To Climb or Not to Climb Everest: When Is the Risk Too Great?

The 2016 climbing season on Everest has already seen over 350 successful summits, but experienced its first fatalities this weekend. These six deaths (five climbers and one Sherpa, who fell while setting lines) have reignited the passionate debate about who, and how many people should be allowed to climb Everest annually. As an adventure athlete, I'll never understand the allure of Everest for climbers with inadequate mountaineering training. Aside from acts of God, most of the people who die perish not from the technical risks (thanks to Sherpas and guides), but from two external factors over which they have limited to no control: crowds and altitude sickness. Numerous experts cite that larger crowds have led to slower ascents due to line-ups and longer times spent above the death zone (8000 m), thus making climbers more susceptible to fatigue, illness, oxygen depletion, or even bad weather. Is it really that life-changing (should you survive) to stand on top of the Earth's highest point? Is it worth the risk? Perhaps, but I still don't think I'll ever understand the compulsion. While one source I read listed the total death toll on Everest over 280, I couldn't find any statistics on how many climbers have come off the mountain with serious injuries (including frostbite, edema, vision impairment, etc.), but obviously that number will be much higher.

Those who seek to positively change their lives can take on something equally colossal and impactful, but less life threatening. For example, one of my favourite endurance challenges (Charlie Ramsay Round -- a 24-hour, 100 km fell running challenge in Scotland) has less than 90 successful completions in over 30 years. Difficult? Hell yes. Technical? Absolutely -- there are areas where you definitely need to be paying attention. Fatalities? None that I know of. Of course, fell running is not mountaineering but I'm talking about taking on epic, life-changing challenges that are still difficult, require significant preparation, and lots of luck, but probably won't cost you your life.

Venting, I posted on my Facebook page, and received a slew of feedback, both pro, and con to my position. Ultimately, the purpose of this open dialogue is to gain better understanding of why we do what we do. What drives us? Where are our values? When is a risk too great? Compelling reasons were brought up and debated by friends -- some of which I'm posting here.:

1. Sherpas: One friend commented, "The Sherpa deaths are shameful. Wealthy westerners taking advantage of human life in the 3rd world at its worst." While another replied, "...Obviously I'm in no way saying it's ok to exploit human life. And yes, there are people who treat the Sherpas poorly but the facts are, around 282 people have died on Everest, around 113 were Sherpas. The average income in their countries is around $700 annually and a Sherpa can make anywhere between $3000-$5000 in a single season on Everest. Yes they live in poor conditions but it's still a very sought after job and it provides the Sherpas and their families better lives and more options as far as food, shelter, education and an all around better life. If that's a bad thing then I guess I'm crazy."

2. Addiction: Another friend wrote , "It's very close to (hard) drug addiction. Once we understand that, we'll begin to get the thrill seeking brain. I'm always even more amazed at the individuals who risk leaving behind (or actually do) their young families to pursue these expeditions."

3. Ego: We all search for acceptance and respect, which is reflected in this comment, "...If someone says they have climbed Everest, no one asks "what is that?" It carries a certain level of instant respect. I think that, for some people, is worth any amount of risk. There's really nothing else on earth that equals Everest for the amount of respect you gain for the amount of effort required." Another friend, and very experienced climbing guide chimed on ego with, "Most peoples egos are beyond their capabilities. Alpine climbing is the true test. Not everyone is up for real stakes. In all honesty comparing trail running to mountaineering doesn't really work. One can quit a trail run at any point with pretty much zero consequences. You will be comfy in the little aid station and warm in the back of a van in no time. I would agree that being the 1500th person on the summit is not worth much. There are plenty of First Ascents left in the Andes and Himalaya. These are all near or over 6000m and are either unclimbed or had 1-2 ascents. Plenty of lines left. The real question is what is it worth to be first?"

4. Dreams: Do we have the right to critique the allure of Everest? One friend asked, "Who are we to judge other peoples dreams? It's not for us to decide what motivates or pulls people towards certain things. It's sad, of course, but they died doing something they loved. We should all be so lucky", to which I would answer "Yes, they died doing what they loved, freezing to death on the top of a mountain while other climbers filed past".

To tackle Everest is to court your own mortality in a very real way, and I'm not sure if the majority of summit seekers truly realize this going into it. One quote that resonates with me was shared by another friend and is attributed to the Italian climbing legend Walter Bonatti "Mountains are the means, the man is the end. The goal is not to reach the top of mountain, but to improve the man." I think that if we can approach any and all of life's challenges with this mentality we will be better for it. As for risking it all on Everest - only you know how that will that make you a better person.