Himalaya Spring 2019: A Difficult and Deadly Season Winds Down

Just as the climbing season was coming to its apex last week I dropped off the grid for a few days, completely missing the main summit push on Everest, Lhotse, and a few of the other major peaks. While in the backcountry in British Columbia I was able to monitor the situation in Nepal and Tibet and like most of you I was stunned by the now-famous image of the line of climbers waiting to go up on Everest. Now, a week after that photo made headlines around the world, the climbing season in the Himalaya is winding down quickly, with most of the peaks now abandoned and teams disbanding in Kathmandu.

We’re still waiting on the final summit count, but Alan Arnette estimates that more than 825 people reached the top of Everest this season. That would be a new record of course, but we’ll have to wait for confirmation to know for sure if that number holds. Unlike last year, when the summit window lasted for 11+ days, this year’s final push was more concentrated. That helped to contribute to the long lines, traffic jams, and climbers waiting for hours on end. Of course, it also contributed to some of the fatalities, which will likely be the lasting legacy of the 2019 season.

As of right now, it seems that there were 20 deaths across the Himalaya this spring, with at least 11 of them coming on Everest alone. Unsurprisingly, this has sparked a lot of outrage amongst the mainstream media and the general public, most of whom don’t follow the mountaineering scene all that closely. For the most part, blame is being placed on the overcrowding, which of course has had a significant impact on the expedition experience. But within the community itself, most are placing the blame on the influx of low-coast expedition operators who have brought more inexperienced climbers to the Himalaya, while also not having the proper training, equipment, and personnel to deal with the large groups of clients they are managing. Considering how deadly this season was, I would expect to hear a lot more about this topic moving forward. Whether or not anything changes seems doubtful however.

Heading into the season, there was a significant amount of attention being paid to climbing teams that were attempting new routes in the Himalaya this year. As we all know, a completely new route is uncommon on Everest or any of the other big peaks, and are cause for celebration when they occur. Unfortunately, there were no new routes opened this year, mainly due to poor weather conditions. That includes Cory Richards and Topo Mena’s attempt at a new route on Everest, as well as Adam Bielecki and Felix Berg’s plans to open a new path to the summit of Annapurna too. Korean climber Sung Taek Hong was also turned back on Lhotse, as were the team of Peter Hamor, Horia Colibasanu, and Marius Gane on Dhaulagiri.

The backlash against the crowded, dangerous season has already begun with many pundits calling for change on Everest and elsewhere. The Himalayan Times has posted a story that includes quotes from legendary climber Conrad Anker, who believes that the number of climbers on the Big Hill should be limited to just 400 each year to help make things safer. He also indicates that climbers should be screened ahead of time, comparing climbing Everest to the Boston Marathon, which requires most runners to qualify before competing. Other famous mountaineers weigh in on the topic in that article as well, including 24-times Everest summiteer Kami Rita Sherpa, who says that while overcrowding is an issue, there is a lot more going on that needs to be addressed too.

It has been a long and difficult season to say the least and I’m sure more than a few people are happy to see it come to an end. The last teams should be departing from the North Side of Everest today or tomorrow, while on the South Side the curtain has already dropped. The Icefall Doctors had indicated that today would be their final day of maintaining the route through the Khumbu Icefall, essentially shutting down the Nepali side of the mountain until next spring. But while the 2019 Himalaya climbing season may be over, you can bet that it won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

Kraig Becker