SINGAPORE: Veteran mountaineers have cautioned that years of experience and being prepared for the worst are key to surviving expeditions to the world’s tallest mountains, after a Singaporean climber went missing near the peak of Mount Everest last week.
Mr Shrinivas Sainis Dattatraya summited the 8,849m peak on Friday (May 19). He then seemingly sustained frostbite and altitude sickness, became separated from his group and fell down at around 8,000m, said his cousin Divya Bharath in a petition on the Change.org website.
A team of sherpas began search operations on Saturday morning. He was reportedly last in contact with base camp officials at around 8,500m.
Mr Shrinivas, who was part of an expedition organised by Nepalese climbing firm Seven Summit Treks, had set out from Singapore to Nepal on Apr 1 to climb Everest.
His family has since appealed for urgent help, including a special rescue team. CNA has contacted his wife Sushma Soma and his father-in-law for more information.
On Monday evening, Ms Sushma wrote in an Instagram Story on her personal account that the search for her husband was still ongoing. She also thanked everyone for their support.
CLIMB LOWER PEAKS FIRST, BE WARY OF ALTITUDE SICKNESS
Three veteran climbers told CNA that experience often plays a pivotal role in climbing the “eight-thousanders” – the 14 highest mountains in the world that are more than 8,000m above sea level.
Climbers have to contend with the “death zone”, where the air is too thin to survive for long without supplementary oxygen.
Oxygen levels fall below 40 per cent here and increase the risk of severe altitude sickness – namely, high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), which are both potentially fatal.
Mr David Lim, who led Singapore’s first expedition to Everest in 1998, is no stranger to that.
The 58-year-old motivational speaker has suffered HAPE twice while scaling mountains over the past three decades. This is when blood vessels in the lungs constrict, while HACE is caused by swelling in the brain that leads to disorientation and unconsciousness.
Mr Lim did not make it to the Everest summit in 1998 and 2001 but has since gone on to conquer numerous “virgin peaks”, which are those that were unclimbed and have no pre-laid route.
He told CNA: “More experienced people have greater self-awareness in terms of situational awareness, like, how many hours of daylight do I have left? What’s my physical condition at the moment? What’s my current rate of ascent and descent?
“All of this keeps playing in your mind as you climb … and on Everest, it’s much harder to do this because sometimes you’re chronically hypoxic due to lack of oxygen, even if you’re on bottled oxygen, which most climbers use these days.”
He noted that climbers do not need a high degree of expertise to scale Everest, but must build up their experience and mountaineering ability over several years by attempting smaller peaks.
While Mr Lim does not know Mr Shrinivas personally, he noted from the younger man’s Facebook page that he had scaled smaller peaks over the past several years and already built up experience.
Dr Kumaran Rasappan, an orthopaedic surgeon at the National University Hospital who summited Everest in 2012, echoed Mr Lim’s advice.
“They should definitely have tried other mountains, including 6,000m, 7,000m, 8,000m peaks before attempting Everest. I think that’s the minimum, no matter how fit you are, because the body responds very differently at altitudes above sea level,” Dr Kumaran added.
“Training at sea level is also important to get the physique, but having previous experiences at high altitude is important not only for the physique but for the psychological difficulties you may face.”
The 39-year-old, who obtained an international diploma in mountain medicine in 2018, said that altitude sickness can strike due to a variety of factors like the rate of ascent and how acclimatised a climber is.
Those who have mild symptoms of acute mountain sickness may recover by resting and taking medication. But those who come down with HACE or HAPE should get to lower altitudes with the help of steroids or supplemental oxygen, Dr Kumaran said.
Despite all this, the climbers said that even the most experienced ones can get into trouble and succumb to the elements.
In April, Mr Noel Hanna, a mountaineer from Northern Ireland who had climbed Everest 10 times, died while descending from the peak of Annapurna mountain (8,091m) in Nepal.
Ten people have died on Everest this climbing season, including a Malaysian and a Chinese climber, double the average of five climbers who die on the mountain every spring. Another Malaysian has been missing since Friday.
HUMAN TRAFFIC JAMS
When hundreds of climbers attempt to reach the summit during small windows of clear weather – human traffic jams form. A photo of the gridlock that often happens at Everest, taken by a Nepali mountaineer near the summit, went viral in 2019.
Climbers – who are clipped onto a single rope – can wait for hours in the death zone, increasing their chances of contracting mountain sickness.
Dr Kumaran said that such traffic jams have been around for the past decade, including when he climbed Everest.
He pointed out that some climbers run out of oxygen while waiting in line, adding: “I think a lot of people who aren’t supposed to be on the mountain are there … because of a multitude of faults.”
For example, the Nepal government did not regulate the handing out of permits to climb Everest, he said.
After criticism from around the world, it ruled in 2019 that all climbers must have previously climbed a Nepalese mountain with a height of 6,500m or higher before getting a permit, among other requirements.
Dr Kumaran added that climbers who missed their chance during the COVID-19 pandemic have also been returning to Nepal.
According to Nepal’s tourism department, more than 400 climbers have already reached the top since May 13.
Mr Lim said that while sherpas have a far greater reserve of strength and stamina than the typical climber, they are “also human” and may have depleted most of their energy in the climb. This is something that less experienced climbers tend to forget, he added.
Sherpas are renowned for their mountaineering skills and often carry heavy loads for climbers in the Himalayas.
In terms of rescue efforts, there are no dedicated mountain rescue teams in the Himalayas. Climbers need to depend on their team and should not expect external help, said Mr Lim.
Mr Lim said the more experienced ones understand the need to turn around before reaching the summit if issues crop up, such as if oxygen is running low.
“Sometimes the excitement – what we call summit fever – tends to get ignored, and then they get into all sorts of problems coming down,” he added.
Mr Jeremy Tong, who has climbed Everest twice, told CNA’s Singapore Tonight that the descent can be just as dangerous – if not more so – than the ascent.
“If there are people coming down and then you’re going up, or vice versa, you would have to unclip the rope to bypass somebody else and where the drops are quite significant, things can go quite wrong, quite fast,” the 33-year-old added.
“The terrain is very tough, if you ask me, and it’s quite steep as well.”
Source : CNA