The Deadly Side of Everest

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To start any article on climbing deaths, it must be said that everydeath is devastating to family and friends and should never be takenlightly. I have helped bury climbing partners on high peaks and neverwish that experience on anyone.

Sadly, mountaineering often receives mainstream media attention onlywhen someone dies and especially on Everest. This was never more truethan during the 1996 season when eight people were killed in a storm andthen in 2006 when another 12 died while climbing. According to EberhardJurgalski's website, there have been about 4,024 summits since 1922 with 218 deaths, or a 5.4% fatality rate.

Since 1990, the deaths have dropped to 4.4% due to better gear,weather forecasting and the availability of more rescue resourcesdue to an increase of climbers on the mountain. In 2009, about 281 people made itfrom the south and 60 from the north. There were five deaths. A record 500people summited in 2007 evenly split between both sides, again with fivedeaths.

I wanted to examine the true statistics behind Everest in the past decade and looked to 8000ers.comfor some facts. Based on Jurglaski's tables, the north side fatality rate ismore than 2:1 over the south, with falls, altitude issues and exhaustionnoted as the primary reasons. The difference is even more extreme whenthe deaths of nine south side Sherpas are taken from the total, making theratio of “member or client” climber deaths from north to south 8:1.Here is the summary:

North Ridge Route
South Col Route
Other Routes
Fall 7 3 1
Altitude 8 2 1
Exhaustion 7 1 1
Unknown 5 1 1
Avalanche 0 3 2
Crevasse 0 4 0
Exposure 4 0 0
Heart 1 1 0
32 15 6

That the north side death rate is higher is not a big surprise. Thenorth is traditionally considered slightly more dangerous given theexposure to the cold and harsh winds plus the technical nature of theSteps and exposed rock on the summit ridge.

Due to lower costs, more independent climbers are on the north, and theysometimes find themselves alone in the event of a problem. Also, itseems that less climbers use supplemental oxygen on the north, which also can accelerate altitude issues especiallyin the harshest of conditions.

However, there is no strong correlation between deaths ofindependent climbers vs. climbers on commercial expeditions. Finally,with the exception of 2005 through 2007, the south has hadsignificantly more climbers thus more rescue resources in the event ofa problem. Traditionally, commercial operators focused on the southfielded more Sherpas.

As far as nationalities, the Nepalese Sherpas suffer the most with10 of the 53 deaths this decade. Almost all of their deaths on the south side occurred due tofalls, avalanches and crevasse accidents. Six South Korean climbers havedied but no other single nationality has more than four deaths in the pastdecade. As far as operators, no one company stood out since themajority of the non-Sherpa deaths occurred to climbers on private nationalclimbs,  large shared permits or those climbing independently.

I am often asked which side is safer and my answer is pick yourpoison. The south has the Khumbu Icefall and the north has the Stepsand weather. However these numbers clearly show the north takes astronger toll. But the real story is the role and impact on the unsungheroes – the Sherpas.

Climb On!


Arnette is a speaker, Mountaineer and Alzheimer's Advocate. You can read more on his site.

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