More people are climbing to the top of Mount Everest than ever before

SCALING MOUNT Everest was once a feat reserved for only the bravest mountaineers. These days even relatively inexperienced alpinists attempt the climb. This is in part because it carries less risk. According to a recent paper in PLoS ONE, a journal, just 1% of climbers die on the world’s tallest mountain, with its peak at 8,848 metres (29,029 feet). The success rate, moreover, has more than doubled. Between 2010 and 2019 two-thirds of first-time Everest climbers reached the summit, up from less than one-third in the 1990s. (This year’s season has been cancelled owing to covid-19.)

Even elderly thrill-seekers now have a shot at reaching the top of the world. The researchers found that success rates have increased across all age groups. Twenty years ago, climbers in their 60s had just a one-in-eight chance of reaching Everest’s summit; now the odds are closer to one in three. Before 2006 no one in their 70s attempted to reach the peak for the first time. Since then the average success rate for such septuagenarians has been 21% (see chart). Indeed, today more than half of all climbers who attempt the climb are over 40 years old.

The fortunes of first-time Everest climbers have improved in tandem with the rise of the commercial climbing business. In the 1990s experienced guides began leading groups of more novice climbers who, hitherto, might have gone it alone. Today more than 24 companies offer the service. Everest enthusiasts with little climbing experience can shell out tens of thousands of dollars to have their hands held most of the way up. More climbers means an easier route. Part of the $11,000 fee climbers pay the Nepalese government to climb the mountain pays local mountaineers who chart a path of ladders and ropes to the top. Their Tibetan counterparts do the same on the northern, Chinese-controlled side.

Better weather forecasting has helped, too. Travelling from the base camp to the top of the mountain takes around four days, and success depends heavily on weather conditions along the way. High winds, caused by jet streams that can reach speeds of 120kph (70mph), and snowfalls are the biggest worry. Spotting a suitable “window” of good climbing weather was tricky 30 years ago. As technology has advanced, forecasting has vastly improved.

Some old hands fret that, now that the journey to the peak is easier, Everest is becoming overcrowded with inexperienced mountaineers. The 2019 season was a perfect case in point. On May 23rd, 396 climbers attempted to reach the summit in one day. The result was a long queue along a ridge in the “death zone” near the top, which might have contributed to the death of some of the eleven climbers who perished that month. It still pays to treat the world’s highest peak with the utmost respect.

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