This year, so far at least, eleven people have died on Mount Everest, and most of us have seen the photograph of the ridiculous “traffic jam” of climbers in a long, long line snaking up to the summit. And all for the single reason that Everest is the tallest mountain on earth.
Everest has only been known for about 150 years. Although the peak itself was noted by a Chinese survey in 1715, it was not until the British “Great Trigonometric Survey of India” that measurements were made that would enable a figure to be put on its height. The survey itself is worthy of mention. Beginning at the southern tip of India in 1802, and using nothing more than giant purpose-built theodolites and triangulation, it took decades to plod its way up the country to the Himalayan foothills, mapping out every square inch along the way with extraordinary precision and accuracy.
It wasn’t until 1847 that the first observations of a certain ‘peak b’ were made by Andrew Waugh, the Surveyor General of India, from a distance of 140 miles. Back-of-an-envelope calculations suggested that this new peak might be higher than China’s Mount Kangchenjunga, at 28,169 feet the third highest mountain in the world, but at that time the highest known. Due to bad weather, it wasn’t until the 1849 season that further measurements could be pursued, and a series of five of them were made by James Nicholson, the closest being from a distance of 108 miles.
Nicholson calculated that the new peak, which by this time was officially designated ‘Peak XV’, was 30,200 feet tall, making it comfortably the tallest in the world. However, Nicholson was not able to take into account the known effects of refraction due to rarefied altitude, and so this result was known to be optimistic. The question was, how optimistic? Finally, in 1856, Waugh was able to make a proper calculation using Nicholson’s measurements and came up with an answer of precisely 29,000 feet. Feeling that such a nice round number would give an erroneous impression of being a rounded-up estimate, he arbitrarily amended his officially published figure to be 29,002 feet. It was said, therefore, that Waugh was “the first person to put two feet on Everest”!
There followed much discussion concerning the name to be given to what was now the tallest mountain in the world. Practice in the Survey was to preserve local names as much as possible, but at that time both Tibet and Nepal excluded foreigners from entering their countries, and Waugh could find no consensus among the local Indian population regarding a name for this peak. So he took it upon himself to name the highest mountain in the world after his illustrious predecessor as Surveyor General of India, Sir George Everest.
It is amusing to note that Sir George Everest pronounced his own name as “Eve Wrist”, and he would have been mortified to learn that his name would live on in immortality mispronounced – particularly since he originally objected to his name being chosen on the grounds that the local Indian population could neither write it in Hindi nor even pronounce it properly! Unfortunately, Everest, who at that time had long returned to England, never once set eyes upon the peak that continues to bear his name.
Everest is actually part of an outcrop of tightly connected ridges and peaks. It abuts Lhotse, which, at 27,940 feet, is itself the fourth highest mountain in the world. For those who wish to climb it, the challenge is not so much technical as physical. Acclimation to the extreme altitude is a major problem, particularly since that last 3,000 feet lie in what is known as the “death zone” above 26,000 feet.
If I can be forgiven for painting a complex picture in simple brush strokes, the death zone can best be viewed in the following way. When the human body undergoes exertion, in order to fuel these extra efforts the heart rate must increase to pump extra blood around, and while en route the blood picks up oxygen from the lungs, which it delivers to the cells that need it. However, there is a limit to how fast the heart can beat, and as we climb to higher and higher altitudes that upper limit reduces. At the same time, the resting heart rate is governed by the amount of oxygen in the air we breathe, and at higher altitudes the amount of oxygen decreases. So as we climb to higher altitudes, our resting heart rate increases. When we enter the death zone our rising “resting” heart rate, and our falling “maximum” heart rate meet in the same place. So, in effect, we cannot undertake to expend any effort because our hearts cannot beat any faster to provide the extra blood flow we need to power it. You will die, sooner rather than later, merely by staying in the death zone. You’ll have, at most, a few short days.
All sorts of problems occur when the human body ventures into Everest’s death zone, and all of them are potentially fatal. Conditions such as cerebral edema are particularly serious, and it is common practice, therefore, to use supplemental oxygen when climbing Everest, but the consequences of running out of oxygen are catastrophic, and you can’t haul spare cylinders in the death zone. Other conditions, like retinal hemorrhaging which causes loss of eyesight, can have practically fatal consequences at the top of Everest. It can be desperately cold on Everest, and hurricane-force winds are not uncommon – those of you who have not encountered the effects of a simple 30mph wind chill in a ‑30°C winter (a common occurrence every year here in Montreal) cannot have the first inkling of what that might mean. With the deadly combination of extreme cold and extreme altitude, rational judgment tends to desert you, which is not a good thing in the death zone. Many Everest climbers have died when they refused to turn around within a few hundred feet of the peak when their oxygen reached bingo level. They make the peak, they feel great, take a few photos, and pat themselves on the back. But they don’t survive the descent.
But if you are fit and healthy; if you take the time and effort to properly acclimate to extreme altitude; if you can survive the extreme cold; if you don’t suffer a cerebral edema or other medical emergency; if you are lucky with the weather; if you don’t run out of oxygen; and if you have joined a top-class climbing party and can afford the $50,000 or so that you’ll need to spend on it; then an ascent of Everest does not present too many technical challenges. Oh, and it also helps if you are at least partly insane.
Base camp is a comfortable 8-day trek from the normal departure point in the Nepalese village of Lukla, nestled half way up a steep mountainside, where, in the process of flying in, you will enjoy the most hair-raising landing in commercial aviation. Base camp itself is at 17,500 feet, which is seriously elevated. About 40,000 people a year make the trek from Lukla just to Everest Base camp, without any intention of going up the mountain. [This column just describes the ascent from the Nepalese side. There is another major route on the Tibetan side, but permits are harder to come by and there are other issues to contend with.]
At base camp you will devote several more days to altitude acclimation, which involves going part way up the mountain – often as far as the South Col to sample the “death zone” – and coming back down again. The route up the mountain from base camp begins with the ascent of the Khumbu Icefall, a huge glacier that moves about 3-6 feet a day, opening up treacherous chasms in which you could lose a modestly-sized skyscraper. Most of Icefall ascent will be spent criss-crossing those chasms using improvised bridges formed by aluminum ladders that have been pre-positioned each day by the Sherpas. You will be wearing huge and clumsy boots equipped with enormous ice-gripping spikes and holding tightly onto a rope. It is best not to look down. By the end of the first morning you will either become blazé or you will give up and go home. At the top of the Icefall is Camp I at 19,900 feet.
The next stage involves crossing the Western Cwm (rhymes with ‘doom’). This is a relatively flat expanse of ice, and the unexpected hazard here is heat. It is shielded on three sides by massive, steep valley sides, and is therefore sheltered from any cooling breezes. Most climbers want to strip down to their T-shirts. It is a long, hot walk up to Camp II at 21,300 feet, but it will seem like a stroll in the park after the appalling dangers of the Khumbu Icefall.
After two days of laboring up the glacier you will come to the Lhotse Face. It starts with an seemingly vertical wall of ice, several hundred feet high (it’s actually about a 45-50 degree slope), but then ‘levels out’ to a consistent 30 degrees leading eventually to the South Col. Climbing the Lhotse Face is not as technically challenging as it might sound, although what technique brings to the party is getting to the top without leaving yourself in a state of total exhaustion. Camp III (24,500 feet) is on a small ledge about half way up and is one of the most dangerous places on Everest, being routinely swept away by avalanches and falling rocks. But you will probably have to rest there overnight. You can then make your way up to the South Col, a remarkably flat piece of rocky ground with the highest mountain in the world rising above you on one side, and the fourth highest rising above you on the other. Hurricane-force winds regularly batter it, and the rocky surface has been blasted smooth by them.
Camp IV at the South Col is at 26,200 feet, 200 feet into the “death zone”. Being in the death zone is so bad that a full day’s rest can do more harm than good. So, having arrived totally exhausted, you will want to get at least some rest, but not too much. People have fallen asleep here and not woken up. Weather permitting, you will leave the South Col for your summit push not too long after midnight, and make your way up the mountain in total darkness. You will be in a state of total exhaustion. After each step you will have to pause and get your breath back. You must just focus on making your way up towards the summit, one step at a time. In reality it is little more challenging than a steep hike – apart from being in the death zone. Most of the climb is at comfortable 10-20 degree angles, with the occasional 50 degree section, plus one technical rock climb at the Hillary Step (not as challenging now as it used to be, thanks to the 2012 earthquake). But then it is a short stretch to the summit up a relatively gentle 10-20 degree slope, for which, on a clear day, you will require the very strongest of strong heads for heights.
A major problem with being in the death zone is that your mind can start playing tricks on you, and you probably won’t know that it’s happening. You can start to lose concentration, and your mind can dangerously wander. You can suddenly snap back to full consciousness and experience a moment of blind panic as you realize you have almost no recollection of the last 10 minutes with a 10,000 foot sheer drop on either side. You will come across dead bodies, some of which have been there for many years and have even acquired names as landmarks. But still you press on.
Depending on when you left, and how busy the mountain is, there will be a ‘bingo’ time, which is when you have to turn around because you only have enough oxygen to get you back to the South Col where, hopefully, your Sherpas will meet up with you with replacement tanks. [You can’t just leave them unattended at the South Col because someone will quite likely steal them. This is where paying extra – a lot extra – to participate as part of a high quality climbing team can start to really come into its own.] But when you reach that bingo moment, you have to turn round and descend. That can be hard to do when you are just a few hundred feet from the summit, in bright sunshine, and have spent six weeks of time and six months of salary getting this far. Also, those mind tricks can start to persuade you that it’s only 300 feet. How can it possibly take two hours to go 300 feet?
But if you are really, really lucky, you will make it all the way to the summit. At the summit you can take in a truly unique view that very, very few will ever get to experience for themselves. Hopefully there will be somebody to take a photo. You can bask in the satisfaction for an absolute maximum of 15 minutes – probably less – before you have to go back down, without forgetting that a disproportionate percentage of fatalities occur on the descent. It is like watching your team win the World Cup, but having to leave before the trophy is presented.
If all that still sounds cool, bear in mind that it makes no mention of the additional difficulties presented by the fact that there are now waaaaaay more climbers on the mountain than in any previous climbing seasons. It is exacerbated by the fact the peak is only really accessible during a narrow window in May of each year, and even then only during those days when the weather cooperates. During that window, Everest is beginning to look like Best Buy on Black Friday. This dangerous overcrowding brings about new and unforeseen hazards in an environment that is notably intolerant of unforeseen hazards. It will be interesting to see the final numbers for the 2019 season, but for 2018 it was reported that a scarcely believable 802 people summited Everest. So when you add to the mix of hazards crowds of people approaching that of the Donald Trump inauguration, I can foresee a time when a major disaster could – quite literally – take the lives of dozens – if not hundreds – of climbers. According to The Himalayan Database, as of the end of the 2017 season a total of 8,306 people have summited Everest, of whom 3,958 were Sherpas. And in total there have been 288 deaths, of which 115 have been Sherpas.
And in case you’re wondering – no, I’ve never been. I don’t have sufficient comfort with heights, which is a very significant prerequisite! I’ve been fascinated by Everest since reading Wade Davis’s exceptional book “Into The Silence”, an account of George Mallory and the three British expeditions to Everest in the early 1920’s, as well as Dan Simmons’ novel “The Abominable”, another epic read set in more or less the same time frame. But the hike to the base camp would be a bucket list item if my knees and hips weren’t falling apart. Interestingly, the entire route from Lukla Airport to Everest Base Camp can now be followed in exquisite detail on Google Street View!!! How long will it be before we’ll have the entire climb to the summit, I wonder?