Everest – Cause of Death – Waiting in Line?

As Don Cash, Kalpana Das and Anjali Kulkarni set off from the South Col for the Summit of Everest this year, like most Everest climbers they would have had fears.

Perhaps they feared wind, snow, icy ropes, exposure, or the cold and dark, or how their oxygen systems would work. And there may have also been a thought about all their fellow climbers – hundreds of climbers, also following their dreams.

South Summit to the Hillary Step. Not an uncommon sight, this photo from 2010 and nearly every year now it can be an expected part of the ascents on the normal routes.

It would of been hard to fathom that ultimately it would be all those fellow climbers, the climbers tripping over climbers, that slowed them to a snails pace that would delay their climb to the point that, according to fellow climbers, they simply collapsed while waiting in line. Very sad, this waiting in line. As a comment was overheard, “Starbucks maybe, the grocery store probably, but Everest?”

Everest Summit ridge
Not far from the top of the world. If only those in front would hurry up. 

It seems to add to the dangers of ice falling down and the storms rising up, this new danger of just getting caught in one of the increasingly common conga lines snaking up Everest. With the highly varied skill levels and fitness, the line is only as fast as the slowest person in front of you.

Little wonder that climbers were seen to be leaving the South Col as early as 3 p.m. on a recent afternoon. You may not get those magnificent sunrise views, and have to settle for a flash photo on the top as veteran Guide Kenton Cool did this year, but you will (hopefully) beat the crowds.

What we haven’t seen much of yet is video, which will then truly show how really slowly you climb up there. At times it is not so much climbing, as moving from one foot to the other foot and just waving your arms around to keep warm.

Everest is exponentially more dangerous as you climb higher. You need more oxygen, yet then it runs out faster. It gets colder, and though sunrise is a good visual the temperature doesn’t actually go up much in my experience.

Wind and then cloud and snow often build up in the afternoon. Every minute more you spend up high is more dangerous. It may rather dramatically be called the death zone, but it is also an apt description, and never more applicable than when you are just forced to stand around.

Everest, Lhotse Face, Camp 3
Follow the Congo line. Climbers headed out from Camp 3, lower right, and over across the Yellow Band and on up towards the South Col.


As you climb higher your oxygen saturation is going down and your heart rate is going up. Leaving the South Col, your resting heart rate, even for the very fit climber, could very well be in the 100’s. And your max rate will have dropped considerably – effectively you will have just a small window of heart beats to work with, and you will be at the top of that much of the time.

It is little wonder that before Messner and Habelar ascended without oxygen in 1978 there were serious scientific doubt if they could do it at all.  Even with oxygen, your working, moving, functioning and thinking abilities are so compromised, that every extra minute up high is killing you.

Well known Expedition Leader Pete Athans, who is at Base Camp this year as Climbing Leader for a National Geographic team commented to me on our first climb on Everest together: “Robert, there are two types of Himalayan climbers, the quick, and the dead.”

It is noteworthy that most guiding companies have worked their way through the crowd challenges and come back safely – it is invaluable that the ever erudite and balanced scribe of Everest, Alan Arnette, is listing the companies each climber is climbing with when he lists fatalities. It is not difficult to see that climbers may be deciding their own odds long before they leave for the mountain, by the decisions they make on whom to climb with.

Everest, Sunrise
Everest, the summit pyramid just beginning to form in the west at dawn. Maybe missing the sunrise is worth it if you miss the crowds. 

Some of the very experienced guides, including Scott Woolums on the North, have specifically decided to delay their summit attempts until after the current crowds thin out.

Russell Brice commented on some of the early ascents this year ” It has been of no surprise for us to see the number of helicopter rescues from C2 bringing people with frostbite, and the inevitable fatalities in these last few days.” While the deaths are well documented, the exceptionally busy ER clinic at Base Camp is less well chronicled and the potentially life changing effects of serious frostbite disappear into the mix.

Understanding why people want to climb Everest, from the good, to the bad, to the ugly, will always be difficult. Perhaps Kilian Jornet, Ultra Runner and record holder for the fastest ascent up the North Side of Everest says it best as he talks about ‘how’ you do things – and the importance of downgrading the mountains to meet our abilities. IMG_0192.jpg

After the ‘how’ you want to climb Everest is decided, best to choose your team or your guiding company wisely. With the new information available online, it won’t take long to work out that you may greatly increase your chances of success, as well as keep yourself alive, if you choose wisely.

Finally, in an era of ever increasing ‘madding’ crowds you always need to keep your own counsel and take responsibility for your own climb. There is no safety in numbers. And as this season has proven, the new danger is actually in the numbers themselves.

Everest Kangshung face, robert mads anderson
I was lucky. Finishing off the Kangshung Face, above the South Col. Photo: Ed Webster