Climbing mountains is not a logical choice, it's a passion, says veteran climber
In the past week four people died, two climbers have gone missing on Mount Everest
Climbing on Everest had been halted for two years after earthquake, avalanches
Danger and death lurk with every step. It’s difficult to breathe – the oxygen level is a third of what’s available at sea level. The winds are fierce and brutal. Temperatures at the summit can be colder than minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit. People die every year trying to summit.
But Mount Everest is still a climber’s dream – the ultimate challenge for mountaineers like David Morton, who has scaled the 29,028 feet peak six times.
“After many years I still think it’s beautiful that people dream of climbing mountains,” he says on his website. “It’s wide-eyed, childlike and magical.”
Mountaineering is “open to everyone,” said Kenton Cool, who has reached Everest’s summit a dozen times, including this season. But, he cautions, a climber must understand that summiting the world’s highest peak can come with a price.
“It is very, very dangerous,” Cool said. “And you do need the depths of experience, you do need the understanding and the skill set to be able to operate and even survive at such altitudes … you can be the fittest Olympic athlete or you can be a so-called couch potato. Altitude is a great leveler.”
Four deaths in four days
This week was deadly on Everest. Four climbers died in four days; two remain missing. On Thursday, crew member Phurba Sherpa fell to his death while working to fix a route about 150 meters below the summit, according to Mingma Sherpa, a Nepal rescue team leader at the Everest Base Camp.
Sherpas are an ethnic group in Nepal. Sherpa is used as a surname. They are famous for their critical role in helping climbers ascend Everest.
Eric Arnold, 36, of the Netherlands, died Friday night of a suspected heart attack while heading back after a successful summit, according to Tashi Lakpa Sherpa, the owner of Seven Summit Treks.
Maria Strydom died Saturday after experiencing altitude sickness. The 34-year-old Australian was climbing alongside her husband, Robert Gropel.
And on Sunday, 44-year-old Subash Paul died at Base Camp II from altitude sickness, according to Wangchu Sherpa, managing director of Trekking Camp Nepal.
The deaths come as Everest opens for the first time in two years after back-to-back disasters halted all ascent. In April 2014, a deadly avalanche left at least a dozen dead in the single deadliest accident on Everest.
Last year nearly 9,000 people in Nepal died in a 7.8 magnitude earthquake and its aftershock. The earthquake set off avalanches that left more than a dozen climbers dead, and others injured or trapped on the mountain.
Veteran mountaineer Jim Davidson knows what an Everest close call feels like. He was airlifted to the Everest Base Camp last year after the earthquake and subsequent avalanche.
“I was certain we were going to die,” Davidson said. “The glacier was shaking back and forth like a hammock tied between two trees.”
He spoke to CNN from Colorado where he’s back climbing. He has his sights on returning to Everest in 2017.
“It is not a logical choice, it is a passion – it is a way to refine yourself into a better version of you, ” Davidson said. “It’s a place where you can distill yourself into the best version of yourself … what it does helps build personal resilience for the challenges and opportunities that come later in life.”
A crowded mountain
A lot is riding on this year’s climbing season. The Nepali government is hoping to revive tourism in a country still reeling from recent disasters. Since the 2016 climbing season opened on Everest, at least 300 people have scaled the peak, according to data from Everest Base Camp as of Saturday.
Sherpa Maya Shrestha helped lead an Everest expedition group that reached the summit this year.
When she’s on the mountain she thinks about her daughter. The little girl is already talking about wanting to become a climber. Her father is a mountaineer as well.
“She knows many things about climbing,” Shrestha said. “We’re talking about climbing all the time … but we don’t want to force her. Let’s see what she likes in the future so we always support her.”
Sherpa Maya said that the mountain was very busy this past season.
“Mount Everest is a huge mountain, and it can accommodate a lot of people at one time,” said Alan Arnette, a mountaineer who has attempted to climb Everest four times, reaching the summit in 2011. But he said the mountain is getting too crowded, citing the example of May 19, when about 200 mountaineers tried to scale Everest.
“One of the issues on that particular day was that you had a very large team of about 40 climbers on one team and they were going extremely slowly, and so other climbers got stuck behind them. It’s very difficult to pass somebody on Mount Everest, because you are using a single nylon rope as a safety line and you are clipped into it … so in order to unclip you put yourself at danger,” Arnette said. “So you are kind of stuck behind slow people. And then over time, potentially you run out of oxygen, and you go slow, you develop fatigue, you get cold and frostbite, so certainly crowds are an issue.”
More than 250 climbers have died since Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary made the first official ascent in 1953.
But that doesn’t faze Jake Norton, a climber, photographer, filmmaker, philanthropist and inspirational speaker. He has been to the summit of Mount Everest three times, and on expeditions on all seven continents. He said he finds solace and joy in the mountains.
“For me it’s a place of catharsis,” Norton said Monday from Evergreen, Colorado.
“Life gets reduced to its most fundamental elements … I’m reminded by the mountains that me, my ambitions and problems are nothing in this great machinery of the universe,” he said. “Any time we step deeply into nature, we are reminded how insignificant we are, and I find that incredibly enriching and uplifting.”
Phurba Sherpa and Sugam Pokheral contributed to this report.