It was once thought that the 1996 Mount Everest climbing season represented the mountain at it’s worst–overzealous guides, inexperienced climbers, overcrowded routes, poorly coordinated expeditions, all amounting to a disaster waiting to happen. The staggering fifteen climbing deaths that year were a watershed moment as the world absorbed the event through news reports and author Jon Krakauer’s mega-hit Into Thin Air. Climbers and Everest-watchers alike reflected on the high toll, leading many to assume that the age of Everest irresponsibility had finally come to an end.
However, it’s increasingly beginning to appear that 1996 may only be a footnote as deaths continue to mount. The climate-change wracked south (Nepalese) side seems increasingly prone to avalanche with each passing year. A record 19 climbers perished in 2014, followed by 25 the following year, marking the first season in 41 years where not a single climber made it to the summit.
The early chaos of the 2016 Everest climbing season hints at yet another deadly year. Unseasonable warmth makes for poor ice, and avalanche-prone conditions are forcing more and more climbers to the difficult north (Tibetan) side of the mountain and onto routes they may not be technically prepared for. Making matters worse, there is no helicopter rescue landing zone on the Tibetan side. This means climbers are forced to rely on each other in the case of emergency, a dim prospect in the self-reliant world of mountaineering. The aborted 2015 season may mean a level of “bottled-up” demand, and even more mountaineers fighting their way to the top than usual.
Danish mountaineer Ivan Braun has already called off his expedition for now, saying he may try again in the fall, stating that the risk of accident is simply too high to attempt during the spring. Only time will tell if other climbers do the same.