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Death on Mount Everest

How Climbers Die on Mount Everest

By

Mount Everest
Richard Collins/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images
Death on Mount Everest

Many climbers die on the summit pyramid of Mount Everest after successfully reaching the summit.

Photograph © GaryMccue/Getty Images
Death on Mount Everest

Shailendra Kumar Upadhyaya died on Mount Everest in 2011 while trying to become the oldest person to climb Mount Everest.

Photograph courtesy nepalnews.com

Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world at 29,035 feet (8,850 meters), is also the highest graveyard on planet earth. Many climbers have died on Mount Everest since 1921 and over 200 of them are still on the mountain. Some are buried in crevasses. Some fell down remote parts of the mountain. Some are buried in snow and ice. Some lie in the open. And some dead climbers sit beside the popular routes up Mount Everest.

Death Rate on Everest is 6.5% of Summit Climbers

There is no firm count of the exact number of climbers that have died on Mount Everest, but as of early 2014 it is about 265 people. The number of climbers who have died on Everest is 6.5% of the 4,042 climbers who have reached the summit since it's 1953 first ascent is 6.5%, not necessarily an alarming number.

Most Die While Descending

Most climbers die while descending the upper slopes of Mount Everest, often after having reached the summit, in the area above 8,000 meters called the "Death Zone." The high elevation and corresponding lack of oxygen coupled with extreme temperatures and weather conspire to create a greater risk of death than on the mountain's lower slopes.

More People Equals More Risk

The sheer number of people that attempt to climb Mount Everest every year also increases the risk factor. More people means the potential for more fatal traffic jams at key sections of the ascent like the Hillary Step on the South Col Route or long lines of climbers following in each other footsteps.

One Death for Every 10 Ascents

An analysis of the 212 deaths that happened during the 86-year period from 1921 to 2006 indicates some interesting facts. Most deaths-192-occurred above Base Camp, where the technical climbing begins. The overall mortality rate was 1.3 percent, with the rate for climbers (mostly non-natives) at 1.6 percent and the rate for Sherpas, natives of the region and usually acclimatized to high elevations, at 1.1 percent. The annual death rate is remarkably unchanged over the history of climbing on Mount Everest. One death occurs for every ten successful ascents--a significant number of climbers who reach the summit die on their descent. Most climbers who die on Everest are generally physically fit and in the prime of their life between the ages of 30 and 50.

Death Rate Increased Since 1980s

Since the 1980s, when more climbers began ascending above 8,000 meters than previously, the death rate for climbers who died descending the mountain jumped. On the South Col Route on the Nepalese side of Mount Everest, 2.5 percent of descending climbers died, while on the Northeast Ridge Route in Tibet the number of descending deaths is 3.4 percent.

Mortality Rate High for Non-Native Climbers

While over 235 climbers have died on Mount Everest (an exact number is unknown) as of 2012, an analysis of the 212 deaths during an 86-year period from 1921 to 2006 indicates some interesting facts. Most deaths-192-occurred above Base Camp where the technical climbing begins. The mortality rate was 1.3 percent, with the rate for climbers (mostly non-natives) at 1.6 percent and the rate for Sherpas, natives of the region and usually acclimatized to high elevations, at 1.1 percent.

Two Ways to Die on Mt. Everest

There are two ways that climbers die on Mount Everest-traumatically and non-traumatically. Traumatic deaths occur from the usual hazards of mountaineering-falls, avalanches, and extreme weather. These are, however, unusual. Traumatic death injuries usually occur on the lower slopes of Mount Everest rather than up high.

Most Die from Non-Traumatic Causes

Most Everest climbers die from non-traumatic causes. Climbers usually die on Mount Everest simply from the effects of exhaustion as well as injuries. Many climbers die from altitude-related illnesses, usually high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE).

Fatigue Causes Death

One of the main factors in Everest climbing deaths is excessive fatigue. Climbers, who probably should not be making a summit bid because of their physical condition or inadequate acclimatization, set out from the South Col on their summit day but lag behind other climbers so that they arrive at the summit later in the day at a time far beyond what should be a safe turn-around time. This often occurs because they are being guided and have spent a lot of money to reach the top of the world. On the descent, they simply sit down and won't move or become incapacitated by low temperatures, bad weather, or from fatigue. Lying down and resting feels like the right thing to tired climbers, except that the rest becomes the sleep of death.

High-Altitude Cerebral Edema

Along with extreme fatigue, many Everest climbers who die develop symptoms like loss of coordination, confusion, lack of judgment, and they may even slip into unconscious-all symptoms of high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE). HACE often occurs at high elevations when the brain swells from the leakage of cerebral blood vessels.

Death of David Sharp

There are many tragic stories like that of British climber David Sharp, who sat down under an overhang 1,500 feet below the summit on May 15, 2006 after successfully climbing Mount Everest. He was extremely tired after a long summit day and began freezing in place as he sat there. As many as 40 climbers trudged past him, believing him already dead or not wanting to rescue him, on one of the coldest nights that spring. A party passed him at 1 in the morning, saw he was breathing still, but continued on to the summit since they didn't feel they could evacuate him. Sharp continued freezing through the night and the next morning. He had no gloves on. He was undoubtedly hypoxic from lack of oxygen and probably had no idea where he was nor felt any pain.

Hillary Lambasts Callous Everest Climbers

Sharp's death created a huge storm of controversy over what was considered the callous attitude of the many climbers who passed the dying man yet made no attempt to rescue him, feeling that it would jeopardize their own ascent of the mountain. Sir Edmund Hillary, who made the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953, said it was unacceptable to leave another climber to die. Hillary told a New Zealand newspaper: "I think the whole attitude towards climbing Mount Everest has become rather horrifying. The people just want to get to the top. It was wrong if there was a man suffering altitude problems and was huddled under a rock, just to lift your hat, say good morning and pass on by."

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