Mount Everest has been one of the most popular destinations for thrill-seeking climbers from time immemorial. But the reward of this accomplishment is matched only by the grave risk it poses. Everest's summit lies more than 29,000 feet above sea level, several thousand feet beyond the point where oxygen levels get so low that the body begins shutting down, getting closer to the end by the minute. Few can live at such extreme altitudes for longer than a few hours without supplemental oxygen, making the venture a dangerous one. The remains of former climbers abandoned across Everest's trails are somber reminders of the trek's high stakes.
Although mortality rates have decreased dramatically in the past several decades, 2019 saw an alarming spike in climbers who perished. Although not nearly as shocking as the most devastating day in Everest's history, the sudden increase in mountaineer deaths is cause for alarm.
Nepal, one of the two countries that border Everest, distributed a record number of climbing permits in 2019, over twice that of neighboring Tibet. As a result, overcrowding near the top of Everest led to long lines among those waiting to summit the mountain. While waiting in line isn't inherently dangerous, every second above 26,000 feet, also known as the "death zone," is crucial. Low oxygen levels compounded by novice climbers, inexperienced expedition leaders, and inclement weather led to 11 deaths and one of the most fatal years in Mount Everest's recent history.
In 2019, the Everest death toll was its highest in four years. During the previous 20 years, it averaged six people annually. Some of the deadliest years on Everest include 2014, when an avalanche took the lives of 16 Sherpas, and 1996, during which eight climbers died in a single day due to a storm.
Journalist Grayson Schaffer says the situation is only getting worse; going forward, it's likely that up to 10 people will die on the mountain routinely due to overcrowding.
Human traffic jams have increased the number of fatalities on Everest in recent years. The summit sits at an altitude above 26,000 feet, which is known as the death zone. In late May 2019, there were so many people trying to summit Mount Everest that they had to wait in line.
Getting stuck at such a high altitude can have devastating consequences; even when using supplemental oxygen, the body begins to shut down after only a few hours. At least two climbers, Donald Lynn Cash and Anjali Kulkarni, died from exhaustion after enduring the lengthy wait.
Because of the sheer number of climbers - often compounded by their inexperience and resulting lack of preparation - oxygen tanks started going missing in 2019. Some operators who take climbers up the mountain are better prepared than others. Unknown climbers took 50 bottles of oxygen from an operator on the Nepalese side of the mountain, which could have put 10 to 15 people in danger.
New climbing companies profiting off Everest's popularity have begun selling expeditions at cheaper rates than better-established companies. Gordon Janow of Alpine Adventures says that paying more money often affords access to additional oxygen resources. Companies trying to make a quick buck off inexperienced climbers don't have the same protections in place.
Mt. Everest sits on the border of Nepal and China. China enforces more stringent laws regarding climbing permits than does Nepal. Because of the number of people on the Nepalese side of the mountain, human congestion has grown more common. Experienced climbers have requested the Nepalese government start putting limits on the number of people allowed to climb.
In 2019, the government issued a record number of permits at 381. It's a lucrative industry for Nepal; climbers pay the government $11,000 for a climbing permit.