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Mount Everest Is a Poo-Covered Death Trap, So Climbers Are Speedrunning It

Climate change and overcrowding are leading to unpredictable weather and a glut of garbage, waste, and dead bodies on Everest. Now, climbers want to make expeditions faster and safer with new technology.

by Maddie Bender
Feb 4 2020, 1:00pm

Image: Westend61/Getty Images

Roxanne Vogel reached the summit of Mount Everest on May 22, 2019, just 11 days after flying from her home in California to Tibet. Her two-week round trip became the fastest of all time, but the 33-year-old nutrition researcher had been preparing for the climb years before she set foot on the mountain.

In addition to keeping up a training regimen and diet, Vogel spent months sleeping and working in chambers that artificially create low-oxygen conditions, and during her climb, she wore a special garment that recorded her vitals and other metrics. These technologies were major reasons why she was able to succeed in the time frame she did, Vogel said.

The tallest mountain in the world has made an impression on generations of climbers: “Everyone has a piece of Everest in their hearts,” said Suze Kelly, the general manager of mountaineering company Adventure Consultants.

But over the years, droves of climbers (and humans generally) have also left their marks on the mountain. The effects of man-made climate change are melting the mountain, dethawing decades’ worth of garbage and human bodies left behind by commercial climbers and leading to more unpredictable weather. These conditions are making Everest more dangerous, and climbers are looking to technology in order to decrease their risk, duration, and environmental footprint on the mountain. Many, however, wonder whether these technologies alone will improve conditions on the mountain, or just provide a quick fix.

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Like Vogel, the first people to successfully summit Everest took advantage of what was then state-of-the-art technology. Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary wore bulky oxygen tanks weighing over a dozen pounds during their 1953 ascent. It took the climbers weeks to acclimatize, or let their bodies adjust to the extreme conditions of the mountain, and a runner transported the news of their summit to Base Camp.

Climbing Everest today is a process shaped by a constantly changing cast of devices and technological conditions. Experts note the rise of two trends over recent years: pre-acclimatization methods and real-time biomonitoring, when climbers wear gear that tracks their vitals.

Safety is first and foremost a goal, but these devices are not without downsides.

“The technologies are making the mountain safer, while at the same time, the reduced cost of Everest and the perception that it's now easier is making it more dangerous,” said Adrian Ballinger, the founder of Alpenglow Expeditions who has spent the last 12 seasons on the mountain.

On the same day that Vogel reached the summit from the Tibetan side of the mountain, Nepali mountaineer Nirmal Purja captured a line of climbers on the Nepalese side in a viral photo representative of the dangerous overcrowding on the mountain that year. Long lines, plus a narrow window for descent, left people more exposed to the tolls that high-altitude climbing takes on the body and resulted in several deaths.

Though technology has advanced, the risks of climbing Everest remain the same. Wind and below-freezing temperatures can cause hypothermia and frostbite, and above 4,000 meters, low oxygen levels may lead to two rare but life-threatening conditions: High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). Eduardo Garrida, a researcher at the University of Barcelona who authored a 2019 paper on the risk of death on Everest, said in an email that acute mountain sickness or edemas can even occur at lower altitudes if a climber does not acclimatize properly.

Simulated low-oxygen training, a technique used by professional athletes for decades, has only recently gained popularity among Everest climbers. Ballinger said that Alpenglow has used the technique on Everest trips since 2012, and other companies have followed suit in the past few years.

Pre-acclimatizing technologies simulate high-altitude environments by pumping low-oxygen air into an enclosed space. For her lightning ascent, Vogel slept in a low-oxygen tent and spent part of her waking hours at her job in a low-oxygen chamber, both made by Hypoxico Altitude Training Systems.

Unlike conditions on Everest, Hypoxico’s altitude training chambers stay at a normal atmospheric pressure but reduce oxygen to promote the same physiological changes that take place when people acclimatize on the mountain. Brian Oestrike, the CEO of Hypoxico, said that pre-acclimatization increases a person’s red blood cell count the same way mountain-based acclimatization does.

Pre-acclimatizing allowed Vogel to start her first day in Tibet at 17,000 feet, an altitude to which climbers normally spend weeks on the mountain acclimatizing.

“Instead of spending a couple months out there being exposed to other germs and being worn down by the elements over time, you can spend 30 days or less, and I think that's really going to go a long way and in keeping people safe on the mountain and keeping the mountain less congested overall,” Vogel said.

A relative lack of research on the technique, however, leaves some questions unanswered. Garrido said there is still no one perfect method to acclimatize artificially; moreover, it takes time and adds an expense to rent or buy the necessary equipment.

Additionally, pre-acclimatization can give climbers a false sense of security, Kelly said. “There’s quite a lot of instances of people going to altitude too fast, even though they think they're acclimatized from using the pre-acclimatization,” she said.

Even proponents of the technology agree that it warrants more research.

“There hasn't been a large-scale study done with scientific controls for people using these tents at these high altitudes,” Ballinger said. “So I think you'll hear from detractors that there's no science to support what we do with the tents, and I think that's a totally fair argument.”

There are drawbacks to biomonitoring, too. Vogel wore the Astroskin, a biomonitoring suit designed by the company Hexoskin for the Canadian Space Agency, on her climb. The suit measured her blood pressure, skin temperature, heart rate, respiration, and oxygen saturation levels—data Vogel wanted to record in order to research the effects that high-altitude, low-oxygen environments have on the body. While this information was useful after the climb, "too much data" can be a problem on the mountain.

“Having data at your fingertips is awesome because you know what's going on, but it can also make you a little bit more hesitant if you don't like what the data is saying,” Vogel said. “Sometimes numbers get a little crazy” at extreme altitudes, she added.

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As climbing technology advances, Everest itself is changing as a result of the climate crisis. A recent report predicted that two-thirds of Himilayan glaciers would melt by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate.

Kelly said that receding glaciers are noticeable on the mountain—passes that once were filled with snow and ice 30 years ago are now completely different. This has directly impacted the routes that climbers take on their way to the summit. Glacial melt may also lead to natural disasters down the road: a 2017 study found that some of these melted glaciers are forming “killer lakes,” which could break through unstable dams and cause severe floods.

Another concern is garbage which has escalated in recent years with the advent of budget mountaineering companies, Kelly said.

“What there has been a proliferation of is quite cheap outfitters,” Kelly said. “They don't have enough [resources] to perhaps even bring anything down off the mountain, so what they'll do is they'll just cut their logo out of their tent and then leave the tent—the whole tent!”

Even though Vogel climbed the north side of the mountain, she’s heard about the conditions on the more popular south side from other climbers.

“It's getting pretty crazy, pretty dirty,” she said, adding that increasing permit fees on both sides of the mountain may help fund cleanup crews in the lower parts of the mountain.

One such organization is the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee, a local nonprofit that was established in 1991 after Khumbu region residents became concerned at the lack of concrete regulations on tourist-generated garbage disposal. Kelly said that the nonprofit and officials do a good job at keeping the mountain clean up to South Base Camp, a popular campsite destination for climbers and tourists, but issues arise the farther up one goes.

“It's really up to the individual operators to have a clean bill of health there,” she said.

More climbing will only exacerbate these existing issues, Ballinger said. The number of climbers on Everest has generally increased each year, summing to nearly 24,000 summit attempts through 2018. Ballinger predicted that the number of annual climbs will only continue to increase, not least due to a concerted effort by Nepal’s tourism board: in its official “Tourism Vision 2020,” the board sets a goal of attracting 2 million international tourists to the country.

While a practice like pre-acclimatization may benefit both the climber and the mountain, cutting-edge technology can be expensive and unevenly distributed. Guide companies that may already be cutting corners in the ways they treat the mountain are not the ones investing in pre-acclimatization to shorten climbs, Ballinger said.

“It's sort of like a worsening in terms of the overall experience and care of the mountain at the same time that our team is having a safer and more enjoyable time,” he said.

Ballinger said that one of two things must happen to curb problems from increasing: either guide companies find a way to self-regulate, or the Nepalese government will have to actively enforce regulation in ways they do not currently do.

“Until that happens, I think we'll continue to see a worsening series of problems on the Nepal side,” he said.

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climate change
Mount Everest
mountaineering
roxanne vogel