Photo of hikers approaching the southern summit of Mount Everest taken in 2016
More people than ever, is now climbing this mountain mythic.
At 11:30 am local time on May 29, 1953, New Zealand mountaineer Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Nepali Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mount Everest, proclaiming them as the first climbers in history to successfully climb The highest mountain in the world.
As part of the Himalyan chain, Everest acquired its current form sometime in the last 2 million years, continuing its upward growth caused by clashes between Indian-Australian and Eurasian tectonic plates. Today, the summit of Everest has an inclination of 29,000 feet above sea level, and continues to grow about a quarter of an inch per year. The existence of Everest has been part of the life of the central Asians who live in the vicinity of it. However, in the 1850s, the era called «golden age of mountaineering,» Mount Everest caught the attention of Westerners after an Indian mathematicianwho worked for the British colonial government identified Everest as the highest peak in the entire planet. However, it would take another century of exploration before Hillary reached the top.
Things have accelerated considerably since then. 66 years after the world famous expedition, more than 4,800 people have completed the difficult walk, and it is estimated that around 300 people have lost their lives in the attempt. Eleven of these deaths have happened in the last two weeks.
This has made this season a political, economic and interpersonal drama. This year, Nepal, one of the poorest nations in the world, granted a record number of permits to applicants for the Everest challenge. Expert mountaineers say that several of these permits were granted to beginners, who invested their money for these expeditions (agency-directed expeditions can cost up to $ 45,000) but without being able to have experience support to meet this challenge. Many climbers rush to climb the mountain at the same time: Everest is usually surrounded by gusts of winds, but when the winds become less intense during certain periods of spring the climbers go crazy. The result, in the words of the New York Times, is a mountain that reminds us of the Lord of the flies : a «zoo» full of «adventure companies flying at night».
But what exactly happens with this three-ring circus in the clouds that is killing the mountaineers?
Luanne Freer is an emergency doctor. In 2003, she founded the Everest emergency room, to care for climbers and sherpas wounded in the mountains. The problem she says is mainly the altitude. However, the ways in which winds can destroy a human body are surprisingly diverse.
Most humans live near sea level, and for good reason. No matter how physically or genetically gifted the person is, our species begins to have difficulties above 8,000 feet. Although it depends on the person, the most common symptoms are fatigue, headaches, vomiting, and dizziness. The base of the camp where the Everest emergency room operates and climbers spend most of their time on the mountain is at 17,600 feet. Feer says that most people can spend here a few weeks and even a few months without suffering many adverse side effects. But reaching Everest requires climbers to climb 12,000 feet more. That’s where things start to get really dangerous.
In the so-called «death zone,» with altitudes between 26,000 and 29,000 feet, «we are literally running against the clock and will die if we don’t descend,» Free wrote in an email. «Bad weather, snow, difficult terrain, crowds preventing the ascent or descent on a fixed rope, an injury that would otherwise not be of such importance, if anything that delays us on the road can be life-threatening.»
In other words: «You are slowly dying above 18,000 feet.» says Peter Hacket, a professor in the Department of Pulmonary Sciences at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. «But when you pass 26,000 feet, you start to die much faster.»
To get to the peak alive, most hikers (including Edmund Hillary) require oxygen tanks, although some have achieved ascent without any assistance. With a steady supply of compressed gas cylinder tanks, Hackett says climbers can make 29,000 feet feel more like 24,000. It is a huge relief, but it is not enough to keep you for a longer period.
Without enough oxygen, the brain is compromised. «Thinking is impaired as is your judgment and your motor coordination,» says Hackett. This hypoxic state may contribute to fatal errors, such as falling from a peak or deciding to take a break in full climbing. «Someone who is running out of oxygen may think he can sit down and never get up,» Hackett comments. «What you are experiencing in this case is exposure to exhaustion, a combination between exhaustion and hypothermia.» Add to this the long lines of people coming down caused by the tumults, and you are more exposed to freezing when you are inactive, or you burn the little energy you saved on your ascent.
If the hypoxia was no longer severe enough, hikers are also at risk for cerebral edema, when low oxygen levels cause inflammation of the brain. «All the symptoms of hypoxia are magnified,» says Hackett. «It’s as if they were acting drunk.» It is still possible to intervene with oxygen, a rapid descent, and the dexamethasone steroid, but in a place like Everest, that option window closes quickly. Most of the bodies of people who die on the mountain are left there to slowly be covered by snow and ice.
The Everest emergency room serves a range of diseases, including freezing, heart attacks, fractures and sprains, infections, and altitude sickness. The most common complaints are respiratory problems, including Khumbu’s cough, and altitude cough, a roar that makes the body shake so extreme that it has fractured ribs of some climbers. However, lung problems can kill people long before they return to base camp to request assistance. Many climbers die of pulmonary edema at high altitude , when the lungs are so compressed and stressed, that the capillary walls begin to drip and the lungs fill with fluid.
Up in the clouds, climbers also face a high risk of sudden cardiac death. Some people are born with irregular heartbeats called arrhythmias, but since they spend most of their lives near sea level, they never find out. High altitude can cause heart disease. When young climbers die suddenly or while they sleep, arrhythmia may be the cause. Meanwhile, older hikers tend to suffer from heart attacks. At high altitude, where the bodies are not getting enough oxygen, the blood thickens, and everyone is pushing their bodies to the maximum, people without previous diagnosis of heart disease are at possible additional risk of sudden death.
Nepal requires aspiring climbers to Everest to present a letter from their doctor. Hackett says that even a cardiac stress test cannot anticipate the adversities one faces in the death zone, especially if your doctor’s office is close to sea level. As for arrhythmias or other congenital risks, the only option would be to pursue a DNA sequence, something that has not arisen among the applicants or their doctors.
Although doctors and climbers can name 1,001 ways in which a person can die at Everest, Hackett hesitates to draw firm conclusions about the recent wave of deaths. This is because the information is barely being digested, and what we know suggests more questions than answers.
In the past, most people who have died due to lack of oxygen have been alone, says Hackett. When you are climbing with a large group, or even if you are surrounded by people you do not know, getting some O2 should be quite simple. Therefore, it is not very likely that queues and crowds at the top are the only cause of the most recent deaths. In addition, most climbers appear to have died in the descentjust when they were trying to return to the environment of sufficient oxygen under the summit. «The fact that these people are dying on their downward journey is really intriguing, because altitude sickness does not show up.» says Hackett, who now breeds Himalayan yaks in Colorado. It is possible that more people are dying at Everest simply because more people are trying to climb, thus increasing the statistical probability that people with unknown heart defects will walk.
Without autopsies, which can be very difficult to achieve in such harsh conditions, these deaths can remain a mystery. «I hope the people in the Everest emergency room are collecting this information,» says Hackett, who reached the top of Everest in 1981 and served as the doctor on Everest’s turn during the 2010 season. «Many times, the people just leave and don’t want to talk about it … We are in a way a lot in the dark about this. «
While it could pressure Nepal to better manage its permits, the recent wave of deaths will certainly not stop the aspirants to climb this mythical mountain. This risk is what attracted hikers from the beginning. «Climbing is not that difficult,» Hackett says, «What Everest really is is the philosophy of altitude.»