The death of US climber Hilaree Nelson has highlighted the treacherous nature of Himalayan adventures, the dangers guides and experts say are increasing due to climate change and more people seeking the thrill of high altitude. Of travel + leisure
Nelson, 49, was fatally torn from near the summit of 8,163 meters (26,781 feet) Manaslu, the world’s eighth highest mountain, which she and her partner were attempting to descend. Her body was recovered on Wednesday.
A detailed look at why the Himalayas are a dangerous adventure destination
What are the biggest killers?
Nepal is home to the most popular Himalayan peaks. Between 1950 and 2021, 1,042 deaths were recorded there, 405 of them in this century. According to the Himalayan Database, a third of deaths are caused by avalanches and a third by falls by mountaineers. Many also die from altitude sickness and exhaustion. The deadliest is the 8,091-metre Annapurna massif, with 72 fatalities in 365 ascents since the 1950s – or one for every fifth successful summit. Dhaulagiri and Kanchenjunga both have mortality rates above 10 percent.
Steep passages and avalanche danger have earned Pakistan’s K2 the nickname “wild mountain,” with at least 70 fatalities since 1947. Most fatalities occur on Everest, with more than 300 fatalities between 1950 and 2021. But with many more climbers, the death toll is rising as well 2.84 percent comparatively low.
How has climate change affected the Himalayas?
A 2019 study warned that Himalayan glaciers are melting at twice the rate they were before the turn of the century. Another study this year using carbon dating showed that the top layer of ice near Everest’s summit was around 2,000 years old, suggesting the glacier was thinning more than 80 times faster than the time it took he needed to form himself.
How has this increased the dangers of adventures in the Himalayas?
Although no comprehensive studies have been conducted on climate change and the risks of mountaineering in the Himalayas, mountaineers have reported widening crevasses, flowing water on previously snow-covered slopes, and the increasing formation of glacial lakes. “Wearing crampons on thinning ice and exposed rock can be particularly dangerous,” said highly experienced Nepalese mountaineer Sanu Sherpa, 47, who has scaled all 14 of the world’s highest peaks twice.
“The snow cover is much less. I’m concerned that for generations to come the mountains will just be rocks.” As glaciers become more unpredictable, the risk of avalanches can increase. In 2014, a massive falling wall of snow, ice and rock killed 16 Nepalese guides on Everest’s treacherous Khumbu Icefall in one of the deadliest accidents in the Himalayas. “The weather has become more unpredictable. Some years warmer, some colder,” said mountaineering blogger Alan Arnette AFP.
“Overall, the usual historical patterns cannot be used as predictions, so climbing has become much more dangerous due to the weather.”
What about overcrowding?
But experts say a big killer is also the inexperience of a new wave of ill-prepared mountaineering tourists rushing to summits among the hundreds who flock to Nepal, Pakistan and Tibet each year. The rapid growth of the climbing industry has led to fierce competition between companies for business, raising concerns that some are compromising on safety. Nepal issued 404 permits for the Manaslu summit this year, twice the usual number. Pakistan spent about 200 on K2, twice the usual amount.
In 2019, a massive traffic jam on Everest forced teams to wait for hours in freezing temperatures, reducing oxygen starvation that can cause nausea and exhaustion. At least four of the 11 deaths that year were attributed to overcrowding.
What measures are being taken to make the mountains safer?
Many tour operators now use remote sensing drones for risk assessment, monitor climbers’ vital signs in real time, and some climbers wear GPS trackers. Expedition organizers are also storing more oxygen and the quality of weather reports has improved significantly. But Lukas Furtenbach of Furtenbach Adventures said more needs to be done.
“Companies need to invest in avalanche education and training and risk assessment tools for their guides, as well as avalanche equipment such as beacons and (rescue technology) RECCO,” he said AFP. But in the end, it all comes down to the decisions the operators make. “We obviously work as hard as we can to get our clients to the top, but only if it’s possible within strict limits,” said Mike Hamill of Climbing the Seven Summits. “We’re not afraid to deviate from a climb if conditions or weather dictate it’s too dangerous.”
This story was published via AFP Relaxnews
Main and Feature Image Credit: Photography PRAKASH MATHEMA / AFP©
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