As a major storm forms over the Bay of Bengal, mountaineers at Mount Everest Base Camp are beginning their attempts to reach the summit in a short window of good weather that could close at any time.
Currently, skies over the world’s highest peak are clear, however the Indian Meteorological Department is predicting that by Sunday, coastal communities will be hammered by the first major cyclone of the season, aptly named “Asani.” The name means “wrath” in the Sinhala language, which is local to Sri Lanka, where the storm is likely to make landfall. In the ensuing days the storm could make its way further inland and eventually reach the Himalayas.
This storm places considerable pressure on the community of climbers, many of whom have spent the last few weeks setting ropes on the mountain and acclimatizing at higher camps. At approximately midnight on Friday, multiple expeditions left base camp to hike through the Khumbu Icefall and ascend onward to Camp II at 21,000 feet just below the Lhotse Face.
A rope fixing team led by 52-year-old Everest legend Kami Rita Sherpa reached the summit at 6:55 P.M. on Saturday, after it completed the lines from the South Col, over the Hillary Step, and onward to the top, just a few days ahead of the commercial expeditions. Kami Rita Sherpa has now reached the Everest summit 26 times, the most of anyone in history.
“The world is watching [the rope fixing team],” said Jiban Ghimire, expedition outfitter and executive member of the Expedition Operators Association Nepal, a trade group responsible for fixing the route above Camp II. “They are under a lot of pressure.”
This team was not the first group to reach the summit this season—that honor goes to a team of 13 Chinese climbers who summited on April 30 from the mountain’s Tibetan side.
Of the expeditions leaving Nepali camp, the first teams are expected to summit on Tuesday, May 1o, with others following in the ensuing days. Climbers do not know when the storm is expected to reach the peak.
Everest is known for dangerous crowding in the “death zone” as hundreds of climbers clamoring for the summit all share a single fixed rope. Ghimire is confident that crowding of this extreme nature won’t be an issue this year. “It’s the world’s tallest mountain, and of course everyone wants to get to the top as soon as possible,” he told Outside. “But the guides also know that this isn’t their only chance in the season.” Ghimire also said that the overall number of climbers is lower than in years past—a result of multiple global dynamics—and the guiding teams are installing two sets of ropes on the summit stretch this year: one for ascending, and another for descending.
At least ten teams have made the decision to climb this week, while others have chosen to remain in Base Camp, or have returned to Kathmandu to rest and prepare for the next window of favorable weather.
Full Circle Everest team, which is led by veteran mountaineer Phil Henderson, has chosen to push for the summit. The team is hoping to become the first all-Black expedition to summit Everest. In a message written on sponsor The North Face’s Instagram page, the squad said it is hoping to “change the future of mountaineering, bringing representation to the highest place on Earth—and into the global outdoor community.”
Another climber hoping to reach the summit this week is 18-year old American Lucy Westlake. Reaching the top would make her the youngest American woman to summit Everest, and bring her one step closer to completing the “Explorer’s Grand Slam” of ascending the highest point on all seven continents and reaching the North and South Poles. The only Ukrainian on the mountain, Antonina Samoilova is also climbing.
Other climbers are choosing to wait out the storm: Nepali mountaineering celebrities Nirmal “Nims” Purja and Mingma David Sherpa are staying at lower elevations.
The accelerated timetable on Mount Everest comes as dozens of climbers have already completed ascents of Annapurna, Dhaluagiri, and Kanchenjunga. The first summits on 27,766-foot Makalu are also expected on Sunday or Monday nights. So far, three mountaineers have died in the Himalayas this year: Greek mountaineer Antonios Sykaris died on Dhaluagiri in early April; Nepali high-altitude guide Ngimi Tenji Sherpa died on April 15 on Everest; and Indian climber Narayanan Iyer, 52. Iyer died May 6th, at nearly 27,000 feet on Annapurna after reportedly ignoring repeated calls from his guide to turn around.
This coming week, expedition leaders will be watching the progress of the climbing teams and monitoring the looming cyclone with equal interest. Despite the impending dangers posed by the storm, most are glad to be operating in a somewhat normal atmosphere after two tumultuous years resulting from the pandemic.
“The thing I’m most happy about,” says Ghimire, “is that we aren’t locked down because of COVID.”