Thursday, January 16, 2014

Ways I Might Die on Mount Everest

To ignore my possible death on Mount Everest is ignorant. It is a very real possibility. I rationalize each possible way to die but ultimately, what happens happens. A falling serac, an avalanche, missing clipping into a rope at the moment I lose my footing and fall, a heart attack, sitting down and not getting up could all kill me. To think that I am above death on a mountain is ignorant in every sense of the word. I could die in April or May 2014 vainly seeking to climb to a place over 6000 other people have already been.

How might I die based on altitude? This info graphic gives a nice overview of deaths at which altitudes.

5400-6000 meters: The kumbu ice fall I could get killed by a falling serac, which is really just a big house sized block of ice in a glacier waiting to slide five feet down the mountain and topple down on other ice. While the chance I die in the ice fall are very low (more Sherpas die in the ice fall than clients because they are paid to maintain the route) it is clearly a chance. I will mitigate this risk by climbing through it generally in the dark or early morning hours before it has the chance to get hit by the sun and melt, which is to say readjust.

7000-8000 meters: Avalanche danger lurks. While not a huge concern due to generally low snowfalls at those altitudes and placement of camps near the right edge of the slope, tents are wiped out by avalanches. If I die in an avalanche chances are I will get to enjoy a few minutes before I suffocate to death. I will mitigate this risk by only sleeping there two or three nights, hopefully.

8000-8848 meters: Cerebral edema, also known as acute mountain sickness, is basically a headache due to the brain swelling with fluid that disorientates people and causes a chain of bad decisions to happen. I will mitigate this risk by staying very hydrated, drinking tea, which has antioxidants which may in fact help, and always carrying dexamethasone in pill form with me. (You may remember the movie Vertical Limit had syringes of "Dex" that is dexamethasone and while syringes do exist the pill form is far more common and having licked the powder from the pills in 2009 in Pakistan I can verify it is very effective.) I also plan to mitigate this risk by descending the mountain if I have a severe headache (as I did the first time I slept above 6000 meters or 20,000 feet), if I throw up or my fingers and toes are especially cold.

Pulmonary edema, which is the lungs filling with fluid. This is a rather sudden illness and in the few cases I have read about on 8000 meter peaks it is nearly always fatal. I plan to mitigate this risk by carrying nifedipine in pill form and basically following all of the above suggestions with the addition that if I cough up blood once, that's it, I need to go down.

Exposure can easily kill people. Think of this as frostbite meets altitude sickness. At higher altitudes our bodies can not keep us as warm so blood is shunted to our core for our vital organs. This leads to fingers and toes becoming colder faster than in normal -40 degree weather at sea level. In other words, taking a glove or mitten off to take a picture, clip the safety line into the fixed line, or dare I say, help a dying person greatly accelerates the possibility of frostbite and while frostbite in itself is not deadly the damage of descending even slower once you do not have working fingers or toes means that that cold can rise up your arms and legs and bring your body to uncomfortable levels. It inevitably gets to the point where a person sits down, without his or her mittens on, and never gets up again because every minute sitting down is a minute getting a fraction of a degree colder (due to conduction with the rocks and snow one is sitting on plus not using the structural muscles). I plan to mitigate this risk by being extremely critical of opportunities to take my mittens off. In an ideal world, I will not take my mittens off on summit day. To be completely honest, that will depend on my ability to operate a camera in my Outdoor Research Alti Mitts on the summit. That will also depend on the ropes I have to change over, and any rescues that I may end up part of. My mittens do have leashes that I will wear so if and when I do take them off they only go eight inches away. Frostbite and exposure is one of the things we think about more commonly because it is a gray away more than others.

Finally, most likely on the high mountain, but possible throughout the mountain, I could die while climbing unroped. That is a loose term that may describe a mere five feet between one fixed rope and a second fixed rope. It could also mean standing at the top of the Hillary Step and unclipping one line and not clipping into the right rope and then going to set up my rappel and not setting it up right so I fall. Falls = death. I have not heard of anyone breaking a leg rappelling the Hillary Step and living although it is very possible.

So those are the most likely ways I could die. There are other ways, like heart attack and rock fall, but those are relatively minor plus I plan to wear a helmet most of the time and a heart rate monitor frequently.

Overall, there is roughly a 1.5% chance of dying on Everest. Now, being from the USA, it's only about .7% chance of death based on very comprehensive Himalayan Database. However, standing on the summit, having not used bottled oxygen I have roughly an 8% chance of dying on the way down. That 8% number is the one that really scares me. I must climb totally within myself. I've found two articles, I can't find the other one today, that suggested 7.6%, yet the point is, if 12 of us make the summit without oxygen in 2014, chances are one doesn't take a hot shower again.

Something worth mentioning, the key to most of these is listening to your body, to the headaches, tiredness and cold fingers and toes that unchecked can spell death. Having turned around on Broad Peak, El Cap, Longs Peak numerous times, and even Mount Adams in New Hampshire, I feel that turning around below the summit is something I am comfortable with. I have had summit fever on perhaps three mountains, but twice it was because over the top was the fastest way home and once, well it almost got me struck by lightening and killed so I hope I learned my lesson. In a related way, my Chicago marathon in 2013 was just plain horrendous. I felt like a lead ballon the last four miles. I had strength, but no energy. My reserves were gone. I was running on metabolizing fat, which is rather inefficient. It was painful in a very holistic way. However, it showed me how much I can tolerate. I can handle a lot. I passed Africans better than myself that stopped and DNF'd. Yet in that pain and suffering God allowed me to keep going and if I get to the that point on Everest, and I definitely hope I don't, I know that it is possible that I keep going. I've climbed in 60 mile per hour winds. I've soloed 60 degree ice slopes and fifth class rock, I've hit the glycogen wall, I've woken a black bear before dawn at 5 AM while running alone, I've repelled 6 mm rope and that braided Korean hardware store stuff.

If I die you had better believe it's either instant and I didn't see it coming, or I fought like mad with mental screams and the force of men three times my size through pain that would stop most others. Yes I could die. If we let the fear of death stop us, what are we living for? I am a Christian, death is a welcome respite from the pain of this world. Yet humans have a resilient body, we can overcome again and again things that are "not possible".

"Impossible is nothing." - a rather liberal translation of Luke 1:37 in the Bible.

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