CLIMBING EVEREST: WHO MAKES IT TO THE TOP?


Mount Everest from Kalapatthar. Photo by Pavel Novak courtesy of wikipedia.org

The odds a person climbing Mount Everest will die in the attempt are 1 in 61.46. On its deadliest day, May 10, 1996, the mountain claimed eight people during a single 24-hour period.

That day Jon Krakauer, a journalist on assignment for Outside Magazine, was part of an expedition led by celebrated climber, Rob Hall. Krakauer was there to investigate the commercialization of scaling Everest, and the expedition included several clients with limited climbing experience who had paid Adventure Consultants $65,000 apiece to help them reach the summit of the world’s tallest peak. Another commercial outfit, Mountain Madness, was attempting to get its paid clients to the summit on the same day, leading to dangerous delays and bottlenecks at crucial points during the ascent.

Both Hall and the leader of Mountain Madness, Scott Fischer, lost their lives. Of those in the Adventure Consultants’ group, only two of the six who reached the summit survived. Krakauer later wrote the bestseller, Into Thin Air, detailing the harrowing experience.

The common belief is that the climbers who die scaling Mount Everest lack the experience needed to navigate the mountain’s treacherous topography, and inexperience certainly was a factor in the 1996 tragedy. However, a 2007 study found that age is a critical component in survival. As the number of older people climbing Mount Everest grows, it has become apparent that the value of physical skills outweighs that of the experience that comes with age. As a result, older climbers are significantly more likely to die attempting to scale Mount Everest than are their younger counterparts. According to the study led by researchers at the University of Washington, “Some 85 climbers over the age of 60 have attempted the ascent. Four died trying and only 12 reached the summit. This death rate of 4.7% was markedly higher than that of younger climbers.” Extrapolating the numbers used in the study, an analysis done by the BBC estimates older climbers have a 25% risk of dying, while young climbers have only a 2.2% risk of death.

And the most dangerous aspect of climbing Mount Everest is not trying to reach the summit — it is trying to get back down. A study conducted in 2008 by an international research team led by Massachusetts General Hospital investigators and published in Science Daily reveals that most deaths on Mount Everest occur above 8,000 meters, during descents into an area known ominously as the “death zone.”

 




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