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When the dream of summiting Everest becomes a nightmare

Mount Everest remains the ultimate achievement for many climbers, and the number of people attempting to conquer it continues to grow. May is a prime month for summit seekers. But at least 11 fatalities have already occurred on Everest this year, prompting questions about the volume and management of climbers. Amna Nawaz talks to Alan Arnette, a professional mountaineer and climbing coach.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mount Everest remains the ultimate achievement for many mountain climbers. And the number of people who try it just keeps growing, far above the levels of even two decades ago.

    May is the month when many try to reach the summit.

    But, as Amna Nawaz tells us, this year has had a number of fatalities once again, and those deaths are prompting questions about whether there are too many climbers, and how Nepal is handling it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, I'm sure many of our viewers have seen this picture over the weekend tweeted out by a climber. The summit of Mount Everest essentially had a traffic jam this past week. Once upon a time, this kind of crowd was unimaginable.

    But now there are even more troubles ascending and descending from the top. At least 11 people have died this climbing season, most recently, an American attorney from Boulder, Colorado, who died on Monday.

    For more on what it takes to make it to the top of Everest and the crowding conditions and the deaths, we turn to Alan Arnette, a mountaineer and climbing coach who summited Everest in 2011. He is the oldest American to summit K2, the second-highest mountain in the world. And he joins us via Skype from Fort Collins, Colorado.

    Alan, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    We hear this word crowded a lot in reference to what we're seeing. There why is it so crowded on Everest right now?

  • Alan Arnette:

    Well, it's the highest mountain in the world.

    And for many people, it's the pinnacle, it's the dream. They grew up watching "National Geographic" or documentaries on PBS about climbing Mount Everest or read books. And it's a childhood dream.

    And as the world improves in its economic status, the middle classes have more money, we're starting to see more and more people try to go there.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So more and more people, Alan, of course, want to get to Everest. The Nepalese government has also issued more permits than ever before in history.

    Is it just the fact that it's more crowded that we're seeing more deaths?

  • Alan Arnette:

    That's very true that Nepal issued a record 381 permits to foreigners.

    And they also require that each foreigner hire a Sherpa guide. So that meant there were 800 people attempting the mountain this year. Now, that in and of itself is not a big problem, but the problem was that the jet stream, the high winds aloft, normally move off of the mountain in mid-May.

    Last year, they moved off and allowed for 11 consecutive summit days. And a record number of people summited with the normal — sadly to say, the normal five deaths.

    This year, that summit window, there were only five of them. So you had roughly 800 people trying to squeeze through a three-day window, and on May 23, it was the worst-case scenario. It all came together in a very short period of time.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So more people trying to summit in fewer possible days.

    Look, we have heard a lot of people who are coming off the mountain talking about what it's like up there, what the conditions are like on the ground. You have been there. They have talked about chaos. They have talked about stepping over bodies. They have talked about it being like a zoo.

    What is it like when you're up there in the moment?

  • Alan Arnette:

    So, I think this year, again, what people were experiencing was the worst-case.

    But there is another phenomenon going on. There is a new generation of guide services which are offering Everest at $30,000, instead of the normal $40,000, $50,000, $60,000. That low price is attracting people that never have had the experiences that they need to have before attempting a mountain like Everest.

    So, honestly, they don't know what they don't know. So, when they're up there, they don't realize that they're suffering from altitude sickness. The support staff that they're with doesn't — hasn't been trained in the medical aspect. So they don't know when to turn people around.

    So that's what's getting most people in trouble. And, also, that's influencing the chaos that we're seeing, and this idea that people are jostling to be able to stand on top of the summit.

    Experienced mountaineers would never do that. And that tells me that this year we had a lot of novices up there that honestly needed more support and more experience before they arrived.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Alan, help us understand. There's less than a minute left, by I'm hoping you can provide some color for us here.

    When you're there and you have spent tens of thousands of dollars to do this once-in-a-lifetime summit, what is that pressure like? Because we hear about people who are willing to pass by other climbers who are having difficulty.

    What are some of the unspoken rules when you're trying to summit Everest?

  • Alan Arnette:

    Well, this is a tough one, because when you climb a mountain like Everest, it really comes down to self-preservation.

    You're in what's called the Death Zone, where your body is degrading. You're running out of oxygen. When you get into lines where you're burning up the limited amount of oxygen that you have, you're honestly just hanging on to the edge.

    And if all of a sudden what should have been a 12-hour summit day turns into a 20, and you run out of oxygen, then you die. And if you get low on oxygen, you may suffer altitude sickness.

    So, the ability to help other people becomes very, very limited to those strongest people on the mountain, and those are typically the most experienced Sherpas up there. It's not the normal person that's climbing. It's someone like myself.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Alan Arnette, who has himself made it to the top of Mount Everest, thank you so much for being with us today.

  • Alan Arnette:

    Thank you.

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