Can Everest be Guided Safely?

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...

Can you Climb Everest Without Supplemental Oxygen?

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...

Everest: Rescue Above 8,000 metres

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...

Everest: Why do People go in Light of the Danger?

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...

Everest: Dangers in the “Death Zone”

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...