Four people dead on Mt. Everest, one still missing

A long line of climbers follow each other up Mt. Everest. Image: Ralf Dujmovits.

1996 was the deadliest year in the history of modern climbing on Mt. Everest. In one May weekend, eight people died when they were caught on the mountain in a storm. Over the course of the year, the death toll climbed to 15 total.

In the wake of that year, people tried to make sense of what had happened—particularly when it came to the May 10/11 deaths. All the reporting brought some internal mountaineering debates into the public eye in a big way for the first time. Is it really a good idea to treat Mt. Everest as an adventure-minded tourist attraction, suitable for anyone with a little climbing experience and enough money? What are the risks of having lots of inexperienced, guided trekkers up on the mountain at the same time? Do those climbers have enough climbing instincts to make the right decisions about going on or turning back when they're exhausted and under the influence of a low-oxygen environment? What can their guides do, under those circumstances, to force a right decision? Remember: This isn't a place where help is readily available if you get into trouble. Helicopters can only go so high up the mountain. And if you collapse, the chances of somebody else being able to carry you down are pretty slim.

These questions are likely to come back into the spotlight now. Between May 18th and 20th—last weekend—four people died on Mt. Everest. One is still missing. This time, there was no storm. Instead, the problems seem to be a combination of human error, "everyday" harsh conditions, and the fact that 300 people were trying to summit the mountain all at the same time.

Grayson Schaffer, an editor for Outside has been in the Everest Base Camp for the better part of a month. He's not attempting to climb up the mountain, himself. His story on the deaths is very much worth reading.

"THIS IS THE FIRST TIME I've seen it like this," says Onzchhu Sherpa, 31. Starting on the night of May 18 and going through the 20th, roughly 300 climbers, guides, and Sherpas crowded onto the upper slopes of Everest's Southeast Ridge. From the 19,000-foot shoulder of a neighboring peak, where I was watching, Everest appeared to be lit up like a Christmas tree with the headlamps of climbers converging from the mountain's north and south sides.

... What I can tell you is that the mood at Base Camp has been overridingly gloomy since the news of the mishaps first began trickling down the mountain. On the 19th the air may have been filled with the customary bell ringing that that signifies a team member has just radioed in from the summit, but later in the evening I heard loud sobs coming from the direction of the Korean camp. Even now, two days after the chaotic events, the details are foggy. That's because of inherently poor communications and the fact that many climbers are so exhausted and woozy from their efforts at altitude that they have a hard time even remembering what happened during their own climbs, let alone those of their teammates and strangers. With radio communications further hampered by geology and an endless stream of information that’s difficult to verify, it would be easier to report on a moon landing.

Read Grayson Shaffer's full account of the deaths on Mt. Everest


  1. I think the closest thing to an adventure vacation I’d ever dare is Maachu Pichu down in Peru, if I ever had enough money for that.  But Everest?  No way.  Love mountains, but not that much!

    1. Machu Picchu is beautiful, without a doubt, and worth visiting. The problem is that “adventure tourists” don’t realize that money cannot buy them aptitude or fitness. I have seen some gasping endomorphs waddle up the Inca trail. They made it. These same folks, possessed of too much fliff and hubris and too little self-knowledge would be, at best, a liability on Everest. Summiting Everest is not just something that you decide to do, like taking a trip to Dollywood. I live at high altitude, summit multiple fourteeners every season and I would have to do some serious training before heading to Everest. The idea (and I’m not insinuating that this is your idea) that you can just plunk down a credit card and some little brown people will whisk you away to the summit for your new Facebook profile pic is ignorant to the point of, obviously, fatality. 

      1. Speaking as an endomorph who likes to walk…

        Spent nearly two weeks in Colorado (5K’-14K’) a few years ago.  Had no trouble up until 10K’, and couldn’t climb up hundreds to stairs to an 11K’ overlook at that point.  Also visited Pike’s Peak (14K’) and had no trouble walking, but probably could’t have easily climbed stairs there either.  Was happy to find out that most of Maachu Pichu is between 9K’ & 10K’ (though you ride in busses over higher areas).  Still will probably never be able to afford that, but at least I know I’d be able to handle it physically, at least for a few more years.

  2. To die on Everest due to being beat by the mountain is one thing but to die because a bottleneck is jammed up with well heeled but inexperienced tourists is something  else altogether. I’d love to be able to give Everest a shot some day but not while one of the leading causes of death is a traffic jam.  High altitude is no place for the inexperienced. Hopefully China and Nepal will eventually implement either a minimum experience requirement or a strict limit on the number of climbers allowed. Just making the permits more expensive isn’t going to do it because money doesn’t appear to be a limiting factor.

    There are plenty of other mountains that are a greater technical challenge. Everest might get you more bragging rights with the general public but there are much better peaks for those seeking self accomplishment.

    Chimborazo is a good place for those looking for a label to place on their climbing. Due to equatorial bluge, the summit of Chimborazo is the furthest point on land from the center of the planet. It’s the closest you can get to space without leaving the ground. Also a lot less crowded than Everest.

    1. Sure, but Chimborazo doesn’t have the star power that Chomolungma has.  If people could climb to the moon through intense gamma radiation with a monkey biting their ear, they would.  Let the mountain continue to be a filter for the brash.  Sad those people died, but they should have known better and taken greater care.

    2. Money can always be a limiting factor. I’ve never seen a “No Vacancy” sign on the International Space Station.
      That image reminded me of the 1898 shot of Chilkoot Trail during the Klondike gold rush.

    3. Between the cost and now this conga line to the top it has become a rich person’s cattle drive.  Even with plenty of preparation and acclimatizing how your body performs at high altitude is still a bit of a gamble.  Cramming so many climbers onto the same fixed ropes means you’ll be going even slower than normal.  I can’t see this could possibly be enjoyable or even satisfying.  It is Nepal’s fault for using Everest as a cash cow to be milked dry.

      I agree with your comment on Chimborazo.  There is also Aconcagua.  The Andes are also a hell of a lot cheaper than the Himalayas, that means you can do more trips.

  3. There are at this point so  many unretrieved corpses on the summit of Everest that I have to seriously question the character of people so eager to step over those bodies (literally!) to reach the summit. 

    1. This is why I always make the sherpas carry me over the bodies. Much less distasteful, and tiring, that way!

    2. There’s nothing to be done with the bodies except shove them off the side of the mountain — and even that’s treacherous work.  I recall reading a while back that after some scion of a rich Korean family died up there, his father sent a team to recover the body, but could only move it a few hundred feet over the course of several hours.  
      I trust that if you climb it, you willingly take the risk that other folks will leave you there.  Under a wide and starry sky and all that.

      1. They don’t even shove them off the mountain, they push them to the side of the route.  There are plenty of bodies, some more covered than others, along the south route.

  4. Would anyone be so upset if rich people were paying to play Russian roulette?

    I don’t remember the buzz/outrage the last time some asswipe died from eating fugu.

    1. Seems like climbing Everest is a touchstone of a certain type of entitled & monied narcissist. Maybe this is all an indicator of a horrible global economy forcing the “well-to-do” to actually “to do” things before their accounts run dry?

      I have more respect for the sherpas.

        1. Bingo!  That’s something that has baffled me for ages. The sherpas never seem to get respect when they are the ones who are always there & and always climbing.  There is something very colonial about an expedition like this. Machu Picchu seems like a more egalitarian journey.

          1. The Sherpas get lots of respect, at least they do now.  The best ones command a high fee and some travel the world like their clients.  There is also a stiff competition between them to get the reputation needed to get hired for the senior guiding jobs.  Some will summit Everest multiple days in a row.

          2. There was a great National Geographic series — a couple of seasons worth — that followed a guided expedition like these through the whole process.  And those guys seemed to have nothing but admiration for the Sherpas.

            Might have been different 40 or 50 years ago.  Although my guess is that this was more media filtering than any sense from the mountaneers that sherpas were mere servants.  

          3. From my own experience at Everest (not climbing, just enjoying the scenery), Sherpas really enjoy trekking.  And women go on trek as well as men.  They told me that women with children will sign on for expeditions once the child reaches six months of age.  Also, serious pranksters.  It’s the only time I’ve ever seen anyone give a sleeping person a hotfoot.

          4. Replying to Antinous: In the article, they note that one of the people climbing Everest last weekend (who survived, even though she was rumored to be dead early on) was a 16-year-old, female Sherpa. 

        2. “One Mountain, Thousand Summits” by Freddie Wilkinson.

          It’s not written from a first-person Sherpa’s perspective, per se. And it’s not about Everest.

          Rather, it’s about the 2008 K2 disaster, the role of Sherpas and HAPs (High Altitude Porters). For the book, Wilkinson interviewed many of the non-westerners involved in the climb, traces the development of the profession of high-altitude guiding, and explains and critiques the world of high-altitude commercial guiding.

          Freddie also just wrote an op-ed in the NYTimes discussing Everest and a commercial guide’s decision to cancel this season’s efforts due to objective hazard.


          BTW, people seem to think Sherpa is a word for a glorified porter, they are actually an ethnic group in Nepal.  They just happen to live in the area and suited to high altitudes.

      1. This dog ran 20 days & climbed 12 mountains in the process and he get’s more respect from me than some of these Everest climbers.

  5. If the bodies keep piling up, there might be an erosion problem in a few centuries.

    I find myself wondering if there are comparable “adventure tourism” experiences? What other grim, dangerous places can money take me to?

    1. I read an amazing book about deep cave exploration, which is at least as dangerous as mountain climbing (for many of the same reasons). Perhaps a business opportunity? 

      1. The “50 Ways to Die in a Cave” post from the  last year or so still haunts me.

    2.  There are over 120 bodies up there.  I am wondering when someone is going to get killed by a falling body!!!

    3.  I like to imagine a future where we perfect resurrection technology, and those poor shmucks who turned into human popsicles are some of the only bodies which can still be brought back to life.  You know, like the ancient iceman they found in that glacier.

      Either that or zombie everest.

      1. Can you imagine future archeologists speculating on why there are so many bodies on this one mountain? Clearly a place of veneration.

    4. Most of the bodies will eventually end up in the glaciers and get ground up until they come out at the terminal moraine.  I’ve heard of pieces of bone and bits of cloth already being found there from the earliest deaths.

    5.  Go read “Touching the Void” for some serious mountain misery.  The movie adaptation was good but can’t do it justice.

  6. Holy Hell, I had no idea you could get that much of a traffic jam on that mountain. Can it really be that much of a draw that you’d want to spend so much $$$ to be jammed up in there like that?

    1. Wait until they put ladders up the faces (via ferratas) so they can now have 4 routes to the top.

  7. There is only one thing to do with the bodies. Make Everest taller! Stack em like cord wood right at the summit. They will freeze together and create a monument to human stupidity and hubris at the very singularity of meaningless data points.

    1. Yeah! Sign me up, once I get rich enough to start craving discomfort. At least in lava lakes, dead bodies don’t pile up.

  8. That’s not how I pictured climbing Everest! It looks like a the population of a small town migrating to the top of a mountain. Not that I was ever seriously tempted, but I have absolutely no need to do it now.

  9. Are there mountain climber associations that rate mountains and climbers, and organise climbs? Should there be one for Everest? Say with a limited number of licences per year, and the power to control the traffic so as not to overstrain local resources, such as the supply of experienced Sherpas?

    1. Without getting too detailed about climbing associations in general, with regards to Everest the answer to your question is “Yes.”

      The Nepalese and Chinese government are responsible for selling permits to climb Everest. So a permitting system exists. Whether those responsible for the permitting system make the right decisions is another matter.

  10. The commercialization of Everest means that people who (a) lack significant, serious mountaineering experience (b) lack adequate strength and conditioning (c) lack practiced skillsets (d) lack seasoned judgment can pony up the cash and join a summit attempt.  This is why the death rate is approximately 1 in 10 — that is, one person dies for every ten successful attempts to summit and return.

    It certainly doesn’t seem that many of these people grasp the brutal reality of it — along the lines of the classic “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin.   If ANYTHING goes wrong in the death zone, then there is a very high probability you won’t be able to make it back.   And if you can’t make it back, nobody will be able to help you.  If your companions try: they will die with you.  If other summit teams try: they will die with you.  If rescuers try: they will die with you.    The only sensible course of action for all these people is to leave you.  (Not that they always do the sensible thing, of course, and when they don’t, they usually die.)

    “Into Thin Air” is now 15 years old and yet the lesson still hasn’t been learned.

  11. Why is the picture tilted about 45 degrees?  Everyone is walking leaning backwards and those tents in the lower right hand corner would never work on slope that steep.

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