It is June 2, 1953. Two historic headlines jostle for space on front pages. “Elizabeth II is crowned”, reads one, next to a splendid portrait of the British coronation ceremony. The other headline comes from 7,331 kilometres away, with an equally splendid silhouette of the world’s highest peak: “Everest is Conquered: Hillary and Tenzing reach the summit”. On May 29, New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepal’s Tenzing Norgay Sherpa made their historic ascent of Mount Everest, reaching the peak at 29,032 feet. Their outstanding story travelled down the mountain on foot to a telegraph station in Kathmandu’s Namche Bazaar, from where it was sent to the British Embassy and was typed into history four days later. Mount Everest has never been the same after that.
Sir Edmund Hillary later said in an interview: “The climb at Everest really was a beginning rather than an end.”
The ascent demystified a peak notorious for its harsh climate, roused ambitions among amateur mountaineers and led to new technologies and routes. Commercially guided expeditions transformed Everest into a tourist “bucket-list” destination, selling convenience and adventure, studded with massage centres, 5G connection, and recreational activities. As of 2019, the mountain had been climbed more than 10,000 times.
As the tourism industry refashioned the tallest mountain on Earth into an experience for thrill-seekers, new challenges have emerged: inexperienced climbers vulnerable to accidents and fatalities, overcrowding, pollution, and increased activity on the mountain that risks destabilising the core. 2023 is likely to be the deadliest year on record for Everest climbers, experts say, as changing weather conditions is altering slopes and making the ascent more treacherous.
A base camp reimagined
Until 1953, there were two known routes to the top of the world: the North Ridge from Tibet, from where British mountaineer George Mallory attempted a climb but disappeared in 1924; and the Southeast Ridge from Nepal, the line Tenzing and Sir Edmund traversed. While these are still the preferred routes, 15 other pathways have been identified since. The journey to the Everest Base Camp, which once took months, was reduced to eight days when a small mountain airstrip was built through Lukla in 1964.
In his autobiography Tiger of the Snows (1955), Tenzing Sherpa describes setting up base camps at 17,900 ft: “We were issued special clothes and boots and goggles. We ate strange foods out of tin cans. We used pressure stoves and sleeping bags and all sorts of other equipment I had never seen before.” Today, trek companies have advertised it as one of the few treks with “world-class amenities”, dotted with tea houses, massage corners, pubs, bakeries, continental meals, internet and telephone connectivity. Helicopter evacuation is also available for $500-$800 per person.
While once upon a time news of successful ascents had to physically travel, the medium of transmission has now drastically changed: when British climber Kenton Cool reached the summit for the ninth time in 2011, he sent out a tweet. In 2020, China announced 5G connectivity was in operation at the Everest summit.
Hall of fame
Technological advancement has led to more advanced climbing gear and oxygen supplies that are lighter and more effective. While once metal plates were tied to climbers’ shoes with strings for walking on ice, sturdier stainless-steel footwear are used today. Climber Alan Arnette who scaled the peak in 2011 has noted in a blog the advancements made in supplemental oxygen, as companies began manufacturing small lightweight gas cylinders that do not freeze and offered a steady flow of oxygen.
The expedition style remains much the same: Sherpas and experienced guides from local ethnic communities set the route to the summit, stock the camp and carry oxygen supplies and food for clients who rely on the Sherpas’ navigation skills and knowledge of extreme altitudes. On the 1953 trek, Sir Edmund in an interview described a team that included 11 climbers, 20 Sherpa guides and 362 porters, along with 10,000 pounds of baggage. Reports show tour companies today selling high-end luxury packages that promise five Sherpas per climber, tasked with providing comfortable tents, hot water and carrying an unlimited supply of oxygen.
Perhaps the most notable change is in the climbers themselves: they were once elite mountaineers, but now many are inexperienced tourists. The Nepal government handed out 454 climbing permits this year, at about $11,000 per permit to foreigners. In 2019, Nepal proposed changes to its permit process after climbing-related deaths, requiring a certificate of medical fitness and previous mountaineering experience. Experts, however, caution these are inadequate and ill-implemented standards that can be easily fudged and surpassed. Some tour companies have initiated plans to use drones and GPS trackers to monitor climbers’ movements and safety.
A fatal expedition
It took 20 years for the first 600 people to climb Mount Everest. That number is now easily matched in one season itself: more than 900 people reportedly scaled the peak this year. With more climbers, pollution has also changed the landscape — researchers have found pits littered with thousands of tons of solid waste, including plastic, aluminium beer cans, glass whiskey bottles, paper products, and human waste. Mountain geologist Alton Byers in an article estimated there is almost 5,400 kg of human waste due to diarrhea and other intestinal problems.
It is estimated that almost 90% of the climbers on Everest are guided clients, many without even basic climbing skills, paying somewhere between $30,000 and $120,000. “Only half the people here have the experience to climb this mountain,” Panuru Sherpa said in an article. “The half without experience are the most likely to die.”
The changed nature of the climb has brought the top of the world within everyone’s reach. But the increased activity and commercialised nature of expeditions may risk doing long-term damage to the mountain, some evidence shows. Activities like using kerosene and gas for heating and cooking, along with urinating at base camps, may have thawed glacial ice.
Climate change and the warming weather are also steadily changing the climb. A Sherpa guide told PBS that treks which previously took more than five hours now take 30 minutes due to glacial melting. Even the ice chunks of Khumbu Glacier that were once visible from the base camp have dissolved.
A 2022 study published in Nature’s Climate and Atmospheric Researchjournal found Mount Everest’s glaciers have lost 2,000 years of ice in just three decades due to warming temperatures in the region. The change was most visible on Everest’s highest glacier, the South Col Glacier, where there was an almost complete loss of snow cover. One-third of Himalayan glaciers are predicted to melt even if temperature rise is limited to 1.5°C by 2100. Experts worry the rapid ice loss and unpredictable systems will make floods and droughts more likely, wreaking havoc on local communities, .
In 2022, a Nepali government committee recommended shifting the Everest Base Camp, currently at Khumbu Glacier at 5,346 m above sea level, some 200 and 400 m lower due to melting ice cliffs. “We surprisingly see crevasses appearing overnight at places where we sleep,” Colonel Kishor Adhikari of the Nepal army previously told BBC.
Crevasses are fractures in a glacier when the ice flow increases, with warming temperatures being one of the causes. In April, three climbers fell into a 160-foot-deep crevasse at Khumbu Glacier. Moreover, as huge towers of ice recede and dislodge, large rocks are rolling down the mountainside close to camping tents, putting climbers at risk.
When Sir Edmund and Tenzing reached the pinnacle and looked down the way they came, Tenzing remembers seeing the south summit, the South Col, the Khumbu Glacier — fixtures that are now fading. “Beyond them, and around, it was such a sight as I had never seen before and would never see again: wild, wonderful and terrible. “