Congestion in the Death Zone: The Story Behind another Deadly Year on Everest

By Lukas Eberle

This year was the deadliest on Mount Everest since 12 climbers died on the mountain in 1996. But storms and avalanches were not the culprit. Instead, congestion in the Death Zone combined with inexperience resulted in a half-dozen deaths in just one May weekend.

Photo Gallery: Traffic Jam in the Death Zone Photos
AFP

He takes off his oxygen mask and takes a couple of careful breaths. His throat quickly begins to constrict. The air is so thin that Aydin Irmak, 46, feels as if he were suffocating. He quickly puts the mask back on. Then he looks around. Is this the place, he wonders? Irmak is walking across a slightly sloping area of ice, under a deep blue sky. He sees a small glass case with a Buddha statue inside. Yes, this is the place. Irmak is standing on the summit of Mount Everest.

The date is May 19, 2012, the temperature is minus 37 degrees Celsius (minus 34.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and the wind is icy. The highest point on earth, at 8,848 meters (29,029 feet), is a godforsaken place. Irmak is the last of 176 climbers to have reached the summit on this day. The others are already making their descent. When he encountered a group on his way up, one climber shouted to him: "Turn around!" But he kept on walking.

There is one rule on Mount Everest: Those who haven't summited by 1 p.m. should turn around. Severe storms often develop as evening approaches. Besides, it's extremely dangerous to spend too much time in the thin air of the so-called death zone, above 8,000 meters.

Irmak is standing on the summit at shortly before 3 p.m. He has never been on a tall mountain before, and he feels a little woozy. Irmak, a bike seller in New York, doesn't know anything about the storms on Everest. Until a few weeks ago, he didn't know what crampons were, either.

Irmak has brought along a small flag, which he sticks into the snow. Then he pulls a digital camera out of the pocket of his down suit. There must be enough time left to take a picture of himself at the summit, he thinks, but the camera isn't working. Irmak removes his right glove to manipulate the battery compartment. A strong gust of wind hits him from behind, and his glove sails off into the abyss below.

Alive but Exhausted

Irmak is all alone on the peak of Mount Everest. He's up there much later than he should be. He has lost his right glove, and he has no idea how he's going to get back down.

When he begins his descent at about 3:30 p.m., the next expedition teams are already preparing for the ascent, 900 meters below at Camp 4, the last camp before the summit.

Pemba Jangbu Sherpa's agency has assigned him to 24-year-old alpinist Nadav Ben-Jehuda, who hopes to become the youngest Israeli ever to climb Everest. Pemba is being paid $6,000 (€4,608) for the job, and will get another $2,000 if his client reaches the summit.

Pemba and his client set out in the evening, hoping to reach the summit by the next morning. They're unaware of the tragedy that is unfolding above them.

The two men are making good progress. It's cold, and the wind is blowing at about 50 kilometers per hour (31 mph). At 10 p.m., at 8,300 meters, they encounter Chinese climber Ha Wenyi. The 55-year-old owner of an import/export business is sitting in the snow off to the side of the route, and his oxygen bottle is empty. He is alive, but he's completely exhausted. Pemba, the guide, helps him reattach himself to the fixed rope. Then he and Ben-Jehuda continue their ascent.

A little later, at 8,400 meters, Pemba's headlamp illuminates a body in the snow. It's Shriya Shah-Klorfine, a 33-year-old businesswoman from Canada. Pemba calls out: "Didi, Didi," or sister, sister. But the climber is dead. The two men continue on their way.

At 11:45 p.m., at 8,500 meters, the light from their lamps falls on a man crouched against a boulder. His thermal suit is torn open, and white down feathers are swirling through the air. He isn't carrying a backpack, he no longer has an oxygen mask, the crampon on his right foot is missing, and his lips are covered with ice.

Aborting the Summit Attempt

The man is Aydin Irmak. His eyes are closed, but he's still breathing. Pemba shakes his shoulder, and Irmak wakes up.

"Can you move your legs?" Pemba asks.
"I think so," says Irmak.
"Where's your equipment?" the Sherpa asks.
"No idea."

Irmak doesn't know what happened, or how he managed to reach this point from the summit.

Pemba and his client abort their summit attempt. They secure Irmak to the fixed rope, place him between them and begin the descent, fighting their way down the mountain. They climb over the dead Canadian woman and reach the Chinese climber. He has since died as well.

The body of Song Won Bin, a 44-year-old mountain climber from South Korea, is lying nearby. After becoming confused and disoriented, he fell off an overhang, which is why the three men can't see him.

They climb down from Camp 4 to Camp 3 and on to Camp 2, at 6,400 meters, which they reach at about 7 p.m. on May 20. There they learn that another climber, German doctor Eberhard Schaaf, also had an accident on Everest. During his descent, he collapsed at the base of the Hillary Step, an almost vertical, 12-meter cliff at 8,760 meters. Schaaf died at shortly after 3 p.m., when Irmak was still standing on the summit.

To be able to stand on the highest point on earth is one of man's biggest dreams -- like flying or traveling to the moon. Every spring, when Himalayan weather conditions are most favorable, alpinists from all over the world attempt to scale Mount Everest. They include professional mountain climbers and scientists, but also a growing number of adventurers who really have no business climbing the world's highest peak. They are people seeking an extreme experience, lured by an expedition industry that is marketing Everest as a tourist destination.

Anyone in halfway decent shape can book the tour to the top of Everest. High-altitude climbing experience isn't necessary, but courage and money are. Sherpas carry the equipment, prepare the route, set up the camps and lay the fixed ropes along which the clients, looking like a chain of pearls, make their way hand over hand toward the summit.

'An Amusement Park'

That's how New York bike seller Aydin Irmak made it to Everest. That he managed to come back down alive, however, was a random stroke of luck. If Pemba and Ben-Jehuda hadn't found him in the inky blackness on the mountain that night, he would have been lost. They saved his life.

Since the first ascent on May 29, 1953, by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, some 3,836 people have climbed Mount Everest, with almost three quarters of them making the ascent in the last 10 years. The Himalayan peak has become "an amusement park," says top Italian alpinist Simone Moro, who has summited Everest four times. This spring, 683 climbers from 34 countries attempted to climb the mountain.

It was also a deadly season. Eleven climbers died on Mount Everest in April and May, making 2012 the worst year for fatalities since 1996, when 12 people died.

But this year's deaths were not the result of mountain climbers being caught off guard by a sudden storm, being struck by falling rocks or being buried by an avalanche. They died because they were exhausted, because they were climbing too slowly, or because they ignored the symptoms of altitude sickness and did not turn around in time. More than 300 climbers set out for the summit on the weekend of May 19-20 alone. "I've never seen so many people on one mountain," says extreme mountain climber Ralf Dujmovits.

The crowded conditions led to congestion in the death zone. Six people died, with four of them perishing on the popular South Col route. They lost their lives because all of the adventurers, those who wanted to experience a moment of accomplishment at the highest point on earth, got in each other's way.

Nepal's Tourism Ministry is housed in a large brick building in downtown Kathmandu. Every mountain climber who wants to ascend Everest has to apply for a permit, which costs about $10,000, at an office on the third floor.

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rbull 10/15/2012
Note to editor, Billi Bierling is female.
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Graphic: A deadly weekend in May. Zoom
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Graphic: A deadly weekend in May.


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