94 paying members have died on Everest between 1996 and 2016. Who were they, why did they die, who were they climbing with? How can you safely climb Everest, but not risk everything?
I finally took the time required to analyze all the deaths over the past 20 years and found some startling conclusions.
The good news, you can climb Everest and minimize the risks, the bad news is you can’t do it on the cheap or to honor your country without increasing your chances of dying, significantly. To be clear, there is zero way to climb any mountain, much less Everest, avoiding all risks, including death.
Without burying the lead, the bottom line is that high-end commercial teams have the least number of deaths and their summit success is well above 70% in the last five years.
With that, let’s dig in as I did with the Himalayan Database, first-hand accounts, guide websites, and media reports as the sources for this analysis.
I began by determining how many people have died on Everest on both sides – China and Nepal since 1996. I choose to start there because that is generally considered the beginning of commercial guiding in earnest by Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness. Prior to that Everest was usually climbed once or twice a year by a national team.
A brief history shows that Everest was off-limits until the mid 20th century:
• 1841: Sir George Everest notes the location of Everest during a survey from India
• 1846: Nepal closes borders to foreigners
• 1850’s: Tibet closes borders to foreigners
• 1920: The Dalai Lama opens Tibet to foreigners
• 1921: Nepal allows one limited British exploratory party to the Everest region
• 1950: China closes Tibetan borders after invading Tibet
• 1979: China opens Tibet to foreigners
• 1993: Nepal limits expedition to four/year with limited numbers and high permit fees
• 1995: Nepal allows more expeditions but keeps high permit fees
Different Expeditions, Different Organization
I sorted the climbers into four groups based on how the expedition was organized: national, independent, and commercial split into high-end and low-end split at the $40,000 all-inclusive (including permit) cost for one climber. I used $40,000 as the price cut-off because above that the expeditions usually have one or more western guides, below that is mostly Sherpa run.
I did not include support staff in this analysis because they are exposed to similar risks regardless of expeditions style plus don’t play a large role with independents.
National was the way most of the world’s highest mountains were first climbed. Everest is a prime example of when the Swiss and the British secured annual permits in the early 1950s followed by an American team a few years later and so on. The teams were staffed by invitation only and generally run like a military operation with a clear leader.
If you joined a team, you had no guarantee you would get a chance to summit and often were told you were along to help establish routes and ferry gear to camps. Sherpas were used generally to staff base camp and some lower camps but were not considered part of the overall team, with some exceptions, for example, Tenzing Norgay who was with the 1950’s Swiss and British teams.
Today there are still National teams made up of Universities, climbing clubs, or exclusive country-oriented teams but the team members don’t go through the same vetting as in the early days. They are run more like a commercial team with the leader seemingly taking priority over the rest of the members thus the risk is significant as born out by the numbers.
These climbers usually climb alone, without supplemental oxygen, Sherpa support, and claim not to use fixed ropes or ladders. Sometimes this is a “style” issue but often is an economic choice.
They climb alone but often trail larger commercial teams who break trail and provide heads up on weather and route conditions. They are stubborn to a fault but full of pride and courage. Many lack the skills to pull off an independent climb, but others would not climb any other way and are very successful. David Sharp who died on the north side in 2006 is a good example of this style. He was on a permit with other climbers of Asian Trekking but was quite solo. World-class climbers like Simone Moro or Ueli Steck also have climbed in this style.
For well under $40,000, you can climb Everest on a Sherpa-supported expedition on either side. This is where a company organizes all the logistics: food, group gear, transportation plus Sherpa support but does not provide a traditional western guide or, in some cases, even a lead Sherpa guide. A Sherpa will climb with you on summit night but you might be on your own with random teammates throughout the rest of the acclimatization climbing process, including preparing meals at the high camps. It is quite common to find yourself climbing alone.
Asian Trekking specializes in this style of climb and is very good. Seven Summits Treks is another option at lower costs and many small one-man companies offer even lower prices. This is really every climber for themselves with little to no teamwork.
The western guided expeditions are ‘full service’ trips costing $40,000 to over $100,000. This includes all the oxygen you would ever need, excellent food, internet, and video at base camp plus services of a Sherpa guided climb plus sharing one or more western guides. The major point of this approach is you are climbing in close proximity to a western guide who most likely has summited Everest multiple times.
The most expensive guide companies (Adventure Consultants, AAI, Alpenglow, Himex, etc) almost always come with several western guides, overstaffing of Sherpa support, and extra gear positioned at the high camps including, virtually unlimited oxygen. You never climb alone.
Which Style is Safest?
This is the question everyone wants to know – who should I climb with on Everest for the safest experience and yet have an excellent chance of summiting.
Bottom line: spending over $40,000 with a commercial team has the least number of deaths, and their summit success is well above 70% in the last five years.
The data shows that National teams have the most deaths with low-end commercial teams next followed by independents then high-end commercial teams. Remember this is for 94 paying members who have died on Everest between 1996 and 2016.
The nationalities are quite spread out:
24 other countries have 3 or less deaths including 14 with only 1 death over the 20 year period.
North or South
|SIDE||DEATHS||%||DYING AFTER SUMMIT||%|
The Chinese side has more deaths primarily from the independents. That side has been historically less expensive, even though in 2018 the price will be about the same as Nepal. Historically north side individuals climbed alone with no support and no oxygen – all recipes for disaster. Note this data refutes the common belief that more people perish on the descent than going up.
Guide Track Record
As far as the guide companies, this is tricky as it can be used to place blame and that is not always accurate. Someone can sign up with a low-end commercial outfit yet climb independently thus ignoring all advice. If they die, whose fault was it?
Similarly, on a national team, they may be giving a young climber a chance to climb to the lower camps but an accident occurs, like an avalanche; again who is to blame. Finally, take a high-end commercial company who loses someone during the earthquake at base camp – are they to blame for being at base camp?
My analysis is not intended to place blame but rather as information.
|High-end Commercial||Russia||7 Summits Club||5|
|Low-End Commercial||Nepal||Asian Trekking||5|
|High-end Commercial||New Zealand||Adventure Consultants||4|
|Low-End Commercial||Japan||Himalayan Guides||3|
|National||Nepal/India||Indo-Tibetan Border Police||3|
|National||Russia||Russian Siberian Expd||3|
|Low-End Commercial||Trekking Camp Nepal||3|
|Low-End Commercial||Adventure Guides Japan||2|
|Low-End Commercial||Nepal||Arnold Coster||2|
|High-end Commercial||Kari Kobler||2|
|National||S. Korea||Park Everest||2|
|Low-End Commercial||US/UK||Summit Climb||2|
36 other companies had only 1 death
As I read the death reports, I was struck by several common themes, regardless of whom they climbed with:
– the climber ignored advice from more experienced climbers and Sherpas
– they got in trouble and their teammates failed to support them choosing to continue only to find the person in worse shape later
– they felt superior to many other climbers on the mountain according to reports
– they were trying to save money
My takeaways, which are pretty basic, from this data include:
1. Never climb alone
2. Always use supplemental oxygen
3. Climb with a team that will not abandon you
Death in the mountains is always tragic for family, friends and teammates. My condolences to all with these deaths and may their stories serve to save future lives.
Memories are Everything
I have received a number of comments asking for death rates per expedition-style and that I was suggesting Everest was more dangerous than statistically, it is. These are my thoughts on these subjects:
Totally understand. Annapurna has a higher death rate as I have noted for years. My article in no way suggested Everest was more dangerous, or most dangerous. In fact, Everest is one of the safest, statistically, of the 8000ers, again a point I make all the time these types of statistical articles. This one was trying to look at who you climb with.
As for doing the deeper comparison of death rate taking into account the total climbers per style – I get it. I thought about this but doing the analysis for 20 years of expeditions, totaling over 1,568 separate expeditions was a bit much and I’m pretty sure if I spent a year doing it, I would still have some feedback on a better method.
As I noted in the article, independents have dominated the Tibet side for years so I’m not sure looking at each expedition and classifying them into this category would change the conclusion about independents. It’s pretty clear this is the riskiest way of climbing – alone, unsupported, no oxygen, etc.
The high-end has dominated the south side for the past 20 years (but that is changing rapidly especially over the past several years with Seven Summits, etc.) so I’m making an educated guess that high-end commercial would still have the lowest death “rate” given they guided most of the paying members and have the lowest absolute number of deaths by my analysis.
Nationals have been deadly since they began and again, an educated guess would have them still at the top.
Low-end commercials are the big wild card. This is a relatively new style (in a big way) on Everest starting after 2013 – and is the fastest-growing category. Seven Summits regularly has over 60 members on Everest each season and the smaller ones regularly have 5 to 10. If you take the last two years alone – not including the earthquake deaths – the majority of the deaths have been with teams charging under $40,000 so I think my conclusion still holds.
Before I get hate letters from small Nepali-based companies – many run safe trips each year with no deaths, but there are many “Sherpa Guides” who have limited training and experience yet are marketed as guides. This is a problem spot as this segment of the industry matures.
Thanks for your comments.
FWIW, the Himalayan Database is now free and available for anyone to download so anyone can do their own analysis. I would welcome any deeper analysis.