Why Climbers Die on Everest: It's Not the Avalanches (or the Yeti)

By Eliza Strickland | December 11, 2008 10:22 am

EverestA new study has found that 1.3 percent of the ambitious climbers who test themselves on the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest, will die before returning to base camp, a higher rate than that of other peaks. The host of hazards awaiting those who dare to climb the 29,000-foot (8,850 meter) Himalayan mountain include extreme cold, whipping winds, changing weather, treacherous climbs and avalanches. Oxygen content in the air is only a third of that at sea level [Reuters]. But the main cause of death isn’t avalanches, falls, or respiratory problems brought on by the thin atmosphere, researchers found–nor is it monster attacks. “Nobody was attacked by any Yeti or anything else” [Reuters], study coauthor Paul Firth helpfully added.

Instead, the most frequent cause of death is brain swelling brought on by the altitude, which is accompanied by confusion and lack of coordination. Study coauthor Kent Moore explains: “With the low barometric pressure and lack of oxygen, there tends to be a seepage of fluid out of the blood vessels. When this happens in the brain, it causes swelling. It tends to impair cognitive function. That’s probably what causes a lot of the deaths.” Climbers with this problem fall behind, become lethargic, and may become disoriented – none of which has anything to do with their level of physical fitness [Canwest News Service].

The study, which will appear in the British Medical Journal, looked at 212 deaths that occurred during climbing expeditions involving some 14,000 mountaineers and Sherpas – natives of Nepal who act as guides for Everest climbers – between 1921 and 2006 [Canadian Press]. Researchers found that 73 percent of the fatalities occurred on the way back down the mountain, either after climbers reached the peak or after they aborted their attempt on the summit and turned back.

Everest expedition leader Brian Jones says the findings confirm his observations that climbers are in the most danger when they refuse to give up on their dreams of reaching the summit, push themselves too hard, and run into trouble on the way down. “That has long been known as the classic example of people just pushing themselves too thin …. If we can tell people ‘Look, it’s that one more day that kills most people,’ that’ll make it easier to pull the plug on summit day,” said Jones, who led a Canadian expedition that reached the top of Everest in May [Canadian Press].

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Image: flickr / Kappa Wayfarer

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Health & Medicine
MORE ABOUT: Everest, mountains
  • Me

    Hasn’t this been known for sometime already? I remember hearing about this on a documentary about Everest several years ago.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    As I understand it, researchers did know that some climbers die from altitude-related brain swelling (more properly known as cerebral oedema), but they didn’t realize that it was the primary cause of death on the mountain. They were surprised that it surpassed falls, avalanches, hypothermia, and a respiratory problem (called high altitude pulmonary oedema) as the main cause.

    But if you remember details from the documentary you saw, Me, feel free to share!

  • http://Yahoo nita taefi

    People have the idea they are superhuman or are very foolish. There is no reason for rescuers to rish their own lives to save these people from themselves. Unfortunately, certain people feel they have this “need” to do something daring and wind up endangering not only themselves but others.

  • Peter Roscoe

    Its invariably stupid white people who get killed on these mountains! Its serves no real purpose to climb mountains and fall off them.

  • bagui

    what’s the point in climbing mountains any way?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    @ bagui:

    As the famous British mountaineer George Mallory said: “Because it’s there.”

    But he died on Everest a year after saying that.

  • http://larianlequella.com Larian LeQuella

    I find it dismaying to read comments like Peter Roscoe’s. Maybe I am falling victim to Poe’s Law or something, but there are so many objectionable parts of his post:

    – I think more “others” have died on Everest climbs than the “white people”. 46 Nepalese have died there just for one point of reference.
    – In general people who chose to climb mountains are a cross section of any population, and thus no more stupid than any other segment. It could even be argued that people with that amount of drive and determination may actually habour higher than average intelligence.
    – As related in the article, few people die from a “fall”.
    – Not only because it’s there, but to present yourself with a challenge. Have you ever left your couch Mr. Roscoe?

    To live in a world where there is no imagination and wonder. Sure, climbing Mt Everest is not on my “bucket list”, but I can understand the allure to tackle a challenge. To do something unique. Do people really live in such a wonderless place as Mr. Roscoe’s world appears to be?

  • monte s

    I agree w/ Larian Lequella. Thanks for the post. For me I would rather live 40 years getting the best outta life everyday, then 80 years of A mundane rat-race life. Though thats just me!

  • http://www.google.com Lester T. Stark

    There are some attention-grabbing closing dates on this article however I don’t know if I see all of them heart to heart. There may be some validity but I will take hold opinion till I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we wish more! Added to FeedBurner as well

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