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Canada ‘It’s not sustainable’: Canadian documentarian details experience of climbing Everest during deadly traffic jam

On Mt. Everest's Hillary Step, seen here on May 22, 2019, crowds of climbers became stuck in a queue to the summit, above the mountain's highest camp at 8,000 meters.

Elia Saikaly/Handout

Documentary filmmaker Elia Saikaly embarked for the summit of Mount Everest last week in pitch black and frigid temperatures. He was far from alone.

Hundreds of climbers, seeking to take advantage of favourable conditions, pushed forward around the same time, creating a traffic jam along an oxygen-starved leg of the ascent called the death zone.

There were reports of at least eight deaths as of Sunday after a three-day ordeal in which about 500 climbers were scheduled to summit the Himalayan peak, the world’s tallest.

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The aftermath marks an especially deadly turn in this year’s climbing season – Nepali officials peg the death toll in the Himalayas at more than a dozen – that has also revived debate about the sustainability of the region’s tourism industry.

“It’s incredibly surreal. It’s very disturbing as well,” said Mr. Saikaly, who lives in Ottawa.

Mr. Saikaly spoke Sunday from Kathmandu, one day after flying out of Everest base camp after his third successful summit in eight expeditions.

He was filming four women, who were attempting the feat for the first time, for a documentary project. The group, two from Lebanon, one from Oman and another from Saudi Arabia, made it up and back unscathed, he said.

But the trip was harrowing. Mr. Saikaly said they left Camp 4, located about 8,000 metres above sea level, on May 22 at 9:30 p.m. local time after waiting for roughly six weeks. They were accompanied by four Sherpa guides, who carried oxygen and survival gear for the group, as well as camera equipment.

In the dark, headlamps provided the only light. The temperature dipped to minus 35 C. Within 20 minutes, the group passed two Sherpa guides as they lowered a man down the mountain on a stretcher.

They soon passed another climber who was delirious and screaming. Higher still, they stepped over a dead body someone had rigged up to a safety anchor. At another point, Mr. Saikaly implored an exhausted climber to turn back.

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The deadly traffic jam is the result of a confluence of factors, Mr. Saikaly said.

This is just beneath the south summit of Everest at approx 8:30 am. More than 60 climbers were still heading up and Elia Saikaly was descending.

Elia Saikaly/Handout

More people have flocked to the Nepali side of Everest after China began limiting climbers from the Tibetan side of the mountain. Nepal’s tourism ministry has issued a record 381 permits this year, up from 346 last year.

He said some hopefuls also scrimp on logistics, which can cost up to US$65,000 a person to start. Climbers also watch the same weather information for low winds and warm temperatures, conditions that can prove fleeting and often spark a rush.

Mr. Saikaly said he fears the death toll could rise as visitor numbers increase and tour operators proliferate.

“It’s not sustainable. And what’s happening, whether it’s through the media or social media, people are seeing images of Everest, they’re seeing people standing on top of the world. I don’t think they realize how serious it is," he said.

“Everest is quite manageable with the right support on a good day. But when things go wrong, most people are not prepared to survive up there on their own.”

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Mr. Saikaly, 40, first attempted to climb the mountain at the urging of Sean Egan, a University of Ottawa professor who died in 2005 at 63 while attempting to become the oldest Canadian to ascend to the summit. Mr. Saikaly completed the ascent in 2010 and again in 2013, but turned back in 2014 and again in 2015, years that also proved deadly.

Mr. Saikaly, whose father is Lebanese, said his film, The Dream of Everest, will chronicle the story of the four women from the Middle East as they train and prepare to climb the summit. He said he hopes the documentary will break stereotypes and also serve as a cautionary tale for would-be climbers. But he added he won’t be returning to the mountain.

“I fear for the future of how much bigger of a disaster it could be in comparison to what’s gone on this year,” he said. "And that’s really scary.”

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