Frostbite on Mount Everest [A Summiteer’s Experience]

Perched on the summit of Mount Everest that morning in October 1993 I struggled to pull a glove off to take a photograph of the astounding view.

A lenticular cloud bent over our heads, showing that we were standing in the jet stream. A huge flag of frozen spindrift tore downwind off the summit for half a mile, and the temperature stood at around minus 30 degrees Celcius.

Even though my right hand still wore a silk contact glove, it was long enough to be frostbitten on three of my fingers. On the faces of my friends, between goggles and oxygen mask, you could see that the silent claws of frostbite were also beginning to leave their mark.

First, the skin was turning white and waxy; later, these marks would turn purple and swell, forming blisters. If they got down alive.

climber looking at the icy slopes of Everest

When I finally got down to Camp 2 I realised I was in trouble: the skin on the bitten fingers was white and numb and the flesh was hard and frozen. I dunked my hands in boiling water on a gas stove and didn’t feel a thing: water boils at around 80°C at that altitude.

Later the fingers grew blood-filled blisters which turned into thick black scabs. At this stage, it’s likely that some tissue will die. This is known as tissue necrosis.

I thought of poor Maurice Hertzog, who was badly frostbitten after summitting Annapurna in 1950. His fingers were snipped off with scissors one by one on the long train journey back through India. He and his summit partner also lost all their toes.

Even though my doctor predicted that I would lose my right index finger, the black skin eventually sloughed off, revealing new pink skin on the digit. Even now, though I feel strange tingling in frosty weather. It’s a reminder that I was one of the lucky ones.

Does Everyone Get Frostbite on Everest?

Not everyone gets frostbite on Everest, indeed now it is a rarity. Why? The answer is the experience of our predecessors. In 1922 the British Everest expedition didn’t realise the connection between dehydration and frostbite. Now, of course, everyone does.

In 1922, expedition member Morshead got badly frozen fingers on the first attempt to climb Everest, tried to remain cheerful but used to go off alone to cry like a child with the pain. He was to lose the tops of three fingers.

My cousin Howard Somervell, on the same climb, had an unpleasant experience two years later on the 1924 Everest expedition. He suffered a frostbitten larynx caused by inhaling gasps of freezing air. He was attempting the summit without oxygen, taking around ten breaths per step when he was overtaken by coughing

“Somewhere about 25,000 feet high, when darkness was gathering, I had one of my fits of coughing and dislodged something in my throat which stuck so that I could breathe neither in nor out {…} I made one or two attempts to breathe, but nothing happened.

Finally, I pressed my chest with both hands, gave one last almighty push – and the obstruction came up. What a relief! Coughing up a little blood, I once more breathed really freely – more freely than I had done for some days.”

The mucus membrane lining his larynx had sloughed off, blocking the airway. Somervell, a sugeon, told me many years later that he had sat down really expecting to die.

a pair of mountaineering gloves in the snow

In an extraordinary twist of fate, exactly the same injury happened to me in the same place. While making a film about Somervell’s missing companion, George Mallory in 1990 we left the North Col camp early one cold morning without oxygen.

On the long climb up the slopes of Everest’s north ridge in a freezing gale I became aware that all was not well with my throat, and coughed up a little blood. After difficulty swallowing, a laryngoscopy back in the UK showed permanent damage to my own larynx: frostbite.

In 1994 my friend Mark Whetu was guiding a client named Mark Rheinberger in his 7th attempt to climb Everest. The two men reached the summit at dusk. With no chance of getting down in the dark, they dug a snowhole just 20 metres below the summit and sat down to try to survive the night. It was the highest bivouac attempted at the time.

The next morning they started climbing down, suffering appallingly. Rheinberger started to lose consciousness and Mark had to leave him to try to find more oxygen. In the end Rheinberger died, and Whetu, who had made heroic attempts to save his client, lost the front parts of his feet to frostbite.

It was a terrible experience for Mark, and the whole episode leaves one astounded that people can value this goal so highly.

How to Avoid Frostbite on Everest

Everest is a lethal combination of cold and altitude, which is why it catches people out, even if they are used to extreme cold.

To avoid frostbite on Everest, you must stay well hydrated: if you fail to drink enough water, your blood, already the consistency of syrup after weeks of acclimatising, struggles to pump through the capillaries in your fingers and toes.

As a result muscle, bones and tendons slowly freeze. Ice crystals form inside the cells, growing by extracting the vital fluids and freeze-drying the tissues. There are other things you can do, such as:

  • Keep your extremities well protected. Wear double gloves and insulated double boots.
  • Eat plenty, climbers lose their appetite at high altitude but food is fuel, and fuel keeps you warm.
  • Carry warm fluids in an insulated flask.
  • Carry chemical hand warmers in your gloves.
  • Use plenty of oxygen. Oxygen feeds the internal fires.
  • Monitor your body continually. Many novices fail to realise that they are losing feeling in their fingers and toes. That’s the first sign of trouble.
  • Excercise your fingers and toes inside your boots and gloves. Keep that blood flowing.
  • Don’t climb post-monsoon as I did in 1993. As the weeks wore on, and we climbed higher, the days grew shorter and the temperatures plummeted. In spring it gets warmer as you climb higher.
  • Avoid queues on Mount Everest: in 2006 I was at Advanced Base Camp when I became aware of radio reports of a traffic jam at the Second Step on the North Ridge. Shivering in the freezing blast of the jet stream near the summit, each of the climbers was effectively dying. They were well into the Death Zone, the height at which it is impossible to live for long.

Later on, we would see the results: first their digits would appear normal, but blackened beneath the skin. Then blisters would form, filled with bloody fluid. Finally, doctors would decide which fingers and toes to amputate, and which to try to save.

Can You Climb Everest Without Getting Frostbite?

Plenty of climbers summit on Everest nowadys without being frostbitten. By learning from our predecessors and by following the points listed above you can return from the mountain reasonably intact, in body if not in mind.

About Graham Hoyland

Graham was the 15th Briton to Climb Mount Everest. He has spent over two years across nine expeditions to the mountain and is the author of Last Hours on Everest, the story of Mallory and Irvine's fatal ascent.