When the dream of summiting Everest becomes a nightmare

When the dream of summiting Everest becomes a nightmare


JUDY WOODRUFF: Mount Everest remains the ultimate
achievement for many mountain climbers. And the number of people who try it just keeps
growing, far above the levels of even two decades ago. May is the month when many try to reach the
summit. But, as Amna Nawaz tells us, this year has
had a number of fatalities once again, and those deaths are prompting questions about
whether there are too many climbers, and how Nepal is handling it. AMNA NAWAZ: Judy, I’m sure many of our viewers
have seen this picture over the weekend tweeted out by a climber. The summit of Mount Everest essentially had
a traffic jam this past week. Once upon a time, this kind of crowd was unimaginable. But now there are even more troubles ascending
and descending from the top. At least 11 people have died this climbing
season, most recently, an American attorney from Boulder, Colorado, who died on Monday. For more on what it takes to make it to the
top of Everest and the crowding conditions and the deaths, we turn to Alan Arnette, a
mountaineer and climbing coach who summited Everest in 2011. He is the oldest American to summit K2, the
second-highest mountain in the world. And he joins us via Skype from Fort Collins,
Colorado. Alan, welcome to the “NewsHour.” We hear this word crowded a lot in reference
to what we’re seeing. There why is it so crowded on Everest right
now? ALAN ARNETTE, Mountaineer: Well, it’s the
highest mountain in the world. And for many people, it’s the pinnacle, it’s
the dream. They grew up watching “National Geographic”
or documentaries on PBS about climbing Mount Everest or read books. And it’s a childhood dream. And as the world improves in its economic
status, the middle classes have more money, we’re starting to see more and more people
try to go there. AMNA NAWAZ: So more and more people, Alan,
of course, want to get to Everest. The Nepalese government has also issued more
permits than ever before in history. Is it just the fact that it’s more crowded
that we’re seeing more deaths? ALAN ARNETTE: That’s very true that Nepal
issued a record 381 permits to foreigners. And they also require that each foreigner
hire a Sherpa guide. So that meant there were 800 people attempting
the mountain this year. Now, that in and of itself is not a big problem,
but the problem was that the jet stream, the high winds aloft, normally move off of the
mountain in mid-May. Last year, they moved off and allowed for
11 consecutive summit days. And a record number of people summited with
the normal — sadly to say, the normal five deaths. This year, that summit window, there were
only five of them. So you had roughly 800 people trying to squeeze
through a three-day window, and on May 23, it was the worst-case scenario. It all came together in a very short period
of time. AMNA NAWAZ: So more people trying to summit
in fewer possible days. Look, we have heard a lot of people who are
coming off the mountain talking about what it’s like up there, what the conditions are
like on the ground. You have been there. They have talked about chaos. They have talked about stepping over bodies. They have talked about it being like a zoo. What is it like when you’re up there in the
moment? ALAN ARNETTE: So, I think this year, again,
what people were experiencing was the worst-case. But there is another phenomenon going on. There is a new generation of guide services
which are offering Everest at $30,000, instead of the normal $40,000, $50,000, $60,000. That low price is attracting people that never
have had the experiences that they need to have before attempting a mountain like Everest. So, honestly, they don’t know what they don’t
know. So, when they’re up there, they don’t realize
that they’re suffering from altitude sickness. The support staff that they’re with doesn’t
— hasn’t been trained in the medical aspect. So they don’t know when to turn people around. So that’s what’s getting most people in trouble. And, also, that’s influencing the chaos that
we’re seeing, and this idea that people are jostling to be able to stand on top of the
summit. Experienced mountaineers would never do that. And that tells me that this year we had a
lot of novices up there that honestly needed more support and more experience before they
arrived. AMNA NAWAZ: Alan, help us understand. There’s less than a minute left, by I’m hoping
you can provide some color for us here. When you’re there and you have spent tens
of thousands of dollars to do this once-in-a-lifetime summit, what is that pressure like? Because we hear about people who are willing
to pass by other climbers who are having difficulty. What are some of the unspoken rules when you’re
trying to summit Everest? ALAN ARNETTE: Well, this is a tough one, because
when you climb a mountain like Everest, it really comes down to self-preservation. You’re in what’s called the Death Zone, where
your body is degrading. You’re running out of oxygen. When you get into lines where you’re burning
up the limited amount of oxygen that you have, you’re honestly just hanging on to the edge. And if all of a sudden what should have been
a 12-hour summit day turns into a 20, and you run out of oxygen, then you die. And if you get low on oxygen, you may suffer
altitude sickness. So, the ability to help other people becomes
very, very limited to those strongest people on the mountain, and those are typically the
most experienced Sherpas up there. It’s not the normal person that’s climbing. It’s someone like myself. AMNA NAWAZ: Alan Arnette, who has himself
made it to the top of Mount Everest, thank you so much for being with us today. ALAN ARNETTE: Thank you.

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