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Everest climbing season with new rules and question marks

April 26, 2024

As the delayed 2024 Everest season finally starts, climate change is increasing the risk of the climb and creating new problems, like the smell of human feces when unfrozen.

Nepalese climber Phurba Tenjing Sherpa on Mount Everest
Nepalese climber Phurba Tenjing Sherpa on Mount EverestImage: Phurba Tenjing Sherpa/epa/picture alliance/dpa

There is a reason mountaineers on Everest call the passage through the Khumbu Icefall from the western slope the "ballroom of death." A mighty glacier hangs like a sword of Damocles, threatening the route and making for tricky climbing.

Acidents there are frequent. Ten years ago, on 18 April 2014, an ice avalanche broke loose there. Sixteen Nepalese mountaineers, who were carrying equipment for commercial expeditions to the high camps, died in the accident.

Since then, the "Icefall Doctors" — a group of Sherpas who specialize in icefall — have been trying to place the route to Everest's summit as far away from the western slope as possible. This spring, however, climate change forced them back into the "ballroom of death."

There was simply no alternative. Two attempts to find a less risky route had failed. The snowless winter in Nepal had led to unstable ice towers and snow bridges in the icy labyrinth. In addition, crevasses had formed that were so wide that they could not be crossed with ladders.

Every year, the Icefall Doctors set up the route through the dangerous icefall, secure it with ropes and maintain it during the climbing season until the end of May. Only when the route up to Camp Two at 6,400 meters (21,000 feet) has been completed can the commercial teams ascend. Time was of the essence. Around ten days later than planned, the eight Sherpas finally announced that they were ready. However, the Icefall Doctors warned that there were at least five dangerous spots that should be passed as quickly as possible. The whole endeavor is reminiscent of Russian roulette.

Mountain is 'more dynamic'

Last winter, two passes over 5,800 meters high in the Everest region were completely snow-free. This is "worrying," says Nepalese glaciologist Tenzing Chogyal Sherpa.

"The data shows that the number of snow days, the amount of snow and the snow cover are decreasing — a negative trend. These 'naked' passes and mountains illustrate what is happening," said Sherpa.

The glaciers are melting faster and faster, becoming thinner and shorter. Larger glacial lakes are forming and their natural dams are threatening to burst. That happened this week on Manaslu, the eighth largest mountain in the world. The subsequent tidal wave, however, caused only material damage.

More and more pools of meltwater are also forming in the valley at the foot of Everest. Up to the summit at 8,849 meters, snow and ice are retreating. The result: Increased risk of falling rocks and, because it is getting warmer, a higher chance of avalanches. "Many people lose their lives in avalanches. The mountain is becoming more and more dynamic," warns glaciologist Sherpa.

Mount Everest | Base Camp
Base camp on the northern Tibetan side of EverestImage: Xiao Mi/dpa/picture alliance

20% fewer permits

"The current difficulties at the Khumbu Icefall to get to the higher camps could have an impact on the entire season and could possibly be the harbinger of a major disaster on Everest," fears Norrdine Nouar.

The German mountaineer from the Allgäu region has just climbed — without bottled oxygen — the 8,091 meter Annapurna in western Nepal, his second eight-thousander. Now he wants to attempt the highest mountain on earth without a breathing mask.

"I really hope that we don't break last year's sad record of deaths on Everest again," the 36-year-old told the blog "Abenteuer Berg" ("Mountain Adventure").

In spring 2023, 18 people — six Nepalese and 12 clients of commercial teams — lost their lives on Mount Everest, more than ever before in one season. However, the Nepalese government had also never issued so many permits for Everest: 478. This year, the number of permits is a good 20% lower compared to the same time in 2023.

This may or may not indicate a decline in interest in Everest. On the one hand, it could be due to the fact that many Everest candidates are now pre-acclimatising at home in hypoxia tents and therefore arriving later. On the other hand, the fact that the highest mountain on earth can be climbed from the Tibetan north side for the first time in four years may also play a role.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Chinese authorities had closed Tibet's mountains to foreign expeditions. Teams that want to climb Everest from the north this spring are still waiting for their entry permits into Tibet. According to reports, the border will not be opened until May 7. The Everest season on the north side ends on 1 June. Chinese authorities have capped the number of permits at 300. Climbs without bottled oxygen are prohibited above an altitude of 7,000 meters.

Tracking chips and poo bags

There are also new regulations on the southern Nepalese side. All mountaineers must now have electronic tracking chips sewn into their down jackets. These are intended to facilitate rescue searches should someone go missing on the mountain. The system has proven its worth in avalanche searches in the Alps. However, experts doubt that it can also increase safety in the summit area of Mount Everest. According to Lukas Furtenbach, head of the Austrian expedition provider Furtenbach Adventures, the range of the system is significantly reduced in the event of ice avalanches.

"It would be better if the [mountain] guides didn't leave their clients alone," says Furtenbach. "Then the problem would be solved."

This year, for the first time, it is also compulsory for climbers to take excrement bags up the mountain, use them and bring them back down again. The poo bags have been specially developed for outdoor use and can be sealed tightly. Their inside is coated with a mixture of gelling agents, enzymes and odour-neutralizing substances. These ensure that feces are sealed in the bag and odor is reduced.

The Nepalese environmental protection organization Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC), which is responsible for the managment of the Everest base camp and also employs the Icefall Doctors, is tasked with ensuring that the rule is adhered to. The SPCC estimates that between Camp One at 6,100 meters and Camp Four on the South Col at just under 8,000 meters, there is a total of around three tons of human excrement — half of it at the South Col, the last camp before the summit of Mount Everest. As the snow cover is increasingly disappearing, it literally stinks to high heaven, threatening to turn the South Col into a "ballroom of feces."

This article was originally published in German.