Over three hundred climbers have died on Mount Everest, and in my nine expeditions to the mountain, I saw many dead bodies.
What is surprising is the variety of ways in which they died. Analysing how they died is a valuable way of avoiding the same fate.
1. Avalanches and falling ice
The most common way of dying on Mount Everest is being caught in an avalanche of snow or falling ice.
At least 82 deaths have been attributed to avalanches (source: Wikipedia).
Like most Himalayan peaks Everest is covered with teetering masses of ice and snow, poised to drop like a guillotine on the climbers below. They can be set off by melting ice in the morning sun or even by an earthquake.
15 climbers were killed by a snow avalanche set off by the 2015 Base Camp earthquake, and 16 climbing Sherpas died under an ice avalanche in the infamous Icefall in 2014.
In 1993 the actor Brian Blessed and I narrowly missed being crushed in this very spot in the Icefall, just above Camp 1. I had been employed to act as Blessed’s guide on the mountain, and we were climbing down through the Icefall roped with Steve Bell, my friend and expedition leader in front. Behind him on the 100 metre rope was Brian, then me tied on at the end.
“Run!” Steve suddenly yelled. At the same moment, I heard a horrific cracking noise from far above. I ran as fast as I could in the heavily spiked crampons in thick snow at one end of the rope, and Steve ran as fast as he could at the other end.
Fortunately, we both ran in the same direction: towards Camp One’s tents. Watchers at the tents saw a huge avalanche dropping down the South West Face like a guillotine. Unfortunately, Brian took a couple of steps and fell over.
We didn’t stop. Steve and I came to the end of our respective ropes and twanged Brian out of the snow. We all now kept going, we were enveloped in a huge cloud of ice crystals and I swear I felt the cascading snow and ice licking at my heels. We kept running and arrived at the tents looking like three panting snowmen. Steve and I collapsed next to the tents and just laughed our socks off with relief. Brian took one look at us and crawled into the nearest tent.
All I can say is avalanches are faster than you can believe, and it must be a horrible way to die. They are classed as objective hazards, things that happen to you without human intervention. Your mountain craft and hazard assessment will help, like moving fast below avalanche-prone slopes and not lingering beneath wobbling ice seracs.
The close second cause of death on Mount Everest are falls, with about 77 incidents.
These include long falls down slopes and shorter falls into crevasses.
On Mount Everest, most climbers slide a karabiner clip along ropes fixed to the mountainside by Sherpas. It involves laboriously clipping and unclipping two leashes onto the rope. On easier sections when you are tired it is only too easy to “miss out a section” and not clip-in. A stumble is all it then takes to start a long fall.
It is so easy to take a fall on Everest. On one occasion I was descending the Icefall, stepped on a patch of snow between two ice blocks and fell straight through into a bottomless hole. One minute I was in bright sunlight, the next I was swinging on the thin rope in a huge bottle-green crevasse.
Once again Steve Bell saved me: he held hard onto the rope with his ice axe while I scrabbled up the sides with my crampons. I remember the chips of ice falling past but never heard them hitting the bottom. I was lucky: many client climbers would not possess the skills to get someone out of that situation.
In October 1993 I had befriended a group of Basque climbers from Spain who were also trying for the summit post-monsoon. I remember they had brought with them wonderful Basque foods canned at home by their families, and these they generously shared with us.
One young guy, Antonio Miranda was particularly nice. On the way down from the summit I met Antonio on the way up and later was horrified to learn that on his descent he had come off the fixed ropes and fallen all the way down into the Western Cwm.
His body was so far down the mountain his friends were able to pull him down the valley, through the icefall and into a helicopter – a rare example of a body recovered on the mountain, when so many aren’t (if you’re wondering why bodies aren’t recovered, then read this article).
No-one knows exactly what happened to Antonio but falls are only too easy, especially when you take your mind off the ball during the descent. So these are subjective hazards that are caused by climbers. George Mallory also died in a fall, probably due to the fresh wet snow of the blizzard he and Sandy Irvine were caught in.
There have been at least 36 deaths due to exposure on Mount Everest, but probably more than that after considering those who died on the mountain after a fall or exhaustion.
It’s difficult to distinguish between the various forms of altitude illness, cold-related injuries, and exhaustion, all of which leave climbers stranded to finally die of exposure.
On Mount Everest the combination of thin air, insufficient bottled oxygen and high winds is enough to bring on hypothermia.
Exposure is a general term to cover four separate conditions:- (a) Sunburn and snow blindness (b) Frost bite and trench foot
(c) Dehydration and salt depletion (d) Exhaustion/exposure (Hypothermia).
All of these are related to a breakdown in the physiological processes by which the body temperature is kept at a constant level of 98.40 F (37.0 C).
When the body temperature begins to fall from that normal level of 37 C at first there is little obviously wrong with the sufferer. They then become slower and tend to lag behind, and there is a loss of concentration or even a euphoric, light-hearted mood. Then they might sit down suddenly in the snow.
Paradoxical undressing: 20 to 50% of hypothermia deaths are associated with paradoxical undressing. This typically occurs during moderate and severe hypothermia, as the person becomes confused, disorientated, and combative. They often discard their clothing, which, of course, increases their heat loss (source: wikipedia).
Collapse and loss of consciousness occur when the body temperature has dropped to about 32 – 34 C. Just below this temperature, irregular heart beats begin to happen and death from heart failure occurs at a body temperature only a few degrees below 30.0 C.
Thus the margin between collapse and death is tiny, and it is important for survival that such cases should be diagnosed and first aid treatment started before collapse and loss of consciousness.
I try to keep a close eye on climbing colleagues, and I once found a man sitting in the snow, white and silent, completely unaware of what was happening to him. He didn’t accept it when we told him: “You are dying of exposure.” Exposure is an insiduous condition that creeps up on you unannounced.
Mount Everest is notable for the number of non-mountaineers that climb it. When you spend a lifetime mountaineering you learn how to husband your resources, look after your body and recognise when you are exhausted. You also learn to “leave some in the tank” to get you down again.
There are countless cases of climbers expending all their energy in achieving the summit, only to find they have no energy left to get down again.
Mike Rheinberger was an experienced Australian climber who died of the consequences of exhaustion. He eventually got to the summit after no less than eight attempts.
He got to the top just before dark, but found he had no energy left and had to spend the night near the summit, which led to his death (source: American Alpine Club).
Frostbite is another one of those injuries that happen on Everest due to the thin air, insufficient bottled oxygen, and high winds. Your blood, already the consistency of syrup after weeks of acclimatising, struggles to pump through the capillaries in your fingers and toes. Blood flow slows and stops.
Then your skin turns white and waxy; later these marks turn purple and swell, forming blisters. Muscle, bones and tendons slowly freeze. Ice crystals form inside the cells, growing by extracting the vital fluids and freeze-drying the tissues.
Later on, you will see the results: first your digits will appear normal, but blackened beneath the skin. Then blisters will form, filled with bloody fluid. Finally, doctors will decide which fingers and toes to amputate, and which to try to save.
The first man to actually die of frostbite on Everest was Man Bahadur in the spring of 1924. Both his feet, poorly protected by inadaquate footwear, were frozen and had to be amputated.
For more about frostbite on the mountain, read Frostbite on Everest: A Summiteer’s Experience.
6. High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE)
High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) is a buildup of fluid in the lungs that is dangerous and sometimes fatal. It leads to shortness of breath, a feeling of tightness in the chest and weakness or loss of performance.
Signs of HAPE are a crackling sound in the lungs, blue skin, rapid breathing and heart rate. It happens to perfectly healthy people anything above 2,500 meters (8,200 ft) at high altitude- and remember Mount Everest is nearly four times that height.
It is thought that the decreased air pressure causes increases pulmonary arterial and capillary pressures, which leads to the stress failure of the lining of blood vessels, followed by the leakage of cells and proteins into the lung sacs, or alveoli.
Interestingly, Sherpas seem to be resistant to this condition, but if they go down to low-altitude Kathmandu and climb back up the mountain too fast they can suffer from what is called re-entry HAPE.
The best way to avoid HAPE is to climb the mountain slowly. And the very best way that I have known to work is to climb high during the day to carry up equipement, then descend to sleep at a lower altitude. This “zig-zagging” technique, gradually sleeping in higher and higher camps seems to help with avoiding HAPE.
If you do get HAPE the best treatment is descent, even as little as 500 to 1,000 meters (1,640 feet to 3,280 feet). Nefedipine can be used in combination with descent, oxygen therapy or a portable hyperbaric chamber (which looks like a blown-up sleeping bag).
Oddly, Viagra has been shown to help. Fourteen healthy male mountaineers were given either Viagra (sildenafil) or a placebo, or dummy pill. They were tested at both sea level and at Mount Everest base camp. It was found sildenafil reduced high blood pressure and improved the transport of oxygen in the blood in both situations. Dr Friedrich Grimminger, who led the study, said:
“With the drug, more blood was going through the lung vessels, the gas exchange, the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between the air and the blood in the lungs, improved and the heart’s pumping capacity could be raised.” (source: BBC).
On our 1990 International Peace Expedition I once saw a climber who had actually just been diagnosed with HAPE heading up the mountain on a summit attempt. He didn’t get far.
7. High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE)
This is the most severe form of altitude sickness and it happens when there’s too much fluid in the brain.
Symptoms are confusion, shortness of breath, inability to walk, a cough producing white or blood-tinged froth, then coma. It’s life threatening, and there have been around 36 deaths.
The best three treatments for HACE are descent, descent, descent. Again, the treatments for HAPE will work, but are even more urgently needed.
8. Heart Attack
There have been at least six deaths on Mount Everest from heart attack, including Scotsman Dr. Alexander Kellas on the first British Everest expedition of 1921.
Kellas introduced the use of Sherpa porters and pioneered the use of bottled oxygen. He was the first man to die on an Everest expedition. He contracted dysentery in Sikkim but the cause of his death was given as heart attack, possibly to spare the family from embarrassment.
Apparently fit individuals can just drop dead in their tracks due to the stress of high-altitude climbing.
9. Rope Accident or Suffocation
Handling climbing ropes is tricky even without frozen hands and altitude-slowed brains. Get it wrong and that rope around your waist can get up under your diaphragm and suffocate you, or the weight of your rucksack can turn you upside down during an abseil, leaving you hanging on the ropes and helpless.
This seems to be what happened to Bruce Herrod, a friend of mine who went to the summit alone in 1996. David Breashears found him the following year:
“Bruce was hanging upside down near the bottom of the Hillary Step, like Captain Ahab lashed to his White Whale. Evidently he’d slipped toward the end of his rappel. He’d taken the precaution of clipping his figure-eight rappel brake into the fixed rope, but something had gone amiss.
We hoped he’d hit his head and been spared a long struggle to right himself again. His arms hung downward and his mouth lay open.”
Unlikely as it might seem, two people have drowned on Everest. One was a young deaf-mute Sherpa porter in August 1975, and the second was Masao Yokoyama, a Japanese climber in 1987.
In both cases glacier lakes were responsible. These beautiful turquoise stretches of water are actually icy cold and lethal to anyone who slips in. On the East Rongbuk Glacier a small lake forms in some years at around 20,000 feet (6096 metres) near Camp 2. This can block the route up and down the mountain.
In 2000 our expedition was obliged to build rafts out of blue plastic storage barrels and ferry supplies over to the other “shore” of ice. I think this may have been the highest recorded sailing trip in history.
A study published in the BMJ found that “of 94 mountaineers who died after climbing above 8000 m, 53 (56%) died during descent from the summit, 16 (17%) after turning back, 9 (10%) during the ascent, 4 (5%) before leaving the final camp, and for 12 (13%) the stage of the summit bid was unknown.”
So it seems that the descent can be more than five times more dangerous than the ascent. And that’s why you should be careful going down! There’s more…
“Profound fatigue (n=34), cognitive changes (n=21), and ataxia (n=12) were the commonest symptoms reported in non-survivors, whereas respiratory distress (n=5), headache (n=0), and nausea or vomiting (n=3) were rarely described.”
The BMJ concluded:
“Debilitating symptoms consistent with high altitude cerebral oedema commonly present during descent from the summit of Mount Everest. Profound fatigue and late times in reaching the summit are early features associated with subsequent death.”
So the message is clear: set off early on summit day, aiming to leave the tents as early as 10.00 pm the previous night, and reach the summit at dawn. Constantly monitor your fatigue. And have a turn-around time set in stone at around noon, latest 1.00 pm.
Otherwise, expect to get in trouble.
So How Dangerous is Mount Everest?
Of the 8000 meter peaks, Everest has the highest absolute number of deaths at 310 but surprisingly actually ranks near the bottom with a death rate of only 3% of deaths per 100 summits.
Annapurna is the lowest but most deadly 8000 meter peak, with one death for every four summits, about 27%.
K2, the hardest 8000 m peak, is around 23% death rate, and Cho Oyu, the least difficult 8000er is the safest, with 3,845 summits and 52 deaths or a death rate of around 1.4%.
Most of the above top 10 ways people die on Everest are also the same causes of death on the other mountains, too. You may also want to read how many people have died on Everest and how many dead bodies are on Everest, too.