Risk of Death Doesn't Stop Everest Climbers

Image: Unidentified mountaineers look out from the summit of Mount Everest

Unidentified mountaineers look out from the summit of Mount Everest. TSHERING SHERPA / AFP - Getty Images file

If climbers eyeing Mount Everest were intimidated by the possibility of death, they would have stopped a long time ago.

Instead, they keep coming, in growing numbers, in defiance of the danger –- and often because of it.

History seems to show that a large number of deaths on the mountain, such as the 1996 blizzard that claimed eight climbers, chronicled in the book “Into Thin Air,” or the 11 who died in 2006, or the 10 who perished in 2012, does little to slow the flow.


And now, before the Everest climbing season has begun, there are 14 deaths, 13 of whom are Sherpa guides who perished Friday in an avalanche while preparing the mountain for their clients, making it the deadliest day there ever. Another Sherpa died earlier this month of high-altitude pulmonary edema.

“To some extent, in a perverse kind of way, it’s going to kind of increase the allure,” said Phil Powers, executive director of the American Alpine Club, a Colorado-based advocacy organization.

The climbers now waiting to ascend Everest are mourning Friday’s deaths. Climbing has halted while the damaged route is rebuilt. A few climbers are leaving the mountain. Guide Tim Rippel reported that he’d offered to send his Sherpas home with pay. Climber Alan Arnette speculated that some expeditions may cancel. “But time is needed at this point,” he wrote in his blog.

Most won't stop. Hundreds are waiting at base camp, and more are on their way. Many have paid expedition outfits tens of thousands of dollars to help them to the top.

“Death never lessens the number of people who want to climb it,” said Grayson Schaffer, a writer for Outside magazine who has chronicled the “routinization of high-altitude death” and the plight of the Sherpas. “It’s just going to exacerbate it.

“It’s part of the aura of the mountain. If it was easy or safe, no one would do it.”

The way the Sherpas died should not come as a surprise, Schaffer said. The area where they perished “has avalanches every single day,” he said.

The only thing out of the ordinary, he said, is that it hit earlier in the day, before long exposure to the sun.

Image: An advance base camp for people climbing Mount Everest
An advance base camp for people climbing Mount Everest sits on the mountain's north slope at about 21,000 feet. DAVE WATSON / ASSOCIATED PRESS file

Nicole Craine, a photographer who just finished shooting a documentary on Everest, said in an email interview from Kathmandu that she met several people heading the Everest’s base camp Saturday morning.

“Unfortunately, climbing tragedies happen every year and everyone takes that into account when heading out to Everest,” Craine said.

She added: “Despite the avalanche, I believe many climbers will reach the Everest Summit this season.”

Advances in equipment and gear have made it easier to tackle the mountain. The rise in the number of climbers has not impacted the mortality rate. But death is always a possibility.

"If you want to do Everest or want to do any mountain, there is an element of risk, and you can’t eliminate all the risks," said Zachary Zaitzeff, 39, who reached the top of Everest in 2011. “I don’t think you can really do anything else to change it.”

That is why, around this time next year, there’s a good chance even more people will arrive at base camp, ready to take their chances.

NBC News Peacock Productions' crews were on Mt. Everest preparing for Discovery's 'Everest Jump Live' when the avalanche struck. We are grateful and relieved that the seven NBC News staffers on site are all accounted for and unharmed. Tragically, 13 Nepalese Sherpas from a number of expedition companies who prepare the mountain each year for climbing season lost their lives, and the rescue mission continues. We are working closely with the team on the ground to assist however we can, and our thoughts and prayers are with the affected families. The future of the production will be assessed at the appropriate time.