Why do people die on Mount Everest? That is the question many people are asking this Monday after three deaths were reported over the weekend, five thus far for the season with tragically more to be reported. Sadly, many of the press articles, and pundits, are looking for a villain, someone or some organization to blame.
Much of this is a good intentioned effort to save future lives but some are self-serving efforts to demonize climbers, guides and climbing itself. So with the caveat that I also have an agenda, lets look at why people die on Everest without going too deeply into this weekend fresh deaths.
There are multiple storylines around these deaths::
- Did the two deaths with one guide company imply the guide was derelict?
- Is there a connection with climbing with a low cost guide and risk?
- What was the cause of death and could it have been prevented?
- Why isn’t something done about the deaths on Everest each year to make it safer?
- Why are so many inexperienced people on the mountain?
- Do crowds add to the risk and what can be done?
I might add that Everest deaths makes news every year with the same questions revealed.
I’ve been on 37 major climbs since starting at age 38 including 11 climbs of 8000m peaks with 3 summits (Everest, K2 and Manaslu). I’ve climbed with guides, unguided, gotten altitude sickness, turned myself back from the summit, helped bury teammates and feel like I have seen it all.
A lot of the focus in the press is on the new generation of low cost guides for Everest. I’ve written on my blog about this for a few years predicting that the mix of Western/Nepali guides would shift from 80/20 to 20/80 over years. It is about 60/40 now. See my recent series on Everest: Changing Mountain for my views on what is changing with guiding on Everest.
Before we get into this, it’s important to maintain a sense of perspective about deaths on Everest. To be clear, I am in no way trying to minimize the loss of life and tragedy for their families. Since 2000 to 2015, what I consider ‘modern times’, there have been 93 deaths on both sides (Tibet and Nepal) with 5,758 summits according to the Himalayan Database. The deaths each season have ranged from 1 to 22 with a median of 7.
Of the 14 mountains over 8000 meters (26,300 feet) Everest is one for the safest at #11 on the list of 14. About 1 in 30 who summit die in the attempt, that is compared to Annapurna, another 8000 meter mountain where 1 in 4 die trying to summit. Other mountains see significantly more deaths for example across the Mont Blanc Range in France and Italy with 100 deaths each year.
I will use the Himalayan Database’s terms of ‘member’ for anyone who pays a guide to climb and ‘hired’ for anyone paid to support a member – that would include guides, and Sherpas who are also sometimes referred to as High Altitude Workers.
Who Climbs Everest?
The demographic is rapidly changing primarily driven by lower cost options, interest in climbing and a perception that Everest is an “easy walkup” that “everyone has done”.
A bit of history first. 50 years ago, Nepal authorized only one expedition per season (spring and autumn). It was usually a national team, Swiss, British, Americans, etc. Sherpas were heavily involved starting in the 1920’s with Mallory and Irvine, as was the use of bottled oxygen. These teams trained almost exclusively for a year or more – as a team – and if one person summited, the expedition was declared a success. They were young, bold, proud and confident.
Today is very different. Nepal, capitalizing on the increasing interest in mountaineering, began charging $10,000 for an Everest climbing permit in the early 1990s and opened the mountain to anyone who wanted to climb with no requirements for climbers or guides or the number of permits issued. They bring in millions each season and double that in business created for hotels, restaurants, guides, porters and other support activities.
Today the typical expedition member’s age ranges from 13 to 80 but mostly consist of 94% men in their late 30’s to mid 40’s. Almost all Everest members have full time jobs that fund the $30K to $65K it takes to join a commercial team. The team they join is made up of like minded people but they are usually climbing for their own summit, not as a team. Most sponsored, professional climbers shy away from Everest but still climb occasionally to stay in the public’s spotlight.
With the availability of lower cost operators, ever younger members, who have not generated a lot of wealth, are now attempting Everest. It is quite common to see a team of people in their early 20s on a low cost team. Many of these members are from India and China. By the way Chinese nationals must have summited an 8000 meter mountain before being accepted on an Everest climb from China, and the cost is $60,000. Thus many Chinese are climbing from Nepal where there are no requirements and the cost is less than half for them.
Who Guides on Everest?
There are no rules of who can call themselves a guide in Nepal. The Department of Tourism renamed Sherpas to Sherpa Guides giving the impression that all Sherpa are trained and qualified guide. The older Sherpas learned thru experience and the younger ones might have been exposed to some training as sponsored by their employer.
There is an effort to train High Altitude Workers thru the Khumbu Climbing Center, but only a handful of Sherpas have true internationally recognized guide credentials.
The ones who have the KCC training truly understand climbing, safety and have had a basic exposure to mountain medicine as I outlined in this post.
About 10 companies based in the US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand have been guiding Everest since the 1990’s. They include familiar names like Adventure Consultants, Alpine Ascents, Jagged Globe, Himalayan Experience, International Mountain Guides and others.
They use what I call a formula climb where they hire multiple western guides usually from their home country (New Zealand, Germany, US, etc), staff with a large number of local support staff that can range up to 2 Sherpas for each member. They provide generous amounts of oxygen running up to 4 liters per minute on the summit push. They charge top prices of $65,000 per member and offer excellent food, tents and supplies. And they have been very successful being responsible for well over 80% of the summits up until a few years ago.
Their safety records are also excellent with the exception of the mass death in 2014 and 2015, it has been rare to have one of their members die on Everest.
Primarily this is due to the western guide having some level of medical training, a long time of practical experience guiding on lesser peaks from Mt. Cook to Rainer, Denali, Mont Blanc, etc., and speaking the same native language as their members. When a member begins to show signs of fatigue or confusion – typical for altitude problems – the guides react quickly and has sufficient Sherpa support to take care of the member including emergency evacuations even from near the summit.
To balance this out, there are also low cost western operators on Everest like Summit Climb for example who have an offering more similar to the lower cost Nepali companies.
Sherpa owned guiding companies have been around for a long time in Nepal mostly catering to Asian members from Japan, Korea and India. Examples include Asian Trekking, Montarosa, and Arun. They were content to supply support and logistics that met the budget of their customer. Overall, they were a small part of the Everest market as most other members came from the UK, US and Australia and some from South America.
In recent years, as a new generation of young Sherpas came into the market, they created their own companies with the apparent desire to take the guiding market back from the Westerners and began a business model competing primarily on price.
These young Sherpas are strong, and accomplished with some having multiple 8000 meter summits completed in Nepal Tibet and Pakistan, some with no supplemental oxygen. In addition, Sherpas outside the traditional Khumbu region, for example Makalu and Rolwaling, have begun climbing for their own goals and not climbing just with paid members. I wrote an article for Outside Magazine on one of these efforts.
As their climbing skills improved, so did their business savvy, including extensive use of social media. This new generation of companies included Seven Summits Treks, Dreamers Destination, and Happy Feet. New websites emerged with flashy pictures of Sherpas on summits and attractive offerings of low cost climbs on Everest with “Everest veterans who have over 10 summits”. Deep discounts were commonly available. Many, many foreign clients snatched up these offers with good success. They became their references.
One part of their low cost business model was to pay their staff lower wages than their western competitors and often didn’t offer gear allowances or take out life, medical or rescue insurance. They provide a minimal amount of oxygen with old technology oxygen masks, and used only ‘Sherpa Guides’, not western guides who added many thousands of dollars to each member’s price. The food was basic and most importantly for many, their staff was inexperienced lacking little formal medical, climbing or language training. Again, to be clear, this was not all of them, but enough that a concerned began to be raised.
A large issue is that members now expect to have a Personal Sherpa, or two, on the summit push. With 300 to 400 permits just on the Nepal side of Everest and another 200 on the Tibet side plus climbs on other 8000 meter mountains like Cho Oyu, Manaslu, Shishapangma and trekking peaks like Island and Lobuche; there are not enough qualified Sherpas – or support staff – to meet this new generation of member expectations.
The end result are companies hiring anyone willing to carry a heavy load to stock high camps, then to accompany the member on the summit push. Sherpas are tired and if an inexperienced, or experienced, member begins to have problems an ensuing chaotic environment develops where no one has the skills or ability to take charge.
There is a competitive environment amongst the young Sherpas of who can climb the fastest, carry the heaviest loads and sometimes take unnecessary risk such as not clipping into the fixed lines on steep icy slopes like the Lhotse Face or when crossing ladders. They often volunteer to carry “double loads” to earn extra money. Often the low cost companies will not supply supplemental oxygen to the staff until the summit push.
I recall being on my summit attempt in 2002 when I began to develop issues just below the Balcony. I told my young Sherpa that I was going down, to which he looked at me and declared “Yes, go higher!”. I descended on my own while he continued climbing higher. It was a climbing lesson I never forgot.
Before I get hate mail from Sherpas, let me be clear that there are many, many, many outstanding Sherpas that I have come to admire and respect over my 17 years of going to Nepal. I give full credit to Kami Sherpa for helping me summit K2 and Everest and being by my side on Lhotse last year during the earthquake and again this year. And this year four Sherpas with Seven Summits Treks executed a rescue on the steep and deadly West Face of Everest.
Who Can Get an Everest Permit?
Anyone with money. While the Nepal government has issued press releases with requirements for members include climbing a 7000 meter mountain and between the ages of 18 and 75 and more, these have never been put in place. The guides will require extensive climbing experience – the of the require summiting an 8000 meter mountain before being accepted on their teams.
Others will accept a summit Denali or Aconcagua and then some sell “Everest Training Climbs” as a way to generate business and hopefully get that same client to return for Everest. Finally the worse companies will simply take your money, regardless of your experience telling the member they will be taught what they need to know by their expert staff.
Clients vs Climbers
A popular criticism of today’s Everest climbers is that they hire guides who hold their hand in every aspect of climbing the mountain. This is often tossed out by professional climbers and outdoor magazine editors. The viewpoint is that if you need a guide then you shouldn’t be on the mountain.
The term guide is interesting in that it conjures up an image of a novice being told what to wear, how to pack, when to eat, how to walk, where to go, – you get the idea. When in fact, on every climb I’ve been on, where there was a “guide” they acted more like a facilitator doing a lot of the behind the scenes work. When it came time to climb, it was up to the individual to be “personally responsible”.
When I started climbing, I choose to go on commercial expeditions with guides because I had no idea what I was doing (some would say I still don’t) and wanted to learn. In training for those climbs I was fortunate to be around people with proven skills that were kind enough to teach me about rock, ice, winter camping, etc.
As I progressed in difficulty (Longs, Aconcagua, Denali, Cho Oyu, Ama Dablam, etc.) I began to understand what it took to climb the big mountains, but wasn’t always successful – mostly due to my own inadequacies (improper training, mental toughness, arrogance, etc.) But I was hooked and fell in love with the sport, especially climbing at high altitude. Every time I failed to summit, I thought deeply on why, what did I do wrong, where could I improve and then made the decision if I would try again. I was grateful to have a family and job that allowed me such choices.
I continued to use “guides” for several reasons: logistics, knowledge of the mountains, contacts, costs leverage, safety and more. With my experience came a tacit acknowledgment from the guides that I knew what I was doing and thus had more freedom than others.
The Inexperience Circle
With the lower prices now offered on Everest, inexperienced climbers are attracted. But this is a vicious circle. The way a guide can offer Everest at low prices often includes hiring inexperienced staff, understaffing the expedition, having minimal oxygen and often having no backup, communications or rescue plan. They simply sell a spot on a permit, provide a tents and food and promise an “experienced” Sherpa to be with you on summit night. Lacking true climbing experience, the unaware is impressed by a slick website and statistics of multiple Everest summits by the owner of the company, not knowing that their sherpa may also be the first time on Everest.
When a person who has summited Kilimanjaro or Island Peak in Nepal is told they are qualified to attempt Everest the cycle begins of the inexperienced leading the inexperienced. When trouble begins, no one is qualified to recognize it or deal with it.
What kills Climbers?
As is often said that pilot error is the primary reason for airplane crashes, climber judgement error is the primary reason for deaths on Everest. These errors can range from climbing in poor weather, going higher when illness sets in to not clipping into fixed lines on ladders, on steep terrain or lacking the experience to understand mountain conditions (avalanches) and weather.
The human body was not designed to function at these extreme altitude. The highest permanently inhabited village on earth is La Rinconada in Peru at 5100m/16,728 feet. Even in the Khumbu, next to Everest, the highest village of Gorak Shep (5164m/16,942 feet) is only used during the Everest climbing season for climbers and trekkers. Namche Bazzar is the largest permanent village at 3439m/11,286 feet.
So it is no surprise that when climbers go to 20,000, 25000 or 29,035 feet, the body puts up a fight. As I went through on this post, members on Everest go thru a multi-week acclimatization process that helps the body adjust to the high altitude, but it takes three weeks for the body to completely normalize to the current altitude so just spending a few nights at 23,000 feet helps, but is not the solution. Using supplemental oxygen brings the effective altitude down by 3,000 feet or 1,000 meters so the body still is stressed at 28,000 feet even on Os.
Altitude sickness is a broad term that includes Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) and more. This is an excellent website to research all kinds of altitude issues. These conditions come on quickly, often with little warning and the only cure is to descend immediately.
Another cause of death, beyond falling down a steep slope or into a crevasse or hit by an avalanche is some hidden problem such as a heart attack or aneurysm that is brought on by the stress of the climb. Again, this is often undeterminable even with a complete physical before going to Everest.
In 2011, one of my teammates simply fell over just below Camp 3 and died, presumably from a heart attack. He was given oxygen, appropriate drugs and ed almost immediately by physicians who happened to be nearby but to no avail.
As is often the case, teammates, guides, Sherpas and others may not even be aware that a person is in trouble just assuming they are going slowly due to normal fatigue at altitude.
The first death was on the north with very unclear details. The second death was of a Sherpa fixing the ropes to Lhotse and fell down the Lhotse Face to his death. It is assumed he was not clipped into the safety lines or an old line broke.
The next three occurred this past weekend and there are probably two more missing climbers who will be assumed dead at some point. Update: The bodies of Paresh Chandra Nath and Goutam Ghosh with Trekking Camp Nepal were found on Balcony. source
However, the two that captured the media’s attention were Dutch climber Eric Arnold and Australian Dr. Marissa (Maria) Elizabeth Strydom. The were both climbing with Arnold Coster of Arnold Coster Expeditions. Arnold was using the base camp and logistics services of Seven Summits Treks and previously guided for Summit Climb. He charges $34,500 for an Everest climb from Nepal putting him in the low cost category.
He was quickly criticized for not providing adequate support to his two climbers and responded with a statement I posted on my site. One of the issues was that Dr. Strydom’s sister read that Marissa had died in the Nepal newspaper, The Himalayan, and the family was not contacted by Coster or Seven Summits Treks.
I asked Jeff Evans, an emergency medicine Physician Assistant, who was based at Seven Summits Treks base camp this season as part of a documentary series for the Travel Channel on rescues why the family was not contacted. He told me:
… the night of Marissas death there was lots of public radio chatter … Everyone up high was listening. Someone shared her name down low and the HT took the story and published it
As for the cause of death, I don’t want to speculate or repeat the stories as they are almost always initially wrong, but clearly being at high altitude had an impact. As for did they get appropriate help, again I will not speculate as I was not there. Dr. Strydom has been recoved and efforts are underway for Mr. Arnold.
I will say that I have seen people die, and helped bury, on mountains with the most expensive and least expensive companies and some with no guides at all.
2016 Everest Deaths
- Paresh Chandra Nath with Trekking Camp Nepal found on Balcony. source
- Goutam Ghosh with Trekking Camp Nepal found on Balcony. source
- Subash Pal with Trekking Camp Nepal died on Nepal side source
- Dr Marisa (Maria) Elizabeth Strydom with Seven Summits Treks dies at South Col. source
- Eric Arnold with Seven Summits Treks (Arnold Costner) dies at South Col. source
2016 Lhotse Death: 1
- Ang Furba Sherpa, fixing ropes for Lhotse. Worked for Arun
2016 Everest North Col Only Death: 1
- Charles MacAdams died at Chinese Base Camp after reaching his goal of the North Col source
Do I need to acclimatize? this is an area that cannot be shortened. The human body needs to adjust, even Sherpas, to extreme altitudes. Can you still summit Everest if you don’t spend a night at Camp 3 at 23,500 feet on the Lhotse Face? Absolutely, but the member should have spent at least 3 to 5 nights at Camp 2 and taken a climb to 7000 meters.
Do I have to use supplemental oxygen? Everest can be summited without using supplemental oxygen, but of the 7,001 summits thru 2015, only 2.7% or 193 members or hired have summited with no Os. Of note, 282 people (169 westerners and 113 Sherpas) have died on Everest from 1924 to August 2015. Of the deaths, 102 died, 36%, attempting to summit without using supplemental oxygen.
Are Western Guides worth the extra cost? The added cost may save a member’s life, especially if they are inexperienced. However, with the increase in demand for western guides, some operators are hiring western guides who also have not been on Everest, so understanding who you are climbing with is crucial. The western guides who has been on Everest bring not only climbing experience but also medical, weather and language skills to the members.
Are Sherpas Guides safe? I summited Everest with a Sherpa Guide, Kami in 2011, after two attempts with Western Guides and one with a low cost Nepali outfit. The experience of Sherpas vary especially across operators. The long time western operators have employed the same staff for years while the newer companies often don’t have access to the same experienced Sherpas.
Am I safer with a more expensive guide? There is no long term data that shows more people die with low cost outfits. I will try to look into this formerly this summer but there are no centralized statistics.
I’ve done six of the 7 Summits. Is that enough for Everest? I strongly believe a person should climb an 8000 meter mountain before attempting Everest. The highest of the 7 Summits is Aconcagua is just under 7,000 meters, Everest is almost 9,000 meters. That extra altitude is a game changer and you don’t know how your body will perform. I got to 8000 meters on Cho Oyu before I attempted Everest the first time and was glad to have had that experience.
Shouldn’t the guide or Sherpa take care of me in an emergency? The only person you can count on is yourself thus taking personal responsibility is the key based on appropriate experience. That said, climbing with experienced and skilled support can save your life in a crisis.
I have rescue insurance, won’t that be enough? Altitude and health issue happen fast on Everest. Many insurance companies ask that you call them first, impossible in a crisis. Helicopters can only fly to about 23,000 feet and even then that is very dangerous for the pilot for a medical evacuation. The your insurance policy will do is pay for the aid after the event, not provide it on the mountain.
I always carry a satellite phone or Delorme InReach or Spot wth the SOS button. These are great for keeping in touch but again the only help that counts in a high altitude crisis is the qualified and trained help that reach you in a matter of minutes or hours. For most emergencies, the first option is to move the person lower on the mountain to a safer altitude.
How can I reduce the risk of dying on Everest? Experience, experience, experience at altitude is my answer. Going with a guide/logistics company that matches your experience is also key. Everest is not the mountain to save money. Taking time to acclimatize is key as is using supplemental oxygen at generous levels will help all but the most gifted athletes. Finally being in Everest Shape is critical – this is better than the shape of your life.
Everest is dangerous, as are most mountains. People die each year from novices to experts. Gaining real-world experience on ever higher and more difficult mountains builds the experience needed to attempt an 8000 meter mountain.
Ideally, everyone would have the skills and experience not to use a guide and climb a new route on every mountain. But in reality almost everyone today signs on with a guide service. That’s OK, just research them, get references and be honest with yourself about your capabilities.
If you can’t afford a professional guide or the logistics company that matches your experience, wait and save more money – it could mean your life.
Memories are Everything