By Travis Fedschun
Published May 28, 2019
An American climber became the latest to perish after reaching the world's tallest summit on Monday amid concerns that overcrowding on Mount Everest is leading the highest number of deaths on the mountain since 2015.
Nepal has issued permits to 381 people to climb Everest, which the government says is the greatest number ever. Those who scale the mountains are accompanied by an equal number of guides from Nepal's ethnic Sherpa community.
"There has been concern about the number of climbers on Mount Everest but it is not because of the traffic jam that there were casualties," Mohan Krishna Sapkota, secretary at the Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation, told the Associated Press.
For one thing, the climbing market in Nepal is no longer one of the global elite. Anyone with a doctor's note saying they are physically fit can obtain a climbing permit for an $11,000 fee without having to prove they can handle navigating the extreme heights.
Most of those who died this climbing season are believed to have suffered from altitude sickness, which is caused by low amounts of oxygen at high elevation and can cause headaches, vomiting, shortness of breath and mental confusion.
Eric Murphy, a mountain guide from Bellingham, Washington, told the AP his third time climbing the mountain on May 23 that should have taken 12 hours instead took 17 because of others struggling along the way that had a "profound effect."
"Every minute counts there," he said.
Because of the altitude, climbers have just hours to reach the top before they are at risk of pulmonary edema when the lungs fill with liquid. From Camp Four at 26,240 feet to the 29,035-foot peak, the final push on Everest is known as the "death zone" where many use oxygen canisters.
The conditions are so intense at such times that when a person dies, no one can afford to expend energy on carrying the body down from the mountain.
An already short climbing season that runs to the end of May was made even shorter when bad weather from Cyclone Fani affected the Himalayas.
Nearly 20 tents at Everest base camp were blown away by strong winds and several climbers, who were already en route to some of the camps at higher elevations, returned to wait out the storm, according to the BBC.
That led to growing crowds at the base camp that all waited until the weather cleared up to go up on May 19 and May 22.
Those large crowds of delayed climbers and short window of time to reach the summit led to overcrowding near the summit.
A photo showed climbers crammed next to each other above South Col's sharp-edged ridge, all clipped onto a single line of rope, trudging toward the top of the world and risking death as each minute ticked by.
Rizza Alee, an 18-year-old climber from India's Kashmir, told Sky News that the "massive traffic jams" up the mountain had made scaling Everest a "death race."
Another reason Nepal is seeing so many climbers is that China limited the number of permits it issued for routes in its territory on the north side of Everest this year for a clean-up. Both the north and south sides of the mountain are littered with empty oxygen canisters, food packaging, and other debris.
The availability of climbing and tourists who can pay for them has led to a spate of competition between tour operators for those willing to make the climb.
"As a result, you see agencies hiring inexperienced people as guides who cannot offer the right guidance to their clients when they have a situation like this," Tshering Pande Bhote, vice president of Nepal National Mountain Guides Association, told the BBC. "Unfortunately the competition is for volume and not for quality."
Instead of limiting the number of people who attempt to reach Everest's peak, Saptoka told the AP that Nepal's government will encourage even more tourists and climbers to come "for both pleasure and fame" next year.
Mirza Ali, a Pakistani mountaineer and tour company owner who reached Everest's peak for the first time this month on his fourth attempt, told the AP such an approach was flawed.
"Everybody wants to stand on top of the world," but tourists unprepared for the extremes of Everest endanger the entire industry, he said.
"There is not a sufficient check on issuing the permits," Ali said. "The more people come, the more permits, more business. But on the other side it is a lot of risk because it is costing lives."
Indian climber Ameesha Chauhan, who is recovering from frostbitten toes at a hospital in Kathmandu, said two members of her team died on the ascent on May 16. She returned and scaled the peak a week later.
"Many climbers are too focused on reaching the summit," she said. "They are not only risking themselves but also putting others at risk."
Fox News' Samuel Chamberlain and The Associated Press contributed to this report.