As we all know this was a deadly season on Everest with 11 people losing their lives. I think it is time we re-think our approach to climbing the tallest and one of the most dangerous mountains on the planet. It is not my place to tell others what to do, but perhaps my insights, gained over 25 years of climbing, can help to save a life in the future.
So, the question: Can Everest be guided safely? The simple answer in my opinion is no. Guiding implies a professional leading the way and helping a novice climber accomplish what they otherwise could not. Above 7,000m and, especially, above 8,000m a guide’s capacity to assist is greatly reduced. According to the standards set by many worldwide guiding associations, guides can no longer meet the requirements of their jobs at these altitudes.
Another question is: Can Everest be professionally led safely? To this I would say yes. A professionally-led expedition provides a leader to help organize the expedition and to be available for counsel on decisions, but the individual climbers need to be self-sufficient on the mountain. They need to be competent at all the skills required and must be able to do them without assistance.Therefore, I believe that guiding companies that offer such expeditions to inexperienced climbers are putting people’s safety on the line.
When I was on Everest in 2008, I was walking behind a climber in the ice-fall. This climber was connected to the fixed line, as were we all. Every 50m or so there is an anchor and the tether connecting the climber to the fixed line must be moved over the anchor and clipped to the other side. This is accomplished with what is called a lobster claw and is quite straightforward. The climber ahead of me had a guide walking right beside him. Every time the climber reached an anchor point the climber would raise his hands above his head and the guide would transfer his lobster claws for him. I could not believe my eyes. Did this climber actually have so little experience they could not be relied upon to transfer their lobster claws safely? I shuttered to think what might happen higher up on the mountain when things got complicated or if some type of an emergency situation cropped up.
I doubt that this climber made it very high, but it was wrong of that guide to take him on the mountain in the first place, and wrong for that climber to even think he should be there to begin with. As I heard Pat Morrow say just the other day (Pat is the second climber in the world to climb the 7 summits), “People pluck this dream of climbing Everest off a shelf and they have absolutely no understanding of what it entails”. As a society, we have become accustomed to buying whatever we want and being told that anything is possible if we just want it badly enough. We have lost sight of reality.
I feel that climbers should earn their right to go to Everest. They should pay their dues on mountain after mountain, building up the requisite skills. After learning on several 5,000m, 6,000m and 7,000m peaks, they can try a smaller 8,000m peak. If by that point they feel they are up to the challenge of Everest, go for it. But, buying their way onto a trip of this magnitude and relying disproportionately on others to execute tactical decision-making and satisfy the physical requirements, puts them and others at grave risk.
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Can you climb Everest without oxygen?
The answer to this question is yes, but not for most people. Everest was first climbed without bottled oxygen on May 8, 1978 by Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler. Up until that point, scientists thought it would be guaranteed death to go to those heights without supplemental oxygen. And it would be for most of us. The ability to climb to the summit of Mt Everest without bottled oxygen is mostly genetic. Obviously you need to be supremely fit, but you also need to have the genetic ability to do so. Without this, it does not matter how fit you are, you will not make it and you stand a strong change in dying in the process. This is not something you can test for in a doctor’s office; there is no blood test or MRI that will tell you and lineage alone does not guarantee it. The only way to know is to learn by experience.
The best strategy if you want to attempt this is to climb to higher and higher summits over a period of years. Not only will you gain the technical expertise required, but you will also learn how your body responds to the thin air. Similar to muscle memory, your body learns every time you go to altitude and it can make the adjustments slightly easier the next time. However, even this is not a sure-fire way to know. And even if you have never had any altitude issues before, it could crop up at any time without warning notice. Many highly experienced and strong climbers have died from altitude related illness when they had never experienced issues in the past.
Even the Sherpas need bottled oxygen. They are stronger than the average westerner and their bodies have adapted to living at altitude over the centuries, but they are not immune to altitude-related illness. A Sherpa climber will die from altitude almost every year, and this is partially because they work very hard and carry such heavy loads while on the mountain. Above 8,000m almost everyone, including the Sherpas, are wearing an oxygen mask and carrying oxygen in their packs.
The standard system on Everest is Poisk which is a Russian system that combines a lightweight aluminum and Kevlar oxygen bottle, a flow regulator and a mask. This system has not really changed or been improved in decades. There are a few other systems out there and one of the biggest changes in recent years is a new British mask called the “Top Out”. It uses the Poisk bottle and regulator, but adds in a more efficient mask design that delivers a greater percentage of usable oxygen to the lungs.
Most climbers will have five 4-litre oxygen bottles that they will use from Camp 3 and up. Running at full flow, the tank will last about 6 hours. Running at minimum flow, it can last 12-14 hours. Most people will run it at around mid-flow and this will allow them to climb efficiently and to not run out of oxygen.
Using oxygen does not make it feel like you are at sea level, but the general consensus is that it makes it feel like you are about 3000-feet lower in altitude. One of the dangers of using oxygen on Everest and other 8000m peaks is that it allows you to push beyond what your body could do without the oxygen. If your system fails, your regulator freezes or you run out of oxygen, all of which has happened on Everest, you are in big trouble. Instantly, your body acts as if it has been propelled 3000-feet higher and things go bad very quickly. If this happens to you, you will be extremely lucky to survive.
When I was climbing Everest there was only one person (that I am aware of) to summit without the use of supplemental oxygen. I spoke to him at the top of the Hillary Step. I was going down from the summit and he was going up. We had a quick chat and he seemed to be doing well. His lips were a little blue, but most people’s are at that height. He was a very experienced climber and had climbed other 8,000m peaks successfully without oxygen. I continued down and he continued up. When I woke the next morning at Camp 4 and stepped outside my tent, I saw him laying dead and wrapped in a tarp.
Somewhere on the descent he had run into trouble. After reaching the summit his body had started to shut down, as often happens. He had no resources left to combat the rapid deterioration of his body and he collapsed. I was not there so I do not know exactly what happened, but I heard that some Sherpa’s did put him on oxygen, but by that point it was too late and he died of heart failure.
Based on my personal experience, I do not think that I could ever climb Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen and I will never try. Some people feel this is cheating and an unfair and un-pure way to climb. But that is a whole different topic.
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Every year the drama is played out on the slopes of Everest and every year climbers die. The Media report and people judge. There are stories of climbers being left for dead and of people walking past them as they lay dying in the snow. People judge this as being inhumane and extremely selfish towards one’s own summit goals. However, the reality is that, often, you can do very little to help a climber in distress above 8,000m. This is why experience and judgement are so critical. Yes, freak accidents will occur, but climbers with the knowledge gained through years of experience can often make the right choices to avoid the majority of the dangers on the mountain. The basic rule, and it is a very harsh one, is that once above 8,000m if you cannot walk down under your own power you are not coming down. This means that if you break your leg (as happened to a climber on the Tibetan side of Everest last week) you are essentially dead. If you are unconscious or incapacitated to the point where you cannot walk, you are not going to come down off the mountain. Rescue at these heights is so dangerous and difficult that it is nearly impossible. The physical exertion to carry another person at this altitude is far beyond the ability of any climber. It is all most climbers can do just to put one foot in front of the other let alone rescue an unconscious or incapacitated climber. And, yes, the Sherpas are incredibly strong, but they are not super human and they cannot carry out these rescues without grave danger to themselves. Additionally, the ground on Everest is steep, rocky and icy preventing climbers from dragging a climber down.
When I was climbing Everest in 2008 I came across two climbers headed up towards the summit as I was heading down. They were well past the time when they should have turned around, they were far from the top, and yet they were still headed up. One climber was actually crawling on his hands and knees. He begged me for water, but I had none to give. I urged him and his partner to turn around, but they refused. There was nothing more I could do at this point so I continued down. Not long after my encounter with these two climbers they both succumbed to exhaustion and collapsed in the snow unconscious.
Other climbers dragged them down to the balcony. However, below the balcony it is steep and rocky and it is no longer possible to drag an unconscious person down. They stuffed these two climbers into sleeping bags and left them assuming they would die. Fortunately for theses two climbers, it was a warm night on Everest and they survived. The next morning they were discovered by another team and found to be still alive. With the rest from the night in the sleeping bags they were once again conscious. This team gave them fluids, oxygen and drugs and the two climbers miraculously stood up and were able to walk down under their own power. It was a miracle, and the only reason they survived was because they were able to walk down the mountain. This story has a happy ending but many such stories on Everest do not.
Although this event did not end it tragedy, it could have been avoided in the first place if the two climbers had made smart decisions. Once again this is where experience comes into play. You need to know how your body reacts to altitude; when to push harder and when to turn back. And the only way to learn this is to go to altitude on repeated occasions. Start on lower peaks and work your way up. By the time you get to an 8,000m peak you will know the tell-tale signs that will set off alarm bells in your head and tell you to go down. It is all about having a realistic plan of action
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Going to Everest does seem a little crazy to some people. And, since I’ve gone there, I guess that would place me … and many others I know … in that category too. To me, crazy is not really the right word, as that implies reckless abandonment. I see climbing Everest as a calculated risk. Our lives are full of risk and we are better for it. The key is to take a smart risk.
I can only speculate as to why others go to Everest, and I will do so based on people I have spoken with. But I can also share my personal motivations for going.
I am a very goal motivated person. Without an immediate goal to focus on, it is all too easy for me to lose my drive and to flounder. My mind dulls and my body weakens. With a goal, I have the passion and drive to meet each day head on. My focus sharpens. I pay attention to my fitness. The benefits spill into my overall health and my life in general.
In everything I do, I want to be good. Don’t we all? In a study around what creates “drive”, Dan Pink found that the opportunity for “Mastery” is critical for having a motivated and fulfilling fife. Mastery is simply the desire to get better at something. For me this “something” is climbing.
I was a climber from a very young age and, as I grew, I began to test myself on bigger and bigger challenges. I started with local rock and ice climbs and then moved further afield to find bigger and more challenging climb’s in the US, Mexico and South America. I then moved onto mountaineering in what seemed to me as a natural progression. Looking for bigger and bigger challenges I finally set my sights on Everest.
Now that I am done climbing the 7 summits (the highest point on each of the 7 continents) I am still not done. Climbing was not just part of a check list or a “bucket list” for me. It is a way of life and it feeds me every day. I intend to continue to climb as long as I can, expecting that my objectives will change as time marches on.
I also see climbing as a way to explore new worlds and people. Climbing has taken me to places few people will ever go and I have had experiences that have made me a better person. Life is short and I believe that everyone should make the most of their life. I have chosen to do that via climbing.
So, if this is why I go, I can only assume that there are others like me out there. There are others for whom climbing Everest is just part of a check list. They are “peak baggers”, not climbers. Climbing is not the only activity to draw attention this way, but it is one of the more powerful magnets. These people often enter into the game for a short while and then move on. This is a reasonable proposition as this is how we learn if this is the right thing for us. They key is to enter at a place relative to your experience level. Starting with Everest is just not a smart move.
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So why is Mount Everest so dangerous?
Eight thousand metres is a special line in the climbing world referred to as “the death zone”. While this is a very dramatic term, it means exactly what it says. If you go above 8,000m for too long, you will die, guaranteed. And just how long is too long? It can be anywhere between one to four days at the most. There are only 14 mountains in the world that rise into the death zone and Everest happens to be the tallest at 8,850m.
8,000m are so dangerous is that the human body can no longer regenerate cells above this line. In addition, cells are dying at an accelerated rate. This is caused by a combination of oxygen deprivation and pressure changes, and by the way our body reacts to these changes. As our cells die and are not replaced, our body enters a “triage” state. It starts shutting down less important bodily functions by reducing oxygen and blood flow to the muscles, brain and extremities. This becomes a rapid chain reaction of events that, in turn, lead to a quick downward slide toward heart failure.
But, at altitude, other things are happening to your body as well. Your body is accustomed to operating in a pretty narrow range of atmospheric pressures. Once you go above around 4,000 metres your body loses its equilibrium. Due to the lower atmospheric pressure, fluids begin to leak from your cells, veins and capillaries. These fluids can pool in your lungs (pulmonary oedema) or in and on your brain (cerebral oedema). Both can quickly cause death if not treated, and the only real treatment is rapid descent to lower elevations where your body can re-gain its equilibrium.
If you are near the summit of Mount Everest and cerebral or pulmonary oedema sets in, you are in big trouble. It is unlikely you will be able to descend fast enough to alleviate the symptoms. The more it sets in, the more you become mentally and physically incapacitated, reducing your ability to descend even more. Affected climbers will stumble and fall off the route. They will make poor decisions. They will start to hallucinate and some will become combative to those who try to help them. It is a very frightening situation to be in.
Pure, simple exhaustion is also blamed for many deaths on Everest and the other big mountains of the world. By the time climbers start their summit bid they have usually been on the mountain for at least six weeks. They have not slept well for much of that time and they have lost a considerable amount of weight and muscle mass. They have likely not eaten much for days, and have burned tens of thousands of calories. They are far from the picture of top fitness, and now they must push their bodies harder than they have ever pushed. While the goal of reaching the summit is a very strong motivator, once it has been achieved, many climbers are unable to continue. Eighty percent of all climbers who die on Everest do so after reaching the summit. They die on the way down. They simply run out of gas, sit down, close their eyes and never get up again.
I have not even begun to discuss hypothermia, hypoxia, avalanches, snow and wind storms, extreme temperatures, rock and ice fall and the myriad of other potential dangers on Everest. The fact is that Everest is a bloody dangerous place and needs to be respected for the power it holds.
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