Why Is Everest So Crowded in 2019?

Because Everest is the most powerful brand in the mountaineering world. And status, conquest, and ego drive many climbers.

May 31, 2019

This 2019 climbing season on Mount Everest has been particularly grim, claiming around a dozen lives. But this year photos have emerged of queues of climbers leading up to the summit, which have stirred up feelings of shock and anger among most readers.

So why is this happening?!

So here we try to answer this in two parts: Firstly, what is different about 2019 climbing season? And why is this happening on Mount Everest, and not on other mountains?

Question: What is different about the 2019 climbing season that is causing the carnage?

Short answer: There are traffic jams on the trail in the “death zone” (above 8,000m) caused by too many permits issued and too few good climbing days to use them to summit.

The Nepalese government issued 381 permits for this climbing season, which is a record. It is not clear why they did this this year – were they oblivious to the risks, greedy for more money, or was it done by mistake? We are waiting to find out.

Then, the two-month climbing season has had bad weather, meaning that the “windows” for summiting Everest were few and far between. This is not uncommon – there have been bad years before.

But the combination of the oversubscription and the short weather windows has meant that the whole system was overloaded. In a practical sense, a lot of people were waiting around at base-camp, or in the higher camps, for the weather to clear. When the weather did clear, all the climbers wanted to take advantage of the short window to get up the mountain.

There are two trails up Everest – the Northern route from Tibet, and the Southern route from Nepal. The main problems in 2019 were with the Southern route. The Northern route has been less of a problem this year because the Chinese authorities governing the trail have been issuing less passes, its considered a bit more dangerous (mainly because it is harder to be evacuated from that trail), and because it has become more expensive.

At its highest reaches, the Southern route from Nepal offers just one lane through the ice and snow to get to the summit and back. So, there was a queue where people were waiting around above 8,000m, which is a really dangerous place to wait around – people running out of time, energy, and/or oxygen (which causes all sorts of side effects stemming from oxygen starvation) to fulfil their ultimate mountaineering dreams. Actually, the NYTimes has done a grim breakdown of how people have died this season, which gives you a better idea about how this problem has played out.

If this all sounds bizarre and ridiculous, I agree. There are so many great mountains to be climbing that aren’t Everest, and we feature many of them at Summits.com. So, what is so special about Everest?

Question: Why is this happening on Mount Everest, and not on other mountains?

Short answer: Everest is the most powerful brand in the mountaineering world by a long long way, and many mountaineers are drawn to it – for status, conquest, and ego.

Let me rephrase the question: If we subtracted i) status, ii) conquest, and iii) ego from the mountaineer’s psyche, then how many would climb Everest?

Some hike mountains for the amazing natural environments. Some see it more of a social activity. Its good exercise, or at least a good physical and mental challenge. But if that was all mountaineering was, I bet few would climb Everest. You’d instead choose mountains that are more convenient, ecologically diverse, or challenging, which is why we at Summits.com feel that mountains in Southeast Asia are great, or even better, places to go climbing.

Let’s zoom in more on these motivations…

1. Status: Everest sells

Everest dominates any other mountain in its positioning in the minds of normal people. If you’re a normal person, you learnt that Everest was the tallest mountain when you were young, and back then climbing Everest seemed like conquering the whole world. You probably thought that those who had actually done so numbered less than 10, were all famous for it, and all had books and movies about their amazing feats of daring-do and heroism. You thought Everest was somehow the greatestmountain for the same way you thought the Mona Lisa was the greatest painting, or Houdini was the greatest ever magician.

And now as an adult, the space that the Everest brand occupies in your mind is somehow still way loftier and more vivid than any other mountain. “Kilimanjaro,” “K2,” “Denali,” or “Aconcagua” might be neighbours of Everest in your mind, but I doubt they have the same heavy connotations. Most people wouldn’t have even heard of Chimborazo or Mauna Kea, even though these are arguably greater mountains than Everest, let alone the many mountains considered more challenging to climb.

So when you’ve arrived back to work from a relaxing beach vacation and one of your colleagues says “I submitted Mount Everest, actually,” you think “OMG, she must be some sort of superhuman.” And that palatable sense of awe may well be the exact effect she was hoping for. What a go-getter! Even seasoned mountaineers that have climbed more challenging mountains the world over will still put “Everest Climber” in the titles of their websites and books for the mere reason that, for most normal people, “highest” is shorthand for “greatest” when it comes to mountains, so Everest still sells.

Mount Everest Wikipedia
Mount Everest Wikipedia

2. Conquest: Everest is the Ultimate Collector’s Item

The phenomenon of “peak-bagging” speaks to something a bit different – the human tendency of collecting. There’s a satisfaction derived from little expressions of ownership and control of things we like. I liked to collect rocks when I was a kid. George Clooney collects leather jackets.

But every collector has that one thing they just must collect before they stop – the most famous, the most rare, the most exquisite. I don’t want to stop scuba diving until I’ve dived with a whale shark. In 2016, someone paid over 3 million dollars for a baseball card. In 2017, the Saudi Crown Prince paid $450 million for a Da Vinci (only to hide it away out of sight). Napoleon liked to collect countries, and the “Napoleon Complex” speaks to the dark side of collecting: a pathology of conquest.

For the peak-bagger, Everest is the final boss level of the 7 Summits. It’s a crowning achievement for a mountaineer, and if you’ve invested a good chunk of your life in the sport, Everest is a hard one to pass up.

Everest climbers Photo by Michael Clarke on Unsplash
Everest climbers Photo by Michael Clarke on Unsplash

3. Ego: Everest is the ultimate ego trip / adventure

Ego isn’t necessarily a dirty word. The Egos of Everest are just going to extreme lengths to test their mettle. They want to prove (usually to themselves) that they’re up to the enormity of that Everest brand. They want to feel that ultimate sense of mastery over the ultimate mountain and the physical/mental/technical challenges it presents. Maybe these people don’t feel sufficiently challenged in their everyday life and want to strive for something that feels incredibly difficult. Maybe they’re so numbed by everyday life that feeling cold, hurt, and scared will at least feel different and real. Maybe they just want to have something more interesting to talk about over dinner. These are just the reasons we humans seek adventure, and Everest is still a pretty awesome adventure.

Note: This article is taken from a Quora answer Summits.com gave on the topic. 

crowds Everest motivations mountaineering