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.