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Everest traffic jam: 'Wished there was policing'

July 15, 2019

Mariam Ktiri reached the summit of Mount Everest on May 22, only to get stuck in a traffic jam in the mountain's "death zone" on her descent. The German-Moroccan mountaineer talked to DW about the experience.

Mariam Ktiri deutsch-marokkanische Bergsteigerin
Image: Privat

It was a picture that went around the world: Congestion on the Mount Everest summit ridge captured by Nirmal Purja. German-Moroccan Mariam Ktiri was one of those stuck in it after reaching the summit of the highest mountain on earth at 2:35 a.m. local time.

"Shortly below the summit, the masses ascended towards us. Many of the people were extremely slow. You could see that they were completely exhausted. It took us about an hour and a half to get below the Hillary Step," she told DW.

For an hour and a half, Ktiri was stuck in the so-called "death zone" where humans can't survive long due to how thin the air is. "Thank God I still had enough oxygen. My Sherpa was constantly checking. At that moment I wished there was policing to stop the people and say: 'Wait until those on their descent have climbed down! Everything else makes no sense.'"

Clueless climbers a risk to all

Her sense of accomplishment soon gave way to feelings of disillusionment and frustration as she got caught up in the congestion, despite setting off four hours earlier than planned. "I thought: We set off so early, we didn't even make real breaks," said Ktiri.

"We simply climbed up the mountain in a concentrated manner to avoid this situation. And now on the way back, we were confronted with it. I was angry that people don't think rationally. I tried to signal to those who were coming towards me: Please wait! But they didn't react."

According to Ktiri, the main problem on Everest is those with a lack of climbing experience: "There were some who didn't have a clue. I saw people being dragged by their Sherpas on a short rope as far back as the Khumbu Icefall. If someone can't walk by himself at this point, he is entirely out of place and should turn back."

Mount Everest Massentourismus
May 22, 2019: A dangerous traffic jam forms at the summit of Mount EverestImage: AFP/Project Possible

She hopes that the operators will introduce performance tests to check their clients' mountaineering skills. "The people without a clue are a risk for everyone: for themselves — okay, that's their problem – but also for the others."

According to official estimates, 300 people reached Everest's summit on May 22, a record for a single day. It was a record-breaking spring season in 2019 with around 900 successful summits, though 11 lost their lives in the attempt.

Lhotse attached

One day after reaching Everest's summit, Ktiri scaled Lhotse with her Sherpa. "I'm so glad I climbed Lhotse too," says Ktiri: "It was like a reward after the frustration at the traffic jam on Everest. On Lhotse on May 23, there were maybe a dozen mountaineers on the route. That was simply beautiful – apart from the corpse, which sits a few meters below the summit."

Climbers are regularly confronted with deaths on these peaks and, on the Lhotse flank, Ktiri had passed the body of Bulgarian Ivan Tomov, who had passed away during his descent a few days earlier due to a high-altitude cerebral edema.

Mariam Ktiri deutsch-marokkanische Bergsteigerin
Ktiri at the summit of Moun EverestImage: Privat

"It looked as if he was looking at the landscape. I was shocked." The feeling intensified later when she passed a group of Sherpas carrying a corpse down. "After that I became quite slow." Despite the psychological upset, she didn't think about turning back, says Ktiri. She was focused on her big goal.

Seven Summits within 12 months

By reaching the summit at Everest, which sits 8,850 meters (29,029 feet) above sea level, Ktiri completed her collection of the "Seven Summits" — the highest mountains each continent has to offer — and all within a year.

Before Everest, Asia's tallest peak, she had scaled Denali (North America, 6,194 meters, 28 May 2018), Elbrus (Europe, 5,642 meters, 13 August 2018), Kilimanjaro (Africa, 5,895 meters, 24 September 2018), Mount Vinson (Antarctica, 4,897 meters, 16 December 2018), Aconcagua (South America, 6,962 meters, 12 January 2019) and the Carstensz Pyramid (Oceania, 4,884 meters, 23 February 2019).

Ktiri grew up in the Moroccan city of Casablanca before moving to Augsburg, Germany when she was 18 to study and possesses both Moroccan and German citizenship. 

"I identify with both countries," she said. "One is my home, the other my adoptive country."

The management consultant then lived in Munich for 12 years. There she discovered her passion for mountaineering. "What do you do in Munich? You go into the mountains," said Ktiri. "Over time, my ambitions have grown."

At the end of 2018, she moved to Bern, Switzerland: "Here the mountains are more nearby and higher. That was simply more efficient for acclimatization."

Mariam Ktiri deutsch-marokkanische Bergsteigerin
"Have big dreams"Image: Privat

Encouraging Arab women

The Seven Summits were "the project of my life until now" says Ktiri. "Mentally, it made me very, very strong. I proved: If you have a goal in mind and you concentrate on it, and above all follow it with discipline, you will always find a way to achieve it. This applies not only to the mountains, but also to your private or professional life."

What she has achieved in the "strongly male-dominated field of mountaineering" should also encourage other Arab women, says Ktiri: "Islam, our culture is the one thing that we can respect. But we can also have big dreams and realize them."