“There was a traffic jam on the mountain on Saturday. Climbers were still heading to the summit as late as 2:30 p.m. which is quite dangerous,” Shrestha said.
Climbers normally are advised not to try for the summit after 11 a.m. The area above the last camp at South Col is nicknamed the “death zone” because of the steep icy slope, treacherous conditions and low oxygen level.
This sounds eerily similar but a bit less worse than the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster. Climbers summiting way after the recommended time and bad weather is a lethal combination.
(Not summiting after 11 a.m. is a rule of thumb for most snow climbs as snow starts melting and becomes loose around noon due to the sunlight. Loose snow can result in increased rate of rockfall, besides not giving a good foothold to walk on.)
Now that said, I’d hate to be in the shoes of the mountaineers. This weekend was the first–and in all likelihood the only–window of good weather to summit Mt. Everest. Many had probably used their life savings to pay for the expedition (the permit alone costs around USD 25,000). This might have been their only chance to be at the highest point on the planet. They probably started their summit day early but were held back by slight delays due to the excessive traffic. (There are patches such as the Hillary Step that can only be navigated in a single file.)
Delays of 10-15 mins. are very normal on high altitude climbs:It might take that long to just catch one’s breath. Small delays add up and before you know it, you’re a few hours late. But you don’t want to give up at that point. Further, no climbers around you are giving up and it seems like one jolly, group adventure. The sense of danger is mitigated when you are in a group. I’d wager that had the climbers been there by themselves, they’d have turned around sensing the danger and uncertainty they were stepping into.
Then, the weather seems perfect–the most perfect weather of the entire season. It doesn’t strike you that perfect might be relative because of the bad season. The weather might worsen but as with many climbs, you don’t get a vantage point to predict the incoming weather until you are at the summit. And with no information, you tend to assume the best case scenario, especially when everything else seems to be alright. “Alright”.
And then disaster strikes, taking down one by one. They delays have caused exhaustion and extreme altitude sickness. Even a slight misstep that causes you to lose balance might take many minutes to recover. This means loss of both valuable oxygen and energy. You don’t even realize when you’re on a lifeline.
Even the best perish.
And that to me is the scariest part of high altitude climbing.
It takes extreme character to make good decisions in adverse conditions. I have failed at it too. Every time I embark upon a difficult trek (difficult by my standards) my only hope is to make good decisions that will stand the test of time, and not the test of chance. It is tougher than it sounds on paper. At times, bad decisions can lead to good outcomes. It takes wisdom to still classify those decisions as bad.
In the days to follow, there will be many who criticize the above climbers. It is easy to play Captain Hindsight. In all fairness, perhaps a few of the critics might even have made the right decisions had they been there.
But many of them would’ve just played along.