The phrase is almost a 100 years old, but that was the answer when George Mallory told an audience why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest. Ever since then, there has been no shortage of people to attempt to summit the tallest mountain in the world. As I read a story today about another climber who died during his descent, it got me wondering just what is the draw that so many people attempt to conquer, even the severe danger that exists when making the attempt. So far there have been 17 people who have died this year during the current climbing season, and 10 in just the last week. Many of these people have died after summiting the mountain, but did not make it down to a safe level after completing the summit. A big reason for this has been the number of climbers that seems to grow each year. Add to that the optimal climbing and summiting season is a very short period of time in May, and you have the perfect recipe for a disaster. Most people are not really aware of the dangers in climbing Mt. Everest, and the proliferation of commercial guiding expeditions has led to amateur climbers getting in on the action. For those who love to climb, the draw of Everest can be immense. As someone who has stood before Base Camp, I can tell you that the allure to scale the highest point in the world is strong. But does that allure, and the recent string of successful summits, lead to a plethora of unprepared climbers risking their lives?
The are two main paths to the summit of Everest, the North route through Tibet, and the more popular South route through Nepal. Many more climbers take the South route because the climbing permit restrictions are considerably less in Nepal than they are in Tibet. The North route is also considered more difficult, while the South route is much more defined. Either path is not easy, and both have their drawbacks, but commercial guiding tours often choose the South route. From the South route, there are 4 camps on the mountain, not including the base camp at the bottom. These camps are designed for resting from the climb, and to wait out inclement weather. The problem for most climbers tends to develop at the 8000 Meter level. This line is just about the height of camp 4, and is referred to as the death zone. This is the level where oxygen is too limited for a human to breathe properly, and climbers need to use supplemental oxygen in order to stay alive. It is estimated with supplemental oxygen that a human can only survive at this altitude for a maximum of 48 hours. The summit push from camp 4 usually takes about 12 hours without any unforeseen delays. So they have very little time to return to camp 4, rest and then descend to the lower Camp 3 out of the Death Zone. Right before the last push for the Summit is a rock configuration climb called the Hillary Step. This is a narrow formation of about 45 feet that a climber must climb up before level ground. The challenge with this is that only one climber at a time can climb the step, which results in a traffic jam of people. Since you must ascend and descend through the same step, this is a huge bottleneck with a lot of climbers. There were an estimated 200 climbers waiting in line to climb the Hillary Step last week. The delay was several hours and you had hundreds of people simply breathing up precious oxygen just standing in line. As a result, many people ran out of oxygen while standing at 8800 meters, approximately 28,000 feet.
Can you imagine trying to breathe at the altitude of what an airplane cruises? If you have ever flown in a plane, think about a mountain top that is as high as when you level off for you flight. That is how high the summit of Everest is, 29029 feet above sea level. For you science people, the summit of Everest actually extends out of the atmosphere into the troposphere, unable for a human to survive in. Without supplemental oxygen, a human can survive for about 30 minutes at that altitude. So those who attempt the summit have very little room for any delays, and sadly, some do not make it back down. This year there has been a greater focus on the amount of permits that are issued to climbers, thereby controlling the number of climbers in a given year. The country of Nepal has issued 381 climbing permits for this season, the most it ever has. The simple answer is to limit the number of permits issued, however for a poor country, the permits equal much need revenue. The cost of a climbing permit this season was $11,000.00 per climber, with no expense involved in the issuance. Plus climbers hire a large amount of local Sherpas to act as guides, thus creating work for the local population.
No matter the danger involved, there will always be a demand for those adventurers who want to climb the highest peak on Earth, and so far the fear of death has not slowed the demand to this point. Having stood at Mt. Everest, and witnessed the amazing height of the summit, I can attest to the magnificence of nature, but also respect my limits, and be satisfied with what I have experienced. For those who have the urge to climb, I can only hope their reasons for attempting are more prepared than “because it’s there.