Up to 200 people hope to conquer Everest today – but a string of deaths has left experts asking if they should be there at all.
It was not even 5am when climber Kenton Cool reached the summit of Everest yesterday, breaking his own British record for the highest number of ascents and bringing his total to 10. "Sensational. It was remarkable." Mr Cool told the BBC, as he started his descent down the mountain. "Getting to the top is optional but getting back down is mandatory."
Mr Cool and his team had set off early to make the best of the friendly weather and return safely to Camp IV, but he may also have been motivated by the crowds. The 38 year-old was yesterday the first of more than 50 climbers to reach Everest's summit and by tomorrow evening the total could reach 200 over the 48 hour period, an extraordinary number and one that has raised fresh concerns that too many people are scaling the world's highest peak.
"So far, 52 people have summited and there were a total of 150 ready to climb at Camp IV," a Nepalese tourism ministry official, Tilak Pandey, told the Agence France-Presse.
The climbing community has been bubbling with talk about whether too many people are now ascending the mountain and creating increasingly dangerous conditions. Photographs and blogs sent by satellite phone from the mountain's Base Camp have shown vast snaking lines of climbers ascending, waiting to pass perilous ridges and even jostling at some spots. Some have likened the lines to a conga dance.
The dangers are all too obvious on a mountain that has claimed the lives of at least 220 climbers, about half of those in the last two decades. Ten have died this year, the most since 1996 when 15 people were killed – the deaths of some of them subsequently documented in Jon Krakauer's book Into Thin Air.
Just last weekend, four mountaineers died on their way down the peak amid deteriorating weather and crowds of up to 200 climbers. Among those who ran out of oxygen and perished in the "death zone" was a 33 year-old Canadian woman, Shriya Shah-Klorfine, who had reportedly ignored the repeated appeals of her local guides to turn back.
"Please sister, don't push yourself. If you feel weak, please go back. You can come next year, try to climb next year. Don't push yourself, it might kill you," her guide, Ganesh Thakuri, urged her, according to a Canadian newspaper. "She was telling me 'I spent a lot of money to come over here. It's my dream'."
As it was, more could have died on the mountain last weekend. A young Israeli climber, Nadav Ben-Yehuda, saved a stranded man, Aydin Irmak, 46, after finding him lost in the darkness.
"Aydin, wake up. Wake up!" Mr Ben-Yehuda had said, according to the Associated Press. "It just blew my mind. I didn't realise he was up there the whole time. Everybody thought he had already descended."
Observers say the commercialisation of climbing has allowed increasing numbers of less-experienced climbers to attempt a mountain that was once off-limits to all but the best. Many attempts now involve seeking to achieve "firsts" or to break records. Since the mountain was first successfully climbed in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, anywhere up to 10,000 people have attempted to emulate them. About 4,000 have got to the top.
Mr Cool was driven by his desire to carry an Olympic gold medal to the top of the mountain and fulfil a promise apparently made almost 90 years ago. The climber was carrying one of 21 gold medals awarded to members of the 1922 British Everest expedition at the 1924 Winter Olympics, at a time when mountaineering was included as an Olympic sport. The 1922 expedition had come within 500 metres of the summit, but failed in three attempts to reach the top.
Mr Cool said a member of the 1922 team, Lt Col Edward Strutt, had pledged that one of the gold medals would be taken to the top. Yesterday the undertaking was completed. "The emotions were very high," Mr Cool said of the moment he reached the top.
Experts say the problems on Everest are exacerbated by several factors. One is that while climbers may spend weeks on the mountain acclimatising, the window when the weather is suitable for reaching the summit is small. As a result, most attempts are made in May or the beginning of June. Another factor is that most climbers are attempting the same route, creating jams.
"Everest must be a pretty unpleasant place at the moment," said Sir Chris Bonington, who led four expeditions to mountain. "If the weather breaks, you are high and you can't get down quickly because of the bottlenecks."
Nepalese authorities have declined to impose a limit on the numbers permitted to climb the mountain. Climbers pay up to £16,000 each for a permit, a handy source of income for a struggling nation. Officials in Nepal have denied the mountain is overcrowded.
But others disagree. Kunda Dixit, the editor of the Nepali Times and Himal magazine, said there had never been any discussion of enforcing a limit because the climbers represented a "cash cow". He said that had the weather turned bad this weekend, there could have been more fatalities on the mountain. "The more climbers you have, the more you earn," he said. "We have not learned the lessons of 1996."