The Dangers of Climbing Mt. Everest

May 6th, 2010

Since Mt. Everest was first conquered by Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953, more than 4,000 other climbers have reached its summit -most, like Hillary and Norgay, with the help of supplemental oxygen. Each year, more and more climbers travel to Nepal or Tibet (with their respective South and North ascent routes) to try and climb the majestic mountain. Much has been written about the ethics of climbing Mt. Everest, about how it’s becoming too easy to climb this mountain, and about the commercialization of the adventure sport of high-altitude mountaineering. More on this in a later blog; for now, let’s take a look at how much safer -or less safe- it has become to climb Mt. Everest. We shall focus mainly on the route from the South Side (Nepal).

Before Base Camp, there are a number of dangers that can wipe out an expedition. The many lodges that line the route to Base Camp throughout the Solukhumbu Valley serve not only climbers but also hordes of trekkers. This is where a healthy climber can be struck by infectious diseases, particularly in the absence of running water and sanitary lavatory facilities. Some long-term trekkers tend to be poor and take little care of themselves, because they have not much to lose. Their bodies are premier hosts of easily-acquired, hard-to-rid diseases. “Stay far away from any trekkers, particularly the ones trying to look like Jesus Christ,” said Henry Todd, our big boss, last year. The main problem with this strategy of avoidance is that trekkers tend to be supremely chatty and their interest appears to revolve around climbers, particularly of Mt. Everest. “Don’t speak about climbing and don’t ever wear sponsor’s logo patches on your clothes,” warned Henry, “they attract trekkers like honey attracts bees.” Dodging trekkers has become a specialty of mine.

Of course, between Lukla and Base Camp, we are all trekkers as we make our way up the valley. If you survive the flight into Lukla, that is. Several groups of trekkers and climbers haven’t been so lucky, since the approach to and take-off from Lukla is regarded among commercial pilots as the most dangerous anywhere. (A YouTube-search of Lukla Landing will yield interesting results). The experience is not unlike landing aboard a Navy aircraft carrier. Then, the higher one treks up the valley, the steeper the ravines become into which can quite easily fall. If one ascends too quickly (typically it takes 8-9 days to trek to Base Camp), AMS sets in. Acute Mountain Sickness is dangerous and required immediate attention. If a helicopter can’t land nearby, a horse, donkey or yak must be rented and the patient is dispatched to lower altitudes. Two year ago, a horse tripped on its way down valley, fell into a ravine and severely injured its AMS-ridden rider.

Once you reach Base Camp safely, you still have to content with the plague of trekkers, because their goal is to see Everest Base Camp at least once. Hence our camp site sits far removed from the trail which trekkers use to come and go to Base Camp. As you settle down, you will most likely have trouble sleeping as you are constantly woken by a sensation of being suffocated. That’s the high altitude and it only gets worse as you climb up the mountain. Lack of sleep leads to lack of attention span, which is precisely what you don’t want as you negotiate the deadly Khumbu ice fall. Statistically speaking, one stands a greater chance of dying in the ice fall, on the way from Base Camp to Camp I or back, than on any other route along the mountain. Crevasses -some over 150 feet deep-; avalanches; collapsing ice blocks bigger than big-rig trucks or as small as mini van; as well as imploding sections the size of multiple football fields all contribute to the ice fall’s deadly reputation. We have to make at least four round trips through the ice fall in order to acclimatize sufficiently before we can go for the summit.

Make it through the ice fall and you may still fall into one of the many unsecured crevasse between Camp I and Camp II, especially if it just snowed and the once-visible openings are now covered by snow bridges. In some places, crevasses are not covered by aluminum ladders (which can break or flip around, landing you in the very crevasse you attempted to cross), but must be jumped over, even if they are 3 or 4 feet wide and 80 feet deep. After Camp II, climbers face a near-vertical obstacle called the Lhotse Face. Avalanches have in the past played havoc with various attempts at scaling this monstrosity, several thousand feet high. Last year, a Canadian doctor was killed as he lay in his tent in Camp III (perched on the Lhotse Face); not by an avalanche but by snowfall. The snowfall was so heavy overnight that his tent was covered and he simply suffocated.

Get past Camp III and the Lhotse Face and you reach Camp IV, which lies in the so-called Death Zone. This is an altitude so extreme that your blood will thicken into a sludge not unlike motor oil, your breathing will increase rapidly, and you stand a prime chance at dying from a stroke, a heart attack, or swelling of the brain or lungs. After a few hours rest -sleeping is almost as difficult as eating and digesting food- you then brace yourself for the ascent to the summit. This, itself, is not too difficult, provided you are tall enough to cover the steps in the snow leading up to the Balcony and above, can climb up and across the Hillary Step, and don’t mind traversing the route from the South Summit to the proper summit, which lays along a nearly 8,000-foot drop that is extremely exposed. Of course, once you reach the summit after 9 to 12 hours of climbing, you must come back down. This is when many accidents occur, because climbers who reach the summit often let their guard down both from exhaustion and elation at reaching their goal.

While Everest has benefited from commercialization in the sense that ropes span most of the way from Base Camp to the summit, another, less encouraging aspect of this development is that so many climbers all try to reach the summit at the same time. With up to thirty climbers hanging on one section of rope, if one climber were to fall, he could possibly doom the other twenty-nine, as the rope is not strong enough to hold such a weight. Last year, after reaching the summit, Kenton Cool, Ang Namgel Sherpa and I sat atop the Hillary Step for over 45 minutes as we waited for wave after wave of climbers to come up the final technical obstacle before the summit. While waiting, we became concerned that our oxygen cylinders could be depleted, which would spell disaster.

Since we are keenly aware of the many dangers of climbing Everest, we take precautions that hopefully prevent any accidents. However, no matter how many people have climbed and continue to climb Mt. Everest, it is not an adventure that has become safe by any standards. We do believe that it is an adventure worth taking on in the name of the Navy SEAL Warrior Fund, the charity for which we are climbing. Please consider supporting this charity and our expedition by making a donation on their website, www.sealfund.org.

A huge section of the Khumbu ice fall collapsed in early April this year while Thundu Sherpa and Michael Kobold attempted to cross it. Sherpa and Kobold were scaling a three-ladder-tall incline as the football-stadium-sized section imploded, barely missing the two climbers.

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