killed 16 Sherpa workers in 2014 at the Khumbu waterfall, the gateway to Everest, will not deserve a Hollywood movie or best-selling books. The aberration of a monumental traffic jam above 8,700 meters in 2019 also seems to have been overcome: there, queuing to step on the top, nine people died.

25 years ago, analysts of the aforementioned tragedy pointed to a couple of factors as the main triggers for the slow-motion deaths of eight climbers engulfed in a fierce storm: Peak fever and over-commercialization of the mountain were said to precipitate a avoidable carnage. But it was the wrong decision-making by the guides leading the expeditions that created a disastrous cocktail. A quarter of a century later, both factors, far from having been corrected, have grown to unsustainable limits.

Far from dissuading neophytes, interest in Everest skyrocketed from Krakauer’s work. Consequently, the demand for sneaking into the coveted summit accelerated and with it the commercialization of the mountain: if in 1996 Western agencies such as Mountain Madness or Adventure Consultants managed their client portfolio in an integral way, now it is the agencies of Nepal that they have taken over a business that they are willing to squeeze to its last consequences. Without financial hardship, on the north or Chinese side of Everest the government has banned non-local expeditions this season, a contrast to the record of foreign applicants registered at the foot of the mountain on the Nepalese side: 408, which it involves a transit on its slopes of about 1,000 people between clients and their guides of the Sherpa ethnic group.

In 1996, the expeditions that attacked the summit in the early morning of May 10-11 had handled weather reports announcing the arrival of bad weather. Despite this, that day 34 mountaineers tried to reach the top. On May 23, 2019, a total of 354 crept to the top, as if interest in the iconic peak had multiplied by 10. So, some groups saw a threat in the weather forecast and resigned, but those who did not They did so and were immersed in a drama in which a good part of its creators were also its heroes. Following up under the threat of a sudden change in weather was the first mistake. The second had to do with the absence of fixed ropes at two key points: El Balcón (8,350 m) and the Hillary Step (8,750 m). There were no ropes because the task of laying them was assigned to only two Sherpas. One of them wasted a lot of time shorting out a posh client and the other did not want to carry all the work alone. Today, a team of up to 25 Sherpas is responsible for laying fixed ropes from base camp to the very top. This circumstance delayed the stipulated schedule for several hours, increased the consumption of artificial oxygen and the exhaustion of all those involved: many of them reached the top after two in the afternoon, the agreed time to return with or without a top, and when they started the descent not only had the storm already on them but their physical condition had deteriorated in an exaggerated way.

That day, Anatoly Boukreev, Mountain Madness guide, was the first to reach the top, after helping to place fixed ropes. He stayed there for an hour and a half, assisting the clients. The strange thing is that he climbed from field 4 (7,900 meters) and returned to this point without accompanying his clients and without using artificial oxygen. Boukreev was a very strong mountaineer but not a professional guide and considered that any aspiring to Everest should be a freelance mountaineer. His way of acting that day made him the target of criticism for the book ‘Altitude sickness’: a bad guy was needed in said horror movie and the Kazakh paid a good part of the broken dishes. However, in the early morning of May 10-11, the only one who risked his life in the storm to save the lives of three clients stranded in no-man’s-land was him. Today it is not conceivable that a client travels without the shadow of his guide. In fact, there are clients who climb supported by three guides who maneuver on the fixed ropes for them, carry them and change the oxygen bottles and even drag them down the slope when they reach their roof.

In 1996, the heads of Adventure Consultants (Rob Hall) and Mountain Madness (Scott Fischer) paid with their lives for the wrong decision-making. Also two of his clients and the guide Andy Harris, who worked for Hall and did not want to leave him when he was dying. Sherpas And Dorje, Makalu Gau and Lopsang Jambu came close to the catastrophe as they pulled their shoulders together. Mountain Madness guide Neal Beidleman was also heroic, managing to descend with five clients to the vicinity of Camp 4, where he came to the brink of collapse to ask for help that only Boukreev could provide.

At present, the parts that indicate the windows of good weather are so precise that the entire ascent strategy is based on this prediction. To correct the errors of 1996 are not only the meteorologists but the Sherpa guides, in charge of placing kilometers of fixed ropes, of supplying the high fields with hundreds of oxygen cylinders. In 1996, three-quarters of the clients of the two agencies cited had no eight-thousand experience. Today the exact same thing can be said. The lack of experience leads to a lack of autonomy on the slopes of Everest. Without great physical or technical strength, without the ability to dispense with artificial oxygen or room for maneuver when the essential fixed ropes are lacking, these clients are cannon fodder. The same peak fever that was observed in 1996 could be verified in 2019, with a photo of a monumental traffic jam where the wait led to agony and death for nine people. The excessive commercialization of yesterday is the excessive commercialization of today and it is a phenomenon that is by no means unique to Everest. It affects all the renowned mountains on the planet that present technical difficulties or those derived from their altitude.

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