Traffic jam at the top of the world: Hundreds risk their lives to summit Everest

(CBS News) It's a developing situation at the top of the world. Hundreds of climbers are waiting to try to reach the summit of Mt. Everest: elevation 29,035 feet. All of them are aware that four climbers died there over the weekend -- and the risk could be even greater in the coming days.

Video recorded last week shows a line of hundreds of adventurers and guides attempting to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. It was shot last week by a climber. Outside Magazine writer Grayson Schaffer who tried to reach the summit on Monday but was forced to turn around by bad weather. He spoke to CBS News from base camp.

"I spoke with one guide that said his team waited for three and half hours at Hillary Steppe, which is the last cliff face before you get to the summit," Schaffer said. "Waiting at that altitude for three and a half hours, not moving, your body is cooling down."

Shriya Shah-Klorfine trains at Everest Base Camp.
Shriya Shah-Klorfine trains at Everest Base Camp.
Shriya Shah-Klorfine/Facebook

Bad weather this spring has limited the number of days available for climbers to reach the summit. Now with possibly only a week left in the climbing season there is a rush to reach the top. But there is only one guide line up and down the summit route.

"Everyone has to go at the speed of the slowest climber," Schaffer said. "What that does is it creates an enormous traffic jam."

The bottleneck is in what's known as the "death zone," where climbers become sluggish, even breathing from oxygen bottles -- and temperatures can drop to 35 below zero. On the last few hundred feet, tired and exhausted climbers can stop the whole line.

"It is really bizarre situation; Every time a team summits, they radio down to base camp and you hear the celebration, people clanging on the oxygen bottles, ringing bells, cheering" Schaffer said. "At the same time, at another camp, I heard people openly weeping for their lost climbers."

Mount Everest climbers find new body, raising death toll on highest mountain; Missing guide safe

Shirya Shah
33-year-old Shirya Shah from Canada is one of four climbers to die over the weekend trying to summit Mt. Everest.
CBS

Among the four climbers that died last weekend were 33-year-old Shirya Shah from Canada and 61-year-old Eberhardt Schaaf of Germany. Both insisted on reaching the top despite being told by guides to turn around. They died of exhaustion and exposure on the way down.

Shah's body lies near the frozen remains of an American guide, one of eight climbers who died in similar circumstances in 1996.

Johnny Strange made it to the top of Everest in 2009. He says some climbers fail to know their limits.

"They have this desire to get to the top so badly they disregard their judgment and they keep going," Strange said. "That is where they go wrong. You have to be prepared to not reach the top."

It's so crowded that experienced climbers are leaving earlier in the night. Their headlamps look like Christmas lights on the ascent.

Despite all the risks, as many as 200 climbers are preparing to make their attempt starting Friday during what may be the last good weather for the year. They are risking everything for a few minutes at the top of the world.

The popularity of climbing Mount Everest could have deadly consequences, as climbers get bottlenecked in the mountain's "death zones."
CBS
  • Brian Rooney

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