Above all thingsOn Sunday, the body of Ravi Kumar, an Indian climber, was recovered from the ‘balcony’ of Mt Everest, at a height of 8,400 metres.
On Sunday, the body of Ravi Kumar, an Indian climber, was recovered from the ‘balcony’ of Mt Everest, at a height of 8,400 metres. The operation to retrieve his body, dubbed the most challenging recovery mission on Everest till date, was launched under immense pressure from the Indian government. Kumar’s was the most recent life claimed by the world’s highest peak, where the death toll this season has now reached five. Even at the best of times, the risks associated with climbing Everest are increasingly obvious; the world’s very best have perished on its slopes when the going got tough.
More than 4,000 people may have scaled Everest since the first historic Tenzing-Hillary ascent in May 1953, but more than 300 have died in the attempt. Climbing Everest means testing fate while putting oneself up against the dangers of mountain sickness, snow blindness, frost bite, oxygen deficiency and freak weather conditions. Without proper coordination, appropriate safety measures, the ability to make sound judgement calls and a bit of luck, there is always a lurking danger that climbers may succumb to the elements.
The first successful ascent this season was made by a 14-member British Gurkha Expedition, on May 15. Despite weather forecasts for high winds, the team took advantage of a brief weather window. While they were successful, not all have been as lucky this climbing season. Ravi Kumar’s death is testament to this. His guide maintains that Kumar forced a push for the summit under precarious conditions and later, debilitated by low levels of energy and oxygen, collapsed on the ‘balcony’.
Kumar’s body was spotted in a crevasse 200 metres deep after 36 hours of intense search. Thus ensued the most complex rescue operation ever conducted on Everest. Of course, whether the operation undertaken by a 10-member rescue team to recover Kumar’s body was worth the risk is a debatable issue, but the fact remains that Kumar’s decision to push to the summit may have cost him his life. Perhaps if he had erred on the side of caution and abandoned his attempt upon the onset of bad weather conditions, he might have averted the fateful end. But then pushing one’s limits has been an eternal human pursuit, and it is, paradoxically, a pursuit that many mountaineers have fallen victim to. While we must respect individual choice in general, there are times—for example, when the risk to safety is deemed too high—when authorities have to make the judgment for others.
To that end, the Nepal Mountaineering Expedition Regulations have been in effect since 1978. An amended draft was released in 2016 with stipulations banning the blind, double amputees, inexperienced climbers, solo climbers, and people over the age of 75 from climbing Everest. While these amendments are yet to come into effect, initiatives such as these are critical to reduce casualties. Issues of safety must be addressed if Nepal is to remain a mountaineering mecca. But Nepal most certainly cannot—and should not—stifle the quintessential human desire to venture into the unknown.