The Current

Veteran Mount Everest climber describes crowds stepping over bodies in the snow

A recent spate of deaths on Mount Everest has prompted concerns over the numbers of climbers being allowed to attempt the summit. But one experienced climber say that individuals also bear a responsibility to know when to turn back.

Overcrowding just part of the problem, says climber and filmmaker Elia Saikaly

This handout photo taken on May 22, 2019 and released by @nimsdai Project Possible shows heavy traffic of mountain climbers lining up to stand at the summit of Mount Everest. (@nimsdai, Project Possible/AFP)

Read Story Transcript

Elia Saikaly witnessed desperation, overcrowding and death on his most recent trip to the summit of Mount Everest. 

The adventure filmmaker, based in Ottawa, recalled exhausted climbers stepping over the bodies of those who didn't make it off the mountain alive.

"Everybody who made their way to the summit faced loss and devastation that night — everybody," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Eleven people have died trying to scale Everest this climbing season, according to The Guardian. Climbers have shared images online of tightly packed lineups snaking up to the very top of the world.

Saikaly has made eight trips to Everest and reached the summit three times.

During his most recent ascent last week, he followed a group of Arab women attempting the climb. He's producing a documentary about their journey.

He spoke to Tremonti about the "devastation" he saw on the climb, and why overcrowding is only part of the problem. Here is part of their conversation.

Adventurer and filmmaker Elia Saikaly has reached the summit of Mount Everest three times. (Radio Canada)

What does the traffic look like on Mount Everest?

You're looking at a lineup of people. Over 200 were heading up the night of my personal summit. It's just a very long queue of human beings that are all heading to the top of the world.

You have summited before. How does this compare to what you've seen in the past?

Well I've never seen anything like this, to be honest with you. I had the absolute privilege of standing on top of the world twice prior to this expedition. The first time there were 20 people on the summit. [The next time] in 2013 we had the summit to ourselves.

This year was incredibly different.

What were the most shocking images that stick in your mind from this climb then?

The most shocking thing that I saw was literally 20 minutes out of camp, heading towards the summit at 9:30 p.m. on the 22nd [of May], and a deceased climber was being brought down by two Sherpas.

Two hours later there was unfortunately another deceased climber.

Climbers point to overcrowding as reason for multiple deaths on Everest

4 years ago
Duration 2:30
Eleven people have died already during this year's spring climbing season on Mount Everest. Most succumbed to exhaustion and altitude sickness. But experienced climbers say the deaths point to the real problem: overcrowding.

It's devastating. Your mind is not operating properly so it's very hard to make sense of what's going on around you. You're trying to survive and keep moving otherwise you could potentially end up with the same fate.

How was your team? Did you summit successfully? Did you run into problems with oxygen, or issues because of that queue?

We hired a responsible and ethical Western company that partners with a local company. We had over 28 Sherpas on our team.

Everybody on the team paid some additional money to get extra support, extra Sherpa support, extra oxygen.

Because we had that high level of organization and strategic planning, we were able to pass 60 to 80 climbers, get everybody up to the summit and get everybody back down safely.

I was looking at your Instagram posts and at one point you say that there was literally a body that everyone had to step over?

Everybody who made their way to the summit faced loss and devastation that night — everybody.

I took a risk online and I wanted to create a dialogue around what's going wrong on the mountain and how we can prevent these deaths.

These are human beings who all shared the same dream, and I really feel like those deaths were preventable.

Right now what we're seeing in the media quite a bit is everybody blaming the lineups ... and of course this is a problem. There are way too many permits that are issued, there's an unlimited amount.

But what we're not talking about is how prepared were those climbers. How obsessed were those climbers with reaching the summit? ... Were they ignoring their bodies? Was their body saying: "Turn around, you're not capable of doing this"?

And of course you're there, it's your dream, it's the top of the world. 

People are not generally humble enough to accept defeat. I've turned back twice from the summit because of poor weather conditions, and I'm here today because I had that humility to accept defeat and turn around.

If people are a little bit more educated, they make more responsible decisions about who they hire to support their expeditions — a lot of this could be prevented.

Watch a timelapse video of Everest created by Elia Saikaly in 2014 and 2015

You had a conversation with one woman about that very thing.

I ran into a couple of climbers and I took the time to try to convince them to turn around, because they looked exhausted. They weren't moving, they looked very cold. They didn't have a team supporting them.

And there was a young Indian woman who I was speaking with, and her Sherpas were speaking to her in Hindi, and obviously I couldn't understand what they're saying. But the body language was saying: "You either need to turn around or you need to just keep moving, because you're going to jeopardize your life."

They moved ahead a couple of metres and I took a moment to speak with her and she appeared to be crying and I tried to console her.

I checked her oxygen levels and they were lowered, and I just said, you know: "It's not worth your life. There's no shame in turning around, there's no shame in not reaching the summit. The mountain will always be there and your life is far more important."

And of course the queues are coming up behind me, my team is right behind me, and I had to keep moving. So I don't know what happened to her.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Alison Masemann, Julie Crysler and Danielle Carr.