Fatalities on Everest – a comparison of some facts and figures

Everest North side.
The top camp is at 8,300m and summit day involves a long period of time well above 8,500m.
Any problems encountered on the summit day ridge involve retracing technical terrain at ultra high altitude.

Everest South side.
The South Col (just left of centre) is slightly below 8,000m and whilst summit day involves more ascent than on the North side it is easier to descend to lower elevations and rescue is a distinct possibility.

In the first of a 2 part series about Everest I am initially looking at the success rates, fatality rates (and possible reasons behind them) and the implications of going with the wrong expedition company.

The follow on from this will be looking at what happened last season and how it may affect the next.
Rogue groups and individuals
Whilst it would be very tempting to strip out the cowboy operators, rogue groups and dodgy individuals from the statistics it would paint a skewed picture. The cheap operators with their dubious clients and debatable practices appear on both sides of the mountain – although more so on the North. They are there and it is a fact of life. To eliminate them from the statistical comparison would not eliminate them from being there and, in turn, being a hazard to everyone around them.
The Khumbu Icefall
In actual fact prior to the 2014 tragedy the Khumbu Icefall hadn’t been the demise of the huge numbers of climbers and Sherpas that it had the reputation of. In the last 30 years it accounted for 3 Sherpa fatalities when a section collapsed in 2006 – and apart from that has accounted for a handful more fatalities where people (Sherpa and Westerners) have fallen in to crevasses usually as a result of not being clipped in to the ropes that are there for safety purposes.
Where people die
In the great scheme of things Climbing Sherpas tend to die lower down on Everest whereas clients tend to die higher up. The figures aren’t quite cut and dried but can be roughly separated in to mistakes, avalanche and mishap lower down the mountain as opposed to lack of oxygen, exhaustion and AMS higher up.
The data refers to AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) as being one of the causes of death. I have made an assumption that in actual fact AMS is more likely to be HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Oedema) and / or HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema). AMS is usually (but not always) a precursor to HACE and is often (but not always) a precursor to HAPE. HACE and HAPE can occur out of the blue, with no previous indications, although this is unusual because, generally speaking, critically ill people have usually displayed previous signs and symptoms (typically of advanced AMS). Where someone has HACE I would generally assume that they may well be susceptible to HAPE and vice versa.
Arguably lack of oxygen may be the root cause of HACE, and perhaps HAPE is the reason behind the cases of exhaustion. It is difficult, given the conditions, remote setting and lack of proper medical opinion on the day, to separate these factors out. Either which way being at ultra high altitude complicates the issue and makes it very difficult to make a diagnostic analysis.
On both sides of the mountain summit day accounts for most of the Western fatalities. When you then compare the two sides of the mountain the figures show distinctly that people are much more likely to summit on the South and are much more likely to die on the North.
I have tried to compare like for like (i.e. The North Col Route vs The South Col Route) and to that end have not included a handful of esoteric expeditions like The West Ridge or East Face type expeditions. The figures for the last 3 decades* up to 2013**show the following:
North
South
Total No of members
3,944
3,796
Total No of summits (incl Sherpa)***
2,173
3,890
Total No of member summits
1,337
1,752
%age member success rate
33.9%
46.2%
Total Fatalities
62
49****
Member fatalities
57
27
%age member mortality rate
1.44%
0.71%
No Climbing Sherpa deaths
5†
22‡
*chosen because this represents the advent of commercial climbing expeditions
** consolidated figures for 2014 were not available for North side summits
*** includes multiple ascents
**** does not include the 16 Sherpas who died in 2014
† 2 on summit day, 2 from illness, 1 from avalanche
‡ 1 on summit day, 8 due to accidents, 7 due to illness, 3 due to avalanche, 3 in The Icefall
When you consider that many of the better equipped companies have got a 70% to 90% success rate it means that there are companies out there who have a lowly 0 to 15% success rate.
Of the people who have died over the years the split is as follows:
North
South
Below summit day
18
30
Summit day
44
19
Reached Summit
35
17
This is very telling in that most people who died on summit day did so in descent having reached the summit – either later on summit day or at a high Camp whilst descending.
This then splits down as follows:
Reason
North
South
AMS
10
8
Exposure / Frostbite
10
4
Exhaustion
11
4
Fall
15
10
Avalanche
4
4
Disappeared
4
0
Illness (non AMA)
5
10
Icefall Collapse
0
3
Rock / Ice
0
1
Crevasse
0
5
Unknown
3
0
It is obviously very difficult to ascertain whether someone had AMS or actually had HACE or HAPE; whether they were physically exhausted or, in actual fact, had the onset of HAPE which compromised their breathing and gave a perception of exhaustion; whether they were frostbitten as a result of a lack of (or not enough) oxygen; whether they fell on summit day as a result of bad judgement or due to hypoxia or perhaps frostbite; or disappeared as a result of an error (again possibly due to hypoxia).
Sadly it would appear that a lot of the summit day fatalities might have been avoidable and that more oxygen and / or high altitude medication and / or a reliable Climbing Sherpa and / or better summit day protocols might have made a difference.
What is certain from the figures, which seem to speak for themselves, is that the North side summit day is extremely hazardous when compared with the South side.
What is also easy to see is the correlation between lack of oxygen and lack of success – with an estimated success rate of only 1 in 16 of those who try to summit without oxygen (this is the success rate of those who try without oxygen and does not indicate that 15 out of 16 without oxygen die trying).
When you consider the 1 in 16 success rate is of people who are intentionally trying to summit without oxygen the rate is actually skewed even lower by the people who thought they were going to get oxygen when they signed up with their cheap as chips expedition … only to find that in actual fact oxygen wasn’t included and will cost another US$5,000. Oh, and a summit Sherpa isn’t included either and that will be another US$5,000. And of course because the client has signed up with a cheap trip because it was cheap, they don’t have the spare cash to have these extras that they thought would be included.
And so they don’t summit.
Or they die trying.
Unfortunately I can’t separate these clients out from the rest of the people who fail to summit but undoubtedly trying without oxygen, whether intentionally or not, is going to mean that success is much, much rarer.
Everest North side 2005.
A group of highly (and I mean highly) experienced mountaineers – with in excess of 150 expeditions between us.
Despite the plethora of experience only 3 of us (plus all 4 Climbing Sherpas) summited – a reflection of the difficulty of the North side living conditions and the route.
The grey areas and the small print.
I have done some research in to the data concerning Everest / members / Sherpas / companies / summits / fatalities / percentages etc and quite frankly it is very difficult to get to the bottom of some of it. Depending on which source you consult depends on the how much information you can glean. Some companies are very forthcoming with their figures (especially success rates) whereas others are not quite so frank (particularly regarding fatalities).
Talking of fatalities I have tried to ascertain whether there is a link between companies (and by inference high and low cost expeditions) vs success rates vs death rates and guess what? The more professional (and costly) companies tend to have very good success rates with very low mortality rates whereas the basement bargain companies have much lower success rates and much higher fatality rates. This in part might be a reflection of a number of issues:
·       more expensive companies have better client / Climbing Sherpa ratios
·       more expensive companies tend to provide more oxygen
·       more expensive companies tend to provide Western leaders and guides. Not necessarily 1:1 but certainly a Western led group will probably have better mentoring, better risk assessment and a better understanding of first aid and high altitude physiology than a group who have no Western guides or leaders
·       more expensive companies are probably a bit more choosy in their client acceptance knowing full well that lowering their success %age and increasing their fatality %age is not good for business, ergo they have better clients
·       cheaper companies are possibly sought out by less experienced clients who are unwilling to pay an increased cost but who are willing to cut corners
·       or perhaps they have been turned down by the better companies on account of their lack of technical expertise and experience and have eventually been accepted by the company at the bottom of the pile
·       cheaper companies are sometimes not as forthcoming with their inclusions and exclusions as perhaps they ought to be and the client signs up thinking that they will be getting x, y and z. The reality is that they are only getting x and when they are at Base Camp they find out that y and z will cost extra.
This latter case is in part down to the client not conducting their due diligence – they do their research (or not) and decide that even though people have died on previous expeditions there is the misguided belief that ‘it won’t happen to me.’ Or perhaps they don’t know what questions to ask and therefore don’t know whether the answers hold any substance. But it is also as a result of wooly conditions, vague clauses and small print and is, in some instances, completely immoral.
As an example if a company claims ‘in 2012 we had 10 clients and we put 7 people on the summit’ does that imply a 70% success rate? On the face of it – yes it would appear so. Delve deeper and you find out that whilst they had 10 clients they actually put 4 clients and 3 Climbing Sherpas on the summit – a lowly 40% success rate.
Another example might be ‘we have a 1:1 client to Sherpa ratio.’ Sounds great! But, again, scratch the surface, delve deeper and you come across a page where it says that a 1:1 summit Sherpa will cost an additional US$5,000. But I thought you said you had a 1:1 ratio? We do – but that is the ratio of our Sherpa staff to our clients and not our staffing ratio whilst we are working on the hill. Some of the ‘Sherpa staff’ are on Base Camp duties and the ‘Climbing Sherpa’ staff may well be down at C2 whilst you might be at The South Col – not a 1:1 summit day ratio. Or perhaps you and 4 other clients may share the services of 1 or 2 Climbing Sherpas on summit day – which in turn means that there is less oxygen available to all and sundry on summit day which means that everyone in the group is much more likely to suffer from frostbite and / or hypothermia and / or HACE and / or exhaustion and / or hypoxia as a result. The net effect? Fewer people on the summit and more people dying high on the hill.
Talking of oxygen … I thought that you said it was available? Indeed it is available … if you pay a US$5,000 excess. Now a client who has already opted for a cheap expedition is not going to have an additional US$10,000 for oxygen and a 1:1 summit Sherpa – so they are either not going to summit or they are going to die trying.
And who then picks up the pieces? The better equipped and more professional companies out there who are willing to donate Climbing Sherpas and oxygen to people from other teams who have been left high and dry, abandoned on the hill with little or no oxygen and no Climbing Sherpa(s).
As an example this became very evident in 2013 when a Taiwanese climber was left to his own devices and pretty much abandoned at Camp 4 on Lhotse. Not only did a Western Guide and a Climbing Sherpa from our camp start providing assistance through the late afternoon and evening but a team of Climbing Sherpas was being readied for his evacuation the very next morning. This team of Sherpas was being assembled from our camp, Jagged Globe, IMG, Adventure Consultants, HIMEX and Peak Freaks to name but a few and they were ready to go out in the ultra early hours from Camp 2 to get to Lhotse Camp 4 to bring him down and get him readied for evacuation by helicopter. The team that the sick climber was with had a bunch of clients at The South Col but were unwilling to release any Climbing Sherpas to help out. His wife appeared in Kathmandu with US$20,000 for his evacuation but sadly he passed away in the very early hours. If he had paid, perhaps, US$10,000 more in the first place, and gone with a reputable company, then maybe he wouldn’t have got in to such an untenable situation in the first place.
I wouldn’t mind but when one of my clients who summited Everest with me met a couple from the same team who had also reached the summit of Everest she was told that they had had a 100% success rate!
‘What about the Taiwanese guy?’ asked Ilina.
‘But he was on Lhotse.’
‘What about the Korean chap who died at The South Col?’ she asked.
‘Ah, but he was trying without oxygen,’ came the reply.
‘What about the Nepali actor who turned around on summit day and lost a few fingers due to frostbite?’
‘Oh, we didn’t hear about him … but apart from that we had a 100% success rate.’
Yeah right.
Crampons on the wrong feet, quickdraws on his harness, a helmet on his rucksack and a Climbing Sherpa negotiating every rebelay for him. Why was this guy on Everest in the first place, who accepted him as part of their expedition and why wasn’t he being mentored by a Western leader?
He was with a cheap outfit who probably just wanted to make up the numbers but, by inference, he was a liability to himself and therefore a liability to everyone around him.
All deaths on Everest are tragic … particularly the avoidable ones.
Any death on Everest is an absolute tragedy. There will be some people who succumb because of, say, a heart attack which if it hadn’t happened during the expedition would have maybe happened back home in a few months anyway.
There will always be the very unfortunate incident where a loose rock or block of ice just happens to hit the unwary Sherpa or climber.
But the deaths that are because of not clipping in to the ropes and falling off a ladder, or sliding down the Lhotse Face are, sadly, avoidable and shouldn’t happen (and perhaps one could say that they only had themselves to blame).
The terrible incident this Spring should not have been on the magnitude that it was. As a result of a ladder breaking there were too many Climbing Sherpas congregated in one place for too long. In this instance I am definitely not saying that they only have themselves to blame because there was a sense of expectation and pressure that the Climbing Sherpas were under and to leave a load and descend back to BC is a difficult thing to do. Some of our Climbing Sherpas did just that and it saved their lives. But others will have had self imposed pressure about performing / getting the logistics in place / earning money and may well have compromised themselves as a result. This was certainly an isolated incident but one of such magnitude that it will undoubtedly be in the forefront of everyone’s minds when they are on the hill next Spring and for many seasons to come.
I mentioned earlier about grey areas and small print and these can also be classed as immoral practices. By that I mean when someone dies because of a lack of enough (extra / spare) oxygen that they thought they would have, or they die because there was an insufficient Climbing Sherpa ratio that they were led to believe was being catered for, or they die because there was a lack of high altitude medication (or indeed no medication). Sadly, if these things had been available then maybe, just maybe, it would have made a difference. And this not only goes for clients but is equally true of when a Climbing Sherpa dies as a result of poor logistics, insufficient supplies or lack of adequate provision.
Indeed all 3 of the above (oxygen, support and medication) are exactly what a sick or injured climber (Westerner or Climbing Sherpa – it makes no difference) needs … as soon as possible. Immediate access to lots of Os, high altitude medication and extra support are critical and will make the difference.
As an example we (and other teams) have a very strict 1:1 Climbing Sherpa ratio for summit day, we carry oodles of oxygen, every client has a box of high meds (and everyone knows how to use them), we have a spare mask and regulator as well as having the whole operation overseen by vhf radio from Base Camp. Someone in an oxygen rich environment is overseeing the whole summit day process and monitoring where people are, how much oxygen they have, how well they are moving, what time they set off etc etc to get a feel for whether continuing is advisable. This is the approach that gives very good success rates and it also saves lives.
But it also means that some unscrupulous people (clients and operators) seem to assume that they can go along on the cheap knowing full well that someone will help them out of the do doo. Not only is this completely immoral but it is unnecessarily risking the lives of other people around them.
In the next article I will be looking at how the tragedy on Everest last Spring may affect  attitudes and numbers on Everest next Spring.
See also:
For more information about what skills are required then have a look at this page of suggestions as well as some notes on how to use jumars on fixed ropes

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Tim Mosedale

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