The Himalayas: An ever-more dangerous adventure destination

The Himalayas: An ever-more dangerous adventure destination

Nepal is home to the most famous peaks of the Himalayas. Between 1950 and 2021, 1042 deaths were recorded, 405 of them this century. – AFP pic

KATHMANDU, Oct 2 – The death of American climber Hilary Nelson has brought home just how dangerous the Himalayas are, risks that guides and experts say are increasing due to climate change, and as more people seek thrills in the heights.

Nelson, 49, was hit by a fatal drift from close to the 8,163-meter (26,781-foot) summit of Manaslu, the eighth highest mountain in the world that she and her partner were trying to ski. Her body was recovered on Wednesday.

What are the biggest killers?

Nepal is home to the most famous peaks of the Himalayas. Between 1950 and 2021, 1042 deaths were recorded, 405 of them this century.

A third of deaths are from avalanches, according to the Himalayan Database, and a third are due to fallen climbers. Many die from mountain sickness and exhaustion.

The deadliest is the 8,091-meter Annapurna massif, with 72 deaths in 365 ascents since the 1950s – or one for every five successful summits. The mortality rate for both Dhaulagiri and Kanchenjunga is over 10 percent.

Extreme passes and the threat of Pakistani avalanches have made K2 the “wild mountain,” where at least 70 people have been killed since 1947.

Most deaths occur on Everest, where more than 300 people died between 1950 and 2021. But with so many climbers, the death rate is relatively low at 2.84 percent.

How has climate change hit the Himalayas?

A 2019 study warned that Himalayan glaciers are melting twice as fast as they were before the turn of the century.

Another study this year, using carbon dating, showed that the top layer of ice near the summit of Everest was about 2,000 years old, indicating that the glacier was thinning 80 times faster than the time it took for it to form.

How did this increase the risk?

Although no extensive research has been conducted to look at climate change and the dangers of mountaineering in the Himalayas, climbers have reported widening cracks, running water on previously snowy slopes, and increased formation of glacial lakes.

“Wearing snowboard boots on thin ice and exposed rocks can be especially dangerous,” said highly experienced Nepalese mountaineer Sanu Sherpa, 47, who has climbed all 14 summits in the world twice.

“Snow coverage is much less. I am afraid the mountains will be just rocks in the next few generations.”

As glaciers become increasingly unpredictable, the risks of avalanches can increase.

In 2014, a massive wall of snow, ice and rocks killed 16 Nepalese guides on Everest’s treacherous Khumbu glacier in one of the deadliest accidents in the Himalayas.

The weather has become more volatile. Some years are warmer and some are colder, mountaineer blogger Alan Arnett told AFP.

“In general, the usual historical patterns cannot be used as forecasts, so the climb has become much more dangerous with respect to the weather.”

What about crowding?

But experts say the main killer is also the inexperience of the new wave of unprepared mountaineers rushing to the summit among the hundreds that flock to Nepal, Pakistan and Tibet each year.

The rapid growth of the climbing industry created fierce competition between companies for business, raising concerns that some were cutting safety corners.

Nepal this year issued 404 permits for the Manaslu summit, twice as much as usual. Pakistan issued about 200 for K2, which is double the usual number.

In 2019, a massive traffic jam on Everest forced teams to wait for hours in freezing temperatures, lowering levels of depleted oxygen that can lead to illness and fatigue.

At least four of the 11 deaths that year were blamed on overcrowding.

What measures are being taken to make mountains safer?

Many tour companies are now using remote sensing drones to assess risks, monitoring vital data of climbers in real time, and some climbers are even wearing GPS trackers.

The campaign organizers are also storing more oxygen and the quality of weather reports has improved dramatically.

But Lukas Furtenbach of Furtenbach Adventures said there was more to be done.

“Businesses need to invest in education, training and risk assessment tools for avalanche guides as well as in avalanche equipment like beacons and Ricoh (rescue technology),” he told AFP.

But in the end, it comes down to the decisions the operators make.

“We are of course working as hard as we can to get our customers on top, but only if it can be done within strict margins,” said Mike Hamill of Climbing the Seven Summits.

“We are not afraid to back off a climb if conditions or weather dictate that it is too dangerous.” – France Press agency