Deaths on Mount Everest: perceptions and trends

Since 1921, 210 people have died in an effort to summit Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak (29,028’/8848m above sea level). The mortality rate above base camp (17,600’/5360m) is 1.3%, startlingly high even for a peak reaching far into the clouds.
If you reckon that the leading causes of death are avalanches, falling ice, and pulmonary edema, you’re apparently like most people who pause to consider the matter. You are also mistaken.
An article published this week on the Web site of the British Medical Journal reveals that the leading causes of death are actually rapidly deteriorating weather, basic exhaustion, and cerebral edema. Some of the more interesting details:

  • The study examined 14,138 mountaineers–8030 climbers and 6108 sherpas–in the period between 1921 and 2006.
  • Deaths could be classified as involving trauma (objective hazards or falls, n=113), as non-traumatic (high altitude illness, hypothermia, or sudden death, n=52), or as a disappearance (body never found, n=27).
  • During the spring climbing seasons, 82.3% of deaths of climbers occurred during an attempt at reaching the summit.
  • The death rate during all descents via standard routes was higher for climbers than for sherpas (2.7% (43/1585) v 0.4% (5/1231), P<0.001; all mountaineers 1.9%).
  • Of 94 mountaineers who died after climbing above 8000m, 53 (56%) died during descent from the summit, 16 (17%) after turning back, 9 (10%) during the ascent, 4 (5%) before leaving the final camp, and for 12 (13%) the stage of the summit bid was unknown.
  • The median time to reach the summit via standard routes was earlier for survivors than for non-survivors (0900-0959 v 1300-1359, P<0.001).
  • Profound fatigue (n=34), cognitive changes (n=21), and ataxia (n=12) were the commonest symptoms reported in non-survivors, whereas respiratory distress (n=5), headache (n=0), and nausea or vomiting (n=3) were rarely described.

What surprises me most about this data is the high fraction of people who died on the way down. At least they perished with a sense of accomplishment.
But the death rate on Everest is no surprise at all. As the eminent outdoor journalist and author Jon Krakauer conveyed with no small amount of graceful restraint in his book Into Thin Air, sherpa-guided climbs up the mountain have become a veritable industry, wherein any out-of-shape CEO with $25,000 US and dreams to burn having as much access to base camp as the most experienced and skilled mountaineer. Things may have changed some in the years since the disaster that killed eight people on May 11, 1996 (Krakauer, though never in personal danger, was covering the filming of an IMAX production and was in one of the stricken climbing parties), but the allure of the technically basic but peril-fraught climb remains strong even among–maybe especially among–the woefully under-experienced.

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  1. #1 by Bill from Dover on December 20, 2008 - 2:25 pm

    I drink beer cuz it is there.

  2. #2 by ngong on December 20, 2008 - 7:54 pm

    Check out the death stats for Annapurna I or K2!
    Everest is far from being the most dangerous peak. It’s not particularly technical. It’s not even the highest, if you measure from the center of the earth.
    I’ve run into hardcore climbers who shun the climb. Part of the joy is the sense of isolation, and you’ll never get that on Everest, where more than 100 bodies might be pushing for the summit on a given day. So you get an even higher density of “CEO mentality” on the peak.
    Nothing has changed since Krakauer’s book.

  3. #3 by Comrade PhysioProf on December 21, 2008 - 4:50 pm

    Fascinating post, dude!
    What surprises me most about this data is the high fraction of people who died on the way down.
    It doesn’t surprise me at all. First, it requires more dexterity to climb down a pitch than up a pitch. Second, the climber is more tired after having climbed up. Third, the climber has achieved the goal of summiting and is now likely to “let down her guard”. Fourth, it is likely to be later in the day, and thus more adverse weather. Fifth, climbers often time ascents to beat bad weather, so the weather is more likely to be getting bad on the descent.

  4. #4 by Kevin Beck on December 21, 2008 - 5:00 pm

    Yeah, factors 1 thru 3 should have been obvious, but I wouldn’t have considered the other two.
    I think I’ve developed a bias on account of reading only about badly ending Everest accounts involving on-the-way-up mishaps.

  5. #5 by Patient on December 23, 2008 - 3:11 pm

    Nice to see natural selection at work. If these “adventurers” are really looking for a challenge, why don’t they spend some time and money doing something REALLY difficult like curing cancer or solving the problems in Darfur.

  6. #6 by Climbing Resource for Mount Everest on December 24, 2008 - 4:53 pm

    Excellent post, and I would like to add the following. A successful Mount Everest summit has always been considered one of the ultimate forms of achievement. Even though K2 is a much harder mountain to climb in every respect, most of the general public does not know this. But almost all people in developed countries have heard of Mount Everest and can relate to a Mount Everest summit as one of the ultimate forms of achievement. Most deaths occur during the descent simply because you are very tired and the adrenaline rush has decreased. A lot of data was given in the British Medical Journal and the take home is that yes indeed Everest is dangerous, but the dangers have been reduced in recent years. Today expedition companies provide logistic support, Sherpas, guides, stringent health and physical condition requirements and more. But make no mistake about it, a summit attempt on Mount Everest should never be looked at as an expedition vacation. It is an attempt at one of the ultimate achievements available to man and should be treated as such. For more information about preparation for a Mount Everest summit attempt, go to Mount Everest – A Climbing Resource.

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