Climbers seek new routes to keep the thrill of Everest alive

Photos this year showed peak busier than ever

By Amy Woodyatt, CNN
Larry Lazo via CNN

It was a scene no one could quite believe -- atop Everest, once considered the most remote place on earth, lines of climbers snaked over the ridgeline above the mountain's highest camp at 8,000 meters (26,247 feet), waiting for their turn to summit.

More than six decades after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay overcame the odds and reached the summit of Everest, viral photos emerged in May that showed the peak looking busier than ever. During this climbing season, at least 11 people have died trying to reach the top of the mountain -- the deadliest season since 2015, when a series of avalanches sparked by an earthquake in Nepal caused the deaths of at least 19 people.

Visitors hoping for solitude and longing to connect with nature might want to think again -- thawing ice and snow have revealed bodies of climbers at various points on the mountain, and a clean-up effort launched this year has retrieved more than 3 tons of trash.

But away from the crowds and human waste that have earned Everest a bad reputation in recent years, climbers are still trying to forge new routes up the world's highest peak. This year, climbers Cory Richards, from the United States, and Esteban "Topo" Mena, from Ecuador, set out to climb a steep couloir on the northeast face of the mountain, without oxygen or Sherpa support.

After 40 hours, weather conditions forced them to abort their attempt, but they will go back again next year, Richards told CNN.

"Nobody's ever done it so we don't know exactly what the challenges are. And that's part of the appeal," he added.

Everest itself may have earned a reputation as a tourist hotspot and a playground for the wealthy -- about 600 people (including guides and porters) made it to the summit this year, and permits to climb the mountain from the Nepalese side can cost about $11,000 each -- but more than 200 mountaineers have died on the peak since 1922. Health complications can include fatal altitude sickness, heart attack, stroke and frostbite. Avalanches and rockfall also pose a threat.

Richards and Mena's route is riddled with dangers, taking them over unpredictable terrain -- glaciers, ice fields and gulleys. If you fall, Richards said, "it's not like you're gonna live."

"You're in harm's way, simply by being there, because it's at the bottom of this couloir, which essentially makes a funnel, so any rockfall that comes down, any snowfall that comes down, it's going to hit you. The climbing is on this kind of hard glacial ice, which is very strenuous and very brittle. If anything happens, you die. And so that tension is ever present," he added.

There are around 20 routes up Everest, but the majority of visitors and expedition groups stick to two main paths. Richards, 38, and Mena, 29, like many climbers, are seeking new thrills.

Richards has already reached the summit four times, Mena has climbed the mountain twice. But the climbers are still looking for challenges on the mountain. "It is the only highest place on the planet -- there is just one," Richards added.

"It's a very magnetic peak, and a magnetic challenge for some people to want to achieve within their lifetime," said Jake Meyer, a British mountaineer who became the youngest Briton to climb Everest in 2005, aged 21.

"As people's experience grows but also generally the climbing industry's experience, skills, and measurement of performance increases, there will be people who are really pushing the limits and pushing the boundaries of what's possible," he told CNN.

Despite the deaths and negative press, trips to the top of the mountain will continue. "Everest, because regardless of what's reported on it, keeps getting more and more busy," Richards added.

"People always ask, 'Well, you've done it, why go back?' Why do Olympians go back to the Olympics? It's to refine, reduce, and to make art out of action."

CNN's Doug Criss, James Griffiths, Rob Picheta, Sugam Pokharel, AnneClaire Stapleton, Lauren Said-Moorhouse, Arwa Damon and Rajesh Mishra contributed to this report.

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