Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Risk on Mt. Everest

Most people are justifiably scared of climbing Mt. Everest, "too dangerous" I've heard many times. I don't blame them, or try to convince them otherwise, that it is safe. Rather I try and explain how I mitigate risk, which gives me the confidence to go to such an inhospitable place. Here is an article about things I feared in 2014 on Mt. Everest. Here is an article about way I thought I might die on Mt. Everest in 2014.

First some statistics, and I'm stealing from Alan Arnette here. There are 7,001 summits by 4,093 people, with 953 people having summited more than once, most of them are Sherpas. 282 people have died, consisting of 169 westerners and 113 Sherpas. Without supplemental oxygen 193 people have summited and 102 have died. I suppose my parents don't want to see those numbers. Everest is getting safer, with a 14.5% death/summit ratio for 1923 to 1999 and 1.9% death/summit ratio for 2000-2015 with five times as many summits in the last 15 years as in the first 80.

Taking the numbers a step further, who died where? National Geographic put together a great little graphic April 2014 after the avalanche and before the 2015 earthquake. By my count 44 westerners and three Sherpas died on the north side above 8000 meters. On the south side above 8000 meters 28 westerners and 8 Sherpas died. The actual numbers probably vary from my numbers, the picture is a little blurry. On the south side between basecamp and 8000 meters I count 18 westerners and 50 Sherpas died, with the majority in the ice fall. Six people died at basecamp on the south side in the graphic. The numbers from the graphic don't match the actual totals, with 110 south side deaths in the graphic but 176 south side deaths. Still the majority are accounted for and I will estimate some statics from them. There have also been 4421 summits from the south side, which I will scale to 2763 to account for the 66 deaths on the south side that are not in the graphic. Also, I'm going to assume (huge assumption!) that half of the summits are Sherpas. So...
Risk of Dying to Summiting on Mt. Everest (Green and Red I Totally Made Up)
So here I put together a chart of the risk of various places and situations on Everest. Let me be very clear, I made up the "Me" and "Someone Who Refuses to Turn Around" numbers. I have no idea what my actual risk is. Also, when I say "someone who refuses to turn around" I also mean people without the experience to be there in the first place. Real mountaineers have no problem turning around, it's part of the sport. The point being, as I read about many of the people who have died in the mountains, most of them have simply refused to call it a day and turn around. It's not one mistake that usually kills people in the mountains, it's a series of errors, although to be fair, it can be one little mistake. Which is why I included the statistics of death for a male aged 25-34 in general life in the overall column. You can't escape risk.

I don't see myself as risk seeking. I see myself as challenge seeking. Risk is something that exists in all manner of life, how we perceive it varies widely. I have a friend that just signed up to be a Marine officer in the infantry. Who thinks that's safe?!

We all die. The probability of living past 120 rounds to 0, or you could say the probability of dying before you reach 120 years old is 100%. How each one of us manages risk will play a large part in what we do with our lives. Recently talking to a friend about my coming move to Kansas, he could not even entertain the idea of moving more than an hour away because his family lives in town and his wife is established in her career. The risk of leaving home and having to "start over" and having something be not as good as it is now, is too much of a risk for some people to take. That is okay. There is no perfect place in the world, and if you are near family and friends, you might as well not take that chance.

Point being, I'm trying to find more things from the mountains and 8000 meter climbing that I can apply to the rest of life, so that when I describe the experience to others I can relate it better. I read an article by Chris Warner and it is titled "Dying to Reach a Goal". The theme I got out of it was that while mountains are a end in themselves they are not the end in themselves. In other words, while there is significant risk in going to a crowded place with a high chance of danger, like Mt. Everest, there is also the risk in not going (motivation, the "dark cloud", learning what is possible?), which is a story for another day.

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