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Why Climbers Die On Mount Everest 417

Posted by timothy
from the failure-to-be-born-sherpas dept.
Science Daily reports that researchers have conducted the first detailed analysis of deaths during expeditions to the summit of Mt. Everest. They found that most deaths occur during descents from the summit in the so-called "death zone" above 8,000 meters, and also identified factors that appear to be associated with a greater risk of death, particularly symptoms of high-altitude cerebral edema. The big surprise that the data indicate those deaths aren't primarily from avalanches or falling ice, as had long been believed.
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Why Climbers Die On Mount Everest

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  • Diving? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by markass530 (870112) <<markass530> <at> <gmail.com>> on Sunday December 14, 2008 @07:08PM (#26114649) Homepage
    Is this related to the same health problems associated with diving (I.E The bends?)
  • News flash... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by fahrbot-bot (874524) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @07:11PM (#26114675)

    They found that most deaths occur during descents from the summit in the so-called "death zone" above 8,000 meters.

    Um. If the chance of dying increases with time in the "death zone", and descents happen toward the end of your time in said zone, then duh. News flash: Chance of death increases proportional to time without adequate O2.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 14, 2008 @07:28PM (#26114803)

    Go read the book 'High Crimes [amazon.com]'. It's a really amazing book about the greed, desperation and , simply put, evil that surrounds everest. Picture oxygen tanks stolen when a group makes its last ascent, knife fights, torn tents, etc..

  • Re:News flash... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by NotQuiteReal (608241) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @07:35PM (#26114859) Journal
    I propose the "recycling zone".
  • Re:Damn (Score:5, Interesting)

    by HiVizDiver (640486) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @07:35PM (#26114861)
    Maybe, maybe not. Very often climber's bodies are left on Everest because it's too dangerous to retrieve them. I guess that it's no big deal if you die up there, you're not using the body anymore, so who cares what happens to it. But its gotta suck for your family.
  • when it came to cheaters in sports, they'll do things like dope with epo

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erythropoietin [wikipedia.org]

    and blood bank: inject their own previously extracted, concentrated red blood cells back into themselves before the run/ bike (with the subsequent increase in clot risk, of course)

    of course, why can't climbers do this as well? take all of the illegal things they do in sports and apply it legally. of course, they are raising their risk of death with some of these body modifications, but at a lower, controlled risk than that from climbing a mountain without any body preparation at all

    regardless, any climber should spend time running marathons in the high alps or the high sierra to increase red blood cell production naturally, if you are not genetically a sherpa

  • Re:Damn (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jcnnghm (538570) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @08:43PM (#26115373)

    It's not that easy, operating helicopters at that altitude is risky, to say the least. While a helicopter was able to land at the summit in 2005, multiple helicopters have crashed trying to land at the base camp, 10,000 feet below.

  • Re:Hypoxia (Score:5, Interesting)

    by lysergic.acid (845423) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @08:44PM (#26115377) Homepage

    hrmm... while the Wikipedia article on cerebral edema supports your statement that HACE (high altitude cerebral edema) is caused by hypoxia, the actual HACE article [wikipedia.org] suggests that HACE is a severe form of altitude sickness [wikipedia.org], for which the only cure is to descend to a lower altitude (an oxygen supply can help to stabilize a patient, but it isn't a cure). from the Wiki article on altitude sickness:

    The cause of altitude sickness is still not understood. It occurs in low atmospheric pressure conditions but not necessarily in low oxygen conditions at sea level pressure. Although treatable to some extent by the administration of oxygen, most of the symptoms do not appear to be caused by low oxygen, but rather by the low CO2 levels causing a rise in blood pH, alkalosis. The percentage of oxygen in air remains essentially constant with altitude at 21 percent, but the air pressure (and therefore the number of oxygen molecules) drops as altitude increases. Altitude sickness usually does not affect persons traveling in aircraft because modern aircraft passenger compartments are pressurized.

    also, don't most Everest climbers use oxygen when they try to summit? i'd be interested in seeing how many deaths were caused by inadequate oxygen supplies, or whether oxygen tanks actually have any effect on one's chances of contracting cerebral edema. and if the Wikipedia HACE article is indeed correct about high altitude cerebral edema usually occurring after a week or more at high altitude, then it would seem that acclimatization does not help prevent HACE.

    however, the altitude sickness article seems to give a different take on the etiology of high altitude cerebral edema:

    It is currently believed, however, that HACE is caused by local vasodilation of cerebral blood vessels in response to hypoxia, resulting in greater blood flow and, consequently, greater capillary pressures. On the other hand, HAPE may be due to general vasoconstriction in the pulmonary circulation (normally a response to regional ventilation-perfusion mismatches) which, with constant or increased cardiac output, also leads to increases in capillary pressures. For those suffering HACE, dexamethasone may provide temporary relief from symptoms in order to keep descending under their own power.

    though i'm not sure why a hypertensive like dexamethasone would be prescribed if HACE were the result of increased capillary pressure and vasoconstriction. seems like it would make more sense to prescribe a hypotensive like clonidine. lowering your blood pressure would help to alleviate capillary pressure and slow the spread of edema, though it would probably make you more tired & reduce your strength, so this would only be appropriate for stabilizing a patient if they're going to be carried down.

  • by Hoi Polloi (522990) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @09:21PM (#26115615) Journal

    I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume most readers have never climbed about 10,000 ft. I haven't been up any 8,000 meter peaks myself but my few times about 14,000 ft have taught me that the big danger isn't so much the direct low 02 pressure (pulmonary edema, cerebral edema) but the intense urge to just sit and "rest for a while". The body's ability to generate heat is hampered by the lack of O2, add to that a very cold environment, strong winds, and someone deciding to sit and rest and they may never get up again. Fatigue on top of a complete loss of motivation and disorientation is the big killer. Hypothermia alone will lead you to this state; low O2 combined with it is a doubled threat. Even if you don't lie down you make mistakes with gear, improperly tie knots, put crampons on wrong, etc.

    Most accidents happen on the way down regardless of the altitude. It is when people are their most fatigued, let their guard down, have gravity tugging them away from the slope, and are rushing to beat sundown. When you reach the summit people forget they are only 50% done. As the old saying goes, "Summitting is optional, descending is mandatory."

    As far as the sherpa vs nonsherpa death rate I'd say you have to take into account that sherpas grow up and live at high altitudes. They also are frequently used for many expeditions so they are in very good shape physically and are well trained. Compare that to someone who may have only been to high altitude a few times in their life and who's last major climbing trip may have been years ago. Sherpas, unlike the other climbers, aren't there expecting to summit. They frequently are manning camps, laying fixed lines at lower altitudes, setting up higher camps, etc. They don't have summit fever and if told to turn around will do so (remember, the clients on Everest can be paying $65,000 [alpineascents.com] to be there). They can still get altitude sickness though. I have read about sherpas going to, say, coastal India for a while and then getting altitude sickness apon returning to high altitude.

  • Re:Damn (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Antique Geekmeister (740220) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @09:29PM (#26115695)
    Sounds like a job for Zepellin, customized to work near Everest. It would have to be big, and the weather probably would have to be ideal, but the maximum height for balloons is considerably higher.
  • Re:Damn (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Hurricane78 (562437) <deleted@slashd o t .org> on Sunday December 14, 2008 @10:03PM (#26115929)

    Additionally you get a ground effect at about 50-100ft (I think) and below, moving you away from the mountain and tilting you.

    It must really suck...err...blow...err... you know what I mean...

  • by Analogy Man (601298) on Sunday December 14, 2008 @11:37PM (#26116503)
    Really the climbing at that altitude is an abuse of the human body. The people doing so are managing risk and doing a bit of personal extrapolation to sense whether with the current environmental conditions and how they feel will allow for a summit attempt.
    So it only makes sense that errors in this estimation process are going to be revealed in the later half (i.e. the descent).
  • by PhotoGuy (189467) on Monday December 15, 2008 @12:43AM (#26116785) Homepage

    I have mixed feelings on the Everest thing. I guess I can understand people wanting to test their limits, and push themselves. And the isolation and harsh environment can be intruiging.

    However, the stories of loved ones, wifes and children, left behind when someone screws up and dies, really make these acts seem selfish at times. (Stories such as the adventurer calling the loved ones on the satellite phone before their inevitable deaths make for good drama, but don't change the fact that it's horribly unnecessary risk for someone with a family...)

    If I'm were well enough off to have $65,000 to plunk into a hobby, I think one of my main goals in life would be to stay *alive* and enjoy it :) ("Okay, I made it, I'm succesful; now let's not screw it up and die!")

    I have somewhat more sympathy for folks like Steve Fosset who took fairly calculated risks with a lot of safety measures included (and ironically didn't die doing anything particularly dangerous), and potentially pushed some technological research in his quests.

    To wax philisophical for a moment, perhaps it's because there aren't a lot of life-risking activities that can greatly advanced mankind these days, as in the days of the explorers. Maybe the same mentality of Columbus (or insert-your-favorite-explorer-here), just doesn't have a satisfying role in today's society, where all the exploring is pretty much done, so these people find these substitue quests to pacify them. ("Deep space astronaut" might be a good calling for these folks, but there's not exactly a lot of openings.)

    Or perhaps I just personally don't see the lure of mountain climbing; it's likely other folks I admire, such as more modern transatlantic sailing adventurers (e.g. Joshua Solcum) could be considered to be in the same class, achieving things that tested their limits, but in the end didn't really advance mankind, other than providng some great tales. (See "Sailing around the world alone.")

    (Even more off-topic, for a bizarre story about business/financial/PR pressures for a sailing circumnavigation, and the ensuing cheating and resulting insanity, check out Deep Water [imdb.com]. A fascinating story, and good documentary on it.)

    To each his own, I guess. Intentionally risking hypoxia doesn't sound like that much of a kick to me (although I hear hypoxia is fun, for the few minutes before you die).

  • by Mathinker (909784) on Monday December 15, 2008 @01:31AM (#26117019) Journal

    Did you manage to get your share of the class action refund [wikipedia.org]?

    Thanks for bringing yet another episode of Sony sliminess to my attention.

  • Re:surprise? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by niktemadur (793971) on Monday December 15, 2008 @01:54AM (#26117145)

    Holy cow, I previewed my post and it came out huge, but I can't take anything out, it's my Cliff Notes version of "Into Thin Air", quite relevant to the topic at hand.

    Not for anyone who watched "Into thin air".

    Although I've never seen the movie, I highly recommend the book by John Krakauer.

    A pretty good climber and professional journalist, Krakauer was commissioned by National Geographic to write an article about attempting the summit of Everest, embedded into a group composed of a few world-class climbers, the Sherpa support team and a bunch of wealthy tourists, including a socialite or two.

    Krakauer relates some lethally incompetent things that went on up there, try this one on for size - there were three or four teams camping in the North Col, final camp for the summit assault and already above the "death zone". A member of the Taiwanese team came out of his tent wearing nothing but socks, to take a dump on the icy edge of the very high and steep Lhotse Face. Images of shit cascading down a Himalayan ice face aside, it's not only bad form (there can always be climbers making their way up) but also dangerous as hell. Well the dumb bastard slipped and tumbled over a thousand meters to his death, buck-naked except for his socks, on the frozen roof of the world. You can't make stuff like this up, seriously.

    Just a couple of hundred meters from the summit via the Lhotse route, there's a small but nasty vertical wall called The Hillary Step, which can only be climbed one person at a time. On the way up, Krakauer saw to his dismay that there was a bottleneck here, taking a few hours for everybody to make it past this final obstacle, time already against them. Once on the summit, the teams lingered in a daze even as the monsoon clouds were looming large.

    On the way back, the bottleneck was reversed, now there was a line to climb down the Hillary Step. By the time everybody had passed, it was already too late - the sun was setting, the canned oxygen supply was running out, the storm was already there and temperatures were plummeting, textbook description of a worst-case scenario.

    Every breath and step a battle that took every ounce of effort and concentration, Krakauer staggered down in zero-visibility conditions, passing some dying or dead comrades along the way, finally reaching the North Col at around midnight.

    Here's the thing - even with optimal visibility and mellow temperatures, severe fatigue (that inner reserve of energy was depleted in the final push for the summit) and lack of oxygen will impair the ability to think, reason, move and react in a place where any misstep can be fatal. Many climbers have passed dead colleagues on the way down and that information does not compute in their brains at the moment, personal survival overrides any other concern, only later do horror and regret coalesce and sink their hooks.

    Anyway, Krakauer collapsed in his tent and managed to sleep even while fighting for breath in the "death zone", finally awaking to tragedy unfolding around him, I believe it was eighteen people who died on the mountain that time.

    Well that's more or less how I remember "Into Thin Air". Give it a shot, it managed to be gripping even as I already knew the story.

    Finally, a great climbing movie and true story, done as a documentary with dramatizations, is "Touching The Void", in which two British guys climb a South American peak. On the way down (surprise surprise), one of them falls to certain death, off a cliff and into a crevasse - only he survives. Alone and with a shattered leg, he must drag his way back down the mountain before his distraught teammate abandons base camp, or be truly left for dead.

  • by myth_of_sisyphus (818378) on Monday December 15, 2008 @02:11AM (#26117219)

    I was surprised at the basic ineptitude of most of the climbers. There were logjams at ladders because people didn't know how to negotiate them and other climbers are literally yelling at others "you incompetent fuck!" etc. etc...

  • Re:Damn (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 15, 2008 @02:31AM (#26117311)

    http://www.everestnews.com/stories2005/everestcopter05272005.htm

    So it has been done but it is very dangerous. One of my cousins used to fly skiers to mountain tops. He got into a white out or unexpected fog and crashed the helicopter. He survived and continues to fly; but two of the skiers didn't. Also the helicopter might not be able to land anywhere near the climbing routes, and long lining at that altitude is not easy. Any bad weather, which there is a lot of, and no half sane pilot is going anywhere near the mountain, nor do the owners of the helicopter want to see it crash.

  • Re:News flash... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by niktemadur (793971) on Monday December 15, 2008 @03:44AM (#26117609)

    Chance of death increases proportional to time without adequate O2.

    Reading this, the greatest of all mountain climbers, Reinhold Messner, comes to mind. Back in the early eighties, Messner astonished the mountaneering community by achieving the unthinkable - climbing Everest solo with no oxygen.

    The fact that he bypassed Nepal and did it from the far steeper and more difficult northern, Tibetan side, was impressive enough.
    But whereas basically all expeditions are during the fair weather months of April and May, this crazy, crazy dude did it in August, during the full blast of storm season.

    Nobody has even attempted to repeat the feat in the almost thirty years since.

    Initially, I thought that the guy had a full fledged death wish, but on second thought, there's a great method to his madness - one of the biggest logistical problems in a conventional climb is to haul enough oxygen tanks up there, for a huge team composed of western climbers and Sherpa guides, then the prolonged time it takes to do that also implies hauling enough food and drink, etcetera, not a pretty sight.

    Reinhold Messner was freed from those constraints. His support team consisted of a woman named Nena Olguin... and that was it. All he had to do was haul enough supplies for a few days. As it turned out, he was back at base camp only three days after he set out. He was in the "death zone" for only a day or two, no more.

    On an unrelated but fascinating note, Messner, who's climbed the world's top twenty peaks without the aid of oxygen, also acquired a bit of a reputation in mountaneering circles after a Sherpa "introduced him to the pleasures of smoking hashish at extreme altitudes". Take that with a grain of salt and make of it what you will, but like I said, that is one crazy, crazy dude.

  • This is *not* news. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Qbertino (265505) on Monday December 15, 2008 @04:49AM (#26117909)

    This isn't news at all. Mount Everrest actually is a mountain for sissies, technically speaking. The standard route to the summit is more of an extended hike than an actual climb compared to 'real' mountains such as the Cerro Torre. At sea level it would be a more like a walk in the park, literaly.

    The difficult part with Everest is taking your time to aclimatise - which can take up to half a year. Which most people don't do. Others take O2 with them. Yet O2 only means you won't die inmediately in the death zone if your gear doesn't fail, it doesn't mean making the summit is a sure bet. Most people die on Everest because the lack of O2 gets to their brain and they start doing stupid things. Meaning more stupid things than going up there unprepared in the first place. That's why the standard route is littred with corpses.

    If it were a real mountain that required actual high-profile tech-climbing skills, we'd have much less idiots dying up there, simply because they couldn't reach the death-zone.

  • by jlehtira (655619) on Monday December 15, 2008 @05:15AM (#26118029) Journal

    It just occurred to me that air pressure depends on two things, altitude AND weather :). Usually during storms the air pressure would drop significantly even on the sea level, and similar could be expected on the mountain. Maybe that time altitude + storm meant lower air pressure than her previous higher altitudes in good weather?

    I climb and study meteorology. You've given me a very nice question to think about :). What you say about edemas is probably very true, but maybe this is an additional reason to take storms extremely seriously?

  • by lena_10326 (1100441) on Monday December 15, 2008 @05:42AM (#26118193) Homepage
    Nit pick. Doping in sports isn't illegal if you're referring to the law (at least in USA). The most common, steroids and EPO, are not illegal compounds.
  • Re:surprise? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Brad1138 (590148) * <brad1138@yahoo.com> on Monday December 15, 2008 @06:09AM (#26118315)

    H3y! I s4w Hackers and it was T3H Sh1T! Its r34lly cool! Just cause old people liek you dun get it!!!!!1!! dont dis what you dont g-3-t!!!!

    Does Journey [wikipedia.org] ever get credit for inventing Leetspeak?

  • A climber's answer (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jlehtira (655619) on Monday December 15, 2008 @06:14AM (#26118343) Journal

    A climber intentionally risks many other things, like falling into a crevasse on a glacier, getting caught in a storm on a mountain, etc. I climb, and for me it's very satisfying to manage these risks by making good decisions and surviving in good health from something that is serious business. It's an adventure, and even when it's not a large step for the mankind, it's a kind of personal exploration. Doesn't matter so much if other people charted the glaciers and summits before me, I'm still learning very much about the planet we live on.

    The risk management is not unlike driving a car. While driving fast there's a significant risk of death which we manage. People drive cars even when many die while doing just that. Of course it's much more satisfying to do something a bit less mundane in tremendous surroundings. I don't know why, but after my first trip to Himalayas I've had this calling.. It's not something that existed before that, though.

    You probably shouldn't equate climbing with the Everest so much. People who go to Everest are the types who want to climb the highest mountains - as if that was the superior achievement. And Everest is relatively easy too, it's only challenging because of the height. Most climbers are happier on lower hills. Most climbers never risk hypoxia. And some climbers still climb mountains that have never been climbed by anyone.

    Climbing today might not advance the humanity as a whole very much, but advances still happen. At least the equipment used in climbing and professions who use ropes has developed a great deal during the last decades. It's actually so fast that during my three years of climbing, I'm already seeing technological advances. Also, thanks to the climbers, there's a lot of science done on which knots are the best in saving lives, and which others occasionally fail. This might not get you excited, but it does that to me ;).

  • by Ash Vince (602485) on Monday December 15, 2008 @03:14PM (#26123721) Journal

    So it only makes sense that errors in this estimation process are going to be revealed in the later half (i.e. the descent).

    Partly, but there is another factor that comes to my mind as an experienced non-ice climber: Descending is actually harder then ascending.

    While downclimbing your head is at the wrong end so you cannot fully see where you are going. You have to place each crampon in the ice blindly then try and shift your weight to it and see how it feels. This is damn hard work and extremely scary. When I am was leading outdoors in the Alps last year (on solid rock) I went up something that scared me shitless simply because downclimbing the bit I had just done was far more scary at the time. Even on rock you cannot see what you just put you foot on so feeling is everything.

    Most climbers learn to trust their hands far more than their feet as you have more control over your hands. If my feet lose traction it is my arms that will do the recovering. Partly because snap loading my arms is less likely to fracture a bone and partly because it is easier to see something to grab as it flies past. On ice you smash your ice axe in to whatever looks solid and hope it holds long enough or slows you down enough to do the same with the other arm.

    I may tear muscle fibre but this is a hell of a lot less painful than a compound spiral fracture of one my shin bones or major dislocation of my knee joint. Also, if I trash an arm totally I may manage to get off the mountain and then walk back to civilisation, this is much harder if I cannot even walk when I get to the bottom. Climbers routinely practice snap loading their arms by letting go then catching a feature a few feet below before a major expedition or tricky climb.

    Lowering off using ropes is frequently out of the question since you probably do not have enough gear to leave an anchor point left on the mountain every 60 metres or so. To do this on everest would probably require carrying hundreds of icescrews but I cannot be bothered to work out an exact number since carrying 10 or 15 each is about your limit with all the other gear you need. You will leave some on the mountain, but you have to choose the places you use them on the descent very carefully. (On the ascent your second can collect them as he climbs the bit you have just lead)

    Disclaimer: I have never seriously injured myself half way up a mountain. This is all theoretical and I hope it stays that way.

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