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Why Mount Everest's Death Toll Keeps Climbing


This year is on track to be one of the deadliest ever on the world's tallest peak. Ten people have died in the last week or so on Mount Everest, scrambling to reach the summit during a break in the weather. There are reports of a massive traffic jam as climbers waited their chance to stand atop the mountain at just over 29,000 feet. Joining us now on the line is Grayson Schaffer, an editor at large at Outside magazine. Welcome to the program.

GRAYSON SCHAFFER: Thanks for having me.

DAVIS: For those who haven't seen the images, can you explain what the logjam at the top looks like?

SCHAFFER: Well, you essentially have something that looks like people are waiting in line for concert tickets to a sold-out show, only instead of trying to, you know, get in to see their favorite artist, they're trying to reach the top of the world and are running into, you know, essentially just traffic. The danger there is that, at that altitude, the body just can't survive. They're breathing bottled oxygen. And when that oxygen runs out because you're waiting in line, you are at much higher risk for developing high-altitude edemas and altitude sickness and dying of those illnesses while you're still trying to reach the summit.

DAVIS: You've been to Everest yourself. Could you describe a bit of what it's like for a climber to be in the upper reaches of the mountain - the area known as the death zone?

SCHAFFER: I've never actually been into the death zone myself, but once you get above about 25,000 feet, your body just can't metabolize the oxygen. Your muscles start to break down. You start to have fluid that builds up around your lungs and your brain. Your brain starts to swell. You start to lose cognition. Your decision making starts to become slow. And you start to make bad decisions - and all of this is happening in the face of, you know, each person trying to sort of reach their ultimate dream. I mean, the reason that people try to climb Mount Everest is because it grabs a hold of them and they feel like they just have to make the summit. And so you'll have some people, you know, in distress and not necessarily, you know, getting help from the people who are around them. So it's this kind of bizarre thing to be surrounded by hundreds of people and yet totally alone at the top of the world.

DAVIS: A Sherpa who has climbed the mountain many times told The New York Times that this spring's traffic jam was the worst he's ever seen. Are the Nepalese authorities simply giving out too many permits?

SCHAFFER: Well, one of the issues is that the Chinese side of the mountain - the Tibetan side - now limits their permits. So more and more people are climbing from the Nepalese side. And what we've seen in the past is that every year is the worst traffic jam just because there are more and more people who are climbing the mountain. More of those people are trying to summit during the same good summit windows because everybody has the same weather forecasting. And so you'll have, on any given year, several hundred people trying to pack themselves into the same summit window. And that has created this bizarre phenomenon of blue-sky Everest deaths, where people are trying to reach the top - they have good weather, but the thing that is causing all these fatalities is just the fact that everybody is trying to reach the summit in the same 12-hour weather window.

DAVIS: Tragedies on the mountain are nothing new. One of the most famous we remember is the 1996 tragedy, recounted in Jon Krakauer's book "Into Thin Air," where eight people died in a single day on Everest due, at least in part, to a crowd trying to reach the summit. Has nothing changed in the years since?

SCHAFFER: Well, I mean, the only thing that's changed is that it's gotten exponentially worse since 1996. In that incident, there was actually a storm that came. And that's why you had eight people die in that tragedy. Now what we're seeing and what we will probably see every year forward is eight to 10 people dying just in a routine manner, just because of the sheer number of people trying to fit onto the route.

DAVIS: Grayson Schaffer of Outside magazine, thanks for speaking with us.

SCHAFFER: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEVE TIBBETTS'S "CHANDOGRA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.