FM4 Adventurous: Death or Glory on a Crowded Everest
You’ll probably remember the famous photo of the queues of people on Everest this May. 12 people died climbing the world’s highest peak during the 2019 climbing season. At least 4 of the deaths were blamed on the delays caused by congestion.
FM4 Adventurous: Death Or Glory
Listen to Chris Cummins talking to Reinhard Grubhofer in FM4 Adventurous, Thursday, 22nd of August, 0 am and here in our podcast.
Austrian Reinhard Grubhofer was among the climbers on the mountain during those critical hours. Although he was approaching from the less busy, the Tibetan north side, he found himself waiting behind slower climbers with the clock ticking, he knew he was in a battle of life and death. “You feel that you are running out of time because there is a point of no return,” he remembers.
Such a forced delay might mean frost-bite in the sub-zero wind-chill but could also mean that the climber runs out of oxygen or faces exhaustion. The altitude above the last Everest camp is known as a “death zone” where every minute your strength is being sapped away.
When he saw how busy it was, 45-year old Grubhofer thought about turning back, and even told his Sherpa, Tashi, that he wanted to. He’d promised his friends and his young family back home in Austria that he would be cautious if a traffic jam developed.
„I Knew It Might Be Close“
But something kept him going. “It was this inner feeling, this gut feeling,” he remembers. “It was this instinct that I had in my mind that it was going to work out, a sort of deep trust in myself and my capabilities and something just told me that it was my day and I was going to make it. I knew it might be close and it would be a close encounter, but I was sure that it would work out.”
But it was touch and go. When he did get to the peak, which was, predictably, crowded with a dozen people already up there, he received a radio message from Swiss expedition leader Kari Kobler who congratulated him but warned that bad weather was on the way. Reinhard was already relatively late on the summit and he knew he faced a race against the elements just to survive.
Meanwhile a chain of circumstances that the climber describes as “a nightmare” were combining to make the descent even more difficult. The night before his final ascent his goggles had frozen in his tent. That meant he had to use an inferior pair of glasses which kept icing over. When the snow-storm arrived towards lunchtime his field of vision was reduced to about 10 metres with lots of technical sections still to be overcome.
To clear his glasses of frost, he kept having to take off his warm outer-mittens and that risked frost-bite. Meanwhile, his water bottle froze on the climb up meaning he had no water for the long descent and was in danger of dehydration.
Clearly in such a situation every second counts but at the technical Second Step he was forced to wait for a Chinese climber who was motionless but unpassable for over half an hour. While he was waiting he could see on his left and right the well-preserved corpses of climbers who had perished in years gone by.
„You know that there are dead bodies up there“
I imagine that to be psychologically tortuous; the vivid reminder of what was at stake, but Reinhard says he was mentally armed for the sight:
“When you go to Everest you know that you might encounter death and you know that there are dead bodies up there,” he says, “and so you better be prepared for it, otherwise you shouldn’t be up there.”
The Death of Ernst Landgraf
Yet the sight of the corpses of strangers is death on an abstract rather than a personal level. Shortly after the pair had finally negotiated the Second Step, Sherpa Tashi got a radio message saying: “The old man has died”. Reinhold knew exactly who was meant. He had been sharing a room and then tent with the oldest member of the expedition, his 65-year old fellow Austrian Ernst Landgraf. Ernst was just behind Reinhard on the descent and was also stuck in the queue of climbers behind the stricken Chinese mountaineer.
Reinhard and Ernst had only met on the expedition, but their shared nationality had brought them an easy intimacy over the many weeks of the training and acclimatization process. They were obvious tent-partners. “It was a very tough moment,” remembers Reinhard. “No-one knows exactly what happened. We probably never will... I am glad he reached the summit.”
Reinhard’s voice trails off. There are never the right words to say. The official cause of death has been listed as “exhaustion.”
Up on the mountain, Reinhard was too focussed on survival to have too many emotions of grief. While he was suffering with the problem of his developing dehydration, his oxygen supply was getting dangerously low. He started feeling faint and just focussed on staying upright because “if you go down, there’s really no-one who can help you.”
When he finally reached Advanced Camp 3 he was on his hands and knees, as he puts it, “like one of those Hollywood movies where you only make it in the very last second.”
But he’d made it up and down in a season that has become notorious.
What Went Wrong?
Conditions were so crowded this season for two reasons.
Firstly. there was the weather. Usually the end of May offers a narrow window of up to two weeks when climbers can summit the world’s highest mountain when the fierce jet streams that normally blow above that part of the Himalaya move briefly away. But this year a cyclone, Cyclone Fanny had interrupted the normal weather patterns and the weather window was reduced to little more than 48 hours. Everyone at base-camp wanted to use this fleeting opportunity.
Secondly, both host countries issued too many climbing licences. Nepal issued 381 permits at $11,000 each for this spring’s climbing season. Since reputable climbing companies provide one local Sherpa for each foreign climber that leads to inevitable queues in the technical parts on the climb.
Added to these two main problems came another factor - also related to the weather. This year there was very little snow coverage meaning the climbers crampons were often slipping on sheer rock faces rather than gripping into the ice. Reinhard jokes that he felt he climbed Everest one and half times because of the tricky footing.
He doesn’t think that any lessons will have been learned from the death toll. If in the coming three or four seasons there is a more generous weather window, then the climbing season will run more smoothly and authorities will forget the outcry of this fatality-rich year.
That said, last week a new report was issued by a panel advising Nepal’s government about safety on Mount Everest. It recommended that climbers who want to attempt the world’s highest mountain should first have to demonstrate that they are experienced mountaineers. It proposed that applicants must already have climbed a Nepali peak of at least 6,500m.
At the time of the spate of deaths, there was much opprobrium aimed at the climbers themselves. Why huddle together on a mountain that has been climbed thousands of times before? Is it really even proper climbing? Isn’t it more about money and ego?
„The Biggest Adventure You Can Do“
Reinhard Grubhofer says he understands the criticism but asks for a sense of perspective. Since 2010, there have been 183 recorded deaths above base camp in the region, according to the Himalayan Database, and over 21,000 climbs above base camp. That is a death rate of less than 1%. Reinhard pints out that 280 people die every year in the Austrian Alps alone. We defend the right of ski tourers and mountaineers here to take and accept their own risks. Shouldn’t we offer the same tolerance to Everest climbers?
Refreshingly Reinhard describes his mission to Everest as “an ego thing.” For the past 14 years he has spent his annual leave on expeditions, climbing 3,000m peaks, then 4,000m peaks and then 5,000m peaks. Everest is still the ultimate mountain in terms of altitude. In comparison with the more technical difficult peaks it is also in Reinhard’s words “doable” and it is still the mountain most people have heard of. Of course, personal bragging rights play a role.
But quite simply, as Reinhard Grubhofer puts it, climbing Mountain Everest, even surrounded by crowds is “still one of the biggest adventures you can do on the planet.”
Publiziert am 21.08.2019