Death spike on Everest is a cautionary tale for US destinations

Death spike on Everest is a cautionary tale for US destinations

The much-publicized overcrowding on Mount Everest causing unprecedented fair-weather death rates this climbing season presents a cautionary tale for the need to properly manage our own country’s destinations.

For many climbers and adventurers, the highest point on earth represents an aspirational lure unlike any other. While there are 14 peaks higher than 8,000 meters and many summits that are far more difficult to climb, Everest holds a special attraction. It is often the first peak grade school students know by name outside their own region.

Bragging rights conferred upon those who have stood atop it are far more transferrable outside of the climbing communities than the likes of, for example, the third highest, significantly more difficult and deadly Mount Kangchenjunga (perhaps in part due to ease of pronunciation).

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Yet, popularity comes at a sometimes-deadly price. This season (which is still in progress) has seen a record high 825 successful summits so far compared to 802 last year. That’s a big jump. But it’s even bigger when you consider that last year was itself a record, dwarfing the previous annual highpoint of 667 in 2013.

At the root of this spike lies a lack of regulation by either government or self-regulatory entities. In the U.S., if you want to drive, you need to demonstrate competence by passing a driver’s test and in most states, take a driver’s education course if you are a first-time driver. Similarly, permits are required to climb Everest. But dissimilarly, no proof of adequate preparation is required.

Ascending Everest from the South in Nepal is by far the most popular route. Nepal places no caps or quotas on issuing permits. No proof of competence or adequate preparation is required other than the ability to produce a check for $11,000.

To pose another analogy, if you want to tour the White House, you not only need a ticket to do so, but that ticket will tell you when you may do so. In contrast, an Everest permit gives you free access throughout the season. This combination of unfettered quantities and access have proven especially deadly this year.

Even if you don’t usually pay attention to mountaineering or the Himalayan region, you’ve likely seen pictures or videos of massive lines of people queued up on the final Everest ascent waiting for their “I did it!” moment.

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Google “Everest traffic jam” if you haven’t. It’s appalling, especially when you consider that all those people are above the 8,000 meter “death zone.” At this altitude the human body gradually (and sometimes not so gradually) shuts down due to lack of oxygen.

Deaths on Everest this year have risen 83 percent over last year to 11 so far. While some past years have seen high mortality due to major storms and avalanches, this season has been blessed with comparatively calm and favorable weather. In other words, these deaths were almost entirely preventable.

Global Rescue, the travel risk and safe-destination management I work for, has seen a spike of evacuations this season due to frostbite and high-altitude sickness, which we attribute to climbers spending extended time in the cold, at altitude, sometimes in traffic jams like the ones splashed across social media.

We’ve also unfortunately conducted 33 percent more mortal remains transports than last year to repatriate the bodies of our members from Nepal when they succumb to more than humans are built to withstand.

The fuel on the fire of unfettered access is the new wave of unprepared trekkers themselves. While many trekking guide services are robustly supplied and carry long track records of responsible practices, a disturbing number of less-than-scrupulous operators are engaged in a race to the bottom of cut-rate service with bare-bones support and comparatively low prices to lure Western clients in to chase their bucket-list dreams, despite inadequate levels of fitness. Yesterday’s couch-to-5k challenge seems to be today’s couch-to-Everest.

The companies’ mad scramble to maximize profits during the brief Himalayan summiting window has led many climbers to bite off far more than they can chew. Despite crack-down efforts, rampant corruption has limited transparency for clients to fully understand their guide service’s practices, track record, and limitations before exposing themselves to the inherent risks that come with travel above 7,000 meters (23,000 feet) where helicopters cannot fly.

We can take management lessons for our own destinations from this regrettable situation. We have majestic yet dangerous peaks such as Denali within our own borders. Our national parks and other major destinations suffer from seasonal overcrowding that makes the Everest lines look tame.

While nobody is at risk of oxygen deprivation in such situations, other less obvious downsides such as security concerns lurk. Our far-flung U.S. territories lack infrastructure and security audits, emergency preparedness plans or adequate evacuation capabilities in the event of disaster. As a result, they often experience lower levels of visitation and investment due to lack of confidence by those who may otherwise be drawn there.

While it may seem like providing public goods like intelligence, catastrophe planning, emergency health response and evacuations would be the sole responsibility of the government in our country’s more remote destinations, I would put forward a different point of view. Sufficient private sector knowledge, experience and investment exists to jumpstart a public-private partnership that holds the potential to improve the management, safety and visitor-confidence of our country’s remote and sometimes dangerous points of interest. We need to view the recent events on Everest not with contempt, not with nobles oblige condescension, but as a cautionary tale for how we manage our own destinations.

Scott Hume oversees medical, security and intelligence operations at Global Rescue LLC, which conducts about 100 operations and evacuations in the Himalayas every year. Previously Hume spent over 20 years in the United States Army, serving as a lieutenant colonel and led conventional, special operations and critical planning units.