Monday, May 30, 2016

Himalaya Spring 2016: Highs and Lows on Everest

I'm back from Alaska, and have stories to share from that journey, but as we start to get things back to normal around here, I thought it was fitting to do a quick recap of the climbing season in the Himalaya, which came to an end while I was away. To say 2016 was a successful season would be an understatement, but yet there were still some serious challenges as well. At this point, it is clear that Everest in particular is a mountain that is in transition with a future that remains potentially turbulent.

It was a historic year on the world's highest peak, where a long weather window allowed hundreds of climbers to successfully summit. In fact, over the course of about a week, there were numerous teams heading to the top from both the North and South Sides of the mountain, with a steady stream of climbers topping out, ending a summit drought that had gone on for two years.

Considering the challenges of the past three or four seasons – and the last two in particular – it is hard to see the current Everest season as anything but a major success. The spring season came off without a major hitch, with most guide services welcoming a return to some sense of normalcy on the mountain. Many in the mountaineering world, not to mention the Nepali government, breathed a sigh of relief with how smoothly everything proceeded. Yes, there are concerns moving forward over stability in the Khumbu Icefall and safety concerns with an increasing number of low-budget operators, but for now, things are good. On a mountain that has seen fist fights, cancellations, and major tragedy in recent years, the stability of 2016 is encouraging to say the least.

That isn't to say there aren't some concerns moving forwarded. There were at least four deaths on the mountain this year for instance, and while that is a small number in the greater scheme of things, the loss of any lives on Everest is still disturbing. The inherent risks that come along with climbing the mountain mean that we'll likely never see a season without a few fatalities, but we should at least aspire to achieving that goal. But as long as we see hundreds of people willing to take up the challenge of an Everest climb each year, we'll probably continue to also see a few climbers perish in the attempt.

Elsewhere, the season unfolded as you would expect. There were some ups and downs, with successes on Annapurna, Makalu, Cho Oyu, Dhaulagiri, Manaslu, and others. But those expeditions mostly went off as expected, with weather dictating the chances for success or failure. Those peaks also haven't seen the turbulent seasons that Everest has in recent years, although last year's earthquake had an impact on each of them too. These successes are a good reminder that there are plenty of other major mountains to climb in Nepal, and many of them offer an experience that is very different than the crowded route on Everest.

So what does the future hold? That is the question right now. While it appears that Everest is starting to get back to normal, and we're likely to see evermore climbers on her slopes next year, climate change, Sherpa dissatisfaction, and changing business tactics will all have an impact on how things unfold in the years to come. Just how big of an impact those variables will have remains to be seen, but it is clear that those things will shape the future of mountaineering in the Himalaya.

So, while we mourn the loss of those who died on Everest – and other big peaks this year – we also salute the hard work of the Sherpas, guides, and support staff that made spring 2016 such a successful year, and an impressive return to what we expect on the tallest mountain on the planet. Hopefully this will continue to be a trend moving forward, and 2017, 2018, and beyond will continue to be safe and successful as well.

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