Crowds (And Casualties) On Everest

The 2012 Everest season saw its first clear weather this weekend, prompting a virtual stampede as hundreds of climbers pushed up the primary routes to the summit. Four of those climbers—all of them commercial clients—died, while more than a hundred, including famed Swiss speed climber Ueli Steck, made the top.

The dead climbers have been identified as: Shriya Shah, 33, of Canada; Eberhard Schaaf, 61, of Germany; Song Won-bin, 44, of South Korea, and Ha Wenyi, 55, of China. Shah and Schaaf both died of high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) while descending from the summit. Won-bin died of a fall at The Balcony, probably caused by disorientation due to acute mountain sickness (AMS). Details of Wenyi's death have not been released, but his Sherpa guide is still missing. It's too early to tell as reports trickle back from base camp, but it's widely believed that the crowded routes factored into the deaths.

The weather window, the first of two expected before the spring monsoons arrive, was predicted to open Friday, May 18 and close Sunday, May 20. What with low snow and dangerous rockfall plaguing the mountain all season, many teams were anxious to make their summit pushes, and get off the mountain as quickly as possible. A team of Sherpas fixed more than 3,300 feet of rope to the summit on May 18. They were accompanied by a Chilean team, led by Rodrigo Jordan and which included Ueli Steck, who climbed with them, beating the crowds and claiming 2012's first summits.

Once the ropes were up, between 100 and 200 climbers rushed the summit, despite predictions that the weather window would be narrow and closely followed by high winds and low temperatures. With so many people crowding a single route up a single set of fixed ropes, there were, naturally, "traffic jams," including the usual bottleneck at the Hillary Step. According to The Guardian, that meant that some teams were still making summit pushes as late as 2:30pm Saturday afternoon—well after the normal 11am cut-off time—risking exposure to high afternoon winds and severe temperatures, and the danger of running out of oxygen on the descent.

HACE—which is frequently called "general exposure"—is actually a severe (and often fatal) case of altitude sickness. It's the result of swelling of brain tissue from fluid leakage, and it usually begins as AMS (that headache-y, nauseous, disoriented feeling most humans get at high elevations) and progresses until victims collapse or go into a coma. Most HACE incidents happen when climbers run out of supplemental oxygen. As of now, it's unclear if that's what happened to the climbers who died this weekend, but crowded conditions on the summit routes slowed climbers' progress in general, increasing the chances that some would run out of oxygen before they could make it out of the oxygen-starved so-called "death zone" that exists above 8,000 meters.

As high winds again buffet the crown of Everest, those teams who haven't yet made the push—including a National Geographic/North Face team and two Eddie Bauer/First Ascent teams—look forward to the end of this week, when a second (and likely final) window is predicted.

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