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Chaos at the Top of the World

It was one of the most viral photos of 2019: a horde of climbers clogged atop Mount Everest. But it only begins to capture the deadly realities of what transpired that day at 29,000 feet.


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Viral photograph showing a very long line of people waiting to reach Mt Everest's summit

The viral photograph, a prelude to Everest’s deadliest day in years. (Nirmal Purja Project Possible Ltd.)

It was morning and bright, and Reinhard Grubhofer, depleted and dehydrated, hoisted his body over a crest and rose uneasily. There, from the summit of Mount Everest, he could see everything. How the earth curved gorgeously in all direction; how wisps of clouds sailed beneath his boots. The view—out beyond his worries—was beautiful. But closer at hand, he could see trouble taking shape.

He could feel it, too, shuffling with a dozen other climbers onto a slim patch of ground roughly the size of two Ping-Pong tables. The space was crowded. Shakily, Grubhofer held up a small flag and posed for photos with his climbing partner, a fellow Austrian named Ernst Landgraf, who’d made the slog to the summit uneasily. It had been a brutal day. Their 13-man party had awoken at eleven the previous night and trudged through the darkness up the icy incline of Everest’s north side. Along the way, the temperatures dipped to well below zero. At some point, the water bottle that Grubhofer packed had frozen into a solid brick. He was thirsty and exhausted. But he tried not to pay attention to any of that now. After weeks of waiting and years of planning, Grubhofer had made it. It was 9:30 a.m. on May 23, 2019, and a less experienced climber might have thought that the hard part was over. Grubhofer knew better.

As he jockeyed for a place to stand at the top of the world, his Sherpa’s radio came alive. Kari Kobler, the founder of the Swiss mountaineering agency that had organized Grubhofer’s expedition, was radioing urgently from base camp. Bad weather was moving in fast. They had to descend, quickly.

Grubhofer looked down toward Nepal and could see gray clouds sweeping across the southern face of the mountain. There was something else down there too: a line of a hundred or so climbers in brightly colored suits snaking up the side of the mountain. The crowd seemed incredible—like a bag of Skittles had been scattered down the slope. On the north side, Grubhofer knew, more climbers were tracing his trail up the mountain from Tibet too.

He hopped off the summit and crossed two windswept snowfields, digging unsteadily into the crust with his crampons. Whenever Grubhofer encountered somebody ascending the mountain, etiquette forced him to unclip himself from the rope to step around the climber. Each time he did so, he was aware that a gust of wind or a misstep could send him hurtling to an uncertain fate.

Grubhofer had tossed his goggles after they’d frozen in the night and now was wearing Adidas sports sunglasses, which fogged over constantly, requiring him to remove his down mittens in the cold to clean the lenses—a tiny reminder of the multitude of dangerous unpleasantries and unforeseen challenges that crop up on Everest.

None of this was new to Grubhofer. A wiry 45-year-old with a thatch of reddish-blond hair, he’d taken up mountaineering 15 years earlier at 30. That’s when Grubhofer, depressed following a divorce, vowed to restart his life. He set out for the Himalayas and scaled 21,250-foot Mera Peak in Nepal. “I was not fit enough, but it got me hooked in,” he recalls. Over the following decade, Grubhofer ticked off three of the Seven Summits—the highest peaks on each of the seven continents.

Everest would be his fourth. He took his first shot in 2015, but the adventure was cut short. He was dug in with his team at 21,300 feet, at what’s known as Advanced Base Camp, when an earthquake hit the region, setting off an avalanche that killed over a dozen people at the Nepalese base camp. Grubhofer’s expedition was untouched, but no one from either the Tibetan or the Nepali side of Everest summited that season.

Returning to the mountain hadn’t been cheap. Grubhofer, who works for a sightseeing company in Vienna, paid $65,000 for a package that included travel to and from Tibet, visas, guide and Sherpa fees, and the $11,000 permit issued by the Chinese government. Reaching the summit this time around represented a special kind of thrill, but he refused to celebrate until he was safely down the mountain. Late in the morning, as he made his way along the crowded trail, a fog rolled in, the wind whipped up, and snow began to fall.

Around noon Grubhofer arrived at the most dangerous obstacle on the northern side: step two, a roughly 100-foot drop, negotiated this time by three rickety ladders placed against the rock-and-ice façade. The first ladder was about 30 feet long. To reach it, a climber had to twist his body to face the mountain and extend his heavy, crampon-covered boot past an overhang, feeling blindly for the first rung. It was here that the half-dozen climbers ahead of him ground to a sudden halt.

Why the hell aren’t we moving? Grubhofer wondered. What’s holding up the line?

He swiftly identified the problem: a woman in a red climbing suit adorned with the emblems of a Chinese mountaineering group perched just before the drop-off, unwilling to go forward. The woman’s two Sherpa guides were firmly encouraging her to descend the ladder, but she remained paralyzed in apparent fear. For those in the logjam behind her, there was no going around. Everybody was stuck, freezing in the storm. Nearly six miles high in the Himalayas, Grubhofer knew, conditions were unforgiving: Standing still for long periods in the so-called death zone above 26,000 feet dramatically increased the risk of frostbite, heart attack, stroke, pulmonary or cerebral edema—and death. Grubhofer knew that Ernst Landgraf, the member of his climbing party whom he had seen on Everest’s summit, had been exhausted at the top. He could just make out Landgraf—obscured by snowfall, clouds, fog, and people—a few climbers behind him, but Grubhofer didn’t know how the 64-year-old was holding up.

“Move it!” shouted a climber behind Grubhofer.

Oh, shit, Grubhofer thought, this is getting serious.

This Chinese woman, he was sure, had no business being on the mountain. Why hadn’t her guides screened her ahead of time? Thirty minutes crawled by. Forty-five passed. Still she wouldn’t go down the ladder.

“For God’s sake,” another climber exclaimed, raising his arms in disgust. “Why is she not moving?”

For much of the year, climbing Everest is an impossible idea. But each May the roaring jet stream that torments the mountain subsides just enough to allow alpinists a shot at reaching the top. Should the weather suddenly turn, the results are often deadly. Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air made famous the May 1996 disaster during which eight climbers—caught in a blinding whiteout—perished from exposure or plunged to their death. The book was a tale of the vicissitudes of nature, the hubris of climbers, and the ineffable lure of the mountain, as well as a reminder that, though Everest had been summited by hundreds, it remains an incredible and dangerous challenge. It was also a scathing portrait of irresponsible guides catering to wealthy, out-of-their-depth dilettantes who were floundering around in what had become an increasingly commercialized enterprise. It was greeted as a wake-up call.

But two decades on, the Everest experience often seems to have devolved even further into a circus-like pageant of stunts and self-promotion. In April 2017, DJ Paul Oakenfold outraged mountaineering purists by hosting an EDM concert at the base camp in Nepal; in 2019 three Indian climbers returned home to celebratory crowds after they supposedly summited on May 26, only to be accused of fraud after other mountaineers claimed that they never made it past 23,500 feet.

And then there are the growing crowds. For 2019’s climbing season, Nepal handed out 381 permits to scale Everest, the most ever. The Chinese government distributed more than 100 permits for the northern side. According to the Himalayan Database, the number of people summiting Everest has just about doubled in the past decade. And in that time the mountain has become accessible even to relative novices, thanks to a proliferation of cut-rate agencies that require little proof of technical skill, experience, or physical fitness. “Some of these companies don’t ask any questions,” says Rolfe Oostra, an Australian mountaineer and a founder of France-based 360 Expeditions, which sent four clients to the summit in 2019. “They are willing to take anybody on, and that compounds the problems for everyone.”

On May 22—the day before Grubhofer reached the top—a long line near the summit had already begun to form. One of those pinned in the throng was a Nepali climber named Nirmal Purja. That morning, Purja snapped a photo of the chaos. The picture showed a near unprecedented traffic jam on the popular southern side: a column of hundreds of climbers snaking along the knifelike summit ridge toward the Hillary Step, the last obstacle before the top, packed jacket-to-jacket as if they were queued up for a ski lift in Vail. The image rocketed around the world and, as the events on the mountain were still developing, raised an urgent question: What the hell is going on atop Mount Everest?

Reinhard Grubhofer breathes from his supplemental oxygen—a necessity in Mount Everest’s brutal death zone.

In the Himalayan mountains, calamity frequently takes shape off in the distance. Events have a way of cascading. Everest was clogged with climbers in late May of that year because of—among other things—a cyclone that had struck weeks earlier, several hundred miles away.

Earlier that month, Cyclone Fani made landfall in India as a massive Category 4 storm, blasting warm, wet air westward into the Himalayas. For weeks snow and wind buffeted Everest, and the climbers and crews who’d come to the mountain hoping for clear, calm skies dug in to wait.

At base camp, Kari Kobler, who was directing Grubhofer’s expedition, was feverishly consulting the forecasts, hoping for a break. When the skies finally cleared, suddenly the race was on. “We were waiting for good weather at the base camp until May 19,” says Dendi Sherpa, one of the lead Nepali guides in the Kobler group and one of seven Sherpas hired to help the team. It was apparent to him what was going to happen: “We have only a two-day window, and all the people are going to summit at the same time.”

Grubhofer joined the caravan, and by midafternoon on Wednesday, May 22, he’d ascended to Camp 3, a bleak and windswept slope at 27,390 feet. At these heights, the low air pressure means that the vascular system is receiving far less oxygen than it would at sea level; most climbers rely on supplemental oxygen. After arriving at camp, Grubhofer hunkered down to sleep. At eleven o’clock that night, he pushed off toward the summit along with some 80 climbers from a dozen other groups—twice as many as usual, according to one veteran Everest climber.

Grubhofer’s aim was to arrive at the summit shortly after dawn on Thursday morning, giving him plenty of time to make the descent before encountering the bad weather that typically sweeps in during the afternoon. He carried a bottle of oxygen that would last him between six to nine hours; his Sherpa guide carried two spares for Grubhofer as well as one tank for himself. But one hour above the camp, Grubhofer ran into trouble: The snow cover had melted, exposing treacherous patches of bare rock and gravel. “You are trying to dig in your crampons, but you are often sliding back, fighting to keep your balance, expending a lot of energy,” Grubhofer says. “And I asked myself, for the first of a thousand times, ‘Should I turn around?’ ”

After wasting precious time struggling up the rock slope, Grubhofer reached the first of the three difficult steps just below the summit. At least 10 other climbers lined up ahead of him, waiting to make the ascent. To do so, climbers had to squeeze sideways into a rock crevice and pull themselves up by a fixed rope. Grubhofer watched several of them flounder and thought, Oh, Jesus—what are they doing here?

Two hours later, on the ridge above the second step, he came upon two frozen corpses lying beside the path. Judging from their torn and faded snowsuits and the patches of snow that covered them, Grubhofer could tell that they had been on the mountain for years; one was missing gloves, and the exposed hands had twisted into claws. “They seemed to be reaching toward me,” he says. The bodies were among as many as 200 corpses abandoned on Everest, most left behind because of the high cost—up to $100,000—and dangers of recovering them. They’re grim reminders of the mountain’s perils, and they’re likely to become more noticeable: As climate change thaws the mountain, the melting snow and ice are exposing additional corpses each year. Grubhofer looked away. “You just move on,” he says. “You refuse to let it affect you.”

On the north side as well, Kuntal Joisher, an Indian alpinist famed for summiting Himalayan peaks while subsisting on an all-vegan diet, was trying hard to maintain a similar stoicism, despite what he was seeing. Joisher was attempting his fourth summit of Everest and had fallen in behind three Indian teenagers who seemed to have no idea how to negotiate the ascent of the second step. Fearful and slow, they took over half an hour to cross the step—usually a 10-minute climb for a strong alpinist. “I was thinking,” Joisher recalls, “Man, I’m freezing to death, and you guys are causing a traffic jam.” There was nothing to do but wait his turn in the frigid wind. “You are standing at the ledge of a giant boulder, and it’s just wide enough to hold your boots, with a sheer drop on one side,” he says. “You are totally exposed.”

Above step three, the scene got worse. Joisher encountered a Sherpa guide, sprawled in the snow, separated from his client and utterly exhausted and delirious. His oxygen bottle was empty, and, says Joisher, “he had been there a while, and he had no idea what to do.” Joisher’s Sherpa searched the man’s bag, found a full bottle, attached it to the man’s regulator, and waited for the oxygen to flow. “After 10 minutes he was able to form good sentences and was in good spirits, and he said, ‘Okay, I’m ready to go up now.’ ” Joisher made the summit at 5:30 in the morning on May 23. “It was jam-packed at the top—it was crazy,” he says.

He stayed only 10 minutes in the cold and wind before heading back down—desperate to avoid the crush of 80 or 90 people whom he could see approaching from both sides.

Among those who’d also expected to be near the top by daybreak on Thursday morning was Chris Dare, a dentist with the Canadian Armed Forces. Like Grubhofer, he had started for the summit Wednesday night, falling in with a long line of headlamps snaking through the darkness.

One of those headlamps belonged to Dare’s buddy Kevin Hynes, a gregarious 56-year-old from Galway, Ireland. But Hynes made it only a hundred yards out of Camp 3 before he turned around. He wasn’t feeling up to it and decided the prudent move was to head back. Dare pressed on, figuring he’d reach the top by six o’clock in the morning. But long, debilitating waits at each step delayed him until just before 9:30. Soon after his moment at the summit, of course, the weather Thursday afternoon began to turn ugly.

At around 10 a.m., Dare was heading back toward Camp 3 when he encountered a member of his team, Kam Kaur, a British yoga instructor, still inching toward the summit with her guide. Kaur was an experienced mountaineer, but, says Rolfe Oostra, the Australian guide leading the group, she wasn’t in top physical condition—and it was dangerously late to be making the summit push. She was determined to go forward.

Covered with ice, short on oxygen, and physically spent, Dare made it back to Camp 3 at 7 p.m. and collapsed in his tent. He was barely conscious later, when a commotion erupted outside. The Sherpa whom Dare had seen earlier that day helping Kaur up the mountain had staggered into camp, incoherent and alone. They’d run into trouble, he said. According to Oostra, the Sherpa’s oxygen ran out and he’d been forced to leave Kaur to seek help. Oostra had been to the top once before but had abandoned his summit push that morning at the second step, after a faulty regulator valve had blocked his oxygen flow. “Where’s Kam?” he demanded when he saw the Sherpa.

“She’s up there,” the Sherpa gasped.

Oostra strapped on his crampons and grabbed an oxygen cylinder and a headlamp. As he prepared to climb, he spotted a light high on the ridge and flashed his headlamp three times; three flashes returned. Oostra locked onto the point in the darkness where he’d seen the light and set out up the icy slope. When he found Kaur, she was curled into the fetal position. Her oxygen had run out, and she was drifting in and out of consciousness. It hadn’t been Kaur who’d signaled Oostra—her light was nearly dead—but rather another man, a badly weakened Indian climber, who flashed for help and then staggered away. (Kaur disputes Oostra’s timeline, though she told GQ that she’s not yet ready to publicly share her story.)

In Oostra’s telling, Kaur was practically helpless when he found her on the rock. “Can’t move my hands, babe,” she whispered. “They’re frozen.” Oostra strapped her into a sling, clipped it to his harness, and rappelled with her down the buttress. Then he pushed and dragged her back to Camp 3, shouting above the wind to keep her awake.

For the first-timers on the mountain—the multitude of climbers who had never been to Everest—the crowds and the chaos might have seemed normal. But the Sherpas knew better. Hundreds of them were scattered on the high slopes that night, and many of them understood that the mountain had never seen anything like this.

Each year, in the months before the climbing season, mountaineering agencies identify the most agile and fearless men from high-altitude Sherpa villages—and then hand them awesome responsibilities. Sherpas lay the fixed ropes that guide climbers to the summit, lug the heavy oxygen bottles that keep their clients alive, and closely monitor their clients’ physical and mental states. The work is risky—in April 2014, 16 Sherpas died in an ice avalanche on the Nepali side of Everest; two Sherpas would die in the spring of 2019 in the Nepali Himalayas—yet the money, as much as $10,000 per season, provides an escape from the poverty of rural Nepal.

The men often form an emotional bond with their clients, living beside them for weeks, sharing their victories and their setbacks. The finest walk a faint line between being helpful and being obedient—between bowing to their clients’ wishes and saying no when those wishes seem dangerously misguided.

On Grubhofer’s expedition, one of the lead Sherpas was Dendi Sherpa, a 37-year-old veteran who had worked for Kobler & Partner since 2008 and had summited Mount Everest six times. Having worked his way to a top guide spot on Kobler’s team, Dendi had remained behind at Camp 3 on the day of the summit push.

Now Grubhofer—inching his way down, just past the second step—was headed in Dendi’s direction when he heard agitated shouts and cries right behind him. His immediate thought was that his teammate, Ernst Landgraf, was in trouble. Landgraf was an experienced summiteer, but he was exhausted at the top. As he and Grubhofer sat on the summit that morning, congratulating each other, Grubhofer noticed that Landgraf seemed particularly spent.

A Sherpa on his team had the same impression when he confronted Landgraf the night before they set out for the top: “He was weak, but he said, ‘This is my goal, I have to go to the summit.’ And I thought, Let him do it. It’s quite difficult to tell him, ‘You cannot.’ ”

The Sherpa faced a dilemma confronted by many guides on Everest: how to respond to the determination of an apparently ailing or unfit climber. Only rarely, many experts say, will a Sherpa demonstrate the force of will to override a client’s decision to summit; for new recruits trying to make a mark in a competitive business, getting a client to the top often becomes the priority.

Grubhofer listened again for the shrieks. Please don’t let it be Ernst, he thought.

But it was. Later, Grubhofer learned that Landgraf had slipped while trying to plant his foot on a ladder. Grubhofer was told that because Landgraf had been clipped by his carabiner to the fixed line when he fell, he banged into the ladder and then dangled limply on the line. Guides quickly attempted to free him. The wind was blowing, the temperature was dropping, and the climbers behind Landgraf’s suspended body were desperate to get off the mountain.

Later, Kuntal Joisher heard that the waiting climbers were getting agitated. “Cut him off the rope!” some yelled. “We’re getting blocked—we’ll die.”

The rescuers struggled to get Landgraf off the line. After determining that he was dead, they pushed him aside and left his body hanging there. The exact cause of his death is unknown, but Kuntal Joisher says that at that altitude, with a weakened body under intense stress, the slightest stumble can be disastrous. “A small slip or fall can cause your heart rate to shoot up to such a level,” he says, “that you will have a massive heart attack.”

On the other side of the mountain, the Nepalese approach was turning into its own scene of confusion and death on Thursday. Gyanendra Shrestha, a Nepalese government liaison officer at the Everest Base Camp, had foreseen the trouble, watching days earlier as over 200 climbers milled around the tents waiting to set off for the top. One of them was an old friend of his, Kalpana Das, an Indian attorney who had summited Everest in 2008.

Das had been given a hero’s send-off by thousands of admirers in her hometown before she set out for Everest in April as part of an all-women’s team of climbers. But Shrestha, having observed her during acclimatizing runs up the mountain in mid-May, saw that she was off her game. “She was very slow, and she was a decade older this time—54,” Shrestha says. “I told her at the base camp, ‘Don’t push yourself much. I have a sense you cannot do it this year.’ ”

Das struggled on the Khumbu Icefall, the first obstacle beyond the base camp. She eventually made it to the summit at around 1 p.m. on Thursday, but she collapsed on the way down. When Shrestha received a Mayday call from Das’s Sherpa, Das was unconscious, barely breathing. The guide said that he was too exhausted to bring Das down alone. A four-man rescue team was dispatched, but by the time they reached her, hours later, Das had perished.

Shortly after dawn the previous morning, Donald Cash, a Utah software salesman who had quit his job in December to devote himself to high-altitude climbing, had also reached the top. The achievement marked the completion of Cash’s Seven Summits project, and overjoyed, he performed a little victory jig at the summit. Then, without warning, he sank to his knees and toppled over. Cash’s guide raced to his side and opened wide the valve on his oxygen.

The rush of air revived Cash, and the Sherpa helped him down to the Hillary Step, a 40-foot-high rock outcropping at 28,800 feet. A group of Sherpas had been dispatched to help bring Cash down, but when they arrived, it was too late. Cash had collapsed again and never got back up. Cash’s body was left on the mountain, as his family wished.

Largely unaware of the tragedies unfolding around them, the other teams on the route raced higher up the mountain. Anjali Kulkarni, an experienced marathoner and high-altitude climber from Mumbai, and her husband, Sharad Kulkarni, summited on the same day as Cash, according to an account in the Times of India. After leaving the summit with her husband, Kulkarni fell ill. Above Camp 4, the paper said, she collapsed and died. A video shows a pair of rescuers, presumably Sherpas, attempting to move Kulkarni’s limp body. She lies unresponsive, her right arm extended, hand still clutching the fixed rope.

The surviving members of Anjali Kulkarni’s team staggered, mourning and half dead, into Camp 4. Nearby, another exhausted Indian climber from a different expedition, 27-year-old Nihal Bagwan, who according to the Times of India had abandoned a 2014 Everest climb 1,300 feet below the summit, would die of altitude sickness just before midnight on the 23rd.

Bagwan had been climbing with a Nepalese agency called Peak Promotion, which had already lost three other climbers in the Himalayas the week before. (The manager of Peak Promotion told GQ that the deaths in 2019 represent the first time the agency lost clients in its 27-year history. She also said that Peak Promotion has guidelines in place to ensure that Sherpas have extensive mountaineering experience.) Another Nepalese agency, Seven Summit Treks, founded by four Sherpa brothers in 2010 and now one of the biggest mountaineering companies in Nepal, had an even worse record in 2019. On May 16, a client of theirs named Séamus Lawless, a 39-year-old computer-science professor at Trinity College in Dublin, unhooked himself from the safety rope to relieve himself near Camp 4, according to Seven Summits. A climbing companion speculates that a freak gust of wind blew him off the mountain, and he apparently fell hundreds of feet to his death. His body was never recovered. That same night, Ravi Thakur, a 27-year-old Seven Summits client from Haryana, India, died in his tent at the same camp. And in the days that followed, disaster struck three more times on expeditions led by Seven Summits on nearby Makalu, the world’s fifth-highest mountain.

When I met with him this summer, Tashi Sherpa, one of the founders of Seven Summit Treks—and the youngest person ever to reach the top of Everest without using supplemental oxygen—defended the company’s safety record. Seven Summits had 64 clients on Everest that year, led by 100 Sherpas—and all but two had returned safely. He conceded that the climbing season had not been good, but he insisted that the company’s practices are sound.

2019’s tragedies involved a wide range of outfitters from all over the world—including elite European agencies like Kobler’s. It’s not the case that companies from poorer countries are inherently more troubled or lax in their safety considerations. Still, Kuntal Joisher, the Indian climber, told me that the industry had become inundated with inexpensive agencies that cater to budget clients—Seven Summits’ Everest trips generally cost $38,000, according to Tashi Sherpa. The cheaper companies often have less to pay for guides and are said to employ more inexperienced crews. (Seven Summits insists that it rigorously trains its Sherpas and pays them higher than the market rate.)

These agencies have found a steady clientele among Indian climbers, who typically have much less money to spend than Europeans and Americans and are dying on Everest at a greater rate than anyone else. Four out of the reported 11 who died on Everest in 2019 were Indians; of the 17 who died on Nepal’s 8,000-meter peaks, eight were Indian. “Indians are showing up who have not even climbed a 6,000-meter mountain,” Joisher says. “So many got frostbite, four died this year—clearly there is something wrong.”

Credit: Reinhard Grubhofer

Grubhofer spent the last dreadful hours of May 23 in his own kind of agony. He’d staggered down the north side at a dreadful pace, exhausting his oxygen while waiting for others to move. Within sight of the cluster of domed tents of Camp 3, Grubhofer collapsed. He inched forward on his hands and knees in the gathering darkness, shredding his jacket on the rocks, begging for tea, water, and oxygen. “He was in terrible shape,” recalls Dendi Sherpa, who revived him, replenished his oxygen, and placed him in his tent with another climber.

Too late to escape from the death zone, Grubhofer slept fitfully for hours, with his oxygen mask strapped over his mouth and nose, then sat up at around three o’clock in the morning, gasping for air. He felt terrible. With effort he removed his gloves, found his headlamp, scrounged around the mess of the tent for his oxygen bottle—and checked the meter. The tank was empty. It had been nearly full when he’d crawled into bed. He realized he must have accidentally opened the valve all the way.

“Fuck,” he said. He tore off the mask of his regulator and retched.

“Dendi,” he croaked as the wind howled outside. “My oxygen.”

Grubhofer again rasped out a plea for help.

Moments later, Dendi Sherpa began his standard check of his clients’ oxygen supplies. Entering Grubhofer’s tent, he saw Grubhofer motioning desperately for assistance. Dendi looked at the meter, saw the needle was on zero, and hurriedly attached a new bottle. Grubhofer drew deep breaths through his respirator and settled back in his sleeping bag. Without the new tank, says Dendi Sherpa, “Reinhard would have died.”

A few dozen yards from Grubhofer, Chris Dare was thrashing about sleeplessly in his tent that night. All he could think about was getting below the death zone the next morning. He was ready to be done. He was eager to reunite with climbing buddy Kevin Hynes, who had turned around before the summit push. With Everest behind them, the two were looking forward to meeting up at the cabin Hayes had built in the Maine woods.

In the morning, as Dare and the group headed down the mountain, a Sherpa received a radio dispatch from Camp 1.

“Kevin’s gone,” he told Dare.

“What do you mean?” Dare asked, confused.

Hynes, Dare learned, had died in his tent at dawn. It might have been a coronary or a stroke or any one of the fatal afflictions that can overwhelm a climber’s heart, brain, or lungs at Everest’s merciless altitudes. Oostra says the coroner’s report would attribute the death of the vigorous Irishman to “natural causes.”

In Katmandu in August of that year, long after the last mountaineers had returned home, I found the local climbing community consumed by a debate about what had gone wrong. At least four climbers died in the 24 hours that followed Grubhofer’s moment at the top—casualties of interminable lines and tragic miscalculations, victims of one of the deadliest seasons the mountain has ever seen. In all, 11 would die on Everest in May. By the time I visited, the Nepalese government had proposed a new set of rules requiring, among other things, that prospective climbers provide proof of high-altitude experience. But skeptics doubted that the government would seriously enforce such reforms and risk reducing its millions of dollars in permit-generated revenues. “At the end of the day, the changes that Nepal talks about never happen,” Rolfe Oostra tells me. “At the end of the day, money talks.”

Reinhard Grubhofer shares the assessment that something has to change. When I meet him in Vienna, it has been three months since he scaled the mountain and he is still basking in the achievement. “I cannot go anywhere without being the one who has just done Everest,” he says with a smile.

Sure, more people were climbing the mountain than ever before, but reaching the top of the world continues to offer unique bragging rights, he tells me. That will never go away, he thinks. “If I would meet you here and tell you I climbed, say, Annapurna, knowledgeable guys would say, ‘Wow,’ but 99.9 percent don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says. “Mount Everest is such a fascinating mountain, this huge monster. It is still one of the biggest adventures on the planet. It is a prestigious place.”

And yet the disasters that struck on the day he reached the summit cast a shadow. Nirmal Purja’s infamous photo of the traffic jam on the summit ridge, he admits, has diminished the achievement in some people’s eyes. “I was asked about the photo when I came back,” he tells me. “People said, ‘Oh, you’ve also been queuing up there,’ like it was the supermarket.” New rules have to be implemented, he says, to weed out the incompetent and the inexperienced, to reduce the crowds, to remove the Disneyland illusion and bring Everest back to something approximating its pristine state. Too many people, he says, have died needlessly because of sliding standards. “Let’s not make it a tourist mountain,” he says. “Let’s not spoil it even more [and] reduce it to dead people and tourists.”

Of course, Grubhofer also knows that the high stakes are part of the mountain’s attraction. A note of humility creeps into his voice when he acknowledges how close he had come to asphyxiating in his tent—and how a single slip had been enough to end the life of his climbing partner, Ernst Landgraf.

Two days after Landgraf perished, Grubhofer tells me, a small team from Kobler & Partner returned to the site and gently removed the body, which was still hanging from the line. Grubhofer says they pushed and dragged it away from the trail and then found a niche in the rocks where they laid Landgraf’s remains to rest—another haunting reminder of Everest’s fatal allure.

Joshua Hammer wrote about a global animal-poaching cartel in the June/July 2019 issue

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This post originally appeared on GQ and was published December 4, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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