This episode is a bit different. When I learn about a hobby, I set out to actually try it. Obviously, it’s not going to happen with climbing Everest, but after reading Into Thin Air, probably the most popular account of climbing it, I had to learn more about it and the people who do it. Think of this as a book report.
I Loved Everest
This is one hobby I am definitely not going to try but I am still drawn to it for the same reasons I’m drawn to the Spartan Race, racing cars, and standup comedy – I’m drawn to physical and mental challenges.
Everest is a a location in the world that everyone knows. as a child, after seeing my first mountain in Iran, I remember thinking “I wonder what the tallest mountain is”. My next thought was “I wonder if anyone has climbed it.
I remember looking up Everest in the E volume of the encyclopedia in our school library for a project.
I remember looking up Everest on Encyclopedia Britannica on our first IBM in 1997 to find pictures.
This was in the 90s and Everest was pretty hot then. What led me to this episode was finally reading the book Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, which is a personal account of climbing Everest and the disasters that are inevitable.
After the 90s, Everest’s reputation changed a bit as more people climbed it.
It started to lose its mystique and sense of danger. With enough money and a bit of training, it seemed anyone could do it.
There were pictures of long lines of climbers holding on a rope leading them exactly where they needed to go.
There were pictures of all the garbage left by these adventure tourists.
I no longer saw Everest as I did when I was in elementary school.
Until I read Into Thin Air.
Everest is the world’s tallest mountain. The official height, or elevation from sea level, is 8,848 m (29,029 ft), or almost 9km up. It borders Nepal and Tibet/China.
It got its English/common name in 1865 by the Brits, named after surveyor Sir George Everest. Otherwise it’s known as Sagaramatha in Nepali or Chomolungma in Tibetan.
There are two main routes to the top, or summit:
- The standard route is the Southside through Nepal, which has been much more open to climbers
- North route through Tibet.
The first recorded successful climb, meaning they made it to the summit and back down, of Everest was in 1953 by British team of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, a Nepali Sherpa.
By 1987, 200 had successfully summited Everest. After the rapid commercialization of the 90s, that number shot up to 4,042 by March 2012 with a pretty low death count of 223. That’s basically 5%. 1/3 of those deaths are estimated to be Sherpas.
Everest and Sherpas
Let’s talk about Sherpas. Most people know Sherpas to mountain people who carry things to help the climbers. They’re both respected and also seen as exploited.
Sherpa people are indigenous to the mountains of Nepal and Himalayas. The word Sherpa roughly translates to “east people”.
In 2011, the Nepali census estimated almost half a million Sherpas lived in Nepal.
Because they have lived in the mountains for generations, they are elite mountaineers and guides. They are also physically acclimated to the conditions, which we’ll get to.
So are Sherpas exploited?
Sherpas are indispensable to the +4000 who have made it to the top of Everest and the commercialization of the mountain would have been impossible.
Sherpas serve a few functions:
- They create and clear the paths ahead of the climbers
- They carry the majority of the gear, including oxygen tanks, up the many camp sites so the other climbers can preserve their energy.
- Provide climbing expertise
Being a sherpa is significant benefit to their families and community. With the annual income in Nepal being about $700, a sherpa can make 8x times that. All told, climbing Everest brings in nearly $300 million a year for Nepal.
Although climbing Everest is dangerous, it doesn’t mean the alternatives are less dangerous and would certainly not pay anywhere near the same amount.
How do you climb Everest?
It can cost from $40,000 to $80,000 to climb Everest depending on if you’re climbing from the Nepal side or the Tibetan side and the support you need.
The rules are constantly changing, like climbers needing to be escorted by one guide, meaning you’d pay for that one guide instead of a team sharing guides.
There are garbage collection fees, security deposits, permits, yak fees, transportation to basecamp, insurance, all the gear you need to buy, and lodging fees. Oh and don’t forget the cost of taking the 2 months off work and getting to Nepal or Tibet.
Oh and there is a climbing season where the weather is the least volatile.
A typical 2 months looks like:
Day 01-12: Get to basecamp
Day 12-60: Climb
Day 61-66: Leave basecamp and get home
A lot of the time is acclimating to the the different elevations by going up to different milestones, staying a day or two, and going back down. This is repeated a few times.
The Dangers of Climbing Everest
The higher you go, the less oxygen. The less oxygen, the slower you are and the harder it is to think. This is the main hurdle to climbing Everest.
It is such a big hurdle that 90% of climbers get sick just making it to basecamp.
The main illnesses have to do with lack of oxygen and adapting to the food. Food illnesses are especially dangerous as it leads to dehydration and weakness, which are a deadly combination.
The lack of oxygen leads to physically deteriorating or “rotting” as one scientist called it.
Your brain swells causing dizziness, rehabilitating headaches, trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, and nausea.
It gets worse: this can lead to high-altitude cerebral edema, which is described as “your brain swelling so much its only path is to exit your skull through your spinal column.” This makes people look like they’re drunk: they’re confused, slur their speech, hallucinate, vomit, and have impaired judgement. Judgement that can very easily lead to going the wrong way off a cliff.
Climbing Everest can also lead to high-altitude pulmonary edema, which is an accumulation of fluid in the lungs. This leads to coughing, trouble breathing, and severe weakness.
This is the most extreme in the “death zone”, which is above the 8,000 meter mark. Here, just sitting up can leave you out of breath. Cognitively, there is a dramatic decline: for example if you’re asked to think of words starting with the letter T, you may think of two or three.
The lack of oxygen can also lead to hallucinations of seeing imaginary friends or strange behaviour of taking off clothes in the “death zone”.
Traffic on Everest
Besides the physical dangers, there is the logistical danger. Because there is a small window of opportunity every year, there are often traffic jams. Traffic jams in the “death zone”.
The traffic jams are made more dangerous as commercialization has lowered the bar for climbing skill and experience.
In 2019, 381 permits were granted for the Standard route. Add the necessary sherpas and the number of climbers doubles.
Traffic jams, novice climbers, and the physical toll of oxygen deprivation not only kill you on the way up, but on the way down. Getting to the summit is sometimes seen as the goal and some climbers forget to pace themselves and their supplies and keep track of time to account for the trip back down.
Sitting down to take a rest can lead to never getting back up as delirium and exhaustion resulting in losing track of time and, eventually, death.
A successful summit on Everest consists of a few moments of catching your breath, taking a few pictures, and heading back down.
It’s because of the lack of time and the cognitive decline that the dead are left on the mountain: it is more dangerous to try to remove a body and can lead to even more death. Often, deaths are confirmed by climbers in different seasons passing by bodies that had been there for a year or years.
Weather on Everest
It gets worse, much worse. The weather on Everest is probably the most dangerous variable for a climbing season.
Avalanches are a common cause of mass death. In 2015 and 2016, avalanches killed 12 and 16 sherpas.
If climbers don’t succumb to avalanches, then there are the many ice walls and crevasses that are continually moving and opening. Climbers have died from falling into the crevasses or by being crushed by a falling section of an ice wall.
Then there is the wind because of a jet stream, which the top of Everest pokes into year round. This means when you get into the danger zone, you are also dealing with category 2 hurricane strength winds, none stop.
Imagine walking into the wind in a hurricane, in the freezing cold, drunk, and completely out of breath. Oh and you’re racing a clock.
In the book Into Thin Air, there is a haunting story of a climber who is incapacitated in their tent barely alive whose tent is knocked loose by the winds causing him to almost suffocate against the fabric. He screamed for hours but could not be heard over the sound of the wind.
Long lasting effects of climbing Everest
There’s the obvious physical problems of significant loss of muscle mass. There is also the very real possibility of frostbite and losing fingers, toes, and more extreme, your nose or a full limb.
Mentally, a depression post-climb is common. The physical and mental toll an extreme experience causes leaves climbers exhausted and empty. This is exasperated if climbers were forced to turn back. For high achieving personality types, it can be devastating.
Losing someone on a team, especially for guides and sherpas, leads to a significant feeling of guilt. For sherpas, it has negative cultural and economic effects as well.
Why do people climb Everest
“Because it’s there” said British climber, George Leigh Mallory, in 1924 before his death trying to climb it. Look at the history of exploration, if we know something exists, we want to see it with our own eyes.
Often, it’s for the status and prestige for people who are already predisposed to risky behaviour.
For many, like it was for me, Everest is mystical and they are drawn to it. For those who climb it, it represents the ultimate experience or pinnacle climb. There is simply nothing higher.
Climbers concede there are more beautiful mountains, more difficult mountains, more interesting mountains, but Everest is a trophy.
While sherpas may feel the same, for them it’s economical: they can charge a higher rate if they can climb to the top.
A sort of strange things happen as people die every year: Everest’s mystique only grows.
There is no one answer, and to 99.9% of use who will never climb Everest, a reasonable one.
I can say though that through reading Into Thin Air and putting together this episode, I have rekindled my childhood fascination with Everest.
I’ve asked myself knowing everything I know now, would I climb Everest? My wife asked me if I would for a million dollars. Like I said at the beginning, I’m drawn to pushing myself physically and that part of me does want to try climbing. But 1/25 climbers don’t survive. I don’t know I’d be the unlucky one. I don’t think I want to find out.