Every year the world’s highest mountain – Everest makes new headlines and nearly always for the wrong reasons, fatalities and missing climbers. These fatalities occur for a number or reasons, rock falls, avalanches, frostbite, hypothermia and exhaustion. But the main danger is altitude. Everest is by no means the most dangerous mountain or the hardest to climb, the notorious Annapurna and K2 for example have a much higher fatality to summit rate, so what’s causing all the fatalities?
Everest stands at 29,029 feet (8,848 meters) above sea level. The death zone is the name used by mountain climbers for high altitude where there is not enough available oxygen for humans to breathe. This is usually above 8,000 metres. However, climbers can begin to experience acute mountain sickness at much lower elevations of 8,200 feet (2,500 m) and the longer someone spends at a high elevation the greater the risk that they face.
This is because above 25,000ft the human body can no longer acclimatise to the altitude; the lungs can’t get enough oxygen and cells begin to die. Even when using bottled oxygen, supplemental oxygen, there’s only a few hours that we can actually survive up there before our bodies start to shut down. So that means if you get caught in a traffic jam above 26,000 feet, the consequences can be really severe and in many cases fatal.
Traffic queues on Everest
Many climbers and adventurers see Everest as the Ultimate Challenge, this has lead to big time commercialisation and increasing numbers of people looking to conquer the worlds highest mountain. A record-breaking 381 people were issued permits to climb Everest this year by Nepal’s government. The actual number of people on the mountain is at least double that, including the Sherpas.
So far in 2019, 11 people have died on Everest, and inexperience and traffic queues where people are waiting around for too long in the death zone have been blamed for most of the tragedies. Every minute counts when you are in the death zone so if you have to hang around waiting in a queue when making for the summit or indeed queuing to get down you are greatly increasing the risk of oxygen starvation. The effect is this – muscles start to break down. You start to have fluid that builds up around your lungs and your brain. Your brain starts to swell. You start to lose cognition. Your decision making starts to become slow. And you start to make bad decisions.
In really simple terms, during the accent to the summit in very low oxygen conditions, climbers push their bodies past their limits, running out of energy. And it’s then the journey down where most of the problems and tragedies occur – People slip, fall, collapse, stop to rest and never get back up or make it down and die in their sleep.
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