Officials in Nepal are recommending new rules requiring Mount Everest climbers to submit a basic mountaineering training certificate before obtaining a permit to attempt an ascent. The proposed regulations were triggered after 11 people died on Mount Everest last year.
Officials, climbers and guides agree the rush of summit-bound mountaineers last Spring created a traffic jam in the Mount Everest Death Zone, the elevation above 26,246 ft (8,000 m) where oxygen levels are dangerously low and generally cannot sustain life without supplemental oxygen.
But these same experts do not agree on what caused the gridlock. Some blame the short weather window, or an influx of disreputable outfitters offering low-budget expeditions. Others point the finger at an invasion of ill-prepared climbers, or poor coordination among guides. Still other say it’s a mix of all those reasons.
The rule requiring a basic mountaineering training certificate, which is still pending approval, was created to validate the experience of a climber, specifically for a high-altitude challenge. Currently, a certificate confirming a summit of at least one 26,246-foot (8,000 m) mountain is required for climbing guides only. The rule, if implemented and enforced, would ostensibly curtail inexperienced climbers from the mountain, alleviating some congestion.
The first summit of the tallest peak on Earth was achieved by the duo Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary in 1953. The next summit took place three years later. The appeal of summiting Mount Everest steadily ramped up. During the next four-and-a-half decades, more than 1,100 people reached the top—and in the last two decades nearly 9,000 summits have been counted.
Commercial climbing operations, better weather forecasting, and improved gear are each contributing to the increased ease and safety for climbers, along with the near-routine use of oxygen to minimize the onset of high-altitude illness. Considering the dramatic increase in successful summits and improved safety, it is understandable why some people are encouraged to make the attempt without fully understanding the training and physical fitness that climbing experts generally agree is needed to be both safe and successful.
What does it take? Experts say the standards for physical training and climbing know-how consist of:
Strong cardiovascular conditioning and multiple successful climbs of increasing elevations up to 20,000 ft (6,096 m).
○ Physical and mental ability to handle strenuous situations at high altitudes. Mountain filmmaker David Breashers said Mount Everest air has so little oxygen in it that—even with supplementary air tanks—it can feel like “running on a treadmill and breathing through a straw.”
○ Ability to manage extremely cold temperatures. If the weather cooperates on summit day during climbing season in May then the temperatures can warm up to minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (-20 C).
○ Spending long days in high mountains climbing with a 40-50 pound pack.
○ Proficient cramponing skills on, and off, rock, snow and ice; competent rappelling abilities with a heavy pack on; skilled in the use of ascenders and jumars on a fixed line.
○ Qualified, direct experience in alpine living as well as snow and ice climbing skills.
Climbers often train for a Mount Everest ascent for at least a year, and only after at least another nine months of developing advanced conditioning and experience from a firm foundation of physical fitness.
Ensuring that Mount Everest climbers are as prepared as possible makes everyone safer. Will Nepalese officials implement the new rule and enforce it? We’ll see. In the meantime, climbers and outfitters share both the responsibility, and the risk.
Penn Burris is Senior Advisor with Global Rescue and has more than three decades mountaineering, guide, outdoor, and wilderness medicine experience with the American Alpine Club, the Colorado Mountain Club, and others.