It’s been a month since the end of Everest season 2019, and this year has been a difficult one. There were 11 deaths, making it one of the deadliest seasons in Everest history. There were also a record number of climbers on the mountain. A photo of climbers queuing up the summit ridge shocked the world. News outlets went wild reporting on the deaths and others made suggestions for change, both well-considered and otherwise.
I argue that the mixed messages about Everest since the beginning of commercialization have resulted in its seriousness being underrated. Everest has become more adventure tourism than real mountaineering. But perhaps it would be wise for Everest hopefuls to go back to basics and consider the alpine apprenticeship.
As a scientist, an Everest summiteer (via the standard, commercial, South Col route) and also Vice President of the Alpine Club I have a range of perspectives. I’d like to share some of them here.
Mixed messages in the media reporting on Everest
Everest is by turns denigrated and celebrated. Reports in the media on the one hand praise Everest climbers and on the other tell us that Everest is no longer a challenge as rich clients can buy their way to the top.
The media report on the crowds on Everest, lambaste commercialization of the mountain and say that too many people are now dying on its slopes. But we should remember that commercialization has actually made many popular mountains safer: the death rate (deaths per attempt) on Everest for instance has reduced from over 10% at the turn of the 1990s to about 1-2% or even less now.
Some operators bemoan the rise of inexperienced climbers on Everest yet at the same time increase the levels of luxury at Base Camp to include proper beds and cinema tents. This sends the message that Everest is little more than a tough activity holiday and may attract clients who perhaps do not understand the rigors of expedition life or the extreme nature of high altitude. (One could also question the environmental footprint of such expeditions in carrying so much non-essential weight up to Base Camp.)
Everest as a bucket list challenge?
There seems to be a perception now that climbing Everest is another box to tick, a bucket list challenge like running a marathon or completing an iron man. It is underestimated. People come into the sport of mountaineering from the wrong direction. They come in with the desire to climb Mount Everest, willing to climb perhaps a couple of “training peaks” on the way, rather than coming into mountaineering for the love of the mountains and exploration, learning how to climb on lower, less ambitious peaks and building up experience. Doing so, they are disproportionally putting their lives, and maybe others’ lives, at risk.
If you are a climber, Everest is a walk
I am currently a Vice President of the Alpine Club, the oldest of such clubs in the world, founded in 1857 during the Golden Age of exploration and climbing in the Alps. Since then the Alpine Club has led mountaineering development and exploration worldwide. It was the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society that organized the original expeditions to Everest in the 1920, 30s and the 50s. While I am certainly not a top-performing, ground-breaking climber, I appreciate the club’s exploratory values and agree with the club view that climbers must be responsible for their own safety.
In the decades after the first ascent of Everest in 1953, climbers who had dedicated their lives to mountaineering climbed much harder routes on the mountain or made difficult ascents in winter. Eventually Everest was mostly “climbed out” and became less interesting to true alpinists looking for a unique challenge.
Most ascents of Everest nowadays are made with guided commercial expeditions using fixed ropes and breathing supplementary oxygen. Climbing Everest is still hard, both physically and psychologically, but it’s not technical, cutting-edge climbing. So the Alpine Club position would be, “go elsewhere and have a real adventure.” An ascent of Everest by a commercial route is not respected amongst good climbers.
Understanding this distinction is important because people have got it wrong when they call for greater “experience” on Everest. It’s not technical experience that the climbers need. It doesn’t really matter whether a climber knows how to put on their crampons. What matters is whether the climber is experienced and resourceful enough to look after themselves in extreme conditions.
The real challenge of climbing Everest
I would hazard a guess that some Everest climbers don’t fully understand the real challenge of climbing Everest–the problem of the last 1000 feet–and don’t fully understand how to deal with altitude and cold. Success on Everest is more about being able to manage yourself well in tough conditions, particularly your nutrition and cold management, than being a technically good climber. This in itself requires many years of experience.
The problem of “the last 1000 feet”
I climbed Everest in 2018. As a physicist, I was interested in the science that had enabled humans to first successfully gain the summit, and the fact that it took several decades to solve the problem of “the last 1000 feet”.
The challenge of Everest is not the climbing; it’s physiological. The terrain is often very steep but not technically the most difficult, especially when safety ropes are already fixed for climbers. However, the human body cannot survive for long above about 26,000ft (8000m), often referred to as the “death zone”, even with supplementary oxygen. The challenge is keeping the body alive and functioning well enough to get to the top and get back down again safely.
There is a key quote about this in Everest: A Thousand Years of Exploration by Michael Ward, who was the doctor on the first expedition to successfully climb Everest in 1953. Speaking of the expedition in 1922 (to the North side of Everest), when Mallory, Somervell, Norton and Morshead made an attempt without supplementary oxygen and turned back at 27,000ft (8230m), Ward explains: “Their attempt on the summit had been defeated not by any climbing difficulty but by oxygen lack, cold and exhaustion which had not been countered by adequate clothing, food and fluid intake, or by adequate oxygen uptake.”
This pattern of failure was repeated throughout the 1920s and 30s, until the problems were solved in the early 1950s, culminating in the successful first ascent in 1953. But the same problem still defeats climbers now, sometimes with serious consequences.
Having become interested in Everest through the science, when I decided to climb the mountain I wanted to study and highlight the science that now improves safety and performance on the mountain. And I wanted to look into how to give myself the best chance of both surviving and summiting.
The statistics of Everest
I studied the statistics of previous climbs on the South side to inform my preparation. The Himalayan Database, begun by the late Elizabeth Hawley, is a tremendous source of information on expeditions in the Nepal Himalaya, and the associated book The Himalaya by the Numbers (2011) by Richard Salisbury and Elizabeth Hawley provided a good starting point for enquiry. I also acquired the complete database for further analysis.
One of the things I considered was, where do most people die and how do they die? By looking into the most dangerous locations on the mountain, and causes of death, I was aware of the dangers and could take steps to avoid them.
A graph of deaths at particular altitudes shows that there are two main places on the mountain where the majority of deaths occur. One is between 5400m and 5800m, the Khumbu Icefall, and the other is above 8600m, just before the South Summit (8750m), the very last bit of the climb. However, we already see the number of deaths increasing from 7800m.
If we then look at the causes of death in these areas, we can think about how to best prepare and protect ourselves.
Accidents and death in the Khumbu Icefall
The predominant cause of death in the Khumbu Icefall is from avalanche, which is not something we can control. The only things we can do are make choices about when to be there and then move through as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, the Icefall is fairly low down on the mountain, which means it must be traversed several times as climbers get acclimatized. Sherpas carrying equipment up to higher camps and back again need to make even more passes through the treacherous Icefall, so it’s perhaps no surprise that avalanches are the leading cause of death for porters.
Accidents and death in the Everest death zone
Looking at the deaths on summit day, which is entirely in the death zone, the other most dangerous part of the mountain, we find that the deaths are mostly either falls, altitude sickness, exhaustion or exposure, which all essentially amount to the same thing: not looking after yourself well enough. If you allow yourself to become exhausted there is more chance of you making a mistake when clipping onto the fixed lines and suffering a serious fall. Or there is more chance of you collapsing and succumbing to altitude sickness or hypothermia.
The very unlucky may get caught in bad weather (such as the bad storm in 1996 during which 8 people died, including 2 expedition leaders), but the chances of this are now lower than previously because of improvements in weather forecasting brought about by advances in computing over recent decades.
Survival on Everest
I understood that the most important thing when climbing Everest is that you have to be able to walk out of the death zone on your own. You may be lucky and get help if you have a problem, but the chances you won’t are greater. Up there, everyone is suffering as bodies are slowly shutting down.
Therefore, you must learn to manage yourself well and you must cultivate the ability to turn around well before you hit your limit. You must on no account allow yourself to become exhausted on summit day.
Yet this is not something that can be learnt simply by reading about it, just setting your mind to it or by pursuing sports generally. It requires the kind of experience that climbers call the ‘alpine apprenticeship’.
Preparing for Everest–the ‘alpine apprenticeship’
When climbers talk about the ‘alpine apprenticeship’ they mean building experience gradually, such as learning to climb rock, then ice, then moving on to the Alps in summer and then the Alps in winter. Personally, I came through the hiking and then high-altitude trekking route – plus lots of skiing – before taking up climbing. I also gained Arctic expedition experience, which I can recommend as extremely helpful for decoupling the feelings of altitude and cold and learning how to deal with them separately.
The alpine apprenticeship is not just about acquiring technical skills, but also about acquiring experience of how the body reacts to extreme physiological strain and learning how to handle the risks of extreme environments. As well as learning valuable skills like resourcefulness, teamwork, self-management and nutrition strategies, an alpine apprenticeship builds mental resilience.
John Porter, currently President of the Alpine Club, describes the alpine apprenticeship in his book One Day as a Tiger about British Mountaineer Alex Macintyre. “He [Alex] believed that good performance at high altitude was not simply a matter of the body physically adapting. The mind also had to adapt. It had to learn to accept everything encountered on the mountain as perfectly normal, including extreme danger. This, he argued, could only be achieved after thousands of hours of living in that environment. There were no short cuts to mountain success.”
Climbers on a commercial expedition to Everest nowadays are not required or expected to be elite climbers. But Alex’s observation about preparing the mind still applies perfectly to Everest, where climbers pass through the icy obstacle course of the Icefall multiple times, cross aluminum ladders stretched over gaping crevasses, haul themselves up the snow and ice of the 1000m Lhotse Face, and along the narrow, exposed summit ridge. For a climber this is all perfectly normal.
Tough seasons highlight the issues
2019 was a difficult season. Conditions were not ideal, with Cyclone Fani coming in at the beginning of May bringing high winds and snow during the acclimatization rotations. Then there was only a short period of weather good enough to attempt the summit, so climbers were crowded into the same few days. It’s times like these when the latent problems on Everest come to the surface.
Of course, the situation is complex. Commentators focus on climbers, but arguably operator inexperience is more deadly. Experienced operators know how to climb Everest. They know what works, and they have experienced staff who know how to deal with problems. Good operators understand the complex dance of logistics on Everest and want climbers to have enough experience to be able to look after themselves in extreme conditions, but–and this is key–to have the humility to take instruction.
I urge would-be Everest climbers to approach Everest with the respect it deserves, to be honest with themselves and others about their experience and to remember that for all the support they may have on the mountain, the death zone is a place where everyone is at their limit and they must be able to take responsibility for themselves. Commercialization has brought down the barriers and increased the safety margin, but Everest is still a serious and deadly proposition. Tackle it inexperienced at your peril.