Mount Everest: The Most Popular Death Trap In The World

A friend of mine leaves shortly on the ultimate quest: to scale Mount Everest, the tallest peak in the world. It’s good timing for him—as popular as the mountain is, it may become an even hotter destination following the release of “Everest,” the movie adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s immensely popular Everest biopic “Into Thin Air.” But what my friend is attempting is dangerous, almost impossible, and in my opinion, irresponsible.

It’s not exaggerating to say that ascending Everest is akin to slowly killing yourself. The high altitudes decrease the amount of oxygen available to your blood. Even at base camp, which is 17,590 ft, available oxygen decreases by 50 percent. Climbers must wait at base camp for several weeks to acclimatize before continuing their ascent. As to be expected, the air only gets thinner from there.

There are obvious health concerns that accompany the hike. Climbers must be careful of high-altitude cough, which affects almost everyone and dries the lining of the lungs. This cough can cause broken ribs. Mountain Sickness, a dizzying and confusing ailment, is also common. But truly unlucky climbers can experience HAPE or HACE—High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, or High Altitude Cerebral Edema. HAPE means you have excess fluid on your lungs. HACE means you have fluid on the brain. Both can be fatal if not treated promptly, which means descending quickly—but not too quickly, because it can have adverse effects.

There is of course the physical strain of hiking a mountain to be considered, as well as the freezing temperatures that Everest is known for. And let’s not forget the avalanches, which can have deadly effects, like the 2014 avalanche which killed 13 Sherpa climbers.

No one scales Everest naively, however. Although there are approximately 25,000 annual tourists to the mountain, a very small number make it to the summit. Successful climbs are more common, and better quality gear has decreased the risk of death. But it still happens. Approximately 250 climbers have died in pursuit of the peak, and the vast majority of them are still there.

When someone dies on the mountain, their body stays there, possibly permanently. Rescue missions are possible, but difficult. And the physical strain of getting oneself down off the mountain is extraordinary, making it too dangerous to risk bringing a body down as well. Instead, many missions will move or bury bodies, but some remain as valuable landmarks. The famous body known as “green boots” is an engrained part of the Everest narrative. The climber—who is identified as one of two possible Indian hikers — died in 1996, and his body has stayed behind. His distinctive boots make him easy to spot, and he serves as a landmark to let hikers know how close they are to the summit. One famous body has been on the mountain since 1924.

Although climbing Everest is dangerous, it’s not impossible. But the onslaught of climbers trying to achieve their dream comes at a cost: They are killing the mountain. Everest is one of the world’s largest dumps, home to tons of discarded trash, bottles, and oxygen containers. And although there have been efforts to clean up the mountain, it’s still a major concern. In 2014, hikers had to bring down an extra 18 pounds of trash with them, and in April the Indian army mounted a mission with the goal of bring 8,000 pounds of trash down.

Even if hikers carry off what they carry on, their presence still leaves a mark. Human waste is also a problem for the grand mountain. The hikers leave behind astounding amounts of feces and urine, which pollute the mountain and can potentially spread disease. As almost all climbers get their water from snow melt, the pollution of the mountain can leave them at risk for bacteria in their drinking water, resulting in diarrhea.

And Nepal—which serves as the most popular entryway to the mountain—needs the tourism. Although the climbs wreck havoc on the country’s ecosystem, the tourism is necessary for one of the poorest countries in the world. Annually the Nepalese government brings in $3.3 million from climbing fees, and the inhabitants make livelihoods off of working as guides, housing climbers, cooking for climbers, and catering to the tourism industry.

But the amount of money they are bringing in should be much higher. The Nepalese and Sherpas are often undercut by Western companies who sponsor and organize the hikes and can charge outrageous sums. The average Sherpa guide can make $2,000 to $5,000 per season, which is staggering money compared to the average Nepalese income. But a Western guide can make $50,000 or more during the same season.

As long as there is something to climb, humans will continue to try to conquer it. Everest is the impossible dream, the one that everyone has on a bucket list. But there’s more than personal safety to consider when planning the descent. It’s a foolish endeavor in every way, and it’s a deathtrap, both for the climbers and for the mountain.

Images: Wikimedia Commons, Abd allah Foteih/Flickr

View Comment (1)
  • You sure like to think you know a lot about mountain climbing for someone who spends their time drinking tea and memorizing facts about presidents. While it is very true that there should be less tourists on Everest to reduce pollution, and it is also true that it’s an incredibly difficult trip, it is by no means an “Impossible dream,” “Foolish endeavor,” or “deathtrap.” If the climber is fit, experienced, and knows what they are doing, and is with a group that knows what they are doing, the risk is not very high. Death rates on Everest are less than 5.5%, and that includes many inexperienced climbers that get guided trips from tourism companies. There is something mystical about being at the highest point on Earth, something that you know nothing about. Calling for less tourism on Everest and a second look at the pollution is all well and good, but saying that nobody should do it is the point where you’ve stepped over the line from reasoned argument to baseless bias and bluster. If you’d have actually climbed a mountain and had experience, you would have some base from which to make your claims, but living the life of a couch potato and complaining about people that don’t live that way is going way over the line.

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