The challenge of climbing Mount Everest has lured the adventurous for over a hundred years. But taking on the tallest mountain in the world also has its risks. In this article, we’re going to look at a topic which is often on the mind of people planning to trek there - deaths on Everest. We’re going to look at the facts and examine: how safe is this mountain and should you be worried?
More than 4,400 people have successfully climbed Mount Everest (with some doing this multiple times, such as sherpas and climbing guides). It’s likely that around double this number have attempted the climb though, as the success rate can dip well below 50%. In recent years, around 500 climbers a year reach the summit.
For those reaching Everest Base Camp (EBC) rather than climbing the summit, the numbers are far higher. There are no exact statistics, but currently we know that over 40,000 people trek to Everest Base Camp every single year.This is logical, as the support staff tend to be based out of the Base Camp and then maintain supplies to the advanced camps from there. In recent times, there have been an increasing number of people who plan a trip to the base camp itself. Since the number of people who want to attempt Everest are far higher than any other mountain, and it is a difficult climb, requiring technical climbing knowledge, reaching the base camp itself is a challenge that comprises of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for most people. Coupled with the fact that it takes a minimum of two weeks to trek upto the Everest Base Camp ( the Southern one), combined with its immense popularity, we see over 40 thousand people attempt the Everest Base Camp Trek Every year. The EBC trek is an excellent source of revenue for the Nepalese government. Due to this and the dangers of unqualified trekkers attempting this trek, the Government has had to implement stringent measures to regulate and take care of the climbers . Read more about the regulations and documents required to attempt the Everest Base Camp here.
Since records began - in 1922, until May 2016 - 286 people died on Mt. Everest. It should be noted that most of these people died whilst actually attempting to climb to the summit - i.e. above Base Camp. To put this in perspective, that’s around a 3.5% fatality percentage of those who climb the mountain. There are no hard statistics for fatalities on the Everest Base Camp trek, but the number is thought to be low as deaths are usually well publicised. Some estimates peg this number to be around 2 to 3 casualties per year for the EBC trek.
Yes. Grim but true - the Everest death toll doesn’t care for ceremony. Everest bodies are believed to number over 200 climbers. Why? The extreme conditions on the summit make the recovery of bodies very difficult and costly. In many cases people are lost in the snow, or fall off cliffs. The frozen bodies on Everest along the main climbing routes act as horrifying reminders of the dangers, such as in the case of the infamous “Old Green Boots” lying on the side of the path - named thanks to his footware and believed to be Tsewang Paljor, one of the Indian climbers who died in the 1996 tragedy on Everest.
Green Boots, one of the most famous corpses on Everest
There are a lot of ways that Everest can kill you - if you’re brave enough to attempt the summit. A large number of climbers die in the “Death Zone”. This is the elevation, usually above 8000 meters, where the oxygen supply in the air is so low (around 30% of normal) that the human brain struggles to cope. This can have a variety of ill effects from weakness, loss of cognition/decision-making ability, unconsciousness and extreme altitude sickness. Bottled oxygen is used by most, but some people forgo this and they account for a substantial number of deaths thanks to the added risk of oxygen deprivation. The extreme cold and weather conditions combine with this to make the Death Zone a formidable place.
An Avalanche is one of the most unpredictable events on Everest Photo by Deana
Statistically, it’s actually falls and avalanches that cause the most Everest deaths (around 60% in total). However studies have pointed out that many of these accidents are likely the end result of other factors such as the lack of oxygen causing confusion and fatigue in the Death Zone - and extreme weather conditions causing the accidents in the first place. Following falls and avalanches in the killer list is exposure, and then altitude sickness. Finally, other health conditions make up the rest, or simply disappearances and unknown causes of death.
As seen above, it’s the Death Zone above 8000 meters that most deaths happen. It’s also interesting that around 70% of deaths occur on the descent. Closer to Everest Base Camp there are less deaths, with the notable exception of avalanches, and falls in the notorious Khumbu Icefall. But what is the risk if you are just trekking to Base Camp?
Well, the 2015 Base Camp avalanche was certainly a frightening event, but it must be pointed out that that occurred in the mid-part of the camp - where mainly climbers reside. The victims were mainly climbers, not trekkers. They spend days and sometimes weeks in the upper camp acclimatizing and preparing for their summit attempts. They are deliberately isolated from trekkers (who generally stay in the lower part of the camp) so as not to expose themselves to any incoming viruses that the trekkers may inadvertently bring in with them. It’s also important to note that most EBC treks just visit the camp itself for a few hours, and in many cases is just viewed from a distance for photo opportunities - so in reality you are very unlikely to be exposed to an avalanche risk on an EBC trek.
For the 40,000 people who trek to EBC each year, only a tiny fraction of them suffer fatalities - just a small number every year. It’s important to keep this in perspective. These people aren’t donning their ice picks, climbing ropes and scaling mighty cliffs at 8000 meters, they are taking an amazing trek through the mountainous terrain. So what dangers lie in store? Well, there are the usual deaths from various causes that you might expect from this large number of people, from heart attacks to accidents. There have been injuries and fatalities (although not many) from falls, yaks knocking people off paths (stand uphill from them and don’t antagonise them!), and other typical hiking hazards.
The other main fatality culprit is altitude sickness. This is a risk that you must be prepared for. Most cases of altitude sickness occur because the trekker (or their guides) have not allowed proper time for acclimatization during the EBC trek for their bodies to adjust to the shift to high altitude. Altitude sickness causes deaths every year but its deadly effects are largely preventable. Do your research and be prepared for the effects. Do your EBC trek with trusted guides or companies who will not try to rush you and allow you time to acclimatize.
Take altitude sickness medication if required and make sure you are fit enough for the trek before you go. If you get more than mild altitude sickness symptoms, be very cautious about ascending further, it’s always safer to descend as soon as possible and seek medical attention or advice. It’s much better to be safe than sorry, you may be risking your life if you ignore symptoms and continue onwards.
So we’ve learned that climbing Everest is inherently dangerous. However even considering the mountain’s many dangers, Everest’s death toll is surprisingly low compared to the number of people attempting to climb it every year. Fatalities have dropped in recent years thanks to better equipment and more strict tour company guidelines. It must be said that the dangers and big Everest disasters does little to deter those determined adventurers and a steady stream of them is continually climbing the world’s highest peak. Some at least must like the element of danger!
For the Everest Base Camp Trek, it’s an entirely different story. Because trekkers are not going into the danger zones where real climbing is required, and they stay below the most dangerous altitudes - there’s little risk involved. With a such a large number of trekkers every year the death toll here is very low. The EBC trek requires fitness and sensible precautions, but is hardly the same as fighting through blizzards on cliff edges like the climbers further up! - there’s little risk involved. With a such a large number of trekkers every year the death toll here is very low. The EBC trek requires fitness and sensible precautions, but is hardly the same as fighting through blizzards on cliff edges like the climbers further up!
Hopefully, as regulations tighten and tourists and guides become wiser, death rates on Everest will continue to fall. Those who have perished on the summit serve as a stark reminder that sometimes, nature holds sway over man.One thing’s for sure, Everest must be respected. For trekkers and climbers alike, the high altitudes can’t be dismissed - but can be dealt with in a safe and constructive manner . as regulations tighten and tourists and guides become, death rates on Everest will continue to fall. Those who have perished on the summit serve as a stark reminder that sometimes, nature holds sway over man.