In addition to being the highest point on Earth at 29,000 feet above sea level, Mount Everest is also one of the most sought after destinations of mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts. While it's not considered one of Earth's most dangerous mountains, people die attempting to summit its peak each year, prompting many to wonder what it's like to climb Everest and if it's worth it. Despite the costs, dangers, and extreme endurance needed, many climbers claim it is.
Everest has been inspiring people to reach its peak since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay succeeded in 1953, romanticizing the ultimate feat of humans conquering nature and pushing their limits. Contributing to Everest's mystique is the fact that not everyone who takes it on survives, evidenced by the number of bodies the mountain holds. Advances in technology, like weather prediction, contribute to Everest's survival rate but also diminish the mountain's dangerous reputation.
As more and more climbers visit the mountain each year, creating trash problems and lines at the summit with devastating consequences, Everest should not be taken lightly; there are still many ways to perish before and after snapping a selfie at the top. British mountaineer George Mallory may have climbed the mountain "Because it's there," but according to those who've summited Everest, it takes much more determination and hard work than that.
No matter how much mountain climbing experience one has, reaching the summit of Mount Everest is an almost two-month process. Although it only takes climbers about five days to travel from Base Camp to the summit and back, climbers first must spend time at various heights on Everest in order to acclimate their bodies to the altitude before pushing for the summit. "If you were to go straight to the top of Everest right now, you would die within minutes because you don't have enough red blood cells to carry the oxygen that your lungs would be attempting to give it," wrote John Beede on Reddit.
From Everest Base Camp, expeditions make small trips called rotations, traveling progressively higher on each trip. This process encourages the body to produce more hemoglobin, which is necessary to help oxygen travel from the lungs to other organs via red blood cells. Beede explained, "You climb to Camp 1, then back to Base Camp. Then to Camp 2, then back to Base Camp. Then to Camp 3, then Back to Base Camp. Each time you return to Base Camp, you rest for five to eight days, waiting for your body to generate more red blood cells... Everyone, even Sherpa, undergo this process..."
Forced to waste a lot of time at Base Camp during this process, mountaineer Alan Arnette recalled:
In many ways, it is Groundhog Day where each day feels the same. It starts with breakfast of eggs, toast, and jam, then many people take a few-hour hike to continue their acclimatization. Then it is time for lunch of Spam and vegetables. The afternoons are spent checking email, perhaps a shower and shave for the men, taking a nap, or visiting the neighbors. Late afternoon, teams often gather to watch a movie on a laptop or socialize before dinner of rice, noodles, sometimes meat. Most people go directly to bed after dinner but some teams will show a movie on a screen from a laptop in the dining tent.
Although a very small amount of mountaineering purists have climbed Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen, many climbers view its use as sensible to better improve the chances of surviving. However, even using oxygen, climbers will feel the effects of the altitude. "Climbing above 26,000 feet, even with bottled oxygen, is like running on a treadmill and breathing through a straw. Everything tells you to turn around. Everything says: This is cold, this is impossible," said David Breashears.
Climber John Beede endured a leaking oxygen tank and spent about 30 minutes without extra oxygen during his descent. "To take one step required three to five breaths depending on steepness. Plus, my hands and feet were rapidly going cold, my vision was tunneling, and I didn't have much motivation to fix those problems," he said. He expanded on his experience on Reddit, writing, "Totally hypoxic, totally exhausted, and in a lot of ways, you can't summon the energy to even care. It's terrifying."
At least 11 people died on Mount Everest in 2019 and an estimated 295 people in years before that, giving climbers about a one in 100 chance of losing their lives on the climb. Despite modern weather prediction and outdoor gear improving the chances of summiting and living to tell the tale, it's estimated there are over 200 bodies on Everest, some visible to climbers. "It's gruesome of course, to climb past bodies. But it's something I mentally prepared for," climber John Beede recalled. "If nothing else, they are frozen sentinels, reminding others what is at stake." Due to the harsh conditions, altitude, and extreme costs of retrieving them, the bodies of many climbers stay exactly where they fell for years. "It takes six to 12 Sherpa hours to move a body just a few hundred meters," Beede wrote. "People could die moving a dead body off the hill, and the reward-to-risk ratio doesn't make sense..."
In addition to the bodies, climbers must also be prepared to witness others uncomfortably close to death. Beede remembered, "I nearly had a panic attack when I saw a man who was on his last breath, unconscious, but still alive. I stayed with him for some time, but he passed within a few minutes of my seeing him... I've had nightmares about it nearly every night since." He later added, "Most unexpected thing about the experience was thinking that the man... was a backpack or a sleeping bag from a distance. Because it was dark, I didn't recognize it to be a man until I was about 10 feet away. That was shocking."
As climbers ascend from Base Camp to Camp 1 on Mount Everest's south side, they pass over a glacier called the Khumbu Icefall. Climber John Beede described the area as "a frozen waterfall of ice that is 3,000 feet tall... Massive crevasses, 100-ton blocks of ice can fall on you at any moment, delicate snow bridges can collapse on any step, and avalanche danger is always present." Depending on a climber's acclimatization and the weather conditions, crossing the icefall can take anywhere from three to eight hours, as climbers navigate with fixed ropes and must occasionally cross deep crevasses using metal ladders as bridges.
One of Everest's deadliest disasters took place in this area in 2014 when a piece of hanging ice fell and caused an avalanche that killed 13 Sherpas. It's estimated that from 1953 to 2016, 25% of the deaths on the south side of the mountain occurred on the Khumbu Icefall. "The Khumbu is probably the most dangerous single place in the climbing world," said mountaineer Conrad Anker. "You can just sit at base camp during the day and watch avalanches roar down right over the climbing route. It scares everyone."
Not only does the route pose a danger, but in order to reach the summit and begin the descent during daylight, climbers start their journey at night in darkness. "From 7 pm until 5:48 am I climbed to the top through the darkness, only the visibility of my headlamp lighting the way in front of me and the eerie trail of headlamps of other climbers lighting a white pathway into the black heavens," remembered Beede. Once climbers reach the summit, the danger of falling off the side increases. According to Beede, "On Everest's summit, you have an 8,000-foot drop on one side and a 10,000-foot drop on the other. We joke that if you're going to fall, you want to fall onto the 10,000-foot side because you'll live longer."